“Heavy metal” is a subcategory of rock music that comes in many forms, but which always features amplified distortion, extensive guitar solos and emphatic drum beats. It can be fast or slow, simple or complex, happy or angry, but it’s always very thick and aggressive sounding. And while it might include synthesizers or even a full orchestra in some cases, the electric guitar takes center stage. Metal also includes certain visual and verbal trappings. In terms of imagery, it’s full of chains, dangerous animals, electricity, fire, leather, motorcycles, scantily-clad people (of both genders), switchblades, swords, whips, and/or the color black. In terms of lyrics, metal songs usually explore themes of death, occultism, religious blasphemy and/or unbridled sexuality. The entire subculture essentially invokes an atmosphere of extreme and brutal power.
Metal originated in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a fusion of psychedelic garage rock and African American blues music. It was first articulated by such bands as Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Iron Butterfly, Led Zeppelin, Steppenwolf, the Stooges and Uriah Heep. A second wave of metal bands hit during the mid-to-late 1970s with groups like Judas Priest, Kiss, Motorhead and Van Halen at the forefront. During this time, metal was mostly an underground thing that few people took very seriously, but it absolutely exploded in popularity during the 1980s. It also divided into many smaller categories (e.g., “glam metal,” “thrash metal,” “power metal”) through such bands as Dokken, Iron Maiden and Metallica. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, metal became starved of its former creativity and seemed to die a quiet death while hip hop and grunge rock surpassed it in popularity. Then, in the mid-1990s, the subgenre was revived by bands like Korn, Marilyn Manson, and White Zombie. Since then, metal has branched out into an even wider spectrum of categories (e.g., “black metal,” “death metal,” “industrial metal”).
Most metal fans and musicians are heterosexual Caucasian males, which means that most metal music is written from a straight white guy’s perspective. This has led many outsiders to assume that heavy metal is inherently racist, sexist and/or homophobic, and that metal fans – who are also called “metalheads” or “headbangers” – are glorifying white hetereo male dominance. This is definitely true when it comes to certain bands like Burzum (which is admittedly racist), but it’s not true of all or even most of us.
Let’s tackle the racism issue first. It’s important to remember that the musicians who first established heavy metal in the 1960s and 1970s all loved blues music (as you can tell from listening to the first Black Sabbath album), and they all praise Jimi Hendrix as their number one inspiration for playing the electric guitar. The entire subgenre owes its bread and butter to a black man, and all of the classic heavyweights (e.g., Eddie Van Halen, Ritchie Blackmore, Tony Iommi) recognize this fact. It may not be recognized by some other metal musicians (e.g., Varg Vikernes) or by certain subpopulations of the genre (e.g., “National Socialist black metal” bands), but it’s recognized across the board by everyone else. Furthermore, there have been and continue to be non-whites who perform and/or enjoy metal music. Body Count (which was founded by Ice-T) is an African American thrash metal group, while Deftones, Sepultura and Tom Araya – the bassist and lead vocalist of Slayer – are all Hispanic Americans. The sheer amount of record sales these artists have earned indicates that more metalheads accept them than not. I might also mention that heavy metal enjoys a very wide audience in such countries as Brazil and Japan.
Now for the sexism issue. It’s all-too-easy to assume that heavy metal is nothing more than phallic macho posturing, but the truth is that things aren’t quite as clear-cut as you’d expect. Androgyny has always had a powerful place in this subculture; it began with Alice Cooper and we see it again and again in Kiss, Twisted Sister, Motley Crue, Marilyn Manson and various others. These artists often wear makeup and women’s clothing to shock their audiences (or the parents of their audiences), but they’re actually tapping into something far deeper than that. Western culture has built its patriarchy on the notion that power is and must always be “masculine” even in appearance (and that gentility is a so-called “feminine” trait). Guys like Coop and Manson, however, wear such “feminine” things as makeup and women’s clothing, but they commit extreme exaggerations of so-called “masculine” behavior on stage (e.g., chopping up fake babies, strangling mock victims) and in their songs (e.g., rebelling against parents, preachers, politicians and Gods). They represent power as something that’s neither “masculine” nor “feminine” but purely androgynous; it can just as easily be channeled by drag queens and transsexuals as it can by bikers or truckers.
And while they’re admittedly a minority, there are metal bands that either include female members or that are made up entirely of women (e.g., Astarte, Drain STH, Holy Moses, Kittie, Lita Ford, Vixen, Warlock, etc.). The thing about women in metal is that they’re really expected to be just like the men. Just look at Sean Yseult or Doro Pesch; would you want to pick a fight with either of them in a dark alleyway at night? (I know I wouldn’t.) Sure, female metal musicians might wear clothing that’s sexually suggestive, but the males usually do too (which is why certain metal bands are sometimes accused of being “homoerotic”). Again, there’s a strong androgynous element in the heavy metal culture that applies not only to male performers but also to females. Women in metal are expected to wear leather, ride motorcycles, brandish swords and beat the snot out of people just as well as the men do. This makes it very hard for me to agree with anyone who accuses metal of being “sexist”; in fact, I would argue that it’s really just the opposite.
