Death Metal Underground

Why the art world rejected metal

June 22, 2014 –

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Metal took its time to be accepted by social institutions. At the outset, metal appeared to most as another variety of rock. But with NWOBHM it distinguished itself and then went underground with speed metal. During those years, society rejected metal first for its repugnance to conservative moral ideals, and next for its alienation of liberal social ideals. It thus made itself friendless in a time where having political clout matters.

One reason for a lack of acceptance by some areas, such as the art world, is that metal is not controllable. As Bruce Dickenson (Iron Maiden) said in a recent interview:

The closest the “art establishment” ever came to embracing metal was punk. The reason they embraced punk was because it was rubbish and the reason they embraced rubbish was because they could control it. They could say: “Oh yeah, we’re punk so we can sneer at everybody. We can’t play our fucking instruments, but that means we can make out that this whole thing is some enormous performance art.” Half the kids that were in punk bands were laughing at the art establishment, going: “What a fucking bunch of tosspots. Thanks very much, give us the money and we’ll fuck off and stick it up our nose and shag birds.” But what they’d really love to be doing is being in a heavy metal band surrounded by porn stars.”

During the 1980s, Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) demanded warning stickers on music with content that advocated drugs, casual or perverse sex, violence and mayhem. Naturally this included most of heavy metal (sex) and most of speed metal (violence). Until rap music came along and blew those old standards out of the water by making most of heavy metal’s worst moments look tame, a real threat of economic censorship — forcing up the cost and legal risk of selling heavy metal, thus encouraging record stores to quit selling it — hovered over heavy metal.

Although the transition to online sales (1998) and resulting lack of control helped, another factor changed which put metal into hyperdrive as far as social acceptance: it found an audience in mainstream politics. As the Washington Post wrote in “Heavy Metal Gets Socially Conscious”:

More than three decades after Black Sabbath conjured images of the dark arts, heavy metal is growing up. The genre is increasingly incorporating social and political messages into its dense power chords.

The art world did not accept metal in the past because it could not be controlled. Neither did the moral world, nor the political world. Now metal has created a hybrid of itself — the indie rock, lite-jazz and grindcore infused postmodern metal genres — that is artistically acceptable, morally tame and politically acceptable. The question remains: does that mean that it is now controlled?

Metal Music Studies journal now on sale

June 3, 2014 –

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The journal Metal Music Studies put forth by the International Society for Metal Music Studies is now on sale at this location. Individual subscriptions are £36 per year. The journal aims to fulfill the following mission statement:

To provide an intellectual hub for the International Society of Metal Music Studies and a vehicle to promote the development of metal music studies;

To be the focus for research and theory in metal music studies – a multidisciplinary (and 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;

To publish high-quality, world-class research, theory and shorter articles that cross over from the industry and the scene;

To be a world leader in interdisciplinary studies and be a unique resource for metal music studies.

Interview: Jeremy Wallach, co-editor of Metal Rules the Globe: Heavy Metal Music around the World

June 2, 2014 –

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Jeremy Wallach made a name for himself by studying metal before it was cool, and he has expanded upon it by taking his studies worldwide. As co-editor of Metal Rules the Globe: Heavy Metal Music around the World, he explored the impact of metal on different cultures and the impact of those cultures on metal around the world. In addition, he has written numerous articles on the study of metal from many other perspectives.

As a professor in the Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University, Wallach investigates many aspects of popular music, which led to his own book Modern Noise, Fluid Genres: Popular Music in Indonesia, 1997-2001. Those who have followed the development of metal academia may remember him from his numerous articles, presentations at metal conferences, and strong ties with others in the community. We were lucky to get a few minutes with him to ask some of the pointed questions that a metalhead might want to know of a metalhead academic…

Were you a metalhead before you became an academic? If so, what drew you to metal at that time?

I’m 43 and grew up outside of Philly. Like almost everybody of my age and background, I spent my teens mostly listening to rock music. My favorite band when I was thirteen was Rush and my favorite song from Moving Pictures was “Witch Hunt,” the heaviest track on the album. From there I branched out into the harder stuff: AC/DC, Priest, Maiden, BÖC, etc. By senior year of high school, I was listening to the likes of Anthrax, Slayer, Cryptic Slaughter, SOD, and Dead Brain Cells. A fairly normal, demented progression, really. As for what drew me to it, I suppose that could end up becoming a very long essay! In a nutshell, I was attracted to the music’s intelligence, complexity, social relevance, and brutality. It was music that for me told the truth about life.

You have a lengthy list of academic publications and credentials. What made you think to combine metal and academia, and research on this specific topic?

By my senior year of college, I was convinced of two things: one, metal was a valuable and compelling cultural form that was completely misunderstood by the adult world, and two, the approaches to music and culture that I had discovered in my ethnomusicology and anthropology classes could be used to explain the importance of metal to outsiders.

Being a part of metal studies has been a learning experience. One thing I’ve learned is that in 2014 metal is more diverse and inclusive than I ever would have thought possible twenty-odd years ago. Metal’s message has more global currency than anyone could have suspected when the genre first coalesced. The consequence of this has been a field of study that has more relevance to the contemporary world than the vast majority of new fields that focus on popular culture phenomena that had their start in the 70s and 80s. One of the most challenging topics in metal studies at this point is social class. Metal’s blue-collar fan base is often difficult to locate in the 21st century flourishing and diversification of the music, especially outside of the UK, New Zealand, and Australia. We should never lose sight of the fact that it was working-class folks, people without much formal education, who set the template for heavy metal’s musical sophistication, aesthetics, and dark vision.

