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The Meaning of “Heavy”

October 30, 2011

Last night, I got to see one of my musical heroes:
Mr. Devin Townsend.

Speaking about his many talents (guitarist, songwriter, vocalist, comedian etc.) would be unnecessary. All one needs to do is listen to this.

“Heaven Send” comes from Townsend’s 2009 album Ki, which severely departs from Addicted (also released in 2009).  Devin tends to take hard swings in tone and genre with his music, which comes partly from his musical abilities, but also from his prolific release schedule. He breaches the edges of the progressive and the ambient, however he never strays from something the the indiscernible quality of “heaviness.” After the show, my cohorts and discussed and gawked over Townsend’s abilities, and the attribute that kept arising was how goddamn heavy he sounded. His riffs tend to hit you square in the chest with a power that is not necessarily fueled by anger; it is more attuned to just pure strength. Describing the feeling is extremely difficult, but immediately apparent. Personally, to discern/get the heart of an emotion or feeling (especially when invoked by media), I tend to compartmentalize it. I use opposite or conflicting examples of already understood feelings to create a working definition of the unknown. There is probably a really smart, polysyllabic term for what I do, but who needs those.

To describe Townsend’s sound and musical “power,” and to come to a definition of “heavy,” I needed a conflicting example. Oh boy, did I get one:

The Ocean from Berlin, Germany is not a terrible band. Their competency of musicianship keeps them from that, but that is as far as I will go. Throughout their entire set, I could not stop laughing at their antics and “connection” to the music.

I wasn’t supposed to laugh; they are a serious band.

Their last two albums, Heliocentric and Anthropocentric, are critiques of the Catholic/Christian church and their internal contradictory natures. As a Catholic, I completely agree with them; there are some really screwed up, twisted ideals within those religious sects that are difficult to swallow.  I bet they have some incredibly salient and well crafted arguments against the church, but that is not what I want to talk about. What their performance shows to me is a sense of over-seriousness that kills a certain part of heaviness. One of my friends exclaimed “These guys are exactly what is wrong with metal!” I couldn’t absolutely agree with him , but what I could concur is that they looked like a bunch of tryhards, looking to be as “Metal” as they could be. Jumping around the stage, leaping up on speakers and monitors, and generally flailing like a madman does not create a persona of “Metal,” and absolutely does not connote “heaviness.”

Which brought me to my internal dilemma, why could I get the feeling of “heavy” from Townsend’s music and not The Ocean? I have one reason, that can be explained in two very different ways.

The first actually arose while I was thinking/kind of dreading going to work on Wednesday. I lead a sports class for two to four year olds, which has a focus on “non-competitive and positive play, while strengthening the core fundamentals of sport.” Essentially, I have to teach kids how to throw/kick/hit/catch various types of balls. It is really fun, but sometimes kids can be kids. They don’t want to listen, and just want to play, which I absolutely love. To me, the idea of unstructured play is incredibly important. Kids can discover the fun in an activity by themselves, and only need a facilitator there to make sure they don’t hurt themselves or the other kids.  Sadly, in this class I take on more of an authoritarian role than I like. But, I have realized that a really effective way to show authority is to be a complete goofball. Whenever I greet the kids in my class, I always have a smile on my face and give them a high five. My voice inflects in a different way then usual; I essentially “animate” it to the point of absurdity. This form of “Gio” is what they first meet, and becomes the base personality that they understand. How that becomes useful in a disciplinarian sense is it creates a sense of “dynamics” to my personality. If a child is misbehaving, I approach them not as the “Gio” they know, but as a teacher. The voice drops, the face changes to a stern look, and I speak very frankly. If the kids don’t understand all of the language, they interpret the emotional shift as something to avoid.

So what the hell does this have to do with being “heavy?”

Take a look at this:

That is the same guy in the first video, Devin “I can’t take myself serious” Townsend. Silly is how I would explain that, but I will defend to the death the musical integrity of that song. Heavy, hilarious, and so incredibly catchy. This is the “goofball” Townsend that contrasts his “serious” one in the first video. But, even the Devin in “Heaven Send” eschews a sense of “serious.” Seeing him perform yesterday, I could not think of an artist who I have seen smile more while playing. Actually, I have not seen a performer animate their face more than Townsend while onstage. My conclusion distills down to something that can be explained with the anecdote above, but also just in pure musical terms. Dynamics/Tonal Dynamism is important for an artist. Townsend writes “heavy” music, and even when he breaches into other more subdued genres, he carries a feeling of “heaviness” with him; something that other artists can learn. It is not about smashing away at your power chords with the gain cranked up, with a billion different distortion effects on it. It is about creating disparity of tone, feeding your audience a build up then capitalizing on the suspense. “Heaviness” is not about throwing yourself around the stage with a grimace on your face, it is about capitalizing on a riff and a song to make the audience feel the emotion.

But, I should let the man himself speak about the topic. I hope you enjoyed this insane rambling and please comment on/rip apart this reasoning.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Angry Black permalink
    October 31, 2011 2:25 am

    Hi Gio

  2. November 16, 2011 9:03 am

    Devin Townsend’s live shows are amazing, Devin Townsend is amazing. Like you said, he’s one of the most animated and out-and-out passionate dudes you’ll ever see perform live music, Period.
    His explanation on how to produce ‘heavy’, by lilting back on the beat? Perfect.

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