Riding the Lightening: An Exploration of Existentialism in Heavy Metal

14227379_21159037432_oHeavy metal music is arguably the most misunderstood style of music in the entertainment world. Metal heads consistently get a bad rep. They are thought of as secret members of a demented cult, harboring satanic allegiances and wishing death upon their fellow man. They are misconstrued in the media as hateful, drug addicted, and ceaselessly violent decedents of the “Trenchcoat Mafia,” or as outcasts, “freaks”, or enemies of modern society. 

So deeply rooted is this social construction that many people can recall a time in their life that they actually interacted with a heavy metal fan and were shocked to find them to be calm, collected, considerate and intelligent. To think!

The reason for this misunderstanding is obvious (and admittedly not entirely unwarranted at first glance). Most metal music features a screaming vocal style that can sound incredibly abrasive and terrifyingly aggressive to a novice listener. Furthermore, a sizable majority of metal album artwork depicts the macabre, and a great many song names, and CD names read like horror movie titles.

Philosophy and Heavy Metal

There is a hidden underpinning to all of this; a vast ocean of dynamics deeply rooted in existential anxieties that give metal music its cult-like appeal. Metal heads aren’t “just angry”, and (most) metal music isn’t (usually) an prescription to act out violently. Rather, metal gives its listeners a space to contemplate the troublesome concerns of existence, seek some artificial control over them, and be downright angry at them in a safe and personal environment.

Heavy metal can be profoundly philosophic. The careful listener can pick out nuggets of wisdom, fears, anxieties, and curiosities about humankind and what it means to be a transcendent, creative, and timeless mind trapped within a death bound flesh-and-bone body.

Metal frequently seeks to explore these daunting and terrifying topics, sometimes crumbling before the weight of existence (such as in typical “doom metal” recordings) and other times mounting a steely defense against them (often the chosen perspective of “metalcore” bands).

Still other metal bands, often adopting the label of “folk” or “viking” metal, retell old stories of Nordic and Swedish philosophy, history, and religious ideas. Songs depict epic battles between the Gods and comment on the impact such belief systems have had on the trajectory of their people.

In this sense, metal heads might be considered some of the more existentially aware and life-reflective people around!

Who am I to say this? Well, I’m one them.

For the better part of the decade of my twenties, I played guitar and provided back-up vocals for a regional heavy metal band, The Shape. No, this was not your father’s Deep Purple rock-metal; we were fierce, in-your-face, screamed into the microphone, leapt about on stage, called for mosh pits, and occasionally performed in front of theatrical movie-screen backdrops.

Don’t believe me? Check out our music video:

Yep, that was me, shredding the white Jackson guitar and rocking out with the cheap mall kiosk shades on. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that the riff at 1:57 makes you want to bob your head, even just a little!

But I digress. “What about all the black tee-shirts? What about the aggression, the blood, the guts, the heavy guitars, and why can’t I understand what the screaming lead singer is saying? What makes “heavy metal” so existential, so psychodynamically relevant, and so important to the understanding of  its fans?”

Well, I’m glad you asked!

Heavy Metal as an Outlet for Existential Aggression

Existential thinkers, first in philosophy and later in psychology, explore what it means to exist as a human being in the world. Many have attempted to narrow down the pantheon of human experiences and anxieties, searching for material, concerns, and confrontations that are common to all people the world over, as these would spell out the basic human condition.

Two of these “Ultimate Concerns” are Freedom and Meaninglessness. The idea is that we live in a structureless world with no scaffolding to hold us up, and no divine compass to guide us to our life’s calling. Though we strongly wish to be imbued with a life purpose and follow a sure path to a fulfilling calling, the upsetting reality is that none exist for us to “find”. Instead, we are left with the responsibility of “freedom”. In the words of Irvin D. Yalom:

“One of our major tasks is to invent a meaning sturdy enough to support a life, and to perform the tricky maneuver of denying our personal authorship of this meaning. Thus we conclude that it was “out there” waiting for us. Our ongoing search for substantial meaning systems often throws us into crises of meaning.”

And overshadowing these is the greatest concern of all – Death. Our inevitable personal extinguishment makes the quest for meaning difficult to achieve, and yet all the more important that we do so in time.

Understandably, some people find this quite an unfair aspect of life; a great hoodwink of our senses by an indifferent and absurd universe. And many, upon facing it up, get quite angry about it! They get anxious about the responsibility they must assume for themselves. They stress, fret, and fantasize that life could be different than it inarguably is. How very confusing, and indeed infuriating, these existential confrontations can be!

Here’s where music ties in. Heavy metal gives its listeners the safe space to be angry about it. The outside world attempts to quell our cries of this stress and anxiety. It expects us to put on the mask and go about our day in step with the societal roles we play. We cannot discuss these deeper concerns or vent our frustrations as they relate to Freedom and Meaninglessness at work when the deadlines and routines demand our focus. We scarcely discuss them at home where we need to be mothers, fathers, or sons and daughters.

Moreover, we find that most other people don’t like discussing deep existential issues because they inevitably stir up dark anxieties that are usually suppressed and displaced elsewhere in their lives. Many people don’t dare to explore these issues publicly (and with good personal cause, most of the time), leaving others of us confused, angry, and looking for anywhere we can discuss what it means to find meaning and purpose in a directionless and time-limited world.

But the inside world of our headphones gives voice and expression to these very concerns. We hear the often formless, tacit, and quieted concerns we angst over put into lyrical poetry, and spoken with the very same courage, anger, fearlessness, and anxiety we have been wishing to express ourselves.