I was attracted to the music’s intelligence, complexity, social relevance, and brutality. It was music that for me told the truth about life.

Some of your research appears to take an “ethnographic” approach, which is a study of culture. Do you consider heavy metal a culture? If so, does it inherit properties from a broader culture, or is it a wholly self-owned entity?

I was trained as a cultural anthropologist and an ethnomusicologist in graduate school. Ethnography is the primary mode of research in these fields as they are currently practiced. “Deep hanging out” is my favorite definition of ethnography, although usually it’s quite a bit more systematic than that. Basically it involves long-term engagement with a finite group of people, gradually learning to see and experience the world the way they do. You have to master local languages and idioms, really be able to listen, and be willing to be changed by what people tell you. It’s difficult and not everyone can do it, as you can’t really maintain any sort of comfort zone. Metal ethnographers spend lots of time at shows, clubs, and recording studios, but also in cars, bars, record stores, and anywhere else metalheads gather. Pierre Hecker’s book on Turkish metal is an excellent example of a book-length ethnographic study of heavy metal.

There is a range of theories regarding how music cultures like metal interface with the “parent cultures” in which they are embedded. It’s more common now to refer to metal collectivities as “scenes” than as “subcultures.” This is mostly because of advances in cultural theory that emphasize how no culture can be a “wholly self-owned entity” of homogeneous values. All cultures have porous boundaries and are composed of contested meanings. Accordingly, metal music scenes encompass contradictory sets of values, from the celebration of virtuosity and freedom of prog to the despair and resignation of doom to the nihilism and misanthropy of black metal (etc.), and within each of these subgenres there are internal tensions as well, as most readers here know. Some of these competing values echo those of dominant culture (male supremacy, individualism), others resist it (anti-religion, anti-war, pro-drunken revelry). Even the values that seem to fit with dominant culture are not passively inherited but instead tend to be actively renegotiated and rearticulated to fit the conditions of the lives of the actual metalheads composing, performing, listening to, and interpreting metal.

That of your work that I could find online seems to emphasize spaces, both real and virtual, in not only the work but the audience. For example, your analysis of a rock club emphasizes spaces by role (shades of Christopher Alexander) and look at social/cultural separation between bands and fans in an insightful way. What are spaces? Can they be psychological or even artistic? Where do you find them in metal?

Metal culture has always been about claiming space. At the beginning of his book Running with the Devil, Robert Walser writes, “Metal energizes the body, transforming space and social relations.” It’s kind of a throwaway line in the first chapter, but like so much of what’s in that book, it hits the nail on the head. Steve Waksman’s research focuses on how metal’s powerful amplification made it the ideal music to fill arenas, while Keith Kahn-Harris’s work brings attention to the other side of the of the phenomenon: the proliferation of precarious spaces around the world for underground metal that becomes understood as a connected global network of unstable scenes. Emma Baulch has written about the importance of “territorializing” and thus localizing the underground metal scene in Bali, Indonesia, of claiming space, as Walser puts it, “in the name of a heavy metal community.” Nelson Varas Díaz has looked at practices of temporary space annexation by Puerto Rico’s proud and longstanding but highly marginalized metal scene. In all these cases “metal space” is anyplace marked by metal iconography, filled with metal sounds, and inhabited by metalheads. Seems obvious, but what’s not is what exactly goes on in metal space, which can only go on if metal space first exists. Lately I’ve become intrigued by the possibility that a type of metal space exists whenever two or more metalheads are interacting, regardless of whether the music or the iconography are in fact present at that moment. Like, I could be wearing a suit jacket at an academic conference and join some similarly-garbed graduate students in an intense conversation about Candlemass and somehow the space is transformed.

You have been a featured speaker at several recent metal conferences. How does it feel to be part of a rising academic movement? What do you think made metal finally accepted into academia?

It’s been great, of course. Metal studies appears to be an idea whose time has come. This is both a good and potentially problematic thing. Why now? An astonishing number of us were born around the time the first Sabbath record came out. We’re the first completely heavy metal generation, and now we’re finally old and established enough to change the conversation about metal in the mainstream press, rock criticism, and in scholarship. The last of these took the longest, due to the long slog of the academic profession, but we’ve made remarkable progress since 2008, thanks in part to the ease of international communication. There aren’t that many metal scholars in the world, and we come from Germany, Brazil, Finland, Turkey, New Zealand, the UK, California, Massachusetts, all over the place, but we keep in touch with each other, and the undeniable vitality and high intellectual caliber of our conferences and publications have won over more than a few formerly skeptical colleagues and administrators at our universities and in the wider academic world.

What do you think is the future of metal in academia, and how do you expect to support this with your own research?

I think metal studies has a bright future. Twenty-two years after completing my undergraduate thesis, it’s nice to see metal getting some respect. The truth is, we’ve barely scratched the surface. Metal matters — a lot — to tens of millions of people around the world and all indications are that it will not only continue to do so but that it will continue to win new converts in places like Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, India, and China, as well as among future generations in places already colonized. That means the study of heavy metal will matter, too, whether one likes it or not, at least for the segment of metal’s audience who cares about intellectual issues.

To answer the second part of your question, in my recent work, I have quite self-consciously tried to produce things that will be useful to scholars just beginning their research. The “Local Metal” piece I wrote with Allie Levine on how to study scenes (reprinted in Controversies and Countercultures) is an example of that.

What, in your view, is the (apparently) enduring appeal of heavy metal, such that it is now more than four decades old and going quite strong?

