Thoughts From The Dead: EXTREME(ly average)

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Being dead gives me a lot of time to think. I think about a thing, and then that turns into an opinion, which then turns into fact, and then I give it to you. Find out your new opinion on the concept of extreme in here.

There are, of course, hundreds of factors that have been a part of metal’s long journey as an outgrowth of rock. One of those factors has always been the idea of MORE; it has to be louder, it has to be faster/slower, and it has to be more brutal. These pushes to various limits have given us a thankfully diverse amount of subgenres; we can marvel at the breakneck speed of Fleshgod Apolocalypse, or wallow in the sludge of Meth Drinker. We can bask in the technical, fast-moving fury of Necrophagist, or sit in wide-eyed terror at the horrifying patience of Gnawed.

Whatever path you choose, the realm of extreme metal has something to fit your tastes. While this is surely a blessing for us metalheads, there is fair reason to consider it a curse as well. Should there be something for everyone in a category that is labeled “extreme?” By definition, no. The title not only suggests, but it boldly states that our taste should exist outside any sort of conventional perception of music. A random jabroni walking the street shouldn’t be able to be matched to an extreme metal band that suits his or her taste. However, given the current scope and diversity of metal, one can reasonably assert that most people with an introductory taste for metal can map a transition from radio-friendly whatevercore to the depths of the underground if they were to pursue it.

I’m not attempting to define the line between metal and extreme metal. It’s a new year, and what I would like to do instead is generate some discussion on what it means to be extreme in the year 2015. My interest in the topic was piqued when, a month or so ago, I came across an interview with Wreck and Reference, the hardcore/noise/drone/experimental/hard-to-define duo that released the staggeringly thoughtful album Want in June of 2014. One part of the interview really stuck out to me, in which frontman Felix Skinner essentially says that the extreme is only the extreme to the uninitiated. The most brutal death metal album with the most brutal imagery and the most brutal lyrics will shock and devastate those new to the genre, but it will be commonplace to even entry-level fans. When Cannibal Corpse released Eaten Back to Life in 1990, it was truly extreme. When they released A Skeletal Domain in 2014, it was business as usual. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some tried-and-true forms of metal, but let’s be honest: the same thing cannot be extreme when it’s the only thing that happens. Skinner asserts that pop structure, having been ingrained and written into our brains our entire lives, holds the true power; if one can manipulate an uncomfortable setting of the comfortable format of a pop structure, the familiarity can cut deep into our psyche and truly move the listener. A cursory listen through Want should validate their efforts, as there is no easy listening to be found on the album, despite the familiar structures that make up each song.

However, what does that do for the extreme metal fan that simply doesn’t find fulfillment in Wreck and Reference’s album? And, for that matter, should we “enjoy” the album, or should we be take it into a different part of our brain, where we contemplate the puzzling, the absurd, or the macabre? The answers would surely vary with each listener, and we will inevitably find ourselves discussing the topic of desensitization as we approach those listeners who simply categorize the album and similar albums as “enjoy” or “do not enjoy.” The “initiated” that Skinner refers to won’t bat an eye at the evilest of the evil lyrics, and the most gruesome album art will leave those fans unfazed. The tried-and-true riffs that should pummel and bash will be well-worn territory to the seasoned metal extremist. Simply put, when the extreme is done over and over again, it is no longer extreme. That isn’t to say it’s bad or not worth listening to, but when these bands tout themselves as the evilest of the evil, the brutalest of brutal, or the darkest of the dark, we as fans should legitimately stop and think about it, as many of these bands are the ones that have desensitized us.

So what does this all mean? In addition to Wreck and Reference’s strategy, how can metal stay extreme in 2015? Well, for one thing, it’s perfectly fine to listen to whatever you want. As a fan of extreme metal, you don’t have to seek out the untouched fringes for everything you listen to, because balance is truly important. However, I believe that it’s also important to challenge yourself as a listener. One of the things that I wish the general listening public understood the most is that it is perfectly fine to have to work at liking music. I was bored the first time I listened straight through Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Now, after writing a research paper over it years ago, I’m still enthralled from start to finish. No one should really “like” Uzumaki or eventually Gulaggh on their first, uninitiated listen, but after working through different levels of extreme, a distinct and true appreciation for those forms can be achieved. Then one can consider that once that appreciation is achieved, are those forms still extreme? Seeking out things that push your taste and personal boundaries as a fan is a positive experience, and it allows you to have a clearer thought on what is extreme to you. I could write this article into oblivion, but there would be no universal answer.

That last point is the heart of what I’m getting at here. Metal is diverse enough that there is no way to categorically define “extreme,” and that label itself doesn’t make anything better or worse. However, we can reasonably assert that if something is extreme to a given listener, it doesn’t grant said thing “extreme” status. Constant blast beats aren’t extreme. Gory lyrics about defiling and murdering virgins aren’t extreme. Down tuning to Z-flat isn’t extreme. These things have been worn into the ground, and no listener should accept those things as the terminal point of metal’s boundaries. Should you push yourself to the extreme if you don’t want to? Absolutely not. If you love extreme music, should you rest in the same thing that’s been done since the 90s? Absolutely not. See what’s out there, share it with friends, and don’t be afraid to work at liking something.

So how wrong am I? Are violent lyrics and brutal riffs still extreme in metal even though they’ve been done for over 20 years? Verbally abuse me in the comment section below.

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