Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Extremity in metal: a Buddhist's perspective








One thing I have come to comprehend over the years is the extent of the historical, cultural and geographical depth of the Anglosphere colonial project and the way it has shaped concepts of modernity that persist into the present. I wrote elsewhere in a reflection on traveling in the American Pacific that indulgence and excess are key defining principles underlying contemporary Western culture. Currently, I wish to go further and unpack extremity.

Extremity is a complex concept frequently associated with negativity even as it does not necessarily require nor proscribe it. This conflation requires some attention.

As with most concepts and indeed most things in nature, extremity is neither inherently good nor evil. It is rather merely one of the ways in which we as humans come to make sense of events consisting of significant emotional, intellectual and physical intensity. Physical intensity might be the result of pleasure or pain to such a degree that it exceeds the mundane thresholds. Love, hate, passion, drugs and sex frequently inspire us, move us to extremes.

Similarly, intellectual constructs from religion to cultural customs, concepts of people and nation similarly encourage us to move beyond our limits of dedication and fidelity.

To me, if there is a problem with extremity, it is due to an absence of reflection. Unreflexive extremity is essentially a form of violence, a string of actions with accelerating intensity occurring regardless of the context (people, environment, society) which it is situated. Pain and conflict borne are by the acting self and ripple outward - naturally intense actions tend to elicit intense responses, reactions. As is the case familiar to any physicist, large expressions of energy and force have similarly large effects on space and time.

A warm tea cup takes a few minutes to cool. Heated iron somewhat longer and fissile material on the verge of combustion necessitates great expenditure of energy to reverse the build up of energy. Human relations are the same.

Meanwhile, I would say that reflection is the coolant to extremity, it is the complex and versatile agent allowing us to manage intensity with dignity and grace, to scale our responses proportionately. A cool head equally lets us pick our battles, practice kindness and know when to quit.

Thus tandem with reflection, extremity remains a useful concept in human life. Throughout history events of great intensity such as natural disaster, war, insistent discrimination and other suffering require the mobilisation of efforts, energies far in excess of the norm. Without the capacity for extremity it may be the case that the acts of greatest compassion and generosity are impossible.

 But what does this have to do with metal?

1. The gross video

 One of the frequently unquestioned assumptions of metal is the juncture of conceptual and musicological extremity. I have addressed this in part when writing about the concept of "brutality". Indeed the terms “extreme” and “brutal” are often used interchangeably. But where does this conceptual extremity come from? My own thesis is that it is a necessary outcome of extreme conditions. After all, metal's ancestors are blues and jazz, products resulting from the response of the dispossessed, the raped, the murdered and the exploited, from slaves in front of and in spite of their masters. Later on extremity is articulated through rock and roll in terms of youthful rebellion against contemporary conservative cultural mores. We see a reconfiguration of extremity again through punk and for that matter, metal.

In its earliest stages, metal takes the extremity of rebellion further than either rock or punk and weds it to the grotesque, the bizarre and the violent. Metal is not content with a two fingered salute it frequently seeks to alienate, indeed it seeks coherence in alienation. Naturally exceptions and coercions exist, I speak only from my individual perspective on this matter and am reflexive enough to acknowledge that the boundaries I have drawn up for metal are likely different to those of other metal heads and metal scholars.

Conceptual extremity allows metal to achieve alienation. It may be argued that grotesquerieis merely used for shock value. However, if we dig into the concept of shock, we have to ask, what is the purpose? Why are we shocking? Who? Is there an aim? Is it merely an unquestioned assumption, an unfair conflation with what is labeled adolescent? Or does it serve some other purpose? More importantly, how can it be read in a different, more reflexive way.



One of the frequently unquestioned assumptions of metal is the juncture of conceptual and musicological extremity. I have addressed this in part when writing about the concept of "brutality". Indeed the terms “extreme” and “brutal” are often used interchangeably. But where does this conceptual extremity come from? My own thesis is that it is a necessary outcome of extreme conditions. After all, metal's ancestors are blues and jazz, products resulting from the response of the dispossessed, the raped, the murdered and the exploited, from slaves in front of and in spite of their masters. Later on extremity is articulated through rock and roll in terms of youthful rebellion against contemporary conservative cultural mores. We see a reconfiguration of extremity again through punk and for that matter, metal.

In its earliest stages, metal takes the extremity of rebellion further than either rock or punk and weds it to the grotesque, the bizarre and the violent. Metal is not content with a two fingered salute it frequently seeks to alienate, indeed it seeks coherence in alienation. Naturally exceptions and coercions exist, I speak only from my individual perspective on this matter and am reflexive enough to acknowledge that the boundaries I have drawn up for metal are likely different to those of other metal heads and metal scholars.

