Thick Aesthetic Concepts in Extreme Metal

My last post got me thinking about why it’s so difficult to explain the appeal of extreme metal to people that don’t like the genre. Part of me was concerned that this task was not simply hard but perhaps not possible at all. I feel like the appropriate response to someone who asks what there is to like about extreme metal is the apocryphal reply that Satchmo gave  to someone who asked what jazz is: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know”. After considering it further, I think there’s something philosophically interesting about the way that people in the scene communicate with each other about their passion that might explain why this problem feels so intractable.

In the mid-80s a philosopher called Bernard Williams emphasised the importance to moral discourse of what he called “thick” ethical concepts. To get a feel for thick ethical concepts, one can contrast them with thin concepts of both a moral and non-moral variety. For example, the concept of size is a thin descriptive concept. If I say that John is tall, I am not passing moral judgement about him or invoking any kind of normative values in describing him as such. However, if I say that something he did was (morally) wrong, this judgement most certainly is evaluative, and my description of it does involve the use of normative values (namely, rightness and wrongness).

Thick ethical concepts constitute an entanglement of descriptive and normative features, they combine a judgement of fact with a judgement of value. For example, if I say that John is cruel then I am passing moral judgement on him in a way that I am not if I simply say that he has a tendency to cause unnecessary harm to others (or, at least, if there is moral judgement in this latter example it is merely implicit and not part of the meaning of the words themselves). However, I am also claiming that he has certain traits or performs certain types of actions. For instance, if John never gave money to charity, that might be reason for thinking him immoral or unethical, but it wouldn’t be sufficient for thinking him cruel, all things being equal. In this sense, cruelty has a descriptive, non-normative element to it that is absent in thin ethical concepts like ‘wrong’ or ‘good’.

Cruelty at its worst.

The notion of thick concepts, however, needn’t be restricted to ethics and can be extended into other areas of discourse that include value judgements, most notably to aesthetics. For example, if I say that a dress is elegant, I am not simply describing its shape or flow, but also voicing my aesthetic approval of it. Conversely, to say that a painting is garish is not only to describe its colour scheme but to condemn it on the basis of this choice of colours. In this way, aesthetic concepts often combine descriptive and evaluative elements.

No less than in other areas of art, metal too contains a myriad of thick aesthetic concepts. If anything, metal probably contains far more than other areas, given that many typical thin aesthetic concepts like beauty just aren’t appropriate for trying to pass judgement on the genre. Whilst the topic of discussion last time was death metal, I think that black metal is probably the sub-genre whose vocabulary is most inundated with thick aesthetic terms.

Much of the vocabulary used to describe this music draws heavily on themes central or related to the genre, which is tied to anti-Christianity, Satanism, Norway, paganism and nihilism: words like “grim”, “necro”, “brutal”, “krieg”, “misanthropic” and so on… Like the term elegance, however, many of these words not only describe the style of the music but also evaluate it positively. For example, to say that a black metal track is necro is, in part, to describe it as having lo-fi production values or a raw feel. However, the term also implies approbation or a sense of approval regarding its sound.

There is a debate within the literature as to whether or not it is possible to separate the evaluative and the normative aspects of thick concepts. Some, like prescriptivist R.M. Hare, believe that one can siphon off the descriptive element of thick concepts entirely, in a way that involves no commitment to any particular evaluative standpoint. For example, if one wanted to describe an action as “brave” without committing oneself to approving of the action, one might simply claim that it was performed without fear in the face of great danger. Since fear and danger aren’t themselves evaluative concepts, one has stripped the original term of its normative content entirely, or so the story goes.

Others, most notably Bernard Williams himself, have claimed that it is not clear that this sort of separation is possible in all, or indeed any, cases. John McDowell explains that the reason why one cannot simply separate off the descriptive element is because any accurate synonym for a thick ethical concept will inevitably bring in other evaluative terms at some point. For example, bravery is clearly not simply doing something without fear in the face of great danger, for this encompasses many stupid actions, or actions performed without knowledge of the danger in question, neither of which are brave. A more accurate description would be an action performed courageously, but of course courage is too a thick ethical concept, so unless this concept can also be explained non-evaluatively then this description fails in its task, for it sneaks value judgements into the extended description itself.

