A Guide to Mountain Metal
The mountain seems no more a soulless thing,
But rather as a shape of ancient fear,
In darkness and the winds of Chaos born
Amid the lordless heavens’ thundering–
A Presence crouched, enormous and austere,
Before whose feet the mighty waters mourn.
– George Sterling
Death metal and gore. Thrash metal and politics. Black metal and mysticism. Folk metal and nature. Within the great compendium of heavy metal each subgenre houses within itself a particular lyrical conceit or set of concepts. True, there is room for variation, but it’s remarkable how evenly divided the lines tend to be. As new styles of playing emerge, new subgenres form, quite often with a fixation on a particular topic. If one were to leaf through the library of House Metal, one would likely find some obscure microgenre for any particular interest. It is curious, then, that mountain metal truly has no distinct style to call its own.
True, there have been a number of albums with lyrics penned in deference to the rugged outdoors, but these works range in style from death to black to sludge and everything in between. Perhaps this lack of uniformity is due less to the skill or imagination of metal musicians and more to the permanence and grandeur of the mountains themselves. How do you capture the essence of something of such preposterous scale? How do you write an ode to something immortal and immutable?
Still, metal artists have attempted to pay tribute to the rocks and hills, and some have succeeded. These albums, though not of uniform style, tend to mimic certain truths about the mountains themselves, proclaiming those moments of glory and terror in startlingly similar ways. It is these broad strokes, and the strange call of the wild they resound that I have felt echoing in my own heart all my life, that separates these works from the pretenders.
“You ask me why I dwell in the green mountain; I smile and make no reply for my heart is free of care. As the peach-blossom flows down stream and is gone into the unknown, I have a world apart that is not among men.” – Li Bai
Though I was born in Texas, I grew up in Colorado, right at the foot of Cheyenne Mountain. My early childhood was spent largely wandering through the trees and scrabbling up rocks when I was not in school. Every boulder was a giant, every tree a watchtower, and every dark thicket a fortress. I spent my afternoons in the green wood swinging sticks and throwing pine cones; after all, the mountains were full of danger, both real and imaginary. One could never be to careful. I grew to equally respect and fear the lofty peaks and dark pines. Mystery and permanence surrounded me, and the oppressive sound of nature was overwhelming, reminding me, even in my naivete, that I was but a visitor to a place far more ancient and powerful.
As strange as it may sound, the first song I ever felt captured the same atmosphere that I grew to know intimately in my youth was “Of Wolf and Man” by Metallica. That staccato riff that kicks off the whole track before the pounding drums answer the call like a pack member howling in return sets the perfect tone. There’s a mystery that Metallica’s songwriting, albeit simple, taps into on this track. The song pulses and heaves with the breath of the earth. Hetfield howls and snarls. Perhaps we are missing on “the meaning of life”, something lost amid the concrete and steel of our modern world.
As I matured, I was able to spend less carefree days wandering about in the mountains. My trips into the heart of the earth were relegated largely to weekend camping trips or summer hiking treks. I never lost the respect and grim adoration I held for the mountains, though. Quite the opposite, in fact. Sleeping in the hills, hiking over peak after peak, and generally trying to avoid exhaustion or serious injury led me to have a deeper admiration for the grim reality of mortality. The mountains are pitiless; it seemed every few months I would hear of someone else plunging to his death off the face of a cliff or dying from exposure while hiking a peak or being struck by lightning because she was ill-prepared for the all-too-frequent summer storms that erupted across the Rocky Mountains. Yet for all that danger, the mountains are always fair. Life and death remain in balance.
It wouldn’t be long into my metal-listening tenure that I encountered the same sort of primal grandeur and decadent savagery found on “Of Wold and Man” in a new album. However, Blood Mountain by Mastodon, the next record that captured this ethos, offered something far greater than the primal lust conjured by Metallica. There is a tangible size and weight to the songs on this album that perfectly evoke the spirit of the wilderness. The mountains are greater, stronger, wiser, and more enduring than you will ever be. The progressive touches married to the rugged and chaotic riffs and drumming on Blood Mountain reflect the deathly beauty of the Rocky Mountains. Indeed, the progressive spirit of embracing a higher, almost spiritual calling while still reveling in the savage bestiality of the genre, is likely the unifying trait for each of these mountain metal albums. A snow storm raging across the peaks is breathtaking in its majesty just as it is fatal in its strength. By seamlessly transitioning from chilling passages to burly riffs to sung moments of utter grandeur, Mastodon perfectly encapsulated what I had felt and known all my life. It didn’t hurt that the lyrics themselves, as we will see for all of these albums, extol the virtues of enduring the hardship of the natural world while marveling at its beauty.
