On a holiday a few years ago, a friend and I played The Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’ for two girls we’d met in a hostel. They hated it, and I can understand why. I was driving when I first heard ‘Heroin’, going home from school aged 17 in my sister’s rattling black Fiat Punto and my friend Stevie put the song on. It starts peacefully with jangly diatonic guitar chords and Lou Reed’s vocal, but I remember the drum; a single tom-tom in the background that speeds up and crescendos at every chorus as Reed’s lyrics get explicit ‘…when the smack begins to flow/ I really don’t care anymore’.
The drum is the frantic and excited heartbeat of the junkie getting his fix. Screaming, atonal guitars and strings take over the mix near the end, and it becomes an assault. But nothing ever supersedes the drum, which resurfaces and slows down as the song ends and the junkie’s heartbeat recedes.
The drum panicked me. My own heart raced while I drove, like Reed’s junkie experience was being forced on me. We were on windy suburban English roads, and Stevie sat in the passenger seat looking at me knowingly and, I would guess, gripped his seatbelt a little tighter. I’d never had a violent reaction to a song before, and it slightly unnerved me even as it was exciting. ‘Heroin’ demands this reaction; it’s designed to sound like the fatal anticipation and payoff of shooting heroin, after all. But why was something so surface-level unpleasant so thrilling?
‘All art aspires to the condition of music.’ So said the English essayist, Walter Pater. Music is in all forms. Of course, it can have content, and it can be ‘about’ things in the same way as literature or film, but at the end of that road it’s all about form. Vibrations of varying frequency that hit your eardrums and force a reaction. At least that’s what good music should do, and that reaction can be as violent as it can be calming. It’s the most immediate art form. It can be like being hit by a truck, tickled up your spine, or shoved from behind or shaken like a doll.
Physicality seems to be the easiest analogy to the experience of music when it grabs you – even saying ‘grabs you’ is a physical metaphor, because it’s a physical interaction, more than visual art or literature or even dance. Sound vibration touches you, literally, deep inside your head.
‘I owe it all to my first boyfriend.’ Jenny, a writer for Rock and Art, says of her love of Metal. ‘Walking to school, he would cycle by me, singing lyrics from Rammstein, Rob Zombie and Slayer songs. I guess it was his way of wooing me, and it worked. I fell in love twice – with him, and with the music he introduced me to.’Jenny
People always associate music with a time in life, a person, a place when it meant a lot. As a teenager when nothing can ever be as important as the music you’re into, the movies you watch and the person you snog, the thrill of hearing something new, whether it’s The Velvet Underground, Rammstein or something shit like Imagine Dragons, is the most exciting thing in the world. It’s because of the immediacy of music over anything else.
“We’d make out with Live Aus Berlin [A Rammstein live gig] on in the background, and despite the raging teenage hormones, I’d frequently be distracted by the DVD”Jenny
Jenny’s memory of being shocked by music is physical, too. When I remember hearing ‘Heroin’ and the drum getting faster and faster like a heartbeat it’s inseparable from the fact I was driving, moving faster than I probably should have been, gripping the wheel and flying around bends.
The memory of Live Aus Berlin for Jenny brings her back to making out as a teenager; excitement, probably taboo, kind of risky feeling, and, unfortunately for him, more bracing than her boyfriend. The opening track of Live Aus Berlin, ‘Spiel mit mir’, is creeping and ominous and heavy, the sort of thing you’d expect to hear over footage of an advancing mechanised army or a Hungarian doctor engaging in inhumane experiments. It’s pretty irresistible, though.
Like being pulled, smacked, or kissed, music at its best is about feeling something, giving up control as something is done to you, and music that you have to work for, that delves into something unpleasant or abrasive, can latch onto feelings and invoke physical reactions in a way that other art can’t.
In Pater’s quote at the top of this article, he’s talking about the way that music transcends your intellectual understanding and goes straight to the senses. It gets all in your feelings all at once. Maybe this accounts for Jenny’s and my physical memories of music, and how we describe it in physical terms. It’s exciting to hear something that cuts straight through to an uncomfortable core and allows you to experience something visceral – physical, as we’ve established – in a safe way.
It’s analogous to the experience of a scary film, true crime documentaries, or the notion of catharsis in Aristotelian Tragedy; you get to experience and indulge in shock or fear or grief without having to actually go through it. But the key difference, as Pater describes when he talks about ‘the condition of music’, is that movies or true crime or Tragedy require you to think them through, at least on some level, before you feel the thrill or the relief. Music gets you straight away.
Loud and abrasive: from Death to Napalm Death and Carcass
Editor of Rock and Art, Flor Guzzanti, describes being ‘totally blown up’ the moment she first heard Death Metal pioneers, ‘Death’. Death is not a ‘nice’ band. Yet, the community of their fans, and those of many metal bands, is as passionate and welcoming as any you’re likely to find outside of a Christian campsite, or a PR-savvy cult.
Coming across another ‘Death’ fan at a party isn’t the same as finding out someone also likes Drake, and the nature of the music undoubtedly has something to do with that. Maybe it’s as simple as scarcity creating value, but the extremity of some music, and the shared experience of it, can create social identities for people and allow them unique space to exist.
‘I enjoy (extreme) metal, I go to concerts every time I can, I love to see other women at metal gigs and festivals, and I like the idea of women claiming their own space in the metal scene that´s been a male-dominated field for ages.’Flor Guzzanti
Any good gig feels ritualistic and a bit religious. You’re part of a throng that moves as one mass and sings in one voice, sweat and bodies and the all-consuming volume that dulls all your other senses. Metal gigs combine this with the knowledge that you’re surrounded by freaks of your own tribe.
