heavy metal

The sensory thrill of heavy metal by Beth Winegarner

A mosh pit. Photo by dr_zoidberg. Creative Commons license.

A mosh pit. Photo by dr_zoidberg. Creative Commons license.

When I first got into heavy metal as a teenager, I was surprised by how calm and happy it made me feel. It was just after the peak of the moral panic around heavy metal, in which conservative religious groups — as well as the Parents Music Resource Center, headed by Al Gore’s wife, Tipper — convinced much of the U.S. that heavy metal was evil, that it led teenagers into violent and risky behavior, or tempted them toward the occult. Part of me came to believe that nonsense, too, but when I began to listen to the music, my nervous system said otherwise.

I wanna feel the wind in my face
And the velvet shimmering limousines
Like a kiss from the queen of the damned
Like the smell of gasoline

It wasn’t until much later, when I read Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s book Metalheads, that I learned this calming effect was common. I knew plenty of other metalheads myself, but our response to the music wasn’t something we talked a lot about. Arnett wrote:

Adolescent boys who are high in sensation seeking tend to be attracted to heavy metal music and also tend to have higher rates of reckless behavior, because both heavy metal music and reckless behavior provide intense and novel sensations. … Enjoyment of heavy metal music and enjoyment of reckless behavior tend to be found in the same boys, not because heavy metal music causes reckless behavior but because both experiences reflect an enjoyment of intense and novel sensations.

(It should be noted that Arnett, when he researched these questions, spoke mostly with young, white, male metal fans. His finding likely extends to a lot of white female metalheads, but it would be speculation to go beyond that. I’m not sure anyone has replicated his research among girls and women, people of color, trans and queer folks, etc., but they should.)

I am, in most circumstances, quite sensitive to sounds — especially loud sounds, whether they’re high and sharp or low and rumbling. (As I write this, a car with a bad muffler is idling outside my house and it’s really stressing me out — but I will happily listen to drone/doom bands that make not-dissimilar sounds. Go figure.) I spend a fair bit of time explaining to people how I can be so sensitive to noise but adore heavy metal which, to mainstream ears, is the definition of noise. But it’s organized sound, I tell them, with a steady rhythm of bass and drums, structured around repeating patterns of riffs, often infused with a lot of gorgeous melody and grandeur. It’s exactly the right kind of noise.

Black leather and glittering steel
They're calling me back, so I'm turning my head to the wheel
Black leather and glittering steel
I'm thirsty for more, so I'm sending my foot to the floor

Although kids and adults on the autism spectrum are known for being sensitive to sensations — tags and seams in clothing, food textures, visual clutter — we all have sensations we avoid, or seek. Maybe it’s the feel of velvet or silk, tight jeans or a loose, faded flannel shirt. Maybe it’s the sweet bite of whiskey, a pull on a cigarette, riding a motorcycle at 70 miles per hour on the freeway, swimming as the water hugs you, the pressure in your joints when you do yardwork, or the rhythm of a rocking chair. Maybe it’s the swirl of the mosh pit, knocking into your comrades, crowd-surfing to the edge of the stage.

I was listening to Riot’s song “Black Metal and Glittering Steel” this morning (lyrics quoted throughout this post) and realized that it’s essentially an ode to sensation, to the sensory-seeking lives of those metalheads Arnett interviewed way back in the early 1990s. Riot were masters of speed metal, and “Black Leather…,” although it only clocks in at 85 bpm, feels much faster, thanks to its fast riffing and high-energy vocals. The lyrics talk about the feel of speeding, the smell of gasoline, the sight of shimmering limousines, the taste of a kiss — it’s pure sensation, in song form.

"It's a vicarious release of aggression," one subject told Arnett, and he said he needed heavy metal as a release: "Otherwise I'd lose control." "It calms me down," said several others; "it helps me get things out," said another, explaining that he was referring to the stress accumulated from school, disagreements with parents, and so on. One described it as "like taking a tranquilizer."

It still kills me that, for at least a generation, parents were taking their kids’ metal records away, scared that the music would make them violent or evil. If anything, listening to music led kids to engage in less risky behavior, because they had a safer outlet at hand. That sounds like a prescription for more heavy metal, not less.

