On Refinement And Death Metal

Broadly there are 2 kinds of communication. Public and Private. They have different objectives. We make the error of assuming that all publicly available communication is public communication. This is because it always used to be true. But we invented free markets, and banished extraneous inefficiencies barriers between people, goods, and ideas. Then we invented radio waves, and opened up the skies, removing barriers between communication. Now only private correspondence is private communication. All other private communication is publicly available. Books, movies, music, all public now.

I’m a German U-Boat engineer transmitting messages. The messages are publicly available. But it’s private communication. I have many aims:

  1. A select group of people must understand it
  2. Most others should discard it as trash
  3. Some others who don’t discard it, should nevertheless not understand it
  4. I should pack as much information into as little space
  5. The decoded information should have no ambiguity
  6. The information should elicit prompt a bodily response

This is the domain of Straussian thought, after Leo Strauss, and we’ve faithfully reproduced his philosophy down the ages. In the modern age, though, we’ve added aim no.7: The decoding process should be fun. We spend our leisure time doing crossword puzzles, Sudokus, and word games. We enjoy the decoding process, it’s a game, and the payoff for us lies not in the answer but in the journey leading up to it.

I’ve been a metal evangelist since I discovered Iron Maiden, Iced Earth, and Blind Guardian at age 11, a discovery that quickly spiraled up with Burzum, Dissection, and Emperor into the impregnable fortress of extreme metal at age 12, whence I never descended. Music is just information. What Pinker calls auditory cheesecake, most other anthropologists consider to be the most effective way to densely compress information. Rhyming lyrics are easier to remember. Lyrics are easier to recall when singing the melody. The lyrics and melody are both easier to recall when establishing the rhythm. In musical form therefore, we can pack in far more information that would be recalled without music. Good music is therefore reducible to just music that maximizes the aims of communication between transmitter and receiver, needing no other spiritual platonic abstract of vibratory resonance etc because these all get subsumed into the efficiency and effectiveness of the information. Consonant vibrations are easier to absorb, dissonant vibrations are jarring, difficult to absorb but also serve as important reverie-breakers and tension-creators. All in service of information.

It’s been my evangelizing assertion that extreme metal is the closest thing to classical music, closer even than Jazz. It has to do with the aims of information, most closely aligned, and most notably maximized. The paradox in this assertion was that I could access, understand and decode classical music without ever really enjoying it. Some are more enjoyable than others, Wagner, late-Beethoven, and Bach, but I suspect this is because they come closer to my fortress of extreme metal than others. The other polar opposite is the crystalline sublimity of Mozart, which I’ve never been able to enjoy, watching on in fascination as my brain marvels at the purity of Mozart’s perfection even as my body feels absolutely nothing.

When you have ‘refined taste’, it doesn’t mean you like certain specified ‘fine’ things in life like caviar, champagne and incest. It means you can identify what you like as an individual and increasingly seek the more refined forms of those likes. I like the sweetness aspect of sugarcane, I consume sugar. I like the sense of mind-body connection that comes from primal tribal ritual, I refine a structured extract of ballroom dancing. I like the thrill of adrenaline and the catharsis of its retreat, I create tragic drama and go mountain climbing.

Refined isn’t necessarily good at levels of extreme perfection. This is a fact that we’ve only accessed in the past 3 decades of nutrition science. Before the distinctly modern malaise of obesity, food processing was an unqualified boon. We could tin, freeze, preserve, and refine food at will without ever reaching the point of diminishing returns. We’d refine vitamins into supplements where once we’d need to consume an entire cow for a measly bit of B12. We’d refine sugar where it can be a tiny ingredient in any food, where once we’d need to eat an entire man’s length worth of vine just for the sugar and nothing else. Refinement is identification, purification, and isolation. In extracting particular essences, different genres diverge. Classical music extracted and perfected all the 6 aims of the U-Boat radioman. Pop extracted and perfected catchiness, something that was irrelevant before radio waves and the democratization of communication. When all communication is public, you can go after variables like mass appeal, ie the selection of ‘moderately liked by 10000 people’ vs ‘madly loved by 20 people’.

Modern pop music is sugar. A refined commodity. That’s why everyone consumes it. It doesn’t make a difference where it comes from, you can’t tell one from another, and its shelf-life is only as long as it takes for the next LIFO item to relegate it farther back. Worse, it’s a refinement we didn’t choose. We’re a U-Boat engineer waiting for an important message and getting a global broadcast of ‘Hello World! It is I, Steve!’ from some idiot amateur radio nut who’s figured out his FM set. So what is this important message we’re awaiting?

That’s what leads to personal genre preferences. The extraction and isolation of those particular informational needs that we’d like to focus on. Classical music is coded. It rigorously follows aim 4 (maximize information: have you met a fugue that hasn’t said ten things at once), 5 (no ambiguity: refinement strips away all the extraneous noise, leaving only the happiness of an Ionian mode and the sadness of an Aeolian mode), and 1 (strict structural rules such that you need to be an expert listener to fully unpack the music). But it certainly fails on Aim 2 and 7. No one can listen to classical music and think it’s trash. They might fail to understand it and therefore find it underwhelming, but certainly not trash. 7 is also left out because this concept likely didn’t even exist back when information was precious and Straussianism didn’t extend all the way back to the joy of Straussianism itself. You either know the rules of the classical music puzzle or you don’t. It’s a U-Boat engineer given the cipher key vs a game show participant figuring out the cipher key.

