Music bands that highlight environmental problems using mass culture

    05 Dec 2021

    This article is not about a particular song but about a social phenomenon. Let’s start with the 2021 composition and video clip of the most “eco-friendly” thrash metal band worldwide, Gojira from France. They play no worse, and maybe even better than the famous Brazilian band Sepultura, which regularly addresses the topic of forest conservation.

     

     

    With stirring songwriting that considers grief, philosophy and ecological collapse, the French quartet have become one of the world’s greatest heavy bands, The Guardian states.

    Of course, the video is tragic, but it is still worth paying tribute to the fact that the issue of preserving the forests of South America is recognized as global, and at least the attention of the world community is focused on it. It would be nice if some music bands with the same passion conveyed to society the need to preserve the steppes, wetlands, and mangroves.

    To form public opinion about a specific problem, it must be heard, and in order for it to be heard, it must be communicated by various means, including through mass culture. Musicians like Paul McCartney, Gojira, or Sepultura, pay significant attention to environmental issues and convey this topic primarily to young people.

    The epitome of the environmental metal band, Gojira has carved its place among the scene’s elite spokespeople with songs that speak for themselves, such as “Global Warming” and “Ocean Planet.” “Toxic Garbage Island” takes the cake thanks to its ever-pressing message of ocean plastic pollution.

     

     

    Ten essential environmental songs for the metalheads

    Using music as a catalyst for change is nothing new. Speaking about US culture and counterculture, religion has the gospel, Republican Party has country music, and social justice has long been associated with hip-hop. Is heavy metal the new sound of the environmental movement?

    We can easily find environmental messages in metal.

    The following story belongs to Greenpeace’s author. It’s totally about Western culture, but we’ve found it interesting for other countries with other traditions too.

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    Oh, so you think all of us greens listen to Phish nonstop and foam over the Grateful Dead? Well yes, we kind of do. But some of us also love to rock out to uncompromising blast beats and pummeling snares! Just because you can’t understand the lyrics doesn’t mean they do not hold a profound message for change, a critique of the status quo, or a call to action.

    The following list is a snapshot into enviro-metal — from the more funk and jazz inspired, to beautifully cacophonous grindcore, you’ll want to add this to your playlist. Or at least share it with the metal head in your life.

     

    1. WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM –The Old Ones Are With Us (2017)

    We start off with some black metal as lush as the Pacific Northwest scenery the band hails from. Introspective and dark, this is an ode to the beauty of cyclical nature as mystical as it is poetic.

    Standout line: “Winter is dying

    The sun is returning

    The ice is receding

    Rivers are flowing.”

     

    1. FAITH NO MORE – We Care A Lot (1985)

    Here’s a hook that’ll get stuck in your head. The oldest entry on the list, San Francisco’s funk-rap-metal-alternative ensemble manages to mesmerize with the first song on their debut album, the eponymous “We Care A Lot”. The band immediately sets the tone and tells us that they are indeed part of the solution!

    Standout line: “We care a lot about you people ’cause we’re out to save the world, yeah!”

     

    1. VEKTOR – Dying World (2011)

    Shrieking thrash metal has never been so urgent. Arizona’s Vektor will blow your head off while denouncing pollution caused by greedy fossil fuel companies.

    Standout line: “Slashing and burning, crushing and drilling, extinction is coming, the oil keeps spilling. Business as usual while toxins are killing. Destroying the land that our waste keeps on filling.”

     

    1. DEVIN TOWNSEND – Canada (2001)

    From his earth-themed album, Terria, Devin Townsend delivers a beautiful and “introspective” ode to his homeland with this subdued prog masterpiece.

    Standout line: “It’s oil, it’s wheat, it’s soil, it’s meat, it’s beef!

     

    1. TESTAMENT – Greenhouse Effect (1989)

    Released as the second single from their third album, prolific California thrash legends Testament make no qualms in their call to stop the devastation of South America’s rainforests.

    Standout line: “And they don’t even care if they… 

    Seal the planet’s fate

    Crimes they perpetrate

    Wasting precious land

    It’s time to take a stand.”

