Sunday, August 18, 2013

Inaugural Post: A New (but Old) Metal Renaissance

This new blog represents a project that those who know me well also know I've long been thinking about -- and talking about -- a forum where elements from my public and professional persona and my more private passions can be brought together, juxtaposed, integrated.  More than half my life at this point, I've worked as a philosopher.  And, nearly all of my life, I've been a metalhead.

Until now, with exceptions of a few posts in my main blog, Orexis Dianoētikē -- where I've reflected on heavy metal music in terms of memory, affectivity, temporality -- I've maintained separation between these two equally vital, similarly important spheres.  But today -- which marks my 43rd birthday -- I'm embarking upon something novel for me as a public philosopher, bringing my longstanding love for heavy metal out of the shadows, away from the periphery, and into the limelight, onto the stage.  I've decided that I need a place to write down -- and work out further -- thoughts, reflections, realizations, puzzles and paradoxes that I've partly and privately shared with friends, family, colleagues -- and with my wife and partner, in whom I'm fortunate enough to find someone who enjoys both classic metal and philosophy as passionately as I do.

Metal, Friendships, and Philosophy

Perhaps I'll ruminate further about my purposes in starting yet another blog in a future post or set them down permanently in a page -- for the present, I need to keep the prose spare, to keep to the point, to proceed to -- rather than verbally parry -- the main thrust of this particular post, namely to suggest that we now inhabit an era that can be rightly described as a time of renaissance for classic heavy metal.  But first, a few words about my own personal situation are needed, for context.  These run along two lines -- Friendships and  Philosophy.

Let me address the second one first. One might rightly wonder:  What does a philosopher have to say about heavy metal?  And what does heavy metal have to do with philosophy?  A really full answer to that is precisely what is going to have to be worked out and written down week by week in the space of this blog.  I'll just mention a few lines I intend to follow out in posts to come.  Interesting metaphysical, aesthetic, epistemological, even ethical and political questions get raised not only by songs, their lyrics, and the effects they provoke in our thoughts and emotions -- but also in the very history and practice of metal.  Is there, one could ask, an essence or real definition of metal?  When does a band, having gone through line-up changes, cease to be the same band and become something different?  What should a metal song sound like?  Is metal on the whole, good or bad?  How does music of this sort affect, even educate, our thoughts and emotions?  These are just for starters. . . .

To go back now to the first, I have to say that over the course of my life so far, through heavy metal, I've found, experienced, lived out relationships, friendships, brotherhoods, loves, jealousies, rivalries, enmities.   Not only has this music furnished grounds for connection, companionship, camaraderie -- for me, when I listen, there has also been something akin to what occurs through reading and thinking philosophy -- which means imbibing and pondering the words of, and thinking along with (sometimes. . . no often, really. . . struggling with) the intellectual efforts of great philosophers.

I'm particularly blessed to have in my wife a partner who understands my long-developed love for this music -- because it has a similar, though less exclusive hold upon her.  Thoughts often take a long time, and much practical experience, before they yield to us the fruits of their meanings, and one type of experience of this sort I've been fortunate enough to have, over and over in recent years, has been seeing a number of classic metal bands in concert with my wife.

Metal Concerts in One's 40s

I wrote several years back in Diamonds, Rust, and Nostalgia about the experience of going as a 40-something-year old with my then-fiancee to see Judas Priest's show -- with Thin Lizzy -- in Reading, Pennsylvania.  In the last several years, mainly at her suggestion and arrangement (thankfully!) we've seen a number of classic metal acts in concert together -- Iron Maiden, Motorhead, KISS (twice, once at Live at Letterman), Alice Cooper, Megadeth, Motley Crue. . . and most recently, Udo Dirkschneider (in the very intimate setting of the Chance).

Going to a concert, seeing these bands, experiencing the live metal is considerably different in one's 40s than in ones teens and 20s -- and it's different as well in the 2010s than it was in the 1980s and 1990s.  In certain respects, it's actually better, richer, more rewarding, more enriching now.  I can say, personally, that I'm much more able to appreciate the music in deeper ways, to bring to bear fuller resources of intellect and emotion, to derive a higher level of enjoyment from it.  But there's something more than just the personal, the potentially purely subjective at play as well.

To be sure, there's something lost in the past, somewhere in time gone by, that can't be experienced again -- or that was actually missed the first time around.  In seeing Iron Maiden in the present or near past, for example, I'm different, and they're different -- even the rest of the audience is different -- than the much younger agents engaging each other back when I saw them in the mid and late 80s.  And, I can only rely upon secondhand testimony about what it was like for them, and to hear them, in their early years as they galvanized young metal mutha crowds and then filled areas.

All too often, though, it's easy to focus on -- and romanticize, making more and more imaginary -- what exists in the past, particularly a past that attains the status of legend and mythology.  There's nothing necessarily to criticize in that perennial impulse, of course. . .  unless it blinds us to the reality, the real goods, of the present -- the temporal slice where we actually live and can make new things happen (even if after patterns already long precedented).  It's precisely in favor of that present that I want to argue, at least in terms of classical heavy metal music.

There's much more to analyze, describe, explore, and unfold to this than what I'm going to do here -- in fact, I less want to articulate a full argument, in the sense that philosophers use that term, and more just to point out a few features of the present situation.  Why do I say that we are living through -- and benefitting from -- a veritable renaissance for classic heavy metal?  I'll confine myself to noting just five developments of time and the present age.

