The Will to Power – Coming to Terms With the Allure and Problematic Themes of Heavy Metal

Metal is inherently problematic. That’s a fact that anybody listening to metal should accept and come to terms with. It doesn’t mean that metal shouldn’t listened to, written about or loved; most things on the scale of globe-spanning musical genres are problematic. Metal’s inherent complex nature stems from the very reasons why metal is appealing and that’s what makes it so intrinsic to the style. Since metal appeals to places within us which society would rather not deal with, like war, violence, personal power, the mystical aspects of nature, and darker themes, those who work within the genre are prone to excess. In the process of writing about these themes and of immersing oneself within them, many artists lose the distinction between that which is to be faced and understood and that which should be aspired to or desired.

Heavy and power metal are a fine example of this. These two genres, the latter spawned from the former and thus sharing a common language with it, have always been fascinated with the epic, the sublime and the role of the individual in relation to these ideas. From the burning power of individuality, through the horrors of war, and all the way to the way in which society silences originality in favor of stability, these two genres have been a Nietzschean smorgasbord of a panoply of ideas (try to say that three times in a row). But in many cases, much like those who read Nietzsche in the years after his death, many bands and writers have lost track of the wizened, complex, and subtle ways in which Nietzschean philosophy approaches these ideas. They’ve fallen in love in earnest with the ideas of glory as a personal crucible, with the idea of the will to power as the only worthy moral compass and other ideas which were never meant to be applied so directly to our lives.

How is a listener of these genres supposed to cope with their excesses and come to terms with the inherently problematic nature of the music they love? Do we have an obligation to think beyond the ideas as they are presented to us by the music and infer their real world meanings or is satisfaction with a detached fantasy justified and sufficient? Finally, what should we do once we encounter a band that we once loved and now appear to us to be problematic? Should we stop listening or attempt to reclaim the parts of their music which we love, ignoring the rest? These questions and more are at the heart of this article. We might not give answers to all of them, focusing instead on analyzing and presented these problematic ideas, but we hope to at least give a perspective on these issues as listeners and fans of the genre ourselves.

Can I Play With Madness – Heavy Metal’s Fascination With War

The results from heavy and power metal’s attraction to the ideas presented above vary in intensity and problematics. Some of them are innocuous enough, tempered with a penchant for the fantastical which removes them from our lives or simply not taken to their extremes enough to cause concern. After all, a song about dragons and heroes, no matter how problematic and contrived the narrative might seem, contains little which is applicable to our modern lives. Some of them cross the lines pretty blatantly, blaring misogyny born from a misplaced outlook on the Middle Ages or senseless glorifications of war (not that this stops them from garnering fame, like Manowar, for example, who have a tracked literally titled “Pleasure Be My Slave”). For the conscious fan of the genre, these latter ones don’t serve much of a challenge; you just do your best to avoid them.

The problem is that most heavy and power metal bands fall in the middle of those two cases, walking the line between critique, interest and worship. The biggest bands in the genres are often the best examples. Iron Maiden is a good one; sure, we know that their fascination with war comes from their historical interest and many of their tracks are critical of the toll of war. But they also glorify war to a large extent, often simplifying complex conflicts into good versus evil or “simple” cases of heroism. Someone devoid of the immense historical knowledge and the nuance which comes with it which Bruce Dickinson and Steve Harris seem to possess, an absence which is quite likely in most people, might take these ideas at face value. In fact, many of them seem to and Iron Maiden appear to lean into this trend with their merch. “The Trooper” remains one of their all time most successful tracks and Eddie clothed in the uniform of the Redcoats (an army colonized huge swaths of the world and often violently) is one of the most popular iterations of the mascot.

 

And Iron Maiden are the least of our worries. The amount of worship of war which goes on in the heavy and power metal genres is astounding. Sabaton, of course, spring to mind (especially striking true to my heart since they routinely glorify the IDF) but also a host of smaller bands. Recently, we reviewed an album by White Wizzard, an album which contained “Voyage of the Wolf Raiders”. This track equates the U.S Marines with viking raiders and shamelessly paints American conflicts around the world as pure manifestations of freedom and liberty. Going beyond the revisionism which we will discuss in the next part of this article, White Wizzard use their music and lyrics to edit and conceptualize ongoing conflicts, conflagrations which have cost the lives of millions and whose motives were dubious at best.

The worst part is, their music is really, really good. With the exemption of Manowar, who are finally retiring, all bands named above move between some of my favorite music in the world (Iron Maiden), really great music (White Wizzard) and good music (Sabaton). So what am I, as a listener, to do? To start with, the lyrics themselves bother me on a physical level; listening to someone sing about the pleasures and glory of war detracts from my listening experience itself, more “abstract” thoughts aside. Secondly, I don’t like contributing consciously to culture which further spreads the message that war, armies, violence and the like are anything more than sadly necessary at times, at best, or terrible things, at worst. It leaves me feeling dirty. And, lastly, it further contributes to the creation of a mono-culture, in which heavy and power metal only have one perspective to offer on the issue. So, what am I to do? What are we as listeners to think of this obsession with war? I honestly don’t know but the solution starts from talking about it, something which both genres are seemingly unwilling to do.

