Society views heavy metal as a symbol

February 22, 2014 –

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If you’ve suffered through even a few years of big media, you’re probably aware how it functions through symbols. Where literature might describe something, big media trots out a handy symbol that might be described uncharitably as a cliche. Drinking = troubled. Strip bar = edgy. Slow dance = love. Motorcycle = rebel.

This follows the primitive superstition of simple people interpreting religion. When something is bad, put a demon on it. When it’s good, it gets angel wings. The world falls into rigid categories based not on what people do, but what category they belong to as assigned by the cult. This type of cult religion is most commonly seen in mass entertainment, corporate culture, fanboyism, politics and sometimes, even religion itself.

Metal is a useful marketing tool for big media. It enables them to label something as rebellious, “edgy” and dark without it actually being a threat. The albums are available in any store or Amazon. It’s not like joining the Thugees or Cosa Nostra. Like the motorcycle, it’s a cheap way to describe a character without having to actually think about it. And that character will be as much of a cliche as everything else in mass media because it’s designed for the lowest common denominator.

Expanding upon this, Michael Robbins notes how this is true in print as well in “Heavy metal music finds a place in fiction”:

Black metal’s most familiar tropes are Satanism and painting your face to look like a clown. I mean a corpse. But every black metal fan I’ve ever met is, like me, friendly to animals and disinclined to perform human sacrifice. It would’ve been more interesting if Nevill had played against stereotype and made the evil children big Pet Shop Boys fans. As tiresome as Bret Easton Ellis is, at least Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” listens to Huey Lewis and Genesis.

This is how metal often functions in genre fiction: a lazy signifier of a character’s darkness, alienation and instability. In Elizabeth Hand’s “Available Dark” (2012), a girl describes someone obsessed with serial killers: “He’s creepy. He was into death metal, then black metal. Mayhem and Vidar and Darkthrone, bands like that.” Note the progression: death metal, a gateway drug, is less evil than black metal, but it still indicates that something’s not quite right: Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander listens to death metal. This is one reason it’s funny when two characters in Thomas Pynchon’s “Bleeding Edge” meet cute by learning that they share a love of “Norwegian Black Metal artists such as Burzum and Mayhem.” (Burzum is the musical project of Varg Vikernes, who also played bass in Mayhem until he murdered the guitarist.)

These examples show us the place metal has taken in the culture of mainstream society.

It is a certain kind of riskiness, a certain darkness, and a certain commitment to alienation. People who bond over liking black metal are people who have receded from society at large and are trying to go their own way. But with that truth, there is also the realization that metal forms a handy symbol, like the word “edgy” once did, for what the mainstream considers safe alienation.

It is alienated, true, but the fans aren’t the ones burning churches and murdering people. They are just spectators. It is for this reason that the music industry keeps trying to create “safe” versions of this music, so that people can feel like symbolic rebels but never venture beyond the safety of being obedient little cogs.

Defending metal before the internet

February 13, 2014 –

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The Internet grew out of 1960s DARPA projects and has been with us a long time. Most of us however only began to explore it after September 1993 when AOL began mailing out all those free disks that allowed anyone (and they meant, Satan help us, literally anyone) to get on the internet. After that, the Internet became public property.

But before those times, in the days of the late 1970s through early 1990s, the BBS was king. Someone would set up a home computer on a second phone line, install and configure (or hand-code) some software, and then send out the word to others friends on their own BBSs. People traded files and wrote messages to one another, both private (email) and public (forums).

During the later days of that phenomenon, a user named Starmaster opted to defend heavy metal against accusations laid against it in a text-file known as Heavy Metal: The Untold Truth, translated here from the raw text file:

Intro:

They say it is devil music. They say it is Satanic. They also mention it being the source of many teen-age suicides. Why, do you ask? Well, this file is hopefully going to bring that point to light. Finally, just when you thought everyone was against you, you have found the truth in Heavy Metal: The Untold Truth.

We, the listeners of heavy metal, have been called many a thing. Metalheads, headbangers, pieces of scum. But, why do people continually call us that? Is it because we are a minority among other listeners of music? Is it because they think we deserve it, because we refuse to listen to “their” music? Whatever the reason, for two decades now, people are still believing that everyone who listens to heavy metal is Satanic or something along that line. Have psychologists proven that striking a chord on a guitar with distortion causes the mind to turn into an uncontrollable atmosphere of evil thoughts? I think not, and the reason many think they way they do is because of the lyrics to the songs.

The lyrics are often portrayed as the root of the evil in heavy metal. One might call it is the root of all evil is in the music that the children listen to. The lyrics themselves do not imply anything such as Satan worshiping or suicide. More times than not, the lyrics sing about the cold harsh reality that befalls us all in this world. Destruction, corruption, and many things pertaining to the real-time life of people are what cause these rumors of heavy metal. Megadeth for example sing about the destruction of the planet and the corruption and manipulation of a person’s mind. Why would “normal” people listen to the horrors of real-life, when they can live in a fantasy world created by Debbie Gibson?