There are many schools of thought regarding metal’s appeal across the world. Some of the most common explanations, the “teenage need to rebel” and whatnot, are facile and condescending to the music’s audience. I would prefer not to speculate on this question. But I will say this: don’t forget that metal is great art. Metalheads listen to metal because they find it aesthetically compelling. To ignore this obvious explanation is to invalidate, to pathologize, the aesthetics of the fans—which I would never do, because I am a fan.

If metal was just about fulfilling male adolescent power fantasies, its appeal would be mainstream, not subcultural.

Much of your research seems to focus on masculinity in metal. Does metal have its own concept of masculinity? Is this concept stifled by society at large?

I’ve lately come to the conclusion that debates about masculinity and metal suffer from some significant shortcomings. It has become commonplace to maintain that metal somehow compensates men for the power they lack that they feel they should have in a patriarchal society that denies it to them. I have made similar statements myself. But this definitely oversimplifies things. What “men” are we talking about here? Young men? Working-class men, maybe? Men like that do have power — powerful bodies, powerful minds, power to defend themselves and others. There are external forces who want to harness that tremendous power and transform those who possess it into mindless worker bees or killing machines. Metal songs often advise people to beware of those forces; I think the music is also more about using and valuing the power one does have than fantasizing about the power one lacks.

Furthermore, such assertions make metal redundant. We already have video games and blockbuster action movies and in fact practically all mainstream popular culture that isn’t centrally concerned with the myth of romance. If metal was just about fulfilling male adolescent power fantasies, its appeal would be mainstream, not subcultural. Thus to understand metal, we need to dig deeper.

To its fans, metal is a powerful and empowering music; it gives listeners a sense of control over their own lives. That power is not always experienced as masculine, however, or as gendered at all. Metal’s detractors often charge that the music glorifies the dark side of power in its portrayal of war atrocities, serial killers, state oppression, nuclear destruction, etc. But depiction is not endorsement…I’ve gone on long enough already, but I’ll end just by saying that metal’s view of power is ambivalent, alert to both its allure and its perpetual dark side to which no one is ever immune. It addresses its audience as ambivalent empowered agents, never as emasculated victims. Some fans of course simply embrace the dark side, disavowing ambivalence. That’s one possible interpretive strategy, though it’s not the most common.

You are an acknowledged expert in Southeast Asian, specifically Indonesian, metal and culture. What drew you to this area? How is metal from this area similar to that in other areas? Are there differences?

Indonesia has had a vibrant, massive metal scene for three decades, quite possibly the largest in Asia. The scene is connected to those in two adjacent Southeast Asian nations, Malaysia and Singapore, which are similarly quite active and share a (somewhat) mutually intelligible language, Indonesian/Malay. Since, until the quite recent advent of folk metal, English was the only acceptable language for international metal, lots of bands from all three countries sing in that language, too. Since I began studying the Indonesian scene about twenty years ago (visiting there the first time in 1997), I’ve compared it to other metal scenes around the planet. I’ve found that Indonesia really is remarkable for the size, longevity, and dedication of its metal scene, which is older and a great deal larger than the burgeoning metal scenes in most other Asian nations (with the exception of Japan, of course). It’s also perhaps unique in that Joko Widodo, the current front-runner in the July Indonesian presidential election, is a proud, outspoken headbanger. So Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, might be the origin of the first metalhead world leader. Which of course raises the question, why is metal so big there? Still working on that one…

Do you have any personal favorite metal bands? If so, what are they?

Let me preface this by saying that my listening preferences are eclectic and I try to listen to both fashionable and unfashionable subgenres of metal. (For example, I really like Head Phones President, a Japanese group whose sound owes an obvious debt to the most vilified of American nü-metal bands; I also dig some power metal.) I’m also hardly esoteric in my tastes, and if I find out about an amazing obscure band it’s either serendipitous or, more likely, a recommendation from one of my students. All that said, of course! Recent discoveries: I got to hear some great bands in Puerto Rico back in March, including Tavú, Organic, and doom metal scene stalwarts Dantesco. Erico from Dantesco is currently my favorite vocalist, along with Silent Hell’s Kin Lin. Vallendusk’s a great atmospheric black metal band that sounds to me like a sort of a cross between Alcest and Panopticon, and they’re from Indonesia! I should also mention Winterhymn, who I saw on tour with Paganfest—great Viking/folk metal from my home state of Ohio. I don’t know what their story is, but their music is quite impressive and represents a sadly underappreciated subgenre in the States. As for personal favorites, mostly predictable I’m afraid: Chthonic, Fates Warning, Sabbath, Slayer, Maiden, Priest, Amorphis, Anthrax, Sepultura, St. Vitus, and the Indonesian bands Seringai, Puppen, and Slowdeath.

I will say this: don’t forget that metal is great art. Metalheads listen to metal because they find it aesthetically compelling.

Where is the best place for someone to go to read more of your work?

My website has an online CV with links to PDFs of many of my publications. The articles are there with the permission of the individual publishers, so not everything is up, but it’s a good place to start. Once I started putting things on the page, I started finding many more references to my work in the Indonesian news media, not to mention student essays posted online. Unfortunately a lot of what I’ve written is still hard to get a hold of for anyone without access to an academic library, though I know a number of public libraries now carry Metal Rules the Globe. Readers of this interview can always contact me directly, especially if they’ve actually read this far!

What’s next for you? You’ve got a book forthcoming and are rumored to be working on new research. Can you tell us what future directions you’re pursuing?

