Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

The language of extreme metal

The language of extreme metal

Luke Pickrahn

There has been significant sociolinguistic research in the analysis of song lyrics; however, the lyrical content of Extreme Metal, if considered at face value, is often prone to being discounted as gratuitous and needlessly transgressive. To extract some sociolinguistic information from what some might consider to be a vibrant subculture, it is necessary to ask several questions, namely, does Extreme Metal have some form of Alternate language, and if so, why, and what role does it serve to its participants? To effectively answer these questions, it was important to narrow the dataset to a manageable size, thus, Death metal and Black metal will serve in this respect, considering that they remain as two of the more “transgressive” genres to comprise “Extreme Metal”. The methods employed in this study, were a mixture of quantitative and qualitative datasets, and the application of “grounded theory” to analyze those datasets. 35 death metal songs, and 35 Black metal songs, from 7 bands of each genre, were fed into a word frequency analysis program to look for repeated ideas, concepts and lexicalities. Several qualitative sources, in the form of: artist interviews, media videos, an extensive literature review, and an in-depth analysis of lyrical fragments, also aided the discussion. The results of this study show that Death metal and Black metal, as part of a broader genre of music known as Extreme Metal, tend to have their marked differences, but will both generally use lyrics and linguistic devices to construct an oppositional identity that is intentionally antagonistic to the mainstream contemporary society. Lyrical content not only serves as an antithesis to contemporary cultural values, but challenges the boundaries of taboo and profanity. In many cases, Extreme Metal lyrics have a great deal of importance in reflecting the consumer’s “identity”, as well as the ontological security of that said identity.

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April 6, 2017 - Posted by | abstract

8 Comments »

  1. It seems like your concluding sentence is the key to understanding extreme metal’s aesthetic strategy, as it were. What do we know of the demographics of that consumer? Has anything changed from 5-6 decades ago, when the predominant demographic for the rock ‘n’ roll consumer was: white middle-class teenagers with disposable income? The “transgressive,” “taboo” pose sounds like a reboot of Little Richard’s First Commandment of Rock ‘n’ Roll: “Drive the parents crazy and the kids will make you rich.” Check him out on YouTube.

    Comment by Dan Harrison | April 6, 2017 | Reply

    • Hello,
      Author speaking – I appreciate the insight! I’d say the demographic has definitely changed; these days, a member of the “Extreme Metal” community tends to be a working class, “white”, adult male. Although, I am hesitant to draw too much of a connection between the consumers of “Rock & Roll” and “Extreme metal,” while I do appreciate that all metal has some of its roots in “Rock & roll” – Metal also borrows greatly from various other genres and styles, therefore, I don’t really see the consumer base as indicative of one another, throughout time. Also, I would argue “Rock & Roll” eventually began to embrace mainstream culture (or Vice-Versa), whereas the aim of “True” Extreme Metal has always been to challenge that said culture. That is why I incorporate the discussion of the ontological security that metal lyrics provide the consumer, while also referencing Michael Haliday’s Anti-language article (1976) for a better socio-linguistic understanding of the actual ROLE of Extreme Metal Language.

      Also, I appreciate the recommendation – I will surely look him up! I know of Little Richard, but I cant say I am too familiar with him.

      Comment by Luke Pickrahn | April 9, 2017 | Reply

  2. This sounds like a very interesting paper. The word frequency study is especially intriguing to me. Are you looking at any interviews of fans of these metal genres? It might give you some new perspectives on why people are drawn to Death and Black metal, and their personal reactions to the language styles these songs use.

    Comment by John Anderson | April 10, 2017 | Reply

    • Yes I did! I thought about even interviewing some fans for some of that truly qualitative data but Dr Chrisomalis talked me out of it, which I’m glad of, because I didn’t really have time to do interviews AND the quantitative thing. I tried to get a good mix of YouTube comments and artist interview transcriptions to make up for that though.

      Comment by Luke Pickrahn | April 27, 2017 | Reply

  3. As an anthropologist and die-hard metal head, this paper gave me all sorts of brutal joy! I’d love to read the whole thing. Up the irons! -a recent Wayne State PhD grad here!

    Comment by Edward Rohn | April 11, 2017 | Reply

    • What is your PhD in?? I’m glad it gave you brutal joy to read! It gave me joy to write – that’s for sure. I would be my pleasure to send you the final manuscript once I am done and it has been graded.

      Comment by Luke Pickrahn | April 27, 2017 | Reply

  4. As a life-long fan of metal in its numerous forms, especially death metal, this sounds like an awesome paper. I even thought about doing something about metal for this paper as well. Was there a correlation between the death metal lyrics and a more prevalent basis in violence, brutality, morbidity, and well, death than the lyrics of black metal inherently being satanic and anti-christian? I’m also sure the geographic location of the band had some sort of influence as well on the lyrics due to political, social, and religious climates, as there is a strong death metal scene coming out of Europe that tends to be different than American or Canadian counterparts.
    I, for one, definitely see the value of the whole lyrical display of extreme vocals in connection with the very often extreme lyrics, it helps to evoke greater power for the music that already is so powerful. Because in many cases the metal bands we love put lots of thought behind the lyrics in the songs and greater knowledge than one would expect from bands such as Nile, Behemoth, The Faceless, The Black Dahlia Murder, Job for a Cowboy, Cannibal Corpse, etc.
    I’d definitely be interested in reading this paper due to my all around nerdiness in metal and anthropology.

    Comment by Josh Wolford | April 17, 2017 | Reply

    • Interestingly enough – most of the Death Metal, with the exception of the early stuff, was more concerned with consciousness, mysticism and sci-fi nerdy stuff than straight gore and violence – with cannibal corpse being the exception. I included Nile and the Faceless in both my quantitative and qualitative study – they are exemplary DM bands. I wanted to use Behemoth because they are one of my favorites, but I was concerned about them affecting the data set due to their massive crossover status as a “blackened Death metal” band. I appreciate Behemoth for their really cool stuff on Gnosticism and Near Eastern occult – cool stuff! shame I couldn’t use them.

      The BM stuff, as you can imagine, was all about anti-christian ideology (not necessarily satanic), forests, darkness and just overtly vehement nihilism. The BM stuff was spawned out of a rejection of DM because they believed it was too mainstream! imagine that… BM was certainly more of a protest to modern life. I also wanted to do an actual study of the difference between the Black Metal vocal and the Death Metal Vocal – which I view as very different. Screaming without any regard to technique is definitely more indicative of pure aggression than the controlled technique of a DM vocalist – which I think serves more as a percussive instrument to accompany the rest of the band. I think the BM vocals are more about adding texture and a wall of sound. I was unable to do that study due to the unavailability of sources.

      Anyways I really appreciate your comments and interests in the paper – If you want I can send you the paper after I’m all done with it.

      Comment by Luke Pickrahn | April 27, 2017 | Reply


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