By the Victors, For the Victors – Historical Revisionism in Heavy Metal Lyrics

The second issue with the themes of heavy and power metal starts as an extension of the previous one. Beyond the actual glorification of war, heavy metal especially looks back at history and rewrites it to fit its historical narratives. Power metal does this less, as it is more occupied with other worlds and fantasy (something that’s problematic in and of itself and which we will approach at the end of this post). Heavy metal, however, has an unhealthy obsession with re-writing history, whether contemporary or otherwise. Newsflash: World War II was not about bravery. No war is. World War II (and the less often mentioned in America first World War) was about the terrible engines of total war, the breakdown of European and global nation-states, the redrawing of economical lines and horrible, horrible weaponry and death. You wouldn’t know this by listening to heavy metal however; aside from a few good examples from Iron Maiden, the world wars are displayed as acts of bravery, fortitude and glorious redemption, whether by the states instigating the fighting or the soldiers actually killing each other.

 

Why is that a bad thing though, you might ask? Historical revisionism seems like a weird thing to be worried about within culture. If we were talking about schools then sure; it’s important that a version of history that’s more nuanced and complicated be taught but with music, we should just let people have their tales of bravery. The problem is that that argument ignores the importance which culture has, the way in which it influences further conflicts and facilitates or prevents the government when it comes to fight new wards. Case in point, the war on terror. In the months after 9/11, the American public was already ripe for the conceptualization of the global war on terror, fed to it by the Bush administration. The groundwork to that unnecessary and criminal war was already laid years before the actual conflict, by the host of films, books and, yes, music worshiping “The Greatest Generation” and America’s role in the world wars. If you’re looking for more in depth information about this, you might do well to read this article posted on The Nib.

Metal, as an extremely popular genre nowadays, plays a crushingly damning role in the revisionism which still allows citizens of western countries to view their countries as shining heroes in the exploits of the world wars. But it goes one further than that; it also digs deeper into the roots of Western culture and rewrites the stories around the semi-mythical figures which are the supposed fore-bearers of the West. While these figures and retelling their stories might seem innocuous in and of itself (beyond the inherent damages of telling “simple” historical stories), these stories are also the fuel for many conservative, supremacist and racist movements in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

Take the Templars for example. While they were strikingly historical figures, on whose demise we have countless documents, accounts and bookkeeping, the legend of their downfall (first brought to the public eye in the 18th century, mostly by esoteric fraternities and Mason wannabes) refuses to die. It is often used to fuel theories of how Catholicism, Judaism, decadence, monarchy, weak liberals, you name it, conspired against a mighty brotherhood of warriors, spreading the West’s true faith into Muslim territories. The contexts of French hegemony, the struggles between the lords and the king, the role of the church during the time, the complex interplay between Templars and local, “eastern” culture and more are all ignored in favor of the “elite crusader spreading glorious ideals” narrative. This in turn fuels neo and pseudo fascistic movements to take up the Templar mantle in their struggles.

What does heavy metal have to do with this? Well, looking at some lyrics is simply the best way to answer that question, so I’d like to finish off this segment of the article with Hammerfall’s “Templars of Steel”. If you think this is one example, I invite you to simply use Google and search for “heavy metal, Templars” or any combination thereof. If you’d like to go further, search for knights or kings for example and see what you find. The fact of the matter is, heavy metal loves to retell these stories and loves to retell them in ways which just happen to coincide with the ideals of other, extremely problematic movements which enjoy the same narrative. When you listen to this music, you should ask yourself: who else is listening to this? What message can they hear in these lyrics which goes over my head? What am I supporting here? When a metal band tells listeners that “they are the revolution” and that revolution is equated with forcibly taking your rights back, to whom are they singing? Without further ado, here’s Hammerfall:

The hands of time have brought you here
to make a change, to break down the walls
You are the ones and you are the only
trying to live by your own goals

And you all cry for freedom
Raise your fists to the sky

Let your voice speak for the revolution
All join forces with all the powers that you feel
Let your heart beat for the revolution
Led by the Templars of Steel

Let’s spread the word of the sole survivors
with metal pounding inside their souls
The fire burns, and it will forever
blaze for the ones who stands strong

And you all cry for freedom
with your fists in the sky

Let your voice speak for the revolution
All join forces with all the powers that you feel
Let your heart beat for the revolution
Led by the Templars of Steel
You are the Templars of Steel

