Musical Technicality Vulgar Display of Passion: Chapter 10

musical technicality

“Metal’s virtuosity has always been crucial to its evocation of power and aggression.” (Berger, 1999, p. 57)

Subjects in Arnett’s (1991b) study cite musical proficiency and socially relevant lyrical content of songs as their main reasons for being attracted to heavy metal music.  Fans appreciate heavy metal artists for constructing songs with musically innovative instrumentation and thought provoking lyrics, regardless of what outsiders think (Arnett, 1991b).  As Walser (1993) notes, “historians and critics of popular music have so far failed to take seriously the musical accomplishments of heavy metal musicians” (p. 103), which has resulted in a stereotype of unskilled amateurs creating distorted chaotic noise with loathsome screaming.  Virtuosity is downplayed as “pyrotechnics” and musicians fail to receive mainstream respect as accomplished musicians (Walser, 1993, p. 103).  While connections between heavy metal and substance abuse have also caused much trepidation, critics often disregard the fact that many heavy metal musicians have quit drugs and alcohol because it was detrimentally affecting the ability to perform their virtuosic music (Walser, 1993).  Metal fans, however, detect the technicality within the music, and give it their utmost respect (Bashe, 1985).

Guitarists are especially idolized in terms of technical ability because of their progressive compositional abilities, flashy solos, and ability to achieve diverse and innovative tones with their electric guitars, amplifiers and signal processors (Bashe, 1985).  Heavy metal guitarists create new sounds by incorporating their many songwriting inspirations with modern technology to “fuse together their semiotic resources into compelling new combinations” (Walser, 1993, p. 103).  In addition to highly dedicated and talented musicians, heavy metal requires quality (usually hand-made) instruments and amplification systems, advanced electronic circuitry and dynamic processing units, and personnel who are knowledgeable in the operation of all this esoteric and convoluted equipment.  Bashe (1985) states that the entire genre of heavy metal is “a progeny of advanced musical technology” (p. 11), and Reddick & Beresin (2002) emphasize that, “performers go to great lengths to demonstrate virtuosity” (p. 52).  Thus, sophisticated musical instruments and recording technologies are central to heavy metal, while artists must harness and apply their musical talents to use these tools while creating this complex art form.  Natalie Purcell (2003) elucidates that heavy metal music can even serve as a measure of artistic growth and provide hope for musicians because,

“Metal is not about qualities one is born with… instead, it is about qualities that one controls and is able to develop in oneself… Metal offers something that one can achieve success at if only he or she exerts enough effort.  The focus is on how much effort and skill one acquires, not the innate talents and traits with which one is born.  This is a very positive message, a message that offers hope to those who accept it.” (p. 115)

To reiterate the virtuosity of these artists, Walser (1993) reveals that musical contributions from heavy metal musicians “have already profoundly changed not only their music, but their modes of theorization, pedagogy, and conceptualization” (p. 107).  This is significant because since this data was released, the genre has continued to push musical boundaries, challenge artists, and expand into ever-widening extremes. At times, bands and fans will display contests of one-upmanship in regards to the extreme technicality, sonic brutality, and general excessiveness of the music and art to determine who is “more metal” (Dunn et al., 2005).  Numerous studies also indicate that heavy metal enthusiasts are more inclined to have aspirations of a career in the music industry.  Most want to be career musicians, but many also want to learn recording and production techniques, write books and articles on heavy metal, own a music store, or simply be involved with music in any possible way for their livelihood (Arnett, 1991b).

The denunciations of unskilled heavy metal musicians and ignorant fans, however, continue to be spread.  From the inception of the genre, artists and fans have been rejected, derided, and even hated for this supposed inability to perform and appreciate quality music.  Genre-defining groups like Black Sabbath were equated with a group of “Cro-Magnon hunters who [had] stumbled upon a rock band’s equipment” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 2) and even the prolific and enduring Led Zeppelin were regarded as “musically primitive… mindless” in mainstream press (Weinstein, 1991, p. 239).  These creative and inspired rock musicians were “ridiculed as living contradictions to the theory of evolution” by the music journalists despite of their inescapable contributions to rock music and society as a whole (Weinstein, 1991, p. 239).  Ironically, relegating heavy metal as a “primitive” art form is somewhat of a complement because “in rock & roll, primitive is considered a virtue” (Bashe, 1985, p. 11).

In fact, the proponents of heavy metal’s “primitive” nature could not be more inaccurate.  Comparing heavy metal music to culturally more distinguished styles is “entirely appropriate… [Because] the musicians who compose, perform, and teach this music have tapped the modern classical canon for musical techniques and procedures” (Walser, 1993, p. 59).  Many heavy metal musicians are entirely cognizant of their relationship with classical music and actually practice these prodigious pieces of music on their instruments (Walser, 1993).  The classical pieces have been reconfigured and appropriated as “noisy articulations of pride, fear, longing, alienation, aggression, and community,” similar to the way the “eclectic fusions of J.S. Bach and other idols of that tradition” did (Walser, 1993, p. 104).  Walser (1993) also notes that these progressive and prolific heavy metal composers have adapted these compositions to explore themes of fear and chaos in an effort to understand and critique the world in the way they know how, in the same way as the universally respected and prestigious musicians of the Enlightenment.  Heavy metal musicians, however, have adapted and amplified classical music to speak for their own group’s “power and artistry” (Walser, 1993, p. 104), and therefore, “heavy metal cannot be described as musically primitive” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 241).  Although heavy metal fans and musicians are “continually stereotyped and dismissed as apathetic nihilists,” the musical contributions from these prolific artists has built on preexisting “musical forms and cultural icons to create for themselves a social world of greater depth and intensity” (Walser, 1993, p. 170).  Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford reveals that heavy metal is a “very, very professional style of music… [that] means a great deal to many millions of people” and is therefore treated with utmost respect (Walser, 1993, p. 106-107).  This music containing such power and profound meaning is also represented by a wide range of visual artifacts.



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