The metal-academic connection goes mainstream

keith_kahn-harrisThe pace of recognition for metal studies in academia accelerates with an article in the Wall Street Journal. This article covers The Heavy Metal and Popular Culture International Conference which occurred at Bowling Green State University.

In academic circles the movement to grant recognition to heavy metal and to study it has gained momentum recently with the launch of a heavy metal journal, the International Society for Metal Music Studies forming, classical musicians reaching out to metal ones, political recognition of heavy metal as a subculture, and at least one highly talented professor using heavy metal to teach literature. The article points out that from 2000-2011, 224 academic papers were written on metal, with 63 scholarly articles written last year.

“You have to keep that 16-year-old mentality,” said Todd Evans, a former member of GWAR and participant in the Bowling Green State University conference. At the same time, these academics or “metallectuals” as the article dubs them, are attempting to discern more of the meaning behind this intense and powerful subgenre. We who have advocated Hessian Studies for almost two decades are glad to see this welcome development and hope there’s more to come.

Photo Credit: Keith Kahn-Harris, by Eva Roca for the Wall Street Journal.

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Gifted children find comfort in heavy metal

heavy_metal_a_comfort_to_the_bright_childAs reported by The Telegraph and other news sources of quality, “intelligent teenagers often listen to heavy metal music to cope with the pressures associated with being talented,” according to new research.

The original research from the University of Warwick surveyed 1,067 students for their attitudes about family, school, leisure time and media. They found that students who ranked metal above other genres tended to have “lower self-esteem and ideas about themselves.”

Following up on that, the researchers interviewed gifted students to find their attitudes about heavy metal. These gifted students identified heavy metal as a source of catharsis and the release of pressures associated with school. More than a third of the top 5% of students in the UK rated heavy metal as their favorite type of music.

The study suggests that people listen to heavy metal because they are under pressure from what they perceive of daily life. As the researcher in charge of the study stated, “Perhaps the pressures associated with being gifted and talented can be temporarily forgotten with the aid of music. As one student suggests, perhaps gifted people may experience more pressure than their peers and they use the music to purge this negativity.”

This contradicts the notion that heavy metal causes the anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and other behaviors with which it is associated. Furthermore, it implies these behaviors may be the result of higher intelligence people attempting to integrate with our modern world and its declining social standards. Most likely, the research suggests, these are not problems but rational responses to the world around, and are the product of not a lower mindset but a higher one.

As another article pointed out, heavy metal is “a favoured music of 11-19 year olds with lower self-esteem than their peers” but that the “youngsters said they could connect with metal’s ‘politics’.” In other words, this is in response to the world itself and not the internal makeup of these people.

It could just be that if you notice enough of reality, heavy metal is the only music and corresponding sociocultural identity which can make sense out of what a smarter child can perceive.

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Does metal cause violence, or violence cause metal?

the_heavy_moments_in_lifeWe recently had a mass stabbing here in Texas. Whenever we have a mass shooting anywhere in the world, I brace for the inevitable: they’re going to blame heavy metal.

They did it with Columbine. They tried it with a dozen others, blaming metal and/or industrial, even if the music wasn’t really “metal” at all. Since the 1980s, when Judas Priest got sued over supposedly backward-masked lyrics exhorting fans to kill themselves, it has been a common media trope to blame heavy metal for suicide, violence and self-harm.

A writer over at ScienceAlert asks the vital question of whether metal causes violence, or is caused by violence, in the context of an article on metal and self-harm.

First, the article points out that most people grasp the right meaning of song lyrics only 28% of the time on a four-song test, which puts us 3% ahead of guessing randomly. Even backward masking doesn’t seem to make a discernible impression.

The article dissipates a bit after that, attacking opera as likely to inspire suicide, and sort of missing the point there. Opera is about the heavy topics in life, lost lovers and regaining honor and other intense life-decisional topics, much like metal is.

In fact, if metal has a relationship to violence, it’s as neither cause of or caused by, but “aware of,” because metal is for realists who don’t deny the dark side of life as well as the light. If that was spurred on by early exposure to violence, horror, sadness or a lack of parental love, so be it — we all have to “wake up” sometime and face reality.

Fortunately, psychological research shows that they needn’t have bothered. Teenage metal fans are also more likely than most to suffer neglectful parents. That’s a much more credible explanation of why they’re drawn to both self-harming and a musical subculture that expresses their disaffection with mainstream society that has failed them.

