One thing that distinguished heavy metal and its offshoots in the late 1970s and early 80s was the departure from human centred themes in the lyrics. Metal was not the first nor the only form of contemporary music to do this, but it is interesting that across all of metal’s subsets some or all of the lyrics will either explore something not personally experienced by the lyricist first hand, or delve into something completely divorced from modern life as we know it. Whether this be fantasy and history, science fiction, mythology, religion, spiritualism or the political and social realm, there was a general attempt to divorce heavy metal from the stigma of ‘party’ music, of celebrating hedonism and substance abuse, and of course, the pitfalls of loving a woman.
For all the nourishment of the soul offered by such thematically ambitious music, coupled with the oft talked about reinvention of song structure, taking us far beyond the remit of the verse, and the chorus, what happens when metal turns its attention to more personal matters? What success does this have when compared with pop music’s most renowned examples? Let’s look at alcohol abuse as an example. Why alcohol? One reason is the rare level of honesty and openness that can be found when lyricists address this issue with a modicum of dignity. The problems of personal relationships, love and all its complexities; however universal this may be, each situation remains unique to that individual, something that no amount of lyrical interpretation on the part of the listener can fully compensate for.
To care about something deeply enough to conceive a desire to write and sing lyrics about it is a special kind of devotion. Lyrics that explore the mind of people put in unthinkably extreme circumstances, such as the complete submission of the individual’s sense of self for the sake of meditations on theological devotion, these things allow metal lyricists to explore the world through metaphor and myth, much like our ancestors who told myths and stories to better understand the world around them. The weather, the passing of the seasons, the activities of animals, telling stories about these things alleviated our fear of them, bringing them under the yoke of human control and predictability, however fictional this control was. Maybe the reason for rehashing historical events – drawing on literature and fantasy for inspiration – is the hope that some kernels of truth may be uncovered about the human condition, truths more universal than crooning about more immediate personal experiences, however noble such instances of this may be.
Having said all that, depending on the mood and mental state of the listener, the detached and lofty goals of the non-personal realm sometimes just won’t suffice, and I need music to reflect my life back at me and help me through a very personal problem, however self-indulgent this may sound outside of the event. Unlike the aforementioned world of fantasy that much metal normally occupies, the motivation for writing about substance abuse needs little explanation. Metal’s role as a form of therapy for the individual is oft talked about, but not so much in the context of songs and lyrics that have dealt with the nature of addiction, and the solace that such music can offer. My reasons for choosing alcohol in particular centre round my own experience with it, but also the fact that it is the most universal poison of metalheads and humanity at large. It punctuates most metal subgenres at one point or another, sometimes like its green cousin in a celebratory fashion. But when we turn to its role as a destroyer of lives, and our forgiveness of it in spite of this, metal can be at its most poignant.
I can assume some personal familiarity with drunkenness and its appeal on the part of the reader, I can also assume some knowledge of the nature of addiction to alcohol, if not through firsthand experience then at least through western culture in one form or another. Equally this is not a history of metal songs and artists that deal with the subject with dignity. Nor am I able to converse about my own experiences with alcohol abuse with any semblance of eloquence, simply because the part of me that compels me to compulsively drink is very far away from the apart of me that is capable of articulating why, both in kind and in spirit.
Rather, it may be more interesting to look at why metal holds such an appeal for drinkers in a more general sense, what is it about drink that compliments this music so well, whilst avoiding begging the question as to what came first, the music or the abuse.
The appeals of alcohol operate on multiple levels. The first and most intellectual level is that of pallet. As the finances and tastes of the individual matures, they tend to prefer good quality drinks, a good ale or wine become an enjoyable pass time, along with all the discussion and intrigue that this can entail. No further explanation for this level of appeal is needed. Deeper down at the second level lies the enabling of socialisation. Depending on the disposition of the individual, insular or outsular, this will release honesty, conversation, sharing, discussion, dancing, games, it will enhance the fruit of our social lives and all the joy that stems from this. Still further down at the third level is a slight loss of control, characterised by further acts of sharing and actions soon regretted the following day. It can also lead to the dulling of all other self-awareness aside from the fact that you love how you feel, and you know you must maintain this feeling for as long as possible and at any cost, any notion of the quality of the liquid goes out of the window as long as there is a supply.
Beyond this, the fourth stage, the body might finally begin to protest in earnest. Communication and physical coordination becomes challenging if not impossible, one is quick to anger, quick to forget, unwilling to own up to what you have done to yourself and how it is affecting those around you. Destruction of physical objects, destruction of your own body, these are often outlets to ease some of the anger that arises out of these internal contradictions. And still the mind wants more, because to accept anything else is to accept the approach of an impending reality we will be unable to cope with for a considerable amount of time. The money spent, the things said, the property destroyed, none of it matters. In the final stage the body finally takes charge, either through forcing itself into unconsciousness regardless of location, or through an involuntary bowel evacuation, an attempt to purge the body of the poison.
It is possible to only have one drink if circumstances at the time do not allow for more, but it is also very possible to manipulate circumstances such that they will always allow for more than one drink, depending on the will of the individual of course.
Again, on the other side of the darkness, once the body has woken itself out of the stupor, it is difficult to articulate the depths of physical and mental despair this can bring with it, compounded not only by the knowledge that this is all self-inflicted, but also by the memories one is able to garner of the atrocities of the previous night, or those retold by witnesses who do remember. The strain on the purse and one’s feeling of direction and purpose in life, both put one’s devotion to the cause of alcohol to the test. Depending on the depth and severity of the pain and discomfort one is simply paralysed, forced to wait for the day to be over, for nightfall, so that an uneasy sleep can possess the body once more. Leaving – for the Monday that follows – only a mild mental fatigue and general sense of inadequacy in the face of the challenges of weekday life.