A Few Examples

How are these heady concepts reflected in actual metal recordings? Here are some choice examples:

“This world is abysmal, this world is a one way ticket down. Some say there ain’t nothing to lose, but I’ve lost that too. What am I going to do now?”

-The Haunted, “Abysmal”

We see in these lyrics the very concept of a man facing up to the darker side of existence and finding no comfort in the words of others. He has literally lost the veil of purpose and meaning, and cries out for direction or substance within the human condition.

Of course, the hopeful among us would say to use the time-limited nature of reality to impel us to build a happy life while we still have the ability to do so, but we can say singer Peter Dolving hadn’t arrived at this conclusion at time of writing.

Another example:

“There must be more to this. I’m right in here staring through a glass wall. I tell you this my friend, we must be bigger than momentary bliss. Don’t let the light you see restrain you. Don’t put your trust in the dark outside. There will be more than you ever could die for. This momentary bliss is a lie.”

– Soilwork, “This Momentary Bliss”

One of my favorite heavy metal bands, Soilwork, tread over these familiar existential tracks. What are we to make of the unthinking allegiance many pledge to mundane daily hedonism? The “momentary bliss” stands as a variable for hedonic pursuits, perhaps the of purchasing material goods, transient hook-ups, drinking on the weekends, or however one might define fleeing pleasure.

Lead singer Björn Strid slashes these down, proclaiming them to be lies obfuscating the true meaning of existence. “There must be something more to this,” but what is it? That is the question nearly every human being runs up against in life, but the answer is on each individual alone to define for themselves.

Another selection:

“Rushing through 30. Getting older every day by two. Drawing pictures of innocent times. Can you add color inside these lines? I want you to lead me Take me somewhere, don’t want to live in a dream one more day.”

– In Flames, “Come Clarity”.

The ephemeral rush of time can take one’s breath away. Who among us, perhaps getting out of the shower one morning, hasn’t caught their face in the mirror and experienced the discord between inner youth and physical age. Perhaps we have all felt a chill at the thought, “Have all those years really passed? What will my face look like in 10 more?”

In this passage, we hear of singer Anders Fridén’s inner conflict as he wishes that another person could imbue his life with the meaning and authenticity he struggles to find on his own. Yalom refers to the wish to join with another and reduce your own existential anxieties as “The lonely “I” dissolving into the we”, a plea many of us make in our own way from time to time. In the end however, it is only us who can set the coordinates of our own lives.

Not to bring back up my own band, but a particular set of lyrics from our album Masque of the Red Death seems particularly illustrative of this point:

“If all the world is indeed a stage, why waste your time? Why not create the perfect part for yourself to play, and leave behind the masquerade? If all the world is indeed a set, what do you feel of the mark you’ve left? Are you satisfied, do you have regrets, or are you wondering why you haven’t made one yet?”

– The Shape, “Cut Like The Knife”

Metal as a Means of Control

There is one other side of metal that I cannot leave this discussion without touching on, and that is the horror-themed, death and gore obsessed bands. Groups like Slayer, Children of Bodom, Dissection, Megadeth, and others, love to write songs depicting war, surgery, aliens, monsters from hell, armageddon, and the general destruction of mankind. Complete with blood-soaked album covers and torturous song titles, this ilk of metal bands do a terrific job at scaring the pants off parents and pop-fans the world over.

What deeper existential significance could these aural horror shows possibly have?

I have pondered the obsession over “death metal” many times, and I’ve come to the conclusion that many metal heads are so attracted to the art form because it grants the feeling of control over something so feared, so basic to our anxieties – the fear of death.

By constructing songs that depict the foulest of deaths, the rotting of bodies, and the destruction of hellish beasts, artists experience a level of control over their own mortal bodies. They temporarily suspend the powerful force of denial over their own animal nature, and give expression to the most objectionable and torturous death fantasies they find deep inside.

Most of us are familiar with the terror of death’s mystery. We reach into a dishwasher and recoil at the sight of an upward-pointing knife. We cling tightly to a railing as we climb flights of stairs, or hold our breath driving across a rickety bridge. Stirring within us always is the repressed basic anxiety of death’s inevitability. Perhaps death metal musicians and their fans have found temporary comfort in letting those anxieties come to the surface, air out all their hideousness, and then recede inwardly until the next CD is played.

To conclude, Eli Roth, director of Hostel, Cabin Fever, and the upcoming Green Inferno, had this to say about mankind’s enjoyment of gory horror movies:

“Fairy tales really help children deal with inexplicable fears about life…there’s no explanation for tragedy. There’s no justice.  There are all of these horrible things like war and what people do with religious ideology, and fairy tales are the way kids deal with the world. Horror films help adults in the same way.”

I believe heavy metal music serves generally the same purpose.

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2 thoughts on “Riding the Lightening: An Exploration of Existentialism in Heavy Metal

  1. So glad I ran across this article, and I didn’t even meant to! This is one of the only places I’ve seen an accurate quote of The Haunted’s “Abysmal” and the perspective given on metal culture is dead-on with everything I’ve experienced, and I didn’t even come into metal except by proxy. Hardcore punk rock propelled me into the world of post hardcore, metalcore, and ultimately modern “heavy” metal as a whole. I’ve never gone to shows with more accepting crowds than punk or metal, and I love how people always find a way to bring themselves together in the face of adversity. Thanks Chris, I appreciate your perspective, and I’ve shared it out to my peers.

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