From the article, it sounds like metalheads are just those who awaken a bit earlier. Opera fans tend to be in their 40s-80s and are aware of all that life entails, including those “heavy” decisions and heavy moments like saying goodbye to others or choosing aggression over passively accepting fate. But somehow, we never hear the media reasonably discussing this idea after a school shooting.

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Interview: Karl Spracklen of the International Society of Metal Music Studies

karl_spracklen-international_society_for_metal_music_studiesAcademic acceptance of metal accelerates through conferences dedicated to studying metal, professors teaching about heavy metal, investigations of links between heavy metal and religion, and the launch of an international journal for studying metal.

While the metal community may not have found a position on this change as of yet, the very fact of its existence is startling to those of us who experienced metal in the 1980s or 1990s, when society viewed us as outcasts of a likely deranged, intoxicated, criminal and Satanic nature. From the censorship battles of the 1980s, when the Parent’s Music Resource Center (PMRC) attempted to prevent younger people from acquiring metal in record stores and tried to legislate a requirement for lyrical content warning stickers on metal records, to the 1990s bourgeois bohemians wrinkling upper lips at the impolitic and feral nature of metal, society hasn’t liked us.

Luckily, academics don’t see it that way and have forged ahead with metal study, coinciding with a massive “hipness” of metal in the mainstream press and hipster underground. Metalheads might find this interesting because academic study can balance out what social pressures amplify.

We are fortunate to have Dr. Karl Spracklen, Professor of Leisure Studies at Leeds Beckett University, here to tell us more about his projects, the International Society for Metal Music Studies, its conference, and its journal.

Why study heavy metal?

Heavy metal is an important part of modern culture and everyday life, so studying heavy metal enables us to understand both of those things. For me, the interesting thing about heavy metal is the tension between metal’s strong sense of being part of a non-mainstream subculture, and metal’s place in the industry of modern pop and rock music. That’s because I’m essentially a sociologist. Other heavy metal scholars might be interested in the way the music is constructed, or the meaning behind song lyrics, or the history of the scene, or the use of heavy metal as a philosophy or ideology of life. Heavy metal is just a subject field, a lens, through which we can think about problems in other academic disciplines.

You’ve created Metal Music Studies to in part serve as “a bridge between the Academy and the wider genre of metal music writing.” What is the wider genre of metal music writing?

People like you — we want the journal to be read and used by journalists and writers who are fans and critics of heavy metal. We want people from outside the university system, non-academics, to read the academic papers but also get involved in writing articles for the journal themselves. There will be a separate section in the journal for shorter pieces that are not written in the standard, academic style: articles that are more polemical, or articles that respond to key issues in the metal scene,

Do you think academia has been hostile to metal in the past, or simply seen it as being part of the amorphous cloud of “rock” without an identity of its own?

I think there have been academics who have been very dismissive of heavy metal in the past, people who have seen the music as serving no good purpose in everyday life. I think for many of these critics, their own prejudices and tastes have got in the way: metal has always had that blue-collar association, and some cultural academics still can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the diversity and depth of the genre. There are also some academics who think heavy metal is a great evil, and we still see some papers written that claim metal fans are more likely to be criminals and so on. This is just bad science, but every time someone publishes these crude generalisations the press picks up the story. This journal is the journal of the International Society for Metal Music Studies. This learned society is partly for academics who have a professional interest in metal, but also those in the industry who want to be a part of Metal Music Studies, including musicians and journalists, and fans. You should join up. When you do, you will get a subscription to the journal. And all your readers should join! (Advert over.)

You’re taking an inter-disciplinary approach as opposed to a pure musicological one. What are the advantages of this approach, and does metal uniquely require them?

Inter-disciplinarity is the only way you can create a subject field such as metal music studies. If all you do is focus on one discipline you miss half the interest, half the story, and half the explanation. Just think about how and why death metal appeared on the scene in the 1980s. Part of it was technological, such as the practice of certain producers and studios; part of it was musicological, such as the evolution of certain vocal styles, riffs and beats; and part of it was social, a reaction by bands and fans against the mainstream metal of the day. Heavy metal is not unique in requiring inter-disciplinarity to explore it: sport and leisure are other possible subjects of this kind of work, and there are many others.

When you speak of the journal publishing “high-quality, world-class research, theory,” what do you mean by “theory”?

