Interview with The Inverted Katabasis author Dean Swinford

March 11, 2014 –


We were fortunate to get some time for a chat with Dean Swinford, author of Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis. As a person with extensive experience in both death metal and literature, Swinford provides a great deal of insight into both.

You’ve walked dual paths in this life, both metal and literature. Do you see any parallels between them?

I definitely see lots of parallels between the two. Indirectly, you can find groups in any metal subgenre that work with myths or legends of some kind. More directly, so many metal songs have connections to specific books and stories by modern authors.

Beyond that, so many of the thank you lists in the liner notes specifically mention authors and books that influenced the musicians. I’ve never seen that done so consistently in any other modern music genre.

Both metal and literature are ways to, and I’m paraphrasing Dante a bit here, walk through the dark forest. I guess what I’m doing is joining the two so that I can write about the ways that the two paths become one. Just a note about the images in the interview — I’ve included some sketches from my journals to go along with the questions. I draw a lot when I’m writing and I think the images help to show how I worked through and continue to work through ideas for the books.

Figure 1. One of my characters (David? Nekrokor? Svart?) in the woods

Figure 1. One of my characters (David? Nekrokor? Svart?) in the woods

Your book, Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis, is a fictional account of early 1990s Florida death metal — but it’s clear it was influenced by events that were far from fictional. What inspired this book, and how does it connect with your own story?

You’re right that the book has a number of features taken from my own life, but I’ve put them within the context of someone in an early 1990s Florida death metal band. I grew up in Miami and I was the music director of the college radio station at Florida International University.

A friend of mine did the metal show at University of Miami, and he also ran the metal section at Yesterday and Today Records. As you know from your experience in college radio, it’s pretty thrilling to talk to people from the labels, meet people from bands you like, and, of course, get music sent to you in the mail.

The places in the book are places I’ve lived in or traveled to, so in that sense, it’s a way for me to revisit different parts of my life. I’ve always liked coming of age stories and novels about artists and musicians. This seemed like a way to write that kind of book, but in a context that I’m familiar with. Also, I wanted to write something relatively light and funny that still dealt with some deeper themes.

I used to write stories that were more surreal or fantastic in their approach. I still use that kind of voice for the “metametal” chapters in the book. As I got older, I started to realize that it was more interesting and satisfying to write a story about every day events, about getting annoyed at your friend or suffering through the stomach flu.

One of the things I’ve always liked about metal is that it tends to be very escapist. I like songs about dragons, ancient rites, and forgotten deities precisely because I don’t encounter those things on a daily basis.

One of the things I’ve always liked about metal is that it tends to be very escapist. I like songs about dragons, ancient rites, and forgotten deities precisely because I don’t encounter those things on a daily basis. I guess if I’m doing anything new in the book, I’m taking that escapism and juxtaposing it with the kinds of struggles a lot of people seem to encounter as they move into their twenties.

Figure 2. Journaling with a portrait of Nekrokor

Figure 2. Journaling with a portrait of Nekrokor

Do you think death metal was inspired by literature? If so, what, and how did it shape the genre?

Oh, sure. I mean, if Tolkien’s orcs made folk music of their own, what would it sound like? When one of Lovecraft’s protagonists hears the batrachian choir that tips him into madness, what does he hear? And I think that it contributes to literature through what you could call the “poetics” of metal lyrics and the textual features of liner notes—the mix of images and lyrics paired with personal notes and lists from the musicians.

You mentioned in an email to me that you’ve found some metal lyrics that remind you of Neoplatonism. Could you explain what you mean?

Neoplatonism refers to the synthesis of pagan and Christian philosophy into a kind of mystical and theological framework that had a pretty broad influence until the early modern scientific revolution. I write about its influence on the astronomer Johannes Kepler in another book of mine, Through the Daemon’s Gate. I guess because I’m interested in Neoplatonism, I see traces of it everywhere. I don’t want to go into too much detail on this, but one specific example I could talk about is pretty evident in Inquisition‘s Ominous Doctrines of the Perpetual Mystical Macrocosm. The idea of the macrocosm influencing the microcosm comes directly from Neoplatonism. The concept that space is a kind of tomb is evident in classical literature as well. In Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, the narrator ascends into space, where he speaks with the ghost of his dead grandfather. It’s no accident that the last word of each part of Dante’s Commedia is “stars.”

Another idea that Dagon mentions in the liner notes is what he calls the “eternal quest for infernal tone.” That idea of the true disciple uncovering the most diabolic tone is linked to the thematic concern of the album, which is the power that the macrocosm exerts on those of us on earth.

