An Introduction to Excess and Exaggeration in Heavy Metal Music

There is hardly any reason for me to write this little thing (time will tell if indeed lives up to the title “little), other than this being something that has been on my mind for quite some time, namely "excess." Or, in less fancy terms, "too much," or "too muchness," and specifically in metal music. The many ways in which metal is a genre that is characterized, perhaps even defined, by being “too much” of something. The other, trickier, part of this thing will discuss in what way I see “too muchness” as something of an ethical anchoring point in metal. That is that to be “too much” is to be, in fact, a person. 

And the ways in which one can be "too much" of something in metal seem to be, in a non-final way: the “too much music” or “thinking too much” that is often the trademark or prog metal like Opeth, Kayo Dot, Cynic, or Fates Warning; “too many notes” or “too much happening at once” which could be assigned to more technically minded bands, say like Death or Emperor, or Megadeth (80s and early 90s); there’s “too much heavy” or “too much attitude” as in bands like Pantera, or Hellhammer, Slayer and maybe even Manowar, though they are doing something too much in vastly different ways; obviously “too many riffs” is also a thing, and I would assume it’s safe to put Morbid Angel, Blood Incantation, Metallica, Convulsing, and maybe Tomb Mold in that category; “too much raw” as in Darkthrone, and pretty much every bad that ever came out of Finland or South America; too much feeling, as in the music of bands like ISIS, Cult of Luna, Type O Negative, and Deftones; and then there’s the peak of mountain excess, the “everything but the kitchen sink” mode of too muchness, with bands like Cradle of Filth, Krallice, Dimmu Borgir, and most recently GARSDGHASTR. While no doubt bands and fans of bands that I carelessly placed in these arbitrary categories will go up in arms saying “But Darkthrone isn’t excess, it’s ‘stripped down’”! I would say, simply: no. There is no such thing as stripped down in metal. So, yeah.

Now, obviously this is a problematic concept since it seems, the question begs itself, that by assuming excess one must first suggest a general standard of correctness or properness, otherwise how would anyone be able to even talk about something being too much of something? So, on the one hand I feel like saying that this is my own intuitive sense of what’s “just right” in metal music, and, you know, fuck that. But there are two ways in which I feel like I can address that issue. The first is to say that, yes, this is intuitive, but from what you could call an interpretive point of view, that point of view being that I interpret certain musical moments or styles as “flagrantly excessive,” as opposed to, for example, one solo too many or two notes too many. It could be interesting to try to find a meter for “too much” or at least the feeling of “too much,” but I won’t be doing that myself. The other mitigating factor in the discussion of “just right” is, I think, the general sense that there are bands that, for a time, got it just right and that those albums that were written in those types are what are considered to be canonized classics of metal. But for me “just right” is pretty much just one band in the history of the band, and that’s Sepultura. I don’t really think that’s a discussion because that’s just a fact so, yeah. Having said that, and as pleasing as Sepultura is, this article is really in praise of not getting it right, or, in other words that doing too much of something is the hallmark of metal as a genre, and in my opinion the mark of its greatness. It just depends what kind of exaggeration you’re into, I suppose. 

Some of this plays into breaking down certain sub-genres of metal into different kinds of exaggeration: death metal, say, being the combination of "too much heavy" with "too many riffs" and sometimes "too many notes"; black metal being a mix of "too much raw" and "too much emotion" or, at least in the American variant such as Wolves in the Throne Room or Agalloch, "too much space"; and Nu Metal being a mix of "too much emotion" and "too much heavy" (what happens when The Cure meets Slayer, I guess). And it may seem a pointless exercise to break down categories with more categories, but, hey, I'm all for pointless exercises. I guess that's my own form of exaggeration.