The upshot, according to Hilary Putnam, is that:

to use them [thick concepts] with any discrimination one has to be able to identify imaginatively with an evaluative point of view. That is why someone who thought that “brave” simply meant “not afraid to risk life and limb” would not be able to understand the all-important distinction that Socrates keeps drawing between mere rashness or foolhardiness and genuine bravery.

To come back to the point with which we began, if this second viewpoint is correct (that it is not possible to separate the descriptive and evaluative elements with any precision) then it will prove to be extremely difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t already share an aesthetic appreciation of metal what exactly there is to like about it. Since much of the vocabulary used to talk about the music is thick, any attempt to voice an appreciation of the music in terms accessible to someone who doesn’t already appreciate it will leave out some of the content available in a description using thick concepts.

For example, the album Under a Funeral Moon by Darkthrone is extremely necro. If I was to simply say this to someone who didn’t enjoy black metal, they wouldn’t understand what I meant. But if I was to explain to someone that I liked it because it had bad production values, this simply wouldn’t capture my reason for liking it at all. Bootlegs of Madonna gigs probably have bad production values, but I don’t like them as a result, and they’re certainly not necro. 

Madonna ist nicht Krieg.

However, I have hope that in the case of metal at least, the problem is not completely intractable. My reason for thinking this is that there are descriptions in purely thin non-evaluative terms that, whilst not fully capturing the content of the thick terms themselves, might help bridge the gap between those who appreciate the genre and those that don’t. For example, if I said to someone that I like Under a Funeral Moon because the low production values help create a dark atmosphere, whilst not synonymous with ‘necro’, this hopefully provides enough information for the person to “imaginatively identify” with my aesthetic “evaluative point of view”, even if they don’t share that point of view themselves.

So that’s it for this post. We’ve gone from ethics to aesthetics to the grim and frostbitten realms of black metal (another topic for a future post: the postmodern irony that pervades the language of black metal fandom). Hopefully you’ve learnt something about philosophy, or perhaps got some insight into metal, or even both! This sort of connection between hobbies and interests of mine and philosophy is likely going to be the topic of a number of posts to come in the future, as philosophy generally tends to pervade how I think about things and I hope it sheds some light on aspects of things that might otherwise go unnoticed.

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In Which I Compare Death Metal to Shakespeare

A glaring omission from the list of topics that I have provided my unwanted opinions on so far is that of music. For a large part this is because metal is a huge staple of my musical diet, and it’s hard to explain to someone what the appeal is if they simply don’t get it (more on the linguistic aspect of this later). Reviews, for example, often take it for granted that the audience is familiar with the artist, or at least the genre, and write based on that assumption. However, my goals are more ambitious: to explain to an audience unfamiliar with metal (or whatever sub-genre of metal tickles my fancy at any given time) what it’s about and, importantly, why someone might voluntarily subject their ears to such a racket for any extended period of time.

Just your average extreme metal fans.

So I’ve decided to take this as a challenge; the plan is to try to explain some genres I enjoy and precisely what I enjoy about them. Whilst I don’t expect everyone who reads this to immediately jump on Amazon and order the entire Darkthrone back-catalogue as a result, I would hope that at least it might help someone who doesn’t share my tastes understand what the appeal is for those that do. I’ve decided to begin with a genre that’s probably not too familiar to the uninitiated: melodic technical death metal. What in God’s name is melodic technical death metal when it’s at home, I hear you ask. Melodic technical death metal (you might have guessed) combines elements of both technical and melodic death metal, fusing technicality with melody, brutality with finesse. In order to understand why someone might get their kicks from this sort of full-frontal sonic assault it seems like a good idea to focus on a case-study.

