Nigel Tufnel: If we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?
Marty DiBergi: Put it up to eleven.
Nigel Tufnel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.
One of the longest-running debates in metal, aside from the controversial lyrics and antics of certain individuals, is the seemingly incessant need for its listeners to blast their chosen style of music at near-ear-splitting volume. This debate has been raging between metalheads and their parents, between metalheads and authorities, between…well, everybody and metalheads really – but is it strictly necessary to have thundering music in yer earlugs? Let’s take a look at both sides of this touchy subject.
Metal’s predecessors certainly did not shy away from volume: hard rock acts were already shattering roofs by the time Black Sabbath were giving pubs free structure appraisals. Advances in amp and distortion technology, along with recording techniques, meant rock was taken to new heights, at the most convenient time for metal to kick off with a loud n’ proud ethos. Once the blues influence was shaken off of the main acts like Judas Priest, and speed injected with Motörhead, it seemed that volume was destined to be entwined in the metal approach.
Naturally, some bands feel the need to express this sonic deafening through lyrics praising it, and while the topic has become slightly pastiche and overdone, there are still iconic phrases perpetuated by groups like Manowar, whose songs are oft-quoted by leather-clad biker has-beens as the reason why they need to fork out for another stereo on their Harley. Many groups have succumbed to this topic, such as Venom with “We turn the volume up, come watch if you dare”, Metallica‘s ‘Whiplash‘ and Helloween‘s ‘Metal Invaders‘.
Manowar – “Kings Of Metal”
However, it’s not just the lyrics glorifying metal that need to be loud; metal lyrics in general are not ones to be uttered in hushed tones. What kind of power does “Let freedom ring with a shotgun blast!” from Machine Head‘s classic ‘Davidian‘ have when it’s being slurred by some disinterested youth in a Nirvana knockoff T-shirt? What of “6 6 6, the number of the beast!” Or that bastion of lyrical metal genius, “keep rollin’ rollin’ rollin’”? Granted, not every metal band requires vocal power, some manage fine instrumentally or take a different path (Alcest spring to mind, for instance), but it’s fair to say those are the exceptions to the rule.
When the lyrics aren’t calling for power, then the music sure as anything is. Would that riff from ‘Angel Of Death‘ have the same cojones when played on a ukulele? Or the drum blasts that introduce Judas Priest’s ‘Painkiller‘ if played on a My First Drum Kit? Some riffs and grooves require the oomph that overbearingly loud amplification brings, the same as others have their place in lighter atmospheres (Iron Maiden’s ‘Paschendale‘). And ultimately, the end goal is the effect on the audience members who listen to the songs.
Which brings me to my final pro-argument point: many people speak of metal as an empowering genre, where the music fills their body with an energy that drives you forward, either in the gym, in a concert or driving down the road. Regardless of whether the music is in your ears, from a stereo, or a speaker stack, the effect is at least partially volume-based. I have yet to meet a metalhead who has complained that a concert was ruined by being simply “too loud”.
However, I am certainly not suggesting that listening to music has no detrimental effects on a person, or on the listening experience. You only need to take one look in Pete Townshend’s ear canals to learn that extended periods of loud music does irreparable damage, and he isn’t even in a death metal band. No matter how many earplugs you shove in your ears, loud metal will cause you trouble later on down the line. Maybe less trouble than the boozing and wantonness that glam bands have been promoting since the 80′s, but issues all the same.
Secondly – and this is naturally dependent on your preference of genre – but loudness can also affect the music itself in adverse ways. Melodies which are detectable when heard at a socially reasonable level can become obliterated in a sonic onslaught, and relentless rhythm will come to the fore instead of dynamics. Many albums of the later metal period have suffered from a ‘loudness war’ that has raged through studios, resulting in fiascos like Metallica’s Death Magnetic mixing or the re-recording of Exodus‘ Bonded By Blood. Many older fans complain of modern metal bands (by which I assume they mean metalcore and deathcore) and their albums being naturally a lot louder than older releases, possibly as an attempt to augment the brawn of the breakdown.
Finally, a pet peeve of many a bystander in the street: those who decide that their music taste is so superior that they decide to share it with anyone in the near vicinity of their vehicle/phone/ghetto-blaster. Firstly, these speakers were not built for overdriven extremes of volume, and secondly, these people are usually labelled as douchebags, and if there’s one label that metalheads want to avoid since their thrash brethren in the 80s and their feckless anti-authority attitudes attracted it, it’s the “douchebag” label. Heaven knows there’s enough prejudice against us.
Ultimately, I leave the decision in your hands. As the listener, it is as your discretion whether you blast your favorite albums loud and proud, or take a more modest approach and save yours and others’ hearing. At least it is certain that, no matter which side of the fence you choose, you’ll be in good company.