Readers Write In #283: Heavy Metal – The Intoxicant

Posted on October 16, 2020

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(by Karthik R)

As the metronomic, dreamlike – almost psychedelic – Le Miroir drew to a close, an immense wave of satisfaction swept over me. As the musical flood of the penultimate song from Alcest’s last album, Spiritual Instinct, receded, a remarkable realisation dawned on me: I had fully listened to a music album in its entirety with complete immersion and total surrender after very many years. (For the keen reader, I skipped the last track of the album as I had already listened to it and somehow felt that it falls flat as an album closer in comparison to Le Miroir’s musical and ambient crescendo.) I tried hard to recall the last time I had had such a wholesome feeling, and my mind was unable to harken to any time later than 2015, when I had listened to Iron Maiden’s The Book of Souls. For someone who wears his Heavy Metal allegiance proudly on his sleeve, cupboard door, WhatsApp profile, desktop wallpaper etc., these five years were frustrating to say the least. Though there was a steady spell of guitar riffs raining down my ears, they failed to permeate through to my brain and stir my soul. No new seed was sown, no new embryo germinated. I had become inert to music. I had become numb, but not comfortably so. It was asphyxiating, a part of me gnawing me from inside, incessantly chiding me for the vegetable I had become. If Darren Aronofsky’s White Swan found her catharsis through the Black Swan, the comatose metalhead in me found nothing but the void. I had become wretched, insufferable, and loathsome to my own self, until I was re-awakened and rejuvenated by Alcest’sSpiritual Instinct. With re-awakening, came a pleasurable, and at times difficult, trip down memory lane of the ebb and flow of the intoxicant called Heavy Metal.

Growing up, I was never really a big music fan, listening only to the “catchiest” and “trendiest” Tamil film songs (and at times Hindi film songs). I had, of course, heard of international acts like Michael Jackson, Backstreet Boys, Linkin Park etc., but my knowledge was so abysmal that I couldn’t really tell one’s music apart from the other’s. All of this changed sometime in 2006-07, during my engineering college days, when my father bought a desktop computer for me. It was an Intel P4, Windows XP machine with a 2.1 Creative speaker set: assembled in one of the cramped electronics stores that populate the innards of SP Road in Bangalore. Having bought the computer, the next step was to load the machine with movies, games, songs, and other “interesting” stuff, which I religiously did, copying folders upon folders of content from my friends’ CDs, DVDs, and flash drives. 

One day, I was aimlessly browsing through all the new content I had copied to my computer and found a folder called ‘Iron Maiden’ and immediately the image of the legendary band’s mascot Eddie came into sharp focus in my mind – Iron Maiden were touring Bangalore in 2007 and I had spotted Eddie’s pictures on the local news coverage sections of newspapers. Though I was attracted to the bizarre, over-the-top imagery of Eddie, I had not shown much interest in delving deeper, until I stumbled upon their albums on my computer. I was immediately drawn to a folder entitled ‘Dance of Death’ for the sheer darkness of personality that it oozed and wasted no time in playing the title track of the album. Eight and a half minutes later I was left short of breath, short of words, but full of amazement – Iron Maiden had gained a new fan, Heavy Metal had added to its ranks a new soldier.

Baptised by Iron Maiden, tutored by Judas Priest and Black Sabbath, and mentored by Pink Floyd I ardently sought out the angst-ridden, anti-establishment world of Thrash Metal; deliciously chewed at the beauty and brutality of Melodic Death Metal; and gloriously immersed myself in the cold, forlorn lands ruled by Black Metal. My obsession with Heavy Metal was so acute that guitar riffs inhabited my idle thoughts and I was attending the biggest concerts of my favourite bands in my dreams. My computer was the temple in which I would spend countless hours at the altar of my speakers, enthralled, enraged and enlightened by the music of my metal gods. And almost every day at 2:00 a.m. (Remember BSNL broadband?) I would observe the ritual of downloading new music to be added to an ever-growing pantheon of demonic deities. So intoxicated was I with Heavy Metal, that I began to crave for it incessantly, and resolved to buy myself an MP3 player with my first salary once I got out of college. And buy an MP3 player I did, once again from a cramped electronics store in the narrow alleys of SP Road. I immediately felt musical freedom and then realised, a bit later, that I had also attained economic freedom. But my dependence on my computer to load songs into my MP3 player taught me that freedom was not infinite. As much as I enjoyed the convenience of listening to music whenever and wherever I wanted to, I soon realised that I couldn’t quite immerse myself into the music, and violently headbang to it, as much as I could while listening through my desktop speakers. This was primarily due to two reasons: the logistical issue of earphones falling off and for fear of looking silly in public places. I learned that freedom is not one dimensional: while the portable MP3 player allowed me to listen to music at any time and in any place, the rooted desktop speakers gave me the fullest and most immersive experience.

Father Time ploughed on, I bought a smartphone in 2014 and despite my initial steadfastness in trying to stick only to my MP3 player for my portable music needs the spectre of YouTube was too large to ignore, its allure too ubiquitous to avoid; I gave in after about a couple of years. All of a sudden, I had almost all of the world’s metal music at my fingertips and new music recommendations served on a platter. It was irresistible but also extremely distracting. In the past, listening to metal had always been an intensely personal experience for me: a chance to shut out all the bullshit happening around you and give vent to your feelings and frustrations in a way that is perfectly harmless for you  and the people around you. But with YouTube, my music listening experience was neither intense nor personal. Recommendations of unheard-of bands with gorgeously macabre album arts continually diverted my attention, and the comments section was too ‘social’ for reflective listening. Listening to music on YouTube, more often than not, felt like going to a sumptuous all-you-can-eat buffet with a full stomach: your mind seems to want the food, but your body rejects it. It was during this period that my desktop computer had to be given away to scrap, I became a husband and a father, and my MP3 player stopped working. Consequently, all hopes of turning the clock back to pre-YouTube times were dashed. It felt like being addicted to YouTube without the intoxication of Heavy Metal: music became background noise. New bands, albums and songs that I listened to hovered at the fringes of my memory like mist that faded away. Until Spiritual Instinct’s Sphinx rescued me. To what I owe this sudden re-awakening, I know not, but it has been continuing and once again I can feel the eternal intoxicant that is Heavy Metal flowing through my veins.