How Important are Lyrics in Metal?

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It all makes sense… we’re capable of beauty.
Through sounds which make one cringe.  The dogs only hear us now.
For the first time tears came to my eyes while I was listening.
Noise brings so many things… make my tingling skin freeze.

I’m positive that nearly every metal fan, especially the lovers of the more extreme spectrum of the genre, have heard this before.  “But with all that noisy growling and screaming, how do you understand what they’re ‘air quotes’ singing?”  To which we usually reply along the lines of something like “You get used to it.” or “It’s like learning an accent.”  Yet regardless of how we break it down or try to explain it they just look at you with their head slightly cocked like a confused puppy and then you usually just give up and go about your day. Now, those are very legit responses, and even some of the heaviest of metals the growling/howling is perfectly dictated.  But, let’s not bull shit ourselves.  Even if you’re the most seasoned of brutal black death grind metal fan, there are a lot of vocalists who you can not understand a single word of what they are singing.  So, how do you understand what they are ‘air quotes’ singing?  You can sit with the lyric sheet in front of you while listening and memorize what each belch means, but not to many do that.  So, why?

Does it really matter what words they are using? My usual retort to the question is that the vocals work less as a delivery of words and more of a delivery of emotion.  It’s not what is being sung, but how.  The screaming could express the exit of a weighty sadness or the rumbling growl could express apocalyptic anger.  People usually attune to the singers in bands of all genres because it is the most expressive instrument, same for extreme metal.  You don’t have to understand Korean to feel the good vibes of ‘Gangam Style’.  Or how riled up do you get at the ‘Whoooa ooooooh ohhhhh’ part in a song?

Earlier today I was listening to a song called ‘Golden Number’ from Ghost Bath for the millionth time (fucking amazing record, go listen to it!) and that song strikes me as one of the most expressive and outright beautiful pieces of music ever written.  The bulk of its impact for me lies in the vocals.  These pained howls juxtaposed with this uplifting, ethereal black metal create this feeling of freedom and acceptance; of just letting go.  It’s like the vocalist is just spitting out all his negative emotion and moving onto more positive paths.  It gives me such a liberating feeling so few songs do.  And I can’t understand a single word, nor do I want to. I’ve glanced over the lyrics to Ghost Bath’s previous album and see that they are quite depressing dealing with mortality and deep depression.  On ‘Golden Number’ I’d imagine that it’s the same subject matter, yet I erased that knowledge from my mind and just listen feeling my own interpretation of the music.  I’m happier like that.  And thinking about it, I do this a lot with a lot of music.  I asked myself just how important are they lyrics to me.  Not really at all.  I prefer to not understand what is being sung; it adds something mystical to the music when you can understand it from a different angle.

Now there are quite a number of bands where some great lyrics have definitely enhanced the music and I very much enjoy a good lyricist.  There’s also a few bands that are just atrocious at writing lyrics that can actually capsize entire albums.  But really, to you, how important are lyrics in your metal?  Is understanding what is sung crucial to your enjoyment? I leave you with this wonderful and potent piece from BtBaM where a large part of the lyrics are simply just gibberish followed by some great lyric writing (quoted above) that reflects on the question I posed to you.

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About RiffRaff

Just takin' it easy for all you sinners.

Posted on May 4, 2015, in Ramblings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Exactly! This! I’ve really been listening a lot to and enjoying the album Ótta released by the Icelandic band Sólstafir lately. Not being an Icelandic speaker, I understand nary a word but the album creates a wonderful mood which somehow feels like a real, full story to me. I initially sought out some lyrics online to see what was what but immediately realized that, for me at least, it was better not to know. This way, the reality of what they’re singing about won’t get in the way of the amazing mental journey their beautiful music allows me to undertake.

    • I listen to that same album quite a bit as well! There’s something just simply beautiful in the rhythm and melody of the Icelandic language too. It flows so well.
      One band I absolutely love is Moonsorrow who sing in Finnish. When I listen it’s like I’m listening to Viking sing which goes along with the music perfectly. And speaking of Finnish bands, Korpiklaani used to write in English, but it was quite subpar, soon as they switched to full on Finnish the feel of their songs improved tenfold for me. (Idea for another rambling article, should bands sing in their mother language?)
      Ignorance is bliss. (?)