Esther Clinton and I are working on another edited volume, sort of a follow-up to MRTG. I probably shouldn’t say much about it, since it’s still in the beginning phase. I also think it might upset some people. Additionally, I’m working on various pieces of writing that develop ideas mentioned in this interview involving power, ethics, and sociality in metal culture. There’s other stuff, always more than I can manage.

Thank you for taking the time to do this.

You’re quite welcome. Metal on.

Heavy metal arises most frequently in wealthy nations

May 28, 2014 –

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The Atlantic’s CityLab writes how [heavy metal, the] music of disillusion and despair is, strangely, biggest in countries with very high quality of life:

Heavy metal is a strange case, then. The music sprouted originally from working-class kids in economically ravaged, deindustrialized places like Birmingham, England. Even today, it seems to be most popular among disadvantaged, alienated, working-class kids.

But take a look at the map below, which I wrote about two years ago, and have been thinking again about over the past couple of months. It tracks the number of heavy metal bands per 100,000 residents using data from the Encyclopaedia Metallum. The genre holds less sway in the ravaged postindustrial places of its birth, but remains insanely popular in Scandinavian countries known for their relative wealth, robust social safety nets, and incredibly high quality of life.

This should surprise no one. Heavy metal is not a reaction to external physical challenges like poverty, but a reaction to cultural decay. It exclusively arises in industrial societies, as did punk, because our problem is not that we do not have options but that we — in the view of these artists — picked the wrong options. Heavy metal is music of internal criticism of a society that believes it has lost sight of life itself in the midst of its own opinions, economics and other proxies.

As written in The Heavy Metal FAQ:

Heavy metal inherited all of this through a modern form because of its desire to escape the cognitive dissonance reaction to modern life. In part, this impulse comes from the metalhead who realizes that he or she is basically powerless, except in a future time when predictions about the negative nature of modern society will come true. Of course, in the now, parents brush that aside and go shopping, stockpiling retirement funds so they can carelessly wish their children a good life before disappearing into managed care facilities with 24-hour cable movie channels. A more fundamental part of this dissident realism is creative. People who see most of society going into denial because they cannot handle their low social status, the dire future of human overpopulation and industrialization, and the negative motivations hiding beneath social pretense, aka “cognitive dissonance,” will often mourn most for the opportunities lost when people value putting their heads in the sand more than finding beauty in life. It is the convergence of these ideas that creates the violent and masculine but sensitive, Romantic side to metal: it is a genre of finding beauty in darkness, order in chaos, wisdom in horror, and restoring humanity to a path of sanity — by paying attention to the “heavy” things in life that, because they are socially denied, are left out of the discussion but continue to shape it through most people’s desire to avoid mentioning them.

This same principle underlies classic European and Greco-Roman art and music, the idea of an aggressive and warlike but wise and sensitive motivation that is both religious and scientific, peaceful and belligerent, because it understands a principle of order to the universe and asserts it because it is beautiful in that it is a “meta-good,” or the harmonious result of darkness and light in conflict. For this reason, it is not moral in the sense of judging as good or evil, and neither fits into the hippie “peace, love and hedonism” approach nor the conservative, market- bound ignorance-is-bliss smoke and mirrors of mainstream music and bourgeois art. Unlike any other musical principle, the one thing that unites the varied borrowings from baroque, rock, jazz, blues, folk, country, classical and electronic music that form heavy metal is this Romantic principle of doing what is right not in a moral sense to the individual, but in a sense of the larger questions of human adaptation to the universe, the conceptual root of “heavy” in metal and what throughout history has been called by a simple syllable: “vir,” the root of virtue in a sense older than a modern moral interpretation as chastity. Vir is doing what is right by the order of the universe discerned by asking the “heavy” questions, and speaks to an abstract structure of right as opposed to an aesthetic one, where the individual picks the non- threatening as an option to the threatening.

The point behind heavy metal is to discover the life that is denied. That is the “heavy,” or that which acknowledges existential doubts and fears instead of burying them behind socially popular ideas. This is why heavy metal is such outsider music: it sees most people as delusional because they deny the mechanics of life itself because those mechanics are dark, so it embraces the darkness to show us the wisdom found within.

Call for contributions to a new edited volume Black Shabbes: Jews & Metal edited by Shamma Boyarin and Keith Kahn-Harris

May 20, 2014 –

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When the guitarist Marty Friedman auditioned for Megadeth, singer Dave Mustaine loved his playing but told his manager to get Friedman to change his name because Jews were ‘not metal’

Can Jews ‘be metal’?

Certainly, crude stereotypes of the Jewish male – weak, bookish, awkward, hypochondriac – and crude stereotypes of the metal male – sexually promiscuous, loud and tough – seem to be in conflict. Yet not only do these stereotypes hide the considerable diversity amongst both Jews and metallers (to say nothing of their gendered nature), there is a significant history of Jewish involvement in metal culture.

Jews have featured prominently in significant numbers of prominent metal bands, including Kiss, Anthrax, Biohazard, Death and Guns N Roses. Moreover, in at least some cases, the Jewish backgrounds of metal musicians has impacted on their careers, as in the networks of communal and family support that Anvil drew on during their long commercial decline. Further, there have also been metal bands that have drawn on Jewish sources and themes, including Israeli acts such as Orphaned Land and Salem and a number of more obscure artists in the US.

Yet whilst there has been a more than nominal Jewish involvement in metal, the significance and impact of this involvement is much less clear. What might looking at metal through a Jewish lens and Jewishness through a metal lens bring to light? A sustained consideration of the relationship between Jews and metal will illuminate this hidden history while at the same time raising wider issues in the nature of Jewish and metal identity and culture.

