AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

WHAT MAKES HEAVY METAL HEAVY?

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What follows is a guest post by Jay Miller.

One of the great legends of heavy metal music history goes like this:  In the early 1990s, a little known three-piece band from San Jose, California named Sleep worked out a deal with London Records to produce their third album, Jerusalem, which included the rare luxury of maintaining full creative control. Instead, they blew most of the $75,000 advance on custom guitars, high-end amplifiers, and lots of marijuana. During two month-long recording sessions, they recorded a single, hour-long song filled with slow, churning guitars and monotonic chants having something to do with a new race of “Weedians.” Throughout the recording process, the song (which in various forms the band had played live for several years) evolved: it got longer; and, in the words of bassist Matt Pike “It got weird.”

When the recording was complete, London Records dubbed the track “unlistenable” and refused to put it out. The band, in turn, refused the studio’s efforts to carve up and master the original track. The deal fell apart, the band broke up, and Jerusalem circulated the metal underground in various bootleg forms for years until its officially licensed release in 1998. Now, nearly two decades later, the album has been re-released under its original album title, Dopesmoker, to much acclaim. As one reviewer put it, the album “is now recognized as a masterpiece of the stoner-metal genre and one of the most formidable recordings of the past 20 years is regarded as one of the most important albums of heavy metal history.”

But what exactly makes Jerusalem so “heavy”? What is “heaviness” in music? It is surprising that no one has taken up the question in any seriously philosophical way, given that aesthetic theory has in recent years begun to take an interest in rock music, and given that heavy metal makes up a fairly sizable sub-section of the rock music genre. As far as I can see, there are two ways to approach the question of heaviness in music. One is the quasi-empirical approach familiar to musicologists, musical historians, and lay people alike: survey the broad spectrum of musical examples that might reasonably be included in the genre of heavy metal and try to extract a set of common aesthetic properties. But this approach is not likely to tell us what makes Jerusalem heavy.

This is because Sleep’s music, and the doom metal genre it exemplifies, doesn’t sound much like the heavy metal we are familiar with—it is much heavier. In contrast to both the mainstream commercial developments of metal as well as its “extreme metal” counterparts (death metal, thrash metal), all of which develop stylistically toward increasing speed and intensity, doom metal seizes on the lower and slower sounds of metal’s origins, namely, Zeppelin and early Sabbath. The genre is marked by lethargic riffing and lyrical focus on everything otherworldly and underworldly heard in the proto-doom bands of the mid-1980s (such as Sweden’s Candlemass, England’s My Dying Bride and Witchfinder General, and in the U.S. bands such as Pentagram and Saint Vitus). These bands explicitly reject hair metal’s flashy sounds and outfits and the guitar wizardry of MTV-ready acts like Van Halen and Slash. They did so in the name of preserving and purifying the sound of heaviness, codifying it as its highest aesthetic principle. And they did so with a sound that is far more simplified, more restrained, and much slower than the heavy metal we all know. But if we take heaviness to be that property (or set of properties) found among all heavy metal bands, we could end up with the conclusion that bands like Aerosmith or Guns n’ Roses are heavier than Sleep, which is absurd.

Alternatively, we can approach heaviness as an ideal, an essential quality or set of qualities that any kind of music can share to greater and lesser degrees. This is, I take it, what we hear in Sleep’s Jerusalem: the pinnacle of a musical genre that takes heaviness as its principal aesthetic ideal. Jerusalem, an album that Sleep explicitly intended to be “the heaviest thing ever recorded,” is a paradigm case of musical heaviness that challenges both the way most of us think and talk about heavy metal as well as the way that philosophers talk philosophically about rock music. In his 1993 essay, “Prolegomena to Any Aesthetics of Rock Music,” for example, Bruce Baugh asks: “Can there be an aesthetics of rock music?” By this he means: Can there be an aesthetics of rock music as distinct from an aesthetics of classical music? His answer is yes, provided we can dispense with Kantian formalism and embrace the “material” (that is, the visceral, rather than intellectual) elements of rock music—rhythm, notational expressivity, and loudness—as the appropriate evaluative criteria.

Along these lines, we might think of heaviness as a material element of rock, something to be felt rather than cognized. But this view has its critics. For one, we need not think that visceral, non-formal features of music are exclusive to rock. (James Young argues, for example, that any of the features of rock music that seem to require a distinct aesthetics of rock music can also be found in classical music.) And second, the formal features of classical music can also be expressive qualities of rock. (Davies rightly points out that Baugh “underestimates the extent to which the visceral response he describes depends … on a song’s melodic and harmonic shape, its words, its overall structure, and so on,” in other words, its formal qualities.)

In contrast to this approach, it seems to me that heaviness is situated somewhere between the material and formal elements of music. What we find in Sleep’s Jerusalem is not a singular heavy-making property, but a combination of at least two properties: sonic weight and sonic density.

