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The Sounds of War in Metal Music

This piece, an elaboration of some of my thoughts on King Crimson, was written as the final project for a seminar at NCSU titled "The Art of War." I'll be updating the original text here with additional comments and multimedia elements.



Introduction

Throughout its history, and particularly at key moments in its development, metal music has looked and listened to war as a source of musical inspiration. War constitutes a common lyrical subject; paratextual elements such as song titles, graphic art, and stage presence likewise contribute to a song's effect on the listener to varying extents depending on the listening context. Less examined, and of primary concern to this study, are the musical influences that war and warfare have had on metal music. [1] Because of the genre’s orientation toward sonic aggression and disturbing themes, metal artists often look and listen to the sounds of war – whether contemporary, historical, or in the abstract – in order to draw on a reservoir of cultural codes representing aggression, terror, pain, and brutality.

This study begins with a brief account of heavy metal's origins in the hippie movement in order to clarify how the social environment in which metal developed was shaped by the Vietnam War, as well as to discuss important precursors to heavy metal whose reactions to Vietnam will serve as key reference points. With this historical perspective, a distinction is then drawn between rock and metal music based on the latter’s commitment to an aesthetics of evil: a countercultural aesthetic code that ironically endorses violence and other social evils in order to simultaneously criticize the hegemonic social order and enact its heterotopian mirror. The analysis that follows includes close readings of songs and discussions of common techniques throughout metal’s history and diverse subgenres, attending to how sounds associated with warfare are imitated, reproduced, or otherwise evoked. The conclusion circles back to the social function of metal music and how its practitioners have traditionally used techniques of sonic warfare to maintain a space for countercultural expression. [2]

The influence of military music on metal is set aside largely because it would be impossible to do justice to the history of military music and its connection with both sacred art music and popular music. It would likewise become a recursive discussion after Vietnam, when heavy metal became the genre of choice among the US military to empower their troops and intimidate their enemies. Instead, this study works to escape a tendency in art to develop self-referentially and incestuously, leading musical genres and theoretical schools alike to stagnate through endless, increasingly meaningless recombinations of the same symbols. Focusing on nonmusical sounds opens new possibilities for rhetorical invention through attention to the ambient, the nonhuman, and the preconscious.

The following analysis is largely grounded in the traditions of sonic and material rhetoric. This framework attends not only to how arguments are made and emotions stirred through the use of signs, but to the physicality of sound, the lived experience of live and recorded music, and the preconscious affective force of sonic representation. Excepting brief notes to establish necessary context, there will be little consideration of what metal bands have to say about war, or whether and how the sounds they use support their arguments. Rather, it should be taken as axiomatic that the sounds of war, when employed, are employed to produce an effect in the listener. Of interest here is what, why, and how such sounds are chosen and translated into music.

This paper is in part intended to recenter discussions of aesthetics in metal. As the genre receives increasing academic attention and credibility, scholarship often disregards the content of the music in favor of form, circulation, and social function. By highlighting the methods by which metal bands evoke the varied and contradictory impressions of war, my arguments will help to negotiate the contradictory nature of a genre that derives aesthetic value from disgust, fear, and anger. Further, this study should help to ground discussions of metal music in material rhetorics of sound, in which conventions and innovations arise not only in relation to genre form, but within a broader cultural soundscape consisting of technologies, sound practices, and a diverse network of musical and nonmusical sonic signifiers.

