Music: Understanding the Dark Side of Rock

by Rick Rockwell

By happy coincidence, those who like their rock with an emphasis on the heavy have a few weighty milestones to consider from the masters this week.

Namely, Black Sabbath and Nine Inch Nails.

And if those names aren’t familiar to you, or if they make you blanch, fair warning: proceed forward at your own risk.

This week, Rhino Records releases a five-disc box set called The Rules of Hell, representing the middle era of Black Sabbath’s career, featuring vocalist Ronnie James Dio. This week also marks the official CD release of The Slip from Nine Inch Nails, in a special limited edition with a live DVD attached. (Regular readers of this blog know, this critic has already noted The Slip is one of the best releases of 2008, so far.) Although The Slip has been available online for months, some folks are a bit more traditional and want their music in a jewel case. The Slip, by the way, has not only earned some critical kudos but has been in and out of Amazon’s top new releases list for weeks.

But some folks still don’t understand heavy rock. Although The Washington Post noted that The Slip was the best music from Nine Inch Nails in a decade (and they are right about that), the band still only earned a “B+” on The Post's rating scale. The Post said The Slip should come with “a Prozac prescription.”

Perhaps. Or perhaps those who don’t understand heavy metal and industrial rock also don’t understand the meaning of the word “cathartic.”

As someone who has followed heavy rock for 40 years or so, and heard the beginnings of Sabbath, this same old battle just elicits a sigh. Metal wasn’t cool in the early 1970s, unless it was Led Zeppelin, a band that to this day refuses to admit it had anything to do with the invention of heavy metal. And later in its career, the Zeppelin would careen with the critics sniping at it for its metallic overtones. So even the Zep lost its cool. Too heavy.

Well, too bad for the mainstream critics.

Many never understood (and still don't understand) metal, and the heavy sounds that followed (goth, industrial, and the various metallic sub-genres) were just as much the sound of alienation, teen angst, and rebellion as anything produced by the punk movement, which critics deigned to be much higher on the rock ‘n roll pantheon. Some of the best heavy metal still speaks volumes even beyond adolescence, despite what some mainstream critics see as mainly the arrested development of metalheads.

That’s not to say The Rules of Hell represents a hidden gem. Frankly, it’s amazing Rhino is able to recycle such mediocre metal. Little did folks realize at the time, but the Ozzy Osbourne version of Black Sabbath was carving out wide swaths of the metal legacy, that would go on to influence generations of metal bands, grunge acts, industrial rockers, and yes, even some punks too. But that was over, for the most part by 1978. The version of the band with Dio as lead singer would feed off that legacy until 1982 when a revolving door of lead singers began and the group began a slow disintegration. (Dio is supposedly back in the studio working on a new album with other former members of Sabbath, now recording under the name Heaven and Hell.)

Certainly, bands such as Metallica picked up the heavy metal banner in the mid-1980s and have kept it flying.

But this critic rediscovered the cathartic release of heavy sounds in the industrial clubs of Florida’s Ybor City in the late 1980s and early 1990s, fueled, of course by Nine Inch Nails and Pretty Hate Machine.

To the uninitiated, yes, the mere titles of these albums are off-putting. They’re meant to be. Only those willing to confront the paint-peeling sounds of souls truly bared gain admittance. Sure, some of that is put-on. But at its core, real musical catharsis is possible in the metal and industrial genres. The best of this music is as sincere as any musical form, or art form for that matter. If you can understand how tragedy in drama can be uplifting, then you already understand the parallel concept of how this music is actually an escape from depression, not a cause for a further downward spiral.

(The photo of Nine Inch Nails performing in Munich is by Luca De Santis of Orzignano, Italy via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License. Nine Inch Nails begins its tour of North and South America on July 25 in Vancouver, Canada. To see Nine Inch Nails performing an R-rated version of "1,000,000" from The Slip, please check below.)

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DAVE BONES said...

The best thing about this genre has always been the enthusiasm of fans naturally on the outside and the fact that they don't care what muso journalists think of their idols.

I cam to Sabbath via Rainbow's Dio phase when I was eleven or tweleve years old. I still love the Heaven and Hell album. I can laugh at Dio, but guitar wise its Iommi at his best, though the Ozzy stuff is of course the classic.

I never got into Nine Inch Nails and i fuckin hate Metallica and all that crap.

Rick Rockwell said...

Dave, thanks for your comment. Great to see a fan of dancehall noting his heavy metal roots... or at least admiration of Sabbath.

I have to agree that Iommi is a vastly underrated guitarist who does not get his due in discussions of the guitar gods of rock. He really does hold the group together, and as a fan it was Iommi's talent that I admired the most in the band.

Interesting to see that NIN and Metallica don't get the same connection with you. Perhaps it is because you grabbed on to Heaven and Hell during a very formative period.

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