Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Middle-Schoolers Finding Meaning in Metal

One of the signs that metal not only became a distinctive, identifiable genre of music -- that happened quite some time ago -- but that as it developed, as song-by-song its potentialities were discovered and deployed, metal set down something like a foundation, a bedrock, upon which each new generation can build, raze, rebuild, and most of all find and generate meaning -- sense and significance that sets a person, or in this case case a duo of kids, into continuity with a generation-spanning community.

A Vimeo video making its rounds through social media, "Unlocking the Truth" (titled after the band) made its way into my own timeline, and after watching it (see below), my second reaction -- my first was just to think it was cool to see two young guys clearly enjoying creating metal -- was to be struck by the fact that they find a kind of anchoring, expanding, lived-out meaning within that music.  For me, thirty years ago in my own childhood and adolescence, that was one of the aspects or dimensions to heavy metal that drew me in and kept me listening.

What Do Kids Have to Write About?

One might well wonder what middle-school students, however musically talented or committed, might have to say at their age that would be of more universal interest.  What sorts of themes could inform and flow through their lyrics?



In the video Malcolm and Jarad mention two themes in particular.  The first is referenced a bit more in passing -- various relationships which they've had and lived through, i.e. "love songs."  The second gets more discussion in the footage -- experiences of being bullied and standing firm against it, resisting pressure and continuing on with one's chosen path -- being who one is, understanding "being" here as a committed and chosen pattern of activity.

I would suspect that the reason why that particular theme garnered attention from the video producers lies in its seeming ubiquity in discussions about grade-school these days. Likely, though, if there's a sort of music well-equipped to strip away the sentimentality from the topic and analyse it in bare bones fashion, it would be metal. 

Really, it ought not be surprising that sixth-graders would be able to begin composing interesting metal songs.  Middle school was for many of us a time of ambiguous, heady, alternately depressing and exhilarating initiation into so many aspects of life -- sexual attraction, shifting alliances and friendships, rules and rule-breaking, rivalries and even fights, experiments of all sorts, alienation, successes and failures.  Adolescence really gains its foothold grip in middle school.

In point of fact, the songs that one can hear -- many of them videos recorded out on the street, and uploaded by Malcolm Brickhouse's mother -- actually don't have any sung lyrics one can listen to, since the band Unlocking the Truth at this point consists in a power-trio of bassist (Alec), drummer (Jarad), and guitarist (Malcolm), none of them singing (though, from this Village Voice piece, we find they've got plans to bring in not only a vocalist, but also a rhythm guitarist and perhaps even a keyboardist).

Originality, Imitation, and Style

There's always a dialectic at play as any practitioner of a craft progresses from the stage of basic lessons and exercises -- where there is no question of originality yet -- to intensive study, imitation, and incorporation -- where attempts to be "completely" original would be counterproductive -- to the development of comfortable mastery that permits, even demands going off on one's own, working up and publicly introducing  relatively new elements, aspects, attempts, sounds. Originality remains a value difficult to pin down, impossible to attain in any absolute sense, but nevertheless a needed lure and ideal for performers.

The three members of Unlocking the Truth exhibit their share of a now decades-old sentiment expressed by young bands over and over again -- a desire to produce something new, fresh, original.  In fact, they openly name this as one of the features attracting them to heavy metal as a genre, that it remains open to being redone, enacted anew, precisely because not as many people are engaging in it, by comparison to rap, hip-hop, pop.

It's clear that they are extremely dedicated, to a degree of devotion exponentially surpassing anything we had in our adolescence.  Their love for metal extends far past appreciation, listening, sharing, concert-going, headbanging, even playing around with instruments and along with songs -- they're driving ahead to write and perform songs.  And, most importantly, they're apprenticing, putting in the time, sweat, fingertip-flesh, practicing in hours-long sessions while maintaining their school grades, and navigating through their own adolescences.

What they play is not radically original.  But, I don't think it really needs to be in order to be surprisingly good, and not only by measure of their age.  The riffs, the solos, the songs themselves are how these 12-year-olds retread paths worn by decades of other metal musicians, remaining on the right trails -- its worth remembering that a journey is still getting somewhere even if one is not the first to travel there, and that vistas retain their beauty or awe no matter how many eyes have already taken them in.

Successful appropriation of style, not just in the musical sense, but with a broader signification, is really a matter of having made one's own something that can never be reduced to one's own possession, something shared, passed down, added to and modified, but still identifiable as the same thing.  There is a sort of a kind of reciprocity where one implants one's hooks into it, and in turn, it changes one, grafts itself into one, becomes part of the tissue comprising one's person.

In heavy metal, I think a sign of that -- which you see as this young trio performs -- is the very bodily motions, thrashing and headbanging as one listens -- or in this case, plays.  In a different manner than with what lyrics can convey, that is to appropriate meaning, to make the resources of the genre, of the music itself, to incorporate the chords and progressions into one's own corporeal and emotional repertoire.

There are a number of other points that could be explored, evoked by consideration of this band and its members -- for instance the contrast between their cool, matter-of-fact demeanor and the playful desires manifested within props taking shape and substance from their imagination, e.g. the fictitious tour date listings -- but I'll just leave off here, noting again that what remains particularly striking to me as I watch their performances, listen to and read their interviews, and peruse the speculation about them on websites, is how clearly meaningful to them this genre of music became and remains.