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The Necessity of Light Heart in Heavy Music

There’s something everyone reading this can all agree on: music as a whole and as an art form is fun to us! Subjectivity and personal tastes may dictate what music we consider fun, but generally speaking, it is fun. Think back: isn’t that how we all got into the music we like? We found it entertaining based on whatever personal criteria we arbitrarily assign to those concepts in our head. Being a fan of metal and heavy music for half of my life, my gateway into this music was bands like System of a Down, GWAR, and Anthrax – all bands capable of letting loose and making a fun song (or three) just for the sake of it. It’s a concept that carries on to this day with bands like Steel Panther, Dethklok and… well, the bands I’ll talk about soon enough. I’m here to take a short look at why these bands find the success they do, and why it’s important to have fun even in heavy music. Hopefully, you’re here to come on this journey with me!

First, I’d like to preface this by saying I’m not here to preach what you should think is fun or good, and if you don’t like any of the bands I talk about here that doesn’t mean I, or anyone else necessarily, thinks you hate fun. This is simply an exploration of lighthearted entertainment and self-awareness in a genre of music and its fans that can be guilty of taking themselves too seriously at times, and an assertion that it deserves its place in the scene. With that in mind, let’s get started!

Metal bands that bring a satirical or comedic edge to their work that consider themselves as such, or that simply have a gimmick that lends itself to being defined as a ‘comedy band’, seem a lot more liable to be accosted by genre fans. Christopher Bowes accidentally stumbled upon this when he created Alestorm. When he and original guitarist Gavin Harper set out to create a straightforward power metal band with Battleheart, they wrote a song that would be named “Heavy Metal Pirates”, which proved to be successful among fans. They wrote more pirate-themed songs, and before they knew it, they became Alestorm: a Scottish pirate metal band with folk elements. The band is all about balance according to Bowes. Distorted Sound quote his philosophy on the topic: ‘We don’t take ourselves seriously – I take the music very, very seriously but we don’t take ourselves seriously and people can’t understand that, they think either everything’s a joke or nothing’s a joke, but the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

This is apparent in every album since the beginning. Five albums in as of this year, Bowes and crew not only manage to keep the content relatively fresh, but offer straightforward (at least as much as pirate metal could be) heavy tracks as well as their trademark lighthearted tracks that almost always lead as singles. Why? Probably because they do very well, a fact that Bowes (and label Napalm Records) seems very cognizant of. 2014 single “Drink” is the premiere pirate theme song for partying. It’s catchy, it’s fun, and has a chorus built for singing along, sober or not. The second verse is made up almost entirely of lyrical references to several of the band’s songs from their three previous albums – a cute Easter egg for attentive fans. Other songs focus on ship battles, and the allure of the sea and wenches (a bit uncouth, but you can’t say they don’t commit a hundred percent to the gimmick).

Bowes, not content to keep the fun contained to one band, founded another band with more of a satirical edge than even Alestorm. Enter Gloryhammer in 2010, an outrageous conceptual power metal band that snaps the fun dial off of the control board. Aside from some spoken word narration, Bowes takes up keyboard duties only now, leaving vocals to Thomas Winkler who plays, in the music and on stage in costume, Angus McFife, Crown Prince of Dundee, Heir to the Kingdom of Fife (Bowes is villain Zargothrax, Dark Sorcerer of Auchtermuchty, in case you were wondering).

The band’s music is a ridiculous power metal fantasy story with various characters – heroes and villains – all revolving around a scheme to thwart evil. You’ve heard this plot a thousand times before, but never to the symphonic tune of songs with titles like “The Unicorn Invasion of Dundee”, “The Epic Rage of Furious Thunder”, or simply “Wizards!” Their second album, Space 1992: Rise of the Chaos Wizards, takes the story to a retrofuturistic 1992 where the battle between good and evil goes intergalactic. All of the playfulness and pageantry is intact, but brought into modern times with an over-the-top space war as the backdrop.

The musical tropes, both ridiculous and established, of power metal are done remarkably well here, from the anthemic symphony sections to larger-than-life epic vocals and lyrics. Genre fans often wonder how Gloryhammer sound better than a lot of established veterans that are dead serious about their craft. This judgement implies that Gloryhammer don’t take their music seriously, which they clearly do by offering some of the best music that modern power metal has to offer. Just because you make music that’s fun and has a sense of humor or at least extreme self-awareness, does that make it any less valid of a musical and artistic endeavor than work by more serious artists? To explore that a little more, let’s take a quick trip to Germany.

Tongue planted firmly in cheek, German progressive power metal act Edguy, featuring Tobias Sammet, is a band that are quite capable of showing a sense of humor in their writing. “Life and Times of a Bonus Track” from their King of Fools EP is a comedic piano-led indictment of record label business practices and how they clash with artistic freedom and (arguably) influence piracy from the viewpoint of an album bonus track. It’s cute and funny, some parts laugh-out-loud worthy, particularly the chorus operatically belted by Sammet: ‘I’m a bonus track on my way to Japan / And I’m gonna be spread on the internet’.

