11/11/11 was the most metal day of the century. Not only did we have all those elevens, but the original members of Black Sabbath announced their reunion to record their first studio album together since 1978. (Unfortunately Bill Ward has since withdrawn.)
Today once again we celebrate Metal Day 11/11. So what does the number eleven have to do with heavy metal? Well, nothing really. Actually it’s a joke. In the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, the farcical heavy metal guitarist, Nigel Tufnel, displays with pride a set of amplifiers with a volume control that goes up to eleven. Normal amps only go up to ten, but these allow the band to kick it up one more notch to eleven when the occasion calls for it. The mockumentary filmmaker asks Tufnel, “Why don't you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?” Uncomprehending, Tufnel simply responds, “These go to eleven.” It’s a hilarious moment. Trust me. If you’ve never seen This Is Spinal Tap, shame on you. Go watch it now.
So the scene that made famous the number eleven is actually making fun of heavy metal, depicting the people who play it as idiots. And, of course, like most stereotypes, there is some truth to it. There certainly are a fair number of dolts among the ranks of metal musicians. But like most stereotypes, this one is grossly unfair. And that’s what makes it ingenious and appropriate to “take back” the number eleven. As women and African Americans have taken back some of the labels and slurs used against them, Black Sabbath took back the number eleven by reuniting on 11/11/11. OK, in truth it’s not as serious as all that, but also in truth, metal, its fans, and its artists have gotten a bad rap.
No other genre of popular music inspires the level of devotion that metal does. And there’s a reason for that. Metal isn’t just music. For many fans it’s a religion, a way of life, a philosophy, if you will. While there have been plenty of metal bands who have played only three chords and sung about nothing but fast cars and fast women, the great majority have been accomplished musicians with something significant to say.
It started with Black Sabbath, four working-class kids from Birmingham who couldn't relate to the positive message of the flower-power 60's. Sabbath ushered in the 70's with a doomy new sound, making ample use of the tritone, also known as the devil's interval. Going far beyond the blues-based rock of Led Zeppelin, they created what has since been called heavy metal. As Bremer and Cohnitz say in Black Sabbath and Philosophy,“There was nothing close to Black Sabbath in 1968 when they first got together. Some pieces of Iron Butterfly have a similar slow speed and down tuned sound, but the crucial role of keyboards in Iron Butterfly leads at best to something like the early Uriah Heep, who are heavy, but far off from Sabbath’s sound of doom. So doom in 1968 was able to find a place in the artistic landscape of rock music, but it wasn’t in the air like blues rock.” And as James Heathers says in the same book, “Heavy metal may have complicated roots at its base, but it is a living art, and this allows us to ask... well, living artists. When we do that, the opinions of those who presently play heavy metal, our gatekeepers and lords and masters, allow no latitude or argument. There is only one original heavy metal band and it is Black Sabbath.”
And it wasn't just a seminal new sound; it was a new message. Sabbath quickly became associated with the occult. Songs like “N.I.B.” and the eponymous “Black Sabbath” were more than just sympathy for the devil; they were the sonic equivalent of Rosemary's Baby. Lester Bangs called Sabbath the John Milton of rock and roll. As Satan was the most intriguing figure in Milton’s Paradise Lost, so too Satan loomed large in Sabbath’s songs. Sabbath flirt with the occult but ultimately they embrace the divine in songs like “After Forever.”
Sabbath wasn't just a one-trick pony, though. Other songs dealt with insanity, alienation, and despair. With "War Pigs" and "Children of the Grave" they created anti-war songs of a new kind. In contrast to light, folky give-peace-a-chance protests tunes, Sabbath's songs were as fierce and testosterone-fueled as any warrior. Notably, later artists, such as Metallica, followed suit with anthems such as “Disposable Heroes,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and “One.”
Through the 70's and 80's a legion of bands followed the trail blazed by Sabbath. In fact, in Black Sabbath and Philosophy, Søren R. Frimodt-Møller says “I do not think we can specify exact stylistic traits that one has to follow in order to be a metal artist. I do, however, think that for a given heavy metal artist or band, we can trace the reason why the artist is accepted as metal back through the chain of relationships between their music and the music of Black Sabbath.” So thanks to Sabbath certain lyrical themes became constants in metal, and in many ways metal became the existentialism of the English-speaking world. Existentialism is notoriously difficult to define, but we might say that it is a philosophy that reacts to an absurd or meaningless world by urging individuals to overcome alienation, oppression, and despair through freedom and self-creation.
The clearest common bond between existentialism and metal is a concern for authenticity. Being a genuine, unique individual who freely determines his own fate is a constant theme in the works of existentialist philosophers such as Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus. And it is also a constant theme in metal lyrics. In “Under the Sun / Every Day Comes and Goes” Sabbath presents an existentialist’s declaration of independence: “Well I don’t want no preacher / Telling me about the god in the sky / No I don’t want no one to tell me / Where I’m gonna go when I die / I wanna live my life with no people telling me what to do / I just believe in myself, ‘cause no one else is true.” Authenticity is a concern for metal musicians, but it is an obsession for metal fans. Long before anyone talked about “jumping the shark,” metal fans discussed and debated if and when Sabbath, Priest, Maiden, or Metallica had “sold out.” Indeed, music that is real and not made for a mass audience has always been important to metal fans.
The 90’s were dark days for metal, as the grunge movement reigned supreme. Metallica, the standard bearers for metal, seemed to sell out, first with their radio-friendly Black Album, and then with their mainstream-alternative efforts, Load and ReLoad. All hope seemed lost. Many older metal heads, like myself, figured it was over. Little did I know, though, that metal had simply gone further underground. The 90's and 00's saw the development of death metal and black metal, which featured incredible musical virtuosity and dark, existential lyrics.
Over the years, some of my students have tried to turn me on to various death metal and black metal bands. I have listened eagerly and hopefully. I have heard the anger, frustration, and authenticity that are the hallmarks of metal, but I haven’t felt them. I don't think it’s the fault of the music, though. I think it's my fault. I'm no longer, angry, frustrated, and in search of identity. I still love the metal bands and music of my youth, but I can’t seem to tune in to the metal of today. Even metal heads grow old. I’ve lost my hair and lost my anger. But that is as it should be. All things change.
As each generation needs to reinvent romantic love for itself and feel that no one else understands, so too does each generation need to reinvent rebellion. Metal is music of rebellion, and it too has been reinvented by at least two generations at this point. So today, 11/11, we celebrate not just metal's past, but its present, and indeed its future. Merry Metal Day!
*This is an updated version of a blog first posted on 11/11/11
William Irwin is the editor of Black Sabbath and Philosophy: Mastering Reality