Blog by Dan who you can follow on twitter @djrobotham
A mundane consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the increased amount of time I’ve spent at home. Face-to face interactions with anyone beyond immediate family have been infrequent. My geographical world has been reduced to a couple of square miles. For some reason I have placed similar constrictions on my music listening habits. This hasn’t felt like a time to explore new, exciting music. It has been a time to bunker down, return to basics and listen to the stuff that is closest to my soul.
The main soundtrack of my soul has always been ‘extreme metal’. This is an umbrella term for the most intense kinds of metal (death metal, black metal, grindcore, etc). It is typified by ultra-fast (or ultra-slow) tempos, indecipherable vocals, distorted instruments and bleak, nihilistic imagery. I listened to lots of this stuff in my teenage years, exploring many other types of music in my twenties and thirties. Pre-pandemic, about 35% of my music consumption was dedicated to extreme metal, with non-metal genres competing for the remaining 65%. At present, extreme metal consumes around 90% of my listening time. The remaining 10% is reserved for silence, or Tangerine Dream.
“From the void, terror takes its hold
Face the wrath as history unfolds.”
One of my earliest encounters with extreme metal was with a Coventry-based grindcore/death metal band called Bolt Thrower. I was thirteen and a keen listener of the weekly BBC rock/metal radio show. The song they played was “Where Next to Conquer” (from their album “The IVth Crusade”). A few weeks later they also played “Spearhead”, from the same album. I had been flirting with rock, pop, metal, and dance music for a while, but hearing Bolt Thrower on mainstream radio was an unreal experience. Here was the musical embodiment of dread and rage, a massive wall-of-noise that razed everything in its path. I would not necessarily say that I liked it, but it moved me. My life-long fascination with the dark world of extreme metal had begun.
That darkness deters most people from exploring this kind of music. It is not for everyone. Common first reactions to hearing extreme metal include confusion, revulsion, and ridicule. Some first-time listeners are equivocal, saying things like “the music is OK, but I don’t like all the growling”. I understand this. I did not appreciate the guttural vocals at first. I later accepted them as the only appropriate expression of the emotions inherent in the music. The vocals are an extra percussive instrument, distorted and pushed to an extreme. The lyrics are seldom decipherable. I have spent thousands of hours listening to death metal, but only know a fraction of the words to the songs.
“Spearhead marching onward
Take my soul sacrificial offering.”
Bolt Thrower are one of the few death metal bands whose lyrics are worth exploring. They were a conceptual band. Their 30-year career encompassed one theme: warfare. The two lines above are from the beginning of “Spearhead“, a song told from the first-person perspective of a foot-soldier ‘spearheading’ a battalion. The narrator knows they will be killed but is willing to sacrifice themselves to serve a higher power. The narrative is dispassionate, passing no moral judgement. It raises questions about humanity’s subversion of individual will, and the slaughter of nameless individuals in pursuit of nefarious ideology. Few death metal bands convey their conceptual ideas as well as Bolt Thrower, but all death metal holds a mirror to darker recesses of the world. This is the music of war, of pestilence, corruption, abuse of power, loss of control, paranoia, hopelessness, nihilism, and of societal collapse. It rarely offers solutions but provides a shot of adrenaline and invites us to meditate on our own negative emotions.
“From the ashes of a million dead
The children of tomorrow now are led.”
My first conversation with Kate @ Heavy Metal Therapy (HMT) involved us both venting frustrations about the stylised, ubiquitous ‘wellbeing’ interventions that have emerged in recent years. We discussed how we use metal music for emotional regulation. Our music tastes differ (metal is a vast musical universe), but the principles are the same. For me, bands like Bolt Thrower are an antidote to the nightmarish consumerism offered by mainstream society. Bolt Thrower challenges us to enter a world devoid of comforting narratives, where forces of everyday evil swirl around us, where only death is certain. Bolt Thrower shows us how to balance the disquiet of our inner world against the chaos of the music itself, equilibrium through serene catharsis. Bolt Thrower is mindfulness; a type of mindfulness that cannot be bought or sold. A type of mindfulness that acknowledges the ills of society and rages against the toxic positivity of any commodified, prescribed wellbeing-by-numbers approach.
“Try to close my mind, from the screams I hear
Repentance is denied, the conformation of my fear.”
I only speak for myself. I am not too involved with the various extreme metal scenes and sub-scenes. My musical explorations have always been a personal odyssey, not a social one. I am also a realist. I suspect that listening to too much extreme metal may pose minor ‘risks’ to the psyche. The amount of negative energy probably has some side effect. This is a calculated risk I have always been willing to take, and even more so during a pandemic. Any risk of over-exposure to extreme metal pales in comparison with the risk of over-exposure to mindless advertisements, false narratives of happiness, and toxic societal norms. Bolt Thrower do not solve my problems, and they won’t solve yours. Bolt Thrower is no substitute for human relationships and meaningful connections, for healthy eating, moderate exercise,staying hydrated, etc, etc. However, right now I crave nothing more than their immense,immersive, glacial power to see out the end of this pandemic winter.
*All lyrics and images belong to Bolt Thrower and are used here under fair use copyright principles. Images sourced from the Encylopedia Metalllum (metal-archives.com)