The harsh reality portrayed in Metallica’s tape And Justice for All is another example of the manipulation and corruption of a politician’s mind. The lyrics often speak of revolution also, such as in Queenryche’s tape Operation: Mindcrime. They imply, “Why should we have to live in a world ruled by those who can afford it, when we could be living in a much better place?” If you have read any of Metallica’s, Megadeth’s or Queensryche’s lyrics, you’ll know where I am coming from.

Another coincidence that is often blamed on heavy metal is suicide. Think about it this way. When real-time life hits you through a song, and you’re not prepared for it, you might just say fuck it, and go off the deep end. People need to be more prepared to face reality when they turn on Megadeth or Nuclear Assault.

The music itself is often and crunching to the mind. One might call it noise, but to those of us who understand it as music, it often resembles the lyrics in many ways. A good example of this is in And Justice for All. When listening to this tape, the music often prepares the listener for a cold and harsh representation of life. Such as in “One,” the intro with the helicopter puts the listener in Vietnam. The music then turns from a sad, painful melody into a hard, cold, highly distorted melody that depicts the character’s hatred toward life. This is a remarkable example of what the music part of the songs is all about. It is to set the mood. Want to live in fantasy? Go listen to Milli Vanilli. Set to take a first class ticket tour through real life? Listen to Metallica.

Slower music sets a nice pace for the slower, less knowledgeable minds. One might call a headbanger “dumb,” but nine times out of ten, the guy will survive the onslaught of political mindgames better than the smartest “normal” person would. It is much harder for a “headbanger” to be brainwashed by politicians because of the music he or she has listened to for years.

If you are a metalhead, read carefully the last few paragraphs. It is the true reason heavy metal, acid rock or whatever you call it, came around. To make people aware and to keep people from being brainwashed into mindless cyborgs that revolve around one who can afford the company. Believe me when I tell you that heavy metal is not all the noise that it seems to be; it is much more than that. It is a way of life to many.

From: Starmaster… To keep those who want to be knowledgeable full of knowledge. And to keep the pricks, pricking.

While this piece may have been written by a non-professional and inexperienced writer, he or she makes some good points. Let’s look at some of the highlights:

  • The lyrics sing about the cold harsh reality that befalls us all in this world. This is not protest music, where people complain, or idealistic music, where they sing about what might be. It is descriptive music that portrays the world in a way people cannot see through the fog of consumerism, politics and socialization.
  • The lyrics ask, “Why should we live in a world ruled by commerce, when we could be living in a much better place?” This paraphrase cuts to the core of the underground metal argument: as soon as money shows up, our priorities shift from reality to money and bad results come of that.
  • [The music] often resembles the lyrics. He makes a good point here. Metal’s harsh riffs are often shaped into song by the lyrics, and the two work together. It is as if the music is a delivery system for the lyrics, like ancient Greek theatre where music and drama were used to convey essentially philosophical messages.
  • [A headbanger] will survive the onslaught of political mindgames better than the smartest “normal” person would. This is the actual theme of the piece: politicians/money preach obliviousness and most people choose that path because they’re afraid. Metal is for those who want to go beyond and result the false world created by politics, money and popularity.
  • And to keep the pricks, pricking. This one is up for grabs. If you have a plausible interpretation, post it in the comments.

For what it was, a single text file uploaded onto a BBS somewhere in 1990s America, this document covers a wide range of topics and has a fairly depth-seeking thesis. Perhaps metal was stronger when more people thought like this.

Is rock ‘n’ roll assimilating metal?

January 4, 2014 –

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Metal interviews are like connecting violent minds to an amplifier. The musician is given a chance to speak plainly, and rewarded for saying something outlandish enough to make a headline. It’s like pouring gasoline on a fire.

Much as “in vino veritas” describes how drunk people often accidentally blurt out the truth, interviews often get the essential thoughts out of musicians. Tired, often doing multiple interviews in a day, musicians are apt to cut to the chase. Further, since they’ve been working that part of the brain that makes language, they’re often at their clearest several interviews into the process.

Thus it’s not sensible to either discount interviews, or to wholly accept them without being critical. But recent comments by Nominon drummer Per Karlsson highlight why metal interviews will always be popular — the offhanded, casual and yet direct blurting of truth:

I’d say that black and death metal pretty much go hand in hand, but that’s just my opinion. I am a bit worried though, since more or less all death/black metal of today has turned into rock ’n’ roll or something, all the new bands seems to be more into retro-rock, either that or looking/sounding like Ghost. I am ashamed of what this has turned into, it makes me sick.

Score one for the surly musician. First it makes sense to discard is the “that’s just my opinion” which is a passive-aggressive way of saying that some opinions coincide with truth where others do not. Then to analyze his main point, which is basically that rock music is assimilating metal.

For a brief historical re-cap, metal is a breakaway genre from rock, itself a breakaway genre from blues, itself a breakaway genre from folk. Rock music represents a distillation of many traditions down to the simplest transmissible commercial product. It was always a simpler option to the popular music of the time, and then at some point in the 1960s it took over not just music but popular culture. Much of this has to do with how our commercial society worships whatever seems popular at the moment.

