“Through the repetition of certain actions, or in this case musical actions, it’s like you’re summoning something, or creating an openness that allows your mind to let go of your very conscious, rational forebrain and peek into something deeper and wider.“
~ Aaron Turner (Isis)
My love of heavy music, metal, punk and particularly hardcore has earned me frowns on more than one occasion from veteran practitioners of various faiths.
I mean, it’s not like I roll into a sangha parking lot blasting Ride The Lightning or anything (and in case you didn’t know, Ride The Lightning is an old Metallica album from when they were still good), but sure, I’ll rock a band T-shirt to meditation.
I guess it shouldn’t totally shock me that having band names such as, Deadguy, Slayer, Bloodlet and Mastodon blaring across my chest as I walk into such holy and sacred spaces earn me perplexed, or even disapproving looks. But really, why the fuck should anyone care? I don’t go out of my way to wear shirts that will catch people’s attention just as much as I don’t go out of my way to change what I wear so I don’t. I just have a hard time imagining walking into a room to meditate with Christ Jesus, Buddha or Krishna and then getting dirty looks because of what I’m wearing.
Inevitably, between the shirts I wear and the amount of tattoos I have, someone typically strikes up a conversation with me that usually leads to music and I make no qualms about what I listen to. From metal to underground hip hop, jazz, shoegaze, ambient, doom… if it resonates with me, it resonates with me and I honestly couldn’t care less about what others think.
But for whatever reason, it always seems that metal is what gets the peaceful children of love and light into a tizzy.
What I don’t understand is that I’m not forcing anyone else to listen to it. It’s not harming others. It’s not affecting my personal mediation practice or any other formal spiritual practices I do, like prayer and mantra, so really, who cares, and why should they?
Of course there have been unfortunate events in the world of metal. There was the ’80s incident involving John McCollum who took his life listening to Ozzy Osbourne’s Suicide Solution. There was also the even more infamous suicide pack of 18-year-old Raymond Belknap and 20-year-old James Vance who shot themselves in the head while intoxicated and listening to Judas Priest’s Stained Glass album.
Marilyn Manson, who I can’t stand personally, was held almost as accountable as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two gunman of the Columbine High School shooting tragedy, merely because they were fans of his music.
Serial killer Richard Ramirez cited AC/DC’s Night Prowler as the inspiration behind his murder spree in the ’80s, and even the Beatles’, yes, The Beatles’ White Album was said by Charles Manson to be the driving force behind the Manson Family Murders.
So where do we draw the line?
When Elvis thrust his pelvis sexually, was that evil personified too? How about Chuck Berry, a Black man rocking the guitar the way he did, was that the sign of end times to come? In those eras, some people saw it as such, and in that very same completely outlandish fashion, many people today view heavy music in relation to spirituality in a similar light.
Someone actually wrote to me after one of my previous Elephant Journal articles in which I talked a little about punk/hardcore music influencing me. This particular person told me how refreshing it was for her to hear that. She went on to say that when her spiritual friends came over, she hides her heavier rock CD’s because they give her a hard time about having them and she just doesn’t feel like dealing with that anymore.
My first recollection of heavier music that had an impact on me was ambient drone bands like, Neurosis and Isis. I found I would lose myself in a meditative state as their riffs went on and on in an almost pulsating way, a way that anchored me in to a place where it was just the huge fucking riffs and hypnotizing drum rhythms and nothing else.
I wasn’t really into spirituality back then, but I definitely remember those experiences clear as day because they were unlike anything I’d experienced before. I was fortunate enough to interview Isis frontman Aaron Turner shortly after the bands breakup in 2010. I’d heard that Aaron had an interest in spirituality and was curious as to what that looked like for someone in his position, the frontman for an iconic underground band that had the amazing fortune of touring with Tool for 22 shows in 2006, and how it related to playing music in Isis. In response Aaron said:
I guess the closest thing I could say about my idea of spirituality and how that plays into Isis is that Isis is an outlet of expression for me. It’s a way to explore things inside myself and make sense of those things as they relate to the world around me. It was also a way for me to tap into an energy, and state of consciousness, which was not accessible to me in most other areas of my life. It allowed me, at times anyway, to reach a sort of level of transcendence, and I feel that’s a very spiritual thing.
