by Joe Boone
Here is a video of Pig Destroyer playing live. It’s intense, but try to watch it all the way to the end. For reasons that will become apparent, you’ll want to watch the singer in particular.
One aspect of metal that alienates many potential listeners is the vocals. They don’t understand what motivates metal singers, like J.R. Hayes in the video above, to sound the way they do. What follows is a meditation on the necessity of those styles of singing in metal and why there is no other way for singers to convey to their audience the message that they feel in their souls they must articulate.
Why are harsh vocalizations (screaming, growling, rasping, etc.) so central to metal music? First, because you do not have to have any skill or training to execute them “well,” unlike more conventional forms of singing, as in opera or popular music. Every person, regardless of innate talent or advanced training, regardless of race or class or gender or any other unjust inequality, can be a truly great metal singer, today, at this moment. You don’t even need experience. All you need is desire. Metal is the ultimate equal opportunity employer.
Next, screaming is important because it allows listeners to find any meaning they want in the lyrics. Metal seeks to create a space of radical equality and part of that equality is between the performer and the listener. Screaming gives the listener as much power in making meaning from the lyrics as the performer.
Screaming is the most primal, direct way to express horror and dissatisfaction and pain. It’s instinctual, reflexive even. We say “Ow!” when we stub our toe. Metal vocals are that same reflex expanded exponentially to convey a correspondingly greater hurt: “OOOOOWWWWWWW!”
I think it’s important to remember that the very first thing every single human person does after leaving the womb is scream. We can’t do anything else. We can’t speak. We can’t defend ourselves. We’re totally powerless. All we can do is scream. Why does a newborn scream? We scream when we are born because we are overwhelmed, thrust into a state of shock, at how horrible the world is. It is the farthest place imaginable from the safety and warmth and protection of the womb. We want to say as loudly as possible how dissatisfied we are with the universe in that moment and the only way we can say that is by screaming. And a baby’s cry is very effective. It‘s a hard-hearted, evil person that does not to want to comfort a crying baby, if only just to get it to quiet down.
What is metal so hurt by that it must scream so loudly and constantly? A case study: When Tom Araya screams in “Angel of Death” (arguably metal’s most iconic scream) he is screaming in disbelief at the horror of the Holocaust. He is mourning and grieving and wailing and rending his clothes and gnashing his teeth that the universe could have allowed something so hideous and despicable to transpire. He is mourning the death of God and the death of hope. “Angel of Death” and Elie Wiesel’s Night carry very similar messages in that regard. As Wiesel put it himself in a 1976 interview about that book, “I wanted to show the end, the finality of the event. Everything came to an end—man, history, literature, religion, God. There was nothing left.” It is significant that the 865-page manuscript that Wiesel edited down into Night was entitled And the World Remained Silent. Araya’s scream is a too-little, too-late attempt to speak to defend everyone who suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis. His opportunity to do that had passed before he was born, and the feelings of guilt and anger he feels because of his powerlessness overwhelm him to the point that all he can do is scream.
Other forms of art besides music can be “metal,” so I’d like to turn to a “metal” painting to illustrate my next point:
Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream expresses exactly the same feeling as Slayer and Wiesel, but it was painted in 1893 and clearly cannot be about the Holocaust. Munch’s message is more general than Wiesel’s or Slayer’s. His subject is screaming not in remembering or meditating on systematic mass murder, but simply while walking along the waterfront in Oslo. Munch wrote this about the painting in his diary: “I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.” Munch says that we can be overwhelmed by grief for the death of God and the pointless brutality of the universe at any time, for no apparent reason whatsoever. It is a profoundly nihilistic, hopeless message. For me, his painting is one of the best, most accurate depictions of depression in the history of art. It is a very metal painting, indeed.
So, why does metal fixate so much on grief?
In her 1969 book On Death And Dying Elisabeth Kübler-Ross proposed a five-stage model of grief that is now widely familiar. It is still used today in end-of-life care and counseling, the application for which it was originally developed, but it has also been applied to grief caused by numerous other “catastrophic personal loss[es],” including divorce, addiction and incarceration. The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It is important to note that the stages are not necessarily chronological, and some can co-exist with each other. In my own experience, denial (or escapism), anger, bargaining and depression are felt as one enormous undifferentiated horrible feeling.
When I hear metal singers screaming, I hear them expressing grief. That makes me feel good. I actually enjoy hearing that, for several reasons. First, it’s an antidote to the shame of grief. It’s very much not okay to feel this way, especially if it was not brought on by any tangible trauma. We’re not supposed to talk about it. Mainstream society tells us that if we feel this feeling we’re doing something wrong. It would like for depressed people to just magically get better overnight. Society can’t understand that we must feel this way, that it’s not a choice for us; it is who we are, or at least part of who we are, and always will be. Metal understands that. Metal says there’s no shame in it.
And next, it’s nice just to feel some camaraderie. The metal community is like a long-distance support group of men and women who feel or at some point have felt just really fucking bad. Nobody’s in this scene because they want to be. They’re here because they have to be, because they were born to be. If you asked me (and, I would wager, a lot of other metalheads who experience depression) “If you could say a magic spell and wake up tomorrow and not be depressed and not need to love metal, would you say it,” there is a huge part of me that would say yes. This is really hard identity to have. So to hear, in metal, the simple fact that other people have felt as alienated and hurt and hopeless as I’ve felt is comforting. It makes it a little more okay to feel that way.
Some people never get out. Some people can never stop grieving and just live a shadowy half-existence, adrift on a sea of sadness. I’m one of the lucky ones. In metal and in life, at last, I can hear acceptance. I can hear hope. I hear a promise, a solemn oath made with myself and bonded by blood, never again to suffer silently or stand by while others do. Metal was the map I used to navigate to this vast deep lake of happiness in my life, and its screams, for a long time, were the only wind in my sails.
You might not need metal and you might not be able to use it. I’ve found it to be an incredibly powerful tool to help myself feel acceptance and love, but it’s not for everyone. I just wish more people could hear it the way I hear it and give it a chance to improve their lives and find freedom. To misquote the Rolling Stones, “it’s just a shout away.”