Reimagining American Community

heavymetal[Heavy metal] is rebellious music. It is very loud and distorted. Distortion is what goes on in the upset mind. Social distortion is all around us. It is a music that shouts out for you as opposed to shouting out at you. I think the people who like it really get into the attitude of what it is about when they go to a live show. I think it replaces some aggression that people have. I think you are so spent by the time that you listen to it that you can’t help but go, “Thank God! I feel a lot better now.”

– Ronnie James Dio (Black Sabbath, Rainbow, Dio), September 2004


I would go past the factories and put rhythms in my head to different machine sounds. With the sound of  “bommm psssss bommmm pssssss”, one can’t help but join in with that rhythm, but I think that’s natural for a drummer.

– Bill Ward (Black Sabbath)

We’ve never been a socio-political band, we’ve just been wanting to write songs that have got interesting messages in them – ‘Breaking The Law’ for example, which was a reference to what was going on in the UK when we were recording it at the back end of the 70s / early 80s, when there was a lot of crap going on in the UK with so many people being unemployed – talk about history repeating itself! – that was kind of a kneejerk reaction to that.

– Rob Halford (Judas Priest), September 2012

A lot of music came out of the industrial Midlands and North, a lot of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal came from those regions. But I don’t think it’s the ‘industrial towns’ thing; I just think that a lot of young people were into music and rebelled – rebelled against everything through music because there was nothing else for them.

– Peter ‘Biff’ Byford (Saxon), April 2007

It has been a year of both tragedy and triumph in the heavy metal community.  We have been faced with the greatly-lamented deaths of Clive Burr (drummer for Iron Maiden on Killers and Number of the Beast) and Jeff Hanneman (founding member and guitarist of Slayer).  The once-great Queensrÿche underwent a messy divorce complete with lawsuits between Geoff Tate and his ex-bandmates over rights to the name.  On the other hand, the original members of Black Sabbath released their stunningly powerful retrospective album 13.

What interest, though, would a conservative – particularly a traditionalist like me – have in such a transgressive genre of music as heavy metal?  Isn’t this the music of whiskey and heroin, sex and the devil?  As it turns out, there’s actually far more to heavy metal than first appears.  First, though, like a good Thomist, I want to consider the strongest counter-argument.

Allan Bloom, in his excellent book The Closing of the American Mind, spends a great deal of time speaking on the topic of music and the way in which it interfaces with philosophy and with the social life of human beings.  Adopting for his argument Plato’s critique of music, he takes careful note of the primitive, pre-rational, passionate and religious element in musical expression – something which cannot be amenable to reason or linguistic articulation (he uses the word alogon: ‘without logos’) – and applies it thoroughly and ruthlessly to the popular rock music enjoyed by his students.  Plato’s ideal of music is for the human being to complete herself by harmonising her pre-rational passions with her ordered and noble goals in the polis, to infuse her business with a joy that reason alone cannot provide her.  (It should be noted that this concern for the proper use of music is shared by the other ancient virtue-ethical tradition:  Confucius devotes much of his attention in the Analects to critiquing liyue -–rituals and music.  He praises the shao of the state of Qi  for its beauty and emotional sincerity, but condemns zheng music for its lewdness.)  Dr Bloom, noting the splintering of the academy and the displacement of the ancients by various intellectual fads, takes a significant amount of space to explore the impact of music on the life of the society, particularly for those coming of age in a time of crisis in the humanities.

He cites rock music as an attempt to re-tap these primal, chthonic passions, but one which succeeds only at tapping lust (‘not’, he is careful to note, ‘love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored’) in a way that attempts to bypass normal, healthy sexual development:  it celebrates and elevates the first stirrings of sexual desire ‘as the real thing’, ‘cultivat[ing] the taste for the orgiastic state of feeling connected with sex’.  Dr Bloom sees rock music as one of the drives underpinning the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, and the social upheaval that accompanied it.

