The word “aesthetics” is perhaps one of the most maligned and misused term in the modern age. To wide circles of the population, it has come to mean one of two things. It is either the Internet-popularized term (often presented as “a e s t h e t i c s”), channeling the post-ironic range of performance and sensations associated with the milieu of retro-futuristic, vaporwave pages. It can also be used as an example of the hated pomposity of academic philosophy, the ivory tower, postmodern pontification that dominates the public image of the philosophical field. But aesthetics wasn’t always associated with these two ideas; it used to be one of the most prolific and well regarded fields in philosophy and culture. At its core, aesthetics is more than the way things look but the inquiry into how a medium communicates and presents itself.
The word “unintelligible” has altogether different ramifications. It is used in a wide variety of contexts to denote that which cannot be understood. Sometimes, that thing is too garbled or without sense to be understood and thus, becomes unintelligible because of some sort of lack or flaw. However, more interesting to our case is the usage of the word in regards to things which cannot be understood, not because of a flaw inherent in them, but because of some quality which is beyond rational thoughts or words. These things, like beauty or cosmic horror, are unintelligible because of a lack in our intelligence, a limitation of our mind. Often, this is a good thing; the unintelligible beauty of nature is something to be lauded, an innate connection that often transcends words and attempts at rationalization.
This definition of unintelligible, the latter, is often used to describe certain aspects of music. This is where aesthetics and unintelligible become married in our discussion; if aesthetics is the way in which a medium communicates with its consumers, then unintelligible aesthetics is the ways in which such a medium communicates with its consumers in ways which supersede, counteract or simply ignore rational consumption. These are the channels through which art talks to us without words, using sensations, reactions and tropes. It can be argued that all modes of art have some level of unintelligible aesthetic. That’s not the case I’ll be making here, since it is grounds for a much wider research and, indeed, philosophy in the last century or so has been obsessed with just such a discussion.
Instead, I want to talk about metal and the ways in which it wields unintelligible aesthetics to communicate its messages. Metal, I believe, is an interesting point of discussion in the wider question of aesthetics because it relies on unintelligibility more than other musical genres. With its emphasis on the grotesque, guttural and primal, certain sub-genres of metal, which nowadays make up a hefty chunk of the overall community, rely on unintelligible aesthetics as one of the pillars of their sound. The plan is this: first, we’ll take a look at these sub-genres and describe their relationship and usage of unintelligible aesthetics. Then, we’ll take a look at vocals, an interesting and complex example of such usage. Finally, we’ll try and considers some general ramifications for this relation with the unintelligible in metal and the ways in which it has shaped, and will continue to shape, the scene.
As the Shadows Rise – The 80’s and the “Unintelligible Turn”
To understand a phenomenon, it is often necessary to go back to its start. With modern metal, that’s almost always the 80’s. This decidedly weird decade is where the early ideas of proto-metal (your Iron Maidens and Led Zeppelins of the world) were forged into much of what we now know as metal. This is especially the case if you accept the “long decade” definition of the 80’s, under which each decade’s influence stretches a few years into the next. While these definitions are obviously not founded in actual, rigid regimentation of time, they are useful tools when looking at history. Thus, it serves our narrative to look at ’91 and ’92 as “in the 80’s”, since it allows us to seamlessly transition from one movements to the next.
So, what happened in the “long 80’s”? Lots of things but in metal, two of the now predominantly popular genres were born. I’m talking, of course, of death metal and black metal. The first saw its eponymous act, Death, finish their first era in the middle of the decade and begin work on its second (which would end in….’92. Long 80’s indeed). From their work, and the work of others, of course, like Obituary and Morbid Angel, the genre was born. Before we move on to black metal, here’s a fun fact for you: the Wikipedia article for death metal says that it was born from thrash and black metal. The Wikipedia article for black metal says that it was born from thrash and death metal. Which one is correct? Probably both, if you approach the issue with nuance; it’s undoubtedly the case that both these genres fed each other in a feedback loop of pioneering and envelope pushing.
So, black metal! This genre too had its birth in the early/middle years of the decade and its second wave in the early 90’s, the tail-end of the “long 80’s”. Founding bands include Venom, Bathory and Celtic Frost while the second wave was heavily dominated by the Norwegian scene and bands like Mayhem, Emperor and Darkthrone. But why the hell are we talking about these genres? Their inception and history isn’t the subject of this post but understanding the fact that they were both born smack in the middle of the 80’s and then saw their second wave and popularity rise in the early 90’s is crucial to our point about them.