When we mention theory we are suggesting we will publish academic papers that develop new theories about heavy metal, or that use heavy metal to develop new theories in their parent disciplines. A lot of academic work is research (investigating stuff), but not all of it, and we’d like to see papers on theory as well as papers based on new research.

What sort of topics would one research in metal? Does this include statistical approaches?

There are hundreds of possible research topics in metal! In Metal Music Studies, we will be interested in research about the music itself, the industry, the fans, the spaces, the lyrics, the metal media, metal in wider society, metal in different countries, genres, philosophies, histories, ideologies, the politics of metal, metal events, metal and globalisation, just to list a few obvious research topics that come to mind. My own academic interest in heavy metal is the local extreme metal scene in the north of England, elitism in black metal and the ways in which the Norwegian BM scene of the early 1990s has been mythologised.

How important do you think it is to study the history of metal? Does this include the context in which these musicians formulated their music?

The history of metal is a crucial part of metal music studies — and yes, this is musicological history as well as social or cultural history.

Do you think it is appropriate to view metal as a form of deliberate and purposeful art, or more as an entertainment product which reflects community attitudes?

Heavy metal is both of those things, sometimes at the same time, but not always. That’s the reason why it is an interesting subject of study. People in the scene, musicians and fans, talk about heavy metal being something artistically important and culturally authentic, something that stands against everything we dislike about mainstream pop music. But so much of heavy metal is part of that mainstream, and even death and black metal are shaped by the forces of commerce.

What, in your view, is the dividing line between “metal” and “rock”?

Metal is one louder. Actually, there isn’t a clear dividing line, and for many people I think there is a smooth transition. For the purposes of the journal, we will allow histories of rock music as they shed light on metal’s evolution. We will probably also allow in scene studies where there is a connection between rock and metal fans, in the same way we will publish research on the intersections between metal and punk, or metal and goth music.

Do you personally listen to heavy metal? Does study of metal require enjoying metal, and/or does enjoying metal lend anything to the study?

Yes, I listen to a lot of heavy metal, mainly black metal and doom, and local bands from the north of England. I try to get out to gigs when something comes around worth travelling for: the last gig I was at was Enslaved in Manchester, England, with the mighty Winterfylleth in support. I think being a metalhead myself allows me to understand the nuances of the scene, its history and the music. I think that makes my research have a certain depth to it. But I do think it’s quite possible to do research on heavy metal and not personally like it.

Many people view metal fans as people who are social outcasts who are unlikely to pursue education. Why do you think metal fans are so alienated? Do you think your research will bridge this gulf as well?

I think that stereotype about the average metal fans is out-dated. I think metal fans tend to be very intelligent people, and that’s why they are drawn to the music. I’m hoping the journal and the International Society for Metal Music Studies will prove that there are metal fans who are able to articulate their passion for the music while remaining critical and measured.

Are there any sources in the metal community who are doing what you are doing?

None that I know about.

Who are your forebears in this field? What is the history of academic involvement in metal?

Robert Walser and Deena Weinstein were the key academics who first proved that heavy metal was worthy of serious academic study. Keith Kahn-Harris has been important in championing the field.

Prof. Martin Jacobsen is teaching an English class at WTAMU about metal lyrics, and Prof. Josef Hanson is teaching a metal musicological course at University of Rochester. Are you aware of these? How would this type of activity fit in with what you’re doing, and vice-versa?

I wasn’t aware of these, but I’m not surprised. I use metal in my own classes on the sociology of leisure.

Can you tell us more about the upcoming journal, including when it will be available, and what sorts of things to expect in it?

The new journal’s first issue will be out at the end of 2014. The content of the journal will demonstrate the range of metal music studies, so an ideal issue would include perhaps some of the following (these are just ideas, and this is not an actual list of contents):

  • research published by a range of established names, early career researchers and those from parent disciplines;
  • research on the performance and production of metal;
  • research on the analysis of metal lyrics;
  • research on new sub-genres and fandom;
  • research on the evolution of heavy metal from rock music;
  • ethnographic research on a metal scene in Kenya;
  • research on the aesthetics of metal;
  • research on the social psychology of death metal growling;
  • and smaller pieces discussing whether black metal is dead or alive, written by a print journalist and a blogger.
  • The bulk of the content will be original research and theory papers (6-10k size), alongside smaller articles/opinion pieces (1-3k) devoted to discussion of metal by ‘serious’ non-academics (journalists, fans and industry insiders).
  • There will also be book reviews.

How does one join the ISMMS?