What follows is an obsessively detailed spelling out of some of these ideas that isn’t supposed to be final or hermetic in any way. The categories bleed into one some bands fit more than one category (Korn, for instance, is both “too much power” and “too much emotion" and The Dillinger Escape Plan is probably both "everything but the kitchen sink" and "too much emotion"), and there are certain categories that I have completely left out for no apparent reasons other than not writing anymore (“too much masculinity” comes to mind with bands like Manowar or Eternal Champion, but I digress). So, this is me having fun with my own version of having fun, and it is, alas, what it is. Enjoy, or whatever. And check us out on Facebook, Instagram, and Spotify, if you feel like it.

TOO MUCH MUSIC

The hallmark, or at least one interesting aspect, of the “too much music” crowd is that they seem to all be people fascinated with pop music all while horribly failing at making pop music. They love pretty small things, and they love crafting those, and then, for whatever reason, taking them away. 

My case study for “too much music” is, naturally, I think, Opeth’s Blackwater Park, and most notably the title track. And what’s clear immediately is that the first minute of that song is indeed too much – it’s beautiful. It is, in fact, a perfect exercise in creating a beautiful, slowly ascending melody, that is menacing while remaining ethereal. And it is job #1 for bands in this category to give you those ethereal moments of sheer beauty, and then snatch them from your crying hands. Because they’re not here to be pretty, they’re here to perform, to an extent, the part of “the musician” – the person who creates. And when something gets so swellingly pretty you can forget, for a moment, that someone made that something. And “too much music” people don’t like being forgotten. And at the 01:11 mark of the song Opeth snatch your candy. And proceed to give you another candy. All the candy. The dark liqoriuchy stuff, the little acoustic interlude kind that sticks to your teeth, and one of the best “ugh” candies this side of Tom G. Warrior at around 01:58. As long as you know who’s making it, and who’s selling it, you can have as much as you like.

And, the candy man Akerfeldt comes back to give you some sweet, sweet stuff at around 02:48-ish. Take off the weird lead and keys that come in, and this is a Nick Drake track, pretty and minor, and weightless. So naturally Opeth are going to let you savor that bit of pretty, only to, wow, take it away, again

This goes on and on, no point in repeating myself. But this is just Opeth’s way of doing things. Some bands, like Kayo Dot do quite often, give you so much music at the same time that you're left in a constant state of pleasing bewilderment until you feel dead inside, and then suddenly give you that pop harmony that feels like an oasis, and then take that away. A bunch of snatchers and seducers, basically, who seduce, somehow, by running the hell away from you. I think I may have had a girlfriend like that. Worse still, I think I am like that. But, I digress. 

Other Examples:

Kayo Dot – “Passing the River

Locust Leaves – “Light (Fos)”

Cynic – “Veil of Maya”

TOO MUCH HAPPENING/TOO MANY NOTES

These are all, as I said, quite arbitrary categories and no one category is entirely inclusive, other than, you know, Sepultura. And there are, I am sure, people who would argue for some overlap between the “proggy bands” and these bands here, who have, I think, all been accused/praised at some point of their career of having the odd prog moment, whether that be Sound of Perseverance, Rust in Peace, or Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk. And like those bands in the last group it seems that one main factor is the writer’s preoccupation with not being missed. And we do, might I say, have a bunch of big personalities and no real lack of ego in this group: Dave Mustaine, Chuck Schuldiner, and Ihsahn are all, shall we say, Type A dudes. 

But I think it is appropriate to set them apart since while the “too much music” group seems intent on creating small poppy moments that with time turn into 20-minutes metal monstrosities, the word I’m think of in this present grouping is more like “monolith.” To write a lot, to asset one’s own creative force, but to do so in a manner that accumulates to something, and I’m going to use a jargon term here, “huge.” In architectural terms, the prog bands want to build a sprawling market with endless types of stalls and sounds and smells (which, at least partially, explains the proggy fetish with orientalism), while “too many notes” bands want to build the pyramids.

However, and this, I think, is an important point to make, all the bands in this category are perceived as excessive or exaggerated because they never quite manage to build that monolith. They fail, in a manner, to transcend themselves simply because they insist on asserting their own humanity in a manner not unlike those musicians in the previous section: they keep changing things to remind you that they’re still there, that there’s a human being playing instruments and trying very hard to do something. In other words they reason these bands seem to “exaggerate” depends on the manner in which they exaggerate their own exaggeration (that’s a mouthful), creating music that is so complex and ambitious that it somehow collapses on itself to reveal its human creator. 