We invite contributions from academics, critics, writers musicians and others, for a volume dedicated to explore the connection between metal and Jews from a number of different perspectives. We welcome both non-fiction and fiction.

Themes can include:

  • The history of the Jewish presence in metal.
  • The use of Jewish themes in metal
  • Israeli metal scenes
  • The relationship between Satanism, anti-Semitism and Judaism as explored in metal
  • Anti-semitism within metal scenes
  • Reading/hearing metal through a Jewish lens – is a Jewish metal criticism possible?
  • Jewish community attitudes to metal

Please submit abstracts of 200-250 words (by September 30 2014), and inquiries to:

Shamma Boyarin sboyarin@uvic.ca
Keith Kahn-Harris keith@kahn-harris.org

Heavy metal antiquity panel seeking submissions for Heavy Metal Classics: The Reception of the Classical World in Heavy Metal

May 13, 2014 –

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Following up on the successful 2014 CAMWS panel on the reception of classical antiquity in heavy metal music, we are inviting contributions to a proposed volume on the reception of Greco-Roman antiquity by heavy metal artists. We welcome contributors from a variety of disciplines, including (but not limited to) Classics, Archaeology, Musicology, Sociology, Comparative Literature, and Cultural Studies, to illustrate and explore the enduring connection between heavy metal and the ancient world.

Possible topics include: the use of classical sources in lyrics; visual representations of the ancient world on album covers and in music videos; the role of gender in constructions of antiquity; the appeal of mythology; the use of classical material for political and social critiques; the construction of national identity through appeal to the ancient world; the use of Latin and/or Greek. The ideal contribution will demonstrate an awareness that a study of reception can show us just as much about Classics and its place and meaning in the modern world as it does about heavy metal as a genre. Such a contribution will also make it clear that song lyrics are only one aspect of musical genre.

Our proposed timeframe is: abstract submission by November 1, 2014; contributors notified of acceptance no later than December 15, 2014; first draft of contribution due by July 1, 2015; comments on contributions returned to authors no later than September 1, 2015; second draft of contribution due by December 31, 2015, with the shopping of the volume to presses to begin immediately after that. We will then submit the entire assembled volume to an interested publisher.

Send abstracts of no more than 500 words to heavymetalantiquity@gmail.com by November 1, 2014. Please include a bibliography, discography and current CV.

If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact us:

Kris Fletcher, Louisiana State University (kfletc8@lsu.edu)
Osman Umurhan, University of New Mexico (umurhan@unm.edu)

Call for papers for Modern Heavy Metal: Markets, Practices, Cultures conference

April 22, 2014 –

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The international academic research conference Modern Heavy Metal: Markets, Practices, Cultures has issued a “call for papers” or request that those of you with something to write on this topic announce your thesis and send in your paper(s). This conference is hosted by the Aalto School of Business in conjunction with the International Society for Metal Music Studies and will occur from June 8-12, 2015.

According to its description, the conference focuses on this nexus of metal’s growth: “The evolution of metal, as any other music genre, is impacted by the technological and economic revolution that has radically reshaped the forms of music production, delivery, consumption and culture – let alone the role of social media in communication, community building and fandom. Altogether, metal is embracing new fans and markets, creating new practices, forming new cultures, while treasuring the strong and polymorphous legacy of the genre.” To address this, the conference participants plan to analyze and explicate “the current standing of metal; the plethora of its forms, cultures, practices, and markets.”

For those who have an opinion on metal-as-industry as it has come about in the post-1994 years when it left underground and transitioned to being aboveground but a recognized “niche market,” much like in the 1970s, this conference is an excellent time to record those thoughts in orderly and studious fashion and present them to an audience of not just fellow metalheads but also academics and industry. The organizers invite input of many forms:

We are particularly interested in contributions shedding light on the markets, practices and cultures, faced by the metal practitioners and fans in the current multifaceted and global expression of heavy metal and its countless forms and sub-genres. The event is open not only for academics focusing on metal studies (in business studies, cultural studies, social sciences, humanities, musicology, arts, and other fields) but also for scholars from the wide range of popular music and popular culture studies. We warmly welcome also views from “the outside” to discuss and compare metal with other genres and cultural forms and helps in positioning metal in the bigger picture of cultural production and consumption.

The suggested themes include (but are not limited to):

  • Metal music industry and markets; global and local views, formation and structure of markets, entertainment and cultural industries
  • Metal management; strategic thinking, branding, visual communication in metal, metal export/import, leadership and roles, creative management
  • Metal practices; music, production, technology, performance, delivery
  • Metal cultures; fandom and fan communities, local communities, transnational/global communities, tribalism metal and social media, mainstream and subcultures, metal generations, gender and metal, artistic identity
  • Form and philosophy of the metal genre
  • Sound and structure of metal music
  • Metal narratives, lyrics, and storytelling
  • Metal and belief systems, metal and religion
  • Politics, ethics and moral of metal
  • Artistic and aesthetic considerations; metal (in) art, metal representations, aesthetic experience, bodily experience
  • History, present and future of metal; transformations of the genre
  • Scope and methods of metal studies
  • Metal on the borderline; positions and connections of metal within the popular music and popular culture context
  • Various topics exploring the phenomena and representations of metal and related genres.

Alongside with more traditional research papers, novel and creative approaches to research are strongly encouraged. Theoretical reviews, practical case studies, conceptual studies, methodological papers, ethnographical reports, lyrical and visual analyses, qualitative and quantitative approaches, and various other forms and approaches are supported. With the long abstract and paper process, we hope that many new studies get ignited and completed for the conference.

