Criticism — From the May 2014 issue

Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives

A poet’s guide to metal

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In the beginning, William Blake writes a gonzo mythopoeia called Milton:

All that can be annihilated must be annihilated
That the Children of Jerusalem may be saved from slavery
There is a Negation, & there is a Contrary
The Negation must be destroyd to redeem the Contraries
The Negation is the Spectre; the Reasoning Power in Man
This is a false Body: an Incrustation over my Immortal
Spirit; a Selfhood, which must be put off & annihilated alway

In another beginning, a bunch of working-class drug users detune their guitars and add some horror-flick spookiness to the blues. Metal — no one can agree on when or why the “heavy” fell off — is born, half in love with easeful death and with Rimbaud’s “chaos of ice and polar night,” which could describe the sound of a record like the Norwegian black-metal band Immortal’s Sons of Northern Darkness.1

1 A note on terminology: the tag “heavy metal” was applied to various psychedelic and/or blues-based rock bands throughout the Sixties and early Seventies, but it seems to have stuck when Lester Bangs used it to describe Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, by broad consensus the first (and perhaps the best) heavy-metal bands. As rock and roll became rock, heavy metal yielded to metal — splintering into a kajillion subgenres ranging from cough-syrup slow to so fast that drummers use electronic triggers to produce uniform beats at tempos faster than is normally possible with human arms and legs. Genre classification doesn’t interest me. Listen to Poison Idea’s Feel the Darkness followed by Repulsion’s Horrified and tell me the main difference between hardcore punk and metal isn’t that one has a bullshit positive message and one has a bullshit negative message. Hell, I think Steely Dan is metal half the time. But for the record, here’s a breakdown of some of the most popular metal subgenres. Thrash metal is fast and angry; practitioners often appear to have spent too much time lifting weights. Death metal comes from Florida, is superfast, and sometimes employs meters more often associated with jazz, or at least with Weather Report; lyrics tend to be about death and dying and killing. Black metal is from Norway, sounds like Joy Division on Benzedrine, and won’t shut up about Satan; these are the idiots who burned dozens of churches, some centuries old. Doom metal is low and slow, sometimes to the point of sounding like Pauline Oliveros, and mainly concerns the relationship between despair and marijuana.

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is the author of the poetry collections Alien vs. Predator (2012) and The Second Sex, which will be published this fall by Penguin.

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