Rob Halford of Judas Priest
As for the homophobia issue, I need mention only one person: Rob Halford of Judas Priest. He’s the man who established what some people call the “heavy metal dress code” back in the late 1970s, complete with leather, chains, spikes, and uber-cool state trooper glasses. There’s no one else on Earth who looks, sounds or simply is as metal as Rob Halford. And do you know what? He’s gay. Do you know where he got his costume? From a gay S&M sex shop. And do you know who Rob’s talking to when he sings, “On and on we’re charging to the place so many seek / In perfect synchronicity of which so many speak / We feel so close to heaven in this roaring heavy load / And then in sheer abandonment, we shatter and explode”? Yup, that’s right; he’s talking to a dude.
Now when Halford came out of the closet back in the 1990s, there were probably a few assholes out there who threw away their Priest collections in disgust. But despite what you might expect, most of us just said, “Yeah, OK; as if we didn’t already know. Now get back to rockin’!” Halford has received an overwhelming amount of support from most of the entire metal subculture. There’s an awful lot of straight white guys who like metal and who accept LGBT people simply because they know that if they didn’t, they’d have to stop listening to Judas Priest (which just isn’t acceptable)! Rob Halford is living proof that it doesn’t matter if you’re female, non-white or LGBT; heavy metal has the power to forge us all into “Metal Gods!”
But the most persistent accusation against heavy metal is that it’s “satanic.” Many bands like to use occult imagery in their songs and album covers, and some of them discuss the Christian devil and other mythical figures in their lyrics. Yet the word “satanic” can refer to either (1) anything that involves Satan (whether it’s pro- or anti-Satan), (2) things that are clearly pro-Satan (like Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible), or (3) anything that evangelical and/or fundamentalist Christians don’t like (including Buddhists, Democrats and books by Charles Darwin). The third definition is useless since it can even include things like Sesame Street, and while bands like Black Sabbath and Slayer might qualify for the first definition, they don’t qualify for the second (since they’re actually Christians in real life). The list of bands that are actually “satanic” in the second context (e.g., Deicide, Mercyful Fate, King Diamond, etc.) is surprisingly short.
Most metal musicians who use occult themes and symbols only do so to evoke a particular kind of atmosphere in their art; it’s really no different from telling a ghost story or making a horror film. Is it logical to assume that Tod Browning seriously believed in vampires simply because he directed the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula in 1931? No; only a total idiot would believe that, and the very same principle applies to bands like Black Sabbath and Slayer. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, however, often think this nuance doesn’t matter. Ozzy Osbourne might not actually be a fan of Aleister Crowley, but by writing the song “Mr. Crowley” (which is actually very critical of the British occultist), he gave Crowley lots of free publicity and introduced him to a whole new generation of fans. There are Thelemites today whose very first exposure to Crowley was through that song (or through any of Led Zeppelin’s various Crowley-inspired songs), and Christians cite this as evidence that heavy metal is truly “satanic.” They believe Satan uses these musicians to indoctrinate youth into his lies, whether the artists realize what they’re doing or not.
The death metal band Nile’s 2005 album, Annihilation of the Wicked; an example of how heavy metal music often incorporates Pagan themes into its content
I agree that occult references in heavy metal music can influence listeners regardless of whether musicians believe in the occult or not, but I don’t agree that this is a “bad” thing or that the Christian devil is behind it all. It seems to me that the Buddha, several Pagan Deities and even Jesus Christ also have Their fingers in this pie. If some metalheads are drawn to Thelema through Ozzy’s “Mr. Crowley,” then others are drawn to Asatru through Manowar’s “Sons of Odin,” to Mesopotamian polytheism through Karl Sanders’ “Of the Sleep of Ishtar,” or even to Christianity through Stryper’s “To Hell With the Devil.” Virtually every form of spirituality in the world has been used for at least one metal song somewhere (including Scientology).
Which brings me to my final point. I love heavy metal for many different reasons, but I especially love it because it’s the one form of music today that most often gives polytheist Deities fair shake. When’s the last time you ever heard a hip hop song about Thor bashing frost giants with His hammer, Mjollnir? When’s the last time you ever heard a country song about reciting the 42 Negative Confessions before Osiris at the Weighing of the Heart? Whenever spirituality is mentioned in these other genres, it’s almost always expressed in a Judeo-Christian context. Heavy metal is the only genre in which you’re just as likely to hear songs about Odin and Marduk as you do about Jesus or Satan. In fact, there are quite a few people who first learn about Paganism through heavy metal music. This is exactly what happened with me; my first encounter with Seth-Typhon was a direct result of listening to Marilyn Manson in middle school.
Anyway, I’ll be reviewing some of my all-time favorite metal albums on this website, and I’ll be focusing on how these albums have affected me spiritually. I’m not exactly sure what anyone should expect to learn from reading these reviews, but I hope that someone will at least find them entertaining. Please click the link below to get started.
My Heavy Metal Articles