Please note that the paper review process comprises two stages: abstract and full paper. Final acceptance is based on the full paper.

For more information, see the Call for Papers announcement.

Metal Music Studies journal selling subscriptions directly

April 2, 2014 –

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The journal of the International Society of Metal Music Studies (ISMMS), Metal Music Studies, is now available via subscription through direct purchase from the publisher Intellect Books. Editors Karl Spracklen and Niall Scott have been at the forefront of integrating heavy metal and academia so that the latter may study the former.

Until 2016, when membership in the International Society of Metal Music Studies comes with a subscription to Metal Music Studies, interested parties — whether members of ISMMS or not — will need to purchase a subscription at the following location. Volume One of Metal Music Studies is available in three issues over 2014 and 2015.

Subscriptions will become available for sale in May. We’re hoping for heavy coverage (hehe) of early primitive death metal.

Heavy metal documentary The Distorted Island: Heavy Metal music and community in Puerto Rico releases first trailer

April 1, 2014 –

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A group of academics and metal fans called Puerto Rico Heavy Metal Studies spends its time working on a documentary about heavy metal in Puerto Rico named The Distorted Island: Heavy Metal music and community in Puerto Rico. The first trailer, seen below, from this project has been released as of yesterday.

Nelson Varas-Díaz, Osvaldo González, Eliut Segarra and Sigrid Mendoza comprise the research and filmmaking team. Dr. Nelson Varas-Díaz is Associate Professor at the University of Puerto Rico and a lifelong metal fan who has led the team in carrying out a research study on the local scene.

Heavy metal music is a global phenomenon composed of distinctive smaller communities throughout the world. In this upcoming documentary the glance is turned on Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island whose scene has been active for 30 years in almost complete underground status. The documentary film addresses how local bands have survived for such a long period of time through strong community ties while also highlighting the cultural and historical challenges faced along the way.

Varas-Díaz said: “The film is a tribute to the local metal scene who has survived against all odds for three decades in a cultural space that is either unaware of them, or considers them culturally unimportant. Nevertheless they continue to push forward, and while doing so, reflect on issues of local importance like religion, colonial politics, gender, and violence, among other subjects that most individuals on the Island wish to avoid.”

The film will see release later in 2014.

Interview with metal academic Ross Hagen

March 21, 2014 –

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As part of our exploration of academia in metal, we meet all sorts of interesting academics with different relationships to metal. Some are more on the academic side, some on the musical, and some in-between. Ross Hagen straddles both extremes by being both a musician and an academic with a focus on teaching metal. As a result, he brings both personal experience and delight in the genre to the otherwise more abstract academic view. We were lucky to get in a few questions with this interesting person and teacher.


You’ve got two degrees in music and one in musicology. What launched you along this direction? Did you intend to become an academic, or did the music lead you there?

I think this career path resulted from my love of music coupled with the fact that I didn’t really have the discipline for seriously practicing a musical instrument so I could play professionally. I’d much rather spend six hours a day in the library. Graduate school was also a nice way to extend my adolescence and avoid adult responsibilities for a few years after college. But when I think about it, I suppose that academia was always an intention of mine, whether I thought about it consciously or not. Both of my parents were educators, so I guess I’m something of a poster child for following the path laid out by my upbringing.


What got you involved with heavy metal? Were you a fan before you studied it? What appeals about it to you, both as a research subject and as a personal listening experience?

I was definitely a fan before I began pursuing it as a topic of study. My father was a college professor and his students would occasionally loan him tapes and CDs so I was listening to a lot of college rock and industrial music (well, NIN anyway) in my early teens. At one point he had a student who loaned him some of the early albums by Amorphis, Samael, Tiamat, and My Dying Bride and I dug them a lot. It wasn’t until college that I found other people who liked that kind of stuff and expanded my listening though. I feel like I’m still playing catch-up on a lot of older material from the 70s and 80s especially. I also got into musicology as an undergraduate and began including metal in my studies there.

…blast beats and tremolo picking seem to suspend rhythmic momentum and time in black metal when coupled with more slowly changing harmonies and hazy-sounding production. I also related the use of full chord voicings and the use of parallel minor 3rds and 6ths (in Emperor’s music especially) to an interest in chaotic sorts of sounds…

From a personal standpoint, I suppose I find it empowering in some respects, but I also like that black metal especially is a style where it’s easy to just get lost in the sound. As a bassist and composer I like that metal is challenging to perform and that it’s a style that is quite malleable in some respects even as its fundamental ingredients remain relatively stable. I think that’s part of what I like about it as a researcher as well; the tension between the metal’s core attributes and its desire to evolve and change.


You’ve contributed a piece, “Musical Style, Ideology, and Mythology in Norwegian Black Metal,” in the compilation Metal Rules the Globe. Can you tell us about this writing, and what your thesis generally was?

This was a version of my 2005 Master’s degree thesis where I wrote about some of the key elements of the “second wave” black metal musical style and related them to the genre’s interest in the supernatural and mythical. In particular I looked into the way that blast beats and tremolo picking seem to suspend rhythmic momentum and time in black metal when coupled with more slowly changing harmonies and hazy-sounding production.

I also related the use of full chord voicings and the use of parallel minor 3rds and 6ths (in Emperor’s music especially) to an interest in chaotic sorts of sounds since those types of chords are much less focused and resonant than the typical metal power chord when played with lots of distortion. I considered these musical conventions as evocations of trance experiences because they create a sense of stasis and timelessness (in a literal sense) by obscuring rhythmic propulsion and harmonic clarity.

