“We do not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” —C. G. Jung
I’ve always been a bit squeamish and never attracted to grotesqueness, but at the same time, I’ve had a certain propensity for looking at the dark side of human nature. This began in my early teenage years when I was naturally attracted to the darker music in my mother’s record collection. I found something eerily mysterious about the lyrics and minor tonalities of songs like “The End” by The Doors, or “Paint it Black” from The Rolling Stones. At first this attraction was unquestioned, but over time I began to ask myself why I was interested in this particular type of artistic expression. This question persisted and was the partial impetus behind a journey into psychic darkness that would unfold slowly over the next 30 years.
My attraction to dark music continued as I took up a musical career, following in the footsteps of my mother’s father who was a New Orleans jazz clarinetist. Like him, I assembled bands and toured the world out of a love for musical performance—the main difference being the style of music I chose, which was extreme death metal. This form of artistic expression was conspicuously unquestioned by my parents, but probably questioned by others around me. I now understand this aspect of my life to be the beginning of a life long journey into the shadow side of human nature, including my own darkness. This investigation would ultimately result in the healing of psychological wounds that this art form was first helping me to express.
I was initiated into metal music as a young adolescent by neighborhood friends. It began with classic British heavy metal bands such as Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. Over time, as I became more involved in music as a guitar player, I acquired tastes for even darker and heavier bands like Metallica and Slayer, and from there, even more extreme bands. By the time I was 25, I was listening to bands called Morbid Angel, Pestilence, and Death. My own band at the time was called Entropy, which spawned the band Vile that received much of my attention over the next decade. During this time, I worked as an audio engineer producing and engineering records for other bands that played the same style.
The lyrics and art that were a part of extreme metal were often intolerable to me. They graphically poeticized the most horrific aspects of human nature: war and psychopathic violence, sexual abuse, and even cannibalism are common subject matters in the genre. The first time I heard the band Death, I had a dream where I witnessed an ethereal landscape of bloody human innards! I had no rational attraction to the subject matter that this form of music dealt with, but I was very attracted to the tonality and rhythm of the genre. I was creatively challenged by the technical requirements, and as I came to learn, I was emotionally resonating with the sounds of this music.
About 15 years ago, my focus on musicianship began to wane, and a new focus towards inner development picked up. As I became more comfortable with psychological principles, I began to understand more about what this music had been doing for me. As I now understand it, extreme metal music effectively channels masculine psychic energies, especially those with a shadow tint. We might see participation in this form of music as psychic displacement, or even transmutation. Through this music, the musicians and listeners are penetrating and releasing destructive shadow energies before they can reach a level of psychic toxicity.
Equally interesting is the nature and behavior of the fans of metal music in general. In the genre of extreme metal, which encompasses death metal, black metal, and other sub-genres, the great majority of fans are young men. They are often tattooed and frequently wear all black clothing that displays the dark and gory images of their favorite bands’ album artwork. Women do participate, but in small number.
A regular feature of the concerts is a spontaneous audience-generated ritual called the mosh pit. The mosh pit is an evolution of a prior form known as slam dancing in punk rock circles. It is essentially a tribal dance where the audience members aggressively but respectfully push each other around in a circular formation, synchronized in tempo to the live music. Fans who are bruised in the pit usually see their injuries as a badge of honor.
In the Mircea Eliade’s (1958) book, Rites and Symbols of Initiation, he describes the characteristics of indigenous initiation rituals. I have noticed that the extreme metal concert is closely aligned. Participants put themselves into symbolic contact with the archetypal material of death, engage in a ritual dance, tattoo and pierce themselves, wear sacred clothing within a dark sacred space, and honor the gods or dark forces of nature through the on-stage musical shamans.
Interestingly, metal music fans are usually quite kind and often artistically inclined. A great percentage of them are musicians themselves. Underneath the grotesque T-shirts, tattoos, and body piercings are quite normal human beings. They are known to be respectful to others and physical fighting at most types of metal concerts is rare. Each sub-genre of metal has its own artistic and emotional appeal, channeling different energies. Death metal tends to focus on extremely base subjects and is essentially a gory horror movie in musical form. Black metal is very often anti-religious and can feature satanic lyrics. Punk rock, another form of discordant rock and roll serves its audience similarly, but usually focuses on social rebellion.
Bernhard Guenther, a German-born musician who, like myself, focuses part of his studies on understanding human darkness expressed in an interview: “I was very much into heavy music because it helped me to release all the anger, teenage angst and the stuff I was dealing with. Heavy music was never anything negative or bad, it was a healing practice for me to hit the drums as hard as I could. I didn’t realize until later on that this was not so much about making it as a musician, but was about exploring myself and healing myself though music and drumming,” (Guenther, 2015).