At the moment ISMMS does not have membership, as it is not yet set up officially and legally with the authorities in the States. Amber Clifford is the Treasurer so her email contact should be used for anyone who wants to join the Society. When the paperwork is finalised membership details will be confirmed via the ISMMS web-site, the Metpol mailing list, the ISMMS Facebook page and other channels.

Do you accept submissions from people who are not academics, merely metalheads or metal journalists?

The journal will accept submissions from independent scholars and non-academics, and the society will accept such people as members. There will be a separate section in the journal for shorter papers that will allow non-academics to contribute, but there is nothing to stop independent scholars submitting full papers – all full papers will be subject to peer review against the usual standards of academic writing. We want to encourage such contributions.

What can a metal band do to make it easier for them to be studied? Is there a place, for example, where well-known metal bands can sign up to be part of a study, or to put their stamp of approval on the project?

There isn’t a place where metal bands can sign up to be part of research studies — sounds like a great idea, actually! In terms of endorsements, we are hoping some high-profile musicians and band will sign up to the Society and support its aims, and maybe even write in the journal.

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A Short History of Underground Punk and Metal Music

the_ancient_history_of_heavy_metalWe can only know the present by knowing the past. In the case of heavy metal, it is a murky past obscured by both the grandiose rockstar dreams of individuals and the manipulative fingers of a voracious industry.

Metal arose through a complicated narrative worthy of a lost empire, and by knowing this history, we can know more of the music we enjoy today.

Specifically of interest are a number of threads that interweave throughout the history of the genre, both as outside influences and later as internal habits, which influence its twisting path from something a lot like rock to a genre entirely separate.

This story then is a tale of how many became one, or how they found something in common among themselves, and how it has taken years of creative people hammering on the parts to meld them into one single thing, known as heavy metal.

However, no one really likes a lengthy essay. Instead, here’s metal’s history the best way it can be experienced: by listening to it.

1968-1970 — the origins

Three threads ran alongside each other: punk, proto-metal and progressive rock. All three are on the edge of being metal, since the type of progressive rock in question is raw and disturbing and not of the “everybody be happy love friends” hippie style. This is music that thinks our society is disturbed, and that therefore many of the values we reject are worth a closer look. Some is fatalist-nihilist, like the self-destructive tendencies of punk, where progressive rock is more clinical, and metal more epic (looking for meaning in the ancients, in nature, the occult and conflict).

Iggy and the Stooges – Raw Power
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6DIIPeUctP4

Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_wnmai0tjI

King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H678XUB77OA

1971-1981 — maturation

A lot happened here, but basically, metal became more like its ancestors (hard rock), progressive rock faded out, and punk got more rock-music-like. The punk from this era is more like normal rock music than the outsider stuff it originally was, but also gains some aggression from Motorhead, who may technically be metal but were born of a progressive rock band (Hawkwind) and sounded very punk and inspired the next generation of punks to be louder, lewder, etc.

PUNK

Punk music arose from the earlier work by Iggy and the Stooges, but formalized itself into a pop genre that used guitars more like keyboards than like the guitar fireworks of conventional guitar-intense bands like Cream and The Who.

Ramones – Ramones
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7PEzQQYWag

Misfits – Static Age
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40SM7SpmX1Y

NWOBHM

An exception to the metal of the period was NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal). DIY and extreme for the day, it left behind the Led Zeppelin-styled “hard rock” vein of metal and got away from Sabbath’s detuned doom and gloom to make energetic, mythological but also somewhat excited-about-life metal.

Motorhead – Motorhead
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xa88CK3DwUo

Satan – Court in the Act
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9cj07nHVWRU

Angel Witch – Angel Witch

Iron Maiden – Killers
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YKblxKglTY

Judas Priest – Sin After Sin
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DTBZK2-N_Gs

1982-1987 — the peak

Punk got its act together, in part inspired by the more commercial bands like Ramones and Sex Pistols. This is where hardcore punk really happened. That in turn spurred a revolution because music had finally left rock behind, and by mating the nihilistic (no inherent rules) composition of punk with the longer-phrase riffs of metal (derived from horror movie soundtracks), the riff styles of death metal and black metal were born, and the progressive song structures of speed metal evolved. At the same time, essentialist movements in punk hybrids (thrash) and metal (doom) emerged, sending many back to the roots of these subgenres.

HARDCORE PUNK

Discharge – Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DmSbqmJaig

The Exploited – Death Before Dishonour

Amebix – Arise!

