Mental Funeral: A (Personal) History of Madness in Heavy Metal
How one of the most confrontational music genres provides a salve for the scars of mental illness.
Can you help me occupy my brain?
-Black Sabbath, “Paranoid”.
[This article discusses suicide and drug use, and contains images of self-harm scars.]
Sanitarium. Altars of Madness. Defeated Sanity. Heavy metal, a musical genre fascinated with the grotesque and sensational, has long integrated mental illness into its lyrical palette. Given metal’s infamous penchant for antagonizing the listener, this recurring theme may seem like a mere pass at shock horror. However, this very antagonism makes metal uniquely suited to portraying the lush and horrifying nightmarescapes of psychosis. By refusing to compromise with the listener, heavy metal taps into an incommunicable profundity of madness, its dissonance a paradoxical safe haven for minds that can no longer find themselves in the logical.
Heavy metal’s relationship with insanity harkens back to its origins. The eponymous lead single for Black Sabbath’s 1970 LP “Paranoid” stars a character scorned for his unstable demeanor and dearth of élan, forever seeking unattainable happiness. Legendarily composed in one night, this proto-punk ripper is a frantic pass at personifying a state of mind Black Sabbath’s members knew well, growing up in the bombed-out postwar shell of Birmingham, England: depression. On its fiftieth anniversary, “Paranoid” sounds as alive and distressed as it did upon release.
I’d cut my arms, stick pins in my fingers, that kind of thing. I used to get really depressed and it was the only thing that could bring me out from it. If Sabbath hadn’t made it, I’d have been long dead. I’d have killed myself.
-Tony Iommi, Black Sabbath guitarist, for Classic Rock magazine, May 2016.
At the start of the next decade, metal fused with punk, got fast, wild, angry. This novel subgenre, thrash metal, demanded frenzied lyrics to match its frenzied music. Giants like Metallica and Slayer placed their songs’ protagonists in the bowels of an asylum, or freed them in the streets as serial killers. Neither of these are generous or even accurate illustrations of mental illness, but they reflect their era’s preoccupation with the sensational failures of psychology and psychiatry. Even at its least sympathetic, thrash metal touched on two simultaneous fears: becoming either victim or perpetrator. Slayer songs like “Criminally Insane” are notorious for describing murder in the first person. Like horror movies, thrash metal was one of the few forms of art willing to tackle gruesome reality even as the body count piled up.
Horror films indeed proved the inspiration for metal’s next extremization. Downtuned and guttural, death metal is a hall of twisting nightmares, a Hieronymous Bosch, a single-minded dedication to the diversity of suffering. “Death growl” vocals are the sound of monsters with the taste of the listener’s blood in their mouth. On the surface, the lyrical fascination with guts (and the removal thereof) strikes as little more than ribald. Many bands evolve only stepwise, describing gore in ever more lurid patterns. But even this autopsy-room straightforwardness responds to a need to find art that represents the worst basal qualities of mankind; sometimes, that is all you have. Listening to metal has been linked to an increased risk of teenage suicide, but only until one accounts for other risk factors. In other words, metal’s fanbase is composed of those given to suffering. Listening to metal has also been linked to “positive experiences”, though this hardly warrants a study: consuming art that represents us makes us happy. Heavy metal attracts extremophiles.
At the time of my diagnosis, heavy metal attracted me.
I suffer from type 1 bipolar disorder, which means mania: months of insomnia, paranoia, explosive energy, and delusionally inflated ego. The particular episode that earned me a diagnosis was mixed affective with psychotic features. A mixed affective state enjoins the rush of mania to the cataclysmic weight of depression. Mixed states mean hours of racing thoughts, pacing around an empty house, convincing myself that I was fated to be the century’s greatest artist one minute, doomed to suicide the next. Logic immolated, my sky-high delusions crashed into a corona of pure fear: psychotic features, or hallucinations. At the height of my madness, I came to believe that I had forced God into divine suicide, and saw Him in a starless void consumed by what I can only describe as “a great black sun which is yellow.”
This is the sort of marriage of raw horror and high-concept blasphemy that metal bands like Incantation deliver in “Onward to Golgotha”, with visions of a Jesus Christ that has failed his messianic mission and now burns in hell. For the eight months that my psychotic episode lasted, metal was the only thing that made sense. This was not a new love: at the age of twelve, Metallica’s “One” had been a revelation, a chronicle of sour misery that soothed me even as it taught me to headbang. It would be years before I could put words to Metallica’s melange of feelings — years spent as a sad teenager, consumed by what my family and I thought was unipolar depression, listening to nothing but the Mountain Goats. It was psychosis that brought me back to heavy metal, and pushed me to explore the bounds of the screaming subgenres I’d ignored for so long.