In Neoplatonism, the interlocking spheres of the cosmos produce tones that are perfect and inspire order in the sublunary realm. That’s the mystical element of Pythagoras’s theories on tonal proportions. The key shift from Pythagoras to Dagon is that, while the Ptolemaic universe was seen as orderly and divine, Inquisition’s musings tend more towards a contemplation of the universe as infinite chaos.

Do you still listen to metal? If so, what inhabits your player these days? How does this differ from the hazy glory days of the early 1990s?

Of course. I still get excited when I discover a band. Plus, I do most of my writing while listening to music, so I like to get something new as a writing reward when I meet some kind of deadline. I just picked up the two Atlantean Kodex albums and I am loving those. It helps that their myth-themed approach is just the kind of thing that I write about in my book. I mean, the second one is based on the same Robert Graves book that my character Juan is obsessed with, so I had to check it out!

I’m also really into some of the newer Inquisition albums, as mentioned above. Other current favorites include Obscura, Mournful Congregation, and this Dutch doom band Officium Triste. Of course, I still listen to all the classics, too. I listen to Candlemass and Solitude Aeternus a lot. As I’m writing these books, I try to listen to music that corresponds most with the plot. So, right now I’m trying to listen to things that meet the approval of Svart, the mastermind of Desekration.

Figure 3. Journaling and sketch of Svart's record shop

Figure 3. Journaling and sketch of Svart’s record shop

Do you detect any influences from Gothic or Romantic literature in death metal? If these aren’t direct influences, do you think the two genres converge on similar ideas because they’re writing about similar experiences/concepts?

I think you’re probably right. You could probably catalog a lot of specific references, everything from the Frankenstein samples on Morpheus DescendsRitual of Infinity to the painting by Caspar David Friedrich on the new Atlantean Kodex album. As far as similar experiences and concepts, I’d say that metal lyrics, like Gothic and Romantic lit, use fantasy as an indirect way to represent complex emotions like longing and despair.

You’re writing a paper on prosopopoeia, which I’m told is a rhetorical device in which a speaker or writer communicates by speaking through another object or person. How do you think this applies to metal?

Yeah, that’s right. I’m working on a paper that looks at corpsepaint as a kind of mask, especially given statements by Dead that he used corpsepaint to become or give voice to a victim of the Black Death. What’s interesting is that prosopopoeia is a device that seems to clearly apply to black metal performance — Dead popularized corpsepaint, but so many bands still use it — but the rhetorical device is also evident in the lyrics on De Mysteriis. There are more than a few examples in the lyrics of address from the point of view of a long-dead spirit. I think that’s interesting in the context of medievalism, or the ways that contemporary culture still uses or speaks through the Middle Ages as a way of talking about our own time.

Do you think this type of “mask” applies to black metal and hardcore punk more than other genres? Why would a genre need to conceal the origin of its thoughts — do you think that determination lies more with the band, or what the audience can tolerate?

I think that idea of masking occurs in every genre to some extent and probably waxes and wanes over time. Right now, it seems like it’s often used more as a genre marker than anything. You can buy an action figure of Lars Umlaut, the Guitar Hero character modeled off of the guys in Immortal.

In The Inverted Katabasis, you utilize a literary figure known as the katabasis. What is this and how does it apply to death metal and other underground genres?

Right — the katabasis is the mythical journey to Hell. It’s just a name to describe a kind of journey that lots of mythic heroes undertake. In most cases, it’s linked in some way to a quest against death or against the realization of one’s mortality. Orpheus goes to Hell to rescue his lady, but it doesn’t work out so well. He ends up wandering the world like a depressive, plucking doomy odes on his lyre until he gets ripped apart by Maenads. Dante’s journey into the underworld is a katabasis as well.

I’d say the connection to myth is really important. I remember seeing Nile a few years ago and it felt like they had, if even only temporarily, resurrected the dead gods.

So, an inverted katabasis is a journey out of hell. There’s a word for that, too. It’s called an “anabasis.” But I liked inverted katabasis better because it sounded more like something that could work as an album title. For David Fosberg, the inverted katabasis is an escape from the minimum wage hell of his life in Miami. Plus, my ironic treatment of the trope helps to put the book in its true genre, the mock epic.


Several of the people I’ve talked to about this book have found in David Fosberg an uncanny portrait of the years following a successful second-tier death metal release that pushed the limits but never got big. Why do you think so many of these bands vanished into obscurity?

Thanks for that. In a lot of ways, I’m writing about metal, but I think that this trajectory is probably pretty common for people in any number of fields. The moment I’m writing about in the books goes from the time that death metal was big enough for bands like Napalm Death, Carcass, Cathedral, Godflesh, and Morbid Angel to get some major label attention to the influx of black metal that seemed to bring everything back to small, purposefully obscure labels.

