Endless Sacrifice – Suffering, Metal, and Identity Politics, Part 1

Naturally, human psychology and sociology is an infinitely complex thing. Our inability to accurately describe both internal and external processes is not only a question of applied time and effort but also of the inherent unintelligible nature of our most basic motivations. However, leaving such epistemological concerns aside, we can broadly say that a lot of the reasons for what we do are affected by two major perspectives: how we see ourselves and how we’d like others to see us. These two internal images motivate us into constant dialogue not only with ourselves but with the individuals surrounding us, the groups we belong to (and those we don’t), people we love, hate or are indifferent to, our clothes, our food and so much more.

The language of such dialogue includes spoken words but is also made up of countless codes, physical or otherwise. These systems of meaning have two main purposes, purposes which coincide with the two images we started off with. On one hand, their aim is to give us a way to explain to ourselves what we are. Thus, belonging to a certain group, like metal-heads, citizens, or parties, confers numerous habits and traits, painting a very specific type of person which we can relate to and understand. These “baskets” of characteristics solve many of our dilemmas, telling us what to feel, what to wear and what to think. They are obeyed to varying degrees of course; we can choose to embrace some of these characteristics and to lead ourselves in their light or to reject them and choose different paths.

But such resistance is, of course, also codified. That is why (modern) society has (mostly) put such effort into describing, controlling and containing the deviant or the genius, those who break away from the characteristics of their groups. For the rest of us, even our deviance or originality are codified into new groups, giving meaning to whatever new form we might choose to take. Thus, those rebelling in the 60’s against the emerging, corporate America, were quickly given the name “hippies” and had a host of characteristics thrust upon them that weren’t necessarily essential to their movement thrust upon them (looking a certain way, dealing in certain drugs, listening to specific music etc.)

Thus, on the other hand, the languages of identity give us a way to talk to each other, to parse and (in a limited, imperfect way) control what others think of us. Life becomes an intricate dance of association with identity groups, their goals, dress code, acceptable opinions and their standards of deviation. These ideas, turns of phrase, styles of dress and more are all tools in “signaling” to others who we are. We use them to broadcast not only who we are but who we would like to be perceived as by the people surrounding us. Thus, the question of who we are “really” and the question of how others perceives us becomes irrelevant. The interesting question is how we try to manipulate how others perceive us and how we tell ourselves who we think we are.

Metal is, of course, no different. Even though parts of the metal community might like to imagine otherwise, metal is just another identity group, albeit a wide and varied one (contrary to what other groups might think of it). It has its own dress code(s), its own language, and its own system(s) of ideals. We’re here today to talk about a specific part of that system of ideals and the way in which it manifested through recent events in our community. This ideal is none other than the ideal of suffering, a turn of phrase which might sound weird at first. However, suffering has long been a method through which membership in a community has been signaled. From the very genesis of Christianity, through various moral systems and philosophies (Emanuel Kant comes to mind), and various manifestations in popular culture (such as wrestling for example), suffering and pain are often ultimate signs of belonging. Suffering can highly ritualized and contextualized, made to mean different things and communicate different ways of belonging.

So too in metal. From its very conception, suffering has been an intricate part of the ways in which metal understands itself. This has a lot to do with the nature of the reaction to metal in mainstream culture. As you might have noticed, suffering as an ideal tends to characterize liminal groups, as persecution figures heavily into both their original experiences and their founding narratives. Thus, suffering began as a way to cope with the way metal thought other groups perceived it, embracing much of the negative qualities these groups tried to attribute to them and making them their own.

Through the rest of the article, we’d like to explore how that internalization took place. We’ll start by looking at one of the most blatant and “crude” sites in which identity is communicated, which is lyrics, by looking at the way in which suffering appears as trans-formative and important in metal’s lyricism. Then, we’ll examine the role suffering plays in live acts, as stamina and physical suffering become tied to technical prowess and expertise in diverse and non-obvious ways. Finally, we’ll address recent events within the community, namely the whole debacle surrounding Allegaeon and their Patreon effort, to show how suffering is still a major part of metal’s identity politics. Let’s get started!

