Metal is metal, not a grab-bag of other clichés

alt_nu_funk_rapNot for the first time I find myself reading a cringingly bad article from the Irish press about metal. This one is entitled Alt, Nu, Funk, Rap: there are many colours in the heavy metal rainbow and it ran in the Irish Times yesterday.

Ireland’s a frustrating country in which to be a metalhead. On the one hand, it’s the land that produced latter-day genre ambassadors Primordial and cool-as-fuck proto-metallers Thin Lizzy. On the other, metal in Ireland is stuck between a mass-culture slavishly obsessed with low-grade British TV and an arts/intelligentsia scene more interested in brushing up its phony posh Hiberno-English accent and patronising 3rd rate continental post-modern knock offs. Metal is a poorly-supported fringe genre; too morbid for popular culture and too loud and unpretentious to fit in with ‘sophisticated’ culture.

Because of this, as great as many Irish metallers are, the Irish metal scene is infected with a section of people with an attitude that is both happy to accept and produce novelty trash, and is simultaneously chronically under-confident about being a metaller – berating anyone who to takes it seriously. “Sure it’s only a bit of craic.”

Other than sneering at it, Irish Journalists and other arbiters of public opinion rarely take notice of metal unless they want to leech some of its credibility; an act that apparently doesn’t require any research beyond wheeling out a few tired anecdotes about barely relevant 50s/60s bands.

It’s no coincidence that today metal is growing fastest in countries with oppressive regimes, notably Iran and China. For all its genre- splitting, commercialisation and in-fighting, metal remains, in the broader socio-political field,a transgressive form of music signifying individuality and defiance of authority.

Last month leading Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei released the first single off his “avant-garde heavy metal” album. With lyrics railing against censorship and human rights abuses in China, it’s as potent – in a political way – as the opening chords of You Really Got Me must have sounded in 1964.

Sorry pal, but metal is not some nice, cuddly, inclusive sausage-fest, where everyone can listen to whatever flavour they like and we all finish off holding hands in a circle, smiling dumbly to the sound of “Kumbaya.” It is not about giving your parents the finger and escaping the oppression of society to go live in a vegan organic farm where everyone lives by love, tolerance and inclusivity.

Some of the best metal has been made by people with beliefs considered unacceptable in polite society. Metal isn’t a rejection of authority; it’s a rejection of the idea that society is the answer to our problems. Metal says: we can’t all get along. To a metaller, a greater ill than an extreme and unfriendly ideology is a wimpy attempt to pretend that the reality is more sanitary than it actually is.

Sadly for this, much of the metal he cites as counter-examples either doesn’t exist, or is of such painfully low quality as to be of no significance. Like many a media forgery, he has used one example of something — despite it getting nowhere in the genre — as an example of a “trend.” There is of course a healthy scene in Israel, but I suspect Israeli Jews would be more annoyed than flattered to read themselves being used as examples of un-metal sounding metal.

Even worse, like a salesman after a three-martini lunch, he’s trying the old trick of making metal palatable to us by claiming that it’s something we already recognize and accept. Citing ‘alt’ ‘rap’ and ‘funk’ as leading genres of metal shows almost no awareness of what defines metal and makes no account for it as anything other than an interchangeable synonym for rock. But that’s what he wants — he fears that metal might be something by itself and for itself, beyond the control of the society and social thinking he so slavishly obeys.

Whether the writer likes it or not (perhaps that should be ‘whether he knows it or not’, given the extent of investigation done appears to be sub-Wikipedia?) metal is not about fitting into a trendy political creed, but about exploring the dangerous, the feral and the ugly for the sake of transcending moralism and understanding the world as it is, not as it should be according to any given utopian outlook.

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In defense of metal

heavy_metal_audienceI think if you’d ask most hessians, they would say that we live in the age of kali yuga. If you get a chance to speak with lower-case-c conservative people, they express the same feeling: that something is lost. That some form of refinement, culture, and civility is gone from modern culture, if you could even call it that.

One of the complaints that repeats itself regards the state of the arts, and more specifically, music. It is simplistic, they complain. It is crass, uncultured, fatalistic, naval gazing, hedonistic, idiotic and stupefying. None of these is wrong.

It saddens me, then, when people complain about rap, rock, and Lady Gaga, they usually lump metal along with the complaint. I get it, though. The way metal appears to most of the world is not as a refined style. Some of it is also the product of the vast machine of idiocy that turned music into the nightmare that it is today. They made it safe, by making it mockable.