In decreasing order of hyperbolic content and increasing order of plausibility, here are some claims about the song “A Diamond for Disease” by Arsis:

  1. It is the greatest metal song ever written.
  2. It is the greatest death metal song ever written.
  3. It is the greatest melodic death metal song ever written.
  4. It is the greatest melodic technical death metal song ever written.

I hope to be able to convince you of the last two of these points at the very least. Let’s see if my powers of persuasion can get us any further up the list.

The unusual background to this song is fairly well known to fans of the genre, since it was written for the Ballet Deviare, a New York City dance company that choreographs modern ballet to metal. They asked for a 15-minute epic for the main piece of one of their shows, and this is what Arsis gave them. It took the guitarist and lead vocalist James Malone around four months to write and the result is nothing short of one of the greatest pieces of extreme music ever constructed. The song is so epic and complex that there aren’t enough members in their normal live lineup nor enough time to play the full version, so they play a distilled version that clocks in at 1/3 of the total time of the original and with one less guitar.

Buy this EP. Now.

Let’s walk through the track step-by-step. Consider this a listen-along guide for people to whom metal simply sounds like a bunch of loud instruments falling down some stairs; the blog equivalent of a Tate Modern audio guide explaining what that funny-looking blotch on the side of a dead cow is supposed to represent. If you still don’t get it by the end then I fear that technical melo-death is just not for you, dear reader! However, crack on the song, give it a chance, and if I actually convince anyone of the worth of the genre be kind and let me know in the comments.

A Diamond for Disease:

[00:00-01:02] The band takes a full minute to build up to the main onslaught, introducing a key motif that resurfaces throughout the song in the process. Mike van Dyne is already showing off his drumming talent at this point with some fantastic fills. A typical element of melodic death metal is the use of two or more guitar parts both contributing towards the same melody, either by means of harmonisation or by splitting one riff between two guitars. The latter is a favourite of James Malone’s, especially for rhythm sections, and he sets the mood for what is to follow by carving the intro riff up into two and alternating from one guitar to another for each successive note in the melody, reflecting musically the internal conflict that lies at the heart of the song.

[01:03-01:39] This is where it begins to get technical. The guitars synchronise for the main muted riff, splitting at the end and riffing off each other in an alternating pattern, as before, but this time at a blistering speed. We hear Malone’s vocals for the first time and he manages to maintain reasonably good diction given that he’s screaming down a microphone, clear enough anyway for him to introduce the lyrical themes for the song; deception, broken promises and betrayal–“Denial! (your death was promised!) of the thoughts our feelings dissolve! Chosen wisely, disguising all intent. Amidst the poetry, I thought I heard you say…”

[01:40-01:54] “Oooooh, let’s make a deal!.. A diamond for disease! Oh, Christ! It’s a betrayal!.. A diamond for disease..” We have a hook! I bet you weren’t expecting that when you were told that you’d be listening to some melodic technical death metal. Malone introduces what I’d probably call a chorus if the song wasn’t a meandering 13-minute long metal extravaganza. Trust me, you’ll be humming it to yourself later.

[02:10-03:29] Here we get the reintroduction of the first muted riff, this time serving as the rhythm for the first solo. This is followed by a breakdown and a section where the guitars largely take a back seat, first so that Malone can let the vocals take centre-stage to develop the details of his depressing wedding story: “Your words, spoken in the guise of an oath; the promise of never. Now never is all I ever receive; never, and the knowledge of your disease! Your words spoken aloud, ‘I do’, the promise of never..” Of special note is the last few seconds before the chorus kicks back in, since it’s the first time that three guitars can clearly be heard; two leads harmonising the same furious melody and the rhythm supporting them. The layering of three guitars generally stays for the rest of the song, reverting back to a single lead and rhythm towards the end when things start to calm down a bit.

[03:30-04:34] Worthy of note in this section is the fact that the song is still adding in more and more layers of complexity. The previous three or four riffs are now being brought in and mixed up far more frequently. Even the chorus section, ostensibly the same as it was when first introduced, now includes new harmonies breaking off from the main riff to complement it. All of this adds to this thickness and depth of the song and the frequency with which the third guitar follows its own distinct lines creates a sense of momentum and progression even where riffs reoccur and motifs are repeated.