The Art of Letting Go – Suffering and Transformation in Metal’s Lyricism

“Blatant” or overt efforts to communicate meaning deserve a great deal of suspicion from those who try to analyze them. More often than not, their promise of face value is only meant to obscure deeper meanings or obstruct those who would try to glean more from what lies behind them. Thus, were you to assign an attribute which is not immediately obvious from observing a work of art, the artist might simply raise their metaphorical hands and say “I’m speaking plainly here and I definitely didn’t say that”. In addition, bombastic and surface-level controversial gestures can be employed to draw attention from more subtle (and painful) conclusions which the artist might like to avoid. This is the case with lyrics to some extent; since they often employ metaphor and other literary devices, lyricists compromise some of their “directness” by definition, inviting interpretation by the listeners.

However, metal is notorious for sticking to its literal guns, insisting that a lot of its words be taken as they appear. Therefore, starting our search for the role suffering plays in metal’s identity with lyrics is both a smart move and a challenging one. It’s smart because it allows us to “attack” one of the most closely guarded and zealously preserved hallmark’s of metal’s claim to identity, namely its lyrics. They’re often in the middle of any controversy which might involve metal, from Satanism, to racism and misogyny. Those who cling furiously to the imagined, traditional make up of metal’s identity shun those who would deviate from the agreed upon themes or language (“naive love? that’s for posers”) on one hand while viciously defending their own perspective from any criticism that would dare to look beneath the surface (“racism? this is simply who we are!”) on the other.

Which is why analyzing metal lyrics first is also a challenging proposition. It requires of us that we look past surface level analysis and try and glean something more. As such, it also requires of us a measure of care, as painting with too broad a brush is a very real danger. Therefore, we won’t dare to claim any general points about metal and suffering or, indeed about metal in general. Instead, we’ll try and simply see some of the ways metal’s lyrics understand and interact with the ideal of suffering.

Here, mostly, we’ll choose to focus on the idea of suffering as a trans-formative power, a thing which can change you when you come into a certain type of contact with it. This idea runs through several styles, periods and artists in metal. At its center is the belief that suffering is often thrust upon you, without you having any choice in the matter. It’s there, a force of nature. However, by embracing that fact and “delving through the core” of suffering, you can emerge to the other side and be transformed into something better and stronger. Overcoming suffering then is the central idea which courses through these relationships with suffering. We’d also argue that this idea is central to metal’s identity politics as a whole but we’ll get to that in the second part of this essay.

For now, let us turn to our first example of trans-formative suffering with Ozzy Osbourne‘s “Diary of a Madman”. Released in 1981 as part of the eponymous second solo album by Osbourne, it’s one of his most somber and powerful tracks on it. It obviously tells the tale of someone trying to come to terms with losing their mind, questioning themselves and their perceptions even as their madness gets progressively worse. However, notice the choice of language in the first stanza, for it holds the first characteristic of trans-formative suffering: it’s a force of nature, something thrust upon the sufferer. There are many ways to think about mental illness but Osbourne, whether consciously or not, chooses to look at it as penance, some sort of “price” the sufferer must pay:

“Screaming at the window
Watch me die another day
Hopeless situation
Endless price I have to pay

Sanity now it’s beyond me
There’s no choice

Diary of a madman
Walk the line again today
Entries of confusion
Dear diary, I’m here to stay”

On the last line and, indeed, throughout the rest of the track, the sufferer struggles to maintain their identity. On one hand, they resolutely attempt to strengthen their own individuality. On the other, they constantly feel attacked by “other” entities, entities which attack their very perception of reality. Suffering then (in this case, suffering from a mental illness) isn’t a trait one “has” or doesn’t “have”. Once you come under its auspices, it changes you; suffering is depicted as a process which you perform, a set of steps you undergo which can leave the very nature of who you are changed. Notice the active voice, a course of action, which the protagonist constantly searches for throughout the track (“Can I ask a question / To help me save me from myself?”). Paradoxically then, suffering is something that is thrust upon you but also something which you can fight, resist, give into and, in general, take part in.

This tension is part of metal’s perspective of suffering as something that must be overcome. The existence of suffering is something which is out of our control; our role is not to defeat it by removing it but to constantly overcome it, to live in spite of it. Thus, the process is not one in which you stoically suffer (remember that the stoics believed that your mindset can effectively remove suffering altogether) or in which your struggle with suffering will one day remove it. You must constantly strive, push and keep going in spite of suffering’s endless presence. Believing that suffering can be defeated, hoping for a state where there is no suffering, is cowardly and pointless. Suffering is here to stay and it will change who you are, whether you’d like it to or not, no matter how much you fight. These more complex ideas find perfect representations in another classic track, Opeth‘s “Benighted”. Released in 1991 as part of their seminal Still Life album, it is one of the earliest manifestations of their acoustic and depressing side.

