Duality In Metal: How Paradox Defines The Genre
The yin-yang is a timeless archetype, and heavy metal embodies this duality. This is reflected in band names (Logical Nonsense, Destroy To Recreate, Instant Hesitation). It is also apparent in song titles like “White Noise Black Silence” or ” Blinded By Light, Enlightened By Darkness.” Metal lyrics, art, and fans often delve into the subject of duality, and as such instances are countless, I will examine a few notable examples of this phenomenon.
I: Transformation As A Metaphor
Derived from the Greek therion (wild animal), and anthropos (man), the song Therianthropy by Septicflesh is about the transformation from a human into a beast, Again, the song has a dual meaning. It can be about literal therianthropy, but it can also be about sex. Either way, it is quite the surreal experience.
“If I Can Smell Your Scent, If I Can Hear You Breathe,
If I Can Use Your Skin, You Are There For Me.
If You Can Think Of Me, If You Can Dream Of Me,
If You Can Sense Me, I Am Still There, In You!”
The full lyrics can be found here, and you’ll see that they are rife with sensuous innuendos. The music itself is sultry and seductive. Changing into an animal is a metaphor for giving in to one’s primal sexual instincts. This is a typical example of the use of symbolism in heavy metal music. Another noteworthy example of this is The Axe by Gojira, in which the rejection of negative traits is likened to the amputation of a diseased limb. Self-transformation is a painful process, but it is necessary for spiritual growth.
These kinds of lyrics explore the emotional intensity of being both the sculptor and the statue. You are what you make yourself. Mirrors are common motifs in lyrics, as well as water, steel, and other reflective surfaces.
II: Fire And Ice
Fire is a powerful symbol of creation and chaos. It is a source of heat, shelter, and warmth, but also a weapon. It can nourish or kill, warm or burn. Tibi Et Igni, a latin phrase meaning “for you and for fire,” is the title of the latest release from death metal champions Vader. This message was commonly written on secret letters that were to be burned after reading.
“Burn your eyes on our setting sun.” These powerful lyrics are from Unearth’s single Watch It Burn, a raging track about the self-destruction of a society that is too corrupt to repair.
Interestingly, much of this metaphorical and literal pyromania happened in cold, icy landscapes like Norway and Sweden. This is the point where something has its origin in its opposite, or yin becomes yang. (You’ll notice on a yin-yang, the black circle is in the fullest part of the white, and vice versa.)
III: The Dark Side
Just as the nature of duality can inspire artistic creations and facilitate cathartic relief, so can it bring confusion and despair. The light side includes aesthetically pleasing artwork, music, and lyrical poetry. The dark side includes betrayal, deceit, and manipulation.
Up until this point, my observations about duality in metal were mostly positive, or at least neutral, as it appears that metal bands broach the subject with artistic intent. However, as a fan, I must admit that I’ve had several moments of cognitive dissonance. One such example is the incarceration of Tim Lambesis, former singer for As I Lay Dying. Lambesis is serving a sentence for the attempted hire of a hitman to kill his wife. Many considered this band to be Christian metal, and Lambesis himself was a self-proclaimed Christian. The incident made him a laughingstock amongst both the metal and the Christian communities, and between those two demographics, that’s practically the whole planet. Even as an agnostic, I was embarrassed for him.
Another example is animal cruelty. At a recent black metal concert I attended, the butchered heads of pigs were impaled on stakes on stage. It looked disgusting and smelt terrible. That was needless and stupid violence just to promote the self-satisfied image of “brutality.” I was more revolted than impressed.
Metal can be escapist entertainment, or it can be a disturbing experience. Someone you admire as an artist can do something you consider immoral, and this creates tension.
IV: Black Humor
The only thing that differentiates comedy from tragedy is perspective. Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying. How can a dark art like metal be funny? And what kind of relationship exists between humor and sorrow? Maybe something is funny because it didn’t happen to you. This is the basic premise of slapstick comedy, and would also explain the cartoonish gore that is so common in metal.
Metalheads have funny stereotypes (some of which are devastatingly true), but they contradict each other. Is the metal community a true family for lonely outcasts, or are they an exclusive club of unwelcoming music snobs? Are you the skinny little nerd who listens to power metal and plays D&D all day, or are you the jock who beats that dweeb up before you pump iron and crank Pantera? If you’re five minutes late to a show, did you miss five grindcore bands, or is some high-concept prog band still sustaining their first note?
We have songs that last just 2 seconds (You Suffer by Napalm Death) and others that last a whole hour or more (In A Gadda Da Vida by Iron Butterfly). Sometimes songs have crazy titles that are practically longer than the track itself. For instance, the Nile song “Papyrus Containing The Spell To Preserve Its Possessor Against Attacks From He Who Is In The Water“is less than 3 minutes long.
In a previous article, I mused that the heaviest alcoholics and the most tight-ass straight edge kids are usually avid metalheads or punk rockers. How ironic that two polar opposite lifestyles would gravitate toward the same kind of music. Another paradox!
Much like the intentional use of dissonance in music, the intentional use of irony can add character to art. This itself is a double edged sword. Each half of every dichotomy splits into its own dichotomy, and so on indefinitely. It’s enough to drive someone crazy. At the same time, however, these oxymorons, contradictions, and double meanings add ever more depth to metal music and culture.