Accessing Metal Music

There's no telling what kinds of metalheads you'll run into.

Metal is a wide genre that can sometimes overlap with other genres, but that nevertheless occupies its own distinct and unique place within music. In other words, some Metal could conceivably be cross categorized with Thrashcore, for example, but to conclude that these two are relatively synonymous is totally in error.

Metal often, even usually, does have some features that I will describe with the adjective “hardcore.” This is not to be confused with the actual genre Hardcore, which has its own distinct features, some of which could also be described as hardcore, others of which could be described as brutal or even emo. It is, I believe, the hardcore features of metal that are most responsible for its inaccessibility, and so to these I will give the most focus.

An analogy can be drawn between music and food to help illustrate the problem of inaccessibility as pertaining to metal. This analogy will help shed light on what causes the problem, and how to overcome it.

We will treat metal music as if it were Sharti food from the imaginary country of Sharti. Sharti cuisine is similar to Thai cuisine, for example, in that it is generally pretty spicy, so much so that most newcomers to Sharti food find it simply too spicy to their liking. They also use chile peppers, which really tend to turn people off because they just add another level of spiciness. For these reasons, reactions tend to be predictable when people attempt to each Sharti food. They make a face, and sometimes spit it out. It’s just really hard for people to “swallow,” so to speak. Analogous to metal, chile peppers will represent screaming, and spiciness will represent hardcoreness.

Now I have been eating Sharti food for almost a year, and I can assure you that it is quite delicious and wholesome once you get used to it. There are a whole medley of succulent flavors, and some dishes offer a perfect artistic creation of taste the likes of which you may never have experienced in food. Sharti food could really appeal to a relatively large audience if people could ever adapt to the level of spice. But therein lies the main problem. Most people experience the gag reflex, like I did to a degree, when they first experiment with Sharti food because it’s just so much spicier than anything they’ve known.

People are prevented from tasting the true goodness of Sharti food because the first and only thing they can taste is the spice. The spice overwhelms all of the taste buds and prevents them from tasting any of the other dozens of delicious flavors. They don’t taste the meats or the vegetables or the sauces, they only are overwhelmed by the spice.

But with enough time and exposure to this food, eventually you adapt fully to the spiciness and you don’t really notice it anymore. Rather than being the one most salient element at the forefront, blocking all other tastes, spice becomes the backdrop. One might even go so far as to say it becomes the canvass upon which a masterpiece of flavor is painted. You may come to like chile peppers, or you may never particularly care for them, but with time you will be able to easily ignore the chile peppers and instead focus on the multitude of other things that make Sharti cuisine delicious.

In considering the big picture of the Sharti analogy, we see that the real problem with Sharti cuisine and Metal is that they are both inundated with a certain quality that most people in our society cannot stomach at first.

The only practical solution to this that I know of is to become adapted to Metal through active and passive exposure. Basically, listening to a lot of it, and sometimes making an effort to follow what’s going on. With time (it could take days, weeks, or months) your brain will get used to following what’s happening in the music and will be able to pick up on more of the nuances and subtleties that were literally impossible for you to register at first. It is not until you have the ability to separate out in your mind the various components of a Metal song that you will be able to appreciate more fully the quality of musicianship and artistry of what you’re hearing. Whether consciously or subconsciously, you’ll recognize different beat patterns and styles, which is lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass drum, snare; you won’t be so lost all the time.

In my own musical experience, I have found that regardless of the genre the human brain tends to dislike what it doesn’t understand. With exposure and repetition and time to “digest,” you can come to adore things that you never imagined.

It can also be extraordinarily helpful to talk to Metal fans and experience it with people who are familiar with it. This can allow you see in a tangible and ineffable way what others appreciate about the genre that you may not have noticed.

Some metal songs are much more accessible than others. I’m not sure for everybody, but I think your brain will start by catching onto a few short bits and pieces within a song that are the most comprehensible for it. Your love for metal will start with a segment a few seconds long from a song you’ve now listened to several times. This one segment, short as it might be, will be the doorway into understanding more segments. Pattern recognition will occur, and the more you catch on to, the more your brain will be able to decode.

“Decoding” is basically the process of translating meaningless noise into epicness. At first your decoding ability is inept, your cipher gravely lacking. But you’ll get better and better at hearing segments of music and understanding the beauty in them. I sometimes half-jokingly say about certain songs that I don’t even hear the notes anymore: all I hear is epicness.

