Heavy Metal In Academia

The last two decades has witnessed an exponential growth of studies devoted to popular music, coupled with a re-evaluation of past theories and models for interpretation and analysis. This paradigm shift has sparked interest in music “at the fringes” which in turn has led to the unlikely emergence of “metal studies”: a multi-disciplinary field of research centered around all things related to metal music.

Coming years will most probably see an exponential increase of papers, books and theses devoted to the music, culture and “theory” of metal. However, many hessians remain skeptical as to the potential in these kinds of intellectual activities, and for good reasons. Academic institutions tend to be intrinsically tied up with the status quo, and generally reflect the values and paranoias of the system; this creates a mindset of rendering “successful” scholars as enemies rather than allies. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t stuff to learn from acquainting oneself with the material at hand. Below are reviews of three prominent books that have become minor milestones in the field of metal studies, written with the intention to extract what is worthy of consideration, but also to highlight the toxic aspects of academic activity and publication.

Robert Walser – Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (1993)

Robert Walser’s Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (1993) is one of few academic-level books to cover metal music with any degree of passion and seriousness. The author’s mission is self-professedly (and quite modestly) not so much to write “the story” of heavy metal as it is to provide a sufficient theoretical framework for future studies within the field. With that said, the author goes to great lengths and depths to cover many of the central aspects related to metal music and culture, including tracing the origins of both the term “heavy metal” and the musical genre to follow,  chronicling subsequent developments from the 1960s and onwards and offering a detailed musical taxonomy fundamental to the genre.

Unlike the majority of literature on heavy metal, this book is primarily about the music. This cannot be overstated, as it is particularly symptomatic of both popular music studies and journalism to avoid musical analysis. Academics, writers and journalists can spend years covering a certain type of music without referring to or acquiring knowledge about the underlying musical properties of their subject matter. As a musicologist/cultural theorist cum musician/metalhead, Walser is capable of identifying and subsequently refute many of the then-prevailing assumptions about heavy metal within academia, rock-criticism and mainstream society. However, rather than functioning as an apologetic to the genre, he attempts to approach the core of metal music — its inherent power — and how the music instills meaning in the heart, minds and souls of musicians and listeners alike. Compared to earlier “studies” where heavy metal is repeatedly reduced to an effect or aggregator of societal decay, Walser’s argumentation is a breath of fresh air.

Overly convoluted academic-speak takes a back seat to a clear-cut voice that treats its complex material with elegance and warmth. The scope compares as relatively broad to other works written within the self-inflicted confines of the educational system. If ignoring the somewhat dated passages related to gender/masculinity, the zealous insistence on crediting Afro-Americans for the existence of heavy metal, and other assorted tropes, one seldom gets the feeling that this is written mainly from the viewpoint of the cultural establishment.

Readers accustomed to the world of underground metal may complain about the focus on mainstream acts from the 1980s, but the author makes his intents clear on this point and the dichotomy between hard rock and heavy metal is addressed at some length. It should be noted though that much of Walser’s sociocultural criticism (misogyny, macho-posturing, etc.) falls flat because they are more or less exclusively targeted at bands that should classified as hard rock rather than metal. Regardless of the reader’s attitude to either pop-oriented metal/hard rock or the guitar wizards of the 1980s, the in-depth analyses of selected solo-works by Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen and Randy Rhoads provided by the author are quite sophisticated and takes crucial steps toward establishing a proper musicology of heavy metal.

Despite some inevitable shortcomings, Running with the Devil remains as one of the better accounts of heavy metal music and culture 25 years after its publication and has become something of a reference point for the growing field of metal studies.

Harris Berger – Metal, Rock and Jazz: Perception and the Phenomenology of Musical Experience (1999)

It would take another six years after Walser’s pioneering work before the next musicological study of metal music appeared in book-length format. Metal, Rock and Jazz: Perception and Phenomenology of Musical Expression (1999) by Harris Berger explores the relationship between musical practice and perception, and how they connect to the social experiences of both musicians and listeners. The investigation, which combines ethnography, musicology, phenomenology and socio-cultural theory was carried out among a host of musicians and fans involved in the metal, rock and jazz environments in North-Eastern Ohio, including an extensive field study of the death metal scene in Akron. Since the latter is of primary interested in this context, the review will focus mainly on the parts of the book concerned with death metal.

The book is divided into three inter-related parts which covers different aspects of the study. Part 1 (“The Ethnography of Musical Practice”) is an ethnographic account of the social and musical milieus in which the research subject engage. The reader is thoroughly introduced to the musicians, followed by concrete depictions of the musical practices and everyday existence of his research participants. Particular attention is given to the dismal economic situation among the supposedly blue-collar death metal musicians and how this affects both their personal and musical engagements.