But some of the fault lies with hessians. Not all bands are Pantera and Slipknot. There is an entire world encapsulated in the metal genera. It is one of the only styles that keeps on expanding and developing. We have some commitment, as hessians, to support metal, in the great cultural discussion that extends through the generations.

Good metal will always be there, and will always be a legitimate art form. It would be sad, however, if those who could appreciate it (they don’t have to like it) would appreciate it, instead of buying into this elaborate hoax by the impetus of insignificance espoused by commercial music.

First and foremost, metal is a legitimate art form. A legitimate form of music. Yes, there is metal which is certainly not music. Pantera and Slipknot come to mind.

However, there is something in metal, a movement that existed since its advent in Black Sabbath’s first album, which expresses immortal truths. It feels as a sort of pessimistic conservative message.

Are things running down? Is there a process of degradation, a willful suicide enacted by modern culture? This observation was expressed by Black Sabbath, in an attempt to rain on the hippy party. We won’t go into why hippies are the end of civilization right now, but know that if some movement, since its advent, was diametrically opposed to such movement, there already is some root credibility to it. The hippies wanted to create a world without values, without temples or transcendence. Metal, on the other hand, constantly seeks transcendence, enlightenment, and a form of holiness. It is not base and animalistic, but in fact, a deeply religious experience.

In metal, there is encapsulated an idea that holiness cannot exist in a vacuum. If there is holiness in life, it must be whole. Blasphemy became an act of holiness and worship of life in its fullest.

To truly love life, you must love it completely, including the scary, red in tooth and claw parts. Metal expresses these aspects in purity and vicarious form. There is no need to describe beauty, truth, and love, because you cannot accept them until you have delved into pain, struggle, overcoming, violence, exposing hypocrisy, self reliance, heroism and individuality. These ideas are the bread and butter of metal music. It is not individualism, but individuality.

Undeniably, there is a nihilistic streak in metal. It is not the passive, fatalistic kind of nihilism, but the nihilism that views happiness, success and overcoming as dependent upon choices made by the self. No avoidance of consequences, looking ugly truths in the eye. There are inescapable things in life. Death, pain, lies, predators, and all the degeneration that arises from the human condition.

Do you deny these exist? Deny their necessity? It would be like denying rot and defecation. Ignore them and you’re in for a mess. Accept their inevitability, and you get a daily battle which never ends. It’s like mowing the lawn.

Metal is the tool which shapes this view of life. It might seem bleak, but the happy warrior never despairs. It’s an existential battle, and metal is the fuel, the blood in its veins, the fire burning in its soul.

I wouldn’t be who I am today without metal. Without these immortal truths as my guides and friends. I could be there, smoking the pipe-dreams of modernity. Drinking the kool-aid. Why chose suffering and a constant fight?

Maybe because I believe in tragedies.

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University offers degree in heavy metal, and not all are thrilled

heavy_metal_foundation_degreeNew College Nottingham in the UK have recently announced that from September this year they will be offering students a foundation degree in Heavy Metal.

“We’ve created this pioneering course in response to student demand and Nottingham’s growing music and creative economy. At its heart is music performance so students will be forming bands, gigging and promoting, while academically delving into what makes metal such a music phenomenon. Applicants will be auditioned and will need to demonstrate an ability to play or sing up to Rock School, ABRSM or Trinity Grade 5 standard and have knowledge of music theory at ABRSM Grade 5,” the school announced in its class syllabus.

Further, New College opined, “Due to the largely unstructured nature of the music industry, the FdA in Music Performance (Heavy Metal) places a strong emphasis on the development of entrepreneurial skills designed to allow the students to work confidently on a self-employed basis.”

As supportive as I am of the growing area of metal studies in academia, this course sounds like a terrible idea – unless of course it consists of 21 hours a week forced listening to and analysis of Demilich’s Nespithe, in which case it’s worth every penny.

A budding metal musician would be much better off getting a degree in music – whether at a predominantly classical or jazz institute, they will get a much broader grounding in the theory and history of western music, and thereby understand better which bands and ideas are good and which are garbage. By the way, for those that don’t know, Grade 5 Rock School is not a very high benchmark for musicianship at all.

