This I Believe: I Believe In Heavy Metal

Mar 11, 2010

Essayist Peter Buckland.

I believe heavy metal.
When I was 12 years old I saw Metallica’s music video for the song, “One.” The video mixes gritty black and white band footage with excerpts from the film Johnny Got His Gun about a hospitalized soldier who lost his arms, legs, sight, hearing, and speech to a landmine. Over this footage, “One” goes from lament to unstoppable barrage.
I believed this song.
It thrilled me. No music had reached into the core of who I was and made me feel so alive. Speed. Volume. Intensity. Power. When I was twelve, I was kind of small and wimpy, interested in things like aliens, role-playing games… and morbid things like the disfigurement in the video. I also believed adults exercised authority arbitrarily… a view I seem to hold into adulthood. But listening to heavy metal music made me feel powerful.

Metallica’s “One” starts with barking machine gunfire, exploding bombs, shouting soldiers, and a chopper.  It moves on to clean guitars mixed with somber vocals.  Then overdriven and highly distorted guitars press the tempo, rhythm, and volume upward until the band becomes an instrument of both rage and outrage.

I'm an adult myself now.  I'm a trained classical composer and the frontman for my own metal band. I am still riveted by this song. 

Heavy metal is not just ”kids’ noise.”  I believe people misunderstand and fear heavy metal. Bands since 1970s pioneers Black Sabbath have been labeled criminal for indecency, blasphemy, questioning authority, or promoting suicide. But what heavy metal really does is expose injustices.
Metallica’s “One” is one of many metal songs that confronts these fears. I am a kid of the Reagan era and the late Cold War.  Paranoia, the Star Wars program, the MX missile and Iran-Contra marked my childhood. Now soldiers fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. My whole life my government has sent young people to war and forgotten their lost limbs and the trauma war brings. All the while powerful people encourage me to shop my way to happiness. I believe that “One” in particular, and metal in general, indicts that mindset and calls it criminal.
Heavy metal holds a mirror of truth and uncompromisingly demands I examine my place in the world. It shows me collective ills like nuclear proliferation, war, and environmental degradation and asks, “Who do you serve? The corrupt? Or the voiceless? Do you perpetuate or alleviate suffering?” This may sound strange to you, but metal reinforces my vegetarianism by showing me suffering and calling on me to reduce it…to make the world more gentle…to make it a harder place to write heavy metal songs about.
I believe heavy metal has invigorated me both aesthetically and morally. It calls me to harness my anger, power, and conscience to act compassionately, decently, and sustainably. Metal makes me a better citizen. 

I believe heavy metal.  

Peter Buckland lives in State College.