War and the Aesthetics of Evil

Heavy metal music was born from war in at least one important sense. Metal's genesis was in the late 1960s and early 1970s youth counterculture, arising from a disillusionment with the hippie movement after it failed to effect the political change they had imagined (Weinstein, 2000). The continuing devastation of the Vietnam War and the impotency of anti-war protests and politicians jaded many psychedelic rock artists, who traded peace, love, and freedom for bitter irony and nihilism. Vietnam's escalation was just one of a thousand small wounds that killed the hippie movement, alongside other prominent acts of violence in the Age of Aquarius. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Manson family murders, Altamont, and Kent State all helped ensure the optimism of the 1960s would not survive into the ‘70s. Of these, Vietnam was able to capture the sonic imagination in a unique way, exemplified by Jimmy Hendrix’s imitation of bombs, screaming, and sirens during his Woodstock rendition of the national anthem. Around the same time, progressive rock band King Crimson was staking their claim to the title of first heavy metal song. Their live set opener and the first track on their debut album was “21st Century Schizoid Man,” a protest song against the Vietnam War that, like Hendrix, found new extremes of artistic expression by evoking the sounds of war. Its graphic lyrics and dense, aggressive instrumentation are a sonic illustration of the Vietnam War, and represented a watershed in the development of heavy metal.


The song opens on a heavy, densely multitracked blues riff. When the vocals enter for each of the three verses, all instruments drop out save a pulsing, dissonant guitar chord playing in time with a processed hi-hat. Greg Lake’s vocals are belted and heavily clip distorted, as if yelled into cheap radio equipment or a loudspeaker. This is the sound of both audio technology and the human voice driven to their limits, though it would not be until the mid-1980s and into the '90s that the limits of the voice would be properly explored. The lyrics, preserved clearly through the distortion, offer no narrative and no moral commentary, simply a series of darkly surreal images and events that slowly develop in context and clarity until interrupted by the title, affirming these images as the memories or experiences of the "twenty-first century schizoid man." Lyricist Peter Sinfield explains his choice to alliterate plosives as “putting lots of p’s in a row, and then when they came out the other end, they were like a machine gun” (qtd. in Shteamer, 2019, n.p.). This technique is made more effective by the use of distortion, which scatters the percussive sounds across the frequency spectrum to more accurately imitate the loud, complex noise of a gunshot. An even more vivid depiction of gunfire comes during a section of the bridge, when the whole band plays rapid, uneven staccato bursts in unison. The song ends in an accelerating free jazz cacophony. This wall of noise dies away suddenly, only to return with renewed intensity for ten more seconds before the song finally ends: a final nihilistic statement on the chaos and meaninglessness of a war that seemed like it would never end.

"Schizoid Man" demonstrates a central tenet that separates metal music from rock music: an aesthetics of evil. At the end of the hippie movement, King Crimson and their successors adopted a postmodern cynicism, a philosophical shift that was triggered by the Vietnam War, but which had been gaining momentum since the world was exposed to the scale, complexity, and futility of WWI (Ribaldini, 2014). As Weinstein succinctly puts it, “[t]he master word of the 1960s, LOVE, was negated by its binary opposite, EVIL” (18). This new, post-hippie music did not argue against authority through liberating celebration, nonviolent protest, or thoughtful reflection. The rhetoric of metal is blasphemy, pastiche, and acceleration. It employs aggressive noise and disturbing, provocative lyrics and paratext to hold a mirror to the evils of society on one hand, and on the other to enact this mirror as a form of empowerment. [3]

The most notorious manifestation of metal's aesthetics of evil is satanism, or blasphemy more generally. Artists are sometimes informed by strains of philosophical satanism and antitheism, but regardless they utilize the symbols to outrage and criticize moral guardians. The devil has a long history in rock music, though the tactic was codified in metal by Black Sabbath and later refined by Venom and the Norwegian black metal scene. Nine months before Black Sabbath's debut album, however, King Crimson instead used Vietnam War imagery that was deliberately disturbing and confrontational to tap into a more political sense of evil. The legacy of this approach can be heard in thrash metal and later grindcore from the '80s, with songs about the Holocaust, drug addiction, and various strains of institutionalized oppression. These artists attempt to capture and musically express the most disturbing elements of historical and contemporary atrocities, provoking a visceral reaction and making the horrors of distant or opaque topics more real and present. Metal lyrics, song and band names, graphic art, and stage presence all play a part in communicating evil, but because of its rich and distinct sonic profile, warfare has consistently worked its way into the sounds of metal. In the following sections, this study explores tone painting through a case study of the “gallop” rhythm, outline the development and significance of screamed vocals in extreme metal, and discuss sampling and reproduction as strategy for literally incorporating the sounds of war.

