‘How do you listen to this?’: a metal fan’s confession

Illustration by Emily Brill and Bobby Olivier

A few weeks ago, I was met with the question I have repeatedly answered since I began listening to hardcore/heavy metal music several years ago: “Why/how do you listen to this?” More articulately, due to the abrasive nature of the vocals and instrumentals, what pleasure do I gain from having my ears filled with screaming and melodies that can sometimes be difficult to stomach?

In a word — energy. The high I get from screaming along to Killswitch Engage or 36 Crazy Fists while alone in my car or slamming into random strangers in a concert circle pit is a feeling I cannot find anywhere else.

Some get their thrills from riding roller coasters, jumping out of planes, wrestling crocodiles or whatever else it is that makes them feel alive. I have my guitar solos and guttural growls. And if you have ever been near the stage during a breakdown — the most brutal parts of metal songs characterized by slower tempos and chugging guitar and percussion rhythms — you know how the intensity of the moment and the adrenaline can make you feel the force of the music.

In another word — release. If I am having a good day, I listen to metal. If I am having an awful day, I listen to metal. Hardcore and heavy metal music — at least the bands I listen to — are extremely empowering, and contrary to popular belief, the lyrics are often very uplifting and positive. I do not refute the fact that many subgenres of metal like death metal or black metal have more melancholy origins, but it’s all about preference.

A favorite lyric of mine comes from “Become the Catalyst,” a song by All That Remains: “I pound the walls, I shake the cage. I will not fall, I will not fail.” It is messages like these that lift me up, give me reassurance and keep me positive through the tougher times. I would rather not directly compare heavy metal to religion, but for me, certain songs often act as hymns.

I also love and am thoroughly entertained by the dichotomy of the “heavy metal image.” From the outside looking in, heavy metal is often judged as being led by the black shirts, long hair, gauged ears and piercings. Those who are not immersed in the genre might not understand that it is quite the opposite.

Unlike many pop and hip-hop acts, the quality of the music drives the metal movement. Screaming abilities are valued, as they take a considerable amount of talent (believe it or not), and guitarists’ aptitude for music is unlike anything I have encountered elsewhere. I do admit that “metal heads” are more adamant about showing off their favorite bands through demonic apparel, but there is more to the genre than just a T-shirt with dead babies on it.

I consider myself a closet metal head, not because I will not openly discuss my musical preferences, but because you would not know my love for abrasive music by looking at me. I only own two Killswitch Engage shirts, my nails are not painted and I have no holes in my body that should not be there already. I am a prime example of the image not overshadowing the tunes.

I am working toward the point that metal and hardcore are not so bad after all, but to be brutally honest, for those who find the music too loud, hard or heavy, it is your loss.

This is sort of a hipster mentality: I am more than OK with most people not being familiar with bands that I love. It is fun explaining the differences between hardcore, metalcore, post-hardcore, deathcore, death metal and power metal.

It is even more fun when I find a rare fan like me, and I can have a legitimate conversation about the latest As I Lay Dying or Between the Buried and Me album.

Having read this, maybe you can try to have one of those conversations too. All I’m saying is give metal a chance.

Bobby Olivier can be reached at olivier6@tcnj.edu.