Listening to heavy metal – “it’s like entering a completely different world”, by Vincent Varrie

Me: How often do you listen to music?

Rauvoun: (Jokingly responds) every 20 seconds. Every day of my life. How often am I awake?

Me: What effect does metal music have in your life?

Rauvoun: Keeps me calm when I’m calm, and makes me calm when I’m feeling everything else.[i]

Metal like all other music genres, has a rich history that includes pioneers, virtuosos and stalwarts.[ii] Musicians such as Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, Van Halen, Judast Priest and Led Zeppelin shocked the world with their technicality, originality and aggressive attitude and stage performances. According to Robert Walser, heavy metal was transformed during the 1980s “from the moribund music of a fading subculture into the dominant genre of American music.” [iii] This is illustrated in the record sales – by 1989, 40% of all sound recordings sold in the United States were heavy metal records.[iv] Although not as popular as it once was, heavy metal music is still being performed and listened to all over the world.

As a “metalhead”, heavy metal music played an important part in my development as a musician. In order to better understand the influence of this genre on my own music making as well as that of some of its other listeners, I attended two concerts at the music club Gandalfs as a participant observer and interviewed individuals who regularly listens to heavy metal. Gandalfs is a club located in Cape Town with a live music venue, ROAR, upstairs, that is dedicated to heavy metal, black metal and indie rock performances.

To understand why “metalheads” are so passionate about this musical form, it is important to know where it all started.

Brief History

The term heavy metal, originally used to refer to toxic or poisonous metallic chemical elements, was adopted in the 1960s by William S. Burroughs in his book Nova Express (1964) to refer to one of his character as “the heavy metal kid.”[v] Subsequently, he is often credited for inspiring the genre. The characteristics that came to be associated with heavy metal namely power, loudness and aggression are all indebted to the historical circulation of images, qualities and metaphors that were prevalent during the 1960s when this genre gained its stylistic identity. [vi]

This identity can be traced back to the rise of African-American blues, with artists including Howlin Wolf, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Muddy Waters and later the man that revolutionized blues, Jimi Hendrix. Some of the stylistic elements of these musicians that influenced the heavy metal music genre include harmonic progressions, vocal lines and guitar improvisations on the pentatonic scales that are derived from blues music. Other pioneers such as Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath gave us the original metal sound as well as the “devils note” (the flat five) and the power chord.[vii] Interestingly, throughout heavy metal’s history, its most influential musicians have been guitarists who have studied classical music, such as Eddy van Halen, Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, Angus Young, Yngwie Malmsteen and Randy Rhoads.[viii]

The music

Walser states that an extremely distorted electric guitar is the most important aural sign of heavy metal or hard rock, stemming from the 1950s, where guitarists experimented with distortion through slashing their speaker cones.[ix] This also points to the relation with the vocal chords where distortion is evident when we scream or shout – a sign of extreme power and intense expression. This search for distortion and its link to chord voicings led to the development of power chords, which is an open fifth or fourth played on the lower strings. A brilliance and edge is added by the higher harmonics created by the distortion and a weight to the sound is created by the resultant tones produced by the interval combinations of the power chords.

The vocals sounds are similar in some ways to the style of guitar playing in metal, with vocalists deliberately distorting their voices, or singing long sustained notes to suggest intensity and power. The continued development of technology and equipment has also allowed metal music to develop a stronger dependence on volume, reverb, echo and overdubbing. Occasionally there are back up voices, usually during the chorus section of the song to enlarge the statements of the solo voice.[x] However the main solo instrument remains the guitar and the work of Eddie van Halen, for example, has inspired a generation of young guitar players towards greater technical competence. [xi]

Why we listen to heavy metal music?

When you first walk up the stairs to ROAR, which is on the second floor of Gandalfs where the live performances are, you walk under a black light. You immediately light up like a Christmas tree at night and at the end of the stairs you pay your entry fee and get a stamp. It is like entering a totally different world, because I completely forgot that it was raining until I felt the leak in the roof, but it was a refreshing feeling. The wall of sound on both floors and immense heat on the top floor makes you completely forget where you came from. [xii]

As noted in the previous section, heavy metal relies on loud volumes, distortion and reverb to establish a sense of power and disruption. Robert Walser also notes that “both the extreme volume and artificially produced aural indicators of space allow the music to transform the actual location of the listener”. [xiii] The volume and intensity of these concerts and the music, enables the listener to step into a different world.

During a performance on 29 August at Gandalf’s one of my favorite South African bands, “Oh God,” a progressive metal band that regularly changes time signatures, I saw everyone head banging to the constant changing of time signature and most people even staying in time. Some metal bands had painted faces and some went even further with chains, nooses, masks, and painted limbs resembling blood. I watched the guitarist of the band, “Devilspeak,” who performed before “Oh God”, De Wet Loots, changed his outfit from a mask with an inverted cross, to a gas mask and adding a noose to his attire. He rain danced to almost every band that played that night while bumping into everyone around him.

This is indicative of the space that heavy metal music has created outside of the struggles and constraints of daily life, where you can express yourself and where you have agency to choose to participate in the chaos that surrounds you through dancing and screeching along to the lyrics – and this sense of agency, as illustrated in the opening interview, allows its listeners to “stay calm when [we] feel everything else”. Kelly Schwartz has noted for example that heavy metal may not only “distract individuals through external stimulation,” but that it may also “serve as a social validation for what [listeners] think and feel about themselves, others, and society”. [xiv]

Metal music has given me, and so many of its listeners, a place to belong and a purpose in life. At Gandalfs you get drowned in everything heavy metal; smoking, alcohol, excessive swearing and a wall of distortion that completely sucks you in. The music lets you escape from the shackles of everyday life. Whereas I never dreamt of picking up an instrument, I am now blustering along learning the riffs to all my favourite songs and studying towards a degree in music.

[i] Interview done with Rauvoun Walker, 3 September 2015, Cape Town.

[ii] This is a version of an essay presented in partial fulfillment for the subject Academic Literacy as part of the Music Diploma Programme at the Music Department, Stellenbosch University.

[iii] Robert Walser, Running with the Devil: Power, Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1993), p. 11.

[iv] Robert Walser, Running with the Devil: p. 11.

[v] Robert Walser, Running with the Devil: p. 8.

[vi] Robert Walser, Running with the Devil: p. 1.

[vii] Robert Walser, Running with the Devil: pp. 8-9.

[viii] Robert Walser, ‘Eruptions’: p. 263.

[ix] Robert Walser, Running with the Devil: p. 41.

[x] Robert Walser, Running with the Devil: p. 45.

[xi] Robert Walser, Running with the Devil: pp. 50-51.

[xii] A fieldnote written on 15 August 2015 at Gandalfs in Cape Town.

[xiii] Robert Walser, Running with the Devil: pp. 44-45.

[xiv] Kelly Schwarts, ‘Music preferences, personality, style and developmental issues of adolescents’, Journal of Youth Ministry, Vol. 3/1 (2004), p. 49.



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