Heavy metal as a brand

slayer_ad_2015_lineup

Most metalheads, not being of the commercially-minded type, rarely stop to think about heavy metal as a brand. Media sells a certain image with heavy metal, just like Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Jack Daniels whisky, both of which are highly successful brands. Metal forms more of a meta-brand, symbolizing rebellion and bad boy lawlessness. That image can be used to sell a lot of products, since consumers really hate the idea that they are merely being good sheep by buying whisky and transportation.

In commercials, television and movies, rebellious characters are often introduced with heavy metal in the background. Fight scenes in both football and blockbusters often get the heavy riff treatment, as do superhero epics. Bizarrely, House Hunters — a television program about people choosing which house to buy — uses AC/DC style hard rock riffing in the background to its real estate epics. Anywhere boldness, bravery, rebellion and defiance must be shown, heavy metal is the appropriate soundtrack.

Much of this can be seen through the use of well-known bands in movies. Check out how many soundtracks Slayer has contributed to, for example. The royalties from those might even outpace their album sales. At some point in the future, perhaps metal bands will put out albums and tour so that they can sell their music for commercials, television, movies, sports/MMA and house hunting. Now look at AC/DC. Metallica. Iron Maiden. Pantera. Anthrax. Compare to Morbid Angel and Darkthrone.

Devil (2010)

devil-movie_poster

This film combines supernatural horror with the time-honored formula of detective stories, which is the “locked room” mystery. In this case, the locked room is an elevator in which five people are stranded during a power outage. As time goes on, and evil acts accumulate, it becomes clear that one of the people in the elevator is in fact working in service to darkness and impurity.

M. Night Shyamalan prides himself in making atmospheric films with semi-philosophical ideas lurking under the surface, but it is safer to say that Devil takes a Miltonian approach to expressing a religious message that ends up being more gnostic than the convenient externalization of Satan which with modern religion addresses evil. While the intent of the film is made clear, it strays far from the two thwarts to quality expression of idea in film, which are the blunt propaganda of contemporary religious cinema and the concealed satisfaction with deconstruction of all values — with the breakdown supplanting re-evaluation — that is the hallmark of Hollywood. In this film, Satan plays an active role in the judgment of humanity.

Locked-room mysteries tend to be research projects into either or both of the psychology of the people in the room or their pasts, looking for a bridge between characters. The sixth character here is an investigating police officer who struggles daily with the agony of loss of his wife and child in a DUI hit and run accident. Seen through his eyes, the presence of evil becomes less supernatural and more a case of human self-absorption causing negative results in reality as illusion collides with consistency. Locked outside of the elevator and many floors away, he investigates the people in the elevator with the help of telephones, the internet and other people, searching to get to the bottom of the mystery.

The result is less atmospheric than a fast-paced mystery or a mid-paced thriller, with enough gore and suspense to drive the plot forward and make solving the mystery seem an urgent necessity. Whether these actors are as good as their craft as it seems, or it is the fusion of director and actors, they achieve the greatest of all cinematic triumphs which is true suspension of disbelief: unlike most movies, they do not seem like actors, even stage actors as the more celebrated movies display. Instead they come across as everyday people who speak their lines more clearly and make their gestures more visible. Tightly edited, the film avoids the use of tedium to offset the suspense, and thankfully the script avoids any of the “instant replay” dialogue that more confused films used to replay complex plots. Instead, it moves along normally, with the tension of an observer who increasingly sees his task as more of a battle between good and evil than an everyday mystery. The conclusion is neither a baffling surprise nor as predictable as the average film, and continues the suspense until it can streamline into a sustaining emotional ambiance.

the Doors (1991)

the_doors-movie-oliver_stone

Idealizing the darkest edge of the first wave of 1960s rock that carried the true stamp of the counter-culture revolution that was forming, the Doors hit in 1991 just as the first Generation X kids — the children of the 1960s generation — were graduating from high school. At the time, it was perceived as glorifying the culture of the 1960s and the legend of Jim Morrison, but on seeing it many years later, it seems more a revelation of the emptiness of that time.

To understand the 1960s, one must first understand why the counter-culture was so influential. Rock music gripped the American mind because it had both messianic and commercial possibilities. As Sam Huntington observed in his epic American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony, the lack of unity in American thinking arising from its democratization causes periodic mass movements with the ecstatic character of a tent revival — like witch hunts, civil wars, moral panics — called “creedal passions” in which Americans buzz like a hive to clarify their own values. The 1960s were one such time, a generation removed from the Second World War when it became apparent that not only did society lack direction, but it seemed to be sinking further into the 1950s commercial morass at the same time its social and cultural aspects deteriorated.

