Last Caress: Metal and suicide

I’ve been thinking about suicide a great deal lately —no, not killing myself, but the phenomenon of self-termination in general. My triggers are twofold: one, I have the new Shining record, and keep listening to it. Two, as I write this sentence, it is the three-year anniversary of my Grandmother’s suicide. Where others in my position pursue solace in religion, Deepak Chopra books, confessional poetry, or hard liquor, I look to music.

Metal is uniquely positioned to comfort and empower listeners in the throes of negative emotions. The disenfranchised can find catharsis in the self-liberation narratives that often come with thrash metal and hardcore. The depressed can know they are not alone in their feelings through doom. I can even see a kind of sublimating release of violent fantasies in the goriest death and grind. But heavy metal, for all its cozy relations with death, still struggles with suicide as a topic. Many bands will hold the listener’s hand through meditations on depression and self-isolation, common indicators of suicidal behavior, but not the act itself.

Metallica – Fade to Black

Musicians shroud suicide in ambiguity. “Fade to Black,” one of, if not the most well-known and best-written metal songs on the subject, works as one big statement of intent. “Yesterday seems as through it never existed. / Now I will just say goodbye,” practically ends with a lyrical ellipsis. Even Metallica’s first suicide song feels uncomfortable with bringing the action to a close, when suicide is a resolution of action. The speaker in Dave Mustaine’s suicide song, “A Tout le Monde,” sounds even more ambiguous—is he talking about suicide, or taking a vow of silence? In older age, Metallica revisited suicide more precisely in “Cyanide.”

Metallica – Cyanide

Musicians sometimes color suicide positively. The speaker in “Cyanide” sees himself as already dead, and suicide as his escape from a life not worth living: “Suicide, I’ve already died. / It’s just the funeral I’ve been waiting for.” This theme showed up in “One” first, but that song is more about the events leading to self-termination than the act itself. One could see “Cyanide” as a spiritual successor to “One,” or another take on physician-assisted suicide a la Death’s “Pull the Plug.” Thinking about suicide as an end to permanent torture, a mercy killing, helped get me through my grieving process. Dark music has its practical purposes.

Death – Pull The Plug

There’s a fine line between exploring a subject like suicide honestly, and exploiting the emotions swallow it. Part of the reason conversations about suicide in the American media remain superficial is because the culture views suicide as the folly of youth and immaturity. If a teenager or young adult completes a suicide it’s labeled a horrible tragedy, but if the suicide fails, people condescend and call it ‘a cry for help,’ or worse, attention-seeking behavior. That hasn’t stopped the music industry form marketing songs about suicide to teenagers almost exclusively—what middle aged person would buy Papa Roach’s “Last Resort.” Metal musicians interested in being taken seriously may shy away from suicide as a subject for this reason. In reality, teenagers are outside the highest risk for suicide—elderly Americans are at the highest risk of death by suicide, according to the National Institute of Mental Health[http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/older-adults-depression-and-suicide-facts-fact-sheet/index.shtml]. Maybe that’s why suicide is such a prevalent subject in doom—saturnine rhythms sound reminiscent of arthritic joints and sagging muscles. Even the suicide-focused black metal of Shining and Lifelover seems to use more on slower rhythms and quiet interludes than, say, Marduk.

Lifelover – Spiken I Kistan

A great song will take the listener to a particular time and place at any given moment. At their best, suicidal black metal bands provide cathartic insight into hurting suicidal minds while delivering good music. The speaker in Lifelover’s “Spiken I Kistan” convey the metaphor of life as a voyage, and death as an element of nature intruding on that journey.

“Put me on a plane and crash it into the northern ice sea
I don’t have the will to hear it anymore, to do anymore, to exist anymore
Put me in a rickety boat without any oars, and let the waves
And the coldness tear me, ruin me, sink me”
(Translated lyrics courtesy of darklyrics.com)

I can wrap my mind around this suicidal mode of thinking—I can see the comfort in thinking of death as another part of the dispassionate ecosystem around me. Rather than self-inflicted harm, this suicide-by-vehicle seems like a submission to larger forces.

Songs like “Spiken I Kistan,” are the exceptions proving the rule. Even bands specializing in suicide fall into ambiguity, or worse, the melodrama of life as a musician. For example, surprising few Shining songs actually talk about self-terminating. Frontman Niklas Kvarforth’s reputation for violent behavior overshadows the quality of his music—which is tremendous. Passing out razorblades at a concert does not encourage a thoughtful or healing discourse on suicide, so much as draw sensationalist media coverage. Shining routinely write great albums, but the most affecting moments in their records are probably the samples from Prozac Nation littering V: Halmstad. As fond as I am of Redefining Darkness, my recent Shining preference goes to the cover of Bay Laurel’s “Pale Colours,” on their new split with Monumentum. Kvarforth’s melodic voice gets a piece of its own on every Shining record for good reason. When he sings “it’s much better now, when I’m gone,” it’s a rare moment of near-compassion from a normally unsympathetic character.

In the end, the suicide ballads that most help me cope with my losses are those that offer a glimmer of hope. That silver lining could be the end to someone’s suffering—the speaker in “One,” and “Pull the Plug”—or even the speaker turning back from death. I’ve listened to the title track from Paradise Lost’s Tragic Idol probably once a week for the past few months, not only because it rips, but because in the end the speaker ops not to jump. My love for that song probably contributes to my adoration of that record—my most listened-to of 2012.

People do not write music simply as entertainment. At its best, music in any genre relates something innate to the human experience, and at some point in time every human being faces his or her own mortality. We can be repulsed, fascinated or even tempted by it. Metal’s ability to handle these deep topics is not any greater or lesser than other sorts of music, but it’s helped me sort my own feelings toward suicide out.

I’d bet it’s done the same for some of you.

Paradise Lost – Tragic Idol

-Joseph Schafer