I was never a fan of Slayer, the US thrash metal band whose guitarist Jeff Hanneman recently died from a poisonous spider bite, but I was struck by the disconnect between some of the public responses to Hanneman’s untimely death (“RIP,” “Gone too soon,” etc.) and the overall aesthetic of his group. Slayer are famous for albums called Reign In Blood and Seasons In the Abyss – shouldn’t fans have been happy that a key member of Slayer was, like, slain?
Prominent in my music collection are works by the legendary hard rock and heavy metal bands of the 1960s and 70s: Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, AC/DC, ZZ Top, Van Halen, and Kiss, as well as a scattering of material by Alice Cooper, Blue Oyster Cult, Motorhead, Ted Nugent, Guns n’ Roses, and Judas Priest. I’ll swear by any Black Sabbath record between 1970’s Black Sabbath and 1979’s Never Say Die, and as an amateur guitarist I sometimes inflict on family members my acoustic renditions of Sabbath’s “Paranoid” and “Sweet Leaf,” along with Kiss’s “Strutter,” Aerosmith’s “Milk Cow Blues,” and AC/DC’s “Soul Stripper.” Great stuff. Yet as I’ve grown older I’ve recognized that the aggression and drama of this music can be pretty contrived, and that each new generation of young males seems to embrace a louder and more hostile version of it. As early as a 1985 review of the hair-metal act Ratt, Globe and Mail critic Liam Lacey spotted the pattern: “Ratt is to Aerosmith as Aerosmith was to the Stones as the Stones were to Muddy Waters: the tradition keeps losing subtlety and gaining speed.” Thus, Sabbath and Zeppelin begat Metallica and Slayer; Slayer and Metallica begat Slipknot and Cradle of Filth, ad infinitum. Where will it end?
When Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were codifying the sound and style of heavy metal, there was still a hippie spirit audible in their music; with Zeppelin’s “The Rover” or Sabbath’s “Children of the Grave” you had the sense that their emphatic language was ultimately in service of a peace-and-love utopianism. Since then, though, metal has increasingly fixated on pathological morbidity for its own sake. Listen to any hard rock radio station and the latest tracks sag with guttural vocals, detuned guitars, and lyrics about suffering, rage, and escape into nihilism. I’m not one to blame real episodes of violence on violent-sounding music – Anthrax, Pantera, and Cannibal Corpse probably serve as outlets for teenage fury – but there is something unsettling in how decades of well-fed North American youths have absorbed the messages that life is a waste, that evil is powerful, and that hatred is exhilarating.
Why are these people so angry? How long can musicians affect such attitudes? Metallica singer and guitarist James Hetfield, a husband and father nearly fifty years old, has maintained the apoplectic edge-of-madness bellow he used on “Seek and Destroy” in 1983, and it’s beginning to sound ridiculous. Perhaps heavy metal has become young men’s substitute for the male bonding and physical endurance tests they used to get elsewhere – where I had “War Pigs,” my ancestors had actual wars (although rock ‘n’ roll has been brought into combat zones since Vietnam, and US servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan have blasted Megadeth and Eminem). Metal isn’t necessarily something you have to outgrow to be a well-adjusted adult, but certainly its intensities and its expressions of frustration are best appreciated by people themselves undergoing the often frustrating and intense passage into adulthood.
Of course, I survived Black Sabbath, AC/DC, and Guns n’ Roses, just as most young people today will survive Children of Bodom, Avenged Sevenfold, and Lamb of God. It was good to have their songs when I needed them; often enough I still do. But I also need Django Reinhardt, Marvin Gaye, Frederic Chopin, the Beatles, Merle Haggard and Sarah Vaughan too. I need to hear music that celebrates love, lust, reflection and faith, along with music about brutality, fear, psychosis and alienation. Thinking on how my tastes have evolved since I was twenty-one, I wonder if the family, friends, and fans of Slayer’s Jeff Hanneman are just now coming to the same conclusion it’s taken me twenty years to reach: death seemed a lot cooler when I thought I was going to live forever.