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.

Interview with The Inverted Katabasis author Dean Swinford

March 11, 2014 –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 2. Journaling with a portrait of Nekrokor

Figure 2. Journaling with a portrait of Nekrokor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview: metal academic John Sewell of the University of West Georgia

February 18, 2014 –

As part of our exploration of the ideas behind the metal, we take frequent peeks into the world of academia, where a number of metal academics are writing, teaching and evangelizing heavy metal as a cultural and artistic force. This is one mechanism for metal to rise above mere “product” status and be understood as a phenomenon with something to contribute to our understanding and society at large.

Today we chat with metal professor John Sewell, author of “Doing it For The Dudes”: A Comparative Ethnographic Study of Performative Masculinity in Heavy Metal and Hardcore Subcultures and the University of West Georgia’s resident metal analyst. We’re grateful to him for sparing us the time to chat about the meaning behind metal, and what it is that makes this genre quite difficult to pin down.

How did you become an academic? Was this something that you aspired to your whole life?

The academic thing kind of happened by accident. I wanted to be a musician — and I kind of was. For around 20 years I played in bands while supporting myself as a pizza delivery guy and, after finishing my BS in Journalism in 1997, a freelance writer for alternative newspapers. Most of my bands did OK, meaning that I toured a good bit, played on several independent releases, and had a little bit of regional notoriety. But I (finally) had my midlife crisis and accepted that music wasn’t going to happen for me. I enrolled in a Master’s program in Journalism, mainly because I didn’t know what else to do with myself at the time. And then it got interesting.

Do you identify as a metalhead? Or maybe I should ask: is there a pattern of metal music listening in your past?

I have always listened to metal, but I consider myself more of a punk rocker who loves metal than a metalhead per se. In the early 80s I discovered Venom and Motorhead, and then the metal/hardcore crossover thing. I especially loved Black Flag, who had a definite metal influence on their later albums. I listened to a lot of metal in the 80s and 90s, but it was kind of an addendum to the punk and hardcore music I really loved. During that period the metal bands were really macho and seemed too focused on getting mainstream success, which turned me off. But metal has always been an important part of my musical menu.

In 2006 I moved to Atlanta to be in Georgia State University’s Ph.D. program in Public Communication. I’ve always gone to a lot of shows, and Atlanta’s metal scene is huge, and there are tons of excellent bands right now. So I ended up going to a lot of metal shows and really digging it. By this time, metal, hardcore and punk had kind of morphed into this big ugly thing that I loved. I found myself being able to relate to the metal crowd better. The metal shows gave that unified-yet-dangerous feeling I used to get at punk and hardcore shows. Seeing these bands live made it click for me. Metal is best appreciated at shows. I’d see these crazy-ass, discordant bands I’d go home and listen to the music on my own. The noisy, extreme stuff started sounding more like music to me.

What do you find interesting about metal, both (a) individually and (b) as a research topic?

Metal is interesting because it’s never going to go away. Metal has the most ardent fans of any rock music subgenre. What’s really interesting is that metal has become more underground instead of being absorbed into the mainstream. In this way, metal subculture has had kind of a backwards progression. Diehard metal fans know their music isn’t going to get wildly popular and their scene isn’t going to be coopted per se. The bands just get more extreme and the scene gets more alienated from the mainstream. It’s perfect.

Metal is interesting as a research topic because there’s all this crazy stuff going on. Metal is not just music, it’s a collective identity. And this identity has a lot of implications about power, race, class, gender and sexuality. There’s this perception in the mainstream that metal is kind of dumb — that it’s this “trash” culture. And metalheads almost embrace this proud pariah thing. Being a metalhead might have negative impact on social mobility, but metalheads really couldn’t care less.

Your research indicates that black metal finds importance in “transgression.” What is transgression?

I’m a little bit wary of this question because I don’t want to establish some static definition. What seems transgressive for one person might seem like conformity to another. Kahn-Harris does a great job of addressing this with his concepts of transgressive and mundane subcultural capital.
Anyway, I think of transgression as purposeful refusal and/or inversion — finding beauty in ugliness, power through alienation or embracing the queer, for example.