Oh, oh, oh …

Let your voice speak for the revolution
All join forces with all the powers that you feel
Let your heart beat for the revolution
Led by the Templars of Steel

Let your voice speak for the revolution
All join forces with all the powers that you feel
Let your heart beat for the revolution
Led by the Templars of Steel
You are the Templars of Steel

 

Imaginations From the Other Side – The Dangers in Power Metal’s Flights of Fancy

Honestly, this is going to be the weakest part of this article and, hopefully, also the shortest. This is due to two facts. One, this is the most abstract and hard to nail down manifestation of the problematic nature of heavy and power metal. It has to do with psychology, how it evolves into action and the kind of psychological world view that we can inherit from the culture which we consume. Secondly, because this topic is so abstract and complex, it requires its own post, one which has been building in my mind for years now. Why even write about it then? Why not move on to some outro segment, collect my thoughts above in a summary and end it there? There’s a simple reason for that: those that want to continuously ignore the problematic nature of power metal often retreat to these kind of themes as a last hill to die on. When faced with the points I raised above, they’ll concede the issues of war and revisionism but cite the fact that a lot of power metal (and heavy metal, to an extent) doesn’t even concern itself with the world we live in. Instead, it takes place in far away lands, imaginary ones, more akin to those of the fantasy literary genres.

And they’re correct, on both counts. Power metal does indeed mostly concern itself with fantasy and that’s really a less problematic thing than glorification of war and revisionism; singing about some land that obviously doesn’t exist is a way to provide hope and strength to people is much better than repainting the very real world in which they live in. However, without doing injustice to the full article I want to one day write, let me posit three concerns with this approach. The first is in the kind of fantasy from which power metal draws. These stories, sometimes literally based in books, like Blind Guardian‘s famous Nightfall in Middle Earth (based on Tolkien’s Silmarillion) and sometimes based on the band’s own made up versions of those books, are almost always centered around a Western, white conception of fantastical worlds. It’s no secret that the literary genre of fantasy in and of itself suffers from issues with the glorification of war and revisionism.

Tolkien, and by extension Blind Guardian (one of my all time favorite bands), is a fantastic example of this. His stories and world are almost entirely based on British and Norse culture and has some incredibly problematic parts. So many words have been written about these things: his very Britain-post-WWII fascination with “benign fascism”, his sexism, his glorification of warriors and more. Blind Guardian inherit all of these issues on their albums, wittingly or unwittingly partaking in the very specific portrayal of European culture which Tolkien undertook. This also ties in with my second concern: the fantasy upon which power metal relies often contains the very same themes that we mentioned at the start of this post. Fantasy is a genre which often glorifies war and, because it often (but not always) takes place in the past, it also contains its fair share of historical revisionism. Whether explicitly, by basing its stories on actual characters and changing their stories, or implicitly, by telling stories of fair knights and wise wizards, the fantasy genres does much of the cultural work to wash and clean the bloody and absurd past of European culture.

 

Power metal, in relying on the genre for its subject matter, inherits these ideas and often even displays in more insidious and difficult to pinpoint ways. It also, and here we come upon my third point, injects them with a fair share of personal dimensions, turning the question away from the conflict in war for example and presented it as a question of the personal conflicts we face in our lives. Thus, many people might, through power metal, turn the abstract and far fetched ideas of fantasy into ways in which life should actually be lived in the real world. In danger of sounding like a broken record, I’ll cite Manowar as an example, whose fandom has turned into a mini-cult, living out ideals of personal power and fortitude only hinted at in the lyrics of the band and in the larger subject matter from which it sprang.

And this, finally, brings to the issue first mentioned in the title of the post and only now explicitly-stated: all of this is incredibly enticing. There’s a reason heavy and power metal are so popular; there’s a reason I listen to them myself. All of these ideas, and perhaps the last one most of all, are alluring. Who would not want to have the power in their lives to face challenges head on and defeat them as the knight defeats the dragon? Who does not often fantasize about a world where right is right and wrong is wrong, where good and evil are easily distinguishable and it is clear which side you’re on? All of these wishes and desires exist in many of us and that’s exactly why power and heavy metal are so alluring and so dangerous. Since they appeal to these sides in us and give them manifestation, they run the risk of leading us down a road on which we conceptualize these ideas as actual ways in which to live our lives.

Which is, of course and in summary, no reason to stop listening to these genres. Considering the fact that a review of mine on a progressive metal album is about to go live on the blog in a few hours, that’d be pretty hypocritical of us. Instead, what we are suggesting is that these genres, because they appeal to parts of our personality that we all possess, be consumed with increasing scrutiny and critical thought. It’s important to break apart the things we love and figure out why we love them and where problems arise with that love, where it can lead us to lead our lives in ways which are dangerous to ourselves and to others.

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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.






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