Part 2 (“The Organization of Musical Experience and the Practice of Perception”) delves deeper into the acts of musical performance and perception, with focus on the individual and the diverse experiences of the participants. Descriptions of performative events (concerts, rehearsals) complemented with comments by the musicians show how the organization of attention in musical performance differs between jazz, rock and metal. Berger also takes a closer look at selected compositions written and performed by the participants. Of particular note is the forty-page chapter devoted to Sin-Eater’s “The Final Silencing.” In discussion with the song’s composer Dan Saladin, Berger applies his full phenomenological arsenal, going into minute detail to explore how tonality can be grasped in highly divergent manners depending on the individual and context.

Part 3 (“Music, Experience, and Society: Death Metal and Deindustrialization in an American City”) is an extensive portrayal and discussion of the death metal scene in Akron. The field study, carried out through interviews, participation in events etc. not only depicts, but also explores many of the idiosyncrasies inherent to the death metal scene in Ohio, including social conditions and ideology.

A dense and at times challenging work, Metal, Rock and Jazz presents an incredibly detailed account of death metal music and culture. While Berger’s total dedication to his research is admirable, his methods and conclusions doesn’t hold up 100% to closer scrutiny. For example, choosing to make a sample study — in this case death metal in Akron — is more or less a requirement for the type of detailed analysis Berger has carried out. However, that does not entitle the researcher to draw the kind of wide-ranging conclusions that he does here. For example, death metal was not (as the author implies) an exclusively blue-collar phenomenon in the early 1990s, and even less so today. This begs into question the validity of Berger’s conclusions, not least because a great deal of his argumentation is based on the assumption of working class frustration among death metal musicians and fans.

Another possible source of criticism appears in the analysis of Sin-Eater’s death metal epic “The Final Silencing.” This is doubtless one the most detailed death metal song-analyses to date, not least because it was achieved through an ongoing dialogue with the songwriter. However, the strict focus on tonality at the expense of rhythm, texture, meta-structure, etc., imposes unnecessary limitations which could have been avoided if the author had been more intimate with genre conventions and ideals. The “outside-looking-in” perspective is taken one step further in the chapter on death metal in Akron. Perhaps less crucial to the research finds as the inconsistencies pointed out above but all the more annoying is Berger’s insistence on applying a form of “critical” ethnography/phenomenology to his source material. He constantly intervenes to correct the “problematic” opinions of his interviewees — all in the name of political correctness — to the point of intrusion in his own study.

Metal, Rock and Jazz still gets a recommendation; partly for its choice of subject and detailed musical descriptions, but primarily for the somewhat sad reason that there isn’t much else out there in this particular field. The book may also serve as a cautionary example for those who wish write about death metal from an academic perspective.

Andrew L. Cope – Black Sabbath and the Rise of Heavy Metal Music (2010)

If Robert Walser’s pioneering work in Running With the Devil opened up the field for what was to become metal studies, then it was Andrew Cope’s Black Sabbath and the Rise of Heavy Metal Music that established a proper, musicology-based foundation for future research. The intent of the book is stated quite clearly in the introduction:

This book is about heavy metal as music. Much has been written about heavy metal from a sociological or ethnological perspective (that is, cultural/sub-cultural issues, dress codes, lyrics and so on) but very little in terms of the actual musical sounds, timbres and structures that uniquely combine to generate the identifiable fingerprint that listeners recognise as the heavy metal sound. [p. 1]

The author goes on to remark how academics has portrayed heavy metal music in vague, often monolithic terms without any deeper understanding of the genre’s underlying structures (musical syntax, aesthetic codes and ideology). This widespread confusion has repeatedly undermined the credibility of metal coverage within academia, since very few writers can point to what heavy metal is, or let alone what it is not. Cope argues that the best method for establishing a theoretical framework for future metal studies is a systematic identification and analysis of the components that has come to shape and crystallize heavy metal as a musical genre.

Taking cues from Franco Fabbri’s theory of genres, which broadly defines genre as “a set of musical events (real or possible) whose course is governed by a definite set of socially acceptable rules” the author traces the origins of heavy metal to the emergence of Black Sabbath in the late 1960s/early 1970s and identifies many of the key components (musical and extra-musical) that would come to be subsequently synthesized into heavy metal and further expanded upon by later bands. This includes:

  • Employment of angular riffs constructed out monophonic lines or power-chord sequences played on down-tuned guitars with a high amount of distortion.
  • Inclination towards modality (particularly Aeolian, Dorian and Mixolydian in combination with Phrygian inflections).
  • Recurrent use of specific, “dark sounding” intervals, such as the tritone and flat 2nd.
  • Instrumental rather than vocal-driven compositions.
  • Multi-sectional song structures that utilize dynamic contrasts for dramatic effect.
  • Aggressive percussion.
  • Gothic imagery and lyrics focusing on fantastic and non-conformist themes (occultism, mythology, Satan, anti-Christian sentiments, war, horror, death).
  • A close correlation between music and lyrics.