Metal never wanted to be rock. If it had, it would have stayed in the rock camp. It also didn’t fully want to be blues. The influences on Black Sabbath were not only previous rock and heavy blues, but progressive rock and horror movie soundtracks (these inherited heavily from modernist classical, notably Wagner). With metal, rock’s rather static textural riffing evolved into the power chord phrase, which is closer to the horror movie music than what rock was doing at the time.

This upset the existing order.

Rock music saw itself as the bad boy and rebel, the counterculture upsetting civilization. Now there was a counter-culture to the counter-culture. Where the rock boys were singing about flowers, love, peace and our bright future, metal brought in the harsh discordant notes of realism: idealism is poppycock, death is ever-present, and the obliviousness of the average person (see “War Pigs”) is what brings evil into the world. Where the rock guys thought you could fight evil with love, metal counter-posited that you can only fight evil with vigilance, and eyes-wide-open awareness of life, warts and all. That shocked the rock community.

Since that time, metal has been the go-to imagery for advertising firms, movies, books and other entertainment products to symbolize “rebellion.” They also try with punk. Metal and punk are the two drop-out genres that consciously elect to be outsiders, and to avoid just doing what other rock bands doing and, by following that trend, to choose “success.” Popular music is fairly simple: find a unique version of doing what everyone else is doing so your audience both recognizes what you’re doing, and has some unique “mental handle” that causes them to single you out. It’s basic memetics.

This means that entertainment products have both a core and a surface. The core is the actual musical content; the surface is the aesthetics, the quirk, the irony, the imagery, and so forth. Metal has rebellion both in its core and its surface. However, if that metal surface could be transferred to rock, the ideal product would result. The band that came closest was Guns n’ Roses who managed rock song format with later Black Sabbath-styled riffs and bluesy leads. If someone were able to make hard rock that felt like metal, the market would roll over and beg for them.

As a result, the primary threat to metal is bands that “look like” (surface) metal but are actually the same old stuff. A number of bands are indicted under this banner, including Opeth and all nu-metal (which under the skin is “rap/rock”). Recently this process has picked up more steam in the underground. “Post-metal” — which is basically late 1980s post-hardcore, emo or indie rock — has begun to be sold as black metal. Nu-metal with late hardcore stylings has been sold as death metal. The result is fans unable to tell the difference between metal and rock.

This advertiser’s dream will backfire. The more metal gets like rock, the more it loses its outsider status. The more metal shows up in “legitimate” publications and entertainment, the less it is consciously outside of the mainstream world. Like punk, it will end up a “flavor” of rock that is used to sell certain products like motorcycles, cologne, hot dogs and chain saws. This is what Karlsson is warning us against, and it’s a good thing we heed him.

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Remember the first doom metal bonanza

January 1, 2014 –

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bo·nan·za, noun
2.
a source of great and sudden wealth or luck; a spectacular windfall: The play proved to be a bonanza for its lucky backers.

Does anyone remember Morgion? They had a reunion a few years ago, and it seemed to peak interest for a month and then vanish. That’s a far cry from how it was in the late 1990s when Morgion was considered the future of metal.

Morgion was atmospheric heavy metal styled doom metal, or basically Black Sabbathy stuff with a little death metal technique and a lot of keyboards. Death metal had just burnt out, and the labels needed something new to fire out the cannons. As a result, the first doom metal boom was born.

This boom died of course because the real public discovered black metal exactly five years past its point of relevance, and suddenly it was quite popular and everyone had to have a black metal band. But before that, the labels and magazines had been casting about for something to call the future. No one wants to admit the best days are behind, but for all things, the day comes when that is true.

Back to Morgion. What happened? They produced some albums, lost a band member to a tragic accident, toured a lot and were on the cover of every magazine. Following up years later on the trail Cathedral blazed, there was a brief period where melodic and atmospheric doom metal bands came out of the woodwork to inherit the spotlight. There was a great gold rush to get on the gravy train of the popular trend of the moment, as if illustrating the dangers warned of by black metal. Death metal bands slowed down and added keyboards and strings. It was an odd time, one where the indecision in the air smelled strong.

My point is this, and it’s stolen straight out of Plato: there’s two ways to approach life. The first is to figure out what the idea is that gives it meaning, and then put that into flesh. The other is to accept the flesh as the end goal, and then use ideas to justify the behavior of the flesh. The first doom metal boom was the latter. It wasn’t about expressing an idea, cultivating a soul or any of the good things music does (including bringing us face to face with our fears and making us want to win). It was about bucketloads of cash since no one had any upward ideas.

We’ve forgotten about this now, shoveled it straight into the memory hole. Think about it: there was a time when you couldn’t go anywhere in metal without hearing about Morgion. Now you never do, only a decade later. And other bands persist seemingly immortal. It seems the first (Platonic) approach leads to something greater than life itself, where the latter drags us down into the same morass that clutches pop, politics, late night TV and mass religion, and once it has us it will never let go.

Codex Obscurum – Issue Three

December 31, 2013 –
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The third edition of contemporary old school print zine Codex Obscurum brings vast improvements to this already-promising zine. Under the guidance of editor Kevin Ord, Codex Obscurum has improved its readability, positioned its content for an in-depth view of the metal scene, become more consistent about its most important sections and added experimental content that expands what we think of metal zines.

