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Metalhead: Heavy Music as Catharsis

Blog Post by Jessica

When we hit on hard times in our lives we look towards things that bring us comfort. This often shows up in the forms of exercise, cooking, cleaning (strangely enough for me this works), reading, watching a favorite movie or tv show, creating something, hanging out with loved ones, or listening to music. Music provides an outlet to express emotions, both good and bad, in a variety of ways; whether it is singing, dancing, playing an instrument or grabbing a pair of headphones and just lying in bed while you let the rhythm and lyrics take you away. All ways in which music can help you relax and work through those emotions. For some people it takes a certain type of music to help them through their troubles, whether it be upbeat pop or indie rock, and for others it can be dark, loud and aggressive.

I know that this is the case for me. I generally waver back and forth on what music resonates with the type of mood I am currently in, but the one genre of music that I turn to time and time again, despite whatever mood I am in, is metal. I have previously talked about my journey with metal music and how it has come to be an integral part of my life and identity. This is because during some of the darkest and hardest times in my life, I have turned to loud vocals, powerful guitar riffs and pounding bass to get me through.

When I want to have a good time and rock out I put on some classic ‘80s glam or epic metal, and when I have had a rough day at work or a particularly jarring encounter with someone, I use death or black metal to help get my frustrations out. Metal was particularly helpful when I was getting divorced and learning how to live on my own for the first time in over 20 years. I found strength and courage in metal music. And when I lost my best friend of 18 years (a darling ginger cat named Caesar), metal was there to soothe me during the grieving process. This is why when I watched Ragnar Bragason’s Icelandic film Metalhead/Malmhaus (2013) I was deeply moved by Hera’s story of consolation through metal and finding her identity.

The film takes place in a small, isolated, farming village called Svarthamar located in a rural corner of Iceland where the majority of social activities take place around a local church. Hera (Dilja Valsdottir), at the young age of 12, witnesses the tragic death of her older brother Baldur(Oskar Logi Agustsson) in a farming accident. To remain close to her brother, she embraces his love for metal music by burning all of her old clothing and wearing his band t-shirts and teaching herself how to play metal songs on his old guitar. She begins her transformation into a metalhead to remain close to Baldur and keep his memory alive.

Twelve years go by and we see Hera (Thora Bjorg Helga) is a troubled young woman who has donned the persona of the metalhead with black clothing, long hair, band shirts, standoffish attitude and generally destructive behaviour. She wants to move on and leave for the city but finds herself stuck. Her family and friend’s don’t really know how to help her, as each of them are dealing with the loss of Baldur in their own ways. She finds solace in her brother’s music, becoming a knowledgeable fan of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. When her head phones are on she is able to block out the world and the constant nagging she receives to “do something with her life”. And because she dresses in all black and listens to loud, chaotic music, she is harassed by co-workers, calling her a devil worshipper or is largely left alone by other community members, further isolating her. Just like many metal fans she experiences the misunderstanding and maligned labeling - that because you listen to aggressive music you must also be aggressive (dangerous) and it’s best to stay away from you.

But this can be damaging for people who are experiencing a loss in either the form of death or major transition in their lives. While music can be a source of comfort for people during these times of grief, being able to share that music with someone is just as important. When my marriage of 10 years ended, and for the first time in 32 years I was living by myself (other than my cats, obviously), I felt very scared, alone, unloved, and unwanted. The life I had known was changing drastically and I didn’t know what to do or when I would ever stop crying. I remember wandering about the apartment doing what we all do when we experience a breakup: listening to cheesy breakup music and songs my ex and I shared together on repeat. I found it hard to reach out to people and talk about what I was going through.