Moreover, and in accordance with Fabbri’s theory, Cope suggests that genres are not founded in a vacuum but comes into existence as a transgression of established musical practices which later gets codified as a new form of music in a diachronic process of crystallization and continuous development. Heavy metal is explained as having its immediate roots in the fertile musical climate of the 1960s with close ties to blues-rock, progressive rock, jazz and earlier rock and roll styles complemented by particular aspects of classical music and horror movie soundtracks. While the early Black Sabbath albums retains many of the idiosyncrasies of its predecessors, these are down-played in favor of a distinct and original sound, extra-musical aesthetic and expression that effectively worked towards giving birth to a new type of music.

Plenty of evidence and theories concerning the context and circumstances that caused this epiphany are provided throughout the book. As the reader may already know, Black Sabbath was formed in Birmingham in the late-1960s, which at the time was still a depressing industrial landscape torn by the memories of war, but also a nexus-point between the blues and progressive rock scenes of London vis a vis the rock and roll-oriented Liverpool. This milieu had a significant influence on the band in several respects. Having lost the tips of two of his fingers in a metal sheet-cutting accident, founding member and guitarist Tony Iommi had to completely re-learn how to play the guitar. Faced with considerable difficulties with forming full barre chords and unable to use normal tuning, he began experimenting with “mutant chords” (i.e. the power chord, which lacks a third and is thus technically not a “real” chord) and down-tuning, which made guitar-playing easier and less painful. Another anecdote is provided in a quote from an interview with Bill Ward, who used to lay awake at night practicing fills on the bed-canvas to the percussive sounds of the city’s metalworks. Concerning the band’s general attitude, Ozzy Osborne sums it up eloquently:

We lived in a dreary, polluted, dismal town and we were angry about it. For us the whole hippy thing was bullshit. The only flower you saw in Aston was on a gravestone. So we thought, let’s scare the whole fucking planet with music. [p. 30]

Later chapters explore the development and proliferation of metal music through the NWOBHM and later underground genres such as grindcore, death and black metal, but more mainstream-oriented acts are also included as examples. The focus here appears to have been to show how later bands in turn transgressed the coding established by Black Sabbath to form new subgenres. There are also examples of what could be termed retrogressions, i.e. instances where certain artists adopted aspects related to rock music that had been previously abandoned by Black Sabbath (verse/chorus structures, blues idiosyncrasies, compositions driven by standard chord progressions, etc.).

In addition to tracing the history and development of metal music, the author widens and simultaneously deepens his work by an interwoven comparative study centered on Led Zeppelin. There are many parallels between these two Birmingham bands, and herein lies the root of the widespread confusion regarding heavy metal’s origins and characteristics. Having compared the formative works of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, Cope concludes that both bands were integral to the extension of rock beyond the confines of previous generations. However, the resultant transgressions paved the way for “intrinsically different and original forms of music”(p. 19), namely: heavy metal (Black Sabbath) and hard rock (Led Zeppelin). Whereas Black Sabbath laid down the stepping stones for virtually all metal music to follow, Led Zeppelin “maintained blues and rock and roll conventions as key elements whilst blending those elements with eclectic stylisations, extreme loudness and developments in productions”, which established them as one of the founding fathers of hard rock.

Black Sabbath and the Rise of Heavy Metal Music is a concise and insightful treatment of a highly complex subject matter, and a true pleasure to read for anyone with a deeper interest in heavy metal or music history in general. The musicological parts most probably count among the finest written in the field of metal studies and the author goes to great lengths to provide sufficient data for his arguments. It comes self-evident that this is a writer than has a considerable passion for his subject, matched only by his equivalent knowledge regarding early heavy metal. However, there are some objections that needs to be raised which partly sully the excellency of the first part of the book. Anyone with a moderate knowledge of underground metal will react to the repeatedly poor choices of references (Arch Enemy, Drowning Pool, Cradle of Filth among others) and the somewhat haphazard treatment of this part of the study. Further lack of knowledge or insights in other fields also show up on several locations. This is particularly evident in the parts concerned with heavy metal “ideology” in which the author draws conclusions too hastily and manages to miss the point completely. For example, Anti-Christian sentiments doesn’t necessarily equal espousing an Anti-Patriarchal agenda, and neither does it work the other way around.

With that said, it would be a big mistake to dismiss the core of this excellent treatise based on these the above mentioned inadequacies. Instead, it would be more constructive to observe potential areas for future exploration and refinement. In the meantime, this book remains (together with The Heavy Metal FAQ) as a go-to work for those seeking understanding related to heavy metal as music.

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11 thoughts on “Heavy Metal In Academia”

  1. NWN War Metal Tranny Rapist says:

    Why does the Black Sabbath book mention tranny bands? Iommi is from a time before trannies!

