I've been going through a phase of deep introspection of late. This hasn't left much time for posting things on blogs, as you can probably tell by the rather sparse November we're having here on TME. There are loads of reasons, and one of them is because I have been taking stock of my life and where it's going. And of course, to do this I had to be listening to exactly the right music.
Music is a huge part of my life. It's part of my identity, my self-image, my medication and my drive. I carry an iPod with thousands of songs on it so I can ensure that I have the right music for any given moment, and I'm constantly expanding my collection.
Most of the music I have falls under one or more sub-genres of heavy metal. Metal is a genre that gets a lot of bad press, and most people don't understand it. It's variously described as "depressing", "miserable" and, occasionally, "devil music." People don't want to understand metal, because it's not as easily accessible as, say, the latest pop trash from some manufactured group of singers. But then, perhaps that's some of it's appeal.
Because music is such a large part of how I identify myself, it is important that it's something that I can connect to. I connect with music that stirs me emotionally, and that music has to have something to it that gives it weight. The shear breadth of the heavy metal genre means that there is something I can connect to no matter what mood I feel.
But let's backtrack a little, and discuss how I came to find metal in the first place. When I was growing up, I didn't listen to music. I wanted to, but I couldn't find anything that fit what I needed at the time. The ridiculous pop music most people were into left me cold, and I even shunned the alternative crowd, with their Nirvana and their Iron Maiden. I grew up without music.
Well, mostly. I did have one album to keep me sane; The Best Rock Album In The World ... Ever! A collection of classic heavy rock songs from the likes of Mötörhead, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Yes and Pink Floyd. I played that album until it fell apart, not having the luxury of an MP3 player play copies in order to keep my original pristine. It got me through my mid-teens. Unfortunately, that was the time everything fell apart. I was diagnosed as being clinically depressed, and everything took a back seat. I gave up on music for years. I listened to the odd bit of music here and there, but I owned no albums, and I had no discernible music taste. I was one of those people who said they like "everything", while meaning "nothing".
I found metal at around age 22. I listened to Lacuna Coil's Comalies and found something I could connect with. At about the same time Evanescence entered the charts with Bring Me To Life, and The Rasmus released In The Shadows. Something about it ignited a long-dormant spark in my mind. It was dark. It was depressing. I connected with it.
Over the next few years I expanded my musical horizons. I drifted away from gothic pop rock and more heavily into death metal via Dark Tranquillity, Opeth and Insomnium. My tastes got darker, heavier and, for me, more emotionally engaging. Now my tastes are wide ranging and cover death, black, progressive, gothic, symphonic, and even folk metal. Each has its own strengths, it's own emotional appeal.
So that brings us up to date, and back to the question; why metal? Everyone listens to music for their own reasons. Some people listen to it simply because they are told to, either by their peers or by the marketing departments of the record labels, but for me that is not enough. For me, music is more than entertainment; it's a state of mind. When I listen to music I like to get lost in it, feel it, experience it. Having decent liner notes with, at the very least, the lyrics to the songs is important to me. I like to spend time with new albums listening to them properly, reading the lyrics, learning the music, finding out how I engage with it.
For me, music is a release, a cleansing, a catharsis. No matter what my mood, no matter how my mind may have deviated from any level of sanity, the right music can bring me back on track. It can ground me, and make me feel like me again. If that means listening to something angry, brash and heavy, then so be it. If it means listening to something soft, melancholy and poignant, then that's what I play.
Being the kind of person I am, I feel a vast array of what are generally considered negative emotions. From anger and depression, to disquiet and melancholy, I can always find something in metal that I can connect with. People who don't understand my reasoning often tell me that I shouldn't listen to all this miserable music and listen to something happy instead. I can't. Overly happy music just gets me angry. I don't connect with it. My brain rebels against it. It feels fake, like the smiling mask I so often have to wear to make it through a day. It feels like giving in to the joyless expression of happiness I am forced to endure.