Another example, “The Pride of Creation” from Tinnitus Sanctus is a examination of divine omnipotence and the oft-pondered sense of humor of deities. ‘Hey, Lord above, why don’t your armies ever smile? / (Godfather!) Why don’t they ever dress in style? / And never share the humor that You surely have / (Creating me for Your entertainment)‘ beckons Sammet, backed by a rich choir of singers. Where most metal bands approach religion with a very critical and cynical eye (which is fine!), Edguy lighten the mood considerably and don’t cross over into full-blown blasphemous territory. This makes for a more approachable song and something reflective of the personalities in the band. When asked how he feels about Edguy being labeled ‘the world’s happiest heavy metal band’ in an interview with New Transcendence, Sammet offers a light rebuke:

‘That says nothing about our quality. Like pretty much everyone else, I prefer a good laugh over a good cry anytime, but that doesn’t say anything about our music, does it? We are a heavy metal band. We play angry, powerful, sometimes tongue-in-cheek metal. We are flamboyant and we don’t take ourselves too seriously, but that goes for Van Halen too, right? Are they happy rock? No, they have a sense of humor and kick ass!’

People love to laugh. Comedy, along with tragedy, is ancient, as old as hundreds of years BCE. Since it’s a key theme for relatable entertainment to take on, it makes perfect sense for musicians to adopt it to incorporate into their writing and performance. We know comedy movies and television shows are taken seriously as works of art and entertainment, so why not music, right? But what about when a band takes their silly, less-than-serious concept seriously though with a wink and a nudge? Let’s go to Japan to investigate that a bit more.

A band that’s frequently drawn the ire of diehard metalheads is Babymetal. Breaking through in 2014 with their monstrous self-titled debut album, their blend of Japanese idol pop and metal called ‘kawaii metal’ was understandably polarizing. Three young ladies front the band singing in traditional, clean J-pop style, nary a growl or gutteral vocal in sight (from the idols anyway, backing vocalists are not afraid to harshen things up). The base instrumentation of guitars, bass and drums (performed by the Kami Band) are by all accounts ‘metal’: distorted, down-tuned and heavy enough to fool the uninitiated. Bright and sunny synths are frequently layered over the backing band and create more of a sonic dichotomy than even the idol vocals do. Lyrics vary from the singers’ affinity for chocolate to anti-bullying, decidedly unmetal topics. Throw in some hip-hop, reggae and electronic dance music detours in the music and it’s enough to make anyone’s eyebrow raise. There’s a lot going on, both on the surface in the music and behind the scenes.

A lot of people, myself included, found their ridiculous mashup of genres to be endearing and catchy. The music is tailor made and written for a good time, if you allow yourself to unwind a bit. Executive producer for the group, Kei ‘Kobametal’ Kobayashi, states Babymetal was created in pursuit of a new type of metal. In doing this, they have drawn criticism that they make metal into a joke and, more individually, that they are a novelty act. The jury is still out on the latter as they are still enjoying worldwide fame propped up by frequent touring and festival dates, but let’s address the former. Referring to a band as a ‘joke’ in this manner obviously means to write them off and to not take them seriously. But how do you take a band seriously when it doesn’t even take itself all that serious to begin with?

Babymetal idols, Su-metal, Yuimetal and Moametal, state in interviews that they were chosen by the Fox God to front the group in an effort to spread the god’s divine messages that are fielded through producer Kobametal, the only person capable of direct communication with the deity. Lore goes a long way in some bands’ persona and music, wild dealings with a fox god are no more or less extravagant than others nor does it fail upon the application of suspension of disbelief. The band isn’t a joke, but definitely isn’t serious either.

Regardless of all of that, Babymetal has captured a fanbase that transcends demographics. People of all over the age, gender and lifestyle spectrums enjoy this band and have even opened them up to an interest in metal as a whole. A friend of mine’s daughter loves Babymetal and is now interested in exploring the genre more because of the gateway that she was provided through the band. It’s a wonderful thing to behold and alone should warrant general respect for the band’s work.

Look, I love bands like Behemoth and Opeth, and I’m sure you do too! They’re powerful and evocative bands that make me feel great and enjoy the music for what it is, but there’s nothing like an artist that knows how to have fun. Sometimes you just need something easy on the ears, even if it’s still heavy, to unwind and smile with. If you’re like me, you just want your music to make you feel something, anything, even if it’s distaste. Much like Tobi Sammet and most others, I prefer a good laugh in general. Not only that, but people, especially artists, are a lot more relateable if you find commonality in sense of humor or see a lighthearted side to them. This is just part of what makes artists like Devin Townsend so cool to his fans. Just check any video online of him distracting a crowd of concertgoers while the band and techs fix sound issues before they can play music. In uncertain times such as these, a smile or laugh is more important than ever, and if something as easy as a fun band can be a gateway into the genre and community for someone young (or older!), then that’s a-okay with me. This is for everyone out there having fun their own way. Never forget how to have fun and laugh, even if it’s to keep from crying! Remember to keep the community fun and open-minded.

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