When rock and roll first made waves in America, worried parents blamed it for declining moral standards. In fact, before video games, rock music took the brunt of the worried parent’s wrath.
Early metal artists like Black Sabbath/Ozzy Osbourne shocked the sensibilities of many parents with their dark lyrics. Osbourne was even accused of being a Satanist, even though he was a member of the Church of England and prayed before each show.
Death metal is an extreme subgenre in the metal tradition. It uses heavy distortion, low-tuned guitars, aggressive and technical drumming, and dark lyrical matter. To non-fans of the genre, it can be an assault on the ears, but to fans, it can be empowering and joyful.
Why do people like it? Let’s dig in!
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Metal Fans Are Not Their Stereotypes
There is an unfortunate stereotype amongst non-metal fans that people who like death metal and various genres of heavy metal are angry people with violent tendencies. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Even though the music contains violent themes and violent music, the emotions that fans report when listening to the music are positive emotions. They are not usually experiencing anger when listening to angry music.
Anecdotally, meeting metal musicians on the road and at shows – they are usually very nice and exceptionally talented people. Sure, like any genre, you’ll find jerks and hacks, but that is not the norm.
In a recent study, researchers found that death metal fans experienced emotions like empowerment, joy, peace, and transcendence.
On the other hand, people who did not like the genre described it as annoying and irritating.
Music is hard to study, because it is so subjective. Everyone listens to different music to calm down. My partner listens to loud and brash EDM. I listen to Brazilian jazz. Others listen to acoustic music. Still others, punk.
The music that brings you peace has a lot to do with the music you listened to growing up, your influences, and the people you hang out with.
The study that I quoted above, however, relied on self-reporting, which can be an unreliable way of studying behavior. People may say “the music makes me feel this way” without really knowing if that is true.
Death Metal Fans Are Often Metal Fans First
Many fans of death metal did not start there. Perhaps their parents liked classic metal, like Black Sabbath, Slayer, or Pantera. Growing up with that music, you become accustomed to the sounds – you will develop an appreciation for the genre.
As kids get older, they develop their own taste. Death metal is more violent and more aggressive, which makes it perfect for teenagers. They want to push the boundaries of the genre.
In my opinion, this happens with every genre. Bop became Cool Jazz. Cool Jazz became Hard Bop. Hard Bop became Free Jazz. Free Jazz became Fusion and so on. Hip hop evolved from Ice T, to The Beastie Boys, to N.W.A. to Dr. Dre and these days there are dozens of subgenres – trap, emo-rap, old-school, whatever.
Death metal is the same. People who like metal might be attracted to the heavier and more aggressive sound, and over time the subgenre develops.
Death metal is but one subgenre of many closely related genres; speed metal, thrash metal, black metal, death metal, extreme metal, and doom metal.
For all its aggression and violence, metal is a complex and technically challenging genre. Many non-fans are turned off by the loud and harsh nature of the music, but if you can get past that, it is quite impressive.
A band like Meshuggah (defined as Extreme Metal, not quite Death Metal) is known for their innovative musical style. They use complicated song structures, polyrhythms and polymeters that would make a jazz student’s head spin.
Check out this live video of Meshuggah. They are incredibly tight, playing in some sort of odd-metered signature, the lights and technical show are impressive, and the band is loud.
Many metal fans are attracted to more aggressive types of metal for their complicated and technical music. Often, metal fans are also metal musicians, and all musicians enjoy being “wowed” by their favorite bands.
The first time I heard John Coltrane play “Giant Steps,” I reacted much like the first time I heard Meshuggah; what is this noise and is it really music? I was young, and I enjoyed cool jazz, but the rapid improvisation over fast changes was barely intelligible to me.
However, as I got used to the genre and started to understand how he was thinking about melody and the changes, I began to appreciate it for its innovation and wild talent. Coltrane was doing things with the saxophone that nobody thought was possible.
Think about aggressive metal genres in the same way; sure, it sounds abrasive, but it has a lot more to it than aggressive lyrics. These bands are doing things with the guitar that no classical guitar teacher would have thought possible.