Another musician, a very famous one named James Hetfield of the band Metallica, recently stated in an interview:
The thing that bugs me a lot is when people say ‘Now that you’re sober or matured and now that you’ve worked out all your demons, your music is gonna be all soft and flowery.’ I’ll tell you though, if I could have exorcized all those demons I would have. But it’s something you embrace. It’s a part of me and I get to celebrate it in my music. I get to communicate it. I get to use it as a therapy to help my own insanity, and other people do too. So, when you get those like-minded people together in a place and play live, music does something to people. I get to watch people in front of me transform. (Hetfield, 2017)
Like these musicians, I also came to figure out how music and live concerts are therapy for displacing psychic energy. Metal and extreme metal music fans appear to serve the greater culture uniquely. Within the greater musical community, they are a micro-culture that has organically developed a method for dealing with the effects of trauma and culturally repressed shadow material. Metal fans in general, and especially extreme metal fans, are highly put off by traditional religious and cultural values and are often suffering from the abuses of punitive upbringings or generally difficult childhoods. My own conversations with metal fans over the course of 25 years has proven this out for me.
Surely, there are many rebellious outlets for young men suffering from the trauma of their early childhoods, but the metal music community is one that deals with the situation through artistic expression, and does so in a way that channels exceedingly dark shadow contents. Metal music fans see themselves as cultural outsiders and they take refuge in their micro culture that accepts everyone equally. Metal music forms a passively rebellious lifestyle that bonds the fans and musicians together in honor of personal and archetypal darkness.
The fact that metal and extreme metal are cultural refuges for outsiders has always been clear to me, but what has been much more intriguing is the connection between the particular motifs of this music and that of the shadow of the human psyche—especially the male psyche. The work of the late Jungian psychologist, Robert L. Moore, and his polar modeling of the four major male archetypes of King, Warrior, Magician and Lover helped me understand this connection more clearly (Moore & Gillette, 1990).
In Moore’s model, the Warrior, when imbalanced in the psyche, may develop an active shadow Sadist, or a passive shadow Masochist. The King archetype manifests imbalance similarly, as an active Tyrant or a passive Weakling. These particular shadow patterns happen to inspire a great percentage of the lyrics and artwork associated with extreme metal music. Other shadow manifestations are also represented in this form of art, but appear to be combined with King or Warrior shadow representations. In general, metal music across the board is a form of art that specifically addresses the psychic sources of personal and archetypal evil.
For me, playing and listening to this music mitigated my own destructive energies, but it did not integrate them enough. Extreme metal music culture is indeed a ritual method for shadow work, as it brings the most denied aspects of our nature into the light through art, but I found that it’s not a substitute for shadow work in the context of what C. G. Jung called “individuation.” Jung’s individuation process, which mirrors western esoteric alchemy, puts emphasis on shadow work and the need to integrate the most repulsive human thoughts, feelings and impulses.
After 25 years of metal culture participation, I eventually had to take the next step and traverse human darkness through deep inner work. My own psychic fracturing needed to be addressed much more personally and more surgically. My technical skills once directed at musicianship and audio engineering shifted into the realm of psycho-spiritual studies. There I found the archetypal formula for inner transformation known as alchemy, the work of Jung and other thinkers who address the shadow in its archetypal and personal forms.
I have since become deeply committed to my own shadow integration work, and to the mapping of the shadow though an alchemical and systems-based approach. Through personal shadow work, especially the processing of old emotional wounds, I have transmuted a great amount of the psychic darkness that the metal music was once only displacing for me. I have no illusions of this work being complete, but the process so far has been documented in a book I authored with my partner, Melissa Mari, titled Shadow Tech (2015).
I believe that alchemy is founded in the archetypal formula for evolution in all life and is present in the development of every living system. All life emerges from darkness, the so-called prima materia, whether that be seen as the cosmos, the sea, the womb, the soil, or our own psychological shadows that must be reordered into new life. Fear of the dark is instinctual, but as Jung pointed out so many times, our genius or highest purpose is always at least partially hidden within our deepest inner darkness, waiting to be excavated and brought into the light for the benefit of ourselves and the entire world.
Davis, C. & Mari, M. (2015). Shadow Tech – Cracking the Codes of Personal and Collective Darkness. Amazon Publishers.
Eliade, Mircea. (1958). Rites and symbols of initiation. New York, NY: Harper and Row Publishers.
Guenther, Bernard. (2015). Time of Transition—A talk with Bernard Guenther. Video retrieved at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jOvX17llF5U, 3:20.
Moore, R. and Gillette, D. (1990). King, Warrior, Magician, Lover. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.
Colin E. Davis is a musician, artist and considers himself a spiritual alchemist. He is the author of Shadow Tech– Cracking the Codes of Personal and Collective Darkness. Along with his partner Melissa Mari, he shares his insights about inner development through music, articles, books and lectures. He resides in California in the San Francisco Bay Area.