Why You Should Listen to Music Outside Your Wheelhouse: The Jazz and Metal Connection

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Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating, and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship.

Every few months, Edwardsville's downtown dive bar The Stagger Inn hosts a show featuring locals The Gorge and Black Fast along with a touring band. The venue calendar doesn't even list these bands, it simply says "Metal Night." The fifth installment took place last Thursday, but it was the first time I was able to attend. I expected a sense of community, but I was surprised at how strong it felt. The kitchen even temporarily changed the names of its menu items, like the Mastodon Burger, the Pig Destroyer Pork Sandwich, and Soupultura. What struck me the most was how many parallels I saw between metal and jazz, minus the volume and the headbanging.

I've often joked that metal is bizarro jazz and vice versa. I must have subconsciously had this in mind earlier this week when I snuck pianist Vijay Iyer onto my list of the six sweetest riffs of 2012 alongside a handful of metal bands. This is fitting though, because it reminds me of something Iyer said about genre when I was granted an interview with him earlier this year:

"I have no use for the notion of genre because that enforces notions of difference among communities. I think about communities themselves as the source of music. What are the priorities of these communities and what are the aesthetic standpoints from which they're starting, and what are the parameters of expression? What is music for, and why are they doing it? And that's where the idea of genre comes from, from the particularities of a community."

The particularity of this specific community of metal bands is directly tied to jazz. One half of Black Fast attended SIUE for jazz performance, as did three quarters of The Gorge. If the genres of jazz and metal sound disparate, consider Iyer's statement above. Both genres rely on the physical and mental stamina of the players. Both often require an inhuman level of proficiency on the instrument. When done right, both use technicality as a portal to something previously undone, and both occasionally see the value in abandoning these abilities for the sake of a vibe. Both are susceptible to the insult "it's just noise." The bands of Metal Night keep their jazz innards to themselves. This music informs what they do, but doesn't control it. Too many metal bands have snuck in walking bass lines and swishy ride cymbals, turned off their distortion pedals between breakdowns and called it jazz. Too many jazz musicians have done the exact opposite and called it metal. There's a certain element of genre-hopping that will always come off as disrespectful, not to the music itself but to the people behind the instruments. This is why the choruses of "Party Down" by Reel Big Fish are more offensive than any Slayer lyric.

By no means does any of this mean that John Coltrane fans are automatically Meshuggah fans, or even that they should be. But if you consider the priorities of specific musicians, the starting points and the values, you might gain a deeper respect for music outside of your wheelhouse. This doesn't mean you have to like it; I respect the hell out of bluegrass musicians and see the parallels between bluegrass and hardcore punk as functions of folk music, but mandolin speed picking is still nails on a chalkboard to me.

At Metal Night, Black Fast singer Aaron Akin joined The Gorge for a faithful cover of an old school Metallica song. Beforehand, Akin said, "Every one of you has this cassette tape in your car right now." This wasn't true; probably five percent of the crowd even had cassette players in their cars. But the sentiment was powerful. This is what is important to this community. This is a direct example of its aesthetic starting point, maybe even a direct link to why these people love this music. In another time, place, dimension, this evening highlight could have been "Maggie's Farm" or "All The Things You Are" or "Everything In Its Right Place." At this time, this place, this dimension, it just happened to be "Seek And Destroy."

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