When I first started listening to Metal, it was because several of my friends were huge fans of it, especially Death Metal, Progressive and Technical. When I hung out with them, they would play it on the speakers or car radio, and I had no choice but to listen to it and observe their enthusiasm for it. The first positive quality that I was able to recognize was the sheer technical proficiency of the musicians, and their ability to play in synchronicity incredibly complex and virtuosic pieces of music with exactitude. But I wouldn’t have chosen to listen to that kind of music on my own because I didn’t enjoy it really, and it was just too hardcore and over-the-top for me. I remarked to my friend once that this kind of music would be all right if it weren’t for that “screaming idiot.” Needless to say, I got a short talking-to about how much my friend loved this kind of music, and basically how much of a bullshit thing that was for me to say. After a month or so of this sporadic listening, I came to not mind the screaming, to tolerate the “chile peppers.” I didn’t like it, but I no longer disliked it, and certainly wasn’t revolted by it anymore the way most people are. The main problem I still had was, why does every song have to be so high-octane and intense, a million beats per minute? Why can’t it be a little calmer?

After another month and a half or so I fully acclimated to the hardcoreness and actually began to like some screaming. Screaming can add a lot to a song, yet I cannot explain in words how.

In conclusion, you don’t have to like Metal. I think Metal has enough of a following that we don’t need you to keep it alive. If it doesn’t fit your tastes, that’s perfectly ok. But what I want the reader to come away with is that the reason why the average joe doesn’t like Metal is not because of a flaw in Metal. It is because of a flaw in Joe. Generally, the initial reaction to Metal and Hardcore type genres is one of revulsion, AKA the gag reflex. But this revulsion is only harmful to oneself because it hinders one from discovering untapped joy and new level of music love. In all probability, Metal is likely to be one of the most fun and awesome genres you’ll ever listen to. I can guarantee you that Metal is better than anything you hear on the radio, except Classical of course.

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3 Responses to Accessing Metal Music

  1. blakerivers says:

    Quite a bit of my own preferences surface here. And the radio has a wide variety of good music on it, so it’s not really fair to “dis” it. I suppose I had the Pop stations in mind. When you find a particularly good genre of music, it’s hard to return to pop. It all sounds so artificial and homogeneous. And you know that it is largely if not entirely written, produced, and stylized by some dudes in a studio whose names only show up in the fine print. Compare that to metal: 3 guitarists and a drummer, no editing necessary.

  2. Kanadra says:

    You commented on my blog post about pop music with a link to this blog post about metal music. To be honest I’ve never really been able to get into metal, though that may just be the “gag reflex” you refer too. I’ll admit that the music itself is quite incredible and interesting. If I could pick it all apart and appreciate it bit by bit, I would probably come to enjoy it a lot more… But as it is, it usually ends up being to much all at once, for me.
    Of course, that’s not to say I wouldn’t try it out again if I had a few tracks suggested to me; I’m more than willing to learn to appreciate another genre. Which is to say, if you’ve got some suggestions, I’d be willing to check them out.

  3. blakerivers says:

    In response to Kanadra, and as a general offering to everyone interested, I’m going to link some metal songs on youtube. The issue of accessibility is complicated because Metal is a wide genre and even within the discography of a single band there are some songs that are more accessible and some that are less. However, the largest variable is the individual. Which songs speak most easily to which people, and why? I cannot say. I generally operate under the assumption that the following are characteristics of more accessible metal: more instrumental, less screaming; more melody; metrically more regular; rhythmically easy to groove to; comprehensible lyrics are a plus.

    Try any of the songs below. They are quite varied, so if you don’t like one, the next may be different.

    “Equivalence & Down with the Sun” – Insomnium
    “Odyssey (Un)Dead” – The Breathing Process
    “Bed of Razors” – Children of Bodom
    “The Calming Effect” – Conducting From the Grave
    “The Darkest Nights” – As I Lay Dying
    “Bow Down” – Born of Osiris
    “The Faded Line” – Lamb of God
    “Angels Don’t Kill” – Children of Bodom
    “Cloud Connected” – In Flames
    “Watershed” – Gorod
    “Go Off” – Cacophony
    “Sun of Nothing” – Between the Buried and Me
    “Prequel to the Sequel” – Between the Buried and Me

    Cacophony is good old 80’s speed metal; Children of Bodom are fun because they’re so melodic. Beware: Between the Buried and Me has been known to blow the minds of the unsuspecting.

    Please let me know if a link stops working. Enjoy!

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