We’ve all had that conversation. You’ll be sat in the pub chatting with a passing acquaintance. They’re a serious music fan, but have only a cursory knowledge of metal. Being the responsible spokesperson that you are, when they ask what the appeal of metal is, you jump at the chance. At some point however, they will inevitably ask for a working definition of ‘heaviness’, that indeterminate notion that haunts our nightmares. At this point in the conversation, they might mention some non-metal artists ‘who are arguably a lot of heavier than a lot of metal bands’. The implication being that metal claims dogmatic ownership of this word, and no other styles of music should be allowed in. But maybe it’s time metal backed away from this word altogether, leaving others to fight the pointless the fight. For metal, its usefulness has long since expired.
Unpacking this word can lead us down several futile rabbit holes. What is heaviness? Is it the quality we find most appealing in metal? Is the pursuit of heaviness actually a detriment to other – perhaps loftier – aesthetic ends?
Pedestrian attempts to address the ‘what is heaviness?’ question tend to point to the presentation of music. The distortion, the bass levels, the abrasion, or in a live setting a simple measurement of decibels. On these metrics, Merzbow, Sonic Youth, and My Bloody Valentine (at least in the live setting) could be considered heavy.
Weekend thinkers tend to go a bit deeper than this, and look at heaviness in a more philosophical light. Does the music address ‘heavy’ subject matter? Is it burdened with weighty musings on life and death? In this category the definition of heaviness extends beyond the superficial to the compositions themselves. Something in their ontology makes them capable of embodying the heavy. Wagner, Beethoven, Brahms, the music of these individuals could be considered heavy in this light.
If we limit our understanding of heaviness to composition alone however, it could follow that an 8-bit version of Beethoven’s fifth is heavier than Napalm Death. Beyond facetious contrarians, few would wish to buy into that claim. Limiting the scope of inquiry to composition alone also requires a level of academic rigour and detail in order to flesh out the criteria. One must lift terminology from music theory and the philosophy of art in order to make a case for the ‘heaviness’ of a piece of music. The word’s role shifts from descriptive to normative and back again. The ground becomes contested; value and description conflate. Artists are stripped of their heaviness credentials because they failed to meet some convoluted criterion of heaviness. This somehow demotes them artistically in some people’s eyes.
The problem is simple. The word ‘heavy’ is being asked to do too much. It is at once a plaything for attendees at Swans and Sunn0))) concerts who enjoy descanting on the raw physicality of the experience. Yet it is also a linguistic artefact. A remnant of a time when heavy metal was the sole champion of a form of rock music with a sui generis form of heaviness, which resulted in the need for new metallic terminology to set it apart.
As new forms of metal sprouted up, with differing artistic merits and values, all guided by developments in amplification and recording technology, the meaning of heaviness became fluid, at once a feature of sound augmented by said technology, yet also a feature of the actual compositions that were being crafted. Confusion reigns because ‘heavy metal’ has retained its descriptive usage as a genre. Yet for those measuring heaviness in terms of sonic extremity, heavy metal is arguably the least heavy form of metal going. Those making the case for compositional heaviness may beg to differ.
Heaviness has also become an umbrella term to encapsulate an experience. Setting aside composition for a moment, there are many other terms at one’s disposable when describing the raw feel of various forms of metal, terms as varied as the subgenres themselves. Tempo, guitar tone, atmosphere, tuning, vocal style, timbre, texture, dynamics; all bring with them a wealth of descriptive terminology, all arguably far more useful and precise than ‘heavy’.
So what, if anything, is to be done? I’d argue that something indeed must be done if we are to avoid articles like this, which drown in their own self-indulgent hyperbole over music with no value beyond making people vomit. Heaviness moves from a means to an end in the pursuit of artistic experiences, to an end in itself; like a drug, or the rush brought on by extreme sport. The predictable conclusion to these articles is the revelation that maybe heavy metal is not the heaviest form of music going. But again, the working definition is so imprecise as to be almost useless. It becomes conflated with words like abrasive, exhilarating, extreme. The contention being that the metal community must somehow claim ownership of the word heavy, yet we are simultaneously incapable of doing so.
But rather than try and rehabilitate this word with the judicious application of philosophical rigour, why not just ditch it altogether? It’s true that whilst metal artists – from Napalm Death to Iron Maiden – attempt to craft music with a certain weight to it, a commanding and immersive sonic experience, we can do much better than resort to ‘heaviness’ to describe it. Any attempt to craft an objective scale of heaviness inevitably dissolves into dogma and arbitrary metrics. The alternative is to beat a retreat into futile subjectivity. Heaviness becomes a value judgement that exists ‘within the eye of the beholder’. It bridges Hume’s fact-value distinction, and as a result falls out of usefulness entirely.
The term can and should still be used. After all, precision is not required in the casual setting of the pub, any more than a meta-ethical account of the ‘good’ is required in order to discuss what makes a decent beer. But in that middle ground – between casual chats in the pub and the philosophical thesis – lies serious music chat. And for metalheads operating in this arena, we can begin to make the case that we should wash our hands of this term. We must wash our hands of it both as a description, a value judgement, and a term that can be salvaged by applying academic precision. For metal, a genre that prides itself on a level of artistry that goes far deeper than raw aesthetic extremity, there are more precise, elegant, and ultimately more imaginative words in our arsenal. Shed heaviness from the metal lexicon, and let the noise, drone, and avant-garde collectives quibble over this obfuscated feature of tone qualities.