1. Tone Painting

At its most strict, musical mimesis takes the form of hypotyposis, or tone painting. Tone painting has long been a technique of rhetorical enargeia, lending vividness and emotional resonance to a lyric by engaging the listener's sense of sound alongside linguistic interpretation (Plett, 2012). Lake's emphasis and downward glissando on the word "scream" in "Schizoid Man" is a case of tone painting, as is Hendrix' disturbing recreation of a bombing at the climax of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” An equally illustrative and influential example in the rhythm section comes from bassist Steve Harris of Iron Maiden. Harris codified and popularized the "gallop" rhythm, one of the most iconic motifs to come from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWBHM), and which would continue to resurface in melodic death metal, power metal, and other genetic offspring.

The gallop rhythm consists of an eighth note followed by two sixteenth notes, and is named for its resemblance to the canter of a horse. The canter is a three-beat gait, in which a diagonal pair of legs strike the ground at the same time. The three beats are followed by a moment of suspension before repeating, resulting in the famous “da-da-dun, da-da-dun” rhythm. It is the soundtrack to a cavalry charge or a horseback raid, not just an audible rhythm, but a three beat rhythmic pulse in the body of a rider feeling the energy transfer as their horse makes contact with the ground, or in the body of a listener when the low frequencies of the bass resonate the chest cavity in a similar pulse.

Iron Maiden has repeatedly employed this rhythm as a form of tone painting, most prominently in "Run to the Hills" and "The Trooper." The former, the lead single from their 1982 album Number of the Beast, begins with a brief, mid-tempo intro verse, told from the perspective of a Cree tribesman fighting a losing war against European colonists. The song soon shifts to a faster tempo and introduces the gallop rhythm as the perspective flips to that of a ruthless European-American cavalryman on the frontier, "riding through dust clouds and barren wastes / galloping hard on the planes.” “The Trooper,” about a doomed cavalryman in the Crimean War and inspired by Tennyson's poetic account of The Charge of the Light Brigade, features the gallop even more prominently throughout. It first appears underneath the song's main guitar riff and briefly vanishes in the first verse, when the instruments drop out and instead provide punctuation between Bruce Dickinson's vocals. At the line "the bugle sounds, the charge begins," the gallop reappears, accompanied by a rhythm guitar, and is maintained in the bass until the song's outro, a reprise of the intro. In both songs, fast tempos and the three-beat rhythm of a horse’s canter serve to sonically illustrate the lyrical content. After being appropriated into the musical lexicon of metal and largely stripped of its equestrian context, the rhythm remains indexical of war: a forgotten metaphor that artists like Sabaton – whose discography focuses on historical warfare – make generous use of as a shorthand for all the rhythms of battle.


2. Screamed Vocals

Extreme metal had its origins in mid-1980s thrash metal, a movement which was infatuated with war to an even greater extent than earlier styles. Thrash metal was the result of punk influences bleeding into metal: drummers played faster and many vocalists eschewed the operatic vocal stylings of NWBHM in favor of shouts and snarls. The two genres were already united by a cynical political sensibility, though their approaches differed. Noisy and raw, punk followed Dada and other artistic movements that sought to make art simultaneously accessible and meaningless, democratizing the means of musical production and aesthetic judgement. Metal takes a more cynical approach. The high degree of technicality that characterizes much metal music mirrors the hierarchies that the bands protest, just as the music emulates violence and the lyrics detail atrocities, often from the perspective of the perpetrators. [4]

