Culture Magazine

The Metaphysics of Heavy Metal

By Cris

There are many ways to think and write about heavy metal music, but few have tapped its dark heart better than James Parker. Over at The Atlantic, Parker makes the beautifully haunting (or floridly disturbing) case that metal keeps its listeners sane. And he does so in terms that clearly connect it to something deep, dark, and dangerous. In other words, metaphysics.

These dark arts are tuned to aspects of human nature that many would like to forget, or at least ignore. Parker begins with a line from James Frazer, inscrutable author of The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion: “We seem to move on a thin crust 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.” Frazer’s insight reminds me of another by Somerset Maugham: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.”

It is difficult to know what Frazer or Maugham might have thought about heavy metal, but Parker turns some beautiful phrases on his own thinking:

Since its invention, 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.

This lower world cosmology traces its roots to the heavy metalists par excellence, Black Sabbath, a band whose aboriginal angst Parker covers with some gorgeous riffs of his own:

Black Sabbath, from Birmingham, England, was heavy metal. No joy here, nor any wisp of psychedelic whimsy. From the first note, this band sounded ancient, oppressed, as if shambling forward under supernatural burdens.

With his use of horror-movie atmospherics—the tension-building tritone or flatted fifth—and the leering majesty of his riffs, guitarist Tony Iommi redirected the spiritual drag of the blues into an uncharted world of bummers and black holes.

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.

Vocally, [Ozzy Osbourne] filtered Butler’s Boschian sensibility through his own late-20th-century depression, in front of a band almost overloading with musical power: early live footage reveals the musicians “bobbing,” in the superb phrase of the metal historian Ian Christe, like “marionettes in the hands of God.”

The sound itself dramatized a violent, existential bottoming-out, Iommi’s guitar lines rearing and plunging across the awesomely delayed crashes of drummer Bill Ward, percussions so far behind the beat that their impact was interior, nearly glandular, like the drench of adrenaline after hearing bad news.

Although I have my doubts about heavy metal keeping us sane, I have no doubt that Parker’s pen is dripping with the blood of tormented saints. It almost makes me want to put on some Sabbath for a voyage to the netherworlds of Sturm und Drang.

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