     

    1. ATHIEST – Mother Man (1991)

    A layered and complex jazz-influenced piece that would make Alice and John Coltrane proud, “Mother Man” starts off the sophomore album of Florida’s elusive virtuosos Atheist. If you manage not to let the angular guitars and disproportionate time signature changes overwhelm you, you’ll surely come back for more.

    Standout line: “And a bird flies weak

    Against polluted skies

    Before it dies

    And nature becomes illegal

    According to rules

    Made by fools”

     

    1. NAPALM DEATH – On the brink of Extinction (2009)

    We’re getting into really heavy territory now. Birmingham, England’s grindcore veterans Napalm Death renowned history of ecological, progressive, and anti-capitalist views are reinforced on the furious “On the Brink of Extinction”. Released on their thirteenth studio album, the track explores the possibility of an impending sixth mass extinction.

    Standout line: “Will we avoid a natural selection?

    Do we have the right to survive the failures?

    Nature, it’s force – the scales unbalanced

    What’s the next step? How do we evolve?”

     

    1. GOJIRA — Toxic Garbage Island (2008)

    The epitome of the environmental metal band, France’s Gojira has carved its place among the scene’s elite spokespeople with songs that speak for themselves such as “Global Warming” and “Ocean Planet”. “Toxic Garbage Island” takes the cake thanks to its ever-pressing message of ocean plastic pollution.

    Standout line: “Plastic bag in the sea!”

     

    1. CATTLE DECAPITATION – Manufactured Extinction (2015)

    San Diego’s premier animal rights vegetarians have been bulldozing their way into our hearts with their frenzied mixture of technical death metal and grindcore since their studio debut “Homovore” in 2000. “Manufactured Extinction” tackles loss of biodiversity, runaway climate change, and even channels Fukuyama’s ideal of the end of human sociopolitical evolution discussed in his influential book “End of History and the Last Man”. The overarching pessimism is delightfully juxtaposed when the chorus reminds the listener that they can be the change they want to see.

    Standout line: “The powers that be are you and me.”

     

     

    1. KRAFTWERK – Radioactivity (1991, re-release) 

    Not metal you say? The fathers of electronic music may not write rock’n’roll, but I can’t think of a more deserved spot for number one song. Originally released in 1975, the re-release includes in its lyrics more recent disasters that serve as a prime example for an updated call to denuclearization. In some sort of meta sense, this electro-pop song is the most metal thing you’ll ever hear.

    Standout line: “Sellafield, Hiroshima, Chernobyl, Harrisburg.”

     

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    Music for the Anthropocene. How metal became a new form of environmental activism

    Even before the advent of the climate movement Extinction Rebellion, metal musicians realized that the era of the Anthropocene had already begun on Earth, which would inevitably end with an ecological catastrophe. Raising in their work the problems of environmental pollution and poaching and actively participating in public life and promoting the ethical treatment of animals by personal example, they have won many followers around the world. Mario Reinaldo Machado, the Ph.D. student at Clark University’s Geography Department in Worcester, talks on Guernica about the non-trivial and sometimes extreme ways metal bands are changing the world for the better.

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    Most of the soloists are ambiguous personalities. Frontman of the Baltimore metal band Hatebeak Waldo is no exception. Considering that the music he plays cuts even hardened listeners’ ears, this is not surprising. However, the reason for the popularity of Hatebeak is not only in the band’s provocative music but also in the ascetic lifestyle of Waldo. He refuses to wear clothes and perform on stage and lives on a strict diet of nuts and seeds. Some consider Waldo’s vocals to be nothing more than slurred screams, while others are more lenient towards his musical experiments. After all, Waldo is a Congo grey parro.

    Many people consider metal to be incomprehensible or even unpleasant music. But for the musicians themselves and their listeners, metal has always been a tool for expressing not only strong emotions, but also radical political views.