A second generation arose in the USA (all of the above bands are UK):

Cro – Mags – The Age of Quarrel
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUSzM9GB9s4

Black Flag – Damaged
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61q-yAtU5-E

Minor Threat – Discography
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAEzAjFZPys

1983 — the big branching: speed, thrash and death/black

1983 is a crucial year, and so it gets its own entry. Metal and punk cross-influenced each other. The result was a lot more metal. If you’re familiar with nu-metal or more radio style metal, start with speed metal, as it’s the most like really violent rock music with influences from progressive rock in song structure. If you like messy punk (!!!) try some thrash. And if you’ve already given your soul to Satan, try death/black. With death/black, there’s also some influences from progressive rock, although they’re balanced with punk technique which makes for a chaotic spawn.

SPEED METAL

Speed metal took the complex song forms of progressive rock, the muted-strum guitar riffing of the NWOBHM bands like Blitzkrieg, and added to it the high energy of punk hardcore and came up with songs that kept getting faster and faster. This shocked people of the day, and was the primary reason speed metal bands were different from the NWOBHM that came before them, hence it was dubbed “speed metal.”

Metallica – Kill ‘Em All

Nuclear Assault – Game Over
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KrG8vQEVYwo

Megadeth – Rust in Peace
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4l9WbnqFSw8

Testament – The New Order
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VqE3wz1J1ik

THRASH

Thrash is a hybrid genre that takes punk songs and puts metal riffs in them. Its name arises from “thrasher,” or skater, and those were the people who embraced this style of music that was more extreme than metal or hardcore at the time. While it leans toward punk, it used metal riffs, and wrote short songs that in the punk style lambasted society but in the metal style tended to mythologize the resulting conflict.

DRI – Dirty Rotten LP
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6XteJQhpc4

Cryptic Slaughter – Convicted
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=323jnOT-SSo

Corrosion of Conformity – Animosity
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBkB5vEP8mM

GRINDCORE

Like thrash, this was a hybrid of metal and punk that leaned toward the punk side for song structures, and the metal side for riffs.

Napalm Death – Scum

Terrorizer – World Downfall
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSLzeoVkkBw

Repulsion – Horrified
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjRr3JG6A38

Carcass – Reek of Putrefaction

PROTO-DEATH/BLACK METAL

In 1983, these bands contributed just about equally to the new sound. In the largest part inspired by NWOBHM like Venom and Motorhead filtered through aggro-hardcore like GBH and Discharge, the unholy triad invented underground metal to come.

Bathory – The Return
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xAVpAPHehc

Hellhammer – Apocalyptic Raids
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4zQCBAzM8ck

Slayer – Show No Mercy
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_X5nW4A3II

DEATH METAL

Once proto-death/black metal had occurred, people began to expand on the formula. One side decided to make it more technical, and riffy, and taking after Hellhammer’s “Triumph of Death” and the increasingly mind-bending riffing of Slayer, made it use mazes of mostly chromatic phrasal riffs. On the other side, some wanted to preserve the atmosphere of the simpler songs that Bathory and Hellhammer had to offer, but injected melody and loosened up the drums to keep it from being as clear and rigid as death metal. While that latter group went off to figure out black metal, the death metal team experienced a boom of creativity and excess during 1985-1995.

Possessed – Seven Churches

Sepultura – Morbid Visions/Bestial Devastation
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=brf71GAwavU

Necrovore – Divus Te Mortuus
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R09JrN9aiso

Morbid Angel – Abominations of Desolation
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCP-No1DcQI

PROTO-BLACK METAL

While death metal was just starting up, other bands were trying to figure out how to make melodic ambient metal, structured equally after early melodic metal and free-floating songs like Slayer’s “Necrophiliac.” The result had chaotic drums, deliberately bad sound quality to avoid becoming a trend or something which could be imitated, and high shrieking vocals to death metal’s guttural growl. Taking a cue from Bathory, Slayer and Hellhammer, it also embraced the occult and esoteric and rejected conventional social norms and religions.

Sarcofago – INRI

Blasphemy – Fallen Angel of Doom

Merciless – The Awakening

BLACK METAL

As black metal matured, it moved into Norway, possibly inspired by the previous generation of melodic Swedish death metal bands who used high sustain through heavy distortion to make melodic songs which featured less constant riff-changing than the bigger bands from overseas.