The first thing a reader will notice is that readability is improved. This refers to the visual appearance of the text and how easy it is on our eyes. Since the 1980s, computer and printer technology for the average person have improved (all of this cool stuff was available then, you just couldn’t afford it). As a result, backgrounds and gradients are more likely to be used, as are complex fonts. The problem with that is that when the result is put out through a Xerox-like format, these fancy things can blur together or create contrast differences that apply torque to human optic nerves. This time around, the Codex Obscurum guys dialed back the fonts and went for more computer-y fonts on lighter backgrounds. Their best format remains the one they used for the Summoning, Disma and Nocturnal Deathstrike Records interviews, which is a white page with a border of hand-drawn art. Of course, this is the most expensive to create because it requires a human artist, but I wish the whole zine could be this way. It’s a killer look that is both like the old school and takes advantage of newer layout abilities. I also don’t mind if the whole zine is in Times New Roman and a good sans-serif font. That being said, however, readability is massively improved here and layouts mentioned above are positively gorgeous. It reminds me of the best of the 1980s zines that always seemed like little art books.

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In terms of content, Codex Obscurum was never a slouch. Previous issues included high profile acts like Incantation, Skepticism, Morpheus Descends and Rozz Williams. Issue #3 has chats with Saint Vitus, Mortuary Drape, Disma and Summoning among others, raising the Codex Obscurum profile even further. The zine has also stabilized its organization so that the vital content is present and in the roughly expected proportions. There are more record reviews and a solid block of interviews framed by show reports and features. In particular, having a big block of record reviews at the end is useful for the person who picks up a zine to figure out “what’s happening” in the metal world and might have a few minutes to scan for something fun to buy at the end of a long work-week. This “feels” more solid as a zine since the relevant content keeps coming and there’s no filler, with firm boundaries between sections such that none of them seem to be second-class citizens. In addition, Codex Obscurum has added experimental content in the form of stories and reflections. While some of this was indicated in the past, such as the surreal and passionate tribute to Slayer‘s Jeff Hanneman from the second issue, here there’s a crossover more like a bleed-in from a literary zine or chapbook. The result helps the end of the zine not trail off, but offer solid content of variegated types consistently throughout.

The result of all of the above is that the third issue of Codex Obscurum shows this zine picking up where the past left off, and going further. Not only that but it does so with high quality and in a way that gives this zine its own personality and brand. I’m looking forward to seeing more from Codex Obscurum as it races forward into the future …of the past.

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Why metal is not obedient

December 24, 2013 –
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It’s good to see the study of metal ramping up both in academia and in popular culture. This is because for the most part, metal remains an enigma.

One of its most enduringly baffling traits is its almost self-consuming alienation. Metal refuses to be part of anything. If a social institution reaches out to it, metal withdraws; if someone does something nice for it, metal gives them the finger. One might wonder how it survives with such a self-destructive attitude.

The answer may be found in a riddle of consciousness uncovered by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. He argued that what we know of reality is a “representation of a representation,” or a mental model of a world known only through sensations and re-assembled in our mind. Our judging mind forms a representation of the representation created by our senses. In the same way, metal is both a thing of its own, and a public view of the same which includes judging and social concerns.

Metal may hurt its public layer by being so alienated and isolated, but the actual thing that is metal — something we know only distantly through our senses, most notably our ears — remains health as ever. This is because it is metal the thing that defines metal the public representation, not the other way around. Metal is not obedient to any rule by itself, and it rejects formulation for the same reason it rejects trends and hippie ideas of love, peace and equality: it does not want its public handle to control its private reality. It is not ultimately rebellious per se, but disobedient, and seeks to remove itself from the social sphere entirely so it isn’t corrupted by guilt and obligation to justify itself according to the values of others.

If you wonder why ideological movements like Christian metal, National Socialist Black Metal (NSBM) and red-anarchist black metal (RAE, with an “E” for “emo”) have all failed, it is because metal is fine with accepting dangerous views, but it’s not going to formalize them. That is because in this universe, all things go through a process of being created, becoming fully known, then becoming calcified and finally dying. That calcification in the human world occurs through people imitating them outside-in, i.e. writing down the elements of what the thing is, then going through the motions, and never understanding the step before the thing in which the reasons for its existence were felt and motivated people.

You may also have seen how many retro bands utterly fail to sound like anything but a grab-bag of riffs from the past. This is outside-in imitation; they know what they want to “sound like,” but they don’t know why. We could argue that heavy metal is not the sonic end product, but the thought process that leads to that final result. That thought process cannot be easily understood, but requires someone to study the subject intently and think hard enough to find all the connections in imagery, ideals and what each musical element represents. Very few can do that, and even fewer can do that and then make inspired music based on it.

If you wonder why the Death Metal Underground is so surly toward the world, this is it: we realize metal is a fragile and sacred thing, a form of art separate from the social sphere. To allow the public image of metal to control what metal is would be to kill it. Thus we tend to reject all of that image, toss aside all obedience, and remain fairly hostile to anything that threatens to introduce obligation, justification or guilt to our motivations.