The intoxication music provides for mind, body, and soul is akin to and enhanced by the nourishment of alcohol, and this complex equilibrium of mental and physical faculties is best found somewhere between the second and third stages of drunkenness. One is still in possession of the intellectual capacity required to enjoy complex music and what it means to humanity, but one also operates under an illusion of heightened physical and intellectual capability, although the senses are dulled they feel refined, and if the experience is shared with those equally intoxicated it can only be enhanced. It is often said that true art exists beyond good and evil. If that were true then in order to fully experience that truth, a temporary repression of the moral compass may be necessary, alcohol aids this. Not only one’s sense of right and wrong morally, but one’s sense of right and wrong socially, the norms and standards of social decorum, even the sense of self as it is experienced day to day, all this must be suppressed if the mind and the body are to give itself over fully to the experience.
This ties in nicely with many themes that can be found within metal lyrics. The fantasy genre often explores the idea of giving oneself over to a cause greater than the individual, whether misguided or not, this helps us analyse a degree of Durkheimian over-integration just a step away from the mind of the fanatic willing to give up their sense of self and their lives for a cause. Poems of nature and war are equally reverential of forces well beyond the importance and control of the individual. Again with the exploration of occult rituals, there is the requirement to completely commit to a set of beliefs entirely alien to the Monday while Friday commuter world. Yet in conjunction with this suppression of the ego, there is a reaffirmation of its strength in the face of the seemingly unstoppable forces of nature and history. The leitmotif of alcoholic intoxication peppers the world of metal precisely because – if the balance is right – the two experiences complement each other so well.
However, there is a creeping truth behind this experiential marriage of chemistry and vibrations. The simple fact that any enhanced ability to find some cloaked truth through the lens of boozed up musical experiences, or illusion of increased physical strength, intellectual capabilities and creative will, they are precisely that, an illusion. It is all too easy to become addicted to the experience, to forget where the line is, to fall into the final stages of drunkenness outlined above. Repeated trips into alcoholism are a drain on the psyche and the body; along with all the wonderful life ruining things too many people are familiar with that come free into the bargain of the addiction. When found in this context, the great irrationality of our desires is thrust into sharp relief, because in spite of the well documented and publicised harms of alcohol addiction, many of us keep coming back to it. In the hope that the happy medium will be found again, we struggle to control where it is, we forget too much of our adult lives, we drain our physical capabilities and dull the mental, until nothing is left of the weeks except the wait, the wait before the next dosage.
And herein lies the more personal aspect to metal’s relationship with alcohol. Ever since Black Sabbath metal has been struggling to deal with the nature of substance abuse, addiction, the darker side of the life it emulates. This puts it on much more domestic territory lyrically, and one whose appeal does not require much explanation. The thing that strikes me about this and my reason for focusing on it, beyond my own personal experience, is the lack of charm and poetry found within alcoholism. Weed has many advocates, whether it be in reggae, stoner rock and metal, various forms of electronic music, the list of celebration goes on. Harder psychedelics again have many advocates from before the 1960s to the present day; given further legitimacy by the writings of thinkers such as Aldous Huxley. The world of illegal drugs and obscure legal highs has its own infrastructure and politics, its own poetry and method behind the madness, some benign, many not. Whether positive or negative, they all have a certain romanticism to them, and this can even be found in that most unromantic of drugs: heroin.
Alcohol is not shocking; its long term effects take time and repeated use, but the fatigue that sets in is not as tangible as the face ruining effects of crystal meph for instance. It is not as addictive as heroin. Not as mind altering as psychedelics. There is no previously hidden truth we can hope to gain from repeated drunkenness. The danger and unknown peril that add to the thrill of less documented illegal highs is absent. The aftermath of horror is knowable, it is known, it comes around like clockwork, and it is always and ever an acceptable risk. There is something comforting about sitting round a table with friends and strangers, all with drink, it is familiar and safe. It cloaks the fact that one or more of the people sat around that table may have more invested in the drinks in front of them than the rest of the company can ever be aware of.
And this leads to one of the many cruxes of the matter; alcohol is a state sanctioned form of self-destruction. For all the stimulation that the restless human spirit requires, there are those of us who cannot find enough of it from a satisfactory job, or stable relationships, the state has to allow some form of substance abuse to trickle through, to allow us to forget the anxiety of being neither in constant peril or unchecked affluence. We will return to it again and again until the body threatens us with death, or the mind releases from sanity. This is the unending and relentless disposition of the averagely off, averagely capable, averagely willed, willing to transgress by the use of this one average and permissible flaw that is alcohol abuse. Until our faculties no longer permit its use, we will maintain it was worth it, to experience something, just one last time.
For this reason alcohol is the most universal drug of heavy metal. Beer is simply a personal taste; the experience is the linchpin of the appeal, whether this be in the form of bacchanalian revelry, the relinquishing of fear, the illusion of power, the perceived clarity of purpose, or nothing more than submission of the will to the irresistible chasms alcohol cleaves into the human spirit.
It requires heavy music to effectively encapsulate a heavy experience. And so I am forced to conclude in this average drug, that ruins average people with average lives, undeserving of the ballads Trent Reznor offers to heroin, or the maniacal crooning Ozzy Osbourne commits to cocaine, in this most universally acceptable way to destroy our normality, its true extremity is acknowledged in the extreme context of metal. This often takes a celebratory guise certainly, but when the romance is pealed back and the true horror of what millions of people are doing to their lives every-day, falling into addiction, unable to cope with mere recreation, this is a horror; a heavy burdensome horror.