Immortal – Diabolical Full Moon Mysticism

Mayhem – De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas

Darkthrone – Under a Funeral Moon
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h08zTR0F-qQ

Burzum – Burzum
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ICNIRMH-8jA

Emperor – Wrath of the Tyrant

Gorgoroth – Pentagram
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHfgXh1506Q

Enslaved – Vikinglgr Veldi

This is just the beginning; there’s a lot more after this in all of the genres, which kept developing in their own ways. This is only an introduction to the history of it all, and is not designed to be comprehensive…

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Heavy metal linked with classical music, academia

heavy_metal-classical

For many years, metal was viewed as being outside the society which it comments on. Recently, as metal has bent closer toward the mainstream, it has become more accepted, which has led to some metal bands going farther in the direction they were originally going.

As an example, academia shunned metal at the start of the 1990s, but after the work of Deena Weinstein and Robert Walser, began to be taken more seriously. Now, a conference dedicated to heavy metal exists, as does a journal of heavy metal studies. Metal is seeing more acceptance from the world.

In return, metal is starting to give back in a big way. Former Anthrax guitarist, current Red Lamb guitarist and autism awareness activist Dan Spitz will be attending the metal conference to serve as a keynote speaker along with noted academics and journalists who have covered metal. Worldwide attendance will make this a legendary event.

In other news, people are finally making the connection between heavy metal and classical music. As this site has noted for over two decades, metal and classical share many attributes, the most common being a tendency to use phrasal riffs/motifs to create complex narrative song constructions in which each song structure is specific to the material referenced in the song, much like the form of poetry or literature.

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra composer-in-residence Edward Top notes three similarities between metal and classical: both are dedicated to releasing energy, a “shredder” tradition in both and shared enjoyment among musicians, and that both are “outsider” genres to the mainstream, with both coming from camps of people who are probably too smart or too nerdy (I have no idea what he’s talking about) for their own good.

It’s gratifying to see metal get the recognition it has deserved for many years, and for the classical tradition in metal to be acknowledged, at the same time academics are taking metal seriously and digging into its philosophical and social roots. It may turn out that despite years of downturned-mouth condemnation of metal, society is finally taking it seriously and may even learn from what it has revealed.

Photo: Wayne Leidenfrost, Vancouver Sun

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Heavy Metal invades college

heavy_metal_in_academiaAs further indication of academia embracing heavy metal, The Toledo Free Press reports that Bowling Green State University’s Department of Popular Culture is hosting a 4 day long conference on the subject. Dubbed “The Heavy Metal and Popular Culture International Conference”, it will feature lectures, discussions, and demonstrations on a wide range of subjects, ultimately relating back to heavy metal.

“The focus [of the conference] is on heavy metal, music and culture and it’s completely scholarly,” [organizer Brian] Hickam said.

The topics covered range from “Metal as a Cultural Practice” (Hessians?), “Heavy Metal as Resistance”, to “Landscape and Mythology as Heavy Metal Fashion”, and “Reactions to Crossover/Thrash Metal in Punk and Metal Scenes”, among others.

Of particular note is the lecture: “Metal After Metal Studies: What Comes Next?”, which recognizes the fact that metal has become relatively stagnant in recent years, even though its media popularity has never been greater.

“What we’re seeing is that while innovation is still possible of metal, we’re not seeing much in the way of historical progress,” [the author] said. “It’s quite possible heavy metal will simply exhaust itself.”

The symposium will be held April 4-7. Prospective participants can visit the department’s website for more information.

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“Metal Music Studies” journal launches academia into heavy metal

metal_music_studiesWith its first issue due in 2015, the realization of Metal Music Studies represents a long and difficult path from the origins of metal study in the 1980s but shows how far metal has come.

Other than a handful of academics, few have chosen to explore the subcultures and values of metal music, preferring to group it into the broader cloud of popular music. The past few years have seen a convergence of academia and the more literate of popular metal journalism, with academic symposiums and publications intermingling with popular books on metal and its history.

Metal Music Studies promises a bridge between these two worlds. “To publish high-quality, world-class research, theory and shorter, timely debates that serve as a bridge between the Academy and the wider genre of metal music writing,” it states as part of its goal.

It further notes a desire to be a hub for for the International Society of Metal Music Studies (ISMMS), and “vehicle to promote the development of metal music studies as an interdisciplinary, international subject field.” This academe-speak means roughly what you might expect, which is that since metal music studies does not fit neatly into any particular field, it must bridge multiple fields, including ethics, musicology and philosophy.