You are probably aware of how to “succeed” (emphasis on first syllable) as a metal reviews site: write friendly and fawning reviews of every band that comes down the pipe so the labels can quote you, so people can see your name and identify you as a supporterTM of the underground and then visit your site. The problem with this approach is that it’s useless. People need actual information on what each release sounds like so they can, with limited time and money, make purchasing decisions that benefit them and not necessarily whatever label found a way to make a musical clone for cheap and hopes to profit from the excessively fat margins that result.

In the spirit of metal, Death Metal Underground chooses to be unbought and un-guilted. We choose to be outsiders like the music we love because only by keeping free of that public image disaster can we be honest. It will not make us popular like the glad-handers, scenesters, hipsters, poseurs and salespeople of the world. But it will keep us from harming our favorite sonic art and help us keep a clear mind about what is important.

The “women in metal” debate is resolved

November 26, 2013 –

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It’s a perpetual favorite of late-night bull sessions and internet forums alike: what do we think of women in metal? Growing up with Jo Bench blasting out basslines in Bolt Thrower, the ladies in Derketa/Mythic making grinding doom, and knowing dozens of women heading zines, labels, and so on, it never occurred to us old schoolers.

But now it’s caught between two extremes. On one side, there’s great pressure to conform to the herd vision of us all being the same and doing the same thing. On the other side, there’s great commercial pressure to make women sex objects in metal, which makes everyone a bit uneasy.

Luckily, Rachel Aspe has cleared the issue up for us by demonstrating — alas, with mainstream nu-metal — the power of simply being able to pull your own weight. This was on a show called “France Has Talent,” and the reaction is priceless.

H/t Noisecreep.

Heavy metal study purports to identify psychological traits of metalheads

November 13, 2013 –

typical_metalheadHere’s the fundamental problem with metal: it’s outsider music. We don’t play by the socially mediated rules that control most of society.

In our society, in particular, these rules are created and enforced through self-image. Want to appear to be a good person? Follow the rules. When you step outside of that, two problems occur.

First, the rest of the herd doesn’t trust you. Second, the people around you may be drawn to you not because of what you do, but because they want no rules. Those who object to some rules join those who reject all rules.

However, this means that you’re valuable. Because you don’t obey the rules, and because rules produce resentments, people want to take what you have and use it for their own purposes.

Specifically, they’re either going to use you as an example of what goes wrong when you don’t follow the rules (subtext: follow the rules, citizen) or they’re going to try to use your “cachet of authentic rebellion” to dress up their bog-standard product so people can feel “edgy” without actually taking any risk.

From the first category, a new study purports to list psychological characteristics of metalheads:

By matching music preference to the personality traits, Professor Swami found that ‘openness to experience’ was a major factor in enjoying heavy metal.

Perhaps more surprising however, was the fact that those with a strong preference for metal were more likely to have lower self-esteem.

Metal heads also had a higher-than-average need for uniqueness, and lower-than-average levels of religiosity.

‘It is possible that this association is driven by underlying attitudes towards authority, which may include religious authorities,’ said the authors of the study.

If this study is like other scientific studies, it’s a laboratory analysis. That means that it is designed to prove a point by using factors that wouldn’t apply in the world. It anticipates an audience for this point of view, meaning that they already agree with it.

For example, this study came from giving a form to fill out to 400 people who had to listen to 10 heavy metal tracks. Usually this means people who needed money paid out by researchers.

Further, we have no idea what the questions were like. For example, a second study found that:

A separate study by Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh found that lovers of heavy metal and classical music have very similar personality traits.

Unlike the Westminster University study, it found that both types tend to be creative, at ease with themselves and introverted.

If self-esteem is measured by extroversion, then introverted people won’t score highly on it.

Furthermore, The Downing/Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that smart people underestimate their abilities, a trait that could be confused with low self-esteem.

My own experience of metalheads is that, much as Black Sabbath wanted to rain darkness and horror upon the “all you need is love” hippie movement, metalheads are realists who distrust the social proposition that social propositions like pacifism, tolerance, love, individualism and buying stuff at Wal-mart will solve our problems.

Society’s social people offer us the idea of Utopia, of a world of love and trust, of peace and equality where everyone’s quirks are tolerated, but metal shows us the darker side of reality where war is our destiny, there is no peace, people are not just judged but ranked by their abilities and degree of realistic behavior, and nothing is tolerated except to be manipulated. It’s the grim realist camp.

On the other hand, metal posits an “other side” to these realizations. When one accepts the nature of reality, one no longer must put up with the obligatory praising of everyone and approval of everything. If metal is a literary character, it’s Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy (as well as his eventual wife, Elizabeth Bennett, who notes in one poignant scene that neither of them perform — a metaphor for act toward social approval — for others).

For these reasons, I wouldn’t get worked up about this study. It’s not nonsense, merely a selective sampling and interpretation. For all we know, they found 400 college students and took out the 20 Slipknot fans and asked them if they saw themselves as winners, would rather be at a party than home with a whole pizza, how often they go to church and whether they consider themselves individuals or “just one of the sheep.” It’s pretty easy to provoke the response you want under such conditions.