During one of the earliest manifestations of my oncoming mania, I asked friend after friend to provide me with new music. I was so tired of the Mountain Goats. (I have since learned to love them again, and been delighted to learn of John Darnielle’s passion for death metal.) This is how I landed on Electric Wizard’s ‘stoner metal’ masterpiece “Dopethrone”. It had been years since I had been understood by music the way Electric Wizard understood me. “Dopethrone” was an endless bad trip, a psychoactive waking nightmare self-medicated with brick weed and black magic fantasies. “Dopethrone’’ understood what it’s like to hate everyone. Yes, everyone. In psychosis, there is no little hatred. Mine was an all-devouring desire to take the world in the palm of your hand and squeeze the blood out of it like an overripe tomato. World extermination.
Nuclear warheads, ready to strike
This world is so fucked, let’s end it tonight
-Electric Wizard, “Funeralopolis”.
Committing psychotic anger to paper feels theatrical, like a confession of crimes I never perpetrated. But, when backed by the appropriate music, this kind of writing crosses the threshold of ridiculous and becomes all too real. Soon after “Dopethrone” came my first death metal album, Ossuarium’s “Living Tomb”. It didn’t quite click on a first listen. But I came back to it over and over again, trying to decipher my malformed reflection in the panic-attack drumming, the vocals like a man drowning in magma. As far as introducing me to death metal, it helped that “Living Tomb” juxtaposed passages of ponderous clean melody against the full bore riffage. Ultimately, though, it was the latter that, and I mean this, saved me. Death metal was the cavern where I took refuge as my mind attempted to achieve liftoff. I relistened to “Living Tomb” with the bloodyminded obsession only mania can provide. It was not surprising to discover that songs with titles like “Vomiting Black Death” decried the futility of life and begged for suicide. It’s not that the pulp terror belies a meditative approach to suicidal ideation. Rather, they go hand in hand. Death metal’s gross physical suffering responds to agonies of the mind so vivid that they become a bodily phenomenon. Death metal spoke to the sensory consequences inflicted by my insanity, boiling in the long desert summer, clamped by a day-to-night tension headache extending all the way to my upper back, sleepless with visions of a God that I’d killed with the power of my mind.
Due to some mechanism of brain chemistry, mania must always be balanced out with an episode of depression. Here I would discover black metal, another extreme subgenre which I’d overlooked in my frenzy. If death metal is a horror movie, black metal is Romantic era horror literature, zeroing in on abject helplessness as felt from within. Strings keen high; singers shriek like they’re lost in a snowstorm. Though, like death metal, it’s played at a rapid pace, the final sound is a chill wind’s frostbite, indifferent, relentless. One of the genre’s luminaries, Mayhem vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin, suffered from Cotard’s delusion: he believed he was, as the stage name “Dead” implied, a walking corpse. Dead committed suicide at 22, one year younger than I was when I discovered his music. Seas apart, American solo black metallers would refine (if not necessarily invent) the sound of “depressive suicidal black metal”, which says it all on the tin. Having lived all my life on the Mexico/USA border, American black metal cuts bone-deep. Many of its artists were caught in my precise situation: mad, broke, drawing inspiration from the blank walls of their bedroom, unfooled by claims of communal unity in the face of total isolation.
Come and see how easy, expendable it is for human life to be forgotten
Haters of life are telepathic with the deceased
-Xasthur, “Telepathic With The Deceased”.
It’s no coincidence that black metal’s introspective nature would attract a musical intelligentsia preoccupied with pushing the genre to its absolute extreme. “Avant garde” artists like Krallice, for example, deal with pantheism by connecting the philosophical abstract with the manifestations of material contact with the divine. This sort of union of mental concept and physical consequence can be understood by any given person, but is granted immediate weight by the receptiveness of an altered state of mind. Japanese something-metal band Sigh cuts the middleman, painting the internal logic of a hallucination by adding a potpourri of musical influences (spaghetti western soundtracks, ballroom waltz, military marches, opera) to their metallic base.
Your conscious self is ill-equipped to comprehend the sounds produced on this recording.
-Sigh, “Hail Horror Hail”.
At many points in my adult life, I could’ve been said to have the tools to “understand” this wild kind of music. I grew up on progressive rock, spent months of my childhood at a spurious classical music therapy program meant to cure my neurodivergence. I harbor a longstanding passion for monumental, complex sounds, and believe that if I don’t “get” art, that’s a bridge for me to cross. At any given point in my early twenties, I could have made the effort to get into extreme metal by force of repeated exposure. But music doesn’t respond to conscious will.. Music taps into the prelinguistic mind, the inexplicable and nameless thoughts one can only contact when quite young or quite insane. Heavy metal doesn’t care to translate these burning sensations into something communicable. It is a celebration of contradiction, an assurance of worth for that which can never be brought to light. Heavy metal is the language of the mad.