Sonic weight is materially similar to rhythm (not the formal, measurable quality of tempo but the perceptive quality of timing) in that its quality is literally felt in the body. Unlike rock music, however, the rhythm of doom metal does not inspire much movement or dancing. Clocking in at a lumbering 96 beats per minute (as compared with the average metal range of 250 to 500), the rhythm of Jerusalem is the perception of slowness. But heaviness is perceived not so much as a physical stimulation as an emotional or psychological weight pressing down on us—that is, as sonic weight. The music tends toward stasis rather than movement, and this resistance is amplified by the simplicity and repetition of the riff.

Get ready for a little music theory. The typical riff in doom metal comprises a simple melodic structure of minor tritonic scales, down-tuned (see video below) anywhere from a half-step to a step and a half, in which the bass line doubles the guitar. The idea is depth rather than breadth, to explore different textures and minor variations of the riff through repetition. Typical of doom metal, Jerusalem is an in-depth exploration of a single riff (a C-based pentatonic scale with a diminished fifth), repeated with subtle variations and minor changes in pitch, designed to create the musical equivalent of a séance or spiritual quest. (If you’re hungry for more, here‘s an in-depth musicological analysis of Jerusalem.) The rationale of Jerusalem, as rock journalist J. Bennett explains, is that “sometimes the riff is just so fucking good that you just want to hear it over and over and over again…sometimes for fifty two minutes.”

Heaviness is also heard in sonic density, or thickness of sound. Certainly one aspect of sonic density is loudness, the sensation of being physically overwhelmed by the music. And Baugh is right to argue that loudness is not just a matter of decibels but, when used properly, “can add to expressivity” in music. But the sound of Sleep’s Jerusalem is heavy not just because the guitars are loud, but because they are thick, creating a dense, atmospheric “wall of sound” effect through distortion, low frequencies and textured sounds. The perception of sonic density, then, is to some extent contingent on its formal properties. Distortion is ultimately a matter of guitar timbre, a coupling of tone with acoustic noise. (Some musicologists have even argued that heaviness consists primarily in distorted guitar timbres.) Likewise, the low frequencies of doom metal’s downtuned guitars—a vestige of Black Sabbath—is ultimately is a matter of pitch, which, like timbre, is a tonal attribute. The guitars in Jerusalem are tuned down entire step, giving the sound a rich, dense quality. The sound is also thickened by the monophonic texture created by doubling the bass line with the guitar riff. This effect can be further manipulated in the recording studio, where multiple tracks can be layered, or “quad-tracked” with minor tonal variations, yielding “an even stronger, denser and heavier guitar tone than would be the case with four rhythm performances using the same sound” [source].

So even if we concede the general point that rock music calls for a different set of aesthetic standards by which it is judged, it’s not quite right to say that the quality of heaviness is reducible to the kind material qualities that Baugh identifies as basic to rock. The musical elements of sonic weight and sonic density that make Jerusalem heavy are indeed felt viscerally, but that response is intimately bound up with the formal features such as timbre, melody, tone, harmony, structure, and so on. Thinking about heaviness this way allows us to identify heaviness with something other than the common denominator of heavy metal music.

This allows us to confirm what is intuitive and obvious: that Sleep’s sound is heavier than pretty much any heavy metal band ever. But it also allows us to find heaviness in interesting and sometimes surprising places well beyond heavy metal. For example, we can find it in classical music (think Prokofiev) or in Dolly Parton’s Jolene slowed down 25% to 33 rpm.

Less obvious, however, is the status of lyrics with respect to heaviness. On the one hand, one could think that lyrics might bring added heaviness to the music in the form of heavy content. Doom metal, as the name suggests, trucks in melancholy and despair. With its thematic fixation on death, existential dread, Middle Earth fantasies of druids, dragons and wizards, allusions to witchcraft and Nordic paganism, and near religious devotion to weed, one could think that doom metal is made heavy, in part, by the gravity of lyrical content. (To its credit, doom metal has managed to avoid much of the controversies surrounding both the explicit Satanism of black metal as well as the implicit racism, nationalism, and violence that have tainted its musical legacy.) Take the same doom metal sound—the slow churn of oceanic riffs—and add either lyrics about apocalyptic visions and the suffering of humanity or lyrics about Old McDonald who had a farm. I guarantee you’ll hear the former as the heavier. On the other hand, one might think, along with the nineteenth century music critic Eduard Hanslick, that the lyrics render the music impure. They can only dilute its heaviness. This admittedly happens when the vocals are simply bad, as unfortunately in metal music they sometimes are. But it seems to me that this isn’t always the case. But the best I can say for now is that lyrics, done right, can add a layer of heaviness in the form of lyrical gravity; done wrong, they have a corruptive influence on an otherwise satisfactory heaviness. What exactly gives that rightness or wrongness, I’m not quite sure yet.

Notes on the Contributor
Jay Miller is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Warren Wilson College.

15 thoughts on “WHAT MAKES HEAVY METAL HEAVY?

  1. This was a great read. I think deafheaven-not doom metal- comes close to matching that thick sound. It also feels muted which I believe is to make room for the vocals. Thoughts?

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    • Totally agree. Deafheaven is amazing, and a great example of the heaviness I’m talking about. They also illustrate the sense in which the music can be played really fast (guitar strumming, etc), but they still sound slow, which is how they can so nicely transition into the clean, pretty parts. But the sound is really thick, and really heavy. And in this case I would definitely say that the vocals come out on top and make the music even heavier.

