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Metal as the Second Romantic Renaissance

Metal is changing. We all know it. The only question is who’s going to embrace the change and who’s going to pine for the old days.

In fact, the change is already well underway; the last few years have been nothing short of revolutionary for metal artists. Simply put, the word metal doesn’t mean what it used to. And that’s a very, very good thing.

Let’s be clear about something up front: metal critics say all the time that this or that metal band has “pushed the envelope” or changed the way they think about the genre. But it’s not always true. And when it is, they usually seem to stop talking about the larger implications just when things start to get interesting.

But before we go any further, can we reflect on where the word metal comes from? Musical historian Ian Christe says that the genre is all about mood: “weighted as with metal.” Considering its namesake comes from a heavy, structural material – we use it in architecture and automobiles, – you’ll forgive Mr. Christe for suggesting that the genre should be defined by atmosphere and emotional resonance.

Because he’s right. Moreover, his definition feels like an indictment of a genre that seems to have been defined by artifice for far too long.

“Liberated from the Shackles of Metal”

If you’ve listened to Opeth’s most recent effort, Pale Communion, you probably know that it’s going to be ruling the coming conversations about metal’s increasingly amorphous identity. While promoting previous album Heritage, Opeth frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt famously told Terrorizer Magazine that he felt “liberated from the shackles of metal.”

And yes, Opeth in 2014 is still a metal band, even without the death vocals. They’re also a keen reminder that bands like Led Zeppelin, Blue Öyster Cult, and AC/DC were once considered metal.

But somewhere along the line, a funny thing happened: the word metal began to be equated almost exclusively with aggressive vocals, down-tuned guitars, and drums that sound like power tools. It’s enough to make one ask, “Aren’t we meant to feel metal, rather than simply be overpowered by it?”

Opeth have answered that question pretty definitively, but they’re hardly the first to tip their hat to metal’s blues and psychedelic roots. Ghost (now Ghost B.C.) have managed to channel vintage Blue Öyster Cult with great success.

And remember Ulver? They’ve been moving the genre’s goal post farther and farther down the field since 1998. These days they call themselves an “experimental musical collective” instead of a metal band. But their music is every bit as intense and grandiose as it ever was. In fact, if metal is meant to spark awe and even dread in the listener, Ulver are still very much a metal band.

The metal community seems to have finally reached some threshold where the right number of metal bands – and more importantly, the right bands – have decided to think differently about metal. Opeth were certainly not the first, but their global reach was precisely the right kind of publicity at precisely the right moment to begin a meaningful dialogue.

Metal as Romantic Music

In Europe, back in the second half of the 18th Century, the world of music, literature, and the visual arts entered an era known as Romanticism; it was a push to deconstruct and dismantle the safe and familiar musical conventions of the tradition-heavy Classical period.

Sound familiar?

Most musical scholars name Beethoven as a driving force behind this change, giving particular credit to his powerful third symphony. Beethoven answered only to his apparently endless imagination, rather than to the restrictive rules of Classical music. Johann Sebastian Bach, on the other hand, championed strict musical obeyance. He held fast to Baroque sensibilities until his death in 1750—some 20 years before Beethoven’s birth.

Beethoven instead chose not to stand in the shadow of giants; instead, he helped throw out the rulebook.

The response he got was confusion and mixed reviews from critics – at least at first. In his review of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio in 1815, Amadeus Wendt said of the piece: “…the impression made by this music is all too shocking and oppressive… We wish to concede, as well, that the music of this opera strains the nerves of many with a gentle nature.”

In other words, Beethoven’s music was less a road map through musical theory and more a guide to the very center of the human psyche. And history has rewarded his efforts; the name Beethoven is now known to a significant portion of the world’s population. His music was still recognizably Classical, but it introduced a host of new compositional techniques that shook the entire creative world.

And you know what? The same thing is happening to metal. Right now. And it’s not just a single band or album that’s leading the charge, either; Deafheaven, and Ihsahn, as well as less prominent artists like Aquilus, have also become what I’ll affectionately call “musically uninhibited.”

But if we turn the clocks back even farther, we can plainly see that metal has been in a state of flux since the early 90’s; our own Dan Lawrence recently explored the considerable impact of Amorphis’ Tales from the Thousand Lakes and Tiamat’s Wildhoney on a genre that had only just begun to flex its creative muscles.

So where does this leave us? On one hand, I like that the word metal is changing over time. On the other hand, I like to believe that genre labels are becoming unnecessary altogether. They’ve always been limiting and reductionist, as when we describe the music of Aquilus as “black metal” and ignore the Classical, folk, and ambient influences that inform the masterful Griseus in equal measure.

We still call Beethoven’s music “Classical” even though it belongs to an era with a different name. Maybe our musical vocabulary is still catching up to our ambition.

—Dan Wilhellm

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