More than anything, metal music provides community. Metal scenes in cities around the world are tight-knit and are often very supportive. Metal fans may not grow up surrounded by people who love the music they love, so the live metal scene tends to be a safe and supportive place.
In some respects, all music provides community, but fans of non-commercial or less popular genres tend to band together.
On the other hand, the metal community can have an elitist attitude that keeps some potential fans away. If you like the “wrong” kind of metal, you might be labelled a poser or something.
Of course, this happens in all genres. If you like a certain metal band, that is fine. Stick by it and continue to explore the genre! The metal community can be a positive and supportive place.
Hooked On A (Metal) Feeling
The fact is, metal music gives listeners a certain feeling. If you are not a fan, you may be annoyed, irritated, or shocked.
However, if you are a fan, the music gives you a powerful feeling. It can feel like freedom or joy. Our society has a lot of rules and norms, and death metal defies those rules. Listening to it can give you a sense of freedom from those rules.
Many fans have major respect for the artists making death metal, because despite mostly laboring in obscurity, they continue making the music they love. Many death metal artists are highly intelligent people with extensive musical training.
The history of metal is interesting, and many fans become aficionados of the genre – learning about the tradition and where the music came from.
Many fans also become enamored with playing the genre, because it is super fun to play. I mean, I can’t personally play it, but if I could drum well, metal drumming sure looks fun!
Playing wicked fast guitar, wicked fast drums, all of that is super fun. If you’ve ever played in a rock band, you know that the feeling you get from a heavy moment on stage is bar none, the best feeling. I imagine that playing metal music is like getting that feeling all night long!
Why Don’t People Like The Music?
Even if you’ve never listened to metal music, I hope I’ve convinced you that it is indeed music and is worthy of respect.
That said, it is worth understanding the criticisms of the genre too.
Most people complain about the vocals first. From screams and roars to pig squeals, the vocals in death metal music are hard to understand and are abrasive. Most people do not understand this way of singing and vocalizing.
Again, the way to think about death metal vocals, is as innovation. Some metal is melodic, but it does not have to be. Sometimes screaming is exactly what you need to do. Also, the death metal scream is not easy to do well – try it, you may end up with a newfound respect for those vocalists!
Second, people complain about the loud, heavy, and confusing music. Death metal song structure does not usually adhere to a traditional A-B-A-B structure. It is often in odd time signatures, and it is always heavy.
As you listen more, hopefully you will begin to hear the music for the technically demanding and musically complex genre that it is!
Finally, the lyrical themes turn a lot of listeners off, and this I can understand. Common themes include death, gore, horror, murder, anatomy, Satanism, anti-religion, anti-societal norms, etc.
To be frank, I don’t really like the lyrics either. Thankfully, I usually can’t understand them. If you do not like the lyrics, there is a ton of high-quality instrumental death metal and other metal music.
Some of the lyrics are misogynistic and they are often violent. That is a tough pill to swallow, but keep in mind that a lot of music is misogynistic and violent. Country, rock, hip-hop – all have problems with misogyny.
Many fans find that the lyrical content is partly responsible for giving them the visceral feeling they like out of the music. The lyrics quickly cross the bounds of polite conversation and internal censorship as well.
Generally, the lyrics are there to shock, make people mad, and to make points about the society we live in. The musicians themselves are not serial killers. As with any genre, you must separate the art from the artist to some extent.
Final Thoughts On Why People Like Death Metal Music
The fact is, music is an incredibly subjective experience. The music you like depends on the music you grew up with, which is totally out of your control.
In fact, your taste in music is affected by everything. The language you speak, the area you grew up in, who you went to high school with, when you were born – etc. I believe that much of our musical taste is out of our control.
Therefore, you should give all genres the benefit of doubt before making a judgement. Your music is not everyone’s music, and not everyone’s music is going to sit well with you. That is okay!
With genres like death metal (or jazz, or old-school country) you need to understand the context to understand the love for the genre. If you really want to dig into it, watch some documentaries on heavy metal music. Go to a show. Talk to fans. Meet the musicians.
When all is said and done, you can like death metal and if you hate it, that’s fine too. Just make sure to afford the fans of the genre some understanding and respect.