Five Signs We're Experiencing a Metal Renaissance

First off, contrast the present situation -- but not against the ferment of roots metal (and vital apprenticeships for so many metal bands) in the 1970s or the veritable explosions of NWOBHM, American metal, and thrash metal in the early and mid-1980s.  Instead, remember the languishing of metal, not only in terms of popularity, but also in vitality, originality, in the 1990s, as grunge and other alternative music largely displaced it,siphoned off its audiences, often coopting not only its energy but even its riffs and hooks.  And, then look at the scene, circa not just 2013, but say, 2003 -- many classic bands, often held back in the 1980s by slipshod or predatory management or labels started to gain traction again playing live shows, even starting to consider releasing new material.  Those who'd been lucky enough to weather through the dry years were lean and hungry again, ready to embrace the new -- and the old, returning -- audiences eager to hear metal again.

How many classic bands, particularly of the NWOBHM have reassembled, closed ranks, and returned anew to their crafts?  Click on some of the band links off the left in this blog -- and see how many of them are not only regularly touring, but producing new material!  Add to that an entire new generation of bands -- particularly those self-identifying as "power metal" -- openly indebted to and emulating the old standards -- and you arrive at my second point:  we're in a situation of reproduction, but not one so much of imitation, but emulation.  And here, permit me to bring in a philosopher, Aristotle, who defined emulation in his Rhetoric as an emotion, involving a kind of pain felt precisely at witnessing the excellence of another, which excellence one would like to be one's own, but must recognize as belonging to the other -- spurring one to attempt to reach their level. 

Third, in the older bands, the stalwarts who survived the drought before the new millennium, there is quite visibly a different attitude.  This is the product of having practiced one's craft for decades -- something I know in my own field from experience.  When you're young, and new on a new scene, you've got everything to prove, and so, if you've got the talent, the discipline, and the will, you produce.  And you produce not merely conditioned by those felt demands, but also bringing forth something that is the best in you, something that will measure up, and allow you to measure yourself in the process (much like my first book was for me).  When you have a past, not just memories, not just experience, not just reflections -- but a narrative that you've had to yourself rethink and revise -- and when you have in the past measured up, and taken your measure where you failed -- you attain something like a wisdom.  You no longer have something to prove, but rather now something proven to offer, to share -- and that shines through in the performances of these classic metal acts.

The fourth point I'd like to make also has to do with what age has brought and wrought.  If you go to a classic metal show, you're going to see an audience for the most part older, grey in the long hair and beards.  You'll also see something new, a generational development -- kids now being initiated to these bands, to the music, to the culture by their 40-something metalhead parents, and responding to a revelation to them entirely new, something epochal, something of the days of old now (to steal Aristotle's saying) brought before their own eyes for them to experience.  The experience of metal has always been one with a communal aspect -- whether it was listening to albums, tapes, or CDs before a basement stereo, at a party, in a car -- or whether it was at a club, arena, or concert hall -- but now a different, a deeper, form of companionship, something akin to friendship, becomes yet more available to those that share a common history together -- and who now respond to the same band alongside one another.

The last point -- perhaps the one which calls for the most elaboration (which I'll not provide at present, but defer to later posts) -- has to do with the effects of the Internet, and the age we now inhabit, nearly two decades into it.  Here, I'll just gesture at a few developments.

Each of the bands that have survived, or reformed, has its own website, where you can find tour information, history, pictures, videos, sometimes even free music -- but this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Want to know (more or less) the main points of the history of a band?  Google them, and their (more or less accurate) Wikipedia entry will likely come up at the top, along with entries in sites like Encylopedia Metallum.  Want to know who sounds like them -- one way I've discovered (an been reminded of) so many bands?  Put their name into Pandora, and then listen a while -- perhaps even produce your own station as I did years back.  Or, type them into YouTube -- no matter how obscure the band may be -- and some user will have uploaded some sound file (usually with an album cover) of their material, and YouTube will suggest videos of similar bands.  Like what you hear there?  There's plug-ins and sites to convert the video into an mp3 for you.  And mp3s?  While iTunes still has a pretty weird way of classifying metal -- classic metal is all under "Rock"! -- it's not bad for suggesting to you bands, albums, and songs you might be interested in hearing and purchasing.

All told, the internet is a major game-changer -- it affects the entire topography of music dissemination.  Want to know what was on (what was for me deeply formative) Metal Killers Kollection tapes?  Google, and you shall find.  As I noted, much more needs to be said about these particular developments -- but this will suffice for the present, I think. . . .


  1. Great blog! It's overdue in the philosophical world.

    I enjoy metal even in middle age, in part because it provides a personal element of Aristotelian catharsis. But a general question arises: What attracts most fans? In this Pantera video (, the young man at the start of the video expresses clearly his orientation: "I'm one of those kids who's going to die in the same town he was born in." In support of the lyrics ("my fist would be the decider"), the video presents tough and violent imagery (entrancing visually, I should add). To what extent does metal embody a reaction to feelings of powerlessness or being shortchanged? And how many fans are like the young man at the start of the video who expresses global alienation (versus my much more limited cathartic or sublimatory needs)?

  2. An interesting set of ideas and questions there. I know that for me, when I was younger, I would say that there were multiple "motives", you might say, for listening.

    There was the aesthetic enjoyment of the music itself -- being able, e.g. to enjoy how a Scorpions song was constructed, the layers of lead guitar, bass, rhythm guitar doing a riff, etc. There was also what you're calling catharsis here (which is a good topic for a future post). An, I think there was a sense of being "gotten to", finding something that could express the alienation and aggression I felt.

    I like that you ask about how much metal "embodies", rather than is "caused by" or "an expression of" powerlessness or feeling shortchanged -- because I think that in many cases, while lyrics may use that as their theme, and that may be part of what's going on, it's rarely the case that successful music-making comes from such a ressentiment-filled place.

    All fodder for further thinking and future posts. . . .