Welcome back to Endless Sacrifice, our ongoing look at the role which the ideal of suffering plays within metal. Our opening article focused on content analysis, taking a look at the ideal of suffering as it comes across from the content which metal is concerned with. Lyrics provided a fertile ground for exploration because they are the standard which music raises in order to convey its meaning (although we saw that a grain of salt is indeed needed when considering them). Today we discuss the instrumental side of things. Approaching this topic was not the easiest thing to do at first; after all, how does one relate strictly musical content to the concept of suffering within metal? Where to even begin, when what one gleans from a certain musical moment is nowhere near objective? What this apparent divide necessitates instead is a re-framing of the question itself.
A possible way forward is represented by metal’s inherent ties with musical technicality and proficiency. Now, it’s no secret that many metal sub-genres — the vast majority, even — concern themselves to some level with the concept of technicality. Metal musicians and fans alike take pride in the kind of technical skill required to be a standout instrumentalist. This is especially apparent in sub-genres such as technical death metal: as the name would imply, the focus is almost overwhelmingly on the technical abilities of the musicians involved.
To zoom out for a moment: we’ve all seen a cringe-worthy internet meme or two that juxtaposes a relatively virtuosic metal guitarist with a picture from rapper Lil’ Wayne’s brief encounter with guitar playing about a half decade ago. In these memes, Lil’ Wayne appears to be fumbling awkwardly with the guitar, looking disproportionately focused on his task, and the caption reads on some variation of “Watch this!”. On the other hand, the metal guitarist generally appears relaxed, sometimes not even playing anything, over a caption simply along the lines of “That’s cute.” Any discussions of why these memes are in poor taste aside, the ‘joke’ at hand is clear: Lil’ Wayne is an overconfident fool for thinking he can turn into some kind of shred wizard overnight, whilst the virtuoso, who has ostensibly spent however much longer honing their craft, is clearly more worthy of respect.
Of course, our tongue in cheek tone towards those memes is not at all to suggest that a musician who has indeed spent years perfecting their approach to a given instrument is not worthy of respect for it. But metal often takes it to a level past the base amount one might otherwise expect. Technical skill is not simply appreciated for what it is; in a good amount of cases, it is required of anyone with a claim to greatness, acting as a barrier for future artists and creators. This is where our question of suffering as a part of identity comes in, albeit in a different form than what was discussed in Eden’s preceding piece on lyrics. The act of learning an instrument — usually (but not always) guitars, bass, or drums in our case — is an inherently physical act. This is especially the case in metal, since song tempos are often well beyond the norm, and stamina-intensive techniques such as tremolo picking and blast beats abound.
For fans, the main source of their enjoyment can be just as much the technical skill required to play a part as much as it is the musical content of the part itself. Even if this is not necessarily the case, it remains that there is a certain thrill associated with hearing ridiculously technical phrases being pulled off with relative ease; and phrases like that are particularly prevalent as far as many subgenres of metal go. This is especially true in the case of artists such as Tosin Abasi from Animals as Leaders as well as Christian Muenzner of Alkaloid (and formerly Obscura/Necrophagist) who have built up a sort of virtuoso reputation for themselves. Muenzner in particular famously worked extra hard in overcoming focal dystonia, a neurological disorder affecting muscle control, in order to do so.
What’s interesting, however, is how exactly the concept of suffering fits in here, even with the question reframed to focus on technicality as opposed to actual musical content. To put it one way: mastery of one’s instrument can be conceptualized as being past the suffering stage. A skilled instrumentalist is not exerting themselves anywhere near as much as a beginner would. However, there is an implicit understanding that any virtuosic player has spent hours upon hours on their instrument, putting blood, sweat, and tears into fine tuning and eventually perfecting their playing. No such player bypasses this stage, however effortless they might make things look. This effectively makes it a rite of passage; a stage all skilled metal musicians must put themselves through.
These standards are then reinforced by the fanbases themselves. Take Rings of Saturn and The HAARP Machine for instance, both technical bands plagued by their supposed inability to perform their own music. The lead guitarists of each band (Lucas Mann and Al Mu’min, respectively) were long accused of using recording tricks in order to achieve the level of technicality they were going for; thus supposedly bypassing the rite of passage inherently required of such players. Although both have taken steps to combat this by uploading playthrough videos and the like, the effects it had on either band’s reputation still do remain, and make clear the consequences of attempting to ‘cheat’. It’s worth mentioning that this supposed studio trickery is not immediately obvious to most listeners — it was only after such rumours spread that both guitarists found themselves under fire.
To a lesser extent, players not necessarily being able to replicate their material live has veered towards similar results. This certainly played a role in the controversy surrounding Al Mu’min, but has also made its way to guitarists such as Lee McKinney of Born of Osiris. A video showing him rather unceremoniously messing up the solo to “Follow the Signs” was met with much derision at the time. In this case, it was less the rite of passage itself being skipped over — McKinney is a completely competent guitarist otherwise — but it goes to show that even an instance of sloppy playing in technical genres can take a toll within this context.
The disastrous results of being unable to play your own material stem from many different reasons. However, one of them is certainly the perceived “laziness” of whoever is at fault. That laziness often acquires a hint of entitlement, as fans believe the musicians to feel superior to them or other musicians who have to put in the work required to become proficient at their trade. In other words, the “cheating” musician skips an integral part of becoming a musician, cheaply dodging the most difficult part of proficiency: suffering during training. Instead of actively, intensively and consistently “feeling the burn” the comes with learning new material, increasing your technical skills or improving yourself as a musician overall, the artist who cuts corner applies tricks and falsities to make replicate the same authenticity which is supposed to stem from suffering.
Thus, physical suffering becomes a gatekeeper for fans. Technical proficiency is a sign that a certain musician is “the real thing”. Being able to play standard chords or even mildly difficult solos/leads is something everyone can do with relatively little time and training. Pushing yourself beyond those levels however, a process which, as we said above, requires the transcendence of physical pain and challenges, sets a musician above the crowd. Co-opting that process is heinous; it attacks the very fabric of how fans can distinguish between great and average musicians. It’s interesting to note then this new role of suffering within metal (although it can be found in other genres to a lesser extent): even though it’s buried deep into the process which makes a musician, it is an essential and integral part of how we judge artists’ quality, seriousness and uniqueness. During the next segment of this ongoing research, we’ll be looking at how suffering extends well past the realms of technical proficiency and becomes a litmus test for the moral integrity of metal bands in our own, (post) modern days.