    Radical right-wing groups – white nationalists and neo-Nazis – have long used heavy music to spread their ideas. But recently, the metal scene has also become a platform for discussing topical issues of the Anthropocene – climate change and environmental destruction.

    Long before modern movements like Extinction Rebellion introduced radical eco-politics to the mainstream, a small group of metal musicians began to warn in their songs of the impending anthropogenic apocalypse. Metal has previously served as a mouthpiece for ideas such as posthumanism, ecofeminism, and environmental justice, as many of the members of this movement are involved in activism and care about the environment in their daily lives.

     

    “It’s time to open our eyes to this genocide”

    Metal’s origins date back to punk rock in the 1970s and 1980s. Many punk rock bands of this period criticized the establishment and capitalist society of the United States and Great Britain.

    Many punk rock musicians have also championed social justice. Suicidal Tendencies, Bad Brains and the Dead Kennedys played Afropunk based on ideas of anarchism, anti-imperialism and racial equality.

    As you can see, the political message is still present in heavy music today, contributing to the formation of a progressive and inclusive music scene, even though the music itself is not very friendly.

    The environmental movement occupies its own sub-genre within radical hardcore music. Known as “eco-hardcore,” such music emerged in the 1990s as a response to darkening realities of ecological degradation, climate change and the increasingly popular notion of the Anthropocene. By this time, the political optimism of the early environmental movement had been tempered by decades of political indifference. Environmental politics had become increasingly radicalized over the years as ecological crises multiplied and magnified. Reflecting this radicalization, much of this early eco-hardcore music was both visually and lyrically violent and anti-social, upending stereotypes of liberal, hippie environmentalists. Live performances were visceral, physical experiences with music that mimicked the increasingly panicked state of their political and environmental concerns. By reproducing and parodying the violence against and destruction of the environment, eco-hardcore musicians demonstrated how deadly serious they were about their politics and how dire the environmental situation had become. The time for polite discourse was over; radical, revolutionary, even violent action was needed to save the planet. This shift might seem abrupt, but its seeds in left-wing politics extended back to the politically tumultuous years of the 1960s, despite all the flowers and free love on the surface. As the decades wore on and the detritus of global climate change began to accumulate, the radical environmentalist message of eco-hardcore music has become increasingly prescient and, unfortunately, increasingly relevant.

    Eco-hardcore music began with bands like Polluted Inheritance, whose 1992 album Ecocide married the power, aggression, and anger of hardcore music with an apocalyptic vision of modern industrial society’s environmental destruction. As sociology professor Ross Haenfler describes in his book Straight Edge, bands such as Earth Crises soon followed Polluted Inheritance’s lead, broadcasting their vegan lifestyles as part of their endorsement of radical environmentalism. These groups’ music is a blunt rejection of the social, political and economic systems that are complicit in environmental destruction and the oppression of animals. In 2015, Earth Crises teamed up with fellow eco-hardcore band Liberator to release a split album and comic book titled Salvation of Innocents, which follows the illegal efforts of a group of animal liberation activists.

     

    Polluted inheritance

    The cacophonic sound, combined with deep political convictions and a humble lifestyle, creates an aesthetic dissonance that makes it difficult to dismiss metal as thoughtless, aggressive and violent.

    Among the most popular contemporary eco-hardcore acts is the French death metal outfit Gojira. Their members take environmentalism as seriously as they take heavy music, dedicating an entire page of their website to their activism for environmental and social causes. Their seven studio albums over the course of almost two decades are an urgent plea for the planet, as well as an admonition of those that refuse to listen. The song “Silvera,” from their 2016 album Magma, encapsulates their politics: “Dead bodies falling from the sky. / We are the ape with the vision of the killing. / A rain of shame that fills the mines. / No other blood in me but mine. / Time to open your eyes to this genocide.” 