You say that, “Black metal’s self-maintaining categorical imperative produces a constituency strictly demarcated and alienated from the mainstream” and suggest that black metal’s subcultural rules serve to further separate its members from mainstream society. Why do you think this behavior has evolved, and has it succeeded in what it was an attempt to do?

Black metal is interesting because its progenitors (well, the few surviving ones, that is) keep rewriting their histories to fit grand artistic and ideological schemes. From the onset, the early black metal guys like Dead, Euronymous and Varg Vikernes probably just wanted to make the wildest, heaviest music possible. They were kids who were playing around with dangerous stuff.

The crazy stuff like murders and church-burnings, well, that seems like adolescent one-upmanship to me — kind of a contest to see who could be the most hard and evil. But the murders and church-burnings were the grist for the hysteria, and the hysteria drew worldwide attention to what was before a sub-underground phenomenon that may well have otherwise frittered out.

Here we are over 20 years later and the progenitors (Hunt-Hendrix terms this bunch “hyperborean black metal”) are still, more or less the archetypes in terms of sound, self-presentation and at least to a degree ideology. I think USBM has backpedaled on the Norse/Aryan/Nazi stuff, which is bullshit anyway. But that ideology of transgression/refusal remains a linchpin of black metal. In this way black metal (like all other long-running subcultures) is a thing that cannot be: Can a collectivity of rebels really rebel? And if black metal’s categorical imperative is the annihilation of the self, why has it stayed around so long? “Success,” as the annihilation of the self, would have impelled an end to the subculture. And black metal is not going away.

I think the difference here (and the reason for the persistence of black metal subculture) is that we are talking about artistic and symbolic transgression — not transgression in the lived world per se. Dead and (especially) Varg Vikernes, among others, crossed the boundaries between symbolic transgression and transgression in the lived world, and ended up dead or in jail as a result. There’s not so much idiotic behavior associated with black metal today, or at least it’s not as idiotic. And so it goes.

The filmmakers of the black metal documentary “Until the Light Takes Us” refer to their film as a study in the decay of meaning. Does meaning decay? Is there any way to stop it from doing so? Does this correspond at all to the in-group behaviors you have observed?

It’s been a few years since I’ve seen the movie, and I think I should go back and watch it again. I only saw it once on cable, and I was probably playing guitar, eating dinner and working a crossword puzzle at the same time. When I saw it I thought it was pretentious and slow.

This is a tough question because I don’t know exactly what the filmmakers meant by “decay of meaning,” and I don’t know whether this decay of meaning was what they really intended to convey in the film — or if that was just a hifalutin concept to tack on in an interview.

Anyway, I don’t think meaning decays as much as it evolves. Meaning is polysemic. Meaning is relative. I think it’s most productive to look at black metal music and subculture as discourse. Meanings, within discourse, are not static.

A better way to understand black metal might be as an evolution of myth instead of as a decay of meaning. Black metal is in its way ideological, and thus subject to semiotics. Black metal subculture is — like it or not — a collective phenomenon. And subculture is the terrain upon which shared meanings are contested and policed. In black metal (or any subculture), meanings evolve through interaction. “Decay of meaning” sounds more badass, and thus more black metal. But I don’t think meaning is decaying in black metal. Meaning is actually fertile in black metal — especially the meaning of myth. And the collective negotiation of meaning in black metal is where the action is.

Further in this paper — this is Pure Fucking Armageddon — you say “Black metal atomizes the ‘I,’” — forgive me if this is redundant, but are you sure that black metal did this? Are some people so constructed that their spiritual, social, philosophical and mental needs are incompatible with our current civilization?

Black metal at least symbolically atomizes the “I.” And this brings us to another of black metal’s many paradoxes. Black metal’s refusal/transgression is in its way individualistic, but the identity of the individual in black metal is oftentimes atomized — or at least obfuscated. I mean, look at the interchangeability of people with corpsepaint! Look at how similar (and similarly unreadable) the band logos are! And when Joe Smith changes his name to Sardonicus, well, Joe Smith is symbolically annihilated.