These bands, it should be said, are all of my favorite bands in each genre. My favorite death metal band is Death, my favorite black metal band is Emperor, and my favorite band, period, is Megadeth. And for that reason I think there is no better example for too much happening than this unsung classic: “Good Morning/Black Friday.”

I chose this song because, much like Opeth’s, it begins with pretty. But that pretty is not kept as is, not left to become perfect but almost immediately is packed in with foreshadowing, in the form of ominous drums and a weird, weird and eerie guitar lead. No doubt, this is some of the prettiest music that Megadeth has ever recorded. From the ethereal plucked intro, to the ascending riffs and whirling solo (courtesy of the incomparable Chris Poland) beginning at around the 01:07 mark. But it’s only an introduction, almost like the kind you would read to a novel, and that’s no accident because Mustaine loves to tell stories. And this is one as well, beginning with the “Hey, I don’t feel so good” at 01:51 all the way to the moment where all this waiting around starts to get too long and the song basically erupts into itself at 02:26. Imagine Megadeth being the kind of band that would be able to hold that theme and vibe of the intro and slowly shift into a grand narrative of a kind that a prog band like any of those in the “too much music” section could. But they can’t, because the impulse to assrt agency is so great that the entire song goes away into something completely else. A too-busy mind at work – check it out at 04:05.

Other Examples:

Death: “Flesh and the Power it Holds”

Emperor: “Ye Entrancemperium”

Carcass: “This Mortal Coil”

TOO HEAVY / TOO MUCH RAW

It sounds funny to talk about bands being too heavy in a genre based on heaviness, but there are bands for whom the mode of exaggeration isn’t necessarily the market-like variety of their song structure or the obsession with technicality and authorship but something else. This has been called everything from “vibe” to “atmosphere” to more down-to-earth terms like “high gain and dry snares,” but whatever the term the point is one: to overwhelm with power. A lot of doom metal, at least of the modern variety, fits quite nicely here, but I think that the undoubted torch bearers for this kind of excessive violence are bands like Slayer, the entire new wave of American heavy metal (Pantera, Machine Head, Fear Factory, and later groovy descendants) and even bands like Korn and Darkthrone. Yup, I went there. 

Naturally each band creates this air of exaggerated power in a different context. For Slayer it was about attack and giving no air or space at all, at least in their 80s prime. For Korn it was insufferably heavy instrumentation meant to mirror an insufferably overbearing emotional state, and for Pantera it was something like using the mechanics of thrash to create an air of personal intimidation (that Vulgar Display of Power cover artwork is no mistake). 

But I’d like to focus, at least for now, on Darkthrone and the opening track, that also happens to be the title track of Transilvanian Hunger. And the reason I’d like to focus on that song is because it seems like a fitting context to discuss Darkthrone’s mode of creating excessive heaviness which is the illusion of the stripped-down attack. Darkthrone knew then and still know how to write and record songs “well.” It takes one listen to Soulside Journey, their pre-black-metal debut, to understand that point. They know how to mic guitars and drums, they know how to record vocals. However, in their music they aim, more often than not, to create an atmosphere that seems to mimic a lack of all production. Which is, again, a complete fabrication. For them, as for many metal bands and musicians, performance and experience is a key component, scaring their listeners is a key factor, and the way they have chosen to go about it, they way they have chosen to “overwhelm,” is with a performance of “rawness.”

This isn’t to say that Darkthrone are “faking it." Only that they are performers, performers for whom atmosphere is central. Not paramount, because they still write beautiful songs and arrange them beautifully, but central. And I think a song like “Transilvanian Hunger” displays that since there is obviously so much melody and songwriting going on here, repetitive as it may be, and it is precisely the presence of those efforts which makes the exaggeration of “rawness” become as effective as it is.