One of few traits that can be said to be prevalent among the ludicrous number and diversity of subgenres of extreme metal is the use of harsh vocals. Yet again, shouting and screaming began in hardcore punk, but yet again punk's attempt to rid musical production from the tyranny of talent has been appropriated, aestheticized, honed, driven to extremes, and used to evoke a calculated set of effects. In extreme metal, one might hear barked commands, war cries, shrieks of pain and fear, or unintelligible, visceral gurgling. The commonality is an interest in the voice at its limits; harsh vocals not only produce complex overtones that nicely compliment metal's distorted guitars and imply a similar loudness and intensity, but they evoke the extremes of human experience that are typically to blame for the same types of vocalizations: rage, terror, agony, even physical mutilation. The utter desperation and anguish of the black metal screeches in Burzum's "War" are justified in the opening lyric, “I lie wounded on wintry ground.” In metal music, as in film and literature, war is a site where these extremes conveniently converge, and in the mirror of reality that metal creates, the vocalist approaches the limits of their own voice to occupy the role of bloodthirsty warrior, callous sergeant, or brutalized victim.

3. Sampling and Reproduction

When imitating the sounds of war is insufficient to achieve the desired effect, reproduction is another sonic strategy. The slow, extended introduction to Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" features the informationally rich sound of an air raid siren. According to Greg Goodale (2011), this sound – iconic in both the U.S. and Sabbath's native Britain – was coded to induce fear, its foreboding thirdwise glissando an easily recognized omen of devastation. Crucially, however, the outward manifestation of this fear is not supposed to be panic, but alarm. The air raid siren signals violence, but is accompanied by a command and a promise of safety in exchange for discipline. It reflects both the fearmongering of the war pigs and the ritual at the heart of metal culture.

The interval heard in a WWII-era British air raid siren – a minor third – plays an important role in metal thanks to the genre's debt to blues. Goodale further explains, "[l]ike the blues, air-raid sirens moan in a rising and falling pattern, with long glissandos bridging lengthy passages of two minor thirds. The sound of those minor thirds is “down” or, synesthetically speaking, blue. These are not the sounds of triumph or joy but of struggle and loss" (107). The sample, despite its bluesy musicality and despite being in the same key as the band, phases gradually out of time with the music. Rather than being integrated into the song as an instrument, it is kept separate, as if the listener's enjoyment is being cut short by a genuine invasion happening outside their window. The alarm anticipates the verse, which proceeds to describe the evils that a siren can only indicate: "in the fields the bodies burning / as the war machine keeps turning.”

The sound of the siren can, of course, be heard mimetically, particularly in the voice. Pinch harmonics on the guitar, when used with heavy vibrato as they often are, are likewise effective at producing that alarming and dissonant glissando effect that characterizes air raid sirens, ambulance sirens, and house or building alarms. It should be evident, however, that sampling can carry more information about a subject than can mimesis. In the late 1970s, industrial music took this principle as a foundational pillar. Genesis P-Orridge, the eccentric figurehead of the industrial movement and a protégé of William Burroughs, understood a sample – which they refer to as a splinter – to be a copy of a physical sonic process, necessarily coded with a dense network of associations. "If we shatter, and scatter, a hologram," P-Orridge writes, using their signature unconventional spelling, "we will real-eyes that in each fragmeant, no matter how small, large or irregular; we will see thee whole hologram" (2009, n.p.). That is, reproducing a sound necessarily reproduces that sound’s preconditions and the sum total of its relations, imbuing the sample with tremendous signifying potential.

Industrial music began to mingle with metal in the 1980s, and the crossover genre of industrial metal continues to capitalize on industrial music's creative affordances in the context of metal music. Extreme industrial metal band Anaal Nathrakh’s 2018 album A New Kind of Horror – a concept album about WWI – incorporates samples of gunfire for percussive emphasis throughout, an effect is brought to its logical extreme in the album’s lead single, “Forward!” The song’s main riff is reinforced with automatic gunfire, followed by the sounds of an M1 Garand ejecting its clip and the pump of a shotgun. While the samples are disconnected from each other and anachronistic to the album’s WWI setting, the effect plays on these sounds’ iconicity and arrangement. During WWII and the Korean War, the distinctive M1 Garand “ping” was rumored to tip off enemy soldiers when the gun was out of ammunition (Ferguson, 2016). The chambering of a pump action shotgun, conversely, is a distinctive and easily recognizable sign that the weapon is primed for use. Two opposite implications, each suggesting mortal danger, are worked impressionistically into a fairly conventional death metal riff and blended seamlessly so as to call attention to how the sounds of double-kick drumming and guitar chugging so closely resemble gun sounds to begin with.