Then Kelly came along -- as she always does -- and reminded me about something important. And she did this in the simplest way possible - she shared with me Insomnium’s ‘Lose to Night’ song via a Youtube video. I listened to it not just once, but over and over for days. Not only did this song resonate so hard with what I had been feeling, but it helped me stop crying. These lyrics in particular struck a chord with me:

And all the time we spent together

United as one on the same side

And despite the chink in the armour

We fought a good fight, we had our time

And it's a shame we let all precious

Gather rust, brittle and decay

Shame we had to kill all the graceful

To grasp what we really had there

No more tears from me

These rivers run dry

No more fear in me

This heart's stone inside

And as the shadows give way to light

Grow and thrive

Every day must lose to night

Fade and die

This song helped me to find my strength. I stopped playing the breakup songs and queued up all the metal playlists and cds I had loud and proud. I was on my own now and I could listen to the music that provided comfort for me as loud as I wanted. In that one act made by a close friend and concert buddy in sharing a metal song from one of my favorite bands, it reminded me that I was not alone. We started sharing some of our favorite metal songs back and forth and from there I abandoned the breakup music to crank up the metal. I returned to Insomnium’s discography and I relished in the epic overtures of Unleash the Archers as I packed up my old apartment and prepared for the new one that would be just for me and my fur babies. With extreme metal music as by soundtrack, I began to create my new life and finally, my own identity.

Hera places her whole persona in metal music - but is it hers or her brother's? He was a fan of Megadeth and Judas Priest and she stays loyal to those bands out of loyalty to her brother. She also holds to the image of being a rebel - playing by her own rules, smoking in church, and playing metal to upset the sheep in the barn. Hera shows outright defiance of authority because to her this is what metal represents and how she can get her pain, anger, and frustrations out. When she discovers black metal and watches footage of one of the many church burnings that occured in Norway around the time, she begins to experiment with her own individuality in metal music, one that really allows her to express her discontent and sorrow. She does this by embracing the genre fully and wears corpse paint at the family breakfast table the next morning.

In her unresolved grief Hera harbors a lot of misunderstood feelings of anger and hurt as well as confusion around her identity. As she watches old friends of hers return to the village, they have matured and she is still stuck in her grief and feels left behind. She has sex with her childhood sweetheart Knutur (Hannes Oli Agustsson) as a means of connection, but when he mistakes this action as a sign that Hera is ready to get married and “settle down”-- and gives her a ring -- Hera reacts in an explosion of anger. In a symbolic act of defiance, she sets free her family’s dairy cows, as they represented to her a life she does not want to live, which is to become an unhappy housewife on an isolated farm. Because her family can not handle her erratic behaviour for much longer, they call the new young village priest to the house to speak to Hera. As he begins to help the family work on resolving their issues surrounding Baldur’s death, he connects with Hera being a fan of metal music himself.

Inspired by this new friendship brought to fruition over a mutual appreciation of metal music and how it helps people, Hera finally records her own black metal demo in the family’s barn. This is a powerful scene in Metalhead as we see Hera really let loose, and vocalize her sadness and anger in her music. Then, when she plays it back to herself and hears the sounds of the cows in the background, you see her smile with genuine happiness. In an act of courage, she begins to move forward, sending out her demo to potential record labels.

As I learned to live as a divorcee, I decided first and foremost that I would not abandon my metal identity as I had done while I was married. From time to time it peeked out and caused disruption in my marriage, and I was shamed into nurturing that side of myself in secret. In my new life this would no longer be the case. I began to explore the genre further and had many nights where I indulged in too much wine and performed metal inspired lip sync concerts to my cats. In embracing this loud and extreme music I was able to work through the feelings of hurt and abandonment that had come from my divorice. But as well, as I went out on dates and met new people, I made sure that they knew and accepted that I was a proud metalhead and that I found comfort in that type of music. Lucky for me, I ended up meeting and starting relationships with people who not only tolerate the music I listen to but celebrate it. I started to feel accepted and by sharing my comfort music with new partners and friends, I didn’t feel so alone and it helped me come through the end of my marriage and receive that final certificate of divorce. And most importantly, when my Caesar passed away August 20, 2019, when my world felt shattered once again, I turned to metal music -- but this time I was not alone.