I’m sure that the college believe they are helping facilitate people into a niche and commercially lively area of the economy, but I wouldn’t be as optimistic as they are.

Its been a long time since the UK produced a viable classic metal band that could draw in a consistent crowd (let alone produced a noteworthy scene or movement), so its hard to think of a stable, growing sector in the UK metal economy other than Iron Maiden’s stage crew. Remember also that most metal musicians the world over will at least have to supplement their income with other work, if not wholly support their music through a day job. It’s also not as though, when business is slow, you can go play a few weddings or open mics when your stock repertoire consists of Slayer songs and originals that are probably only Slayer rip-offs.

I could of course be completely wrong about it; but if it were my kid choosing their degree — £7,000 a year for something that will only look bad on their CV — I don’t think I’d be too quick to let them test out the possibility of me being mistaken.

No quality metal band before now ever required this qualification to propel their career in the right direction or provide them with worthy scene credentials, and that will probably remain the case.

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International Journal for Community Music requests papers for its Metal Special issue

international_journal_of_community_musicThe International Journal for Community Music has issued a call for papers seeking research on “the heavy-metal community (and its communities) and the spaces and practices that shape heavy metal music as community music.”

So what is “community music”? In another issue, the journal defines “Community Music” by saying “community music may be thought of in a variety of ways, including (but not limited to): music teaching-learning interactions (for all people of all ages, ability levels, and interests) outside ‘formal’ music institutions (e.g., public schools, university music departments, conservatories, symphony orchestras), and/or partnerships between formal institutions and community music programs.” In other words, music as the basis for communities within communities, sort of like as a replacement for the culture we gave up for malls and television.

As the papers request itself says, its focus is on “the communities of heavy-metal fandom and the construction of heavy-metal music in community, semi-professional or amateur settings: heavy metal as community, heavy metal as leisure, and heavy metal as a place that fosters local and global senses of belonging and inclusion in an increasingly commercialized and atomized world.” This fits perfectly with the Hessianism concept of heavy metal as an “elective community,” something demonstrated when the National Day of Slayer showed people a metalhead presence in all parts of the globe.

If you are interested in submitting a paper, contact Dr. Karl Spracklen.

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Killing Joke release video for “Corporate Elect”

killing_joke-the_singles_collection_1979_2012Iconoclastic and idiosyncratic industrial traditionalists Killing Joke release the video for “Corporate Elect” today in anticipation of their new compilation, The Singles Collection 1979-2012, and riding on the heels of their success last year with their newest full-length MMXII released on Spinefarm Records.

Active since the late 1970s (hence the title), Killing Joke explored the murky zone between punk, metal, synthpop and industrial music. Years before Ministry, Godflesh, Nine Inch Nails or Fear Factory, Killing Joke found their own voice in this nomansland of styles and also found their own voice in terms of content, exploring ideas that most pop music couldn’t articulate much less contemplate.

The Singles Collection 1979-2012 comprises thirty-three career-spanning singles over two CDs with an additional third disc of rarities which includes previously unreleased studio tracks. The limited three-CD version will revert to two CDs containing the singles tracks. The three-disc deluxe and regular two-CD version is set for release via Spinefarm on the new date of June 4, 2013 and can be pre-ordered here.

For more information, visit the band’s official website at www.killingjoke.com.

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Heavy metal musicians involved with politics

jeff_sprague-damage_incJeff Sprague is a Canadian politician who is also a heavy metal musician. By day, he works in private security and is a member of the Conservative Party of Canada. By night he fronts a Metallica tribute band titled Damage Inc.

This may seem an unusual marriage, but consider: if we recognize that heavy metal expresses eternal values that are worth spreading; in the age of democracy, politics can be an effective method of achieving this. Rather than dismissing politics, Hessians should strive to get in and turn it in a more positive direction, as this not only improves political discourse, it also increases awareness of the Hessian community.

Unfortunately for Mr. Sprague, last Thursday he initiated a late night drunk driving incident. As reported by The Province, he decided to suspend his candidacy. A disappointing end, but one that offers a theme to reflect upon: politics requires a high degree of public professional behavior, something Hessians striving to achieve political change should take note of.

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Why metal riffs delight us

hedge-labyrinthWhy is metal riff-crazy? These twisted little quasi-melodies of sliding power chords, notes and harmonics are tiny puzzles for our brains. Now science hints at why metal loves them.