These were the eras of intelligibility in music. While metal and music have always been commercialized (unlike what some people might want you to think), these were the early years of the modern iteration of the musical scene; the first music channels, the first major advertising interest in the musical scene and a large uptick in the number of icons, super megastars and stadium filling tours. Intelligibility is an intrinsic part of commercial changes such as these; in order to sell a product, it must be understood. At its basis, that’s marketing: making something quantifiable, packageable, resellable (please note that I’m not seeing any of this with a negative connotation, it’s merely an observation) so that the market knows how to price it and push it as a product. So too, with music. Take a look at the areas around metal and the other underground genres; mainstream culture was obsessed with the glittery, the ritzy and the flashy, the easily consumable and reproducible. Examples? KISS, ABBA, Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi and so many more.
Not to say that these bands are necessarily bad but just that they are easily understood, idolized and copied. Proto-metal, that wide milieu of heavy rock bands operating from the early 70’s to the mid 80’s, was not too far from these medians; it was edgier to be sure but it enjoyed huge followings and commercial success, just like the poppier mainstream. Which is exactly why the birth of modern metal, often also called extreme metal, saw metal move away from intelligibility. Death and black metal have many distinctive qualities but perhaps one of the most important ones is the vocal style and the subject material they write about. The latter is especially important to understand in the context of the break from the 80’s mainstream; by choosing to sing about decay, rot, mutilation, space, societal collapse and philosophy, death metal immediately drew lines around it and erected walls along those lines, cutting it off from the mainstream.
By choosing to adore nature, primal urges, violence and satanic influences, black metal did the same. All of these themes represent the unintelligible; the totality of death, the break down and meaninglessness of the human body, primordial nature, primal violence, all of these challenge the established order of modern society. They tell an ordering machine that there are things which cannot be ordered, things which are beyond the ken of those who would wish to understand everything so that it may be remade and resold. At the core of extreme metal lies both the embrace and the rejection of not fitting in, not being intelligible; on one hand, the metalhead takes pride in being different. On the other, they lament the society which requires such order and forces people into blocks and definitions, into an intelligible system. They wish to be on the edge, where order frays.
These thematic choices also translated into the symbols which the bands used to communicate with society and their attitude when doing so. Thus, it not only affected the symbols they wore (like corpsepaint, satanic album covers, gruesome depictions of the human body and more) but the mindset in which they chose to display those symbols. Causing shock, being outcasts, doing exactly what society didn’t want them to do, all became points of honor for death and black metal. Not being understood by society, not fitting into the role assigned to them, not being intelligible became the core around which modern metal’s identity was built in the 80’s.
The inherent aesthetic choice of both genres naturally bled into the music as well. In fact, in a weird switch of perspective, the music of a band can be seen as just another part of its aesthetic, yet another channel through which concepts are transmitted to the consumer. In this case, both death and black metal made their music inherently inaccessible and unintelligible in different ways. Death metal turned to ever increasing technicality, a ferocity of production and thick, nauseating guttural vocals to ward away any casual listener. Black metal, on the other hand, chose tremolo picking, often archaic and abrasive production, shrill screams and an overall atmosphere of oppression to make sure that anyone who wasn’t looking to peer deeper wouldn’t even bother past the first few minutes (seconds).
The last question before we turn to a deeper look into the instrumentation and musical choices of the two genres is the classic +”chicken and the egg” paradox. Did death and black metal become the main leaders of metal because they were unintelligible, and thus the most distinct and unique types of the genre, or did they become so unintelligible as a result of their neverending pursuit of popularity within metal? The question is probably both and herein lies the basic failures of such approaches when based solely on distinction: at some point, no matter how abrasive you are, you become the new normal. The continuous cycle of rebellion, popularity as a result of that rebellion and inescapable hegemony will probably keep going for as long as we have culture but nowhere is it more obvious than in metal. At some point, unintelligibility becomes intelligibility. We’ll look deeper into that statement at the end of the article, but for now let us proceed to take a deeper look at the ways in which extreme metal’s musicality reflected its aesthetic choices and became part of them.
A Dark Horizontal – Extreme Metal Instrumentation and Unspoken Semantics
So, we ended the previous segment with saying that death and black metal’s music was tailored to be inaccessible and unintelligible. This tailoring happened, mainly, on three fronts. The first, and perhaps the most obvious but most interesting, is the vocals. We’ll leave that to last, instead focusing first on the rest of the instruments and their production, the other two elements. Finding the unintelligible in death metal is easy; all you need to do is listen to the more technical acts operating within the genre. Technical death metal, a style that’s been played for far longer than people often imagine, is predicated on the listener’s inability to fully perceive the music they’re listening to. After all, how many “laymen” listeners can truly keep track of Archspire‘s sweeps, Pyrrhon‘s off-kilter un-harmonics or Artificial Brain‘s sci-fi lead insanity?