There is a lacuna to which The Closing of the American Mind points, at the very spot where the public disciplines of politics and economy are divorced from the humanities.  The popularity of rock music he attributes directly to this divorce:  there is no spiritual nourishment for youth elsewhere in the society that can contend with popular music, precisely because the boundaries of politics and economy have been so clearly demarcated and policed by the reductively-rational nominalism of the Enlightenment thinkers and their intellectual progeny that the wild, untamed, Dionysian fields of the passions have been left completely open to colonisation by a huge commercial music enterprise riding the promise of immediate sexual gratification.  Here Dr Bloom essentially leaves his critique, though he finishes by tying rock music and the culture of pubescent gratification to which it gave voice, into its supreme philosophical justification (or excuse) in the works of Herbert Marcuse, and the sexual-economic images of Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, Prince and Boy George which were so prominent at the time he wrote his book.

It may be a fair reading of Bloom to suggest that rock music directly benefitted as a capitalist product of an economy divorced from traditional modes of thinking and being.  It both profited from and encouraged youthful rebellion against parents’ norms, and it is both a product of and a contributor to that vast lacuna in education which has produced such dysfunction.

Into the midst of this musical and societal landscape, however, came a trio of poor Catholic and Anglican working-class lads from Birmingham:  Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and John Michael ‘Ozzy’ Osbourne.  They wanted to play rock music, yes, but the direction their music took, ever since Iommi lost the tips of two of his fingers in an industrial accident, was wildly divergent:  slower, darker, downtuned; a very far cry from the tempo of intercourse, it mirrored the hulking, inhuman machines and manufactories which surrounded them everywhere in Birmingham.  The lyrics, too, were divergent:  not about seduction and hedonistic abandon, but grim warnings about Satan, nuclear war, and the apocalyptic replacement of the human by the mechanical.  Too many other rock bands trod the lucrative and uncritical road described by Dr Bloom; however, this band, which became Black Sabbath, found themselves staring straight into the yawning abyss lying at the heart of fractured modern education, society and life.

And the entire genre of music they birthed simply could not look away.

Day of Judgement, God is calling – on their knees, the war pigs crawling,
Begging mercy for their sins.  Satan, laughing, spreads his wings.

– Black Sabbath, ‘War Pigs’, 1970

There I was, completely wasted, out of work and down.
All inside it’s so frustrating as I drift from town to town.
Feel as though nobody cares if I live or die,
So I might as well begin to put some action in my life!

– Judas Priest, ‘Breaking the Law’, 1980

My life is so empty, nothing to live for;
My mind is all confusion, ‘cause I defied the law.
When you weren’t there to help me, I lost my mind and ran.
I never had no trouble before this all began!

– Iron Maiden, ‘Innocent Exile’, 1981

Have we come too far to turn around?
Does emotion hold the key?
Is logic just a synonym for this savagery,
Disguised in forgotten lost memory?

– Queensrÿche, ‘NM 156’, 1986

Heavy metal is the dark mirror of mainstream rock music in many ways.  If rock is titillating, commercially-prepackaged faux-rebellion; then heavy metal is distorted, countercultural and insurrectionary against false insurrections.  If rock lyrics are atavistic and flatter the sensuality of the audience; then heavy metal lyrics are confrontational and generally have a realist outlook.  If rock is a celebration of the ‘liberation’ of modern youth; then heavy metal calls that very liberation into question.  If rock does indeed, as Dr Bloom suggests, cater to juvenile onanistic fantasies; then the fantasies served by heavy metal are those inclined to aggression, masochism and self-directed violence, the ‘sensory equivalent of war’.  (Not without reason did studded leather become emblematic of our subculture after it was introduced by Rob Halford!)  Rock is the music of cheap pleasures; metal is the music of the pain underneath.