As part of a youth movement that re-interpreted the American vision to be far more universal through lowering standards for entry, rock music created a democratic mass hysteria in addition to making many people very rich. Into this fertile environment that The Doors dropped their first musical salvos, adapting the fantasy, hobo, dropout, hippie and beatnik themes of early 1960s rock into music with a darker edge. This was three years before Black Sabbath and other bands dropped the common viewpoint of “peace, love, (drugs) and acceptance” to issue forth Nietzschean warnings of doom.

In the Doors, Oliver Stone approaches a figure who remains influential in rock music and through it, the counterculture and American politics, which are now still in the hands of the Baby Boomers and will soon pass to millennials (Generation X having all but dropped out). Rock music idealizes its heroes with the kind of reverence that only a circus covered in rhinestones and dreamcatchers can create, and Jim Morrison represents one of this millionaire trailer park’s attempt at legitimacy. He was a poet. He read, you know, Nietzsche and stuff. He went to college and could have graduated. He was deep, therefore we are deep, because we are part of the same activity that he was in. And in that thought we see the essence of mass movements: people want to believe that participation conveys upon them the attributes they desire, when really they are just cosplaying as people of significance. It is a revolt of the nobodies. Naturally this has its dark side for performers, and the Doors is the story of that negative side to the feedback loop.

Stone captured the transition from 1980s to 1990s cinema with fast cuts, lots of background detail, and longer shots which move through complex sets. A good deal of attention to detail went into the Doors and it shows not through the kind of detail a viewer might revisit to notice new aspects, but a kind of gestalt of each scene where it appears both perfectly realistic and as cartoonishly articulate as writers need their subjects to be. The movie follows a linear path after introducing the so-called pivotal event in Morrison’s life, which although disputed by his family he found meaningful, in which he saw a group of Navajo laborers dying after experiencing a brutal automobile accident. At first, the movie follows a biographical path. We see Jim going to UCLA film school only to drop out, meeting up with Pamela Courson in a method that in our current society would be identified as “stalkery” and “rapey,” then singing his songs to the one person who believed in his films and forming a band with him. From that point on, the movie becomes a rockumentary showing events of significance from a brief biography of the doors, including controversial performances in New Haven and Miami Beach that later led to arrests and prosecutions. During this process, it works in the American Indian theme — Baby Boomers love nothing more than new groups to universalize, and Indians (Free Leonard Peltier!) were high on their list — to show Morrison gradually colliding with his inevitable fate, just to show that this rock god was made of legend and mysticism not drug and alcohol addiction.

While Stone takes a gentle view of his subject, he also keeps a fair and balanced outlook which requires removing the pink-tinted sunglasses and seeing the 1960s for what it was: a hairy, sweaty, flabby and filthy mob united only on wanting to be part of something really big, man, behaving with the decorum of those at a carnival not a cultural revival. The concert shots and interactions between Morrison and those “closest” to him increasingly show the selfishness and self-importance of the people attracted to this scene, which remains consistent to this day as anyone in the funderground can demonstrate. On the surface, we see the tragedy of Morrison the misunderstood poet; beneath the surface, we see how the whole thing was a farce from the beginning and the audience came not for enlightenment, and cared not a whit about his Dionysiac rantings, but was there for the spectacle and the hopes that it might convey the strength of the ritual onto its individual members, like some primitive superstitious mystic rite conducted by people wearing grass skirts and holding spears. Morrison was an egotist confined to what he allowed himself to notice, and aided by drugs/alcohol in that regard, and his audience were narcissists locked into him through a BDSM reaction where they wanted to see him self-destruct and feel important for having “been there.”

Like many before and after him, Morrison became trapped by the paradox of mass culture: in order for something to be popular, it must confirm what the crowd already wants so they can project themselves onto it, and by that process it becomes unrecognizably adulterated. The public then approves of this neutered version, turns it into a herd trope, and then wonders why its magic is gone. Like carnival-goers, they then shrug and rush on to the next “new” delight, finding no importance there either because through the process of popularity, anything important in it got filtered out beforehand. This leaves guys like Morrison and Kurt Cobain in a bad light. They lack the greatness of their influences, whether the brew of William Blake, Aldous Huxley and Friedrich Nietzsche that Morrison cooked up or the cloning of hardore greats in a grunge setting that put Cobain on the map, and that leaves them as merely cheerleaders for an audience that exercises its ultimate power in not wanting to hear or understand the cheer. This drives the anti-hero leader to self-destruction as they he has become irrelevant, but delights the audience, who have a sadomasochistic relationship to celebrities where they both want to be them and want to see them fall for being the chosen ones. When Morrison ultimately self-destructs, it is as anticlimax and late arrival to the party, like a misdirected package arriving sufficiently after the holiday that no one remembers at first what it is for.