I was at the time interested in connecting these musical devices to the sort of Norse revivalist rhetoric that was regularly coming from people like Varg Vikernes and that also underpins Michael Moynihan’s Lords of Chaos, especially mythical figures like the berserker…that black metal seems to reward an ideal of virtuosity based on physical endurance rather than dexterity and nimbleness, things like that. I do think that there was a certain aesthetic affinity with these mythical ideals for some black metallers, that they envisioned themselves as warriors or as part of a charivari tradition trying to bring back a romanticized ideal of pre-modern Europe. However, I think that the chapter’s main contribution is the articulation of the musical style…or at least when I go back and read it those are the parts that I think hold up the best.


You teach courses on popular music, music appreciation, and music history at Utah Valley University. Does this include metal? How do students respond to it? Does their response change depending on whether they are metalheads or not?

Most of them seem to respond fairly positively to it when I do teach it, which usually only happens in the course specifically centered around popular music. I do include bits of Eddie Van Halen and Yngwie Malmsteen in my schtick on musical virtuosity in the music appreciation classes, but more as a side comparison. Students in the popular music courses seem to respond well to it even if they aren’t fans, since by the time we get into it most of the students understand that “liking” a genre of music is not a prerequisite for investigating its musical style and influence. Metalheads or former metalheads (I actually hear that a lot here…metal is something they used to like as teenagers) tend get a little more into it, but I’m often pleasantly surprised as well when students who have no personal affinity with the style offer thoughtful considerations of it.


I find it interesting that you’ve composed music for the production of two ancient Greek plays at UVU. Are these going to be released? Is there any overlap between ancient Greco-Roman music and heavy metal?

Actually only one of them (Antigone) was an ancient Greek play. The other one, Eurydice, was a modern play by Sarah Ruhl that is built around the myth but definitely takes its own path (and was directed by my very talented and lovely wife Lisa). Oddly enough, my music cues for Eurydice actually did include a bit of Rammstein-ish heavy metal…the script called for it when the Lord of the Underworld enters dressed like a child and riding a tricycle.

I’m not planning to release recordings of Eurydice‘s music cues themselves since they wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense on their own (15 seconds of heavy metal, 45 seconds of lounge music, etc.) but I did put together a suite of sorts called gravity is very compelling out of the soundscapes from Eurydice. The Antigone score is likewise kind of boring out of context, but I’ve repurposed parts of it in other works here and there.

Regarding ancient Greek and Roman music, I can say with some certainty (even though ancient music isn’t a specialty of mine) that there’s not any overlap with heavy metal in terms of musical content. A lot of the theoretical ideas and writings helped lay the foundations for the European art music tradition in the medieval period, though. Plato’s famous concerns about the dangerous moral and social effects of “disordered” music also echo through the centuries to inform the various moral panics around heavy metal and other musical styles.


According to your biography, you’ve participated in more than a dozen album releases on various American and European labels, and perform in the ambient bands encomiast and Schrei aus Stein as well as two local metal bands. Can you tell us a bit about your musical history?

I started making ambient music with encomiast in the late 1990s, when I had access to a proper electronic music studio at college. That sort of whetted my appetite for it and I’ve continued recording stuff like it ever since, often drawing my friends into the mix as well. Most of the catalog from that project is available at encomiast.bandcamp.com, although I think my favorite is the 139 Nevada 2xCD that grew out of an attempt to record ghostly voices at a haunted theater. I started Schrei aus Stein when I wanted to do something that mixed drones and noise with more of a black metal aesthetic. Beyond those projects, in the last decade I’ve played in the absurdist metal duo Spawn of the Matriarch, the stoner metal band Governors, a krautrock/free jazz trio, a one-off Mortician-worship solo project named Immensite, and a couple of cover bands.

Currently I play bass in Burn Your World, a band that mixes extreme metal styles with some hardcore punk influence. We also have a side project called Curseworship in which I play bass and compose a lot of harsh noise and analog synth freakouts. Both of those bands have recordings coming out soonish.


What do you think is the role of music? Is it to communicate ideas, express emotions, or make an aesthetic object for others to appreciate? Or none of the above?

I’d probably say it’s more like all of the above in my view, depending on the context and the person who is experiencing it. Your last role (aesthetic object) is probably closest to the way I think about the music I create — I tend to think structurally rather than in emotional or rhetorical terms.


Do you think metal is a subject that should be taught in schools? There’s two viewpoints to this: from academia’s point of view, and from metal’s point of view.

I think that from an academic point of view it’s as valid a subject as any, and to my mind it provides a rich musical and cultural well for all sorts of areas of study. I’d also be lying if I denied that it gives me a lot of pleasure to teach and write about music I love, so there’s a selfish end too I guess! I certainly also understand why some metalheads might not appreciate it because sometimes it does seem like once something has the stamp of approval from the ivory tower it loses a lot of its countercultural credentials.

Some might see it (possibly correctly!) as a misguided attempt to validate metal as an art form…or perhaps to validate academia by borrowing some of metal’s coolness. I personally try to avoid giving that impression in my classes, but my position as an academic may make it impossible for me dodge those bullets entirely. So I suppose my ultimate answer is “yes,” but with acknowledgement of some pitfalls.


You taught a couple of metal-centric classes at CU-Boulder while you were finishing your degree. What were these like? How did you “teach metal”?

