A section of strings play a baroque fugue over the booming voice of a choir. For seven minutes, the listener is taken through a highway of shifting minor keys, irregular time signatures and highly technical solos comparable in speed and skill to the virtuosos of the classical era like Beethoven and Chopin. The awe-inspiring, sweeping passages travel through two thematic movements and last over seven minutes. No, this is not the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
This is a death metal band, Haggard.
Metal today is distinguished by harsh, coarse vocals, often screaming or yelling, accompanied by heavily distorted and detuned guitars. The music is brutish, aggressive and abrasive to most people’s ears. Its darker tone and lyrical content regarding violence and the occult has made people shy away from the genre.
I argue that despite the “culture shock” of metal, it provides one of the most encouraging outlets for musical development and instrumental skill. Yes, the music is intentionally vicious and aggressive, making it appear childish and simple. Screaming and yelling is a practice associated with immaturity and does not mark professionalism in music.
But the whole act is intentional, of course, not for reasons of degrading the image and quality of the band, but to convey a different idea than most genres. If we were to simply divide music into overarching genres like pop, rock, jazz etc., then we can say a majority of those center around the idea of tonal aestheticism and emotional development. I’m not going to say a majority of songs in that genre are hedonistic or are love ballads; however, jazz was founded on the idea of improvisation and individuality, where the structured orchestra was replaced by the single guitarist and his solo, and most popular genres today build off the values of jazz.
Metal is not a tonal type of music. It is percussive and rhythmic, meaning the quality of each note is not as important as the rhythm and the beat, hence the excessive distortion and screaming.
As for themes on the occult and violence, many songs concern death, hatred and other seemingly simple and undeveloped thoughts. Some bands really are that simple; there are just as many Justin Beiber and Jonas Brother band equivalents in metal. What’s a shame is that it gives metal a bad reputation and distracts from the Opeth albums that conceptualize the life of a man struggling against an oppressive theocracy while searching for his lost true love or the Protest the Hero album that discusses the circular nature of history and pagan religions. Metal often speaks of death because it boldly addresses a taboo, it makes you face your mortality and think about what your life means in perspective.
Despite the fact that its heritage is in rock and jazz, metal borrows heavily from baroque techniques and romantic themes. Tchaikovsky and Wagner took grand ideas like classical epics and patriotism to create powerful, bass-driven songs like Overture 1812 and Flight of the Valkyries. The songs were about great battles and awe-inspiring victories, metal is the same way. Bass is heavily emphasized and fast guitar playing is a staple of any metal band. Bands not only play in the common major and minor keys, but also augmented, diminished and any other odd tunings to create unique atmospheres, but, more importantly, implant powerful undertones into the music.
Techniques like sweep picking and tapping facilitate the study of moving arpeggios over shifting tonal centers. Virtuoso bands like Dream Theater have members who are highly educated in music theory from schools like UC Berkely. The study of classical music lays the foundation for a lot of musicians in metal, and they implement those complex ideas to continually develop the genre. Playing fast does not always mean better, but metal musicians spend gross amounts of time training to play at those speeds.
Though metal music alienates itself from and appears impenetrable to the average listener, there are simply different ideas and music styles that express the same feelings as all music: love, pain, anger, happiness, sadness, elation and confusion. Music is still all about what you prefer, as some would rather take one path than another but they have the same destination, an emotional catharsis.
All I am saying is, give metal a chance.