On the other hand, this second study unleashes interesting possibilities. Metalheads are like classical fans, and both groups tend to be “creative, at ease with themselves and introverted”? This is more like the reality I’ve experienced.

The article also gently hints that there may be a bit of detail-obsessiveness and tendency toward over-analytical approaches in fans of both genres, name-checking metal’s tendency to subdivide into genres.

Unlike the other study, this Scottish study — which used a broader range of data — found that indie rock fans, not metalheads, lacked self-esteem.

Interview with filmmaker Ryan Oliver

November 9, 2013 –

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Continuing our coverage about the corresponding nature of horror movies and metal, as well as our continuing content of the Housecore Horror Film Festival, we present an interview with metal enthusiast and filmmaker Ryan Oliver from Deathblow Productions.

What initiated your interest in making films?

It’s a long chain of events starting with me watching the Son of Svenghoulie (local horror host) as a little kid, then making some backyard movies with the neighbor kids to theatre studies in college. At around age 30, I was an actor/writer/FX artist who had moved from Chicago to LA, and become immediately disenchanted with acting. I hung it up and got a job in a film vault at Technicolor, FX freelance work, and I wrote a shit-ton of scripts. Eventually I landed back in my hometown and was determined to stay connected to the industry and adapt the ‘big fish/small pond’ attitude towards things. I decided to start directing my own material, never looked back.

How would you compare your work with mainstream Hollywood types of productions? Are mainstream movies too predictable? If so, how do you overcome this hurdle?

Yes, a great many of them are quite predictable. But I suppose that’s a symptom of having millions of dollars at stake, making ‘safe’ choices. I don’t have to deal with that, so I’m not the best one to ask. When it comes to Deathblow, I can pretty much do anything I want/afford to do. I have no one to answer to. So, I try to write to my instincts and from my gut while keeping things as interesting and unique as possible. As a director who’s still trying to fight his way into the club, I have my own unique set of obstacles. I think it’s wasteful of my time to consider what others have going for them where I should be focusing on my own future. I will say this, I got tired of complaining about movies when I hadn’t gone through the process myself. It’s fucking hard to make a movie and to have people want to watch it, it’s double hard. So many things can go wrong from the music, talent, edit, fx, to your own idea sucking. So now that I made one and people seem to dig it, I don’t feel like the fat guy yelling at athletes from the grandstands anymore.

Being that you were featured at the Housecore Horror Film Fest, which featured both metal and horror movies, how does metal correlate to your tastes in music? Which bands have stuck with you throughout the years?

It’s not the only genre I listen to, but it’s ahead by a land-mile. Since you brought up Housecore, I’ll start with all Phil Anselmo projects. He’s an incredible frontman and I’ve bought everything he’s put out since ‘Cowboys’ I like a lot of Doom- Yob,Electric Wizard type stuff. Naturally, I’m drawn to a lot of Chicago bands like Plague Bringer, Harpoon, Witchbanger, The Atlas Moth, Indian, Pelican, Wolvhammer, Lair of the Minotaur, Bongripper, Weekend Nachos, Sweet Cobra, etc. I seek out a lot of soundtrack/soundscape stuff that is great to write or create to- Karl Sanders’ (Nile) solo albums are terrific. If I have to pick an ultimate inspiration it’s The Misfits, I know they’re not metal, but I really latched onto them from the moment I heard them. I was obsessed with these songs, the lyrics were both brutal and poetically divine and I began to see their discography (77-83) was an audible blueprint of the way I felt about the horror genre in general. For me, it was magical to discover those songs.

Do you think it’s significant that Black Sabbath chose the name of a horror movie for their band? What about that their statement in the past that they saw people enjoyed horror movies, and figured they might enjoy music with the same mood?

Sounds pretty significant to me. I don’t want to question the series of fragile events that led to Black Sabbath’s ‘sound’. I’m just glad it worked out the way it did. They’re so overly associated for pioneering metal that it feels too obvious to even bring up at times. I guess it explains their absence from my response to the last question.

Has horror movie music influenced metal? In what ways? Are there any specific instances you can think of?

I’m not a musician. I can’t play a lick of anything, so I may be totally full of shit, but when I think of, I guess you could say, stereotypical horror movie music I think of brooding moments punctuated by ‘stingers’. You know, slow strings or piano keys before a jarring ‘startle’. I hear that in metal often, bands that utilize a ‘slow to fast’ structure. Organs are another one. When I hear a pipe organ I think of two things: Classic monster movies and King Diamond. It’s a tough question, I guess I feel clumsy answering it.

Are there any similar emotions between metal and horror movies?

You know what’s interesting to me is how tough it is to fit metal into a horror film without overdoing it. You’d think it’d be like peanut butter and jelly but I personally don’t think metal compliments horror that easily. For example, John Carpenter and Allan Howarth composed the music for those early films masterfully, but I didn’t care for the metal score/soundtrack in Ghosts of Mars or JC’s Vampires. I like Carpenter on the Casio Keyboard. All those riffs chewed up the scenery for me. Now, my favorite use of metal in a film is probably Sleep in “Gummo” when the young cat hunters are first introduced tearing ass down that hill on their Mongoose bikes. Gummo isn’t exactly horror…but pretty close!