  2. ChristopherMammal

    Fun piece, RiffRaff, and good answer, Victim. Lyrics delivered in any style and in any language turn the human voice into an instrument that produces separate notes (the vowels) punctuated by stops (the consonants). So to me it doesn’t matter if the lyrics are growled in Russian, sung in English or warbled in operatic Italian. Lyrics always add character to the music, just as separate guitar notes do, even if I can’t understand the words.

  3. To me lyrics are a fundamental part of the musical experience, and even if I don’t understand them just by listening I try to read them, even going as far as looking for translations if I don’t know the language.
    I’ve come to the conclusion that music, to me, is basically a form of communication, and as every communication it is spread on different levels. It’s like poetry, because it uses the power of the word, but at the same time it’s much more, using notes and instruments to convey nuances that the word alone cannot express.
    Just like it happens in poetry, lyrics can be deep or shallow, sad or goofy, without taking out anything from the experience. The hopeless melancholy of My Dying Bride’s Wreckage Of My Flesh, for example, isn’t necessarily better than the crazy nonsense of Mr Bungle’s Egg, or the frustrated rage of Strapping Young Lad’s Underneath The Waves: they are all beautiful in ther own way.
    And when lyrics suck? Well, that’s a perfectly good moment to ignore the meaning for me as well and just enjoy the sound, even though my opinion of the band comes out a bit diminished 🙂

    • Thanks for the well thought out comment!!!!
      Since writing this and hearing what others have to say, I do realize that lyrics are a bit more important to me than stated above, but I wouldn’t consider them fundamental. Your example of Mr. Bungle is spot on and in fact that nonsense really does bring the song (and album) to a whole different level.
      When it comes to communication, like I said above, it’s more impactful with how it’s said instead of what is said. A bunch of unintelligibly nonsense screamed with passion will communicate so much more than some of the most beautiful poetry written out or spoken stoically. When you ask your significant other how their day was and you can understand the which of 5,000 different nuances of emotion they are trying to communicate when just answering the single word ‘fine’.

  4. I used to be one that opened the CD, or cassette before that, and read along as I listened to the entire album. I wouldn’t say that understanding them was important, but more often I thought that if lyrics meant something it was cool…usually they pertained to the world around us.

    But, today I rarely check out the lyrics unless I hear something I don’t understand and want clarification. Or, if I feel I can’t hear the entire song except for one part I will check to see what I am missing.

    As I mentioned on the facebook post, sometimes I am afraid to learn that a song I thought was cool musically has terrible lyrics. I know that’s silly, but some part of me feels it will ruin the song if the quality of lyrics do not match the quality of the instrumentation.

    In short, no the lyrics aren’t important for me. I often think of them as another instrument especially if the vocals are growling and I can’t understand them anyway.

    Well written post, nice change of pace from reviews.

  5. A interesting theme for a post and comments that all make good points I would all in all agree with.

    For me, it really depends if lyrics are important. I listen to approximately two new records a day which is partly out of a never-ending interest in new music and partly because I’m lucky to write about music which just makes it necessary to have a certain knowledge about what’s new, around and already there – even if you don’t like it.

    But the records I truly heart are mostly records where the lyrics speak to me in one way or another. Spontaneously I think of At The Gates’ Slaugther Of The Soul, Rage Against The Machine or (the first two) La Dispute records and some German bands no one knows outside of Germany:-P

    Also there are very different reasons to engage in the lyrics of a band/artist. For example Sublime have immensely funny and clever lyrics, Mike Ness is a good “That’s how life is”-storyteller, in the song Diluted of Slipknots debut I found an exact description of my relationship to my father when I struggled in my teens with the ugly separation of my parents and his behavior – and those are just very view examples.

    Some lyrics are beautiful for their poetry, some for an interesting concept that stands behind the record and makes you want to know what it’s exactly about, some are just a cool sounding addition to equally cool music and that is (or seems to be) their only purpose (for example White Zombie, Judas Priest and Kyuss).

    On the other hand sometimes it’s just too much new music you listen to – and let’s be honest, most of it between ‘crap’ and ‘OK’ – to want to/be willing to go into the lyrics in depths. Some lyrics are outright dull, dumb, pointless, full of cliche etc., especially in genres like Power Metal, Hard Rock and anything labeled Alternative. That is one reason to not want to know the lyrics.

