Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Yet another massive missive from everyone's favorite Contributing Writer-in-denial, HELM. As usual, 99% of the words are his, while 75% of the images are mine. PAY ATTENTION.

- Cobras

The Heavy Metal listening experience

The beauty of music is a personal matter and anyone who seeks to instruct another on "how to enjoy it right" is trying to achieve some control on them even if they cloak their intentions with outward benevolence.
That said, the below points are borne more of panic than a desire for manipulation: it seems to me that the paradigm for music appreciation is slowly shifting towards more epidermic consumption habits and it is in the spirit of antagonism to this trend for shallow living in general that I write the following article. Take it as a bridge between listener generations that are increasingly misunderstanding each other and not as individual condemnation for "doing it wrong".

I posit that before we endorse a record or band, before we write a glowing review, before we put them on our year's end favorites list, we should have reached the standard of experience outlined below. This sounds dangerously formulaic, but isn't the same expected from people who critique books or film? Isn't it expected of us before we give out opinions on a movie, that we watched its full length with undivided attention sometimes multiple times? That we have attempted to parse its messages and that we approached it on the level? It is in a similar spirit that I suggest a return to the neglected record-listening methods of the near past.

Turn the volume up

If I'm listening to a new record and I'm playing it at a comfortable level and it's not doing anything for me or I find my attention wondering, I try turning it up slightly (or more than slightly) above my comfort level. Heavy Metal trades dynamic range for impact, so giving it a chance to pummel me might help me see its virtue. While vacuous music will not be saved by sheer volume, listening to profound music at an inoffensive level is certainly not helping it any.
As a sub-pount: listen to music on a powerful system. The story I like to tell often on this point is when I had met some friends and we were trading formative experiences with music and I mentioned that a decade ago when I first heard In The Woods... on their "Heart of the Ages" album, their vocals freaked me out as much as they enthralled me and now they're one of my enduring favorites. One of those friends expressed some interest in listening to them and so we rushed to a laptop that was handy, and youtube. Needless to say, top-of-the-lungs screaming normalized at whisper level, coming out of two shitty little speakers is not very impressive nor captivating.

Even metal music that is often best appreciated at future listens on low level due to complexity, like say, Divine Regale. Play it as loud as you can take once in a while. The song "Change" off of their record, "Ocean Mind", used to do nothing for me when played at speaking level, and especially when I'm doing other stuff at the same time. At top volume and commanding attention though, it brings tears to my eyes. Yes even the swooshy Rush synths.

Why get any Neil Peart into you if he's so tiny?

Stop browsing the internet at the same time

This is a hard one, I know. Popular conception of music is as a background to good times. Pop video clips concede to this fully, giving us extravagant visual spectacle to sway us while the music makes its inoffensive pass at our wallet. Heavy Metal has a strong visual component too, but it doesn't overshadow the music during the listening experience. There's a lot going on in Heavy Metal music besides riffs and double-bass that requires full attention and perhaps more importantly, as romantic art, it demands a degree of reverence to be effective. To let it work its violence and lust on us, it shouldn't be vying for attention along with other, often completely random and disconnected stimuli. I'll admit there are some winning combinations that one might stumble upon

but really, if I need the internet to keep me company while I'm listening to Heavy Metal then it's very possible I'm treating it like something it's not. Not all loud music is Heavy Metal and it can only wound me to go search for romantic beauty where there is only double-bass.

Read the lyrics

If you just went "well duh" then trust me, this dates you. When some of us got into Heavy Metal, buying a record was a risky venture because it meant that we wouldn't get another one for sometimes months. And most of us didn't yet have the internet to distract us while playing our newest acquisition, so we sat down with the record sleeve and followed the lyrics with the music. For some younger readers, that last concept in particular I suspect is mind-blowing.