In a lot of ways, this seems similar to the way the skateboarding industry crashed in the early nineties. As far as all the great bands that vanished into obscurity, my guess is that it’s because life is hard and, ultimately, releasing an album (or a book, for that matter) isn’t going to change that.

Do you think death metal has a place in education? If you were to teach death metal, say as a form of literature or art, how would you introduce it to your students?

Sure. There are a number of people working in that direction. Martin Jacobsen at West Texas A & M teaches a course on metal and literature. There’s an International Society for Metal Music Studies. Nicola Masciandaro and others have done a lot of work on theorizing black metal. I think if I were to link the two in a class, I’d do it as part of a broader exploration of medievalism.

You’ve moved on from death metal, but haven’t quite left it behind; it seems to live in your thoughts. What do you think is the enduring appeal of death metal? Did it have an artistic or generational statement to make that was profound then and remains so today?

That’s a good question. I think the way it pushes musical limits is important. Even with something like the speed of drumming featured in that recent Wall Street Journal article. For me, I’d say the connection to myth is really important. I remember seeing Nile a few years ago and it felt like they had, if even only temporarily, resurrected the dead gods. That process has long been an important part of human culture.

In another interview, you said that your own musical project had “layers of ambient keyboards and lyrics taken from myths, the sagas, and so forth.” Do you think you were ahead of the times, having seen how black metal shifted in that direction after its initial thrust (Neptune Towers, Beherit, Ildjarn, Wardruna, Burzum)?

I wish! I recorded it in a radio station studio like the one I describe in the book. By the time I started to figure out what I was doing, I had to return my studio key in a situation pretty similar to what happens to Juan. I still think there’s a way to use this approach to make something interesting. Maybe someday.

Yours appears to be one of the first entries in the “death metal literature” genre. Do you think this field is going to grow?

I think so. Since I’ve been getting my book out there, I’ve met a lot of people who seem really interested in the possibilities of metal lit, or whatever you want to call it. Kriscinda Lee Everitt has started a journal for metal themed fiction called Despumation Press, so anyone who has a story to tell should send in a submission.

Speaking of growing, I understand that The Inverted Katabasis is part of an ongoing series. How big does it get? Do you have fantasy worlds like Mordor and Hogwarts for us?

That’s right. The current plan is to do three books. What’s more metal than an epic trilogy, right? It might be even more metal if I never actually finish. I try to make the bands, characters, and albums in the books as convincing as I can so that they take on a life of their own. That’s probably one of my favorite parts of this. I really enjoy the creative process of inventing new band logos, albums, characters, and liner notes. Who knows? Maybe someday, someone will cover a Katabasis song or try to recreate the groundbreaking work of Astrampsychos.

Figure 5. The Astrampsychos logo and some notes on the ocarina

Figure 5. The Astrampsychos logo and some notes on the ocarina

What’s your next step in your career as a death metal writer — are you going to continue working on the books linearly, write short stories, or return to music and use it to accompany the next volume?

Right now, I’m trying to finish up the second book of the Death Metal Epic. The next one is going to be called The Goat Song Sacrifice. There will be new characters, new bands, new struggles for David Fosberg to endure.

Finland hosts Modern Heavy Metal: Markets, Practices and Cultures conference in June 2015

March 10, 2014 –
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Toni-Matti Karjalainen of the Aalto University School of Business announced the Modern Heavy Metal: Markets, Practices and Cultures as slated for June 2015, in coordination with the International Society for Metal Music Studies. The conference is designed to be a fusion of business and management theory and observations on the business of heavy metal.

“The former black sheep of popular culture is today a relevant subject for almost any scientific discipline,” the conference organizational flyer announces. A Call For Papers and more information will be unleashed on March 31, 2014.

According to the conference organizers, the topic of papers and the conference is “exploring the phenomenon, culture, and practices of heavy metal as a specific genre; the form and philosophy of the genre; the position of metal within the popular music industry context and its transformation; metal market studies; global considerations and country-specific peculiarities; fan perceptions; creative management; artistic and aesthetic considerations; and many other topics.” Although this is viewed from a business organization perspective, like most metal studies this one is interdisciplinary.

The conference follows The Heavy Metal and Popular Culture conference that was organized at the Bowling Green State University last year. For more information, visit the Modern Heavy Metal: Markets, Practices and Cultures conference site or contact Dr. Karjalainen directly.

“Metal and Marginalisation: Gender, Race, Class and Other Implications for Hard Rock and Metal Symposium” opens registration

January 29, 2014 –


On April 11th, in York, UK, a new conference will attempt to tackle the heady subject of “Metal and Marginalisation: Gender, Race, Class and Other Implications for Hard Rock and Metal.” Sponsored by the Centre for Women’s Studies at the University of York, the conference aims to explore these traditional academic concepts in the context of the newer forms of metal.

