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September 11, 2006
Adam R. Holz
Theater of Pain

Theater of Pain

Metal in the Mainstream (Part 3 of 6)

This in-depth series examines metal music's history, subgenres, performers, fans, messages and influence.

With hope, wholeness and relational connection almost always absent from heavy metal music, and alienation thriving as its driving principle, intense feelings of disenfranchisement end up demanding an outlet. And metallers have found numerous ways to express what they feel inside:

Anger and Rage
Korn guitarist James "Munky" Shaffer describes how hopelessness in real life makes its way into song. "Kids are bored, agitated, especially if they're having problems at home. Parents. Drugs. Addiction. It all contributes to the product of a young, angry musician." Indeed, anger is perhaps the most common response to alienation, so much so that the two are practically inseparable. Slayer's rage is palpable: "Within my eyes there's devastation and fury/You can't understand/... You've never seen so much aggression" ("Catalyst"). The guys from Avenged Sevenfold say simply, "Don't need you/F--- camaraderie/This rage will never go away" ("Burn It Down").

Violence and Death
Part and parcel with anger are songs that explore and glorify violent imagery and death. Stories of destruction, apocalypse and doom are legion. In "Supremacist," for example, Slayer rants, "I won't celebrate/Until you've all died/Until you've all been crucified/I can't rest till everyone has died." Avenged Sevenfold's song "Sidewinder" tells the tale of a venomous, death-dealing serpent: "I slide through the wasteland that's my world/My hunger takes your life, preyed on to keep me alive."

Sometimes such lyrics cross the threshold from "mere" violence to become disturbing, sadistic statements about enjoying other people's pain. On "The Nameless" Slipknot lead singer Corey Taylor takes dark delight in inflicting injury as he sings, "Fingers in your skin—let my savage in/... The only thing I ever really loved was hurting you." Similarly, Slayer blends images of death and sadism on more than one track. "Catatonic" confesses, "Your pain excites and it tests me," and "Supremacist" gloats, "Your pain's my f---ing ecstasy." "Black Serenade" finds the band feasting on the fears of the tortured: "Walk on through a tortured mind/You'll scream your song in time/... Petrified that I decide the moment of your death/Belongs to me the taste is sweet/It's so unreal."

Dark Spirituality
A fixation with the "black" side of spirituality has permeated metal since its inception. By its very name, Black Sabbath sent shivers down spines when the band first appeared in the early '70s. And with its fiercely anti-Christian lyrics, Slayer exemplifies a much more virulent version of that tradition. Frontman Kerry King rages, "I've seen the ways of God/I'll take the devil any day/Hail Satan/... I laugh at the abortion known as Christianity." The Slayer song "Cult" pulls no punches in its criticism of religion in general: "Religion is hate/Religion is fear ... war ... rape ... obscene ... a whore." Not every band is so obviously anti-Christian in their outlook, of course. Avenged Sevenfold, for example, practically quotes the biblical book of Revelation in the hit song "Beast and the Harlot": "She's a dwelling placing for demons/She's a cage for every unclean spirit, every filthy bird/... Fallen now is Babylon the great." In the end, however, the band still rejects God, deciding Babylon is exactly where it wants to be ("Now if you wanna serve above or be a king below with us/You're welcome to the city where your future is set forever").

Fatalism and Nihilism
Fatalism is another common response to alienation. It might best be defined as the collapse of hope, a world where nothing works out. On "Rain" Trivium explores this hopelessness: "Every time I'm left alone/My misery begins to drown me/Tied by a rope of anxiety/Thrown overboard/As I'm pulled by the tides of this fast-paced world." Nihilism takes fatalism a step further: Not only are things not going to work out well, it doesn't matter because life has no objective meaning or purpose anyway. Slipknot's Corey Taylor hovers on the brink of despair on "Duality," as meaning eludes him: "I push my fingers into my eyes/It's the only thing that slowly stops the ache/... Jesus, it never ends, it works its way inside." The song concludes on the threshold of psychosis and suicide: "If the pain goes on, I'm not going to make it/All I've got/All I've got is insane."

In the world of metal, the logical end point for so much emotional distress is suicide. One of the darkest songs on all the albums I listened to was Trivium's "Departure." "Razors kiss the vein, overdose for pain," growls Matt Heafy. "A 12-gauge cross kisses the forehead/A savior in a shell/Sever me from the fall/... Open my arms/Bleed out the flood/In crimson I begin to drown." Likewise, "Bat Country," by Avenged Seven, pays tribute to writer Hunter S. Thompson, who took his life in 2005 ("Sometimes I don't know why we'd rather live than die"). On Korn's hit "Coming Undone" singer Jonathan Davis practically begs for someone to put him out of his misery. "Since I was young, I've tasted sorrow on my tongue/... That's right/Trigger between my eyes/Please try/Make it quick now."

After listening to song after song scarred by those kinds of images, it's almost jolting to stumble across metal's other painkiller: illicit pleasure. Interestingly, hedonism has never regained the allure it enjoyed during the '80s metal heyday, when the pursuit of all things feel-good ruled. Still, hedonistic references do still appear. Avenged Sevenfold alludes to Genesis as it's suggested that if we're going to die, we may as well have some fun on this side of the grave: "Dust the apple off, savor each bite/And deep inside you know Adam was right/Lust and power, indulgence, no fear/Left with his sins, how does this end?/We won't be here tomorrow, hold on to me for one last time" ("The Wicked End").

These aren't the only responses to pain that metal embraces. And some bands even offer a more constructive response to life's inevitable hardships. (More on them in the upcoming Part 5 of this series.) Nevertheless, the truth is that many of the highest-charting acts in the last few years don't target alienation with an eye to dissolve it. Indeed, they do little more than amplify pain and pessimism.

In Part 4 we consider how a steady diet of heavy metal messages shapes those who listen, and how some fans act out what they ingest.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6