Reclaiming extreme metal as a social pursuit

When I was young I made a new friend called a-load-of-obscure-racket. Whilst knitting this into my adolescent identity, I would’ve lapped up videos like this without question:

I really wanted to interpret this as music made for and by the misanthrope. ‘Extreme music for Extreme People’ as the saying goes. There was plenty of source material on the internet that corroborated the idea that extreme metal appealed to a certain kind of person. That person was usually young, white, male, estranged from their immediate social surroundings for one reason or another.

When it comes to diversity, social and political movements are scrutinised so closely because they offer society prescriptions designed to be relevant to all. Not so for cultural movements. They are the id to a social movement’s ego. Extreme metal is attractive to the misanthrope because it explained society as they saw it. Beneath the comfortable layer of modern life is a world of horror, denial, and emptiness, and humanity was running out of time. As a result there was no need to apologise for this monoculture.

But when you really want something to be true, there is no limit to what confirmation bias can achieve. This, of course, was another conflation of nature and nurture. Are people attracted to extreme metal because of some deep psychological urge? Or is it simply a series of accidental discoveries wholly dependent on social circumstances, a desperation for some form of identity unique amongst piers? Probably a bit of both. Take a look at  ‘One Man Metal’, the short youtube documentary from 2012 that follows  the individuals behind Xasthur, Leviathan, and Striborg, a self-indulgent yet intriguing little look at said oddballs in their natural habitat, and judge for yourself.

Looking back, such a reading of culture and identity seems almost quaint. Of course art in general will always be a reflection of the world around it. No art is produced from the point of view of the universe. And of course extreme metal is a reflection on subjects that society would rather ignore. But the question has shifted in recent years from ‘why are some people attracted to extreme metal?’ to ‘why are other people not attracted to extreme metal?’. This question is often asked in the context of metal’s issues with gender diversity. Even more so in the wake of #MeToo and related movements. Rock ‘n’ roll has quite rightly had a long hard look at itself as a result.

Setting that particular hot potato aside for now, let’s address the ‘extreme metal is for the outsider’ chestnut. First an uncontroversial claim. Metal is for life, not just for Christmas. Second, a lot of people like metal, and in recent years it has become a truly global phenomena. BUT: does this mean that more personality types are becoming involved in local scenes, or simply that there are more local scenes? I don’t have the resources to conduct the requisite research to answer this question, but after even the most casual of glances at the metal press it is apparent that diversity is the hot topic of the day.

So let’s take a different approach. Extreme metal – in terms of culture and people as opposed to the music itself – is not all that unique in the alternative music world on a deeper philosophical level. It is not the only scene to experience issues with gender diversity. It is not the only scene that is undergoing a global renaissance. The populations of richer nations are connected online with developing countries, and this has provided the means for all of us to explore and discover music from every corner of the globe. New levels of connectedness have opened for the door for acts to tour globally who may never have had that opportunity even twenty years ago.

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Botswana’s Overthrust

This is a feature of the internet’s impact on the music industry at large, in that regard. extreme metal is not unique. Nor is it alone among music scenes for attracting oddballs. The question is not: why is extreme metal attractive to the misanthrope? But: Why is extreme metal attractive to so many people that are not misanthropes?

Metal is famous for being one of the most mocked subcultures going. The stereotype of the 1980s being overly macho, arrogant, and sweaty pretty much mocked itself. The stereotype of the death metaller as a meathead, interested in nothing but beer, fights, and yelling. The stereotype of the black metaller, a self-proclaimed outsider who has rejected modern society but in reality works in IT and lives in their mother’s basement. Metal of all colours has plodded along regardless of this mockery, but it has developed a pretty serious bunker mentality as a result. Outsiders are treated with suspicion. Intruders at the show? Beware, they may kill the vibe.

This is contrary to my experiences of gigs. But I won’t labour that point, there’s nothing I despise more than anecdotal evidence. So here’s a theory instead. In recent years something odd has been happening, music hobbyists at large have started to take extreme metal seriously. This is probably the one positive thing to come out of the hipster wars of the previous decade. The obscure critical theory and humanities dissertations they have devoted to the subject have slowly bled down into the psyche of music fans at large, and they have begun to take an interest in what all the fuss is about.

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I don’t like Mastadon

Whether this is a good thing probably depends on where you’re standing. But this is an interesting time for metal and for culture at large. Having said that, I cannot help but return to one thought: far from being the thing that re-affirms my isolation, extreme metal is the thing that brings me closer to strangers. Here’s some anecdotal evidence to support this theory. The gigs I have attended solo have been some of best live music experiences I have had. In an area of the crowd where everyone seems to be on their own, yet experiencing the music together, this brings us closer on a level that words never could. By the end of the set we are all on the same wavelength. And then we wordlessly part ways, usually for ever.

Of course, such an account could apply to any gig. But there’s something to be said for extreme metal played live. This would be completely unremarkable if my fellow punters were all large, hairy, white men. But in recent years they’re not. At least not all of them. And the fact that an increasingly diverse set of people come together to experience something so abrasive and so harsh demands pause for thought. What brought me closer to someone so different, even if for only an hour? A load of shouting and bawling. It completely drains away the self-awareness that plagues every other aspect of life in front of others. Through the conduit of otherworldly, abrasive, complex music, the mockery we are so accustomed to is drowned out by the din of the music, and strangers from many walks of life are brought closer together, if only for a moment. So let’s re-evaluate the idea that extreme metal is for the outsider. We are all outsiders in one way or another. Just about all we can hope for in life is to end it closer to our fellows than when we started.

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