How Important are Lyrics in Metal?
Posted by RiffRaff
It all makes sense… we’re capable of beauty.
Through sounds which make one cringe. The dogs only hear us now.
For the first time tears came to my eyes while I was listening.
Noise brings so many things… make my tingling skin freeze.
I’m positive that nearly every metal fan, especially the lovers of the more extreme spectrum of the genre, have heard this before. “But with all that noisy growling and screaming, how do you understand what they’re ‘air quotes’ singing?” To which we usually reply along the lines of something like “You get used to it.” or “It’s like learning an accent.” Yet regardless of how we break it down or try to explain it they just look at you with their head slightly cocked like a confused puppy and then you usually just give up and go about your day. Now, those are very legit responses, and even some of the heaviest of metals the growling/howling is perfectly dictated. But, let’s not bull shit ourselves. Even if you’re the most seasoned of brutal black death grind metal fan, there are a lot of vocalists who you can not understand a single word of what they are singing. So, how do you understand what they are ‘air quotes’ singing? You can sit with the lyric sheet in front of you while listening and memorize what each belch means, but not to many do that. So, why?
Does it really matter what words they are using? My usual retort to the question is that the vocals work less as a delivery of words and more of a delivery of emotion. It’s not what is being sung, but how. The screaming could express the exit of a weighty sadness or the rumbling growl could express apocalyptic anger. People usually attune to the singers in bands of all genres because it is the most expressive instrument, same for extreme metal. You don’t have to understand Korean to feel the good vibes of ‘Gangam Style’. Or how riled up do you get at the ‘Whoooa ooooooh ohhhhh’ part in a song?
Earlier today I was listening to a song called ‘Golden Number’ from Ghost Bath for the millionth time (fucking amazing record, go listen to it!) and that song strikes me as one of the most expressive and outright beautiful pieces of music ever written. The bulk of its impact for me lies in the vocals. These pained howls juxtaposed with this uplifting, ethereal black metal create this feeling of freedom and acceptance; of just letting go. It’s like the vocalist is just spitting out all his negative emotion and moving onto more positive paths. It gives me such a liberating feeling so few songs do. And I can’t understand a single word, nor do I want to. I’ve glanced over the lyrics to Ghost Bath’s previous album and see that they are quite depressing dealing with mortality and deep depression. On ‘Golden Number’ I’d imagine that it’s the same subject matter, yet I erased that knowledge from my mind and just listen feeling my own interpretation of the music. I’m happier like that. And thinking about it, I do this a lot with a lot of music. I asked myself just how important are they lyrics to me. Not really at all. I prefer to not understand what is being sung; it adds something mystical to the music when you can understand it from a different angle.
Now there are quite a number of bands where some great lyrics have definitely enhanced the music and I very much enjoy a good lyricist. There’s also a few bands that are just atrocious at writing lyrics that can actually capsize entire albums. But really, to you, how important are lyrics in your metal? Is understanding what is sung crucial to your enjoyment? I leave you with this wonderful and potent piece from BtBaM where a large part of the lyrics are simply just gibberish followed by some great lyric writing (quoted above) that reflects on the question I posed to you.