What other similarities have you found between horror movies and metal?

I have found that, for the most part, the overlapping fan bases are a collective of intelligent, well-balanced people that enjoy their lives and are easy to get along with. At least the ones I hang out with are.

Which horror flicks would you claim have had the biggest impact on your creativity?

Lots of Carpenter, Cronenberg, Exorcist 1&3, Texas Chainsaw 1&2, Everything Argento, Early Romero, Hammer Films, Troma Films, Universal Monsters.

Outside of horror I’m crazy for The Dark Crystal, 70′s cinema, Kubrick, Westerns, lots of Kung Fu & Samuari, Mad Max Trilogy, Cohen Brothers, 50′s Sci Fi, & anything weird or bizarro.

Do you derive inspiration from creating a sort of puzzle, then have the pieces fall together as the story progresses? More than just gore, but something that will stick with the viewer long after they’ve watched?

You said it! Gore, in my opinion, is best used as punctuation to a scene. It shouldn’t be the core content. I mean, it can, but I don’t think that’s wholly effective or the most interesting choice all the time. Situations, story and characters should dictate the terror. The audience will always think of something more twisted than what you can show them. It’s been said a million times, but look at the blood content of Halloween and TCM -a spatter or two at best. But everyone swears they saw it! I subscribe to that, for me it works. Tell a compelling story first, then strategically place your gore. That being said, there are some real blood-bath movies that I’m crazy about, Dead Alive, for me, is the crown jewel.

Thank you for your time. What’s ahead in the near future for Deathblow Productions?

We are in post for a new mid-length film called, “Restoration”. It’s a car culture ghost story about the spirit of a little kid who gets relocated from the prairie to a custom car & motorcycle garage. The place is loud, dirty and not to her taste so she throws a temper-tantrum one night. If you want to see a little girl spree-kill a bunch of Rockabillys then this is the movie for you!

Check out Ryan’s film “Air Conditions”:

“Air Conditions” Full Film from Ryan Oliver on Vimeo.

Interview: Nelson Varas Díaz

November 7, 2013 –

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As part of our ongoing look at metal in academia, we speak with Professor Nelson Varas Díaz, who teaches at the University of Puerto Rico and is one of the sponsors of the upcoming “Heavy Metal Music and the Communal Experience” academic conference.

The upcoming conference will attempt to define “community” in heavy metal and has uncovered some interesting starting points. If nothing else, it shows the broadening of academic interests in metal. For more examples, read Professor Varas Díaz’s description of his research and its practical applications below. Where academia once focused on metal as a narrow field, it is now an inter-disciplinary study used to apply that knowledge back to other specialized fields.

We were fortunate to get a few moments via email with Professor Varas Díaz to discuss the conference, his research, his past and most importantly, his views of and participation in heavy metal as both art form and community.

Are you a metalhead? If so, what got you into metal, and what keeps you into it? What type(s) of metal do you like?

I listen to metal music constantly. I am always looking for something new that helps push boundaries of what I listen to within the genre and that continues to surprise me. I listen to metal music across the spectrum… everything from traditional, thrash, death, and progressive metal.

I think that, like most of the people I have met that enjoy metal music, social alienation was an important part of getting into this style of music. I will be the first to recognize that as a young man I felt very much isolated from traditional institutions. It seemed like one had to give up something of oneself to be part of the group, and metal music did not ask that of me. I know this sounds cliché… but at that young age it was very much my reality. There are many other reasons why people become interested in metal music… but that was mine.

Being part of a metal community in Puerto Rico, in the late 80s and early 90s was exciting, and I felt that I could be myself there. Of course, now I can see that process with some years of experience under my belt and recognize it for what it was with strengths and limitations. I am always very careful not to romanticize these experiences, as metal communities can also expect you to mold to certain standards (i.e. dress codes, behavior codes). It is a matter of learning to live within this apparent contradiction between individuality/collectiveness.

I like to think that I have “returned” to the metal community in Puerto Rico as a product of our study with its local scene. The study has been ongoing for the past two years and the first four publications on the project will come out in 2014 as book chapters and papers in peer-reviewed journals. Metal in general keeps me intellectually and emotionally engaged.

You’ve come up with a stumper here: how does metal define community? Is there more than one metal community?

That is an important question… I think people who are engaged in metal music throw the word “community” around as if we were all talking about the same thing. That is understandable because the concept is so frequently used that we don’t take the time to explore its implications.

As a researcher, my instinct tells me to take two steps back and explore the idea in all its potential complexities. A conversation with individuals from different settings will immediately show you how metal communities can be very different depending on their context, and still feel part of a larger metal community throughout the world. So yes… I believe we should always refer to metal communities in recognition of the plurality of experiences that are encompassed in the process of being part of a collective group. But that is not enough… and complexity always shows its face in this discussion.