  2. Rick says:

    I did an academic paper in 2015 on the contemporaneity of black metal as part of my final for an art history course. I examined the validity of black metal as an art form as well as the influence it was having in others areas of artistic endeavor. I received an A on it, so the professor was definitely interested.

    1. Nicholas Vahdias says:

      You should definitely consider sharing that paper as many people would love to read it

      1. Rainer Weikusat says:

        Seconded.

    2. Johan P says:

      Hey Rick,
      If you’re up to it, feel free to submit this to the editor (editor@deathmetal.org) for eventual distribution to writers, et cetera.

  3. Claudia Soulroth says:

    This is all just pointless babbling largely dressing up the obvious in fancy words often stolen from legit technical subjects, done by pansies who don’t want to get a real job. They may be even worse than parasitical pseudo bands who want to make a quick buck from a metal hype.

  4. Rainer Weikusat says:

    Eddie van Halen is the most brilliant manifestation of “What’s the fucking point?” known to men so far. He really makes Jimmy Page seem a philospher (instead of a fleet-fingered ex session player expertly cashing in on the “the Hippies are over 30 now!” AOR-hype). The Sin Eater track is quite good, though.

    I’d suggest taking the ideas
    of anyone regarding Led Zeppelin as cornerstone of hard rock with a huge grain of salt. This smacks of profound ignorance of the subject.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4kPN_OJMaAg
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kV0uV2XyIHw
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQw1bNgdCf8
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eq4ehZDuECg

    With the exception of Humble Pie who have virtually disappeared from the public memory despite they used to be a huge life act in the USA, these are certainly “household name” bands. Afterthought,

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VqJOsNMhIRo

    This calls itself blues but it certainly isn’t blues, just heavily influenced by latter day, urban electric blues.

    I also dispute the »aggressive percussion«. That’s an interpretation of the intent by the author which crept into the text and just summarizes his lack of understanding (“Dunno! Somehow makes me nervous!”). Something which distinguishes metal from rock is what I would call “linear drumming” (term invented for want of knowledge). Percussion doesn’t complement the rhythm of the other instruments (amazingly, there are people on this planet who don’t recognize that there is one) but is integrated with them. The metaphor which usually suggest itself to me is “heartbeat”.

    As a final, semi-detached thought: The idea that what you are matters more than what you do is completely un-metal.

    Good read.

    1. Johan P says:

      Agreed on the notion that there are many holes in the author’s argumentation and conclusions. The chapters on “ideology” are particularly cringe-worthy. Still, there is enough good material in the book to make it worth reading.

  5. Belano says:

    Nice reviews, Johan. I’ve read the three books, and I like the Cope one the most. Even with the shortcomings you mention, it’s one of the best books on metal I’ve read. To me the problem with Berger’s book was I was a little bored at some parts (in fact I haven’t finished it, but it’s a nice read). On the other hand, I think the most interesting idea from Robert Walser´s book was to relate heavy metal music with the meaning of power. I think that concept applies really well to the kind of “metal” he describes. But I think that he omits other concept I think is implied from the beginning -with Black Sabbath- in metal music: darkness (and also, maybe -or obviously- heaviness). I think that it would be interesting to think about the different subgenres of metal as different ways to communicate power or darkness from heaviness, or any combination of the two.

    Another two books I think are interesting to read are 1) Lilja, Esa. “Theory and analysis of classic heavy metal harmony”, and 2) Wallach, Jeremy; Berger, Harris M.; Greene, Paul D. (eds.)”Metal Rules the Globe”. The first one presents an analysis of metal music from a strictly musical point of view. I haven’t finished it yet, because it’s a little too dense for someone like me that has only basic knowledge regarding musical theory. The only limitation is that it focusess only on classic hard rock/heavy metal, from the 60’s to the 80’s. The second one is a group of essays that aim to show how metal has been assimilated in different countries (there is even a chapter on heavy metal in Rapa Nui!, hehe). The problems are two, I think: because there are different authors, the quality of each essay varies quite a deal; and, well, the conception of metal is broader than what is managed in a community like deahtmetal.org, so you can expect to find some groups nearer hard rock.

    1. Johan P says:

      Thanks for the input, much appreciated. I don’t have much to add, because I pretty much agree with everything you said (including the other books you mentioned, which I’ve read parts of as well)!

      If there’s one thing to add it would be that most musicologists who approach metal music do it from the perspective of Western classical tonality, which, truth to be told, might not always be the most effective or compatible tool to analyze this kind of music. I’ve got my hands on a recent-ish treatise which covers this but haven’t had the time to sink my teeth into it yet — should be an interesting read though.

    2. Necronomeconomist says:

      That’s what I’ve always said as DMU’s motto:
      “Power-worship by the powerless”

      Or

      “Rectum-worship by the rectumless”

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