The conference — see its web site — aims to explore how metal is inherently self-marginalizing, and then how it applies those lessons to traditionally marginalized groups and what it all means. Primarily hosted by Caroline Lucas, Rosemary Lucy Hill and Gabrielle Riches, the conference is open to submissions from academics and community members alike.

The topic of marginalization and its supposition that metal is inherently self-marginalizing fits with comments made by Matt Harvey of Exhumed recently:

Metal is all about tearing down sacred cows – religion, politics — tear it all down. You don’t want to get into hero worship.

Harvey’s point was that metal is constantly renewing itself through bloodshed. There is no tradition, no sacred cow, no holy ground because metal is destruction and the instant any such thing is established it will be destroyed to prevent it from becoming a controller. Metal stays free by being memoryless, valueless, knowledgeless and accommunicative — in short a perfectly nihilistic genre.

The conference aims to explore how “metal’s reliance on concepts of otherness often unites it aesthetically and ideologically” and “how the ideal of individualism plays out in symbolic practices that differentiate and mark the limits of community.” They might consider how a form of lawless power might also negate the individual while they also ponder these other ideas:

  • What does it mean to exist on the edges of what is already exterior?
  • What does it mean to hold a minority identity in the space of metal?
  • Does the narrative of metal’s inclusivity have a basis in lived experience? Or are such groups tolerated rather than included?
  • How does the language used in metal’s discourses (e.g. genre terms) construct frameworks that include or exclude?
  • Encounters with racism at metal events
  • How does metal contribute to or confront frameworks of racialisation?
  • The use of sexism, racism and/or homophobia as shock tactic
  • How does extremity promote cultures of inclusivity or marginalisation?
  • Structural hegemonic whiteness, maleness and heterosexuality
  • Can the struggles at the margins be attributed more positively to understanding metal as an agonistic site, with contestation at its core?
  • Discourses of metal vs. the mainstream: a positive identification of marginalisation, the importance of alterity and the passion with which individual’s seek to position metal as alternative to the mainstream.
  • Being ‘trve’, belonging and the exchange of cultural/symbolic capital in metal scenes.
  • Metal as marginal – recent developments in policy: The Sophie Lancaster Foundation and the legal fight to protect alterity.

These are pretty standard academic concepts and have been since the late 1980s, which leads us to our only word of caution, which is that metal is best understood when we don’t project other templates upon it. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, some academics projected the rock music or punk templates on metal; these never quite made sense. We’re hoping the Metal & Marginalization conference will avoid that mistake and discover new things within metal to explore.

If you want to get onboard, contact the three organizers listed above and reserve your place.

Heavy Metal and the Communal Experience conference reveals topics

January 25, 2014 –

heavy_metal_and_the_communal_experienceLast year, we ran an article covering the announcement that the University of Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rico Heavy Metal Studies group will be hosting a day-long conference at the University of Puerto Rico on March 5th. We can now announce that further information has been released, covering what the speakers will be discussing.

Billing itself as a conference focused on contemplation of the social aspect of heavy metal, the conference will discuss areas such as the ethics and politics of heavy metal, judged from a background based in philosophy.

It’s difficult to formulate a judgment on the philosophical orientation of heavy metal as a whole, however what all strands of metal share is a sense of meaning and purpose in something which is outside of what is comfortable to the post-1960’s general populace – this can be considered the “heavy” within the term “heavy metal”. From proto-metal bands such as Black Sabbath scaring hippies with a reminder that getting stoned doesn’t solve humanity’s problems, to the present day; the genre manifests something which is misplaced in time, leading many within the genre to develop in interest in the past, whether that be politically or musically. How this relates to the present is an engaging topic of discussion, if chosen.

Another realm of discussion will focus on the preservation of the history of heavy metal, especially within the medium of visual art. While the music has always taken primary importance, metal has a long tradition of valuing album art, logos, and quality live photos. The conference will ask the audience for participation in a yet-to-be unveiled project for collecting and displaying these resources.

Interestingly, there will also be a “women’s studies” discussion in relation to metal. This is relevant as it represents the inclusion of heavy metal into an already-established field of inquiry, which is respected within the current academic milieu – perhaps indicating that heavy metal is beginning to be viewed as a genre serious enough to be considered for inclusion among other fields, such as theater or literature.

Those interested in keeping up to date with the conference can visit its Facebook page. Niall Scott, a speaker at the event, released a short video detailing the discussion, which can be viewed below.

MIT teaches heavy metal

January 24, 2014 –
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Academia did not always embrace metal. When I suggested the idea in the early 1990s, it was mostly laughed off, with some notable exceptions. But the point remained: heavy metal is a unique art form in our society and a powerful indicator of our unfolding history.