[05:20-08:45] Quite simply, this is the most awe-inspiring few minutes of any metal song I’ve had the good fortune to hear. Let me break it down:

[05:20-05:36] The first part of this section serves masterfully to set up what is to follow. The two lead guitars somehow manage to harmonise whilst both playing a blisteringly fast, relentless, beast of a riff, creating a wall of noise that fills every inch of audial head-space. This is juxtaposed with the drums and the remaining guitar, which hammer home a precise, military-like rhythm that drives the song forward through an unnecessarily torturous number of bars waiting for the release. Throughout this the vocals follow the same repetition of ‘I never knew!’ until finally the barrage relents and breaks out in to…

[05:37-06:07] ‘How loose! You used! The word! Friend!.. In time I learned, a diamond for disease!’ At this point all hell has broken loose on the guitars. We have the reintroduction of the motif established right back at the beginning of the song taking its sweet time on one lead, the other is continuing the brutal sweep-picking-cum-tapping-cum-shredding barrage from the last part and underneath that, since apparently this wasn’t enough, is a rhythm line giving some chops to the main motif.

[06:39-06:55] This section is enough to make your head spin. Not only are we treated to more of Malone’s love for alternating rhythm riffs between headphones (and guitars), but now he decides to extend the same courtesy to the vocals. The result is close to having Malone himself surround you, justifying himself and screaming accusations–“I (can) not (for-) GIVE!.. [Both:] but only you know the truth!”–doubling up the vocals where necessary to fill in the texture somewhat.

[06:56-07:26] If the three layers of guitars have so far blended into one mass of technical metal glory, the solos that occupy this section should make it abundantly clear just how much work is going into harmonising and coordinating their efforts. The part during which all other instruments and vocals cease genuinely makes my hairs stand on end. If you still don’t get it by this point then I’m afraid we’re speaking different languages.

[07:43-08:45] This section is fantastic as an illustration of how the vocals and instrumentation complement each other. It begins with a solid, clear riff in which all three guitars play in unison–“Yet I still come, like a moth to a flame in assurance of pain…”–Slowly harmonies creep in and the leads split off to do their own thing, throwing in the odd rogue lick, tearing apart the coherence of the starting rhythm–“And still she comes, a breathing deathwish, with daggers drawn.”–Then the muted riffs burst in, the drums explode–“Denial! (Your death was promised!) of the thoughts that our feelings dissolve!”–Until finally all structure and solidity collapses into a dual shredfest underpinned by a gatling double-bass, a wall of noise and chaos–“Your secrets, they follow, and shadows always show.. the path to the fallen, that’s gone away! Take your skin away!.. Wield the liar’s dagger!”

The result is akin to a death metal pastiche of soliloquies from King Lear and Macbeth. Following King Lear, Malone’s narrator reflects on the betrayal that he has suffered as a result of a misjudgement of character of those close to him, gradually loosening his grip on sanity. The developing storm that reaches its raging peak at the height of Lear’s insanity is replaced by the onslaught of thunderous instrumentation, mirroring the narrator’s descent into madness. Like Macbeth, however, he is haunted by the spectre of daggers, and his madness takes a murderous turn.

[08:46-10:07] The chaos continues in much the same way for the next minute and a half, both musically and lyrically, tearing riffs and lyrics from the past 8 minutes, combining and recombining them in new patterns, colliding them together with ferocious intensity. With the exception of a break for another short solo, things continue this way until the track begins its wind-down to the relative calm with which it began.

[10:07-12:52] Finally, the riffs and motifs from the first two minutes are reintroduced and reworked and taken apart until the song fades out on a melancholy note.

And fin.

(Oh, and my tendency to “deconstruct and analyse pretty much everything I come into contact with” that I mentioned in my last post? I think it just happened.)