The congregation gathers and the hum and atmosphere build as the masses take their places amongst a swell of sweat and plastic pint glasses. Some lesser acts stoke and sculpt the frenzy and excitement until the crowd is at a fever pitch and waiting for what they came for, and then the lights go out.
They scream and cheer and the preachers take the stage to the deafening adoration of their disciples. Like the halls that wait on television evangelists, portions of the crowd are overcome physically, they hold the most pit in tension until they’re given the nod from the ministers on stage, and on their cue engage in wild, ritualised violence.
The service ends, and the congregation waits expectantly for the final act, the re-emergence onto the stage and the last resounding encore prayer. The lights go up as the sound rings out, the spell breaks and they’re once again individuals, affirmed by their act of devotion.
For my part, I’m not a fan of Death or of many bands that sound like them, but the dedication of their fans is undeniable. Above, Flor Guzzanti praises ‘the idea of women claiming their own space in the metal scene.’
The scene that goes with the music is what can craft an identity for its fans. It’s ‘outside’ of mainstream culture, and asserting the identity that metal gives you through clothes, hair or sense of self is seen as an act of individualism and rebellion from what’s ‘normal’. Yet, the experience of a concert and membership of a ‘scene’ is communal.
It takes a certain level of sincerity and faith to be a part of a tribe and take it seriously enough to find real meaning in it. Abrasive music can give you an individual sense of identity, but the real power comes in surrendering that to the group.
Ultimately, a taste in metal or in any other difficult artform gives you something that matters and something to care about. If your band’s called ‘Death’, or ‘Carcass’, or ‘Napalm Death’, and you sound like Death or Carcass or Napalm Death, you can’t really stand at an ironic distance and pretend not to mean it.
Rammstein sing in guttural growls, and to the uninitiated, they’re frankly ridiculous, but they still ask you to take them seriously at the moment, and it’s fun if you do. The same goes for the fans. To some degree, as much as you can know that Rammstein or Slipknot might be overly, and deliberately, theatrical, you have to go past that ironic distance to really enjoy it at the moment, and for the duration of a song, if you’re going to feel the song, it asks you to believe in it.
It’s a delicate dance between irony and sincerity that a conscious listener engages in; Carcass’ song, ‘Regurgitation of Giblets’ – ripped straight from a doctor’s note – sounds like a man being sick into a distant tractor, and two tracks later on the same album there’s a song title with an actual pun in it (‘Pyosisified (Rotten to the Gore)’).
Despite this performative shock value and obvious self-awareness on the part of the band, it’s easy to get pulled into the unrelenting intensity of the music and treat it seriously enough to care at the moment. It’s not a novelty act, and there’s no joke in the music in the way that a band like Black Midi might play tongue-in-cheek riffs.
That’s the formation of the fanbase, as far as I can tell. In a gig, in your headphones, in the car, you have to take the music and all of its abrasive darkness seriously and be emotionally flexible and open enough to do the strange irony dance with someone else.
‘There’s comfort in the uncomfortable. It’s raw, it’s emotional, it’s REAL. It makes all the dirty, sad, angry parts of you feel like strength’.Jenny
Jenny Mugridge says this of her addiction to metal. Learning to take the dirty, the sad, the angry parts of oneself seriously and hear them given space in music is probably a valuable thing. According to a BBC Science Focus article from 2019, a study by Macquarie University found that listening to metal increases positive emotion in fans and, contrary to mothball-ridden controversy, reduces the risk of suicide in adolescent fans.
Being able to confront the emotions that the most uncomfortable metal brings up is undoubtedly a source of strength and emotional maturity; maybe we should all seek out misfit metalheads and trust them inherently because it’s sometimes really worth caring.
Musical abrasiveness isn’t just found in metal and loud distortion.
Some good examples of differently abrasive, uncomfortable or challenging music: British band Black Midi, whose songs can be audaciously peripatetic and smoothly lush from one cut to the next, lace everything they do with a musical and vocal irony and tongue-in-cheek tone that dares you to believe that they mean it.
John Frusciante’s first solo album, 1994’s Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt, was recorded in the wake of personal upheaval and on the very bleeding edge of an almost fatal heroin habit that would consume the next four years of his life. As such, it’s a little rough around the edges. It’s mostly made up of layered acoustic and electric guitar parts, supposedly recorded in single takes and full of missed notes and scuffs.
The vocals are untreated and wild, and melodies run off to places you don’t expect, often places that aren’t enjoyable, but you can’t ignore it when it’s on. Aphex Twin, for feeling like you’re being effectively convinced to feed yourself into a CD drive.
All of this abrasiveness – as I’ve chosen to call it – is a choice on the part of the artists to ignore what you or anyone else wants and to make something that is, in one way or another, difficult. For that alone, it should be respected and listened to.
Rawness, whether it’s the unvarnished guitar and voice on the Frusciante album, the guttural grind of Carcass or Aphex Twin being glitched out and complicated, is the most gripping thing about this music. It’s snobbish and naïve to say that ‘difficulty’ makes something more worthwhile or deserving of praise, but equally the payoff for what it asks of you feels greater.
I’d never heard anything like Heroin when my friend Stevie first played it in my car. The song was released in 1967, but it commanded an emotional reaction from me that still places me in the driver’s seat feeling as though I’d lost control of my heartbeat tom-tom. Not long after this moment, I would actually steer the car into a ditch on the same stretch of road, funnily enough.
What harsh and abrasive music represents, when it works, is being grabbed by art and transformed, either physically in a moment or over time in your whole identity. Like it or not, it sticks with you.
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