Sure, some people’s spiritual, social, philosophical and mental needs are incompatible with our current civilization. This is nothing new. Subcultures are collectivities that exist within the greater culture — and these collectivities, even black metal, operate as havens for the proud pariahs. Black metal indeed fulfills spiritual and philosophical needs for the alienated — and it also offers an identity and a sense of belonging. So in some ways people actually find identity through the conduit of black metal. It’s strange.

Do you think there’s a point to academically chronicling black metal past the 1993-1994 watershed era? Is the music today even from the same genre?

This is another yes and no answer. Today’s black metal is far evolved from what Mayhem and Emperor did way back when. Personally, I don’t think the music of any of those bands associated with murders and church-burnings was that good, anyway.

Every subgenre of rock music undergoes continual redefinition. For example, today’s hardcore is nothing like what hardcore was in 1982. Today’s psychobilly is not the same as the psychobilly of 1990. And of course the same goes for black metal.

Genre classification seems a necessary evil, though. The meanings of genre and accompanying subculture classifications evolve semiotically, and today’s meanings are never exactly yesterday’s or last year’s meanings. Scholars from the symbolic interactionist camp would probably have a lot to say about this. I think that genres and subcultures should be conceptualized as continuums with permeable, ever-evolving boundaries.

Today’s music and today’s scene is not the same as, aargh, “back in the day,” but the archetypes of hyperborean black metal are still hugely influential.

You say that maintaining boundaries is a key function of subcultures. Why is this?

This questions brings me back to Kenneth Burke’s idea that identification is an act of negation. By identifying as one thing, we negate the other. By saying what we are, we are also necessarily saying what we are not. To have an insider group, you must also have an externalized other. Maintaining difference (or some might say faux individuality) is a categorical imperative of any subculture.

You also mention that the kind of acts that succeed in a subculture environment are those which set the individual apart from the herd, and include criticism of the subculture itself. Wouldn’t that make a subculture self-consuming? Are any of them post-individualist?

Subcultures are kind of things that cannot be — or at least they become things that cannot be as they balkanize. This is to say that yes, subcultures are in a way self-consuming and/or self-negating. Such subcultural self-negation is especially prevalent in rock music subcultures. For example, there are scads of scrawny male musicians with that dyed black comb-over haircut who play guitar-driven, post-pop/punk songs about longing and heartbreak and insist that they are “not emo,” when they are exactly that.

More often than not, music subcultures that purport to be individualistic are in fact post-individualistic in that the act of joining the subculture actually negates one’s individuality in a process of conforming to the norms of expression, behavior and self-presentation of that enclave.
And then there’s the black metal bunch, of which some participants claim to be post-individualist. For these folks, black metal negates the “I.” Still, this negation of the “I,” of obliterating Joe Smith’s identity in the process of becoming Sardonicus, paradoxically provides a means to set oneself apart — even sometimes operating as a portal to small scale rock stardom. Many black metal musicians decry fame and popularity — unless and until the potential for said popularity becomes a possibility, that is.

You mention another thinker (Butler) who says that black metal is comprised, to an extend unmet by other forms of music, of references to “the enduring, the abiding, and the transcendent.” Why do you think black metal values these things? Can you think of any other philosophies or belief systems that value similar ideals?

When I was a kid, KISS was my favorite band. After one of their shows, I was talking about the experience with one of my friends. He was saying that a KISS concert was like a religious revival in that it was a cathartic, theatrical experience where a group of people worked themselves into a collective frenzy, led by a charismatic leader. That was a pretty perceptive analysis for a 12 year old. It blew my mind at the time, but I knew it was true.

While black metal (as Butler contends) indeed references “the enduring, the abiding, and the transcendent” most overtly, I think it is a bit of a stretch to say that black metal is in fact more spiritually transformative than other genres. I’m sure that fans of jazz, classical music and techno, for example, would all tell you that their preferred form of music operates as a portal to other realms of consciousness — much in the same way that black metal (or football, for that matter) does for its adherents. Any form of music, any form of ritual, surely, offers an entrée into the realm of the ecstatic — for someone.

In this way, all music (black metal included) operates as a portal to the numen, the ur-mind. I daresay that all philosophies or belief systems value similar ideals. They just have different ways of getting there. Loud music is my way of getting there.