As I transitioned into adulthood, the mountains again took a commanding role in my life. Now, though, they represented solace and escape. When the troubles of life seemed to loom too tall, I sought a place stronger and taller, a place of stone that I wished would house my heart. One of my favorite spots became a ridge overlooking all of Colorado Springs. From this spot, I would sit at dusk and watch the toils of man twinkle like distant lanterns on the horizon. There was truth and wisdom in that spot, I was sure. If I could just tune my heart to hear it, surely I could find the answer to whatever riddle troubled my sleep. Surely, a few precious moments of loneliness to think and feel through the dark would grant me peace. For all their imposing might, the mountains cradled me with a tenderness only found in the natural world, a goodness only dreamed of in the philosophy of Thoreau.
I found this transcendental solace in Himsa‘s majestic swansong Summon in Thunder. The winding, churning riffs reverberated with the cracks and moans of the shifting earth, but the ingenious melodic lead lines that danced and weaved through the air like snow flakes on an autumn morn beckoned to me that there was an escape, a place to find myself, a fortress where no trial could penetrate. Each song on Summon in Thunder, much like the mountains themselves, acted as a bulwark of the natural world against the machinations of man. And, as John Pettibone bellowed in “Big Timber” over the arpeggiated interplay between guitar lines swirling like the night wind, I had found my place to turn. Again, unusual song lengths, unconventional structures, and a melding of the severe with the sublime became the epitome of the mountains in their heterogeneous splendor.
As I fully entered adulthood past my depression and with a more even, tempered outlook on life as one who has passed through a crucible, I came to see the mountains of my home city not as imposing giants or imprisoning walls, but as the arms of a dearly loved friend. Returning to Colorado after nearly taking my own life was like waking from torturous dreams with a fever finally broken. Now, I could sit and reflect in silence with my old friends the hills and dales beside me, knowing that all was right. For the first time, I had hope again, so it is of little surprise to me that many of my most important life events from this point onward took place in the heart of the mountains. The first time my would-be wife ever texted me, I was snowmobiling on top of a mountain with my father. When I proposed to her, we were hiking through a canyon near my home here in West Texas, in the closest environ to a mountain I could find. My wife and I have since shared a number of special moments in the mountains, both in Colorado and New Mexico, and my old friends have been ever present with their stalwart, stony support.
This same primordial and heartfelt emotion can be found echoing off the crags and cliffs sculpted by Enslaved on their majestic album RIITIIR. When Grutle Kjellson sings of finding the source in the roots of the mountain, it’s obvious that he too sees the immutable companionship chiseled into the stones themselves, ever beckoning to man to return home to a simpler, purer way of life. Though Enslaved play a distinctly different style of metal than Himsa or Mastodon, they too inject their songs with a sense of scale and grandeur born through the delicate balance of melody and brutality, the two intertwined together in the mountains in that ancient passion play. In fact, scope is easily one of the most important tools used by all of these artists. Listening to each album is like observing a panoramic of an entire mountain range; there is far too much color, detail, and content for one observer to take in all at once.
Life has a way of coming full circle. I believe that’s why I’ve always been fascinated by the symbol of the ouroboros, a cycle as old and as immovable as the mountains themselves. Just as I did when I was a boy, I find myself looking to the mountains as a place of adventure and excitement, but there is another hope intermingled in that feverishness. Now I can look forward to adventures with my little family. I hope, someday when I have a son of my own, that I can help find his own voice and his own adventure as he climbs his own mountains. I hope that he can appreciate this part of our world as much as I do. I look to the mountains, and I see a hope for the future.
This feeling of excitement, of unbridled potential and infinite possibility in the face of harsh adversity is embodied in Turbid North‘s recent opus Eyes Alive. On standout track “Bring Home the Motherlode”, one can feel the tension and excitement as huge, booming riffs like thunderclouds break against the jagged peaks of percussion, only to be drowned in the shining light of the hopeful vocals. It is a truly momentous track, one that tells a truly epic tale of the risk and reward that comes from facing challenge head-on. There is an adventurousness found on every album listed here. Despite the ancient strength of the mountains, we face these primal stewards of a pre-human Earth with daring and respect, and we learn much of ourselves and our place in the world through the struggle.
Perhaps there is little that truly binds all of these albums, and a few others, notably by artists like Goat the Head and Gojira, into a distinct subgenre. Perhaps, the link between these albums is more personal, more primal, like a secret accessible only to those who allow themselves to feel the rhythm of the wilds. True, all of these bands craft massive, engaging stories of man striving for some ideal, for some solace, for some truth, for some wisdom, for some reward. These stories are told through melodies staring down grim brutality, the two forming a symbiosis that is both hardy and immemorial. Each of these bands lingers in this delicate place of tension, and in the act of telling these stories, each rises to heights loftier than can be grasped by human reason, to places only the daring will ever see.
I’m certain you have your own tales to tell.
(All photos VIA the author)