But metal is more than lyrical themes. It incorporates a wide variety of musical styles, from the intense, high speed thunder of thrash to the delicate, crushing riffs of melodic death. These, too, are important. Anyone who listens to and appreciates classical music can understand that the qualities of the music itself can be just as powerful as the lyrics and themes. Metal is largely based around four key elements; drums to provide the beat and the pace, guitar to provide the rhythm and riffs, keyboards to provide the melody and ambiance, and vitally it uses a wide variety of vocal styles to capture the mood and depth of the song.
Too often I hear metal described as "rarrr rarrr" music by those who prefer only clean, easily discernible lyrics, as if the lyrics are the only important part of the song. But one thing I have discovered as my tastes have expanded is that the style of singing can be just as important as the music and the lyrics. A deep, guttural growl can express anger and pain. A hoarse, whispered vocal can be unsettling and put the listener on edge. It can take the music away from being a song being sung, and turn it into the performance of something greater. A play of sounds and emotions that couldn't be expressed through lyrics alone.
When I first started listening to metal, I felt somewhat alone. I didn't know anyone who shared my musical tastes, or so I assumed. Most of my friends mocked the music I listened to, which of course made me cling on to it all the more. By mocking the music, they were mocking me, and I couldn't stand that. But over time I have discovered more and more people who like the same music that I like. They are almost invariably ... different. Many of them wear big, heavy New Rock boots, have long, lank hair or only where outfits composed only of black, but these are people who I can connect with. Many of them have their own issues, their own reasons for listening to the music they do, and many of them live a lifestyle completely separate from the mainstream.
Metal, to me, is about more than music. It's about more than self-identity. It's about providing a soundtrack and an emotional base for my life. It might sound overly grandiose, or generally precocious, or pretentious, but that's how I connect to the music I live my life by. Going to my first metal festival opened my eyes to how many other people share a similar story. Being able to spend a weekend once every year in a place where being completely true to myself is not only allowed, but actively encouraged, is a wonderful thing.
It's been 3 months since the last Bloodstock Open Air. I am still wearing the wristband. Why? Because it gives me a link to something good. A time and a place where I felt that it was completely okay to be me, warts and all, and where I could revel in my love of metal with 10,000 other people, all washed down with a nice cup of tea, and horns in the air.
You know it's a good year for metal when Insomnium release a new album. It's often said that the only people who don't like Insomnium are people who haven't heard Insomnium, and One For Sorrow doesn't seem set to change that any time soon.
Right from the off this is immediately recognisable as an Insomnium record, from the whispered, almost instrumental opening track to the heavy yet intricate melodies. Not wishing to rest on their laurels, while still maintaining their signature sound, there are some interesting additions.
The first, and most notable, variation is an interesting play on clean vocals in a death metal album. The clean vocals overlay the deep and resonating growls making for a menacing and certainly unsettling sound. This technique is used several times and always works well. The rest of the time the vocals are pure growl, as can be expected, nay, demanded from a band so firmly entrenched in the melodic death genre.
The other new thing is a purely instrumental track that seems to be the antithesis of Insomnium; Decoherence is so tranquil and gentle I have dozed off while listening to it, only to nearly jump out of my skin at the opening bars of Lay The Ghost To Rest.
The rest of the album is loosely based around One For Sorrow, a traditional rhyme steeped in superstition. The subject and lyrics of the rhyme vary from place to place, but it is always based around crows, magpies, jackdaws or blackbirds, the number of which tell the fortune of the beholder. The rhyme goes up to ten birds, and so there are ten tracks (well, eleven on the limited edition). Each one explores something new, although the link between the song and the matching line from the rhyme isn't always obvious.
It's almost impossible to be disappointed with this album. I'm sure some would have liked more progression, or at least more variety, but this album represents more a honing of a style than a departure from one. If you like Insomnium, you will like One For Sorrow. And if you don't, then you obviously haven't heard them yet.