In your paper Pure Fucking Armageddon, you repeatedly refer to the black metaller as the “sin eater, a pariah who finds spiritual illumination through the excess for which he is damned.” Do you see a parallel in this to the writings of William Blake, who notably said, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Is there some reason that all us post-moderns are trying to break through mundanity, trying to get back to the real underneath the surreal “real,” as if we trusted the “subtext” more than the “text” in our modern existence?

I’ve heard that Blake quote several times, but I’ve never actually read his work.

I also find the use of the term “real” somewhat problematic here — mainly because I’m intimidated by “real” in a Lacanian sense. I could keep reading Lacan for the rest of my life and never be exactly sure that I got it.

Anyway, I think that all forms of ritual and creative expression have always sought to break through the mundane to some degree. Baudrillard, Bakhtin, Huxley, Nietzsche and Marcuse (among countless others) have theorized this forever.

So, in a postmodern sense, one could capably argue that genres such as black metal seek to shatter the hyperreal (see Baudrillard) in an attempt to “get real,” as it were. And what could be more “real,” more shattering, more pre-cognitive, more pre and post symbolic than death itself?

In Doin’ it for the Dudes, you define heavy metal as being centered around “power.” What is this power, and why is heavy metal obsessed with it? How does this correspond to heavy metal’s fascination with all things dark and evil?

There is nothing about heavy metal that isn’t contradictory in some way, it seems. There is a lot about heavy metal that I’m uncomfortable with. There is a lot about heavy metal that is downright dumb. But the wrongness and the dumbness of heavy metal is, for me, part of its allure.

There are few, if any subtleties in heavy metal. The “power” of heavy metal is blunt force. The shows are as loud and physically punishing as possible for fans and performers alike. A metal show is something to be endured as much (or more) than enjoyed. Lyrically, metal is about war, the occult, torture, dismemberment, totalitarianism and death.

Ultimately, heavy metal is masculine power, performed by and for males.

You write about how heavy metal is hypermasculinized, yet doesn’t challenge conventional genre roles. Do you see a parallel between those two?

I’m not sure I understand this question. Why would hypermasculinity challenge conventional masculinity? I see hypermasculinity as the amplification of conventional (hegemonic, heterosexist) masculinity.

What I have found through my work is that the performative (hyper)masculinity of heavy metal bolsters the hegemonic masculinity of the culture at large in a way that, nevertheless, is not empowering for heavy metal males in an extra-subcultural sense. Heavy metal masculinity is double-edged masculinity.

Heavy metal links the performativity of masculinity with the performativity of working classness. This is to say that heavy metal males, quite often from middle or upper-class backgrounds, enact archetypes of working class masculinity. These symbolic enactments of working class masculinity by metalhead males function to render a disempowered heavy metal male subject. In other words, by participating in a proud pariah subculture that is considered by many to be “white trash” or “low” culture, heavy metal males become “white trash” or “low” culture.

Of course, it would be wrong to paint the heavy metal experience for males in a single, broad stroke. Heavy metal males also experience their subcultural participation as empowerment. They don’t care what society at large thinks of them. And if they experience participation in metal subculture as empowerment, then, for them it is empowerment. After all, however we experience something is, for us, reality.

By enacting a mutated, caveman-style masculinity that is so over the top it’s almost satirical, heavy metal males support hegemonic masculinity — which is a hierarchy of males in a heterosexist hierarchy. The male power exerted in heavy metal’s male hierarchy does not translate as power in the masculinist hierarchies of the greater culture, however. You’ll rarely see heavy metal males becoming senators or corporate CEOs.

So, in a nutshell I’m saying that heavy metal dudes, in the process of becoming heavy metal dudes, join an outsider enclave and are relegated to the fringes of society. And they celebrate this. They don’t care what people think about them, their music and their subculture.

What have been the consequences of your heavy metal research? Has it led to you being thrown out of fancy restaurants and ostracized by your peers? Or are people opening up to this art form?

I rarely go to fancy restaurants and have yet to have been thrown out of one for my metal scholarship.

