Field Reporting: Legion of Steel Metalfest & Conference Academic Presentations

An auditorium in Sacramento
Article by “AR”

The weaknesses of the San Francisco Bay Area “metal scene” have been in full display this October. The anticipated California Deathfest was thrown into disarray when death metal band DISMA was kicked out for political reasons – namely due to a past musical project of vocalist Craig Pillard (INCANTATION) which utilized imagery of the Third Reich. Besides the headliners of AUTOPSY and IMMOLATION, and a few less notable exceptions, this left the lineup of the “metal” nights filled with the grind/crust/punk mixture that is popular among a less discerning crowd. This suggested to outside observers that the interests of the promoters lay more with political agendas and popularity contests, than appreciation of metal music.

It was with interest that I heard of the “Legion of Steel Metalfest & Conference”, held over the course of four days this week and consisting of a “metal market”, “academic conferences” about heavy metal, and two night of music featuring most notably San Francisco death/speed metal stalwarts INSANITY, rock/heavy/speed metal band STONE VENGEANCE, and punks FANG, bands who never quite “made it” but who have been doggedly performing since at least the 80s. Only able to attend one night, I chose the night headlined by INSANITY, and showed up around 1PM to catch part of the conference, speculating that it might be some sinister affair where effete academics plot how to force their agenda on innocent hessians, but also open to more positive possibilities.

Missing the first three presentations, I arrived for “Becoming Death Itself: What Heavy Metal Offers Biblical Scholarship” presented by Charlotte Naylor Davis, of Great Britain. Her short presentation focused on the lyrics of METALLICA’s “Creeping Death”. Most interestingly, she pointed out that METALLICA presents the biblical story of an vengeful tribal god killing first-born children as a celebration of the power of death, and invites the audience to assume the role of the Angel of Death during the chanting climax of the song. This embrace of what is unpalatable or uncomfortable in “polite society” is part of what makes metal music powerful, and sets it apart from the happy illusions of most popular entertainment. Ms. Davis was a knowledgeable and enthusiastic presenter and I was disappointed the topic was not continued for longer.

Next was Mr. Shamma Boyarin of the University of Victoria, who first talked about Israeli “oriental metal” band ORPHANED LAND, who utilize the imagery of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. My ears perked when he mentioned how metal bands freely use themes from many different religious and occult practices, but in “obeisance to none”; i.e aesthetically, not dogmatically (paging Fred Nietzsche!). However, Mr. Boyarin chose to switch tack and talk about how ORPHANED LAND’s music was “breaking down barriers” between the religions and cultures of the Middle East, which seems to be a happy fantasy, if even desirable at all. Next was discussed an Indonesian band, MANRABUKKA, whose lyrics delve heavily into the Koran. A passage of the Koran, quoted by the band (Surat Al-Kafirun, “The Unbelievers”): “I do not worship what you worship. Nor are you worshippers of what I worship… For you is your religion, and for me is my religion”, evoked the religion-rejecting lyricism of bands like MORBID ANGEL and DEICIDE, but also that such advice is poorly-followed in those areas of the world torn by dogmatic conflicts. However Mr. Boyarin somehow brought the conclusion back around to “breaking down barriers”. I would recommend developing some new conclusions and exploring these interesting ideas further!

Next was Addison Herron-Wheeler of Naropa University, who read passages from her book “Wicked Woman: Women in Metal From the 1960s to Now”. The cynics among us may sigh in expectation of the women-as-oppressed-victims narrative that is popular these days, but as her reading mainly dealt with the singer of the 60s occult pop-rock band Coven, musically far distant from metal, I zoned out during this portion and can’t report much. If women in metal are going to be discussed as a separate topic, the most deserving individual may be the fascinating Lori Bravo of NUCLEAR DEATH, who has hitherto been mostly ignored.

Next was a presentation by Dolev Zaharony of Israel. Mr. Zaharony discussed the history of metal music in Israel and how the government/media, ever-paranoid and faced with the difficult task of molding the mixed population of young Israel into a single culture, filtered out all references to heavy metal, and one assumes much else. Mr. Zaharony spoke as one who had been passionate about metal since his teens and had lived through many phases of metal culture in Israel, as well as been a musician. This presentation was enjoyable as he spoke informatively, without any attempt to politicize.

Finally was a viewing of clips from the documentary “Distorted Island”, which focuses on the heavy metal scene of Puerto Rico. This was at times interesting and at times irritating when the documentary attempted to impose narratives on the music, for example highlighting a band because they are all female (though the music sounded pretty awful), and thus an example of triumph against the sexist metal scene. This method is currently trendy in musical documentaries, and one of the many problems with it is that filmmakers end up focusing on mediocre bands at the expense of excellent ones, if the mediocre bands better fit the narrative.

This is a problem common to analyses of metal which prioritize social aspects over the music itself: they lose sight of the reason why the social scene arose in the first place – to celebrate and appreciate the MUSIC, its power and its ethos. Once any other element of the culture is made primary, the goal is lost and the music will become merely an accessory, and necessarily devolve in quality. This same effect can be seen with the hipsters who use metal aesthetic to dress up boring indie-rock, to the collectors who obsess over obscure releases that were forgotten due to their middling quality.

In the spirit of culling the mediocre, Charlotte Naylor Davis and Dolev Zaharony were the only two I witnessed whose presentations passed the bar of quality, knowledge, and true enthusiasm; as well as being free of political propaganda. I would recommend them for any future conferences. Note however the limited sampling which I was able to attend; there may have been other hidden gems.

The Electric Guitar in Popular Culture conference issues call for papers


The Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University will host the The Electric Guitar in Popular Culture conference on March 27-28, 2015. The conference will examine the study of electric guitar and its effects on popular culture, but also look at how it has changed music itself.

Matt Donahue, conference organizer, issued the following statement: “The Electric Guitar in Popular Culture aims to examine the roles of the electric guitar in cultures throughout the world. It is intended to serve as a space for academics, professionals, hobbyists and fans to engage in dialogue about topics related to the electric guitar and its cultural influence.”

The conference organizers also suggested topics that might be of interest and solicited papers on these topics. Interested parties should send a 300 word abstract describing your individual presentation to with “The Electric Guitar in Popular Culture” in the subject line. Questions for analysis include:

  • How has the electric guitar altered music and the lives of musicians throughout its history?
  • How has the electric guitar impacted local music scenes in northwest Ohio and those throughout the world?
  • Have changing representations of the guitar in popular culture impacted aspiring musicians?
  • How have advances in technology impacted the production of electric guitars for both producers and consumers?
  • How have various cultures and perspectives surrounding the electric guitar shifted over time?

Additional topics for consideration include:

  • Representations in Popular Culture
  • Globalization of the Electric Guitar
  • Current Trends & Artists
  • Ohio Guitar Shows
  • Guitar Collecting
  • Album Artwork
  • Guitar Magazines & Publications
  • Guitar Manufacturing
  • The Guitar and Education
  • Race/Ethnicity and the Electric Guitar
  • Gender/Sexuality and the Guitar
  • Fender vs. Gibson
  • Guitar As Icon
  • The Guitar in Video Games and Toys
  • Genres & Associated Artists

Deadline for submissions is Sunday, December 21, 2014.​

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


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


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.