“It’s Just Noise” – The Sliver Of Truth Behind Metal’s Greatest Slander – Part 3

In Parts 1 and 2, I looked at harsh vocals and a general aural assault. Here I’m going to examine the process of disorientation and alienation in metal.

If you need a quick guide to any genre terms I use here, or just want to know a little more about metal, especially extreme metal, check out my “Quick ‘n’ Dirty Introduction To Metal. I promise this is the last in the series of rants, thanks for sticking with me!

Harsh vocals and LOUD are probably the most noticeable feature of extreme metal to people who don’t listen to metal a great deal. Once you’ve started listening to metal more than other types of music, though, it tends to become unnoticeable. You even start to understand what they’re saying after a while (I promise!). It’s just another part of the music.

Sure, they happen to have chosen a particular style, but that’s no more something to comment on in and of itself than the distorted guitar in mainstream rock music. This is significant, as it means metal fans don’t tend to think of harsh vocals as noise — at least, not in the same way as ‘normal’ music fans do.

This last week we come to another thing which differentiates metal from other genres: a deliberate disorientation of the listener.

This is a much more unarguably ‘noisy’ part of metal. It doesn’t matter so much if there are loud noises, or if there is a strange intensity to the tone of the music, if someone is creating patterns with sound, then you can easily claim that it is music. This appears to be the primary function in music, in fact. Our minds appreciate nice, simple melodies that we can predict easily. They get a little buzz from doing their job well. It makes sense — a layperson could easily start speculating about all kinds of linguistic applications for that skill.

If someone is making something that’s not just patternless though — like white noise, brown noise, pink noise etc. — but actually deliberately encourages you to think there’s a pattern coming, only to swerve away at the last minute, now that is disturbing.

Death and black metal do this by using scales that very few other genres of music employ. Death metal tends to use a combination of exotic scales in weird permutations and unusual contexts, while traditional Black metal goes more for chromatic scales.

Then progressive extreme metal, which tends, a little ironically, to sound closer to mainstream metal than normal extreme metal, takes this one step further. The melodies which metalheads are now expecting to hear from their favourite band are subverted further. Instead of rejecting melodious guitar lines, the guitarist sketches around the outsides of traditional melodies. It’s really cool to hear, and very disorientating. Here’s something I consider to be a good example of this sort of metal:

Ihsahn – Unhealer

You also get odd rhythmic sections combined with these bizarre melodies in the genre called Djent, a type of progressive metal. In Djent (and in a lot of other metal genres too, but most noticeably in Djent), we get things called “polyrhythms”, which happen when multiple rhythms layer on top of each other, and “cross-rhythms”, which are a type of polyrhythm designed to give a misleading impression of where the beat is. Again, here is a good example of the sort of thing I’m talking about:

Animals As Leaders – “CAFO”

Then again, sometimes you get stuff that is just really weird. No semi-bullcrap technical explanations, it’s just music that is consistently and completely weird. This is a pretty full and diverse type of metal, with artists from Devin Townsend to Mudvayne to Zu having produced nearly inexplicable songs.

Here is a song chosen at random from Mike Patton’s vast back-catalogue of odd things, including Mr. Bungle. This is Tomahawk doing a funk-filled, jagged, rage-filled number, with Patton singing through a gas mask.

Tomahawk – God Hates A Coward

We have now established that some metal songs are freaky, often on purpose. Truly this was a wonderful use of all of our time.

But why?

My own half-baked theory is that metal works in a different way to many traditional forms of music. Where much traditional music encourages a meditative, dopamine-fuelled high based on pattern recognition, metal brings you firmly into your body with a spitting, snarling, confusing burst of adrenaline.

It confuses and disorientates until a point is reached where the confusion becomes an irrelevance and the disorientation is exhilarating. Recently the stupendously popular wordy weblog Hyperbole And A Half did a brilliant post entitled Adventures in Depression.  In my view, metal is like a cheat code which skips you straight to the end point, the feelgood ending to that post — not feeling like you give the slightest shit about anything anyone thinks about you. That’s probably just me though.

The sliver of truth behind the accusation that metal is “just noise” lies here, in my opinion, in the stranger side of metal.  Many, if not most, metal songs actively defy conventional aesthetics in a search of a kick, a hit of the alien and otherworldly, which I believe brings listeners fully into the moment.

By rejecting or subverting musical patterns, both rhythmic and melodic, metal at its best encourages a very un-intellectual response to rather intellectual thoughts and musical theory. As progressive metal band Tool said once, overthinking,// overanalysing// separates the body from the mind, while coming across something that we cannot instantly explain can unite them.

This is not quite noise, not noise in the sense that white noise is. It’s too ordered for that. Equally, I don’t believe that it functions in the same way as traditional melody and music does, not in the slightest.

If I had to give it a name? If you really forced my hand?

I’d probably call it ‘Metal‘.

Oh yeah! Bam! What an ending. With copy like this, you’ll make the front pa- oh, what? Was I asleep again? Dammit.

Watch this if you have poor impulse control and have to watch any song you start watching all the way to the end.

^Totally not a trap.

I do not endorse or condone any of the political views expressed by any members of Nokturnal Mortum, especially Knjaz Varggoth.

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