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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god-listens-to-slayer

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 –

professor_martin_jacobsen-heavy_metal_as_a_literary_genre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is a typical class period like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has heavy metal changed the way you look at literature?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 2, 2013 –

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

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

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

Does metal have a finite lifespan?

November 29, 2013 –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Academic library stockpiles metal for future study

November 27, 2013 –
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historical_music_collection_at_university_of_texas-smallDr. David Hunter is a music librarian at the University of Texas in Austin. As part of his work curating the Historical Music Recordings collection, Dr. Hunter stockpiles heavy metal for future academics to study.

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

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

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


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

Office: (512) 495-4475
Fax: (512) 495-4490
Library: (512) 495-4481
david.hunter@mail.utexas.edu

Profile: Salva Rubio, author of Extreme Metal: 30 Years of Darkness (1981-2011)

November 8, 2013 –

extreme_metal-30_years_of_darkness_1981-2011As mentioned in an earlier article, Extreme Metal: 30 Years of Darkness (1981-2011) is a new book revealing the history of underground/extreme metal. Unlike many such efforts, this book approaches the topic from an academic perspective and avoids trying to celebrate the commercial or popular phenomenon.

Salva Rubio, an author and screenwriter in Spain, wrote Extreme Metal: 30 Years of Darkness (1981-2011) in his native Spanish and hopes to have it translated to English and other languages. The book “includes essays about the ethical and aesthetic nature of Extreme Metal, a formal account of what distinguishes each style and how they are meant to be played, a chronological, style-by-style story of how each kind of Extreme Metal evolved.”

Approaching metal as a history is antithetical to what many in the buying public expect from entertainment-related topics. They expected the fan-focused features that celebrate how much interest the genre has created, and how its individual members react and feel. While that approach makes the music identifiable to the listener, Extreme Metal: 30 Years of Darkness (1981-2011) takes another approach, which is to tell the story of the music through its evolution and let the whole story show what influenced individuals, and not the other way around.

Fortunately for us out here in death metal appreciation land, author Salva Rubio was willing to give us a brief run-down on the book, his connection to and inspiration in metal, and the status of the book and possible translation.

What’s your personal history in extreme metal? How did you discover it, what interested you about it, and how did you end up writing about it?

I remember quite well the first time I ever listened to Extreme Metal! I guess it was in ’91 or ’92 when I was already into rock and I bought one of those anime VHS tapes released by Manga Video (it could be “Fist of the North Star,” awesome series!). Then I hit the play button and “The Heart Beneath” by Celtic Frost, which played as an intro, simply blew my mind. As I say, at the time I didn’t have a clue about which band or song was that, since I didn’t have friends who were into Extreme Metal. But with a little bit of research, I started discovering other bands and as they say, the rest is history.

About what interested me, it was rather an intuitive thing: I simply loved the strength, passion and power that that kind of music emanated, and as I read the lyrics, I discovered that very serious and rebellious themes were sung, and at that time in my teenage years metal philosophy played the most important role in my development as a human being.

How did I end up writing about it? When I was studying my degree of Arts History back in 2003, we had this “Music History” subject, focused on classical music. The teacher was a really open-minded guy, so I asked him if he knew anything about Extreme Metal. I remember how he asked back “Do you mean heavy Metal?” — “No, I mean Extreme Metal.” He was so intrigued that he asked me to write a paper on its history, and although he later jokingly admitted that the music itself horrified him, he thought it was formally interesting and worthy of academic attention, and that I should write a book about it and he even offered to publish the book… But unfortunately, he died soon after. A few years later, my life was going through big changes and Metal helped me again deal with all that, so I thought I had to give something in return and write the goddamned book. It resulted in a 250,000+-word, 600+ page mammoth that has given me some of the greatest satisfaction in my life.

How did you pick the dates (1981-2011) for the book?

As I will explain later, this is a rather formalistic book, which means that its main focus is music itself, its structures, its sound, its ways of being played. Thus, musically speaking I think Extreme Metal is born when Punk and Heavy Metal collide with Motörhead, and I think the first band to assimilate those influences in the coherent way that others will formally, ethically and aestethically follow is Venom in Welcome to Hell, precisely in 1981. Just think of the influence it had on Hellhammer, Bathory and everything that came next.

As for the closing date, I started writing the book around 2009 and soon I realized that 2011 would complete a 30 year period in a nice, round way. My publisher agreed so I had to write it during all of 2010 and 2011 until its publication in December that year.

When will the book be available in other languages such as English?