    Other eco-hardcore bands have worked to promote vegetarianism and veganism within the hardcore scene. San Diego-based grindcore outfit Cattle Decapitation, whose lead singer Travis Ryan is vocal about his veganism, has made its critiques of environmental destruction clear through its grisly album covers. The band’s 2015 release, The Anthropocene Extinction, depicts a decaying human corpse lying in toxic waste with bits of synthetic plastic garbage falling from its exposed stomach and torso. The album opens with the song “Manufactured Extinct,” whose lyrics—for those that can understand them—read: “Altered climate, acceleration exacerbated by our human activities. / We used it up, we wore it out. / We made it do what we could have done without. / Machines to make machines, fabricating the end of all living things.” Such music—like its right-wing counterparts— builds communities around shared political ideas and a love of brutal tunes. Nathan Snaza, a professor at the University of Richmond and doctoral candidate Jason Netherton, a founding member of the legendary death metal bands Misery Index and Dying Fetus, discuss in their book Community at the Extremes how death metal rebels against humanist norms on which capitalism and the state are built. By embracing themes such as death and by challenging the socio-political expectations of what human bodies can and should do, this music flips the script on traditional claims to the humanistic morality of polite society. While critics may scoff at such radical artistic performances, these bands use post-humanistic perspectives to critique humanism according to its own terms.  In doing so, hardcore bands produce both rebellion and escapism, creating space for what Snaza and Netherton call “more-than-human practices of community” that snub systems of oppression and destruction with satire and unrelenting sound.

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    In these albums, a post-human figure begins to take center stage, manifested in vocalists who are pushing the boundaries of what most people consider singing and, for that matter, language. In hardcore music, vocalists will often scream or yell instead of sing. Lyrics can be all but incomprehensible, assuming the form of guttural growls and other vocal techniques known in the hardcore scene as “pig squeals,” “dinosaur growls,” and “walrus screams.” To deliver these dissonant songs with political ideas, the human voice becomes increasingly warped, forcing listeners to fill in the blanks when the noises are beyond their ability to comprehend.

    From their music to their merchandise to their activism, these bands blur the line between the human and non-human. Cattle Decapitation’s 2004 release Humanure is notable for its cover art, a vivid depiction of a cow defecating human body parts. Other visuals present ironic, absurdist human-animal inversions to highlight animal rights issues like medical experimentation and industrial animal slaughter. The cover of Earth Crises’ Forced to Kill (2009) features a monkey holding a scalpel as it peers ominously over the open brain cavity of a conscious human subject. The thrash metal band GWAR, which has stoked controversy for mutilating effigies of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump on stage, won additional notoriety in 2012 with a graphic music video encouraging people to wear clothing made of human pubic hair—a gesture in support of PETA’s anti-fur campaign. 

    In seeking to overcome the boundaries between humanity and animal life, other bands have dispensed with the human voice altogether. Hatebeak and their grey parrot frontman Waldo is currently recording a split album along with Grim Squeaker, a guinea-pig fronted band. New York City-based Caninus and their pitbull terrier vocalists, Budgie and Basil, have released one solo album as well as one split album apiece with Hatebeak and Cattle Decapitation. “We met a guy who was trying to teach his African Grey parrot to use a mini-drum pad,” recalled Mark Sloan, one of Hatebeak’s founding members. “But I don’t think that went very well.” While throwing open the door to artistic experimentation, working with animals as musicians nevertheless present certain practical hurdles in regards to navigating temperament and coaxing the animals to “perform.” “[Waldo] is always a blast to work with,” says Sloan, “he can be a diva at times, but I suppose we all can.” Still, Sloan claims, “I find birds easier to work with than people, and a lot more entertaining.”

    These artistic experiments are not always explicit about their politics. Evoking the tradition of feminist social theorist Donna Haraway, they are playful, collaborative, multispecies encounters meant to engage with animals on different terms while also raising non-human voices and visibility within popular culture. Far from the obedient figures of Lassie or Flipper, these animals are really, really pissed—and, considering the state of animal protections at large, they have every right to be. “Politically,” says Sloan, a self-described bird person who raises chickens in his spare time, “our only goals are to help publicize the plight of our feathered friends. We take avian equality very seriously.”