When the metalheads arrive in Hera’s village seeking herout to add her to their record label, Hera’s world is turned upside down once again. While they express that her pain was the most brutal sounding music they had ever heard, it was Hera using music as a means to deal with her grief. They remind Hera of what metal music meant to her and while she may have acted rebelliously in trying to be heard, in the end, in creating extreme music she was healing and finding herself. Likewise, when Caesar passed away, once again I felt like I would never stop crying. It felt like this giant hole had been ripped out of my chest and I was empty inside. The music I turned to in this round of loss was much darker and heavier. When I couldn’t cry anymore, I found myself listening to atmospheric black metal because the guttural vocals and screaming were providing the release for me that I could not release myself without having the cops being called. The bleakness of the music allowed me to go to the dark place I needed to be to remember how much goodness and strength Caesar brought to my life.

As I moved through my grief, I would transition between atmospheric black metal and melodic death metal - I wanted to hear music that sang about death, loss, and grief. And as I went through the various stages of grief, the styles of metal would change based on my mood -- which when I look back was largely driven by our Spinsters of Horror Metal Playlist on Spotify. What was really helpful to me during this time and turning back to extreme music to help me through it, was that my partners accepted it. I was not once told to change my music or turn it down. They knew this was what I needed, that I had found myself through this music, and now I needed it again to heal no matter how extreme it got.

Metal is extreme music. It has been defined by a study performed by the University of Queensland as chaotic, loud, powerful, with emotional vocals that contains themes of anger, depression, social isolation, and loneliness. This is often present in heavy metal, emo, hardcore, punk, and screamo genres of music. For some reason, people still don’t get why some of us find this music comforting! My ex-husband who couldn’t understand why I needed to listen to Cradle of Filth first thing in the morning. Often this was to help psych me up for another day at a job that caused me a lot of anxiety and stress. This was (and is) my comfort music.

Despite how others may feel that it is just a bunch of noise or can’t truly understand how soothing extreme music can be, there have been studies done to prove that listening to extreme music can be helpful for people during major life transitions and emotional upheaval. The University of Queensland performed a study with 39 regular listeners of extreme music between the ages of 18-34. These people had just experienced a situation that would have incited anger, irritation or sadness, and researchers had them listen to 10 minutes of extreme music of their choice and then sit in 10 minutes of silence. Researchers found that the metal music selected by participants relaxed them just as much as sitting in silence did. They found that people who listened to extreme music and found comfort in it were able to regulate their negative emotions as well as enhance positive emotions. It had a calming effect and allowed participants to approach the situations that bothered them in a healthy way.

When we see Hera next, she is not wearing her brother’s old metal shirts anymore, but she is dressed in her own black aesthetic and preparing to play music with her new metal band. Ultimately in mourning, her passion for metal music became something that was hers and not just a connection to her brother, but truly her own identity. At the climax of Metalhead her band is set to play a concert for the town, and she attempts to play an aggressive black metal riff, and naturally the community rejects it because it’s not something they are used to, so Hera compromises. She slows down the riff and the song 'Svarthamar' becomes more melodic. And through this melodic tone and clean vocals, she expresses her years of grief, loneliness and pain. Music is what saved her and what keeps her going. I personally love this slowed version of her song - the main reason why is because I listened to it over and over the first few days after Caesar had passed away. I connected to this song in a personal way.

Throughout Metalhead we see Hera’s family initially reject her because they don’t understand her need to have metal music in her life. But in their own healing process, they see what metal music can bring: as much joy as it can help with expressing sorrow. Metal music is often misunderstood as a means of connection and healing for people because it is abrasive. But for people like me and Hera, this music speaks to us on a deep, emotional level that helps us to either block out the world when it becomes too much to bear, or when we need to express our hurt, sorrow and rage through aggressive headbanging and fist pumping along with the lyrics. After my divorce, and with Caesar’s death, listening, singing or going to metal shows became an important part of my growth and healing. That is why I resonate with Metalhead and the portrayal of Hera’s journey; because myself and many other metalheads have experienced, and can relate to, the power aggressive music has in bringing us solace and, ultimately, catharsis.

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