Its lyrics also exhibit the kind of relationship with suffering we described above. While, elsewhere in popular culture, going into the night (which is the track’s main theme) might be understood as going to rest in death, a respite born from giving up, the opposite is true of the promise in “Benighted”. The night is where we face our fears and more than that: it is where we acknowledge the suffering that has been thrust upon us. Thus, the dichotomy “Benighted” paints is clear. In day, easily interpreted as the mainstream, those who aren’t like us, all is false, filled with lies about comfort and happiness. In this life, only hinted at by opposition to the track’s promise about the night, live soft people who don’t constantly face their suffering and feel its weight (“Come into this night / Here we’ll be gone / So far away / From our weak and crumbling lives”). In the night however, in the night is where lie the strong, those who embrace and come to face their suffering:

“Come into this night
Your plight alone
Carry your weight
You are flawed as all of us
Come into this night
Your only home
It’s never too late
To repent, suffer the loss”

Thus, we see the inevitability of suffering and our mentality towards it tied perfectly together. The call is to embrace the fact that suffering exists, to give up the notion of release and to constantly work to overcome suffering. These ideas of the struggle with suffering and its inevitability also resound through more modern works in metal. Admittedly, the relationship with suffering has changed over the years and, mostly in the 00’s, received a more personal, everyday dimension. Suffering has become less of an ephemeral, universal constant and more reliant on everyday hardships and tribulations (perhaps a result of the overall bleakness of outlook formed in the specific nihilism that plagued culture in the early-mid 00’s). However, this changing image of suffering doesn’t interfere with our overreaching narrative and, indeed, supports it. Suffering is still a given in life, it simply wears a more direct and day to day face.

If anything, that makes the struggle against it all the more ever-present. It surrounds us in all aspects of our life and stems from our failed relationships, living conditions and bad habits. Take a look at “Suffering: The Art of Letting Go” by Ion Dissonance, a track released just this year as part of their Cast the First Stone album. Its name should already hint at how useful it is for our narrative but its lyrics are just as potent. Its first few lines display that more personal, down to earth suffering but also the lie which is the hope of resolving it. Joy is just a lie, just like in Opeth’s “Benighted”, and only a road to more suffering:

“This heavy anguish within my being intensifies with each passing day.
And lack of sleep deprives my essence to a point where I don’t give a fuck about my presence.
Lately I’ve been feeling like there’s no escape.
Another futile attempt at effervescent joy has now rendered me bitter and apathetic.
Locked up like a caged animal.
I’m now a shadow of the man I was, but is it really too late?”

Notice how the tension is constantly maintained. All hope is lost, everything is terrible “but is it really too late?”. There is always that last fraction of possibility, the last course of action which is fighting against suffering, being in constant struggle with it. As the track continues, suffering is once again viewed as an active process, something which the sufferer enacts and takes part of. Again, escape is an illusion. The tension is once again maintained: this suffering was thrust upon me but I must rise to meet it, I must overcome it, not banish it. In Ion Dissonance’s case the trans-formative power of this overcoming is even clearer. It possesses the speaker’s entire life, completely changing how they view the world, how they view themselves and the people around them. There is a shred of positivity to this transformation; sure, suffering might not be a choice but there is that which must be done. I might not be able to cure myself of suffering but I can face it in “the right way”, I can turn to face it and not shirk my duty:

“To do this in my own way, but mark my words.
I’m not doing this cause I want to, I’m doing this because it needs to be done.
The line crossed, the toll paid.”

This right here is the essence of the ideal of suffering in metal. No one wants to suffer but everyone suffers, even those who would like to believe otherwise. Facing that suffering is not only the only thing you can do but it’s also what you must do. It is assigned a morality: shirking away from suffering, pretending it’s not there or attempting to fix it, is cowardice. Bearing the load, pushing harder, always being in a relationship with your suffering and overcoming it is courage, morality and strength. As metal progressed, and the music industry’s ability to support more and more luxury in artists’ lives became smaller, these ideas gathered real, everyday manifestations. In the next two parts of this essay, we’ll look at two of these manifestations. The first will be the way in which suffering, whether physical or otherwise, became a part of live performance and technical proficiency but also the ways in which the culture surrounding expertise nullifies a lot of that ideal. Suffering becomes a road towards greater excellence and its resolution, unlike in lyrics, is what you strive for. Suffering is still trans-formative but the transformation should rid us of it as well. 

See you then!

Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.