Metal is unique among popular music genres because it is not dedicated to the individual, but that which is beyond the individual’s control, such as power and fate. It is also unique in that it does not preach pacifism, love, social behavior and comfort, but instead alienation, independent thought, feral amorality and nihilism. It is in short that which resists social control and rejects the notions of sociality, like guilt and love, that are used to keep social order. Metal is the lone wolf of all music.

Starting a few years ago academia began to dig into metal. Most of them are looking at it from the surface, using familiar tropes from academia, but they are starting to dig deeper. The next step is to see heavy metal for itself and to understand it on its own terms.

As a brick in this long and winding road, MIT’s Heavy Metal 101 is an attempt to introduce metal through history and musicology. The course has been going since 2006 and incorporates a number of metal albums with a somewhat “the best sellers write history” viewpoint, but otherwise hits all the right notes or at least bands.

The future of the class isn’t in doubt but the question remains whether MIT will open it up further as they have done with other classes. As MIT’s alumni page notes, “The remaining seminars will be held January 23 and 30 from 5-6 p.m. and are free and open to the public.” If we’re really lucky, they’ll make them into open courseware so anyone worldwide can participate or at least watch.

Interview with Dr. Martin Jacobsen who teaches “Heavy Metal as a Literary Genre”

January 10, 2014 –


Over the four decades that heavy metal has been with us, people in responsible positions in society have gradually become more accepting of it as an art form and a message from its fanbase.

Such acceptance could not exist without people like Dr. Martin Jacobsen, who by teaching a class on heavy metal as literature has introduced academics to the depth and richness of this genre.

For the past semester, Dr. Jacobsen has been teaching “Heavy Metal as a Literary Genre” at WTAMU, where he introduces students to the literary and artistic aspects of heavy metal. In addition, he writes for Death Metal Underground and is a world-recognized expert in death metal who is active in his local death metal scene.

Jacobsen has returned to teach another semester of the class, which seems to be attracting more students as word of it spreads. We were able to follow up on our first interview with Professor Jacobsen to get a feel for what has changed between the years.

This is the second time you’re offering your class on heavy metal, “Heavy Metal as a Literary Genre.” Was the last time a success?

It was beyond successful. Our local paper did a story on us that went viral — ultimately being translated into 7 or 8 languages, and garnering a spot on Brazilian TV and an Canadian Public Radio. Our 15 minutes of fame. DMU was the first to pick up the story, and we are very grateful for your support of our class.

How have you changed the class? Is the class format the same?

It’ll be a discussion class with lots of music-about 50-50. I have added a lecture devoted to death metal, and I plan to add others about other forms. I’m going to require more writing and much more stringent guidelines for that writing. I’ve also invited local recording and performing artists speak about the lifestyle, the recording process, touring.

What is a typical class period like?

We will begin each day with a student presentation of a song . There will be a required PowerPoint slide with it to show the group, album, lyrics, and so on, in proper style-sheet format. It’s a quantity/quality thing. That will be the first 10 minutes or so. There we will have a lesson in which a sub-genre, group, musician or other germane idea is presented in a standard format: Premises, basically the context behind the thesis; thesis, the point of the lecture; and evidence, documented proof of the point and sample songs to let the students hear it for themselves. I am hoping that we will have a Metal God Profile or two, and if we run across something important as we listen and discuss, we will go with it. We will also, I’m hoping, have guest speakers, and I do plan to bring my guitar in to define certain musical structures and so on.

What disciplines does HMLG touch on? It’s a literature class about music; does that influence what you teach?

We will treat music as if it were literature, looking at its structures, motifs, themes. We will identify the features of heavy metal and how those features are altered to signify different sub-genres. There will be a strong trans-historical structure to the class. I like to think of the history of heavy metal as dominoes standing up. Black Sabbath kicked off the genre and their early albums really set the dominoes in motion. But rather than falling, the dominoes rose like headstones.

You were recently quoted in the Amarillo Globe-News with a definition of death metal:

“Death Metal is an extreme form of metal that tends to privilege growled vocals, blast-beat drumming and virtuosic guitar work. Death metal often uses lengthy compositions featuring minor keys and multiple tempo changes. Thematically, death metal often focuses on violence and gore, but themes of all kinds are interrogated by death metal bands, usually reflecting a pessimistic, even hopeless, outlook. Multiple subgenres exist under the banner of death metal.”

Do you teach such things in the class? Do you realize how totally awesome it is to be quoted in your local newspaper as a death metal expert?

We do work with definitions. And it’s damned cool to be quoted as an expert.

You have become a proficient guitarist over the last few months. What has this taught you about metal?

