First issue of Metal Music Studies made available free online

October 1, 2014 –

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The first issue of Metal Music Studies, which chronicles academic exploration of heavy metal in conjunction with the International Society for Metal Music Studies, awaits your download because the publisher had made it available free online (combi-PDF 7mb).

While many metalheads remain skeptical of academic study of society, the prospect of having orderly study applied to metal carries some benefits in understanding for both metalheads and society at large. So long as this study interprets metal and then develops theories about it, instead of cramming metal into existing theories, it should provide benefits.

In this respect, metal studies walks the same line as commercialism. When bands make music that is both good and popular, few complain; when bands make popular music, and cover it in a skin and aesthetic of metal without adopting the core of what it is to be metal, even the surliest wimps and poseurs begin to feel uncomfortable with the arrangement. Opeth, Cradle of Filth and Pantera, we’re looking at you.

The International Society for Metal Music Studies applies an even-handed and curiosity-driven approach to its metal study and has as a result produced interesting works in the past. As it moves on into the future, we expect more of interest from Metal Music Studies and its authors.

International Journal of Community Music releases its heavy metal special

September 17, 2014 –

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Image from The Musical Autist.

The International Journal of Community Music recently released its June 2014 issue which focuses on heavy metal through writings by the heavy metal studies academic community which explore heavy metal and its social effects in many different forms.

Centered around the concept of “community music,” the journal investigates interactions between music and the surrounding community, but peers most deeply into how music can be a voice for events, values or changes in a community. Its general list of topics includes:

  • Music and informal educational settings
  • Music in areas of conflict and former conflict
  • Music and the youth service
  • Music in prisons and probation services
  • Music in health settings / Music and cultural policy
  • Music and Life-long learning
  • Genres and musical styles e.g. music-making of all kinds and all styles, listening, music technology
  • Philosophy of Community Music
  • Music, faith and spirituality

The “heavy metal special” issue concentrates its analysis on some of the more controversial areas of the interaction between heavy metal and culture. The topics of these essays seem ready to dig into the type of conflict that would make a good basis for a shredding album of brutally intense music.

International Journal of Community Music June 2014 issue contains the following contents:

  • Raising the horns: Heavy metal communities and community heavy metal music

    Authors: Gabby Riches And Karl Spracklen
  • Kami semua headbangers: Heavy metal as multiethnic community builder in Penang Island, Malaysia

    Authors: Marco Ferrarese
  • Reconceptualizing hard rock and metal fans as a group: Imaginary community

    Authors: Rosemary Lucy Hill
  • ‘Ons is saam’ – Afrikaans metal and rebuilding whiteness in the Rainbow Nation

    Authors: Catherine Hoad
  • Metal made me who I am: Seven adult men reflect on their engagement with metal music during adolescence

    Authors: Michelle Hines And Katrina Skewes McFerran
  • Mapping the underground: An ethnographic cartography of the Leeds extreme metal scene

    Authors: Gabby Riches And Brett Lashua
  • On your knees and pray! The role of religion in the development of a metal scene in the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico

    Authors: Nelson Varas-Díaz And Eliut Rivera-Segarra And Sigrid Mendoza And Osvaldo González-Sepúlveda
  • Hamburgers of Devastation: The pleasures and politics of heavy metal cooking

    Authors: Michelle Phillipov
  • ‘The Black Sheep of the Family’: Bogans, borders and New Zealand society

    Authors: Dave Snell

The journal can be purchased at this location.

Metal and Cultural Impact: Metal’s Role in the 21st Century conference in Dayton, OH on November 6-8

September 10, 2014 –

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The Metal and Cultural Impact (MACI) conference launches its inaugural meeting on the topic of “Metal’s Role in the 21st Century” in Dayton, OH from November 6-8, 2014. This conference features a number of metal academics of note discussing the effect metal has on the society around it through culture.

Described by its organizers as aimed to “examine Metal culture’s role in 21st century society throughout the world,” the conference consists of presentations by academics such as Amber Clifford-Napoleone, Nelson Varas-Diaz, , Vivek Venkatesh, Ross Hagen and Brian Hickam. In addition, after-conference events include a screening of March of the Gods which explores the metal scene in the African nation of Bostwana through the story the band Wrust and an art exhibit on the nature of masks in metal hosted by Brian Hickam.

