Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Get (back) into.

A good friend, and it would appear my only reader, recently asked me about getting
back into metal. Aside from being rather pleasurably shocked from a request for advice
on a topic so dear to my heart I could not help but to think about the timeliness of
this question (see: Repetition, appreciation, nostalgia). Invisible Orange’s ongoing
series, “Heavy Metal Be-Bop” recently featured an interview with Melvin Gibbs (most
known for his role as bass player on Rollins Band’s “Weight”) who spoke on (among
other things) coming to metal from different perspectives and traditions as well as

Gibbs rightly pointed out that in his context as a youth, metal heads were racist losers
and so he found it difficult to engage with Black Sabbath. He also never really “got”
Zepplin. So when he came to metal, he came via funk, Sly and the Family Stone and
jazz. He said what I have been saying for years after reading Stearns’ “The Story of
Jazz”: that metal is all about tracing a certain lineage of blues and that lineage can
be traced from the US, from Brazil, from Cuba and so on. In other words although
contemporary metal is a predominantly “white” phenomenon (though it is changing,
the internet has opened up whole new vistas of metal from India and the Middle-East
as well as increasingly successful stoner and psyche movements from Chile and
Argentina) its forebears are inextricably African. The minor third, the fifth, non-standard
intervals perceived as dissonance, tonal slurring and total rhythmic devastation – all
African. Metal frequently moves away from the blues, indeed many cite Judas Priest as
the first metal band to explicitly move away from blues based song-writing. Metal also
moves away from Western harmonic and melodic conventions, using said conventions
as a base again to create dissonance and mysterious new harmonies suitable for
complex rhythmic explorations.

As a youth I was sold on metal’s image of aggression and anger. I have written about
that elsewhere. It took a long time for me to loosen and eventually discard the shackles
of the listening habits of others, to move beyond popular lingua franca and listen to
metal from my own place. This of course produces a conundrum to the question at the
top of this entry, “how to get (back) into metal”.

Metal in its extreme forms, not unlike jazz can be an exercise in stamina. It
takes time to build up a level of aural strength capable of adequately appreciating the
rhythmic intensity that can be found in metal. Many new listeners may be initially
turned away because of this intensity, I know I have. But as friends and family will
attest, I am stubborn and when it comes to music, especially so. One listen is never
enough but I am not daft enough to go and recommend Napalm Death to the virginal
metal head. To paraphrase Gill and Beez (may he find happiness elsewhere) on the
Metal Hammer podcast, any metal head who claims his entry point was Napalm Death
or Deicide or similar is a liar who probably has to convince him/herself every night
before going to bed that Mustaine-era Metallica was the tr00est they will ever be. In
other words, they are just big fat liars.

The point is that starting in the deep end may not always be the best place.
After all we are conditioned from birth to focus on and internalize certain melodic and
harmonic conventions, our entire musical world is streamlined into a limited number of
sounds for a limited number of circumstances. Starting with melody, with something
familiar then is probably best.
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