We’ve been covering avant-garde metal this week, but there’s one important question that we haven’t answered so far. Why would anyone want to listen to this stuff? Avant-garde metal is, by definition, supposed to be hard to appreciate. What’s the merit in that? Well, there are a few easy answers, and one more complicated answer. Let me try to explain, at least from my perspective, why you should listen to this stuff.
I can’t not plug Sigh, as they are my favorite avant-garde metal band.
Well, the first answer is fairly obvious. Most of the time, we are bombarded with the same kind of music over and over. Even ignoring pop music that plays everywhere, most metalheads are exposed to similar types of metal a majority of the time. Yes, different bands have different sounds and many of them bring a different thing to the table, but in the end, every genre is defined by some limitations. Metalcore? Breakdowns, catchy songs, traditional structure. Death metal? Growling, blast beats, fast playing. Progressive metal is a broader label, but there are still many conventions obeyed by most bands. Avant-garde music, being outside the box by definition, isn’t bound by this. You want random ethnic instruments? Sure, there are bands that do that. Complete disregard for melodic and temporal structure? Sign your name here. Distancing oneself from conventions of genres? Check. The simple answer is boredom. We constantly seek stimulation and new things to alleviate our boredom, and avant-garde metal provides an endless source for this. Every band is unique. And the genre even breaks its own convention. Do you want a song that is mostly inside the box? Sure, there are avant-garde metal bands that do that too. The sky is the limit, and thus the potential for standardization and thus tedium is eliminated.
Sigh, one of the household names of avant-garde metal, are known for blending traditional metal with unconventional elements.
The second answer is that some people actively seek the most extreme, out-there thing to listen to, because they are never satisfied. Avant-garde metal is great for this. Not only can it take the most extreme elements of regular metal, it can then add even more unsettling and weird sounds to it to make it even more oblique. As it will be covered in the second half of this week, many bands in the genre are interested in pushing boundaries as far as they can. This mentality is best addressed by avant-garde extreme metal. Not only that, some people want a lot of diversity in their music, and bands like Estradasphere are perfect for that (more on Estradesphere later). And once you go outside the box, you will never be fully satisfied by “regular stuff” again. Considering many people go into metal to escape from the ever-similar mainstream music, it is no surprise that some end up here.
The more complicated answer takes a bit of explaining. My main interest in my job is neuroscience, so this is especially relevant to me. Let me preface by saying I won’t be doing a great job of explaining this comprehensively, and anyone interested should go read This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin. Also, be aware that there is some speculation involved here. Anyway, let’s get to it. The essence of the story is that your brain is conditioned to enjoy the music you grow up listening to. Now, you’re going to say “Hey, I didn’t grow up listening to metal!” but that’s not the point. Unless you venture into more extreme genres, most metal is based on typical scales and song patterns exhibited in all kinds of contemporary music. When you’re listening to music, the brain subconsciously anticipates the next notes you are going to hear. If it anticipates correctly, it rewards itself with positive emotions. This is why music that we know of and enjoy causes us happiness (in a very simplified and brief nutshell). But many things our brain does are also regulated by a saturation system. These are systems that cause light adaptation when you frequently from dark to bright illumination, for example. Your eyes adapt to the dark and to the brightness by over/undersaturating the response you get from light. Why is this relevant? Because there might be a similar saturation system for musical enjoyment too. You know how sometimes you really like a song, but are also really sick of it? It’s probably because the “hey, I predicted what this song is going to sound like correctly! Yay for me!” response gets saturated, and thus you feel less excited about the music. But if you suddenly cut off the positive response, the saturation will quickly go away, and when you feed it the predictable music again, the brain will go back to feeling positive again, until after a while it gets saturated again.
Now, what if we could have a music where the brain can never saturate because it is constantly bombarded with things it can’t predict? Yet the elements contained within the music are things you are vaguely familiar with, so you also keep getting a modicum of positive response? This sounds like a win-win situation, constantly feel positive yet never saturate! Well, it also sounds like avant-garde metal. There are metal elements that you are familiar with, so you can appreciate it, yet it’s constantly interesting so your brain never gets bored. It’s literally mind-blowing! Obviously, this is my pet theory and is completely unproven, but it is an interesting idea to think of regardless of the science behind it being correct or not. Avant-garde metal tickles our brain just enough to keep it hooked, but it’s also constantly interesting so we stay hooked. We’re always curious.
Also, if you looked at that “levels of social ostracization depending on what you listen to” chart, and are a normal human being, “Level ∞” music is probably very alien to you. Well, if you’re curious, you can youtube the names of the genres to find out, but let me leave you with some “wall noise”, because it is oddly very disturbing and soothing at the same time. It’s even more immersive if you open 2-3 tabs of the same song (don’t synchronize them) and let it all run together. Enjoy having your mind brain turned into mush. Also, tell me, why do YOU listen to avant-garde?