Apparently, our brains love guessing what’s next in music, and perceive an intense sensation of reward if they guess correctly. For all those who identified metal’s riff-salad as a “puzzle,” you win a prize.

Like the labyrinths to which they are frequently compared, metal songs create a prediction game within the brain and cause an explosion of neural activity in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. This tiny wad of cells, which sits in the pleasure/reward center of the brain, gives us a throbbing blast of “reward” every time we play the guess-where-this-riff-goes game.

Both metal and classical play this game. They specialize in intense repetition of certain phrases, but unlike rock music, the repeated phrases do not necessarily lead to the same conclusions, and in fact alter their destinations and form throughout the work. This keeps the guessing game intense and, while we’re distracted with the riffology, shows a change in themes, which if themes are metaphorical, shows a learning process by whatever protagonist may be inferred from the work.

Musicologists have often wondered at the tendency of metal fans and classical fans to be more devoted and to be more likely to enjoy the music over the course of life itself than your average rock or pop fan. In fact, the similarities between metal and classical frequently emerge among those who take their music very seriously. Could it be they’re simply getting a higher sense of reward from the riff-puzzle and its tendency toward non-repetitive repetition than they are from the relatively straightforward repetition of other styles?

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Interview: Professor Josef Hanson

josef_hanson-university_of_rochesterAcademia’s recent acceptance of metal comes in several prongs. One prong is the study and publication of theories about metal; another at a more fundamental level is the teaching of metal and analysis of metal to a new generation.

Professor Josef Hanson of the University of Rochester teaches “High Voltage—Heavy Metal Music and its History,” a class which studies metal as music from a theory point of view, in addition to studies of musicology and lyrics as literature. While most music studies have focused on classical or popular music, increasing recognition of the similarity between classical and metal has driven wider acceptance.

Hanson’s class focuses on the music itself, its history and its significance. He was generous enough to grant us some of his time, and to allow us to interrogate him about his teaching, modes of study and most importantly, how he views heavy metal and why it’s important.

As I understand it, you teach at the Institute for Popular Music at the University of Rochester, and you teach “High Voltage—Heavy Metal Music and its History.” Is this more of a history class, anthropology class, sociology class or art class?

Thanks for taking the time to reach out to me! I offer High Voltage through the Department of Music at the University of Rochester, where I also teach music theory, basic conducting, and direct a brass ensemble. The Institute for Popular Music is a recently formed entity at UR that packages and promotes all of our courses in popular music and also sponsors a lecture series, performances, and fellowships for those pursuing research in popular music. I like to think of High Voltage as, first and foremost, a music class, but I also incorporate elements of sociology and modern history, since it would be foolish to omit the historical and socio-cultural factors that helped forge metal. So, I suppose you could say that the course attempts to be all of those things…but the music always comes first.

How long have you been teaching this class?

I am currently completing the second iteration of High Voltage. We try to offer it every other year. In actuality, the idea started with a summer version of the course I created in 2008 called “Bang Your Head!,” which I still offer every July through the Rochester Scholars pre-college program for high school students. I think we had five or six students sign up that first summer, but it gradually gained popularity, and now I have nearly 50 undergraduates enrolled in “High Voltage.”

Generally, what do you cover?

Historically speaking, we start in the 1960s with the collapse of the psychedelic movement and progress through the decades until we reach the present day. I spend every other week on one of the major “eras”: Sabbath and early metal, NWOBHM, thrash, black metal, death, etc. In between these stops on the chronological timeline, I spend time covering broader issues like the influence of classical virtuosity and the blues, censorship, iconography, and gender. So, generally speaking, I alternate between a week of chronological history and a week focused on philosophical issues, back and forth, for the 15-week duration of the course.

What’s the typical student like who takes this class? How has student response been, so far?

The student response has been very positive thus far. I attribute this partly to the subject matter itself, and partly to the design of the course, which is highly dependent on the students identifying their interests and then pursuing them through a variety of volitional learning activities. I don’t give a lot of exams that require rote memorization or trivia-style guessing…kids today can look things up on their smartphones in the time it takes most of us to recall an album release date or obscure song title! The makeup of the class can be quite interesting. I’d say 50% of the class is comprised of die-hard fans, complete with Iron Maiden t-shirts and studded belts. But the other 50% are new to the genre, and are taking the course because they know me from another class or because they want to try something that is completely new and different for them. I really enjoy witnessing the interactions that this combination creates.