Other Examples:

Korn: “Divine”

Full of Hell: "Deluminate"

Slayer: “Raining Blood”

TOO MUCH FEELING

These are the bands and musicians for whom emotional expressiveness is the focal point of their music, and in the case of metal music the focal point of their use of the “heavy” side of the color palette. This is not to say they are not interested in riffs or in performance, they are, but they are going for a kind of emotional counterpart to what I have discussed in Darkthrone as being “too powerful” or “too raw.” Raw here doesn’t mean production, though that is sometimes the case, but the sense of exposed feelings and mental state – usually not great ones. And while it would be tempting to assign terms like “authenticity” to the emotional expression found in this type of aesthetic, the emphasis is still on exaggeration albeit a structural one. Structural, here, in terms of either playing around with song structures to seemingly fit the immensity of emotions (4-5 minute songs aren’t enough, verse/chorus fails at capturing true emotion, and so on) or via the microscopic detailing of emotional states.

A band like Neurosis would seem to be a good place to begin here, since it was Neurosis, perhaps more than any other band, that combined two highly emotive genres and fused them together to create a new emotive Megazord. On the one hand we have hardcore and emo, later fuzed with a dash of metal to create such subgenres as mathcore, and on the other thepost-rock musings of bands such as Rodan or Slint. So, very passionate people channeling their sizeable passions via the vessel created by extremely thoughtful people. The result? A LOT OF FEELING. To the point of very overbearing. Which is, again, interesting, because what’s flooring you, pinning you down, isn’t the riff, but that the riff is somehow representative of a riff-like emotional state. I’d give a breakdown of a song, but since these are longish songs at times I could just say: listen to “Locust Star” or ISIS’ “The Beginning and the End.” Interestingly, at least some of these bands, not all, could fit in another category "Too Much Space," which, I assume, equates spacious soundscapes with emotional expression. This may be the case in certain expressive genres like doom or post-metal, but just a thought. 

Other Examples:

Cult of Luna: “Echoes”

Type O Negative: “Green Man”

Botch: “Afghanistam”

TOO MANY RIFFS

This category is obviously a cousin of the “too many notes” section above, and is much more prevalent in death metal, perhaps the most riffy of sub-genres, than anywhere else. But there is a slight difference here, mainly in one strange thing: while the “too many notes” bands try to create a monolith but end up collapsing on themselves, thus revealing their own non-monolithic nature, the “too many riffs” bands indeed succeed in creating said pyramids. The pyramid is there, great success, you have transcended your own humanity through the creation of something larger than yourself. However, the monolith created is not a homogenous one, showing every strain and effort that marks the varied and multifaceted nature of its creator. So, it is a pyramid, but it looks like someone sliced a cake down the middle and you can see all the layers just hanging out.

And as I started off by saying this is mostly a death metal category, albeit more recently occupied by more and more black/death hybrid bands such as, for instance, Deathspell Omega, Bolzer, Imperial Triumphant, and others. Bands that have managed, in other words, to bring in that “thinking about stuff way too much” aspect of death metal into the relatively more relaxed scope of black metal’s sweeping minor atmospheres. 

But, despite those developments I would be remiss (always a good word to use) if I didn’t focus on the forefathers of the “too-many-riffs” movement, Morbid Angel. Morbid Angel is interesting here, and I’d like to talk about “Chapel of Ghouls,” impossibly, because they are special not only for having, as they say, all the riffs, but because each individual riffs is as quirky as it is. So, not only is the Morbid Angel pyramid weird and segmented, each segment is shaped like, I dunno, a weird shape?

So, this is going to read kind of ridiculous, but here goes:
00:00-00:05 – Perfect opening riff, perfect. Sets the tone immediately.

00:05-00:13 – Perfect verse riff, and classic Morbid Angel verse riff. Job well done, that’s enough for today, boys.

00:14-00:20 – Oh, I guess we have another riff for that, great.

00:20-00:34 – Inhuman chaotic riff, OK. 

