Visuals Vulgar Display of Passion: Chapter 11

heavy metal visuals

“The sonic power of heavy metal is supported and enhanced by a wide range of visual artifacts and effects that display its inherent meaning.” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 27)

Heavy metal band names, lyrics and song and album titles are bolstered by a captivating array of images, styles, and logos.  The visual aspect of heavy metal is a complex collection of images that are used to convey, reinforce, and amplify the existing modes of interdependent verbal expression (Weinstein, 1991). A vast array of heavy metal visuals can be found as band logos, record sleeves, band photos, T-shirts, posters and other memorabilia, concert costumes, lighting effects and stage props, as well as in media as magazine spreads, websites, and as highly expressive music videos (Weinstein, 1991).  These ocular-centric mediations make significant contributions to heavy metal, and like the verbal elements of the genre, the visual language of heavy metal is based in “larger-than-life images tied to fantasies of social power” (Walser, 1993, p. 2).

Weinstein (1991) notes that heavy metal’s “unit of discourse” is entire bands, rather than simply lyrics, songs or album titles, so the band name and the band logo are expressive signifying elements that are paramount to the genre (p. 32). Metal bands create many easily identifiable visuals including bold logos, common graphic motifs, and some groups even have mascots (Bashe, 1985). The name of the band itself, and the artful, stylized logos especially provide quickly recognizable branding symbols that represent bands both verbally and visually (Weinstein, 1991).  These symbols and logos convey the messages and image of the group, and can determine what genre a band is in, and even can function just like brand logos for international business corporations (Weinstein, 1991).  Examining these images provides insight into the great number of “uniformities of signification and sensibility” that are present in heavy metal names and logos (Weinstein, 1991, p. 33).  Weinstein (1991) also adds that the “band’s name provides a context of meaning within which the titles and lyrics are interpreted” (p. 32).

Common themes for lyrics, band names, song titles and album artwork include representations of teenage rebelliousness, frightening situations and creatures, incidents of violence and hate, arcane depictions of torture and gore, and other bizarre scenarios of sin and excess.  As Trzcinski (1992) analyzes, these images are useful in signifying the inherent danger of the music and power of the performers themselves (p. 17).  Bands are often named after horrific events or actions (Napalm Death, Suffocation, Dismember), haunting locations (Sepultura, Fear Factory, Kingdom of Sorrow), ominous characters (Slayer, Malevolent Creation, Death Angel), weapons, devices or diseases (Iron Maiden, Anvil, Anthrax), monsters, creatures or animals (Carcass, Mastodon, Behemoth), or even the feeling of power itself (AC/DC, Killswitch Engage, Threat Signal).  Many band names have religious implications (Black Sabbath, Deicide, Burn The Priest), encapsulate the band’s personal philosophies (Rage Against The Machine, Earth Crisis, Living Sacrifice), or pay homage to other songs, albums or literature (Machine Head, As I Lay Dying, Veil of Maya).  Some band names are simply comprised of smaller words put into juxtaposition with one another (Hatebreed, Soilwork, Eyehategod), are bizarrely named (Job For A Cowboy, (hed)p.e., Strapping Young Lad), or are intentionally verbose or confusing (Success Will Write Apocalypse Across The Sky, Bodies In The Gears of the Apparatus, Paracoccidioidomicosisproctitissarcomucosis) (Sharpe-Young, 2008, 457).  Some bands are guaranteed zero mainstream success simply because of their chosen monikers (Anal Cunt, Fuck the Facts, The Meat Shits, Total Fucking Destruction), while, in complete polarization, other groups simply make up words that look powerful as logos, and even misspell the words to draw more attention and thus, increase marketability (Metallica, Korn, Def Leppard).  Band names situate the groups within the overall framework of the music industry, and due to their corporate branding abilities, the logos have significant marketing implications.  These “themes of mayhem and cosmic evil” found within the iconography of heavy metal matches the aggressive sonic components and fantastic lyrics of the music, and are truly a vital aspect of the heavy metal lexicon (Weinstein, 1991, p. 33).

Other nonmusical elements have shaped the genre’s distinctive “style,” which Weinstein (1991) defines as “the whole range of ways in which the body is displayed, animated, and chemically influenced” (p.126).  The heavy metal community is visibly represented by a number of clothing styles, hairstyles and other body modifications like jewelry, piercings and tattoos, and one could even include behavior while intoxicated (by substances or music) as a visual representation of the genre (Weinstein, 1991).  All of these components are significant parts of the culture because adherents and outsiders recognize these signifiers and constitute their social transactions accordingly (Weinstein, 1991).  Throughout the development of the subculture, certain styles have emerged and become important genre signifiers and mediations in their own right.  In the nascent heavy metal culture, “impressions of studded, black leather-clad biker types” prevailed, but numerous different clothing styles are now present (Weinstein, 1991, p. 29).  Most significantly, however, heavy metal enthusiasts wear T-shirts and jackets with band names, graphics, tour dates and sewn-on patches to advertise their favorite artists and their connection to heavy metal culture holistically (Weinstein, 1991).  Shirts are overwhelmingly black in color, and effectively serve as a pledge of loyalty to the musicians, an artistic statement for the fans, and an undeniable milestone of the heavy metal subculture (Weinstein, 1991).  Economically, T-shirts generate significant profits because in addition to their initial sales, the pronounced logos and fascinating artwork are a tremendously effective form of mobile advertising (Weinstein, 1991).

Extreme manners of dress like torn clothing, heavy use of pins and buttons, hairstyles like Mohawks and long or dyed hair, and other “permanent stigmata” like visible tattoos and numerous pierced body parts effectively display fans as “proud pariahs… [who] desire to constitute themselves as unacceptable to the respectable world” (Weinstein, 1991, p.109).  While clothes can be changed for different occasions, these body modifications confirm that these enthusiasts are not “weekend warriors” because their “subculture [is] inscribed on the body” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 109).  Weinstein (1991) additionally reveals that these extreme manners of self-image creating are “visible proof of one’s self-willed rejection of middle class values… [that often] earns the frightened contempt of society, which refuses to take them seriously” (p. 272).  Heavy metal performers and fans “declare their authenticity” through their visual appearance by rejecting mainstream clothing styles and even permanently marking themselves with symbols stating that they “care little for societal conventions” (Arnett, 1996, p. 69).  The visuals of heavy metal music, from band logos to nose rings, all signify power, individualism, and a rejection to mainstream values.   Mainstream radio also has played a significant part in heavy metal culture, in that heavy metal has traditionally not been on mainstream radio.


Editors note, 8.17.15: The band often called ’55’ or ’55Gore’ is actually named, in their entirety, ‘Intracerebrally Consuming Cephalalgia Through the Cranium Macerating Debrisfucked Manure Ingested Remains of the Mindfucked Cataplexic Wicked Mankind Whom Fistfucked the Progenies from the Deepest Depths of the Analmaggot Raped Human Pieces of Erotic Shitmasses Which Gave Birth To Worthless Eunuchs As Travesty For Cumstained Whorefaced Sluts Enslaved By This Stupid Society Full of Fetal Garbages’


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