Saturday, January 22, 2011

Are "Real Songs" Disappearing from Metal?

Opus Eponymous vs. Swarth

There has been a growing chorus of people lamenting the decline of "real songs" in metal. The latest of these to catch my notice was the review of Ghost's Opus Eponymous over at Invisible Oranges:
Much of Ghost’s appeal probably comes from the fact that metal tropes (Satanic lyrics! Wearing hoods on stage!) are appearing in a seemingly novel context: actual songs with actual singing and actual melodies. Songs one can remember – imagine that! Extreme metal is so starved for them that initially Ghost seemed like a breath of fresh air to me. . . .
In this age of buzzy/Burzumic/psychedelic/sit-down metal, songwriting is at an all-time low. Even first-album, before-they-were-good Accept seem like Leiber and Stoller compared to 99% of extreme metal today. The standard has fallen so low that just having songs one can tell apart has become an achievement.
Cosmo Lee is just one of many voices making this point. It's all bullshit.


First off, I'd like to point out that I try to avoid use of the word "song". The definition includes "a short metrical composition intended or adapted for singing", and several other meanings that imply both (a) short length and (b) actual "singing", both things I find unnecessary. "Composition" sounds a bit pretentious, but it's a better term.

Arguendo, I'll accept the basic premise that songwriting is about writing catchy tunes that are memorable. Have these people never heard of Slough Feg, Danzig, or Grand Magus? Those three are just the tip of the iceberg in writing catchy metal tunes from 2010. There's also the resurgence of traditional heavy metal, like Holy Grail and (gag) Enforcer. Even in the more extreme metal camps you can find this kind of thing--anyone who's heard Dark Fortress's "Ylem" or Enslaved's "Ethica Odini" will not soon forget it, nor will they forget the chorus of "Viking Death Metal" from Unleashed. Just two years ago, one of the most chaotic-sounding metal bands out there, Meshuggah, wrote an unforgettable song--"Bleed", anyone? No, songwriting, in that sense is as strong as ever.

But more importantly, catchy tunes are not all there is to music. The very existence of something like Throbbing Gristle is a testament to that. Catchiness is anathema to all forms of noise and drone music. There is something more, something that's been recognized as long as music has existed.

Tchaikovsky: The Complete SymphoniesYou see, before the advent of rock and pop, music was mainly about mood, atmosphere, and simply being interesting. Yes, there were musical themes to tie it together, but the hook was not the point, just part of the whole. Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, for example, has barely a memorable hook in sight, but it's a great piece of emotional music. All of the smartest (or most pretentious, if you prefer) kinds of music in the world are like this: jazz, classical, opera, and (yes) the forward-thinking kinds of metal.

The modern need for hooks is just one symptom of our society's loss of its attention span. Peruse the classical music section of your local record store and you'll see it's infected even there: It's tough to find a complete symphony, but you'll find the "highlights from" or "favorites" without any difficulty. Hook-based music, or pop, is the dumbest form of music out there. It takes only one element of music and makes it the whole. Not that this is always a bad thing, but it can get old real fast.

Not only that, but verse-chorus-verse songwriting with easily remembered melodies repeated throughout are comforting. They're nice. Most of all, they're safe. These qualities have no place in extreme metal, which is about being unsettling and dangerous.

I have no categorical problem with hook-based music, but it's a very small portion of my musical world. Yes, I welcome Ghost. But I'm not giving up my Portal.


  1. Great perspective on this. I agree that it's always good to have some diversity.. metal that actually is catchy and memorable (besides just the older classics, think slayer and even back to black sabbath) is getting pretty rare in the metal scene nowadays, a least the real metal, not any hot topic or nu-metal garbage. But yeah I agree, metal is known for not being too hook-based, yeah great riffs, but not too catchy riffs if you get what I mean.

  2. I think it's hard for a lot of musicians to produce a catchy yet actually good song, at least through the eyes of most listeners. For example, I just listened to a Grand Magus song and dismissed it right away as being too commercial. Maybe I'm just an elitist, but then again, metal isn't always supposed to be so sing-songy, that's why there are other genres I can listen to if I am in the mood. I would say that Ghost does it right on their debut.. I enjoyed Traveller but not the new Feg so much, and Electric Wizard gets it just right on Black Masses.

  3. Have to say, as much as I love Ghost, the vocalist of Portal looks much more evil in a papal hat.

  4. I had the same reaction after reading IO's article. I'm not sure what pisses me off the most, the idea that someone who gets to listen to so much metal somehow manages to think that songwriting is at an all-time low, or the fact that music is still judged according to these outdated criteria of what is or is not a "song".

  5. A band that this article bring to mind for me is Kvelertak. They're just another example of new music (actually a really new band) that are catchy, interesting, and have excellent songwriting. At least that's what I think. But there are new groups popping up all the time with interesting new ideas in their music.

  6. Excellent text. I agree on your thoughts. Whole life passes by listening to "safe" music, that is so lifeless. But then again, Metal as popular music wouldn't be so precious...

    Cheers for your site, it is so exciting to read something inteligible and interesting as this blog......