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  2. Thanks for this. Some thoughts:

    What’s the heaviness of Wagner? Some lyrical affinities with metal, but far heavier than the music’s mean frequency would suggest. I think the lyrics (or libretto, I should say), contribute massively. And so wonder if there is a sui generis heaviness here. I also wonder this because of how abstract the heaviness of e.g. Dopesmoker is. Sure, it wouldn’t work with nursery rhymes; but it’s not like it suggests Teutonic mythology either. It’s, as you say, a heaviness of a certain sort of chanting. (Almost the heaviness of some Gregorian chant!)

    Oh, and er no mention of Boris? ‘Absolutego,’ all sixty-five minutes of it, could give these guys a run for their money. Especially the special low-frequency version!

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    • Good question. I think probably the darker Wagner for sure, especially the more epic stuff like the Ring cycle. But I suppose the theatrics of it (at least if you buy Nietzche’s criticism of it) doesn’t quite jive with doom. As for the lyrical content of Sleep, I think Gregorian chant is spot on, especially in Volume 1. And I think that vocals of this kind are super heavy, I just can’t explain why exactly. And yes, of course, Boris! Mega-heavy but also just so weird and avant-gardy they pretty much have their own thing going on. Saw them play last year and realized that (in contrast to Sleep, for example) it’s the DRUMS that make Boris so heavy.

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  3. This is a great post, and the analysis of “heaviness” seems pretty spot on. I was surprised to learn that others (like brand cage) have also done close listenings of Sleep. Do you know of additional good sources for the aesthetics of heavy metal, whether it’s about an individual song or the genre in general?

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  4. Thank you for this outstanding post. At risk of stating the obvious- THC is helpful to fully appreciate the sublime genius of Sleep’s Dopesmoker.

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    • No, there’s actually a serious question here about whether and to what extent the effects of pot (which most certainly is central to the sound, the image, and the lyrics of “stoner” metal) is a factor in the heaviness equation. It’s interesting because, if that’s the case, then we’re saying heaviness is not just a property or set of properties belonging to the music, but to some degree the internal state of the listener. I have NO doubt that Matt Pike would agree.

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  5. Yeoman’s work here. I guess I’m not convinced about the rhythmic claim—or maybe I’m not understanding it. Personally when I think of “heaviness” two acts jump to mind. Lightning Bolt for one. Feels like just about the heaviest thing out there, despite being quite fast—and loose! Personally I think that’s an important part, something like looseness. Like, some of the heaviest doom seems slowww because of its rhythmic looseness which (crosses himself) Sleep doesn’t have as much of. The other thing that comes to mind is Hate Eternal’s Born by Fire, just for what it’s worth. Quite fast. Again, maybe I’m not understanding the claim, or my heaviness sensors are miscalibrated.

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  6. Sleep was from San Jose (not “Southern California”), no?

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  7. Good read. You (Jay) might be interested in my discussion of death metal, available here: https://www.academia.edu/25008348/_I_Watched_Jane_Die_Theorizing_Breaking_Bad_s_Aesthetic_of_Brutality

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  8. Surely Sleep and other doom bands relying on the slow chugging sound are only one flavor of heaviness? I suspect there’s a broader property at work of which Sleep’s style is one flavor. What about Meshuggah’s “Bleed”? It’s not the fastest song in the universe, although it’s surely faster than a Sleep track, and some of the heaviest parts of the song occur when it speeds up! What about the ending riff to Immortal’s “Pure Holocaust”? That riff will make you bang your head like no other, and it feels super heavy (heaviest moment on the album.) In Black Metal no less (or see 1349)! It would seem odd to not call Slayer super heavy when their riffs are frenetic, but heavy they are. What about “Raining Blood”? Or for a lesser appreciated song example, how about Strapping Young Lad’s “Critic”? That song is heavy as heck, and it’s wildly frenetic. Godflesh, considered to be one of the heaviest bands of all time, would be a better fit for your model, but even one of their heaviest feeling tracks like “Streetcleaner” is on the faster side relative to doom bands. Slowness is one tool for heaviness, but only one. Syncopation is another. Odd disjointed riff structures might be another (which you find a lot in death metal.) I’m convinced it’s something more like a formal or structural property of riffs (or stretches of music so we can fit in classical stuff), and it may have several species.

    I’m not sure these observations run counter to your theory, but it was a worry I had, especially since you want to engage in something closer to ideal theorizing, but are doing so by using a single band/single genre style as the representative.

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    • Yeah, I think that’s right. All of those are heavy (and great examples of heaviness). But I guess I want to say that those are more “intense” than “heavy.” Part of my concern is that heaviness has been too readily equated with intensity, even if those two often go hand in hand. But I think I would say that if you took, say, “Raining Blood,” and slowed it way down, downtuned the guitars, and then layered the tracks, you’d end up with something heavier.

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  10. Good post. I just (re)listened to Fiona Apple’s “Tidal” and it came across as super heavy: nice and slow, hits its spots, and even thick at times.

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