You speak of heavy metal having “an impressive history of censorship, rebellion, and redemption.” Can you give examples of each of these events?

We spend a lot of time on the PMRC witch hunt of 1985, and the rebellious response of musicians like Dee Snider and Frank Zappa. But rebellion, in a broad sense, is one of the signature features of this music, so I also ask the students to critically analyze how metal artists’ refusal to obey a host of authorities permeates their tonal and rhythmic choices, their song lyrics, and the visual and behavioral aspects of what they do. And redemption…well, there are certainly plenty of instances of something resembling redemption in metal lore, starting with Tony Iommi overcoming the metal shop injury to his fingers, thus spawning the downtuned sonic landscape that still exists today. I think redemption is one of the signature messages of the course. Heavy metal music has been reinvented, and therefore, redeemed, over and over again. You just can’t kill it. There is nothing else like it in the history of popular music.

Your syllabus says you teach “both the musical structure and the fascinating social/cultural history of hard rock.” What sort of musical structures do you have in mind? Do these correspond in any way to the social/cultural events of the time?

That line in the syllabus is meant to convey the multifaceted nature of the course: equal emphasis on the music itself AND the context in which it was/is created. In addition to reading and discussing the history of the music, the students spend time learning about the scales, modes, harmonies, rhythms, and song forms common to metal. For example, the tritone, or flatted fifth scale degree, plays a prominent role in the sound of most metal artists, from Black Sabbath to Metallica to King Diamond and beyond. So, I make sure that the students can recognize that interval both aurally and visually. And yes, the musical structure is sometimes influenced by the context of its creation, but the progressive nature of metal from a formal/structural standpoint is probably more the result of musicians simply trying to push the genre to new extremes, as the music is passed down from one generation to the next. Whether or not the pursuit of purely musical innovation corresponds directly to social/cultural events is subject to debate, but my feeling is that a connection does indeed exist on some level.

You state that students should be able to “define the separation between ‘rock,’ ‘hard rock,’ and ‘heavy metal,’ and aurally differentiate between the various subgenres within these classifications.” How do you see these different genres as being musically and culturally different? Is there a purpose to their difference? What is the role of subgenre, and why in your view is it important to distinguish between them?

Labels are a curious thing. “Rock” has become an all-encompassing term to many, and therefore, has lost its value as a label for music. The line between “hard rock” and “heavy metal” is very subjective, so what I do is simply provide the students with numerous (often conflicting) sources that attempt to draw that line. Some people claim that Led Zeppelin is the “first heavy metal band,” while others (myself included) feel that Black Sabbath is the obvious choice. My role as instructor and “tour guide” for my students is not to force feed these judgment calls; I want to help the students understand that many smart people have produced intelligent yet conflicting arguments regarding what constitutes “hard rock” and what constitutes “heavy metal.” Then, I ask my students to compose an essay outlining their own opinions and hand it in, and I am always blown away by the depth of thought they display when considering these issues. Subgenres…well, that’s another story. The seemingly endless array of subgenres in metal is incredibly unique — I’ve never seen anything like it in music. While I do feel that it is important for those who engage with this music to know what I refer to as the “core competencies” (hardcore, metalcore, grindcore, deathcore, etc.), I’m ultimately not that concerned about labels. There are many shades of grey in between one subgenre and another, in my opinion. What’s important from my perspective is whether or not the students can tease apart the various elements of each subgenre, so that they can intelligently communicate what they are hearing even if they don’t know how to label it.

The syllabus speaks of metal lyrics as existing between the opposite poles of chaos and ecstasy. What are these poles? Do they explain the appeal of heavy metal despite its enduring negativity?

In her landmark book Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology, Deena Weinstein introduced this chaos/ecstasy duality, and I have found it to be a very effective way of establishing a continuum for students to use as they come to terms with the lyrics they are hearing. That being said, it is also easy to make too big a deal about the meaning of metal lyrics, which are (often simultaneously) metaphorical, intentionally inflammatory, absurdist, and unintelligible. In my class, we have identified themes of apocalypse, warfare, death and dying, and political unrest as inhabitants of the chaos pole. On the other end of the continuum, you have mostly glam and “lite” metal lyrics about alcohol consumption, sex, and generally having a good time. And more recently, extreme metal artists have written lyrics that paradoxically combine the two. So I don’t know if I would agree that there is an “enduring negativity” that defines metal lyrics…this is going to sound corny, but perhaps Danny Lilker helped coin the best phrase to describe the appeal of metal — a “Brutal Truth.” Now that’s a succinct and enduring description of the metal worldview!