Stone wisely does not explore the various mysteries of Doors lore, such as whether Morrison died of a heroin overdose in a nearby nightclub during a flirtation with the drug in retaliation for Courson’s extensive use of it, or the various mythologies that contribute to the idyllic picture of the band’s founding and culture. He covers all the bases needed to make a big-budget high-grossing profile of Morrison, but introduces a hearty amount of artistic skepticism as well. He portrays rock as “entertainment” in the oldest sense, or people using other people to amuse themselves with no concern for the end result. He shows self-destruction and the cult of the anti-hero as a kind of egomania, where the anti-hero cannot conceive of anything beyond himself and so concocts the ultimate narcissistic act of shutting out the world permanently. Finally, he reveals the loneliness of someone who — having made his way to the top of the rock crowd — realizes that no one understands or cares who he is, or what he thinks, because their only concern is their own participation in the mass phenomenon. Probably a movie best watched twice in life, once as a teenager to pick up on the mythos, and once as an adult to see how cheap, tawdry and pointless all of it was.

Heavy Metal at the Movies conference issues call for papers

heavy_metal_at_the_movies

The Popular Culture Association (PCA) announced the theme for its upcoming meeting on April 1-4, 2015 as “how heavy metal culture relates to cinema.” The PCA issued a call for papers on this topic so that aspiring heavy metal studies scholars can submit writings in advance of the conference.

Held in New Orleans, the conference will allow participants a chance to present papers and network with others in the fields of heavy metal studies and popular culture studies. The PCA accepts a broad range of topics: “Papers on individual films, metal (sub)genres or individual bands are all welcome, as are more theoretical musings on the interrelationship between cinema and metal.” It gives the following sample topic areas:

  • how heavy metal is (ab)used in feature films
  • how documentary films create, expand, and discuss a sense of group identity
  • how cinematic traditions are used in heavy metal culture.

If interested in submitting a paper, please send a 300-word abstract by October 15, 2014 to Gerd.Bayer@fau.de. The official call for papers notice can be found here.

Death Metal Angola in theaters this fall

death_metal_angola

Death Metal Angola tells the story of Angolan couple Sonia and Wilker who want to put on the first national rock festival in their country. They hope that this will unite a people broken by constant warfare, unrest, poverty an corruption.

In the trailer, Death Metal Angola lets us hear some of the music from Angola. It has death vocals, but sounds more like a hybrid between blues and grindcore riffs, with lots of lead fills and a more relaxed rhythm. As death metal and related genres seem to adapt to local cultures and musical preferences wherever they go, this provides an interesting insight into Angolan music.

The film will see theatrical release in early November and is being described as both a film about death metal and a film about war.

DEATH METAL ANGOLA TRAILER from CABULA6 on Vimeo.

Bazillion Points releases Heavy Metal Movies

heavy_metal_movies

Metal-related publisher Bazillion Points (of Metalion and Only Death is Real fame) is furthering its extensive catalogue, this time with a book chronicling the exploits of heavy metal movies.

Written by Mike “McBeardo” McPadden, Heavy Metal Movies covers over 1300 films, ranging from movies explicitly about a heavy metal theme (obligatory This Is Spinal Tap entry), to movies that were metal in spirit and thus became involved in bands’ artistic development (notably Lord of the Rings and Conan the Barbarian), in addition to various violent slashers and metal documentaries. Reviews are accompanied by color photographs and promotional artwork.

Continuing the explosion of metal documentation, the book aims to appeal to both the devoted metalhead and general fans of popular culture. If this upholds the quality standards of Bazillion Points’ previous releases, this will be an excellent coffee table book for metalheads to show off to those who may be unaware of metal’s reach as an artistic phenomenon.

At 4 lbs. and 576 pages, the book is currently available for pre-order for $24.95 and is scheduled to ship sometime in May. Those who purchase now receive free stuff as a bonus: a patch and a barf bag.