That said, I do sometimes get the impression that some (by no means all) of my peers in academia think that heavy metal is not something that is really valid and that, in turn, metal studies is not a valid pursuit, either. Some folks think the academic study of metal is about as worthwhile as the academic study of professional wrestling, for example. (There are many parallels between metal and professional wrestling, by the way. And I think professional wrestling is a worthy topic for academic study as well.) I’m guessing this all somehow comes back to the distinction of “high” and “low” art.

If metal became acceptable for the mainstream, that would mean the genre had been rendered toothless. If metal didn’t offend somebody, well, it wouldn’t be metal anymore. Metal (and therefore metal studies) will probably remain to a degree relegated to the low art ghetto, and that’s just fine.

Where has your research taken you since the two papers, Pure Fucking Armageddon and Doin’ it for the Dudes, that launched your career as a heavy metal academic?

As you know, academic publishing is a painfully slow process. I submitted a couple of articles based on chapters of Doing it for The Dudes to academic journals and am waiting for the reviews. I expect that I will have at least one metal studies article published this year. I am attending the Heavy Metal Music and the Communal Experience conference in Puerto Rico this spring. I hope to make some important contacts at that event.

I don’t limit my research work to metal studies, however. All of my work somehow merges cultural studies and critical theory traditions to examine the interplay of gender, race, class and sexuality in constructed group identities. I have written an article examining the evolution of the term “queer” using Ernesto Laclau’s logic of equivalence that will be published this October. It’s a provocative piece, I think. I’m proud of that one and looking forward to seeing how that is received.

My metal studies work would be useful for anyone studying how gender is enacted as a collective identity. Likewise, my gender studies work might be useful for someone who is studying metal.

What do you think a study of heavy metal has to offer the wider society around us?

Studying heavy metal allows scholars the opportunity to examine the interconnectedness of (here we go again) gender, race, class and sexuality in a particular art form/subculture. So the study of heavy metal offers clues — on a micro level — as to how gender, race, class, sexuality and (yes) power are deployed in the whole of society.

If you are an academic with related interests to Mr. Sewell’s, he welcomes communications via email at johns@westga.edu.

Interview: Brian Kirkmeyer who teaches “Metal on Metal: Engineering and Globalization in Heavy Metal Music”

February 2, 2014 –

Brian Kirkmeyer

For some time we have delved into academia and its treatment of heavy metal. Today however we take another course, which is to look at the technology of heavy metal and its implications for both society and technology.

Aiding us in this quest is Dr. Brian Kirkmeyer, who teaches “Metal on Metal: Engineering and Globalization in Heavy Metal Music” at Miami University in Oxford, OH. He was good enough to gift us with some of this time explaining the class and his approach to the study of heavy metal.

You’re teaching an engineering class on the advances in technologies and how they have affected heavy metal music. Can you tell us what types of technologies these are? What are the “defining characteristics” of heavy metal that these have impacted?

I focus on the foundational characteristics of loudness and distortion and then expand from there. This means a lot of electronics, from signal generation via pickups and strings to amplification systems to signal modification via pedals, and mechanical design, including materials selection and manufacturing processes. I integrate these and more engineering aspects with the musical and cultural developments that have happened over the past 50 years.

How does global culture factor into this? Are you speaking of communications technologies here? For global culture, it is on a number of different levels.

“Global” for me and my university is really “non-local,” so we mean both around the world and just outside of immediate familiar surroundings. Heavy metal culture is foreign to a lot of my students, so the class is global for those students. We discuss international perceptions and usage of metal as a vehicle for socio-political commentary. We discuss the demographic aspects of metal as compared to that of larger popular musical culture. We discuss tape trading as the precursor to file sharing, and how there is a worldwide impact that affects band popularity and new band formation. It literally hits on about everything I can squeeze into the class about exploring beyond students’ comfort zones and knowledge bases.

What types of heavy metal do you study in the course?

I start with metal’s pre-history (Wagner, the blues, jazz, surf) and go forward from there. I cover about everything…if it’s in Ian Christe’s Sound of the Beast and Sam Dunn’s work, I address it. I spend the most time on the development of the various subgenres, and how certain technologies have manifested at certain points in time, and try to wrap up with more current trends and expected musical pathways. By and large, students don’t know their history of music in general (let alone metal), and so I try to build that history toward what they DO know.