That is a good question, since we are still looking for a publisher! Regarding this, any interested publisher would like to know that in Spanish language we have reached the Fourth Edition in less than two years, and it is currently selling well in Spain, Mexico, Colombia Uruguay, Chile, Venezuela and Perú and hopefully soon it will reach Argentina, Ecuador and other Latin American countries. I already have even an offer to publish it in Polish language once the English version is out.

Should a traditional (paper) publisher be interested in the book, it could be out in a year or less, I guess. There is another angle I am considering, and that is self-publishing it as a series of e-books (one for each style) because it’s hard to sell a 600-page book in e-book format, mostly because of the price it would have. I don’t like that much the idea of splitting the book into smaller volumes but this way at least I would be in control of when and where it’s released. If I finally go this way, maybe along 2014 the first volumes could be released, on my own budget (hard) or maybe after a kickstarter campaign (easier).

Anyway, as you can check in www.extrememetalbook.com, anyone can help get the book published just by drawing the attention of your favorite publishing house to the book. Please support this project as true underground always does!

Can you tell us more about the book? Is it mostly a history, a list of bands, interviews, or some combination of the above? How much is pictorial content?

As I advanced before, the book is a formalistic essay. This is very important; I am NOT a journalist or a critic, I am a Historian. That means my goal was to create a historical narration of how the music itself was created and how it has evolved over the years. What I have done is putting some order in the styles and sub-styles tree, creating a “botany” if you want: classification of bands according to the style they have helped to build.

That means there are around ten main styles (Pioneers, Thrash Metal, Death Metal, Swedish & Melodic Death Metal, Grindcore & Goregrind, Industrial Metal, Gothic Doom & Gothic Metal, Black Metal and Progressive/Avantgarde Metal), each style being a container for further sub-styles, such as Classical Death Metal, Technical Death Metal and Brutal Death Metal in the (obviously) Death Metal universe and Classical Black Metal, Norwegian Black Metal, Symphonic Black Metal, Melodic Black Metal, Death/Black Metal in the Black Metal Universe, and each of them even have their own variants, of course. The goal was to create a logical flow of music development, searching for the, again, formal paths that influences have made each style evolve and split into new sub-styles.

As for the pictorial content, the Spanish edition has about 20 pages of color and black and white photography in separate pages, most taken by myself. As for the English edition, I can’t say how much pictorial content it will feature; I just can say that I have a big personal archive, so we shouldn’t be short on this.

To write this book, I first thought of interviewing bands, as it is usually done by journalists or even critics, but it did not work. Mainly because it usually happens that many musicians are not really aware of the exact kind of music they are playing, and also, many of them like to say that they don’t play in any known style but their own, which is of course, formally impossible. Others claim to play a style (as in “Viking Metal”) which does not represent really a musical style, but an aesthetic tendency: “Viking” bands as Enslaved, Tyr or Amon Amarth play different styles of metal, so they belong to different chapters in the book. I also tend to use more “formally and historically accurate” terminology in conjunction with the traditional one: Classical Death Metal = Old School Death Metal.

As for the structure of the book, each chapter features an introduction, a technical (instrumental) analysis of the style, a lyrical analysis and its development through various stages in the last 30 years. I suggest you check the self-explaining table of contents: http://extrememetalbook.com/table_of_contents.html.

Anyway, something very important to note is that I don’t want this book to tell THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH in an exclusive, self-aggrandizing way. I see it as a contribution to the many studies that are being done on Extreme Metal. Those looking for pope-or-guru-like pontifications will not find it. Those looking for a fresh edge on how Extreme Metal has evolved and developed will enjoy it. You all know the story, I am just telling it in a different way that might make see you your favorite music in a new light (or darkness!).

How did you pick which bands to interview/include?

I used two sets of criteria for choosing the bands: first, obviously, any band who has had an influence over a style, created it, subverted it, re-created it, etc, that is, every band that has kept the machine running is featured. On the other hand, there are the bands, usually lesser known except for the underground, that have inherited their elders’ lessons and have developed them.

The development of each of those band’s histories have been covered in short biographies focused on their evolution throughout their subsequent releases, without filler as discographies, personnel changes, etc. I wanted the book to be readable from cover to cover and these entries are meant to provide an introduction to each band.

And of course, I have NOT tried to make something like a cold-data-encyclopedia (that’s why Metal Archives exists) or something like “the definitive list of.” I loathe those approaches and my choice is to be (and necessarily must be) a product of the Extreme Metal I have been exposed to throughout my lifetime. Suggestions are welcome, of course.

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

April 7, 2013 –

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

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

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

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

Why study heavy metal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None that I know about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does one join the ISMMS?

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

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

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

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

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