It is sophisticated music. It’s pushing the edges most of the time. In so many ways, it’s like classical music. It uses tempo changes, it’s riff-driven, it features instrumental virtuosity. Learning how to play again has given me a hands-on, ears-on ability to both understand and interrogate elements that would have been only something I’d have talked about before. I’m thinking about taking my guitar to class for some illustrative lessons. Last term, I had students who didn’t know what a riff is. And amp in the room will quickly solve that. Anyway, It’s given me the musical part of the class in a way no other practice could. Knowing a solo or riff enhances my ability to articulate the ways that such elements differentiate or sustain a genre.

This recent guitar-playing is following up on a youthful musical career. Can you tell us about that? What groups were you in, and what styles did they play?

Career is a bit of an overstatement, but I did play in a couple of local groups. One comprised classmates of mine, and we played mostly pop. I was lead guitarist. The other band was a metal band. I played rhythm guitar. We did mostly well-known metal of the early 1980s-Dio, Def Leppard, Scorpions, AC/DC. It was kid stuff in many ways.

What forms of music do you listen to, when you have no agenda at hand? Does this correspond to what was current when you were of high school – college age?

My tastes have gotten heavier as I’ve gotten older. I didn’t listen to anything really heavy in high school. I started metal as a young adult. I returned to it about ten years ago. I like classic metal best. I’m starting to like death metal bands that end up progressive bands, like Opeth. But I like heavy music. Black Sabbath is my favorite group.

I also listen to a lot of prog, Yes and Kansas being my favorites. I like the Flying Colors supergroup. I like some southern rock, but I don’t have a systematic understanding of it in the same way as I do about metal.

What is heavy metal? Is it distinct from rock music? Is death metal distinct from other forms of heavy metal?

We actually sought to define heavy metal as a a group last time. We ended up with this: “Heavy metal is a form of rock music with a heavy, distorted, menacing sound and concerned with dark, disturbing, and pessimistic themes.”

Death Metal is distinct from other forms. It’s often more thematically disturbing than other forms, but in many instances beside the obviously shock-based bands and motifs, it’s disturbing because it’s asking the questions other forms of art — or even metal — do not ask. I’m also really taken with instrumental virtuosity. Death metal tends to privilege excellent playing. It’s a boundary extension thing. And the structures of good death metal are frequently quite elaborate, even symphonic. I think it’s also interesting that some death metal masterminds, say Schuldiner or Åkerfeldt-become proggy later. It’s another type of boundary testing. As I say so often, metal is in so many ways similar to classical music. It’s not surprising that death metal sometimes veers into other genres. Compare that with black metal, which so often seems to have simplicity and even homogeneity as elements of its ethos.

You have said, in the past that much of heavy metal’s content is similar to Romanticism. What was Romanticism? Does it still walk among us?

It totally does. I think of Romanticism as applied Platonic philosophy. Metal at its best offers a way of thinking about music and thinking that breaks the boundaries and lays before us the larger patterns of musical and thematic expression. It’s the boundaries that are interesting to me. And the Romantics did that. They looked at classical sources and wrote (or expressed via many art forms) about their own experiences within that frame.

Has heavy metal changed the way you look at literature?

I think so. I think all art sharpens perceptions and adds ways of experiencing other forms. I’ve taken up the guitar again after a very long time. And while my playing is a work-in-progress, playing again sharpens my listening and adds a critical lens I didn’t have last time. I’m not sure this is a very good answer to your question. I think the way metal expresses itself is literary in its basic constructions, so engaging that enhances how I think. Analyzing lyrics is literary analysis, so from that standpoint I am definitely applying my training to the process and gaining from doing so. And metal also has other ethos-building elements that any humanities scholar would find interesting.

Contact with your students has deepened your own experience of metal apparently. Can you tell us about this?

I have bonded with several students from the earlier class, and I’ve actually met some of my future students at shows. Some of my former students play in local bands. I think it’s incumbent upon me to know my local scene. But the local scene here has become much more to me than metalheads I know. They’ve become my community.

Do you think the administration at WTAMU have become more open to heavy metal thanks to the first semester of this class and the response to it?

Yes. It’s a permanent addition to our course offerings in an era when core classes are evaporating.

Do you think or have experience that this class has made students more motivated to check out more literature?

Yes. I was able to get them to think about books and to read closely for class discussion. Again, it’s a humanities class and the title is a little misleading. We are embracing other forms. But in identifying the literary influences in metal, I have been able to get students to try literature they may not otherwise have tried.

You’re now one of the foremost instructors using metal in classes in the world. What advice do you have for other educators along these lines?

