The Spiritual Benefits of Headbanging

The Atlantic served up a thunderbolt of awesomeness recently with James Parker’s “How Heavy Metal […]

David Zahl / 4.13.11

The Atlantic served up a thunderbolt of awesomeness recently with James Parker’s “How Heavy Metal Keeps Us Sane” (I confess to more than a little intellectual envy). He’s 100% right: very few, if any, other genres can lay claim to such a uniformly low anthropology, not to mention unabashed verticality. Not even Horror/Goth. Metal is just so darn elemental, pun intended. I remember getting in an argument with a metalhead friend in high school, in which I foolishly asserted that the limited emotional palette made it inferior to other, broader styles of music. Yet as Parker points out, that’s precisely what anchors it so profoundly, ht CR:

“We seem to move on a thin crust,” warned Sir James George Frazer in The Golden Bough,

which may at any moment be rent by the subterranean forces slumbering below. From time to time a hollow murmur underground or a sudden spirt of flame into the air tells of what is going on beneath our feet.

Though written in 1922, this is metalspeak, pure and simple… Since its invention (to which we will return in a moment), heavy metal has been the popular music most ardently devoted to Frazer’s underground magma pools, and most grandly expressive of their inevitable eruption. Metal’s commerce with the lower realm has been extravagant, ridiculous, and covered in glory. The sleeper parched of his dreams, or purged of his nightmares, goes swiftly bonkers: without fantasy there is no reality. It might be argued—indeed, it will be argued, by me, right now—that heavy metal has kept us sane.

Black Sabbath created heavy metal. We can say that with a satisfying kick-drum thump of certainty… Bassist Geezer Butler, a mystical vegetarian, wrote the lyrics. Raised Catholic, Butler as a youngster had entertained thoughts of the priesthood, and for all the band’s occult trappings, his view of things was essentially orthodox, if a little on the medieval side: God over here, Satan over there, man flailing and biting his nails in the middle. “Lord of This World,” from 1971’s Master of Reality, made it all very clear:

Your world was made for you by someone above
But you chose evil ways instead of love
You made me master of the world where you exist
The soul I took from you was not even missed

…Metallica’s singer/guitarist James Hetfield—after Geezer Butler, the second great poet of heavy metal—would go on to make more-complex metaphysical statements: the astonishing “Sad But True,” from 1991’s Metallica, is Schopenhauer in the key of E minor. But with “Master of Puppets,” he hit a metal mother lode. Subjugators and string-pullers, principalities and powers: in the face of all these, heavy metal is cosmic protest music.

By dwelling at such length on the lyrics, and mentioning Schopenhauer, I of course risk the capital vice of the writer-on-metal: I risk being intellectual. Nothing disgusts a metalhead more than to be intellectualized. Which is not to say that he himself is without conceit in that department. The metalhead, quite counter to stereotype, is floridly pretentious. He will call his band Sanctum of Carnality, or Thy Maleficence; he will steep himself in the Stygian prose of H. P. Lovecraft, possibly the most insane overwriter since Webster; he will root through his thesaurus to find a fancy word for “dismemberment”; he will make up his own words, heavy-sounding words, like thraft (High on Fire) and cleansation (Chimaira). But all of this is best understood as a kind of voodoo, a force field of metal-ness with which to ward off the triflers and non-tragedians, while simultaneously short-circuiting the apparatus of good taste, correctly identified by the proto-metalhead G. K. Chesterton as “the last and vilest of human superstitions.” Faddists and lightweights: keep your distance. Critic: we will make your brain explode…

The panicking parents of yesteryear now seem like characters from folk memory. An anti-metal case in our current climate might more appropriately be brought by Richard Dawkins or the Council for Secular Humanism, arraigning some metalhead for singing too loudly about damnation. Not every metal act subscribes to the cosmology of Geezer Butler as made manifest in the sound of Black Sabbath: metal today is produced with equal sincerity and efficacy by atheists and Christians, depressives and libertines, diabolists, miserablists, absurdists, and those whose only religion is metal itself. But when it starts to get heavy, dilating your blood vessels and stirring the roots of your hair, you know you are approaching the primary vision—of man besieged, man pulled apart, man suspended over gulfs of penal fire.

The great scholar of heavy metal Robert Walser, doing research for his 1993 book, Running With the Devil, interviewed a Twisted Sister fan who told him that the easy-listening music favored by her mother had made her paranoid. In Walser’s words: “It so obviously seems to lie to her about the world.” An Avenged Sevenfold fan might say the same today about the music of Jack Johnson, or John Mayer, or Jason Mraz, or any of the golden troubadours on heavy rotation at your local Starbucks. I don’t mean to be ungracious about Starbucks—I happen to spend a good deal of time in Starbucks—but heavy metal reminds me that Starbucks, like much of modern life, is a fiction. Go through the membrane, break the crust, and everything is metal.