Metal Musings

Since my return from Finland (and to work), I have read Christopher Partridge’s interesting book The Lyre of Orpheus: Popular Music, The Sacred, & The Profane, which talks a fair bit about metal music. He contends

music and sonic environments do convey meaning. (214)

So far, so good.

Music is never simply a vehicle, which is precisely why certain lyrics seem at odds with certain types of music and why music sometimes seems to add unintentional layers of meaning to lyrics. (214)

And this is where I began to think about how the metal mass fits into his thinking. He claims, with the agreement of some musicians, that you can’t say “Jesus loves you” in the lyrics of metal music in a “death growl”. Of course, not all the lyrics (or even many, depending on the band) are performed as a “death growl”. So, I was wondering (and unable to work out the answer, having no idea what the translation of the Finnish hymns was) whether the hymns used in the metal mass did say this. I suspect that at some point the lyrics would have been similar to the sentiment, if not the exact words, as they hymns were all from the typical Lutheran hymn book. Does this make the music at odds with the lyrics? Presumably the fairly large congregation don’t think so.

OK, so I agree that the music may come with meaning in its own right, but Partridge writes,

not only is the music not neutral, but the meanings it communicates are primary. In other words, extreme metal music provides the dominant discourse, determining, to some extent, any Christian discourse accompanying it. (214)

So the music takes precedence over the lyrics. I may agree here, but with the proviso that metal music will not mean the same thing to every listener. But here’s where my major disagreement lies:

Christian hymnody, which often celebrates bathing in blood and feasting on flesh, provides much material for the redemption of the macabre in Christian extreme metal. (214) … because the agenda is set by the music, not the theology, it is difficult for Christian extreme metal musicians to stray too far beyond the themes of violence, death, and the apocalyptic. (216)

Now, I don’t profess to be an expert in death metal, extreme metal, or whatever you prefer to call it, but I don’t believe the music carries meaning to the extent that you can’t say the more positive things one might hear in Church in the lyrics. It may seem a little incongruous, perhaps, to hear this music with positive lyrics, but this may also be part of its impact, or its play in the “affective space” it creates, to use Partridge’s terminology.

As another point of interest, a correlation between Partridge ‘s thought on bass (though he is talking about reggae and dub by this point) and the metal mass can be found:

Concertgoers report higher emotional states during the times when infrasound [that is, bass that cannot be heard but rather felt, lower than 30 hertz or a bottom C] was present. (234)

Perhaps the bass in the metal mass also contributes to its effect? There was certainly a lot of it. And it could definitely be felt as much as heard (though a bass guitar does not tend to go lower than a bottom C!). So, does infrasound work if the bass is felt and heard?

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