To the uninitiated, extreme metal can be an impenetrable wall of guitar-based noise. Florian Stangl. Picture of Morbid Angel.

The case for extreme metal

For many people, their knowledge of extreme metal mainly springs from the activities of a small group of Norwegian black metal musicians in the 1990s.

In 1993, Varg Vikernes from the band Burzum was convicted of the stabbing murder of Euronymous, guitarist from rival band Mayhem.

Various other musicians associated with the scene were also implicated in murders, assaults and rapes, while others committed suicide. And, most notoriously of all, black metal musicians were involved in – and openly encouraged – the burning of churches, up to 20 of which were torched between 1992 and 1996. In terms of musicians walking it like they talked it, these were unprecedented acts, unmatched before or since.

Burzum – Dunkelheit.

It’s hardly surprising that extreme metal has found it hard to shake off the shadow of Vikernes and his peers, not only because of the continued discussion of the events in popular culture (a movie about the era directed by Jonas Åkerlund is due to start production soon).

Mayhem – Deathcrush.

Metal is already a hard sell for most people, given that it is a genre that likes to push boundaries. As the name suggests, in extreme metal, taking something as far as possible, further than before, whether sonically, lyrically or visually, is what musicians aspire to. Given that this can mean confronting some of society’s taboos head-on, extreme metal can seem threatening and frightening.

Under the hood

“Extreme” metal is a blanket term that captures a number of subgenres (death metal, doom metal, black metal and so on; the subgenres of metal are always evolving and expanding).

Morbid Angel – Immortal Rites.

These began to emerge in the 1980s, generally as an extension of the thrash metal sound associated with bands such as Slayer, Metallica and Anthrax. Morbid Angel, Obituary, Cannibal Corpse and in Australia bands such as Armoured Angel, started to push the musical boundaries established by earlier metal artists.

To the uninitiated, extreme metal can be an impenetrable wall of guitar-based noise, at times with tempos that are at breakneck speed, or slowed to the point of almost inertia (a feature of doom metal bands such as Sunn O))).

Cannibal Corpse – Sentenced To Burn.

A particularly striking feature of the genre is the way vocals are often not sung or shouted, but growled in a deep, guttural tone (in death metal), or shrieked (in black metal), in a way that makes distinguishing the lyrics almost impossible.

For those who go to the effort to engage with the lyrics, they will find that the songs deal with a wide range of topics but often delve into taboo subject areas. Obviously, death and the occult are popular themes, and these are explored in great detail (see, for instance, the artwork and lyrics of Cannibal Corpse for some graphic work along these lines).

Armoured Angel – Enigmatize.

Some extreme metal bands also write about sexual taboos, including necrophilia, paedophilia and rape. In a rare instance of musical censorship in Australia, Tasmanian band Intense Hammer Rage had their albums seized by Customs, and were fined, because of the sexually explicit nature of their lyrics.

Underground, and out of mind

On the whole, though, and perhaps surprisingly, the activities of extreme metal scenes have been left unscrutinised by mainstream society. The fact that it has not more often been the subject of moral panic is almost certainly down to its still-underground nature, and the fact that it can be sort of hard to work out what is going on with it.

The fact that it has managed to evade scrutiny for the most part is a good thing, given that – the activities of a handful of Scandinavian extremists notwithstanding – there is no compelling evidence that extreme metal fans or musicians are more likely to be violent, destructive or anti-social than the general population.

Sunn O))) – Alice.

The Norwegian black metal crimes captured people’s imagination because they show the relationship between the culture people consume and their actions playing out in the way common sense often suggests to us it should – that if we listen to music about violence, for instance, we will be more likely to become violent.

But the relationship between culture and individual action is much more complex than this, and there is plenty to suggest that the opposite may be the case in many ways.

Obituary – Slowly We Rot.

Prominent metal scholar Keith Kahn-Harris has suggested that the way extreme metal pushes boundaries and explores taboos opens up transgressive spaces that are otherwise hard to come by in modern Western culture.

These are places for people to explore forbidden themes and consider what they mean in a society that shuns and discourages the exploration of the darker side of life. Extreme metal provides a place for its adherents to step outside of the everyday, while also creating global and local communities to support the creation and distribution of this unconventional music.

While extreme metal scenes are not without their problems (female and non-white musicians are still few and far between, for instance) they encourage inventiveness in finding ways to go that bit further, to break that next limit.

Would you like to make the case for a music genre, or a particular recording artist? Contact the Arts + Culture editor.