The University of Dayton Department of English, the Graul Chair in Arts and Languages, and the International Society of Metal Music Studies are the primary sponsors of the conference. It winds up with an evening concert featuring local bands chosen by Alex Skolnick (Testament, Savatage), who also presents a panel on “Louder Education” at the conference. Ticket proceeds benefit two charities, the Ronnie James Dio Stand Up and Shout Cancer Fund and Project READ.

Hardcore, Punk, and Other Junk: Aggressive Sounds in Contemporary Music edited by Eric James Abbey and Colin Helb

August 10, 2014 –

eric_james_abbey-colin_helb-hardcore_punk_and_other_junk.

Metalheads tend to distrust academia. We distrust the machine in all of its forms, and since the machine accepts academia, we believe the voice of academia is tainted by interest toward social acceptance. Academia also has a habit of finding ways to cram reality into its theories rather than the other way around. However, some academics make insightful contributions to the study of metal and Hardcore, Punk, and Other Junk: Aggressive Sounds in Contemporary Music provides an example of the best of this process.

This collection of essays looks at extreme music in general and extends this to metal, hardcore punk and punk rock communities. Sadly many authors make the mistake many do of incorporating recent pseudo-metal hybrids as some form of legitimate metal, which spams their results with some nonsense. The balance of results however turns out for the best because these academics look at detail-level reproducible phenomena and so are able to avoid the kind of craziness that would happen if they took “modern death metal” to be a legitimate form of the genre. Since metal and hardcore punk share a heritage both influencing and as influences of one another, the multiple pieces on that topic serve to bolster the understanding of metal.

Ross Hagen‘s piece “No Fun: Noise Music, Avant-garde expression and Sonic Punishment” ventures into the world of noise as music and explores a number of theories of its appeal. His most tantalizing riff zeroes in on the idea that society attempts to control noise and categorize it by the containers used to sample it, thus the tendency of irregular acoustic noise is to overthrow the social control imposed for the convenience of society having categorical dominance. While this piece does not seem to be directly on point to metal, it explores the same sonic space that metal uses and suggests reasons for it that may overlap with the psychology of metalheads.

Nelson Varas-Diaz contributes writing that analyzes Puerto Rico as a metal scene and the historical antecedents for appreciation of metal in this unique context. While his research involves statistical analysis, the best part of it may be the narrative aspect where he explains the history of metal in Puerto Rico as a type of struggle to be heard. In this piece also can be found extensive information about founding and contemporary Puerto Rican metal bands.

While it is beyond the scope of this review to cover every piece in the book, several others merit immediate attention by the wandering metalhead. Mika Elovaara looks into the meaning of metal lyrics and finds something akin to the mythical-historical view expounded upon in these digital pages. As if clarifying Lords of Chaos, one of his research subjects from Norway opines:

I feel that it is important that people understand why they have been born and that other people fought for our well-being and to preserve our culture and society. Our cultural heritage is going to die because people ignore it or do not even realize its significance. Viking and Norse mythology have been described as something evil and distant, but in reality, it is close to home and not necessarily evil at all. That it is not Christian does not mean it is evil. I use the mythology to describe situations in the world and politics, actual topics that were part of our lives a thousand years ago just as they are today. One can be proud of one’s heritage and identity without any racist or nationalistic tendencies. And Satanism is quite outside of this.

His extensive interviews bring up other similar flirtations with the taboo which makes sense as metal is “edge music” that exists to push social standards beyond what they normally accept. He probes the filaments of metal’s obsession with the evil and dark, and yet finds a certain kind of benevolence. “They mean critical thinking and encourage independent thinking,” said one fan about metal lyrics. The entire study is too complex to summarize here but at a minimum provides food for thought about what metal is attempting to communicate.

Another metal-related piece by Marcus Erbe looks into the science of producing death metal vocals and what that type of sound might mean in the unconscious and shared experience of being human. He finds that human vocals universally split between a melodic voice and a textural voice, with the latter expressing “monstrous” sensations. He then explores the nature of the monstrous in psychology and finds that it includes both the other and our fears for what is within us. This thought-provoking essay fuels further the question about what it is in metal that is really socially unacceptable, its rejection of social mores or its seeing through them.