You can give these bands a break and say that they didn’t make their music for the laymen; the listener isn’t meant to not understand, they’re meant to be an expert who can truly appreciate the music. But that explanation doesn’t really hold water; all of these bands market themselves to a wider audience than just music theorists. Instead, it’s safer to assume that there’s something about the unintelligibility itself that appeals to these bands and the messages they’re trying to send. For Pyrrhon, the sawing guitars and discordant nature of their compositions channel the decay and collapse of society, the inherent violence in modern living. For Artificial Brain, their other-worldly sounds are just that, a soundtrack to bizarre explorations of an infinitely shattering space. Thus, death metal today, and in the past, has used its music to convey ideas that are beyond language; there’s no point discussing the fall of society or the unreachable depths of space.
These things are beyond words, either above our understanding (as in the case of heavenly bodies and the ungraspable dimensions of the universe) or below our understanding as in the case of the brutal and diseased underbelly of our society. Instead of talking about them, we need to feel them and that’s what extreme music sets out to do. The rumbling of the guitar chord, the unbearable intensity of the blast beat, are meant to convey messages which written/spoken semantics can not since they move through our rational mind. In the translation process, in the turning of the code we call language (spoken or written) into meaning, so much gets lost. Music can speak to the stomach. It can chill and horrify and oppress without risking signal loss, by skipping the intermediary of the mind with all its biases and contexts and speaking to something base, hungry and in awe which resides under the surface of the listener’s psyche.
However, in true postmodern fashion, the site being deconstructed (language) is also the most prolific and fecund tool in deconstructing it. Thus, more than any other instruments, the best way to “hotwire” the listener, to access the source code of what makes us tick, beyond the compiler, is vocals. Perhaps nothing transmits better death and black metal’s desire to be unintelligible than their choice of vocal techniques and the way that choice sets them apart from the general body of mainstream listeners. It also sets them apart from the other styles of metal; while thrash or heavy metal or power metal might indeed not be the usual listener’s first choice, there are a few of them who would scream at you to turn off Iron Maiden. Not like they’d scream at you to turn off Mayhem. Vocals have a lot to do with that; people find growls, screams and screeches to be incredibly off putting.
Which is, of course, exactly the point. What metalhead hasn’t heard the incessant criticism of “but you can’t even understand what they’re saying!”. Which is, again, exactly the point. The styles of extreme metal don’t want you to understand what the vocalist is saying, at least not on first listen. Sure, some growlers out there have excellent pronunciation and it is possible to make out what they’re singing about but that’s quite rare and also not really the point. The point is that these vocals are an acquired taste; the point is that it’s not about what’s being said but how it is being said.
Sure, the lyrics reward the listener in the know, the listener who goes one step further to distinguish the different styles, to dig deeper into the lyrics. But that’s not necessary at all; at times, it’s even redundant. A lot of the harsh vocal styles of death and black metal are about the sensation that the vocals give you, be it rage, derision or despair. The idea is that, while they contain words, they’re also beyond words, underneath words, disrespectful of words. Remember the duality between the deconstructed site and the prolific tool? This is it. The very same tool which conveys meaning is used to break down meaning; your mind instinctively searches for it and finds none. That moment is all the more primal and abrasive for it.
If you hadn’t reached out to the flame, you wouldn’t have been burned. But by capitalizing on your expectations, on the mainstream’s expectations, of words and structure and meaning, by taking away just the thing you had expected to find, extreme metal makes sure you’ll be burned. This is what turns vocals into such an important and effective tool for communicating the disdain extreme metal has to being intelligible and how important it’s unintelligibility to its aesthetic. Indeed, vocals are in the center of that aesthetic, as one would expect from a tool like language, whose main use is communicating meaning (which is how we defined aesthetics, remember).
Somewhat unfortunately, however, these kinds of tools work a little like drugs; the more you’re exposed to them, the more you get inoculated to their effects. But because these tools, both instrumentation and vocals, were hard baked into the way extreme metal sets itself apart from the mainstream, the way it defines and specifies itself, it can’t afford that inoculation. If too many people get used to the way extreme metal sounds, it stops being extreme, ipso facto. Thus, extreme metal has to keep pushing, to keep shocking its listeners and those who look on from the outside. This is the fuel for much of what is good about the genre(s) – it is the fuel that keeps the innovation machine going. But it is also a double edged blade. It forces extreme metal bands to find new ways to stay relevant and doing that via new vocal techniques, instrumentation approaches and composition is often very hard; not every single band out there can invent new sub-genres and ways to make music.