I understand you’re a heavy metal listener, having recently attended a GWAR live show. What types of metal do you listen to? When did you become a metalhead?

I got into metal at age 8 due to Def Leppard’s “On Through the Night,” but didn’t really look the part until I was in eighth grade. I fit the young white male demographic, but I’ve never been blue-collar despite growing up in a union town and becoming an engineer. I mostly like NWOBHM, 70s metal, Thrash, Progressive and various Extreme subgenres, and will listen to about everything. Glam metal is even metal to me (David Lee Roth/Poison was my first show), and it’s a lot of fun. I’ve always wanted to hear more styles and bands, and expose people to more of what I like by introducing them to bands that I think fit their musical tastes. Iron Maiden is my all-time favorite band, and right now I’m into Kyng and Skeletonwitch pretty strongly.

Brian Kirkmeyer

What is, in your view, the historical importance of heavy metal, and does it signal any changes in the underlying course of human history, technological or otherwise?

Heavy metal’s technological importance is huge. If not for people wanting to make music louder, angrier, or more powerful, we would all still be playing six-string guitars and four-string basses and having relatively small amps. Because of metal, there is a ready market for 8-string guitars that engineers have had to figure out how to design and manufacture, along with all of the supported technology that goes with it (larger pickups, more robust bridges, wider necks, etc.). I also think that heavy metal has been a (not necessarily “the”) primary social voice for rebellion, and a more recent vehicle for the drive for social equality in many other countries (see Heavy Metal Islam by Mark LeVine). I’d like to think that the more that people find avenues to release stress and express their views through music, the less we will hear about people shooting up schools and movie theaters. So far, that hasn’t been the case, and so changing the course of human history is still a work in progress.

What has response been like from your students? Are they metalheads?

The students seem to love the class. I’d say that at the start of a given semester, about 20% of the students are metalheads and many of the rest of them take the class because it either sounds interesting, fulfills a math liberal education requirement, or think I’d be fun as an instructor. By the end of the semester, I’ve usually converted (at some level) about half of the non-metalheads into quasi-metalheads or better, and most of the rest have a greater appreciation for metal and its culture. The most satisfying thing, though, is that the class helps break down barriers and stereotypes that students have, and students really start thinking differently about the world around them and their interactions with it. Self-reflection is a HUGE part of the class.

Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself? How did you get involved in academia? What motivated you to be involved with engineering and computing?

Full disclosure…engineering wasn’t my first goal. I wanted to be a stand-up comic (Eddie Murphy was an idol), then an NFL quarterback, then a rock star, and THEN an engineer. I’ve always been in the gifted programs in school, but I was also always the class clown/athlete/music expert too, so I was never part of any particular cliques in school. I started college (Purdue U) with the intent of getting a job as an engineer, despite not really knowing what that meant. I liked to learn new stuff, whatever it was, and I was largely the only engineer in college who cared about liberal education. I decided to get my doctorate in engineering (U of Pennsylvania) because my BS degree job was pretty blah.

My first post-PhD job was managing a lab and working an electron microscope. Never put the class clown/lead singer/QB personality in a dark closed room by themselves… :) My mother-in-law got me to consider academia, as she pointed me to a job (my current one) where my personality was going to be core, and my technical chops were nice to have along for the ride.

I love what I do, because I recruit, advise, teach, help, and everything else that my “social me” needs to do. I’ve earned an endowment to my position because I throw myself and my passion into everything I do here. I’ve got the respect here that allows me to not only propose a heavy metal-and-engineering class, but also get it approved and part of the liberal education plan and have it accepted as an honors course. Now I get to include metal as a regular part of my job, and it’s GREAT!

Brian Kirkmeyer

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

January 29, 2014 –

metal_and_marginalization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heavy Metal and the Communal Experience conference reveals topics

January 25, 2014 –

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

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

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

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

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

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

MIT teaches heavy metal

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 10, 2014 –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is a typical class period like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has heavy metal changed the way you look at literature?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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