Other articles explore more specific topics. On the whole, the book shows a new face for academia in looking into metal that is less afraid of certain areas of metal that are alien to what academia customarily writes about and may reject attitudes held by the majority of academics. The insight offered into the mechanics of metal and the associated symbols that it invokes also suggests new areas for academics and thinkers to pry into this interesting genre. Hardcore, Punk, and Other Junk: Aggressive Sounds in Contemporary Music lives up to its title and presents a window into the troubling questions that most would ignore raised by these dissident genres.

Documentary film The Distorted Island: Heavy Metal Music and Community in Puerto Rico nears release, reveals artwork

June 4, 2014 –

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Artwork for a new documentary about Puerto Rico’s metal scene by the Puerto Rico Heavy Metal Studies Group, The Distorted Island: Heavy Metal Music and Community in Puerto Rico, makes its appearance today and in this blog. According to the creators of the film:

This upcoming documentary explores the emergence and maintenance of a metal scene in the Caribbean island. The documentary explores how local bands have survived for 30 years via strong community ties, while also highlighting the cultural and historical challenges faced along the way. Local artist Kadriel Betsen, a digital artist and guitarist for the extreme metal band Humanist, developed the artwork. Nelson Varas-Díaz, Osvaldo González, Eliut Segarra and Sigrid Mendoza compose the research and filmmaking team. Dr. Nelson Varas-Díaz is a metal fan and Associate Professor at the University of Puerto Rico who has led the team carrying out a research study on the local scene. The documentary will see its full release by the end of 2014.

When asked about the artwork for the movie poster, local artist Kadriel Betsen said the following: “This artwork attempts to capture the very essence of Puerto Rico’s Heavy Metal scene. A scene where a particular musical taste influences the way we perceive and express our culture, and where our culture enriches and influences the way we create music. These two powerful factors gave birth to the Distorted Island…”

For more information, see the Puerto Rico Heavy Metal Studies Group‘s Faceplant page.

Heavy metal documentary The Distorted Island: Heavy Metal music and community in Puerto Rico releases first trailer

April 1, 2014 –

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A group of academics and metal fans called Puerto Rico Heavy Metal Studies spends its time working on a documentary about heavy metal in Puerto Rico named The Distorted Island: Heavy Metal music and community in Puerto Rico. The first trailer, seen below, from this project has been released as of yesterday.

Nelson Varas-Díaz, Osvaldo González, Eliut Segarra and Sigrid Mendoza comprise the research and filmmaking team. Dr. Nelson Varas-Díaz is Associate Professor at the University of Puerto Rico and a lifelong metal fan who has led the team in carrying out a research study on the local scene.

Heavy metal music is a global phenomenon composed of distinctive smaller communities throughout the world. In this upcoming documentary the glance is turned on Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island whose scene has been active for 30 years in almost complete underground status. The documentary film addresses how local bands have survived for such a long period of time through strong community ties while also highlighting the cultural and historical challenges faced along the way.

Varas-Díaz said: “The film is a tribute to the local metal scene who has survived against all odds for three decades in a cultural space that is either unaware of them, or considers them culturally unimportant. Nevertheless they continue to push forward, and while doing so, reflect on issues of local importance like religion, colonial politics, gender, and violence, among other subjects that most individuals on the Island wish to avoid.”

The film will see release later in 2014.

Interview: 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.

“Heavy Metal Music and the Communal Experience” academic conference launches in Puerto Rico

October 12, 2013 –

heavy_metal_and_the_communal_experienceWe use the term “metal community” on a regular basis, but it’s unclear to many what this includes. What is the metal community? Is it defined by boundaries, or a shared ideal?

A conference of academics is meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on March 5, 2014 to analyze this issue by presenting papers and having open discussions on the topic. Hosted by UPR professor and metalhead Nelson Varas Díaz, the conference aims to attract scholars from the Latin America, Europe and the United States.

One of the major themes is one that metalheads have brushed over for years, namely the conflict between individualism and group identity in metal. Both are strong, but individuals finds expression through group identity in metal, seemingly a paradox. In addition, the conference will explore the communal experience in metal and how it can be analyzed.

For more information, haunt the “Heavy Metal Music and the Communal Experience – Academic Conference” page on Facebook or contact Professor Díaz at nvaras@mac.com