You mention “myriad political/social/economic/cultural factors that forged heavy metal.” What are these, and how do you answer those who think music has no connection to phenomena outside of the music itself?

I can’t imagine a single effective argument positing that music has no connection to outside influences. Just look at the cultural melting pot that was New Orleans in the early 20 th century, or the effects of the Russian Revolution on composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Metal, too, has been shaped by outside forces. There are many examples—the end of the counterculture movement and Altamont, the PMRC, Reaganomics, MTV, various wars and politicians. But the best example is the terrible economic conditions in Birmingham, England at the end of the 1960s, which undoubtedly played a role in the development of Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and other early metal acts. In the Journal of Social History, there is a fantastic article on this very topic by Leigh Harrison entitled “Factory Music: How the Industrial Geography and Working-Class Environment of Post-War Birmingham Fostered the Birth of Heavy Metal.”

You use both Ian Christe’s Sound of the Beast: The Headbanging History of Heavy Metal and Albert Mudrian’s Choosing Death: The improbable history of death metal and grindcore (in addition to about a dozen other books!). What do you like about each of these books? Why do you use both (what does each lack)?

Ian’s book is the main text for the class, and I use it because it is engaging and well-written, hits most of the highlights required for a thorough understanding of the music, and frankly, because it is also inexpensive (the average cost of a semester’s load of books these days is over $500!). I then supplement with book chapters, scholarly articles, films, web sites, or anything else I can find. The point is to give the students a holistic view of the genre, not just one person’s perspective. Actually, part of the fun is finding the points of disagreement among several authors and debating those issues in class.

Apparently, you assign your students listening for each class period. How many songs do you assign them, and how do you select these songs? Can you show us an example playlist?

Roughly every other week, I assign a playlist of 15-20 songs (sometimes less than that). The makeup of the playlist is directly related to the era(s) we are studying and the philosophical issues we are debating. So, we might have a few thrash songs, a few early black metal songs, a few hair metal songs, and, if we are discussing gender, a few examples of misogyny in metal or a few tunes by all-female bands or bands with female lead singers. I also give my infamous “riff quiz” at the beginning of the semester, a drop-the-needle test of students’ knowledge of 30 classic metal guitar riffs.

    THRASH

  • “Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?” Megadeth (1986 from Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?)
  • “I Am The Law” Anthrax (1987 from Among The Living)
  • “Raining Blood” Slayer (1986 from Reign in Blood)
  • “Creeping Death” Metallica (1984 from Ride the Lightning)
  • DEATH METAL

  • “Infernal Death” Death (1987 from Scream Bloody Gore)
  • “Hammer Smashed Face” Cannibal Corpse (1992 from Tomb of the Mutilated)
  • CHRISTIAN METAL

  • “Calling on You” Stryper (1986 from To Hell With The Devil)
  • “Live to Die” Bride (1988 from Live to Die)
  • EXAMPLES FROM THE “FILTHY FIFTEEN”

  • “Eat Me Alive” Judas Priest (1984 from Defenders of the Faith)
  • “Into the Coven” Mercyful Fate (1983 from Melissa)
  • “Animal (Fuck Like A Beast)” W.A.S.P. (1984 from W.A.S.P.)
  • WOMEN/AFRICAN-AMERICANS

  • “Spit” Kittie (1999 from Spit)
  • “Blood Pigs” Otep (2002 from Sevas Tra)
  • “Night of the Living Death” Black Death (1984 from Black Death)
  • “Black Veil” Straight Line Stitch (2008 from When Skies Wash Ashore)

I interviewed Martin Jacobsen, who teaches a class at West Texas A&M University about metal lyrics and their significance as literature. Do you analyze metal lyrics, or do you view them as secondary to the music itself (guitars, bass, drums, vocal rhythms/textures)? If you do analyze lyrics, how do you do it?

Metal lyrics are incredibly interesting and certainly qualify as a form of literature, in my opinion. We do a bit of lyrical analysis in class, and we could probably do more. I certainly don’t view the lyrics as secondary; I’m just more adept at discussing the tonal and rhythmic materials of a song because my background and training is in music. Students in my class who find themselves drawn to the lyrical aspect of the genre often engage in lyrical analysis as a large-scale final project.