Well, thank you. That’s very kind. The advice I’d give is to proceed only if you have the freedom to do it right. My department and university totally backed me. I’ll also say that you should tap into student knowledge. This is a class where the students may know as much or more about “their” metal as I do about mine. It’s a bit of a partnership. A Facebook page is a good idea too. It takes the learning into their lives where metal is a constant and collects their experiences for the class.

Will there be a open course / distance learning version of the class? Have you considered packaging it as videos like the classes on Coursera or MIT’s open courseware?

We can do it. And the idea of podcasts has been bandied about.

Metal and Marginalisation: Gender, Race, Class and Other Implications for Hard Rock and Metal symposium on April 11, 2014

December 2, 2013 –


The University of York in the United Kingdom will be hosting the Metal and Marginalisation: Gender, Race, Class and Other Implications for Hard Rock and Metal symposium on April 11, 2014. The topic is marginalization as understood through the concept of Otherness and expressed through the categories in the title.

According to the organizers of this symposium, “metal frequently casts itself as a marginalised group in mainstream society, with fans and musicians often reveling in their outsider status which is reinforced by references to non-conforming traits (Satanism, for example).” The strong social traits that result and the rituals enforcing them create “a dominant framework of a classed/gendered/sexualised/racialised identity, marking belonging to the ‘imaginary community’ of metal.”

The symposium’s organizations have issued a Call For Papers requesting 300-word proposals by December 16. These are open to the metal community as well as academics, so if you want to speak/write on these topics, or even better channel them from relatively standard academic fare to something more “metal,” get writing.

Does metal have a finite lifespan?

November 29, 2013 –


Keith Kahn-Harris, a metal academic whose work in metal academia has been covered here and elsewhere, writes that metal may be suffocating under the weight of its own success:

Metal today is in crisis. Metal’s crisis doesn’t feel like a crisis. In fact it sometimes feels like quite the reverse. This is a crisis in which most are unaware that there is a crisis – and that is the crisis. The crisis is one of abundance.

He goes own to elaborate on how this is a sort of entropy where the proliferation of options has created a form of paralysis. “Almost everything that I ever wanted in metal now exists,” he writes, showing us that perhaps the glory years of a genre are during its time of struggling for recognition. What happens when it becomes fully recognized?

For Kahn-Harris, much of the glow is gone. He ties it to the ease of availability of music and information through the internet, but in my experience, it’s more likely tied to the expansion of metal as a market. When it’s new and fringe, metal is outside of the world of social oversight, including socialization and markets, public morals and most laws.

But as metal succeeds, it becomes a commodity and thus, information about it will proliferate. Today it’s the internet, but in yesteryears it was radio, magazines, and label propaganda in your local record store. To my mind, the internet isn’t anything new, even if it’s slightly more efficient (although with the surfeit of information, this advantage diminishes).

While this abundance has fulfilled my metal dreams, it has been accompanied by a strange sense of deflation. To some extent this is because dreams fulfilled are almost always disappointing. There are also good reasons why abundance does not necessarily satisfy. The ease of finding what was once obscure takes away the pleasures of anticipation, of discovery, of searching things out. The fact that metal music is no longer found exclusively in physical media removes much of that precious ‘aura’ that can accompany physical art objects. Demo tapes were exciting and mysterious objects because one had to ‘work’ to track them down…Today, there isn’t much frisson to googling something and finding it. Stripped of the aura, rare and obscure metal recordings become much more mundane.

Kahn-Harris’ article is engaging and thoughtful and worth reading for any who have wondered why metal seems so stagnant of late. Sure, there’s more bands than ever before, and they’re all technically competent (this is new, quite frankly) but so few of them have anything interesting to convey. All their work is in the packaging, at the surface, in style and not substance. Artistically, metal is dead. What’s the usual culprit?

An unusual source offers a parallel critique of a similar situation in software companies:

Here’s the problem that ends up killing company after company. All successful software companies had, as their dominant personality, a leader who nurtured programmers. But no company can keep such a leader forever. Either he cashes out, or he brings in management types who end up driving him out, or he changes and becomes a management type himself. One way or another, marketers get control.

Did metal run out of leaders, and get taken over by marketers? Or is this natural entropy, where there are so many options that none can compete on substance? Or is it, as is the way of things, that once something gets popular it gets dumbed down for the crowd? Commendations to Kahn-Harris for introducing this germaine and insightful topic.

Academic library stockpiles metal for future study

November 27, 2013 –
Comments Off on Academic library stockpiles metal for future study

historical_music_collection_at_university_of_texas-smallDr. David Hunter is a music librarian at the University of Texas in Austin. As part of his work curating the Historical Music Recordings collection, Dr. Hunter stockpiles heavy metal for future academics to study.

