Niche Genre, Universal Impact

Heavy breakdowns and screaming vocals may not sound life-changing—-but metal is reshaping the way we look at the world

Words by Maggie Dickman

Violent breakdowns. Concussive riffs. Guttural vocals. Today, metal sounds like a car being crushed in the middle of a Cookie Monster convention. And when outsiders look in, that’s all they hear. But beyond that harsh exterior, metal has a deeper message.

At least that’s the case with Michigan’s Our Vices. The quartet specializes in a message of hope. The band even has a motto: “striving to change lives with our music.” According to frontman Lucas Dixon, the group has made it its mission to assure its message and music are bigger than the band.

I just wanted to try to fix a lot of things I felt were wrong with myself and also help a lot of other people,” Dixon said.

It’s the secret power of metal: using music as anger management. And it’s what helps listeners cope. W. Neil Gowensmith, assistant clinical professor of psychology at the University of Denver, says metal music not only acts as a coping mechanism, but it confronts the topics people aren’t as willing to discuss in other music genres.

“Life is hard. It can kick you in the ass from time to time,” Gowensmith said. “Metal doesn’t shy away from that. It embraces the darkest, deepest, bloodiest parts of life that are thrown at us all and gives us some ideas for how to manage it.”

And Gowensmith argues that metal does a better job at getting to the root of sadness than your average tear-jerking pop or country melody.

“Most genres will deal with sadness, the blues, breakups, losing your job… And all of those things are hard. But metal often goes beyond that stuff—abuse, death, torture, war, genocide, suicide, and on and on—and really digs into the blackest parts of humanity.”

Michigan-based Our Vices may be “a bunch of best friends playing music together,” but they are also making a difference through their writing. Photo courtesy of Our Vices.
Michigan-based Our Vices may be “a bunch of best friends playing music together,” but they are also making a difference through their writing. Photo courtesy of Our Vices.

And Our Vices isn’t afraid to shine a light onto those “blackest parts of humanity.” The group’s most recent EP, Polarity, confronts the most difficult parts of growing up today head-on. “With Polarity, I felt suicide was a big thing we could take and put a whole other perspective on for people,” Dixon said. “You really can’t go through life without being affected by it at some point, and I felt that it would be really cool to write about something that not a lot of people are willing to dig into.”

And fans have responded.They’ve created a dialogue with the band, telling them just how much their songs have helped them get over their hardships, and the group in turn responds at shows and on social media to listeners who simply need to be reminded that everything will be okay.

It’s that way for a lot of metal bands. The music builds a community. Tia Diadonna has been a metal fan for as long as she can remember, and bands like Our Vices have helped her through the most difficult points in her life.

“Metal is what got me through my dad’s death, bullying in high school and years of depression,” Diadonna said. “These bands are what gave me the positivity I needed to get through it all. I could relate to the music I was listening to. They sing about real, important, emotional, relatable topics.”

The problem, though, is that outsiders often don’t hear that. They only hear the aggression, the anger, the violence. What they’re missing, according to Gowensmith, is the thing that can really make a difference: the resolution.

“When people who aren’t into metal give it a listen, they often give it a passing glance and just hear a few words, some screaming, the intense music and quickly perceive the snippets they hear as promoting violence or death or aggression,” Gowensmith said. “They don’t realize that most metal bands aren’t really promoting violence or aggression. They are really just giving voice to it.”

And for many fans, making that voice heard is like giving a fan back their own.

“I truly believe a band, or even just a song, can change someone’s life,” Diadonna said. “Metal may be underrated by the modern media and pop culture, but the metal genre saved my life.”

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