A state of transcendence, like the same state of transcendence often talked about happening in a kirtan setting? Yup, abso-fucking-lutely, and I speak from personal experience in both. I’ve been taken to that transcendent place chanting to God along with Krishna Das, just as I have been sitting with Isis’ ambient riffs. They are two sides of the same coin as far as I’m concerned. Knowing that most spiritual types wouldn’t buy that however, I asked Aaron to elaborate on the relationship between Isis’ music and meditative states.
Well I think there are certain aspects of our music that are very meditative. Some of what I found interesting about doing Isis was the sort of meditative and ritualistic aspects of it. I think there is something about this type of music that maybe lends itself to personal and spiritual experiences. The songs are long and very often have some underlying droney element, which allows the listener’s consciousness to stretch out rather than just being completely bombarded throughout the song or album, especially with the earlier material, which was really repetitive.
There was an element that I thought, rather than being monotonous, was sort of hypnotic. These are things which share some common ground with certain religious practices, like the idea of a repetitive cyclic mantra and certain religious music which is sort of based in a drone oriented approach. Also, through the repetition of certain actions, or in this case musical actions, it’s like you’re summoning something, or creating an openness that allows your mind to let go of your very conscious, rational forebrain and peek into something deeper and wider. Hopefully, in some way or another, this will connect you with the world around you, and perhaps other people who are sharing in that experience.
Both of those paragraphs hit the nail on the head exactly, but I’d like to point out one particular line again for you, “creating an openness that allows your mind to let go of your very conscious, rational forebrain and peek into something deeper and wider.” Again, “creating an openness that allows your mind to let go of your very conscious, rational forebrain and peek into something deeper and wider.”
Isn’t that the thesis of true, deep spiritual aspirations, to cultivate and reach that place? I find it exciting to see more and more younger folks attending meditation groups of various spiritual traditions and often times, I’ll see them rocking an Isis or Neurosis hoodie. I was recently talking to my girlfriend Jenn, a fellow heavy music lover, and meditator, about how cool it is to be able to find the sacred in places that are so often overlooked. She made some super great points I wanted to share here as well.
It is totally awesome to find union with the sacred in the overlooked and unexpected places of our daily lives, and for me, heavy metal music definitely fits that bill. Ever since I discovered metal around the age of 11, it has been a medium for me to lose myself in. The heaviest of riffs, pounding of drums, and deepest of death growls, there’s always been an inner calm brought on by the droning chaos. Interestingly, most of it very similar to that state of transcendence I have experienced while repetitively chanting during kirtan, or with aboriginal drumming during a sweat lodge or drumming circle. The concept is all the same, isn’t it? A repetitive and rhythmic beat (or chant), beckoning an altered state of being.
A quieting of the mind that allows the soul to expand with a feeling of peace soon washing over you. There are so many vehicles that allow for the transportation of self, which ultimately generates a spiritual experience, so why not through heavy metal? For so many, myself included, this genre of music acts very much as a catharsis. Soothing tumultuous feelings and helping to sort through our daily experiences in these bodies. It assists us to expose the dark and sometimes hidden aspects of ourselves, often facilitating a new perspective. Isn’t this what meditation generates as well, an opportunity to look inwards and create that space for transformation? Heavy metal music, bad reputation or not, has definitely been a valuable tool on my spiritual journey.
So music—heavy, soft and everything in between, can be wonderful catalysts for spiritual experiences.
As I said earlier, if it resonates with me, then I’m gonna go with it, and if it doesn’t, on to something else. I think there’s better things to spend my time on then judging someone else for whatever they listen too, and I’m definitely not going to judge their spiritual character based on it!
In the interest of full disclosure, sometimes I put on old thrash metal just to rock the fuck out and for nothing more… I don’t feel I have to be in a rigid, holy state of being 24/7 so I honor that. If that’s someone else’s cup of tea, I’m happy to honor that for them, but in return, I ask for the same common courtesy… please.
Here’s a video of the amazing Hardcore band 108 who is also… wait for it… wait for it… Krishna Conscious! These weirdos play heavy music and sing praises to the Divine. Crazy, I know. And in case you didn’t catch it, that was definitely sarcasm right there.
Editor: Brianna Bemel