Heavy metal is often sung in English. This is a global language, the use of which can increase sales and reach wider audiences. Yet, many bands choose to write lyrics and sing in other languages. We explored this choice in an edited volume titled Multilingual Metal Music: Sociocultural, Linguistic and Literary Perspectives on Heavy Metal Lyrics (edited by myself, Charlotte Doesburg and Amanda DiGoia).
Bands may choose to write their lyrics in a language other than English to celebrate a culture or a certain national identity. This choice is typical of folk and Viking metal where the language is another way of representing a nation and its history in addition to traditional instruments, imagery, clothes, and jewellery. The topics of the songs are often historical legends and can sometimes involve the recycling of texts, such as ancient ballads and folk tales. In this context, the local language can even be seen as an instrument with its own sounds and cadence. Good examples of this type of connection between language, history, and nation are the Norwegian bands Enslaved and Wardruna, or the Estonian band Metsatöll. The choice of another language can also create and evoke a certain mystical or ancient atmosphere, which explains the use of dead languages such as Latin in metal lyrics, which is explored further in our book by the contributors.
There can be nationalist reasons behind language choice: the only real and authentic language is the language of the nation. Authenticity is an additional factor in choosing a language, even in the absence of nationalistic or right-wing ideologies, when it would be fake, pretentious, or simply too hard to sing in English. Using your own language makes culture-specific wordplay and humour possible in a way that may not translate to English. Good examples of this are the Italian comedy band Nanowar of Steel and the Finnish band Stam1na. Furthermore, using the band’s or songwriter’s own language is in some cases a way to process emotions in an intimate way. For example, the Danish band Orm sings in Danish about grief and loss.
The choice to sing in another language is a way to counteract globalization. This type of glocalization and diversification of metal can be a deliberate political choice to combat linguistic imperialism and colonialism: by choosing to compose a song in a minority or endangered language, the band brings the language to a new domain and makes it more relevant and vibrant for modern audiences. Prime examples of this are two bands that sing in Yiddish, Gevolt and Dibbukim. In this sense, singing in a language other than English is a subversive choice. The rebellious power of metal is also present in metal sung in various oppressive political contexts. For example, our book features a chapter about metal in the Soviet Union.
The choice to sing in a language that is not widely known can make the songs and the listening experience more extreme. The unfamiliar language adds to the wall of sound and makes the track impenetrable on purpose.
Songs to keep in your ear
- Enslaved, ‘Havenless’
- Wardruna, ‘Voluspá’
- Metsatöll, ‘Vimm’
- Nanowar of Steel, ‘Giorgio Mastrota (The keeper of inox steel)’
- Stam1na, ‘Valtiaan uudet vaateet’
- Orm, Ir (album)
More information on the book and how to purchase it can be found here.