Do you think metal lyrics are metaphorical to the political/social/economic/cultural (PSEC) factors you mentioned in the syllabus?

Yes and no. While metaphor and symbolism are certainly at home in the metal lyricist’s toolbox, so too are honesty and bluntness. One of the refreshing elements of certain metal lyricists is their ability to cut through the typical songwriting blather and get to the truth. Bands like Slayer may, at times, court controversy, but they speak what is on their mind in ways that U2 and Bob Dylan never could and never will.

If heavy metal has a message, or some contribution to the history of art, what do you suppose it is? Can it be handily summarized, or is it a messy categorization, like the list of attributes of Romantic poetry that ends up being more of a laundry list than a central topic statement or mandate?

Funny, I was just grading my students’ mid-term exam, which consisted of one question: “What is heavy metal?” They could choose to answer it any way they like. And the prevailing thought was that heavy metal is the disturbance of what is considered normal, polite, or acceptable, whether musically, visually, behaviorally, or in the direction of chaos and/or ecstasy. It’s hard to encapsulate in a single sentence. Although it is incredibly subjective, I think the message ends up looking like a collection of things, a nexus of truth, rebellion, perseverance, and power.

Your syllabus mentions having guest speakers and musicians. Anyone that the larger metal audience would recognize?

Here in Rochester, we are well-positioned in terms of connections to heavy metal. Metallica recorded Kill ‘Em All in downtown Rochester (at what is now known as Blackdog Studios), and I have taken students there on a pilgrimage of sorts, since the layout of the studio is basically the same as it was in 1983. We’ve got Manowar to the east of us and Dio hailing from a little further beyond that. In terms of actual guests, I have been very fortunate to get to know Danny Lilker (who lives in Rochester), and I have asked him to visit on multiple occasions. You should see the looks on the faces of the students when six- and-a-half feet of pure metal walk through the door! Danny is extremely generous and entertaining, and his visit is always a highlight of the class. Chris Arp (Arpmandude) of PsyOpus is also local, and he is incredibly intelligent and energetic in the classroom. He came and played for us a few weeks back and just blew everybody away. I have been in contact with other metal “celebrities,” but our schedules haven’t lined up well enough to facilitate a visit. I do host other speakers and musicians, either fellow professors or members of local bands, and I am very fortunate to have some extremely talented up-and-coming metal musicians enrolled in the class, most notably, Cody McConnell of Goemagot.

How much of the underground metal (death metal, black metal, grindcore) do you teach? Do you see it as a recognizable extension of earlier metal, or has it gone to an entirely new place?

I feel I must include the more extreme or underground subgenres of metal in order to tell the story effectively. Everything is connected musically in some way, even if just through the use of power chords or the tritone. Considered more broadly, any underground scene is normally the result of the continuous rebirth of metal that has defined the genre’s existence; indeed, it is this “diversification” that has given the genre its incredible staying power. Thrash bands wanted to push the boundaries established by the NWOBHM, early metalcore bands wanted to push the boundaries of thrash, and it goes on and on. It is a never-ending process of creative destruction and reinvention, so the newer and more extreme tangents of metal are just as central to the story as the classic material. Besides, if I skipped Grindcore, how would I find a way to include “You Suffer” by Napalm Death?

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

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

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

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

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

Why study heavy metal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None that I know about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does one join the ISMMS?

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

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

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

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

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

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Rembrandt – The Anatomy Lesson

Metal isn’t the only artform in history to portray sick imagery. Back in the “good old days” (18th century and below), when people were less afraid of seeing all sides of reality, even the most uncomfortable, genius artists made artworks like our pick of today: Rembrandt van Rijn’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp”.

Fitting as the insert of an Autopsy or a Carcass album, this painting shows the artist’s preference for the contrast between dark and light, with the latter only to draw more attention to the former (like metal does). The image itself portrays the urge to study the morbid in order to bring more health (again, like metal does). Its exquisite aesthetic details are carefully crafted to further draw us onto the imagery, even if we could initially feel repelled by such, and when the contemplation ends we finally see the subject as a normal, natural thing (metal’s best albums tend to do that as well).

Besides, it looks fucking metal, what else could you possibly want from it?

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