There’s been a good, hard chill in the air for a while now, so I spent much of the weekend in storage, putting away some things, digging out others. I was admitting the passing of summer, at last, and preparing for winter; packing up shorts and swim trunks and cabana wear, and unearthing mothballed items like:
• thermal underwear
• my old Dark Throne T-shirts
Yes, though it is still only autumn, the long, dark winter is directly ahead, and with it, my seasonal descent into the bleakest, ugliest extremes of heavy metal. I kind of chronicled this phenomenon last January, in a column called “Winter Demons,” but it has been going on for years now, and while I can recognize and even find logic in this pattern, it still seems curious to me. I grew up listening to metal—metal is how I fell in love with music, how I became obsessed with music—but as I got older, I found a much bigger world of music to explore. So perhaps it is a luxury I allow myself in the cold months, this return to the wonders of childhood, or perhaps it is just a reflection of my surroundings—some thermo-sonic variation of the old Morrissey line, “I wear black on the outside ’cause black is how I feel on the inside.” The “why” is immaterial; what follows are some of the new metal records that have stolen my attention as we descend into the frozen depths.
I started listening to heavy metal in my childhood because it truly scared me, truly felt unsafe, and that sensation was enormously powerful. Music captured my imagination at a very early age—all music, from show tunes to jazz to Top 40 pop to Alvin and the Chipmunks—but metal’s grip was much more powerful and consuming. It was like being caught in a nightmare, and while that sensation wasn’t always pleasant, it was addictively intense. As I got older, naturally, the music’s power grew less potent—compared to life, heavy metal seems pretty safe, after all—but every now and then, I’ll hear a record that disturbs me, leaves me shaken and spooked; and as an adult, that feeling is almost shocking. Maranatha opens up with a man hysterically screaming, “It’s the blood! It’s the blood!” From there, chaos erupts, guitars sound like swarms of bees, vocals are grunted and growled and shouted, sound is mangled and mutilated like a victim of torture. And while this could describe almost any black metal record, something about Maranatha feels genuinely deranged, and exciting.
Anyway, when I was growing up, discovering more and more metal, I heard the very extremes of music being forced so far that I was convinced they could go no further. Napalm Death’s 1987 debut, Scum, for instance, was so loud, so fast, so caustic and so raw that it seemed to be a terminal point for all sound. I was wrong, I see now, but it’s still rare to hear any artist push those boundaries further than they have already been pushed. The word “relentless” is often used to describe heavy metal, but how frequently do you hear music that actually does not ever relent? Renihilation, somehow, accomplishes this, or feels to me like it accomplishes this. It moves at light-speed velocities, not stopping even to breathe, sounding like a symphony of apocalypse, like an earthquake, like the fall of something ancient, something enormous.
Then, back then, there was this other side of metal—I mean, metal has many sides; not even sides, but nuances and shapes and shades—but as I remember it, as I saw it, the metal I loved was either exceedingly brutal or exceedingly technically precise. This is not to say that technically precise metal was without brutality, nor that brutal metal was without its technical precision, just that, as a fan, this is the false binary by which I perceived music. Because I am not a musician myself, I tend to favor brutality—which is about ambience and ugliness and, as I already mentioned, fear—but because I love music, I cannot help but be in awe of those who can play. Revocation remind me of those technical masters of my high school days—with their guitars that stop and start and fly with the grace and agility of an ice skater—and if their music impresses me more than it moves me, well, there’s nothing wrong with being impressed by music, is there?
Today, I don’t profess to be anything more than a dilettante, as far as metal goes. This is not, I hope, an indictment of my sincerity or enthusiasm or passion; it’s simply because I know what it means to be a metalhead, and being a metalhead is not a seasonal endeavor: It’s a way of life, a calling. Are Baroness a dilettante’s band then? I don’t know. Their music is clearly metal, powerful and heavy as a wrecking ball, but because I love it so much, because it sounds so good to me, I have to wonder. It has hooks and choruses and psychedelic explorations. It does, occasionally, relent. And if I were a teenager, these qualities would have steered me away from The Blue Record—because to me, at 17, artistic achievement equated to aural discomfort. Do Baroness lack credibility because their songs are so immediately accessible? I don’t know. I don’t pretend to know. I simply listen to the music, over and over, and prepare for winter.