Conceptual extremity allows metal to achieve alienation. It may be argued that grotesquerieis merely used for shock value. However, if we dig into the concept of shock, we have to ask, what is the purpose? Why are we shocking? Who? Is there an aim? Is it merely an unquestioned assumption, an unfair conflation with what is labeled adolescent? Or does it serve some other purpose? More importantly, how can it be read in a different, more reflexive way.

Recent videos by Cattle Decapitation and Rwake as well as not so recent videos by Cephalic Carnage feature intensely graphic, visceral violence that a number of metal commentators have noted, is not necessarily focused or related to musical content. The consensus seems to coalesce around the purpose being as to shock.

I will admit, I found the Cattle Decapitation video disturbing but not particularly because of its depictions of violence. Certainly the violence was extreme and gory and I make no claims as to being desensitized or immune to this sort of explicit shock even if it is all clever editing. The narrative implications and editing sequences are definitely disgusting in the sort of way that is satisfying to the horror/gore buff.

Rather what disturbs me is the lack of conceptual extremity. Travis Ryan, who basically is Cattle Decapitation is also a vegan and activist and strikes me as a rather thoughtful, critically engaged metal head. Indeed, where there lies room for interpretation in Cattle Decapitation's lyrics, there seems to me very little space in the video for contemplation. Everything is explicitly represented, so much so that the meaning of the video is unambiguous: it is a grotesque, metal representation of the song title, "Forced gender reassignment".
 



I have touched on sexuality, gender and misogyny in metal in the past and want to return to it briefly here. However, before doing so I want to address one further concern I have with the Cattle Decapitation video. As a metal head I possess a healthy skepticism of religion. Indeed, I am acutely aware of the effects religion has had in the service of colonisation and the ongoing war against diversity. But I am also a skeptic when it comes to extremity in any position and admit to a human requirement for spirituality. In other words, I do not see it as productive to paint all people with the same brush.

The Cattle Decapitation video depicts a stereotyped sadomasochistic, implied homosexual committing performing/inflicting the forced gender reassignment (more on that title later) to two Christians. While the extremity of anger here can be understood there remain a number of problematics which merely reinforce rather than transcend or properly critique sexual stereotypes. Forcing a woman to become a man and vice versa through violently removing and reattaching genitals suggests that gender is merely biological, which we all know by now, it is not. Sex is considered biological, however, the increasing number of intersexual, hermaphrodite and transsexual voices suggest that even a biological definition is not fully certain.

To me, true shock, true extremity should deeply unseat more than an individual's taste or stomach. In fact, I would argue that it is not necessary for extremity or shock to be negative. Why was it not possible for the creators of the video to create a beautiful version of forced gender reassignment among consenting peers? What about representing fluidity, transformation and possibility as key shock tactics: homosexuality remains as taboo in metal as it does conservative Christianity. In other words, why just shock Christians? Surely they are just an easy target. And if this is the case the extremity of this video becomes rather one dimensional and somewhat ordinary. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that it has become mediocre.

Shock remains an expression of intensity consonant with the concept of extremity outlined heretofore. However, for a text to be truly shocking it needs to exceed discursive limits and the only way to achieve this is though reflexivity. As creators, we have to be brave enough to question our own cognitive and imaginative limitations, have the courage to dig deep and confront what is truly shocking: I am the other and we are in this together.

2. Musicological "safe word".



The word extreme functions as a synonym for brutal. Its intended meanings as specific to the body making the utterance as they are a vague catch all. Qualitatively it, I would argue that “extreme”, in terms of musicological discourse, can be demarcated along the lines of: extremely fast/slow tempos and changes between them, as well as an irregularly high number of time signature changes; deliberate use of assonance, dissonance and atonality juxtaposed against traditional concepts of melody; as well as vocal techniques which reinforce the previous and timbres usually considered unpleasant on a pop music or classical context.






What is interesting to me is the way these extreme elements can be quite easily normalised and cognised in a way quite often antithetical to their creators' intentions. As a musician and producer I love listening to the ways in which my fellow metal heads play with creating dissonance at low frequencies and have come to identify some of the willfully painful harmonisations such as flatted fifths as quite pleasurable. This is not about masochism or self harm as might be argued by those from outside of the genre but rather understanding techniques as a creator, as an artist. The metal heads creating these sounds at their most successful are going right out in distant tangents to produce wholly new soundscapes. At worst, mere reiterations.





To a novice listener, all of this may be heard as impenetrable noise and because it occurs in a musical context so deliberately contrastive with everyday notions of musicological thought, it 
is painful. But again, reflection brings illumination. Extremity refigured as sonic, conceptual and performative intensity, allows us new palettes with which to paint the world and new angles from which to view it. In safety.
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