One of them was a single Saturday course done through Continuing Education that was sort of a quick trip through some various issues (musical style, censorship, etc.). The longer course was a version of a course on Rock Music that I team-taught with Joel Burcham. In that one my idea was to use metal as a way to explore various aspects of popular music, including recording, performance, fandom, authenticity, etc. My goal was less to teach metal and more to allow metal to teach us, if that makes sense.


You’re an ethnomusicologist; those seem like a cross between music historian and music analyst. How does understanding metal at a musical level help you understand it at a culture level? Are there correlations between the two dimensions of metal?

I sometimes feel like the primary thing my musical training provides me with is a vocabulary with which to work. I do find it helpful in terms of articulating aspects of metal music and production that encourage particular responses and experiences among listeners. As I mentioned in my summary of the “Metal Rules the Globe” article, I do think that some musical ideas can evoke particular experiences and reflect certain values. I would stop short of saying that they necessarily correspond to the values of the performer and the audience though. Sometimes that might certainly be the case, but I’ve come to be skeptical of sweeping correlations, mostly because I want to avoid misrepresenting the culture of metal as a monolithic entity. The more time I spend with metal and with other metalheads, the more I appreciate the diversity of experience within it.


One of your research interests is ritualism. Are there ritual aspects to heavy metal, especially the black metal variety?

I tend to think that almost every musical activity has some sort of a ritual component to it, using the term broadly. With black metal, though, I’m particularly interested in the deployment of Ritual “with a capital R” as a conscious effort to connect the music and performance with some archaic imagined past. In some respects, I think the past black metal invokes is the past of black metal itself, a retro recycling and recreation that is common to all music in some degree, but which has perhaps increased lately (Simon Reynold’s recent book deals with this better than I).

Rather than celebrating the protean side of 21st century identity, metal seems to demand a higher level of “identity essentialism” in that respect. It promises some measure of stability.

Invoking ritual also feels like an appeal to an authoritative kind of authenticity, an assertion that black metal is not entertainment or theater, but instead that it is a stable and “timeless” tradition and (importantly) not beholden to the vagaries of taste or fashion. The use of a fairly standard and narrow set of musical gestures and sounds, deindividualizing costumes and pseudonyms, and staged evocations of sacrificial death all work to this end. Of course, the “appeal to ritual” is also in some ways merely a marketing term and a performance conceit. It might go hand-in-hand with the increased visibility of black metal over the past decade or so.

I’m currently working with these ideas as part of a research project on musical ritualism as an authenticating tactic in popular music…possibly with a parallel trajectory in musical representations of monstrosity and supernatural forces. I’m still gathering my dogs together to see if they hunt though.


How important do you think heavy metal is as a cultural indicator? What does it tell us about our society?

I think it certainly has a role there, although I think that what it says varies a lot depending on who is involved in it. Actually, I think that if we look at metal around the globe, I might consider a lack of metal in a society to be more significant. It seems to be an almost ubiquitous presence, even under circumstances of war and deprivation.

I do think that the value so much metal discourse seems to place on trueness and authenticity is perhaps symptomatic of a larger sense of uprootedness in (American?) society. Rather than celebrating the protean side of 21st century identity, metal seems to demand a higher level of “identity essentialism” in that respect. It promises some measure of stability.


In your view, why is metal such a distinctive genre, with such strong rules and boundaries (trueness, cultness)?

It seems that being embattled or marginalized is an integral part of the way metal views itself, even if in some cases we might consider that metalheads doth protest too much. This sense of being outside the mainstream probably creates this sense of cohesion and belonging, as well as a bit of suspicion and distrust of outsiders and “un-metal” musical influences.

I think that the boundaries have actually gotten more stringent over the past decade or so in underground metal, although it’s probably more likely that I’ve just become more aware of them. I might suggest that as the artifacts and symbols of insider-ness in metal have become more readily available, the concern with maintaining boundaries has risen accordingly. As it becomes easier and easier to amass knowledge about the most obscure bands, along with their recordings, that obscurity loses its power.

Patch jackets don’t seem to carry the same weight if you can purchase a whole collection of rare kvlt “merit badges” in 20 minutes on eBay. This situation makes metal’s system of cultural signifiers less trustworthy in terms of judging someone’s commitment to the genre, so it seems like the boundaries need more strict enforcement. It’s only exacerbated in cyberspace. But of course the best way to be kvlt is to deny that it matters if you’re kvlt or not…it’s square to be hip, right?


You’re on the editorial board of the journal Metal Music Studies. How has metal in academia expanded during the time you’ve been observing, and where do you see it going in the future?

To be totally accurate, I’m actually just on the editorial advisory board, which just means I’ll be on-call as a peer reviewer once we’re totally underway. I hope to continue my involvement in the future, however.

When I first began writing about heavy metal as a graduate student in the early/mid 2000s, it seemed that there was precious little academic writing about metal beyond Walser, Weinstein, and sociological studies beating the dead horse connecting metal and crime/delinquency. Over the following decade it’s just blossomed as a field of study, and I think it’s impressively diverse. I mean, we’ve got people from sociology, ethnomusicology, historical musicology, fan studies, philosophy, and interested practitioners all in the mix. I’ve been trying (and failing) to keep up with all the publications. It’s an exciting and inspiring field.

I think that we’re going to see more studies that question the conceptions of locality and place in metal, since the increasing digital networks around the world are making physical geography less relevant in some respects. I know some scholars are working on the exoticism in metal, which seems especially interesting because it binds together questions of intent (patriotism? parody?) with issues of reception. It also seems that Metal Studies has focused a lot on the more extreme and underground subgenres, so I hope we might see more people begin to explore the intersections between metal and mainstream pop culture, both currently and in the past.