Sunday, March 27, 2011

What Is Heavy?

Heavy Week, Part 1

What Makes Music "Heavy" Might Not Be As Obvious As You Think. But There Is a Right Answer.

I think the word "heavy" first took on figurative meanings with the beatniks of the 50's, who used it to mean something along the lines of "profoundly intense and sobering". Today it means a lot more, and the Urban Dictionary entry gives it many meanings, from "good" to "carrying a firearm". But of the top definitions there, the only one really relating to music says it means "hardcore, brutal, [or] raw" and gives the example "Whitechapel is heavy." While I'm not going to dispute that Whitechapel is, indeed, heavy, the definition is way off base.

Like one member of Swans in their relatively recent Decibel interview, you might be wondering what the point of heaviness is. He thought it more important to evoke an emotional response, similar to the beatnik definition of "heavy". Maybe, sometimes. But there is nothing as satisfyingly visceral as a truly heavy song.

I used to assume everyone interested in heavy music knew what the word "heavy" means. But I first realized how little common agreement there is on the meaning of this term when reading an article in Metal Hammer.* A guy from Architects, asked how he got interested in heavy music, said, "The shouting in [Linkin Park's] "One Step Closer" was the heaviest thing I'd ever heard." This confused the hell out of me, because I can't understand (a) how vocals can ever be heavy (unless you're Chris Barnes) and, (b) even if they were, how trebly vocals like Chester Bennington's could be heavy.

*My wife wanted to give me a gift, and got a subscription to it because she remembered me saying I like a British heavy metal magazine. We corrected the situation and I got my Terrorizer instead, but not until I had gotten a few issues.

Linkin Park: Not particularly heavy. The vocals: not heavy at all. Watch this at your own peril.

So what is heavy? It can't really be scientifically defined, but to paraphrase Justice Stewart, I know it when I hear it. It's definitely got a lot to do with bass, but that isn't the whole story. (Rap beats are not heavy.) It also has a lot to do with tone, and an indefinable presence. But talking about it in specifics like this isn't going to get us all the way to understanding. We'll need to take a look at specific examples. Metallattorney once mused that Gojira's "From the Sky" could be the heaviest song ever.

That is definitely heavy. It has a lot of low end, and it keeps hammering on that. But I think we can do even better than that. The tone and presence aren't quite there, and we should be aware that heaviness is enhanced by playing slow, not fast. That allows it to sink deeper. Sure, you can find heaviness even in black metal (see Immortal), but you're going to find it more in doom and sludge. We need to be careful not to confuse heaviness with brutality. So, another song that has been called the heaviest ever, by many people, is Black Sabbath's "Into the Void". About the 1:30 mark is where it gets real heavy, but another heavy one starts around 3:00, and another around 5:00.

Again, we're part of the way there. Of course this was hampered by the recording technology of the time, but it's got a great tempo that lets the low-end rattle your bowels if you turn it up loud enough. But I think the heaviest band on the planet could be Electric Wizard.

If you can't wait, skip forward to about 1:30, or the 5:00 mark for another crushingly heavy riff. This has it all. If you ever want to know how heavy a song is, this is your yardstick. To quantify heaviness, just measure it as a ratio to EW. Gojira hovers around 0.8 EW, while a couple of funeral doom bands (Ahab and Evoken come to mind) might even exceed 1 EW.

The rest of this week, I'll be taking a look at some metal of the extremely heavy variety.


  1. I think I'm similar to you. I tend to define "heavy" as "like Dopethrone".

  2. Thanks for the shameless plug!

    Interesting topic. I enjoyed the story of Metal Hammer. When I first ordered my subscription to Metal Maniacs they sent me a couple of issues of Metal Edge instead, which is the only magazine more worthless than Metal Hammer (Revolver is slightly better but not much).

    As for Gojira, I do believe that that is an incredibly heavy song. I was mostly posting randomly because I was listening to the album at that time. I am sure there is heavier stuff out there. I do agree that some of the funeral doom bands are probably the heaviest around, and as much as I dislike it, the drone genre is incredibly heavy as well.

  3. I don't disagree with the heaviness of Gojira! 80% of Dopethrone (the quantification of percentages will have to be as gut-driven as comparative negligence) is pretty damn heavy.

  4. it seems like slower bands tend to be heavier. i'm not musically inclined, but it seems like the slower tempos allows the low end frequencies to resonate more.

    also, nice timely post. i've been binging on warhorse and sleep lately.

  5. Thanks Kelly. Defining "heavy" is almost as difficult as defining "metal". Both sides of the equation have their divisive issues. I know what you mean about slower stuff sounding heavier, but I don't think heaviness is necessarily related inversely to speed. There are some heavy death metal and black metal bands, as you rightly point out. Maybe the slower it is and the lower the downtuned guitar chord the more you FEEL the heaviness rather than just hear about it. Someone once said "You don't listen to heavy metal, you feel it through the floor." So there's the bass element then. I think you handle the topic well, with some fine examples, although I must deduct a point for the pure evilness of putting a Linkin Park vid up!!! Thanks for sharing