Four Thoughts on Sleep at the Warfield, June 7, 2018 by Beth Winegarner

Sleep in Detroit, March, 2018. Photo by Austincxiv. Creative Commons license. 

Sleep in Detroit, March, 2018. Photo by Austincxiv. Creative Commons license. 

My brother had a girlfriend a long time ago who decided one day that she wanted to make the densest, richest chocolate cake possible. I can't remember whether she worked from a recipe or if she made it up on the fly. But her cake included something like a pound of chocolate, another pound of butter, plus eggs, cream, sugar and little or no flour. It was barely sweet, and so rich we almost couldn't eat it, but it was also intensely delicious. It gave us the shivers with every bite. It was almost too good. 

When I used to study kenjutsu, my sensei made a big deal out of practicing our strikes and blocks slowly. It can be tempting to move quickly, to swing the bokken like you're in a Kurosawa movie. But that's not how you learn, how you etch the motions into your muscles and your neurons so they come instinctively when you need them. But moving slowly and precisely is hard. It requires more strength, more stability, better balance. It doesn't let you to cheat, or to take shortcuts with your movement. To do it right, you slow it down as much as possible, and then you slow it down some more.

Many popular songs do this thing where they ease the tempo toward the end, to draw out the drama and rev up everyone's anticipation of the song's climactic ending. You know it's coming, and you can't wait for it, but at the same time you're ensnared in that slow-mo moment, like running through cool, sweet water. You're eager and longing, joyous yet unsatisfied. You know the payoff is coming, because that's how songs work. Except when they don't, when the whole 10- or 15- or 63-minute song is made up of that downtempo anticipation, and the only payoff is in the vast distances between beats, slow as hot fudge that hasn't been warmed up yet. 

After Sleep released Holy Mountain--a hugely influential slab of stoner-doom metal--the band went to work on its third album. What it delivered was Dopesmoker, a single, drudging, 63-minute-long song. Sleep's label at the time, London Records, refused to release it, and the resulting tensions tore the band apart. Almost a decade later, Tee Pee Records released the album, catapulting Sleep even more firmly into the stoner-doom pantheon. 

At first, it might seem like Dopesmoker--or any of Sleep's works, really--is just a lot of boring, repetitive noise. It's slow and heavy, an elephant's marathon of a record, but it's never dull. It shifts ever so subtly as it lumbers along, morphing and twisting, glinting light and shadow off its different surfaces. It's complicated and challenging, and one of the best-loved works in heavy metal. As someone who often feels overly heavy, complicated and challenging, I draw a lot of comfort from that. 


Yes, I Love Heavy Metal by Beth Winegarner

Image from a T-shirt designed by Philipp Rietz, and sold by Threadless. Click the image to buy the shirt!

Image from a T-shirt designed by Philipp Rietz, and sold by Threadless. Click the image to buy the shirt!

It's a common scene: the topic of music comes up, and everyone mentions the kinds they like most. And then it's my turn.

And they say: "Heavy metal? You like heavy metal?"

In some ways, I understand. The unshakeable stereotype of the heavy metal fan is a white guy in his teens or 20s with long hair, ratty jeans and a bad attitude. You know, like Billy Hargrove, Max's sociopathic older brother in Stranger Things. (By the way, you should totally read my friend's takedown of Billy over on Metalsucks.)

I resemble this stereotype in almost no way. I'm quiet, female, and prefer stretch knits, florals and cute animals. I'm also professional, in my 40s, and a mom. I sometimes wear band shirts, but not often enough to call it my personal style. But other people's reactions sometimes leave me feeling like I have to assure them I'm not sullying myself with something gross and unseemly.

The surprise most often comes from people who do not listen to heavy metal, and who may not be aware just how broad a category of music it is. Or they may not know that metal fans tend to be smarter and geekier than average, and that the music tends to have a calming effect on fans. Maybe when I say I love heavy metal, they're imagining this: 


When the bands I most listen to look more like this: 

(No disrespect to King Diamond, whose influence is both massive and undeniable.) Metal is beloved for its intensity and majesty. It makes everything sound more epic. It transcends the mundane. Guitars and vocals soar, or they descend into the depths, meeting you where you are. Some of it's challenging and complex. Some of it's subtle and melodic. There's a lot to explore. And, yes, I love it.