Led Astray in the Forest Dark: Metal and the Familiarity Principle

How should we approach new things? Tell me if you’ve heard this one before, readers: “The thing is about metal, it all sounds the same to me. It’s just screaming and loud noise, that’s not even music!” Any metal listeners who operate in the world and don’t keep their passion for heavy music to themselves will at some point hear this complaint. Many of us tend to get defensive at this point, and go on a long soliloquy about why the person is wrong. But in terms of their experience with the music itself, they’re actually correct. When I think about a style of music I dislike (e.g. country), it all seems like an impenetrable morass of sonic torture. Or when I think of music I’m just unfamiliar with (e.g. post-metal), it seems interesting yet difficult to navigate, so I lose patience with it.

Could there be something else at play here? After all, I’ve heard plenty of people say “trust me, I didn’t like country at first either, but once I spent a summer in [anywhere in the south or the rural midwest], I just got hooked, man.” Could this apply across all types of music? Apparently there’s some science backing this idea. Psychologists call it the mere exposure effect, or the familiarity principle. In plain English, the more familiar you are with something, the more likely you are to develop a preference for it. After speaking with Elizabeth Margulis, a music psychologist, about her work on the subject, NPR distilled the general point to this:

Psychologists have found that people tend to start off wary of — or even hostile to — new things, which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. But then the act of mere exposure — nothing more than further exposure — changes our feelings. We typically feel more warmly toward things we encounter again and again.

I’m not qualified to make any sophisticated inferences from this in terms of evolutionary biology or psychology. However, it does seem self-evident that if we are wary of unfamiliar people, animals and images due to some deep survivalist instinct, we may have good reason to extend this to our sense of hearing as well. But that doesn’t mean we’ll be hostile to a new song from a new style every time. If it contains some element of familiarity, or a sequence of notes that gives us a mental callback to some other style, it might trick our minds into familiarity. And thus we like it right away. The NPR article goes on to quote Margulis directly:

“Let’s say you’ve heard a little tune before, but you don’t even know that you’ve heard it, and then you hear it again. The second time you hear it you know what to expect to a certain extent, even if you don’t know you know,” Maugulis says. “You are just better able to handle that sequence of sounds. And what it seems like [your mind is saying] is just, ‘Oh I like this! This is a good tune!’ But that’s a misattribution.”

If that doesn’t make enough sense, let’s try and use a visual metaphor first and then I’ll break into an example.

Into the Mighty Forest

We all know the phrase “see the forest for the trees,” meaning that we should remember to focus on the big picture whenever we examine any subject. But let’s flip that for a moment. When we happen upon a style of music that’s new to us, it’s as if we’ve journeyed up a hill and are looking over a vast forest: dark, unfamiliar, imposing. The “big picture” is actually the issue here, as navigating the forest requires that you go in, spend some time looking for pathways and observe the variation from one tree to the next. Eventually, any unfamiliarity passes, you see some physical markers denoting one section of the forest from another. With any luck, you’ll come back again. Perhaps this forest will become your favorite place to hide the bodies hiking spot!

Back in the summer of 2003, I was a teenager at guitar camp when I was first introduced to the concept of “black metal.” A guy I befriended let me look through his CD collection and I basically wrote down the names that had the coolest looking album covers. Now at this point, my metal knowledge was limited to a couple Metallica albums, Black Sabbath, Tool, the nu-metal I liked in middle school and a handful of songs from a few other big metal acts. I was very much in the throws of a grunge and alternative rock phase. Knowing this, my friend told me, “listen dude, most of this stuff is gonna be too brutal for you, you’re not even going to know what to think. If you want to go down this road, you’ll want to get your big-4 band stuff down. But I’ll write some names down.” He wrote down Emperor, Negură Bunget and Arcturus. But…Darkthrone’s album covers looked so cool.

Next week I managed to snag a few songs from Emperor and Darkthrone and excitedly hit play on “Unholy Black Metal.”

My reaction was basically: “What is this?”

I had almost no frame of reference to understand it. I mean, sure I loved raw stuff, as albums like Bleach and Damaged were already coded into my musical genome. But this was too much. Why did the guitar sound like that? What’s with the vocals? Is this a demo? Alright. So I tried “Sunrise Over Locus Mortis.” Ok, I could dig that a little bit more. I had no sense of the line separating black metal from death metal, so I figured I liked “this kind” of black metal more. Emperor’s “Towards the Pantheon” was somewhere in between, still beyond real understanding but “interesting.”

I basically teleported myself into the center of the forest…without a flashlight. So I shelved my interest in black metal for a year, deciding I should find my metal footing first.

Fast forward one year later. By then I’d consumed Master of Puppets, …And Justice for All, Reign in Blood, Peace Sells and Vulgar Display of Power. I’d also been exposed to bands like Children of Bodom, Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth through the re-launched Headbanger’s Ball. It was also the era of the New Wave of American Heavy Metal, and screaming vocals, blast beats, and heavy riffs were back in the musical consciousness of audience outside the underground (ah, the mid-2000s). So that summer I purchased A Blaze in the Northern Sky. Metaphorically speaking, I had some maps, a light source, some provisions and was ready to explore. So when “In the Shadow of the Horns” came on, my mind had something to lock onto, motivating to listen again, and again, and again. Eventually, I was able to find my way back to Under a Funeral Moon and stuff even rawer than that (I still can’t quite do Akitsa and most Idjarn, but who knows). As another example, I originally didn’t feel much of anything listening to the title track, but after giving it a chance several times, it became my favorite Darkthrone song.

But it also helps to know some facts about the forest before just waltzing in. I didn’t go beyond a surface-level knowledge of black metal and the major bands until I read Dayal Patterson’s Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult. Through reading the detailed stories behind the big names, along with those of the lesser-known acts, I grew a new appreciation for the music that hasn’t let up since. So perhaps it helps to know the stories behind the screams and the riffs to spur interest and create room for the patience required to allow for multiple listens. After all, I learned a lot about some of my other favorite bands through VH1s countdowns and Behind the Music series. Maybe knowing a bit about the people in the band creates a human connection that makes you eager to give them the benefit of the doubt. You’re more likely to check out your friend’s band and react positively than you are to a stranger’s (I don’t have research to cite for this, but I’d bet a fair amount of change on it).

Three Principles for the Uninitiated

Whether or not some people are more predisposed to get into this music is an open question that’s a subject for another article and a more learned person than myself. But to answer our original question, I think we can derive three guiding principles for people looking to get into metal, or any form of music that’s unfamiliar to them:

1. Be patient, allow for multiple listens so your mind can develop a musical muscle memory for the songs and how one note follows the next. Maybe look for something in the song that aggravates you or that you think is ridiculous (no seriously!) and let it stay with you, like an earworm that doesn’t go away until you listen to it again. I used to laugh at the part of “The Well of Souls” by Candlemass where Messiah Marcolin goes “Behold the goat of Mendes / red burning evil eyeEeEEeeeEeeeeeyyyeyssss!!!” But of course, I now involuntarily hold invisible oranges with my hands every time I hear it now.

2. Maybe start with bands or artists that have something musically in common with music you already like. For example, if you want to check out melodic death metal, but are used to clear music with great production…don’t start with The Red Sky is Ours…check out Slaughter of the Soul first. Actually, for most people, don’t start with anything that has only screaming vocals at first.

3. Learn at least something about the people in the bands, or at least the story of the band in the context of their scene. This puts you in the room with them in a way, and gives you more of a human connection that engages a sympathetic impulse to want to be fair.