Wednesday, October 26, 1994

Social decay and musical violence

"Thrash music has always been overwhelmingly male dominated, to the extent that it is hard to imagine what it would sound like with a woman singing."


(This article I had lots of fun writing for a high school essay was published in Green Left Weekly issue #164, 26 October 1994)


Distorted, crunching, chainsaw-like guitars, drums like a jackhammer and vocals from hell. Someone once likened it to holding an electric drill against your forehead. Thrash music, hardcore, speed metal, call it what you like. It's a pretty distinctive sort of sound.

Generally, thrash can be described as aggressive, dark and powerful music, although it is by no means all the same; the label “thrash” covers several different musical and social sub-genres.

The imagery used by bands is diverse and strange: occult symbols, S&M style leather, splattered gore, pictures of exploitation and oppression, even the occasional neo-Nazi rubbish. Musically, thrash is controversial. To some it is a way of life, while others think it's an awful racket.

To a certain extent, fast, energetic music has always existed, but modern thrash music is a new development. The beginnings can be seen in the late 1960s. Huge numbers of young people in Western countries became disillusioned with the society they were growing up in, with their future role as servants of the elite that was pursuing a terrible war against the people of Vietnam.

Rock music had already become popular, and the political upheavals generated a wild new wave, from trippy spaced-out acid rock to the harsh heavy metal intensity of groups like Black Sabbath. But the social movement slowed down in the 1970s, as did the music. Some vestiges remained, the corporate “supergroups” like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, but most music took a turn to commercialised glam and pop.

In the late 1970s, the world economy was in a downturn. Standards of living declined, and the popular movements of the 1960s were largely gone. A new wave of bands expressed the bitterness and anger of another generation of youth in aggro, messy, noisy, punk rock.

Though not the first punk band, the Sex Pistols became the most successful. Their first album went to number one in the British charts, despite a virtual ban on radio and TV. While they sang “Anarchy in the UK” and the Clash even called an album Sandinista in tribute to the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution, punk music came from the frustrating lack of any real radical political directions for British (and other Western) youth, and took quite a nihilistic direction on the whole.

In the 1980s, hardcore punk music continued in the US and the UK, in the same way as the first wave of punk, but without any comparable commercial success. Most hardcore bands had developed more political awareness; for example the UK's Discharge had song titles like “State Violence/State Control”.

However, this was still in the absence of any real political movement, and hardcore continued to evolve in this way through the 1980s: militant against the ruling class, but without any real practical solutions or connection to mass social movements. Hardcore survived in the underground, independent of major record companies and commerciality, but also isolated.

A new musical trend emerged in the early to mid 1980s in the US. In some ways, it was an extension of the new wave of British heavy metal that followed punk. However, the US bands also took a lot of the punk energy into their style to make faster, more aggressive speed (or thrash, or death) metal.

This is where groups like Metallica and Slayer originate. These bands tended to write more about violence and horror (rather than about making out all night with hordes of voluptuous women and riding motorbikes down the highway, as a lot of earlier heavy metal bands had done!).

In doing this, many bands took up social issues in their lyrics, finding targets for their anger in government, religion and wealth; sometimes the targeting was more reactionary, for example women and homosexuals. Thrash music has always been overwhelmingly male dominated, to the extent that it is hard to imagine what it would sound like with a woman singing.

Most bands took up issues of the environment and peace as awareness rose in the 1980s, but there was no conscious trend of political awareness as in hardcore. The politics in speed metal were usually a reflection of general popular sentiments, rather than a deliberate attempt to understand or change the world.

At the end of the 1980s, the world experienced large-scale recession again. Once again the punk spirit reared its head, and once again in the UK. Hardcore punk had continued throughout the 1980s, borrowing a little from heavy metal, evolving into a heavier style and continuing with the radical political image that it had started with.

Coming out of this, extreme hardcore bands influenced by death metal started to become popular, groups like Napalm Death and Carcass, with the Earache record company. The new style was called grindcore. Initially, most grindcore had quite radical lyrics, dealing with police violence, racism, Third World poverty. The first words on Napalm Death's 1988 album Scum are, “Multinational corporations: genocide of the starving nations”.

Since then, there has been a gradual shift towards meaningless lyrics about gore and so on (and the old fascination with satanism continues, defying all notions of intelligence and originality!). But the difference between punk and grindcore is that punk became politicised, whereas most grindcore was political to begin with, being an extension of punk. This has had much more influence on other styles, and new political grindcore bands still continue to appear.

One apparent influence has been on Brazilian speed metal band Sepultura. While becoming more commercially successful, they have been influenced by grindcore and become much more political, attacking government repression and multinational exploitation in no uncertain terms. Their 1994 album Chaos AD focused explicitly on the misery of life in Brazil and mass anger and resistance to that.

Most youth subcultures are picked up by business and commercialised as highly marketable fashions. For example, the Stussy clothing label has picked up the Afro-American youth “hip-hop” style and now it is an expensive international brand. Plastic commercial versions of hip-hop and rap music are marketed in a similar way.

This sort of commercialisation affects youth subculture in general, thrash included. With the lack of any political outlet for the frustration and alienation of youth, music will take meaningless directions. Hence the bands that sing about rubbish like satanism and mindless carnage.

The difference from the 1980s is that most youth now have less money to buy into the fashion industry. The recession, we are told, is ending. Corporate profit rates are soaring, but the recovery is only a recovery for business, and the politicisation and disillusionment created by the recession remain. Political trends continue in youth culture. Thrash music is still one of the main media for youth rebellion (although grunge and rap are starting to play similar roles), and this manifests itself in various ways, some of them quite constructive.

A further politicisation of music can be expected as Third World liberation movements continue their struggles, and as poverty and anger continue to grow in the First World. Thrash music will continue to exist as an extreme, aggressive style as long as young people are alienated and angry.

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