“Forward!” harkens back to the staccato bursts in "Schizoid Man,” though unlike King Crimson and their progressive metal descendants – who continued to refine a “machine gun” style of jagged, unison chugging, exemplified by Meshuggah and the djent style they inspired – Anaal Nathrakh exploits the symbolic richness of the nonmusical sound in conjunction with its mimetic copy. Like tone painting, this multimodal convergence between the symbolic and the musical is a technique of enargeia. A sample – a splinter – of an extended burst of gunfire followed by a carefully timed reload is indexical of a very specific set of dangers, reproducing a network of associations and affects that make the subject of war present in vivid detail.


Discussion: Reversal

To reiterate, metal music adopts an aesthetics of evil in order to hold a mirror to the evils of society on one hand, and on the other to enact this mirror as a form of empowerment. This study has until now focused on the former: how metal music evokes and represents the sounds of war in order to evoke war and induce fear. It will conclude with a brief examination of how metal engages in its own sonic warfare, using sound in pursuit of a political goal, like Burroughs with his tape recorder in The Electronic Revolution.

In his interdisciplinary examination of sonic warfare, DJ and sound theorist Steve Goodman (2010) explores how sound's unique affordances – its materiality as physical vibration and its enveloping, preconscious effects – make it a uniquely effective tool for generating an affective ecology of fear. Sonic tactics of terror, misdirection, and vibrational force are employed by both military-industrial and entertainment-industrial complexes to condition populations, move matter and bodies, and generally induce "bad vibes”. Music and noise have been used as psychological and physical torture by the US Government in Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, the Vatican Embassy in Panama City, and Waco, TX. Infrasound and ultrasound are used for crowd control in war zones and shopping malls alike. The use of metal music by militaries for intimidation and torture grimly validates the artists' efforts to create music that embodies evil and induces fear, but these same tactics of sonic warfare are, themselves, a crucial part of metal music and culture.

Michael C. Heller (2015) suggests that loudness is used in rock and metal for a number of aesthetic effects. The first of these loudness effects is listener collapse. Although sound is a process of vibration in a physical medium, it is phenomenologically exterior to the body. Even before being subjected to conscious interpretation, sounds are decoded for distance and location, and so appear to be the effect of an outside agent: the sound object. At high volumes, however, pressure waves in the air are felt tactilely in the body, interrupting this distinction between exterior and interior. The result is disorienting and desubjectifying. This effect is exploited for torture and interrogation in order to break down a prisoner and elicit compliance, but the pain inflicted on both the ears and the body – disintegrating the ego and leaving behind pure sensation – becomes a source of masochistic pleasure when appreciated consensually, sonic weaponry turned against subjectivity. The mosh pit operates similarly, using adrenaline and pain to destratify individual bodies into a collective of movement and sensation.

The importance of volume in metal is hinted at by what Heller calls its imagined loudness. That is, metal's characteristic overdriven guitars; belted, shouted, or screamed vocals; and drums with a sharp attack and resonant decay, all imply a loudness built into the recorded music, such that recordings – which may be listened to at any volume – only feel ontologically consistent when experienced at a high volume. As a side effect, however, metal is quite often appreciated nonconsensually. Heller's final proposed loudness effect, noise occupation refers to the exercise of political power through noise: asserting one's right to be heard and drowning out others’. Metal music is conventionally blasted at high volumes as – in addition to the aforementioned tactics – a protest against the cultural codes that reject its legitimacy, as well as against the institutions offended by its social and political messages.