So what does an unstoppable force do when it meets an immovable object? It finds easier paths of least resistance.
Creeping Death – The Wider Context of Metal and the Unintelligible
And these paths often suck. If you’re looking for ways to shock the mainstream, you can find pretty innocuous ways of doing that; the mainstream is soft. It still gets shocked relatively easily, especially in the puritan societies of Western Europe and the United States. You can still resort to overtly sexual language, weird/occult themes, dress in a certain way on stage and so on and you’ll probably get the sneer and disgust you’re looking for from most listeners of mainstream music. But these are no longer enough, society doesn’t really care as much about overt sexuality or corpse-paint as it once did. They’ll still get shocked but only for a second or two; not enough to keep you going. And besides, you’re no longer catering to them. Extreme metal is already an established thing, there’s no need to rebel against mainstream anymore; metal is mainstream, its own mainstream.
Instead, you’re aiming your poisonous darts at your own listeners. You want to make them sit up in their chair, you want people who have heard a million death metal bands look up and take interest. And remember, not everyone can be Chuck Schuldiner or Colin Marston; you can’t expect every band to take the path to innovation in order to get the attention they need. And here lies one of the roots of the racism, sexism and misogyny replete within extreme metal. Turning to one of these topics is another way to get the shock value you need. Those who agree with you get the thrill of listening to music with runs counter to the social taboos of the societies they live in. Even if those societies are racist in their own right, which they probably are, it’s still not often socially acceptable to be openly racist. Or, at the very least, these listeners think it’s not socially acceptable, even though it might be.
In any case, they get the kick of being rebels that fueled the genres to begin with. And if they’re don’t share the same views as your band, you get chagrin, which is just as good. Just like the early extreme metal genres were fed by the social outrage that accompanied their early years, so too modern bands can be bolstered by the rage, fear and criticism levied against them today. By the way, please don’t misconstrue what I’m saying into some sort of centrist “don’t give the trolls what they want, don’t fight back”. On the contrary, that rage and fear and criticism are one hundred percent valid and important. Just like a virus though, small amounts of it actually help the thing you’re trying to kill.
Bands who look for shock value need to walk a fine line these days. If you’re not offensive enough, no one will care. If you’re too offensive, you’ll get a real campaign against you and that can lead to the band’s death. So, you must walk a fine line; you need to get your messages across in a way that is not immediately apparent to cursory listens and hey, guess what, we’ve come full circle! What better way to send messages of racism or misogyny for example, worldviews which rely on hate, fear and ignorance, than by appealing to the unintelligible? What better way to arouse someone’s bigotry against liberalism, for example, than by appealing to something primordial within them, than by calling to a lost nature that must be resurrected?
And that’s the ultimate way in which unintelligible aesthetics are a double edged blade. Like all blades like it, it can be used both for good and for evil. Unintelligible aesthetics can be a great way to criticize modern society and demand of it to do better. It can be a way to cut through the bullshit of norm, habit and taboo and talk about the important ills of our society and how it must be improved. But it can also be used as a way to stay relevant and keep alives ideas founded on fear of the other, the guttural and stomach-born rage at your own impotence or the lizard-brain reflex of violence and bigotry. Like all things metal, it is complicated, powerful and problematic; the tools which make the genre be are also its greatest threat. The first step to wielding it well though, paradoxically so perhaps, is to consider it and think about it.
That’s important because listening to this type of music is akin to giving someone root access to your personality. Sure, one album or one band won’t affect you that much. But when you surround yourself with a certain type of music, especially music which operates beneath the surface of your consciousness, you give that music tremendous long run influence on who you become. Think on the bands that forged you as a youth; do you imagine their influence wanes or increases with time? In what ways does the music you surround yourself create the imagery you use to live your life, to understand the world around you? To make intelligible that which is unintelligible within you?
That’s one of the most important things culture and art do; give us words to articulate the unarticulated, to translate our inner most desires into sentences and wishes. But the beauty and horror of the process is that it’s mostly a black box; you don’t get to see inside. The process by which those deep-seated things become intelligible isn’t up to your better judgement. It’s just hardwired into you. The methods via we translate our complex and composite unconsciousness into visible personality are mysterious. They’re automated.
When listening to extreme metal and soaking in the many ways in which growls or extreme instrumentation can wash over you, ask yourself: what is this musician trying to tell me? And do I want to give them access to the most basic and automated parts of me?