This leads me to Extreme Metal. Metal is a strongly countercultural movement, rebelling against what is now infamous metal lingo, ‘posers’. Metalheads can respect the honesty of crudeness, folk music for instance, and even the objective perfection of refinement, classical music. What they can’t respect are ‘posers’, ie refinements that are populist like Steve’s broadcast, and also costless to procure, meaning it costs nothing for you to claim fandom yet comes with the benefits of being in a club. This is what happens when Aims #1 and #2 are both unmet. So while pop lacks both, classical music lacks #2. That’s where metal comes in.

The most fundamental differentiator of metal is the use of heavy distortion and overdrive. That’s a polite word for noise. We take the pure wave of the instrument and clip off the troughs and peaks, we create jagged edges, we remove the smooth waveform and add overtones and sustain, generally manipulating the wave like its putty. Do it a little and it’s overdrive. Do it a lot and it’s distortion. Noise. Do it for the sake of noise and you get the infernal garage violence of early Black Metal, Burzum, Darkthrone, Celtic Frost, Mayhem. These guys typified the countercultural chauvinism of metal, a reaction to preppy posers, maximizing Aim #2. You think this is noise? Shows how much you know loser. Kvlt.

There’s another thing noise does, it induces arousal, adrenaline and stress. This puts metal in a ripe position to refine Aim #6 from its atmospheric natural forms in folk music and specifically the blues. The physicality and transcendental aspect of ritualistic rhythmic music seen across hunter-gatherer tribes was likely seen as barbaric and primitive by colonial-era Europe where classical music was being refined. Aim #6 disappears in the urbane sophistication of ballrooms and king’s courts. Sitting in a circle, holding hands, moving your bodies in unison, and letting your head revolve like a demonic solar system, all had no place in such a pristine setting. The African roots of Carribbean and American slaves made sure Aim #6 was present in the music they began to make popular, R&B, the Blues, and their descendant, Hip-hop. Metal turned the volume on Aim#6 up to 100 where it belonged, headbanging, moshpits, and generally psychotic uncontrolled frenzy, working the body into a ritual state of fervor accessing altered states of consciousness on its way down. Try headbanging for 45mins straight and then lying down to stare at the ceiling. It’s a serious trip. This is early Death Metal and Thrash Metal: Morbid Angel, Death, At The Gates, Slayer.

To this reactionary framework of Aim 2,6 will get added every other aim. More and more information begins to get packed into the music. From the Bass-Drum-Lead austerity of Black Metal to the multi-layered tapestries of early Melodic Death Metal like Dark Tranquility and Children Of Bodom. This is likely the stage where I entered the genre, and the explosion of information in a song was the single biggest reason for my fandom. No other genre used fantasy themes in the lyrics. Blind Guardian’s Nightfall In Middle Earth blew my mind. In places of doubt the leads wouldn’t match the mood of the rhythm or the vocals, the independent musical layers would meander different paths until they finally converged on blazing moments of singular clarity, like unified hatred against Melkor for example, where vocals, lead, bass and drum reinforce each other for the first time in the song. Layers of information. All the best bands were this way, exploring plurality of mood, and equating mood with information, just communication through the language of musical frequencies.

They attacked Aim#5 the same way classical music did, through sections. Classical music called these overtures, acts, arias, interludes etc. Progressive Melodic Death Metal called them blast-beat overtures, riff-driven acts, lead-driven arias, acoustic interludes etc. The song-lengths escalated rapidly. I progressed from the 15+ minute monsters of Opeth to the 45+ minute monster of Edge of Sanity in a single year. Albums were written like Operas. We got Orphaned Land, Persefone, Amorphis, Wintersun, and Moonsorrow. I never got off that treadmill. Finding the balance between the simple Melodic Death Metal of Amon Amarth, In Flames or Arch Enemy; and the difficult inaccessible Progressive Death Metal of Cynic, Messhuggah, Gorod or Obscura that maximized Aim#7, I’ve arrived at the beautiful Goldilocks equilibrium of bands like Be’lakor, Ne Obliviscaris and Insomnium, the refined maximization of my informational needs.

Recently I’ve been tending to the solipsistic, hypnotic, ambiance of Post-Black Metal. Harakiri For The Sky, Heretoir, Sunset In The 12th House, Alcest for instance. It strips away all the density of information and leaves the music doing what we evolved for it to do, send us into a trance-like state of connection with the body. Metal is returning to us to our tribal roots. Everything else is just overdrive. Distortion.

A novel insightful exercise to determine the pragmatic difference in intellectual payoff between a novel insight and an obvious fact mistaken for novel insight.