Since 2007, metalheads have been sending metal albums and zines to the library as part of an attempt to inform academia further about heavy metal and the associated genres of death metal, black metal, speed metal, grindcore, doom metal and thrash.

Dr. Hunter writes on musicology and historical topics in music and has published articles in academic journals since 1985. His book, Opera and song books published in England, 1703-1726: a descriptive bibliography (1997) and articles in the Grove Music Online musical dictionary and Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart attest to his credentials as a writer.

If you want to help Dr. Hunter and the Historical Music Recordings collection at the University of Texas, send him some metal:

Dr. David Hunter
Fine Arts Library (DFA 3.200)
University of Texas Libraries (S5437)
2306 Trinity Street
Austin, TX 78712

Office: (512) 495-4475
Fax: (512) 495-4490
Library: (512) 495-4481

Heavy metal study purports to identify psychological traits of metalheads

November 13, 2013 –

typical_metalheadHere’s the fundamental problem with metal: it’s outsider music. We don’t play by the socially mediated rules that control most of society.

In our society, in particular, these rules are created and enforced through self-image. Want to appear to be a good person? Follow the rules. When you step outside of that, two problems occur.

First, the rest of the herd doesn’t trust you. Second, the people around you may be drawn to you not because of what you do, but because they want no rules. Those who object to some rules join those who reject all rules.

However, this means that you’re valuable. Because you don’t obey the rules, and because rules produce resentments, people want to take what you have and use it for their own purposes.

Specifically, they’re either going to use you as an example of what goes wrong when you don’t follow the rules (subtext: follow the rules, citizen) or they’re going to try to use your “cachet of authentic rebellion” to dress up their bog-standard product so people can feel “edgy” without actually taking any risk.

From the first category, a new study purports to list psychological characteristics of metalheads:

By matching music preference to the personality traits, Professor Swami found that ‘openness to experience’ was a major factor in enjoying heavy metal.

Perhaps more surprising however, was the fact that those with a strong preference for metal were more likely to have lower self-esteem.

Metal heads also had a higher-than-average need for uniqueness, and lower-than-average levels of religiosity.

‘It is possible that this association is driven by underlying attitudes towards authority, which may include religious authorities,’ said the authors of the study.

If this study is like other scientific studies, it’s a laboratory analysis. That means that it is designed to prove a point by using factors that wouldn’t apply in the world. It anticipates an audience for this point of view, meaning that they already agree with it.

For example, this study came from giving a form to fill out to 400 people who had to listen to 10 heavy metal tracks. Usually this means people who needed money paid out by researchers.

Further, we have no idea what the questions were like. For example, a second study found that:

A separate study by Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh found that lovers of heavy metal and classical music have very similar personality traits.

Unlike the Westminster University study, it found that both types tend to be creative, at ease with themselves and introverted.

If self-esteem is measured by extroversion, then introverted people won’t score highly on it.

Furthermore, The Downing/Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that smart people underestimate their abilities, a trait that could be confused with low self-esteem.

My own experience of metalheads is that, much as Black Sabbath wanted to rain darkness and horror upon the “all you need is love” hippie movement, metalheads are realists who distrust the social proposition that social propositions like pacifism, tolerance, love, individualism and buying stuff at Wal-mart will solve our problems.

Society’s social people offer us the idea of Utopia, of a world of love and trust, of peace and equality where everyone’s quirks are tolerated, but metal shows us the darker side of reality where war is our destiny, there is no peace, people are not just judged but ranked by their abilities and degree of realistic behavior, and nothing is tolerated except to be manipulated. It’s the grim realist camp.

On the other hand, metal posits an “other side” to these realizations. When one accepts the nature of reality, one no longer must put up with the obligatory praising of everyone and approval of everything. If metal is a literary character, it’s Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy (as well as his eventual wife, Elizabeth Bennett, who notes in one poignant scene that neither of them perform — a metaphor for act toward social approval — for others).

For these reasons, I wouldn’t get worked up about this study. It’s not nonsense, merely a selective sampling and interpretation. For all we know, they found 400 college students and took out the 20 Slipknot fans and asked them if they saw themselves as winners, would rather be at a party than home with a whole pizza, how often they go to church and whether they consider themselves individuals or “just one of the sheep.” It’s pretty easy to provoke the response you want under such conditions.

On the other hand, this second study unleashes interesting possibilities. Metalheads are like classical fans, and both groups tend to be “creative, at ease with themselves and introverted”? This is more like the reality I’ve experienced.

The article also gently hints that there may be a bit of detail-obsessiveness and tendency toward over-analytical approaches in fans of both genres, name-checking metal’s tendency to subdivide into genres.

Unlike the other study, this Scottish study — which used a broader range of data — found that indie rock fans, not metalheads, lacked self-esteem.