    Some musicians consider eco-hardcore music as more than a forum for political expression, but as a form of spiritual transcendence. In a 2012 interview for VICE News, Russel Menzies, who performs as the black metal band Striborg, explains as he walks through a Northern Australian forest dressed in a black robe: “I am just a carrier, I am just a medium for doing this. The instruments are mimicking the elements and essence of nature, for sure. My guitar would be the mist, the frost, the snow, the winter. Drums would be like the heart of the land. The trees and the rocks and certain things like that, the vocals would be like the voice of the forest.” For Menzies and his peers, this music approaches a kind of religious belief system that draws heavily on paganism, eco-feminism, and Satanism. These ideas are not only a framework for their music, but also for radical lifestyles and ceremonial practices.

    One of hardcore’s heavier genres, black metal is known for its walls of thrashing guitar, blasting drums, and tormented vocals with themes and imagery that are often fixated on the non-human world. On black metal, Menzies has said, “[t]his kind of music, this kind of belief system, has got very little to do with being a human being and showing yourself as a human being.” The use of corpse paint is a common practice in black metal and involves covering the body with paint to resemble a dead corpse. Jef Whitehead, of the band Leviathan, explains that the black hollow eyes and pale white skin of the corpse paint is a way of removing the human factor from his music; the music “was formed by itself,” he says, the hands of its human creator obscured to the point of oblivion. The result is a clawing attempt to express what the non-human cannot, and to establish a connection, however dystopic and foreboding, with the non-human world. 

    Sascha Pöhlmann, a professor of American literary history at the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, draws parallels between black metal and the writings of American Romanticists such as Walt Whitman. Both of these art forms, he argues, pose a post-human vision of future earth that foregrounds ecological issues along with spiritual transcendence. Bands such as Wolves in the Throne Room, Agalloch, Eldamar, and Lascar represent a thriving community of musicians and artists intent not only on giving a voice to the non-human, but also transcending the narrow confines and perspectives of the human condition. According to Aaron Weaver, lead singer of the legendary black metal crew Wolves in the Throne Room, this music functions as a “psychiatrist for the world,” overcoming the alienation of the modern society and producing instead a spiritual, life-affirming re-connection with ourselves and our planet.

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    As an avid fan of heavy music, I was first drawn to the eco-hardcore genre while working on environmental issues in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. In the context of a degrading global ecosystem, terrible socio-economic inequality and rapid climatic change, the slow plod of environmental and humanitarian research and activism seemed to me a disheartening, bureaucratized struggle. Eco-hardcore music represented an outlet for these experiences and frustrations. Over time, the political messages in this music helped me to marshal the resolve to do my work and to articulate some of my own political ideas and positions. Eco-hardcore music is so politically powerful in part because it is so provocative, lending itself to the aims of the environmental and post-humanist movements in more ways than one. 

    Hardcore music can be a platform for unprogressive ideas. The scene, while at times diverse and inclusive, still tends to be predominantly white and male and prone to violence. Further, many of the same critiques of post-humanism can be leveled at the eco-hardcore musical movement. Many marginalized and minority groups have pushed back, asking: how can we embrace post-humanism when some of us have never been considered fully human, accorded due rights and privileges, in the first place? Post-humanism in hardcore music is often accompanied by a hefty dose of misanthropy, fellow Homo sapiens be damned.

    Yet eco-hardcore, more explicitly than any other musical genre, is grappling head-on with the absurd and apocalyptic realities of the Anthropocene. As this generation attempts to rewrite the stagnant politics and hollow institutions that have come to define the neoliberal and post-modern era, eco-hardcore music is providing a powerful and unrepentant form of expression. Through its performers’ activism as well as the discourses it produces around social change and environmental stewardship, eco-hardcore is both an artistic refuge and a source of energy for political movements. It might also represent a home in which to rest, a final sanctuary from which to scream hell and fury into the void as humankind claws precipitously towards a doom of its own making. What could be more metal than that? 

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    Nowadays, music festivals are becoming more environmentally friendly. Let’s consider a fantastic case from the Netherlands here.

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