Friday, July 12, 2013

"The Pathology of Morbid Curiosity" or, Gore Metal and where do you draw the line at "art"?

In the mid 1980's, the "satanic" extreme thrash of bands like Slayer and Possessed metamorphosed into a more extreme form of metal that took the intensity of thrash and upped the ante, creating a darker, heavier, and more dense sound that came to be known as Death Metal.  While some early Death Metal bands took the occult-themed and/or anti-Christian imagery and amplified it (Deicide & Morbid Angel are early examples), others took a more "horror movie" approach, using campy zombie lyrics and images of gore to shock listeners.  The majority of these early bands have a cartoony approach, making the lyrics less shocking when read and understood in context.  Others appeared to take the gore approach much more seriously, with imagery (album art, primarily) and lyrics so blatantly gory and brutal, the uninitiated might question the sanity of the bands, which meant that the bands accomplished one of their goals - to shock & offend.

Fascination with death is nothing new.  Morbid Curiosity is perhaps best defined as a curiosity, fascination, preoccupation, or intense interest in death.  Wikipedia has a good paragraph on the subject, though that only just scratches the surface.  This topic has been the subject of some metal songs (thrash bands Detritus and Heathen tackled it at one point), and death as a whole has been a near-constant theme in the more extreme metal genres, Death Metal in particular.  Death is a recurring theme in nearly all media.  Stories and books for generations have centered on death, or stories that are built around some kind of murder.  Indeed, murder mysteries are often New York Times best-sellers.  TV has had plenty of murder mysteries, from Perry Mason to Murder She Wrote, or more modern hit shows like CSI or the Law & Order suite of shows.

Yes, I hear the "bong bong!" noise in my head too.

From the small screen to the silver screen, death in a myriad of forms is a central theme.  From the routine murder mysteries to powerful films about overcoming the aftermath of death (i.e. people and families moving on after the death of a loved one), to horror films where plenty of on-screen death occurs.  Going on up from there are the overt slasher films where killing sprees and high body counts are the norm.  Folks who think Friday the 13th is distasteful or far too preoccupied with death obviously haven't seen Cannibal Campout or other, similar horror/gore films.  And for every B-movie/horror fan who revels in the over-the-top slasher films, there is usually a point at which those fans draw the line as to what they will watch.  These lines can be totally arbitrary, or sometimes they can be clearly defined, stemming from some deeper moral center or even just what they personally can stomach.

I remember hearing an interview with Alice Cooper where he was commenting on a tour with Rob Zombie.  Metal fans know Rob as the frontman and chief architect of the now-defunct band White Zombie, the comically silly "horror metal" band whose mostly benign "horror" lyrics were a parody of b-movie horror films, a tradition which Rob carried into his solo career.  Alice said something to the effect that Rob "gets it" with regard to horror films, that horror movies are actually comedy.  If you're balking at that statement, think in context - most b-horror movies are overly acted, "chills and thrills" cinema experiences that shock or scare the average person.  But for someone who understands that horror movies are just that, movies, it's easy to see where Alice (aka Vincent Furnier) is coming from.  While death is a fact of life, gory death by some sadistic killer in a maniacal way is far less common than dying in a car wreck or a home accident.  Much like the fear of flying, and the connected fear of dying in a plane crash, the fear of being eaten alive by a zombie, buried alive by some fiendish killer, or attacked in one's sleep by an otherworldly being can be as exhilarating as it is scary.

C'mon, I'm a big teddy bear!

In the world of extreme metal, this preoccupation with death, horror and gore is pervasive.  One might even say it's too pervasive.  Early death metal bands were shocking when they wrote lyrics about zombies hacking up corpses and eating them, but how is that different than the mainstream horror movies of the time?  In today's world, horror movies have splintered in two, somewhat distinct directions.  The mainstream horror films are generally more in the "thriller" genre, using sudden loud noises, various camera and lighting tricks, and other methods to keep the suspense of the film going until the end.  On the other end are the more independent films, from the ultra-campy gore of the Troma Studios films to even more unsavory offerings (depending on your viewpoint) from other independent studios, reprising the "slasher film" genre of the 1980's and offering the audience more death, gore, blood, guts and entrails than you can shake a stick at.  This more independent film approach is the tack used by goregrind and gore metal bands as their primary lyrical approach.

The salient question, then, is simply this: where or how do we draw the line?  Is there any societal value in extreme goregrind or gore metal with lyrics about snacking on the entrails of your victim while sodomizing a corpse?  What entertainment value can be gleaned from music whose lyrics are rife with pseudo-first-person accounts of hacking up a village full of people and then pleasuring oneself among the wreckage?  Before arbitrarily answering those questions one way or the other, consider the context within which these works are contained and understand their place among society as a whole.  If you're deeply offended by the thought of a zombie creature molesting corpses, you may need to adjust your priorities.  Perhaps the plight of homeless war veterans roaming city streets isn't offensive enough to take precedence.  If listening to unintelligible lyrics about a mass murderer hacking his victims into pieces gets you riled up, consider for a moment the thousands upon thousands of starving children in foreign countries who haven't asked for that life, but have been handed that existence because of the mistakes of their parents and the generations before them.  When you put these things into context, it suddenly makes the overly silly and "shocking" nature of such lyrics seem trivial by comparison.

That's not to say that artistic responsibility isn't valid - it most certainly is.  I would say it's nearly as important as artistic integrity.  Writing songs about such death, gore and destruction can be a positive thing if they're cathartic and give the composer some level of peace through that process.  But gore for gore's sake is no art at all - it's just lip service to fans of the genre, in the same way that making hip hop music just to get rich, or Japanese anime dedicated solely to "fan service" is devoid of any real artistic merit.  There's nothing wrong with getting paid, but when that's your primary motivation, you've crossed the line into mere commercialism.  Now in the rather niche world of gore metal, "getting paid" means you might make enough on a gig to pay for your gas money and you're footing the bill yourself for the recording of your CD, so money isn't really a motivator.  But recognition from ones peers and the listening audience is such a motivator, and if that's the reason your talents are being directed in this manner, I would simply caution those to be mindful of what they're putting down in paper and in the studio.  Use the gore and horror as commentary for the failures of society and mankind in general.  Allegory of that kind is far more chilling and effective than simply "shock comedy", and will make a bigger long-term impact than just trying to one-up a fellow band.

In the end, I choose to weigh in on this topic only to prompt discussion and critical thought.  I'm not sure there's a "right" or "wrong" answer here.  Ultimately such genres are niche enough to fly under the radar of much of society, and that's generally the point.  Only those who understand such lyrics in their proper context are going to get a kick out of such things.  Like anything, they can be seductive to weak individuals who can't separate the lyrics from reality.  I would caution writers of gore metal or goregrind to simply be cognizant of their audience, and to strive to make their lyrics allegorical of something greater or larger than the small world they've constructed.  After all, are you saying something important in a subtle way through a complete lack of subtlety, or are you saying nothing at all as loud as you can?

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