The journal states its purpose to “be the focus for research and theory in metal music studies – a multidisciplinary (and increasingly interdisciplinary) subject field that engages with a range of parent disciplines, including (but not limited to) sociology, musicology, humanities, cultural studies, geography, philosophy, psychology, history, natural sciences.”

For those of us who have labored for years under a desire to see metal music given more serious study, and who have believed that this art form has more to communicate that adolescent rebellion and profitability, it is gratifying to see this journal getting ready to launch.

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Satan – Life Sentence

satan-life_sentenceBack in the 1980s, the wisdom was that Satan had something to do with the founding of speed metal, along with Blitzkrieg and a few others who got into the choppier, more muted strum side of NWOBHM.

Having two members go on to avant-progressive speed metal act Skyclad did not hurt the legend. Thirty years later, Satan return with Life Sentence, an album that is musical enough for power metallers but uses the same efficient mix of speed and classic riffing that made Judas Priests’s Painkiller such an enduring favorite.

In addition, this band has internal quality control, which is something that seemed to go out the window with the rise of MP3s. This album fits together as an album, not as a concept album but as enough and varied interpretations of a style to make a consistent but not repetitive package.

Riffs on Life Sentence are of known general types but are not recognizably derived from anything else, and while they are generally used in pop-style song structures, tend to illustrate the theme of each song in sound. In addition, Satan use riffs as archetypes and vary them for fills or changes in song direction. This distinguishes them from many of the more template-based heavy metal bands.

The strong underpinning of riffs supports a subtly jazz-influenced percussion that mimics the guitar while trying to stay as much in the background as possible until it is time for a strategically interesting fill, at which point it explodes. Over this the melodic vocals of Brian Ross, who also sang in Blitzkrieg, surge in both full operatic style and a more surly half-chant.

Lead guitar fireworks are minimized but like everything else on this album, appear when it helps push the song along. However, songwriting on its own is strong, with each song having a clear theme that is played out in the tension between verse and chorus riffs. Nothing sounds hasty or ill-thought; it all fits together and moves as one.

For metalheads who like musicality but might want something more aggressive than your average power metal band, Satan offer a powerful competitor that does not fall into excesses, but keeps its own spirit alive. Life Sentence does not sound like it came out in the 1980s, but also, evokes much of the strength and beauty of the music of that era. This should be a major contender for the thinking metalhead vote in 2013.

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Is metal “too nihilistic”?

fenrizA non-Hessian friend once pointed out to me that metal music is essentially avoidance. With its nihilistic outlook it seemed to him to be just shuffling meaning around, never really reaching a conclusion or be able to produce a complete artwork.

Faustian? Pah! It may enjoy details of the world’s harsh realities, the death and gore and decay, but only because the transient nature of death allows for constant change, consequently avoiding all meaning. Which means we may contently pull back in some basement, still fearing reality as a whole. That’s what you get with bands obsessed with death.

Classical? Pfft! How could it be? Metal is too sensuous, delving in creepy subjects and gritty riffs without any sense of spirit or abstract idea.

Unsurprisingly, I think this is writing it off too quickly.

Metal is certainly content with the world, but does that make it materialistic? It does not like society perhaps; metal loathes its stale “bourgeois” mentality, yelling “Fake! Fake!”, and it loves the hedonistic.

But metal nevertheless hungers for the epic, a “heavy” greatness and seems to enjoy the game that nature is playing. Metal found that society was materially flourishing, but also found decay in the souls of the bored everyday man, echoing the troubled mind of Fenriz of Darkthrone who loves art that comes from “the exhaustion of easy life”.

To awaken us, metal explored natural decay. But not as a materialist act: needless to say, with their obscure imagery, dark riffs and haunting vocals, metal bands created a mysterious world that seemed more honest, more real than the life in any Western metropolis. Lauren Wise writes:

Heavy metal seemed just like classical music to me: It was ritualistic, accepting of death and change, questioned authority and normalcy, and satisfied that need for an overture or reconsideration. It was as if classical and metal both quenched my need to understand the positive strength and ultimately horrific nature of the world. Metal may be less refined, but it still seeks to express that philosophical assumption about life.

Metal found life in death – initially as a warning, later as full-on Romanticist nature worship – and that beautiful paradox sums up my answer to my friend: Metal seeks essence, it does not avoid it – but it takes no prisoners.

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