Thrash metal’s emotionally stunted? Try again.

Metallica — probably the most famous and best-selling thrash-metal band of all time — recently celebrated its 30th anniversary with a series of intimate performances at San Francisco’s Fillmore auditorium. Many fans old and young (mostly old) came from around the world to attend the shows, which gave them a chance to reflect on the kids they once were and the grownups they’ve become — and whether thrash still has a place in their lives.

One of those is SF Weekly writer Ian S. Port. At the time it emerged, thrash metal was by far the most aggressive music available to rebellious teenagers, and it was clear teens were hungry for it. Many parents were unnerved by the genre’s brashness, its in-your-face lyrics, even its obnoxiousness. Many of thrash’s young fans are now parents themselves. Meanwhile, thrash is back in a big way, and a new generation of teens growing up in a culture of upheaval are discovering a place of solace within it.

Port does a great job of describing thrash’s appeal to fans:

Performed at huge volume with incredible precision, these songs reach heights of majesty, potency, and sublimity. For Metallica fans, that overwhelming power is an essential tool for tamping down the uncomfortable realities of everyday life. Like a muscle car or a violent videogame, the music is a demonstration of strength that cannot be diluted or drowned out. It is intimidating. It is scary. It is sometimes mean.

But then, even a longtime thrash fan can go off course, apparently. He says:

“Instead of letting fans express their difficult feelings, or come to grips with the weak parts we all have inside —- which is what a lot of pop and rock music does —- Metallica works mostly to deny them.”

And then he says:

Thrash metal has little room for the full range of human emotions … You never saw Slayer make a touchy-feely record.

I wonder how much this has to do with him, as a listener, rather than the thrash genre itself. And I wonder that because the experience he’s describing is not my experience at all. Okay, so it’s true that Slayer never made a “touchy-feely record” exactly, but Metallica alone has a song for just about any mood and emotional nuance. (For some great examples of this, check out Cosmo Lee’s series on the band’s first four albums over at Invisible Oranges.) As someone who’s been listening to the band since the relatively late year of 1989, I’m a little surprised to hear another listener describe Metallica’s — or thrash’s — overall tenor as emotionally stunted.

In fact, thrash is full of counter-examples to his statements. Here are just a few:

Anthrax, “Who Cares Wins” — in this song and video, the band shines a light on poverty and homelessness, showing a huge amount of compassion in the process.

Megadeth, “Peace Sells” — Dave Mustaine’s sardonic lyrics explore a misfit’s thoughts on fitting in (and not fitting in) with mainstream society.

Death Angel, “Confused” — this song describes the search for peace and serenity in the face of confusion, cultural chaos, and the feeling of going slowly nuts.

Slayer, “Raining Blood” — the moment when powerlessness turns to empowerment, captured at roughly 220 beats per minute (which is roughly what your heartbeat feels like in those moments).

Metallica, “Fade to Black” — pure despair. And yet, this song describes despair in a way that is ultimately cathartic, even uplifting at the end.

And those are just a few examples. Beneath the brash exterior, thrash offers a pretty complete emotional landscape. There are even moments of joy, now and again. It’s there, if you want to hear it — and many do.

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2 responses to “Thrash metal’s emotionally stunted? Try again.

  1. This is generally true. OTOH, as with other metal, it generally doesn’t want to go “too far” and risk losing tuff cred. Some range, yes, but not that much depth.

    Besides, the real rap (heh) on thrash is intolerance. Now I know it’s easy to be intolerant of hair-metal glam dudes in Spandex tights, but (like punk) thrash seems to derive its very identity as much from designation of an enemy figure (“Death to false metal!”–as if it wasn’t “real” because it wasn’t “metal” enough) as anything else. Look what happened when Metallica released Load–they caught hell for both cutting their hair and putting on eyeliner, which is kinda odd, but that was the metal dynamic. Now metal has essentially become a new branch of skinhead music, the long hair having become another victim of the quest for tuff cred. Anyway, we’re not going to come to grips with the state of rock today until we understand that (1) music we don’t personally like can still be honest and good, and (2) bad music might become good if the right things are done with it. We’re starting to get #1, but #2 looks as hopeless as it did in 1985.

    • As with any subculture, thrash (and metal in general) are vulnerable to the same kind of ingroup/outgroup mentality that helps each group define itself. The same thing happens with goths, ethnic groups, religious groups, etc. It’s both inherently normal/human and also very divisive — the very thing that helps us define and embrace community prevents larger community from forming because of all the xenophobia.

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