For most people, it would seem counter-intuitive to suggest that fans of the death metal musical genre are actually fairly normal and balanced people, rather than stereotypical anti-social misfits.
Yet a decades-long investigation published Wednesday by the Australian Royal Society journal Open Science has found that death metal fans are not only not sensitive people, but they are actually emotionally serene and empathetic types–perhaps even model, upstanding citizens.
The suggestion seems absurd. After all, classic examples of songs from the scene are rife with violent and thundering percussion, machinegun-like snare drums, bestial vocals and storms of shredding riffs. The band logos are largely illegible while album covers art splattered in blood and infernal imagery.
And then there are the lyrics. Oh, hell no. Take, for example, the chorus to the classic 1991 song Sickening Art by Swedish death metal pioneers Dismember–with lyrics written from the standpoint of a serial killer, a gruesome yet common theme in the underground genre:
A end to your misery”
Horrible stuff, right? Why would anyone be drawn to such a marginal, alienated genre of music?
That was precisely what Professor Bill Thompson at Sydney’s Macquarie University and his team sought to find out in their study of the emotional impact of music on listeners.
Thompson told BBC News:
“[Death metal] fans are nice people. They’re not going to go out and hurt someone.”
In a separate interview, Thompson told Scientific American:
“The ubiquitous stereotype of death metal fans—fans of music that contains violent themes and explicitly violent lyrics—[is] that they are angry people with violent tendencies. What we are finding is that they are not angry people. They’re not enjoying anger when they listen to the music, but they are in fact experiencing a range of positive emotions.”
Indeed, songs such as Sickening Art–and similarly harsh classics like Premature Burial, Sons of Vengeance, Asphyxiation, and Maze of Torment–have more or less the same impact on metalheads as the Pharrell Williams hit Happy does on pop fans. As Thompson said:
“The dominant emotional response to this music is joy and empowerment … And I think that to listen to this music and to transform it into an empowering, beautiful experience – that’s an amazing thing.”
In one of the psychological tests that the Macquarie University music lab undertook, 32 death metal fans and 48 non-fans were recruited to view unpleasant and violent imagery while listening to either Happy, or its polar opposite–the song Eaten by Swedish death metal band Bloodbath, whose lyrics describe the yearning of the subject to be cannibalized and eaten while they are still alive.
The aim of the study was to gauge how participants’ brains reacted to violent scenes and to what degree their sensitivity to the footage was impacted by the musical accompaniment.
The researchers noted that Eaten was “selected because it has explicitly violent lyrics that are accompanied by music with acoustic qualities that are characteristics of biological signals of aggression (e.g. nonlinearities, low mean pitch level, growling or screaming vocalizations).“
As each participant listened to either Happy or Eaten, they were exposed to a pair of images. While one of their eyes was exposed to scenes of violence–for example, an assault in the street–the other eye viewed a peaceful image such as people walking peacefully down the same street.
The principle of the test was binocular rivalry, where those presented with a neutral image in one eye and a violent one in the other were expected to focus more on the violent scenes. The researchers assumed that the focus of subjects was determined by humans’ propensity to focus more on the violence, which is naturally processed by people a potential threat.
Lo and behold, death metal fans reacted just as any normal person would, displaying revulsion at the scenes of street violence–a clear indicator that their basic human sensitivities and empathy were still intact.
“If fans of violent music were desensitized to violence, which is what a lot of parent groups, religious groups and censorship boards are worried about, then they wouldn’t show this same bias. But the fans showed the very same bias towards processing these violent images as those who were not fans of this music.”
The study also noted how fans and non-fans process music in radically different ways, reflecting “individual circumstances, personality, and social and cultural influences“:
“Although our investigation considered music in which violent lyrics are accompanied by aggressive musical sounds, it should be noted that lyrics and music need not always have congruent emotional connotations. For example, the lyrics of ‘John Wayne Gacy Jr’ by Sufjan Stevens depicts a serial killer, but the music is calm and relaxing. Similarly, ‘Strange Fruit’ by Billy Holiday describes the lynching of African Americans, but the music has ambiguous connotations that could even be construed as peaceful for some listeners. The relative importance of lyrics and sounds of music would be a valuable topic for future research.”
In a separate study published in August, Thompson and co-author Kirk Olsen also noted that the harsh, rapid, and discordant character of death metal may release neurochemicals in listeners such as epinephrine, which “may underpin feelings of positive energy and power reported by fans, and tension, fear and anger reported by non-fans”–verifying what all metalheads know, which is that the genre is an acquired taste.
Bloodbath lead singer Nick Holmes was hardly perturbed by the use of their song in the test, noting that “the lyrics are harmless fun, as the study proved.” Continuing, Holmes noted that Bloodbath is “basically an aural version of an 80s horror film”–just like similar bands including Cannibal Corpse, Exhumed, Autopsy or Dismember.
But such disclaimers haven’t spared the genre the brunt of controversy in the thirty-plus years since death metal’s inception.
In the past, genre precursors like thrash and heavy metal have been attacked by conservative groups like the Parents Music Research Center for “destroying families,” causing violence, and causing all sorts of other evils–which, along with the popularity of gangsta rap, hip-hop, and other “dangerous” genres, eventually provoked the long-bygone “PARENTAL ADVISORY: EXPLICIT LYRICS” label of the 1990s.
In one police training video from the 1990s, “heavy metal rock music” bands like Iron Maiden, Slayer, AC/DC and “The Metallica” are described as promoting “demonic themes” that promote rampant drug use and “ritual crime” by “satanic cults,” with “latchkey kids” using the music to channel their “rebellion against parental authority and social standards.”
Holmes himself notes that the music he tends to lean towards is “melancholic, dramatic, sad or aggressive and not much in-between.” He added:
“I take joy and empowerment from those styles.”
As for whether he worries that songs like Eaten could one day be taken seriously and lead to a case of cannibalistic fan-on-fan murder, Holmes noted:
“I didn’t personally write [the lyrics], but I would be frankly astounded if anyone listened to that song and then felt a desire to be eaten by a cannibal.”