Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Stiffness that Blocks out the Light

Yesterday I happened to listen to an old song I hadn't heard in years, Morphing into Primal by Swedish metal band In Flames. Typical of their genre of 'melodic death metal', In Flames in this album sing most tracks with guttural growls that make the lyrics difficult to hear. One section from the chorus did stand out to me however:

I owe this to the animal inside,
And a stiffness that blocks out the daylight.

A stiffness, eh? That odd image sent me searching for the rest of the lyrics which, when I found them, made me laugh:

Fireworks and alchemy
Genes spliced and triggered
Into the future and her organic cave

Semiorgasmic omnipotence
Scenes of magma in my eyes
Eruption stones my system...

'Organic cave': ah, so it's sex he's talking about! This is a musical celebration of sex as a trancendental act. Or at least it might be, In Flames use pretty cryptic language:

My shot is genesis and carthasis
Penetratonaut in a cosmology of lust

But this is typical of In Flames, with album after album of fuzzily mystical lyrics on baffling themes. The growly vocals mean only mysterious individual lines are coherent:

The privilege of a 22 kilometre tombstone
- Jotun

Gather the faithful and propose a toast
To the epoch of indifference
- Ordinary Story

I see beauty in dead flowers
I let the tide show me what's next
- Another Day in Quicksand

A little silly sometimes perhaps, and rather over-serious. But these garbled lyrics were one of the attractions for me of In Flames, and of metal as a wider genre.

I have been thinking about this lately because a friend mentioned that her daughter wanted to know why so many songs are about love. My friend explained that love is the most important thing in life, but her philosophical little daughter suggested that 'No, the most important thing is yourself'. Well love is powerful stuff but it's not the only stuff so I have to agree with the child! And metal bands were always pushing the envelope to explore other emotions and other themes.

American death metal band Nile, for example, sing entirely about Ancient Egypt. Their album Black Seeds of Vengeance includes quite in-depth explanations of the lyrics, some of which are taken, untranslated, directly from genuine Egyptian manuscripts. In some cases these are millennia-old magical spells, like the Chapter for Transforming into a Snake that uses words of power for the dead to become animals of their choice in the next life.

Nile indicates something of the obsessiveness of many metal bands, a compulsive focus on one area generally ignored by the rest of the world. A more fun example is German group Blind Guardian's Nightfall in Middle-Earth, an album based entirely on JRR Tolkien's novel The Silmarillion. Or Canadian metallers Fear Factory's Obsolete, imagining a technocratic future where 'man is obsolete' and struggling for freedom. Sure it's a bit silly and adolescent but it's still a relief that not everything comes down to love.

Other metal groups looked at social ills. Death metal pioneers Death sing about sickly children born to cocaine-addicted mothers in Living Monstrosity. New York band Biohazard's Punishment added a hiphop sense to its observations of a ruined society where 'the majority of the people are out there smoking crack'. Fellow New Yorkers Pro-Pain rasped about the recession and Gulf War of the early 1990s, oddly prophetic now:

Young, dumb and helpless - in the States
You say you ain't got no money - I can relate
I lost my job and my house and my - peace of mind
We're in the deepest depression of - modern time

Pro-Pain even have a song called Iraqnophobia:

Oh say can't you see that the conscience in me said go back
When the clouds in the skies and the tears in my eyes turned to black
There's a fear I may die in a chemical weapons attack
Iraq - nophobia

American band Mudvayne took a different approach, wearing bizarre blue masks and claiming to be aliens called Chüd, Güüg, Rü-D and Spüg. Their lyrics in The End of All Things to Come are cryptic and weird:

Why do they observe me?
There's nothing here to cure,
I can see the silhouettes,
That sit behind the mirror
I'm just like a clock upon the wall
Always moving, but never going anywhere

Brazil's Sepultura have songs exploring traditional Brazilian cultures, their album Roots using folk drums, with one song actually recorded along with the Xavante Indian tribe in the Amazonian jungles.

There are wide genres of Satanic or gore metal I don't listen to much, bands like Deicide growling vicious anti-Christian lyrics while Cannibal Corpse focus on absolutely repulsive descriptions of carnage, rape and murder. In the early 1990s a black metal genre developed in Norway that moved from Satanim to Norse Paganism, both violently opposed to Christianity. Some of these bands would develop racist elements, imagining a monoracial Viking Scandinavia that was freed from American, Judeo-Christian and non-white immigrant cultures.

Less extreme metallers would mix metal with folk musics and singing in non-English languages. A bizarre metal subgenre called troll metal developed in Finland, singing about fighting goblins and hating humans - especially Christians!

To counter that are plenty Christian metal bands like Tourniquet, whose Where Moth and Rust Destroy advises listeners to remember the judgement of the afterlife:

Enjoy all that He gives you
But make sure you can see through
The haze that blocks the clarity
Of seeing the eternity

Meanwhile Swedish Meshuggah go for musically ambitious stuff mixed with difficult and dark lyrics which might - I'm really not sure - touch on environmental issues. Their compatriots Hypocrisy cover similar environmentalism along with pessimism about science in Seeds of the Chosen One, gloomily concluding that 'Time is up for the human race/We've passed the point of no return'.

Beloved thrash metallers Megadeth looked in their glorious Rust in Peace at environmental themes too ('Awakened in the morning/To more air pollution warnings') and ponder nuclear war in a track written months before the end of the Cold War. Rust In Peace...Polaris dealt with fears of nuclear holocaust with boastful indifference:

Launch the Polaris, the end doesn't scare us
When will this cease?
The warheads will all rust in peace

All very silly - these guys are hardly poets - but I'm still happy to hear this stuff and to know that when I start listening to such an album I have no way of predicting its lyrical contents. Megadeth's thrash metal cousins Metallica had other fun themes. Creeping Death was about the Biblical plague of Egypt where the Angel of Death killed the first born sons of the Egyptians, sparing only the enslaved Jews. One is the grim tale of a soldier whose limbs are blown off in war and cannot communicate his wish to die to the doctors.

Not all metal songs are pessimistic or dark. Metallica would write some pretty up-beat songs, Wherever I May Roam imagining a life of nomadic freedom unburdened by posessions. In Flames appear to be celebrating life and beauty in several of their songs, while brilliant American prog metal band Tool take a much deeper approach. Their album Lateralus urges listeners to trust their intuition instead of being paralysed by over-thinking:

I embrace my desire to
feel the rhythm, to feel connected enough to step aside and weep like a widow
to feel inspired to fathom the power, to witness the beauty,
to bathe in the fountain,
to swing on the spiral
to swing on the spiral
to swing on the spiral of our divinity and still be a human.

Their song Grudge challenges bitter and negative people to let go, forgive and transcend their sorrow:

Give away the stone. Let the oceans take and transmutate this cold and fated anchor.
Give away the stone. Let the waters kiss and transmutate these leaden grudges into gold.

System of a Down take another mystical and optimistic approach, with Aerials:

Life is a waterfall
We’re one in the river
And one again after the fall

All good stuff!

Before I started to listen to metal as a teenager I saw only posturing young men shouting in an attempt to look tough. I guess a lot of other people also miss the diversity of this cheerfully weird genre. Troll wars, Ancient Egyptian magic, environmental collapse and philosophy: daft, yes, but never predictable.

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