And then all over again. Only the chaotic part is slightly different, so, yeah, that’s another one. Except:

01:51-02:24 – The God Riff. That part of a family trip where the mountains open up and you get a view of some crazy valley and you love everyone. Only, except:

02:25 – The Devil Riff. Yeah, shit’s different now. And top 5 blastbeat all time.

You get the picture, I think. I mean, there’s that riff at 3:30 too, and then the one that comes straight after it. Shit. Whatever, you get the picture. Again.

Other Examples:

Convulsing: “Altered”

Metallica: “Trapped Under Ice”

Suffocation: “Infecting the Crypts”

EVERYTHING BUT THE KITCHEN SINK

Well, I’m going to guess that, like me, everyone has their favorite type of excess. Some people attract to power, some to technical overthinking, and some to the “fucking riff.” But I’m going to throw a wild guess here and say that this present category is among the most despised. Because the excesses that seem to stand at the heart of this type of aesthetic seems to quite a bit of metal fans to be, shall we say, too excessive – too dramatic, too melodic, too produced, too fake, and so on. The idea being, I think, that these bands and artists can’t be “genuine” or “authentic” or “real” (trv?) because it’s all much too theatrical. 

I think I’ve countered that argument at least partially up until now, even if perhaps indirectly, by considering the “raw,” “real,” and/or “authentic” aspect of some metal bands to be a kind of performance in and of itself. In other words, it would not be correct to claim that one artist performs while the other just “is,” but to say that there are many modes of performance, including those, such as in the case of this present category, that highlight the very fact of performance. So, it’s not , I think, that these bands get as much hate as they do as a result of their performativity but as a result of a perceived excessive performativity. Which, in turn, makes this kind of exaggeration into the most self-reflexive of all metal genres, in that it recognizes “bigness” as part of metal’s core and abuses that insight to a pulp.

 

Some good representatives for this type of uber-theatrical metal are probably Dimmu Borgir or Cradle of Filth, but I think that the unquestionable kings of cheese are Cradle of Filth who managed, and still manage, to piss seemingly everyone off for pushing the excess button with an axe-shaped fist. And the style, as its name indicates, is everything at the same time. My personal favorite in this category is “To Eve the Art of Witchcraft” from their debut classic Principle of Evil Made Flesh. It mixes gothic vibes, theatrical readings, black metal vocals, death/doom metal riffing and just an overall blast of anything they could reach during recording, pretty much. Love that song. Especially this little gem here, the heart of the track, where Nick Barker’s double bass – that instrument brought to life by Philthy Phil and used ever since in order to pummel heaviness into brains everywhere – is used to mimic singer Andrea Meyer in that magical section between 03:47 and 04:40

Other Examples:
The Dillinger Escape Plan: “43% Burnt”

Dimmu Borgir: “Mourning Palace”

Theatre of Tragedy: “And When He Falleth”

An Exaggeratedly Short Conclusion

My own  personal takeaway from this discussion of excess in metal is that without excess metal isn’t appealing for me. Again and again I find myself returning to bands and artists that do too much of something, even unconsciously, as a sign of both high art and a high level of performances as well as a sign of something like humanity. That, to me, music that sounds overworked, overwrought, or that fails at some impossible mission (immortality, transcendence, understanding) is much more appealing to me as a person. And, from a somewhat wider angle, this discussion of exaggeration also helps me explain the reason why I have always preferred bands that tried too hard and sometimes failed over bands that get it right somehow. I endlessly appreciate the “classics,” that are, more often than not, the albums that get just right and that appear in those fancy magazine countdowns of such and such metal albums ever. I appreciate bands who try to exaggerate with power or with a (false or impossible) sense of “authenticity” but those will never be my first choice. Since they’re trying, each in their own way, to be perfect. All the while bad production, a shrill voice, one-too-many riff changes, and a flailing sense of humanity are like hearing a heartbeat, or muscle move and are, to me, the best thing about any art, music included. That doing something too much in an attempt to create something contained is, by definition, an ironic endeavor, which is why some of the best metal bands are the ones that master both the attempt as well as its inherent irony.