Metal bands and fans construct their own ecology of fear by broadcasting aggressive music filled with explicit and blasphemous lyrics to unsuspecting urbanites and suburbanites. To those within the culture, who appreciate the aesthetic codes, this becomes a space of shared vibration. To those without who do not, it is the sounds of war reproduced at a realistic volume: an alarm, a shock tactic, a threat of symbolic violence against culture and physical violence against sensory organs. After appeals to reason and ethics failed to end war in the 1960s, the youth counterculture of the 1970s appropriated both the soundscape and the sonic strategies of warfare. Metal music constitutes a heterotopia where the political violence of the outside world is subverted and its hierarchical relations mirrored, fear and pain are made pleasurable, and the sounds of war are embedded in a new aesthetic framework.

Notes

1. Scholars and fans often draw a malleable, though helpful distinction between the genres of heavy metal and extreme metal (Hillier, 2020). The former emerged in the early 1970s and gained mainstream popularity in the 1980s, while the latter emerged as a reaction against this popularity and, through the cultivation of deliberately inaccessibility aesthetic codes, has largely avoided mainstream appropriation. I maintain, but do not linger on this distinction, using “metal” and “metal music” as an umbrella term when necessary.

2. While the term “counterculture” has fallen out of vogue, I follow Hjelm, Kahn-Harris, and Levine (2011) in using it to highlight how transgression has shaped and defined metal.

3. The relationship between the aesthetics of evil and the horizon that Hunter Hunt-Hendrix (2010) calls the haptic void is deep and complex, and would require its own seventeen pages to explore. What can be said briefly is that the haptic void is a sensation and a telos, while the aesthetics of evil is an expression and a symbolic framework. The two interact most directly in the sadomasochistic appreciation of metal, which I discuss at the end of this study. Of this, it may be said that the aesthetics of evil represents the sadistic assemblage; the haptic void, the masochistic assemblage.

4. Because of the Doppler effect, Hendrix’s whammy bar plunge in imitation of a falling bomb means the bomb must be falling away from the listener, who should assume themself to be the bomber.

Works Cited

  • Burroughs, W. S. (1970). The Electronic Revolution. Expanded Media Editions.

  • Ferguson, J. (2016). “Myths & Misconceptions: the M1 ‘ping’.” Armament Research Services. https://armamentresearch.com/myths-misconceptions-the-m1-ping/

  • Goodale, G. (2011). Sonic Persuasion: Reading Sound in the Recorded Age. University of Illinois Press.

  • Goodman, S. (2010). Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. MIT Press.

  • Heller, M. C. (2015). "Between Silence and Pain: Loudness and the Affective Encounter.” Sound Studies, 1(1), 40-58.

  • Hillier, B. (2020). "Considering Genre in Metal Music.” Metal Music Studies, 6(1), 5-26.

  • Hjelm, T., Kahn-Harris, K., LeVine, M. (2011). "Heavy Metal as Controversy and Counterculture." Popular Music History, 6(1), 5-18.

  • Hunt-Hendrix, H. (2010). “Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism.” Hideous Gnosis, 1, 53–65.

  • Plett, H. F. (2012). Enargeia in Classical Antiquity and the Early Modern Age: The Aesthetics of Evidence. Brill.

  • P-Orridge, G. (2009). “Thee Splinter Test.” The Genesis Breyer P-Orridge Online Archive, http://genesisporridgearchive.blogspot.com.au/2009/10/splinter-test-essay.html

  • Ribaldini, P. (2014). "A Conceptual Connection Between Classic Heavy Metal and World War I: The Case of Iron Maiden's 'Paschendale' and Motörhead's ‘1916’.” New Sound, 44(2), 96-108.

  • Shteamer, H. (2019). “King Crimson’s ’21st Century Schizoid Man’: Inside Prog’s Big Bang.” Rolling Stone, rollingstone.com/music/music-features/king-crimson-interview-writing-21st-century-schizoid-man-891600/

  • Weinstein, D. (2000). Heavy Metal: The Music and its Culture. Revised ed., Da Capo Press.

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