Some example of this complexity include the role of the market in developing communities that are not organic, gender dynamics within communities, LGBTT issues, just to name a few areas that are currently being addressed by metal scholars working with the concept of community. Academically, concepts like tribes, emotional communities, functional communities, geographical communities, border communities, and scenes are used to describe the idea that we are connected. Some of these concepts overlap, while others include very different criteria for what constitutes a community.

I hope that the conference will allow us to continue a discussion on how we are connected, while also recognizing the complexities that we still need to address in order to have a more comprehensive understanding of the subject.

What do you hope to achieve with this conference? Who is coming? Is it open to lay people (non-academics) such as fans, bands, zines, labels and promoters?

I hope that the conference allows attendants to continue a discussion that began in the Heavy Metal and Popular Culture Conference that took place in Ohio in 2013. That was a simply amazing event that pushed the field of Metal Studies to new heights.

We will have visiting scholars from the UK, the US, and Brazil. These include: Keith Kahn-Harris (University of London, UK), Niall William Richard Scott (University of Central Lancashire, UK), Deena Weinstein (DePaul University, USA), Karl Spracklen (Leeds Metropolitan University,UK), Jeremy Wayne Wallach (Bowling Green State University, USA), Amber Clifford-Napoleone (University of Central Missouri, USA), Brian A. Hickam (Benedictine University, USA), Cláudia Souza Nunes de Azevedo (Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, BR), and myself (University of Puerto Rico, PR).

The conference is free of charge and will be streamed over the Internet for those that can’t make it to Puerto Rico (more details soon on our facebook page). I am sure that non-academics will be an important part of the event and that the local metal scene will support this venture. In fact, the Puerto Rico Metal Alliance and Thrash Corner Records will be cosponsoring the event. These are two historically important institutions in Puerto Rico’s metal scene.

We will also have a concert with local artists Organic, Ortiz and Dantesco (more details soon).

What do you think the study of metal has to offer academia at large?

Heavy Metal Studies has a lot to offer academia. The one thing that I think people in academia are surprised to see is that we engage in areas that are truly interdisciplinary. As a social psychologist, I have shared panels with philosophers, musicologists and musicians while we address metal as a subject of interest. I have had to expand my field of inquiry to converse with others. That is something that is severely lacking in academia. Most people are stuck in their fields and have a hard time letting go. I welcome that experience and hope it helps other academic settings see it as a possibility. This year I have a presentation on metal music in a local psychology conference. My presentation is entitled “Letting go of psychology” as a testament to how engaging in metal studies has required me to change how I think about and approach these subjects.

Do you think the study of metal has picked up lately? Why, if so?

I think there are several reasons. First, we must recognize the work of pioneers in the field like Deena Weintein and Robert Walser. Those books set the stage, at least from my perspective, for the growing number of academic endeavors in the field. Second, more recent books published by Keith Kahn Harris on extreme metal and Jeremy Wallach, Harris Berger and Paul Greene on the global aspects of metal have pushed these reflections even further.

Also, the continuing number of conferences that have been organized played a vital role in strengthening metal studies. Take for example the Heavy Fundamentalisms conference organized by Niall Scott and Rob Fisher for Interdisciplinary.net and the Heavy Metal and Popular Culture Conference organized by Jeremy Wallach, Cláudia Souza Nunes de Azevedo, Amber Clifford-Napoleone, Matthew A. Donahue, Brian Hickam, and Esther Clinton at Bowling Green University. Those were excellent conferences that have yielded great discussions (and upcoming publications) that have strengthened the field.

In terms of organization, the International Society for Metal Music Studies (ISMMS) has played a vital role in promoting metal studies. Also, the new journal Metal Music Studies edited by Karl Spracklen will help strengthen the field in terms of publications. I am part of the editorial board of the journal and am really excited about where it will lead. These are just some examples of individuals that are collectively working very hard to promote metal music studies through different mechanisms. They are joined by so many others that systematically engage in research with little support and resources.

Can you describe your own studies, both in metal and outside of it, and what you think they have contributed to academic knowledge?

Most of my research outside of metal music is related to social stigmatization and health. It has focused on developing strategies to train health professionals to address the needs of marginalized populations without letting prejudice influence social interactions. Now you will say… what does that have to do with metal music? Well, I frequently use heavy metal lyrics to discuss how social stigmatization influences people’s lives. So metal music found a way into my classroom long before I engaged in metal studies. After attending the Heavy Fundamentalisms Conference in 2010 I decided to engage heavily in metal studies as a central area of study and focus on the Caribbean region where literature on the subject is scarce.

My current project aims to explore the development of Puerto Rico’s metal while focusing on the social, historical and cultural factors that have helped shape it. My team is composed by Eliut Rivera, Sigrid Mendoza, and Osvaldo Gonzalez who are graduate students. The study has a mixed methods approach using ethnographic observation, qualitative interviews, and quantitative questionnaires to documents our subjects of interest. We are using these findings to complete a documentary on the local scene, which should be out in early 2014. You can follow our progress through our facebook page entitled Puerto Rico Heavy Metal Studies. Our first data-gathering trip to the Dominican Republic will be in 2014, to continue expanding our study to other Caribbean scenes.