Heavy metal subverts most if not all of the aesthetic hallmarks of mainstream rock, and thus provides a fertile aesthetic basis for postliberal critique.  There is a definite difference in kind between heavy metal and the popular music mainstream – a countercultural reaction against the counterculture.  Heavy music did not sit well with the atavism and shallow sentimentality of the hippie ethos, or with the sexual revolutionaries; the blaring sonic distortions of Black Sabbath (and later Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Saxon), reflecting a distorted social fabric which imprisoned most where it promised to liberate, rather fired the pre-rational, deep-seated working-class doubts about the entirety of the modernist project.  There are numerous exceptions to this, of course – the ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’ attitude was taken up with explicit gusto by such metal bands as Motörhead, Anvil and Mötley Crüe.  But the early examples shown in lyrical form above give voice to certain intimations of deprival.

None of this is meant to rebut Dr Bloom’s hypothesis on rock music in indignation, as that would be to play entirely into his arguments about the youth culture’s unthinking and reactive self-defensiveness.  It certainly isn’t to exempt heavy metal as a subgenre from the Platonist critique generally.  Heavy metal, in spite of the apostolic Christian leanings of the band which pioneered it, nonetheless tapped a heathen vein.  If the Enlightenment project which birthed late capitalism purported to be ‘civilisation’, heavy metal would cast back past the Enlightenment’s beginnings and look straight to Western culture’s ‘barbaric’ and mythical roots.  In some cases (Black Sabbath, Trouble, Saxon, Iron Maiden), those roots would be reaffirmed in an alternative way over-against their cooptation by modernity; but in others (Venom, Mercyful Fate), the entire mythical project would be discarded outright as rotten.  The music itself, with its driving drum-line, its attraction to a martial tempo, its emphasis on the musical virtuosity of the lead guitarist signalling heroic excellence, hearkens back to a barbaric abandon which Plato would undoubtedly have seen as dangerous.

Nonetheless, there is that difference in kind from mainstream rock.  Heavy metal is a project which itself is re-sacralising in a certain way:  it points upward to the heavens, downwards into the abyss, and backwards into the realms of history and myth, when modernity as a whole is content to sink into its progressive delusions and settle into the mundane and the material.  And at every turn where it threatens to ‘sell out’, it demonstrates a remarkable talent for self-renovation:  as traditional heavy metal and its British new wave threatened to submerge into the explicitly commercialised glam rock scene in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, speed and thrash metal arose in backlash, bringing more aggression, more anger, more raw speed and technical virtuosity to the genre.  And as thrash threatened to sell out to grunge, groove metal and rap metal in the late ‘80’s and ‘90’s, death metal and black metal began taking its place, adding distortions of the human voice (whether death growls or black-metal rasps and shrieks) to the metal repertoire.

It is sadly the tendency of all too many religious communities – Christian and Islamic especially – to dismiss heavy metal as ‘devil music’ (though, given the half-tongue-in-cheek LaVeyan antics of, say, Venom and King Diamond, who can blame them?).  But there is far more to metal than that.  Canadian political philosopher George Grant cautioned his protégés always to ‘listen…  for the intimations of deprival’, as the only means of ‘liv[ing] critically within the dynamo’ which is liberal modernity.  As metal is a form of music which points readily to classical and pre-classical ideals of manhood, and to various forms of a lost and meaningful past, we would do well to listen.  The intimations of deprival we are listening for may well be sung (or shouted, or growled) above the blare of amplified downtuned power chords and double-bass drumming.

Do you hear the thunder raging in the sky,
 Premonition of a shattered world that’s gonna die?
In the age of reason, how do we survive,
 The protocols of evil ravaging so many lives?

– Black Sabbath, ‘Age of Reason’, 2013

Day of Judgement, God is calling – on their knees, the war pigs crawling,
Begging mercy for their sins.  Satan, laughing, spreads his wings.

– Black Sabbath, ‘War Pigs’, 1970

About the Author
Matthew Cooper is a machinist by trade, a development economist by training (but not by temperament) and a blogger by hobby, at The Heavy Anglo Orthodox. He is a Wisconsin native of English, Swabian, Yugoslav and Czech-Jewish extraction, who moved successively so far east - to wit: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Kazakhstan, China - that he ended up west of the Mississippi, in Minneapolis. He's a self described Tory radical, but has yet to adequately explain how this squares with his soft spot for Christopher Lasch.