In two weeks I’ll be delivering my TEDxPSU talk: Want to know the future? Ask a metalhead. It’s on how heavy metal is really good at telling us about social problems. Maybe we should listen o this hard-to-hear music. Sometimes, it’s a really great risk indicator.
For forty-five-plus years metal artists have been providing their listeners with warnings on a range of major issues. Issues include nuclear annihilation, religious and political corruption, predatory globalization, police and surveillance states, the plight of minorities, environmental degradation, unjust wars, and my favorite issue climate change. In the next couple of weeks I’ll be sharing some of the songs and issues.
Fear of nuclear annihilation has occupied our public consciousness for over 70 years and quite pressingly since the 1950s when both the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. successfully tested thermonuclear weapons. It was certainly present for the first 20 years of metal’s existence. But fear ebbed after the Cold War. But it’s returned. If I were you, I’d check out why the doomsday clock has moved closer to midnight. You’ll see that it’s in part because of Donald Trump’s positions and rhetoric around nuclear weapons as well as nuclear states like India and Pakistan. The Doomsday Clock change might make the following Black Sabbath and Metallica songs more than the ravings of young men. They are notes of caution.
Black Sabbath’s “Children of the Grave” from Master of Reality.
Metallica’s “Blackened” from …And Justice For All.
Metal embodies power as an aesthetic necessity and communicates distrust of power on moral principle. These songs (and many others) achieved do both on nuclear warfare. They sound paint nuclear war, overwhelming the listener with volume, distortion, speed, and tone. The harmony and melody use minor, locrian mode and semi-atonality to intone doom, the black, the grave. Their lyrics are distinct from one another but built on the fundamental premise that powerful people (if anyone at all) can’t be trusted with nukes. The rhetoric of 1960s and 1970s flower power and love shows up in Sabbath, going so far as to hope that today’s children can be loving enough to prevent an atomic end. But Metallica was of the late Cold War, the MX missile, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and the war of words between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. They use the words “callous frigid chill” and “winter” as references to nuclear winter, a concept that came into public consciousness fully in the 1980s because of scientists including Carl Sagan.
Both songs call into question the human enterprise. The global military and political masters cannot be trusted with the power of nuclear weapons. The risk places us precariously close to “the exit of humanity” and “children of today [becoming] children of the grave.” And today, January 28, 2017, the Doomsday Clock is at 2 1/2 minutes to midnight. Let’s hope we don’t get closer. Living in the time when the warnings still hold is where we want to be, not in the apocalypse that follows.
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In the next metal post, I’ll share two songs that attack global predatory capitalism.