I don't mean to be patronizing. I appreciate the ability to download and sample music before I have to commit to any purchases as much as anyone (one out of three records I bought as a fresh listener were just awful and I'll never miss them) but when it comes to Heavy Metal, the aesthetic legacy of this type of music comes from the archetype discussed above. The musicians that made the metal classics were the type to sit down with lyric sheets in hand alone in their rooms too, so that's the sort of music they aspired to make. We must honor the implicit agreement and give the words their chance to color the sound.
And before whining about how there aren't any good Heavy Metal lyricists we must remember Sabbat, Fates Warning, Manilla Road, Depressive Age, Mercury Rising, My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost, Primordial, Queensryche, Savior Machine or Secrecy, to mention a few. If it doesn't have great lyrics then that is the fault of the band, not the genre.
Now, the next generation to make metal music was the product of its hyper-stimulated environment and went on to make music that downplayed the importance of lyrics. This gave us the astonishingly aesthetics-heavy but meaning-light post metal era and although there were some standout records produced, I'm sure not many will argue that we need much more of that.

this should cover the whole last decade, actually

Listen to only a couple of tracks at a time

This will strike some of the older crowd as heresy because Heavy Metal records are meant to be listened to all the way through and anything less than that is not committing to their potential greatness, dammit. Well, first of all, Heavy Metal records had to be listened to a vinyl side at a time before base proactivity was required (getting up and flipping the record). Also keeping in mind vinyl didn't usually run at more than 45 minutes. This means the classic bands required about twenty minutes of solid attention by the listener before giving them a choice to commit to the flipside.

With CD technology, side-long divisions were slowly abandoned (though you'd be surprised how many Heavy Metal CD-only releases still explicitly mention 'sides' on the back of the jewel case) and full-length times were pushed to the attention-deficit-nightmare that is 75 full minutes. But there's still good reason to listen to those cds at twenty minute chunks. Barring concept albums (whom are expected to have premeditated lulls and breathing spaces in their running time exactly for this purpose) most metal music is so loud and impactful that ear fatigue becomes a real problem, fast.

Our ears do natural compression to protect themselves from loud noises and after some abuse will stop discerning details in the sound. Furthermore even if the level isn't so loud but the listening session is prolonged, the brain will get used to the noise and attempt to disregard the sensory input (just like right now, you're not tactilely aware that you're wearing underpants) so it can devote processing time to more immediate concerns. Effectively, in most cases when I'm listening to loud music for hours at a time I'm not listening to anything else other than vague melodies robbed of their impact and context. Sometimes that's fine when I'm listening to records I already know very well, but for new music, this doesn't count as listening at all.

Heavy Metal is reasonably composed music, where detail has merit and often augments the meaning and feeling of a recording. I strive to play about a side's worth of a record at one time, and then have ten minutes of silence or some minimal ambient to juxtapose it. Then the next side is going to sound fresh and impactful again.

Headphones in the dark, man

So let's say I know all the lyrics by heart and I've appreciated the finer points of the compositions with full attention many times. The apex of Heavy Metal appreciation for me is then to listen to the record completely alone at night, on headphones, without anything else to guide the imagination but the familiar journey. The ultimate ritual.
Headphones facilitate deep listening because they cut out all other sounds vying for attention (like instant messenger bleeps and phone rings) and the darkness cuts off visual stimulation to the point where effectively one is in a makeshift sensory-deprivation construct.

I argue that one hasn't really let a great Heavy Metal record do its work unless in these conditions. What may have sounded only like pleasant series of riffs and vocal lines before, may now that it is mapped inwardly and explored in solitude, become a strikingly impactful synaesthetic experience. Knowing - and more importantly - anticipating the lyrics allows for the music changes to inform internal correlations between sound and memory, while the brain, in lack of any other stimuli, will take the emotions that result and run with them.

Now I realize the night's mostly spent sleeping and that many readers lead hectic lives where such rituals are no longer a priority. I'm also aware that overindulging in such practices may lead to a lonely existence. My hope by writing this is is to inspire balance and to suggest that we should always make the time for artistic appreciation, as we, no matter how swamped we are with work and pending obligations, must make time for our loved ones. It is in monument to the positive impact of Heavy Metal for those that have dedicated themselves to it that they return to its ritual and do and succumb to the model that a hectic everyday life demands of us.