    Some other reason can be quite different. Maybe I misheard them and I like my interpretation better, or I don’t want to let crappy lyrics ruin otherwise brilliant music, or the lyrics are IMO of not much importance for the kind of music the band makes. Also, the music always comes first, then the lyrics.

    Three things that I can add as someone that isn’t a native speaker. I learned a LOT about the English and US history and society, a lot about philosophies, different view points on many themes (personal, political, social or other) through the engagement with lyrics. Also the ‘flaw’ of English as language for lyrics in comparison to German is at the same time it’s great advantage: it’s in some ways an quite imprecise language (at least the way it is often used). That risks expressing the same things with the same words over and over again but also leaves the listener more room for a individual interpretation, which often can be a great thing. Also it’s easier to rhyme than in German, if that’s what is needed:-P. Still, lyrics in your own language have in many cases a unique special access to yourself that isn’t often possible for lyrics in an other than your own language.

    So I agree as well as disagree with you. Good lyrics can be an important part of music and they can be a sign of quality but they don’t need to and – all in all (IMO) – are sadly to rarely an important part of writing songs. But what is good is first of all pretty subjective and also dependent on many circumstances (style, genre, intention behind them etc.).
    Closing with one of my favorite choruses of all time, that is just fun to sing along, if nothing else;-):

    “Nineteen-sixtey fiiiiivvvvvvvve, yeah, WOW,
    fiiivvvvve, yeah, WOW,
    deeemon warp is coming aliivvve
    in nineteen-sixtey five five five”

    • Thanks for the thought out reply!! After writing this and reading the responses I’ve been able to yet evolve my ever evolving opinion on the matter (when I get time, an opinion piece about what style of lyrics I like will be incoming). The more I think on it, I realize, with the exception of 2 or 3 records, my selections for my upper echelon god tier albums benefit from outstanding lyric writing. I think, like you, I’ve been burned out from the deluge of sub par stuff that being a hobbyist reviewer comes along with.
      I like your thoughts on the English language too. In fact, I’m an ESL teacher and some of my more advanced students say the same thing. They enjoy English because it can be imperfect, which makes it fun to experiment with.
      Also, White Fuckin’ Zombie!!!

      • It was not meant disrespectful towards the English language (for example I read Donna Tartts The Goldfinch in English and wouldn’t use the word simple there:-P). But – as I said, English is often used in this context – this vagueness allows you interpret much more into the lyrics and what you “feel” they are talking about. Not rarely that goes above the original intention – and makes a song “greater” than it ever could have been if it was so precisely formulated that its statement is crystal clear (sure, works for a political band like RATM perfectly).

        Here is a song of an awesome newer German (their are some great new ones more at the moment) band called Love A from their second record Irgendwie (Somehow). Not Metal in the least, but – as I think – musically and lyrically absolute brilliant. Which applies to nearly every song they wrote. The singer/lyricist has the rare talent to make you know – or think you do – what he wants to express, without actually just saying it and creating short pictures in one line that you instantly can relate to. No clue if it’s musically in any way interesting for you, but lyrically it’s great. And “Cry Me River, Punk” (translation mistakes are mine) is a favorite of mine.

        PS: And sorry for all my mistakes by lack of training in writing on English – and slips of the pen. With your job, it is probably especially hard to ignore them:-P

        I read every of your letters again
        still don’t understand
        throw them resigned on the shelf
        should they gather dust there
        but I will keep them
        because that was killer time
        still will search for them
        when everybody forgot what he did

        Chorus:
        Just because I feel lonesome
        it doesn’t mean, that you need me
        you can lock me up
        but don’t forget to feed me
        if you can’t bear this all anymore
        take your head from my belly
        if I’m your one and only
        be sure you believe yourself

        I stand in your town before your house
        I not even know why
        look silently up to the balcony
        like in bad movie
        but because this one is too good
        it is rerunned all the time
        Too bad, that it isn’t your fault, that there is nothing being worth for me to hate

        Chorus (x 2)

        And again and again fickle options
        which can rupture deep wounds

      • Dude, you are good. You write better then many Americans I know. Nothing on my end was taken out of context in your responses. Those are good lyrics your posted.

  6. Ghost Bath was an awesome recommendation. Thank you very much!

    • Glad you enjoyed it! That and Royal Thunder are holding strong as my favorite records of the year so far and it will take a lot to get me to obsessively listen to anything else at the rate I’ve been with those 2 records lately 😛

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