BradethQ said...

Right on, man. I'm a big supporter of cd booklet/lyric sheet/record sleeve reading while listening. And reading 'thanks lists' to figure out which bands to check out(at least I used to). And dark-time headphone listening. Although if an album is 30-40 mins or less I usually like to listen to it all in one go.

Steven said...

I remember vinyl, the superior medium. When I was much smaller we had one of those automatic record players with the long spindle you could pile several albums up on. You'd go through all the side A's and then all the side B's. In recent months I've taken to re-labeling albums in my iPod to include which side it is (or could be). Since I typically keep it set on "shuffle albums", I get a similar effect.

Duane said...

Also get stoned.

Aylmer said...

Helm, this is a fantastic post and I'm totally in agreement.

A true appreciation of music (and film & reading) requires a certain degree of discipline. You only get out what you put in!

One thing that I'm struggling with as a listener these days is the length of songs that a lot of bands are indulging in. For example, this week I've been listening to the LESBIAN album. "Black Forest Hamm" and "Powerwhorses" are amazing songs that completely hold my attention but by the time I get to the 3rd track - 25 mins long - it's pretty daunting.

With bands like MOSS that have songs in the 30-40 minute range I can generally only listen to the shorter tracks.

The irony is that the reason I stay away from these monolithic tracks is out of respect for the music. I'd rather not listen then turn it off half way through.

Shelby Cobras said...

Yes Aylmer! That is the brilliance of the Lesbian album, and I'm glad you found it. Any band with dynamics that keep you on the edge for your seat for an entire 25-minute song is OK in my book. I wonder what would happen if I put on headphones, smoked a bowl, and listened to them in the dark...

Shelby Cobras said...

Helm, as always, great job. For tonight's homework, I assign you the Lesbian album (Seanford posted it under the title 'NWOABM In The NW' a little while back). I will expect a 500-word review, delivered by email, before Monday.
Another new band that's good with the whole epic-black-doom thing without getting boring is DARK CASTLE. I think they're from Portland (?), look em up.

My favorite time for serious digestion of a metal album as a complete artistic statement: Long drives late at night.

Steven said...

Similarly, I didn't "get" Emperor's "In the Nightside Eclipse" until I heard it driving around after an ice storm. Revelatory.

Manslaughter said...

I have that Dark Castle shit, didn't really hold my attention, to tell the truth. Maybe I'll give it another listen, maybe I'll take some Ritalin.

Nekromantis said...

Great piece again Helm. This really was helpful for me I think. I hadn't realised before why is it that listening to big chunks of music feels so tiresome. This results to that I often listen just one side of the LP and leave second side for later but I never really gave it more thought.

Also a good example of power of lyrics is how I got into Fates Warning - Awaken The Guardian. At first I just listened to the music and vocal melodies and except for some parts didn't focus that much of what they were "saying" (this kind of approach to music is a result of listening too much Japanese Heavy Metal in my early years with the genre. Most of it is in Japanese and usually there's no translations available so you just made up the meaning of the song in your head based on music, vocal melodies and the few english words thrown in the lyrics). How ever when I finally sat down with lyrics the beauty of the album as a whole brought tears in my eyes and it has worked the same way ever since and every time when I do the headphones in the dark thing with the album. If reading lyrics along with music can make for such an emotional impact I can't deny them their power.

Helm said...

I was on vacation, I just found this post! Did I write it? I don't remember! I must have!

I will listen to LESBIAN (I don't have any other use for them) and I'm glad Nekromantis got into Awaken the Guardian as it's my favorite album ever, every little thing in it. I should write about it some day. PERHAPS FOR THE ILLOGICAL CONTRAPTION IN DENIAL.

Excuse me while I cross-post this on my blog.

Helm said...

I refuse to listen to a band called DARK CASTLE though.

Nekromantis said...

I've felt the same about AtG roughly two years now. Perhaps it's still too early to say but damn it feels personal to me already.

Helm said...

That record keeps giving me things. I hope it does the same for you ten years later.