Category Archives: Video

Heavy Metal at the Movies conference issues call for papers

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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.

Ferngully: The Last Rainforest

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Although it has little in common with the horror movies and apocalyptic fantasies reviewed here, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest won me over with its themes of humans losing touch with nature and becoming greedy narcissistic dorks who then cause the destruction of rain forests.

Warning: this movie is about 1 hour 15 min long and is children’s animated film, thus can be forgiven its heavy-handed approach since we all know that movies for children are basically propaganda from well-meaning but usually delusional dipsomaniac adults. The soundtrack has traditional folk music that sounds mystical and yet upbeat like Dead Can Dance, and this redeems much of the loss of atmosphere that occurs once any story transitions to cartoon.

The story involves loggers using a leviathan of a machine to chop down trees in the last rainforest and polluting the land as well. A human gets accidentally shrunk by the forest spirit (faeries in this case) and sees the reality of the situation and makes attempts to stop this. This evokes a physical/metaphysical antagonist who is like the Satan of forests. He was trapped in the trees in a long-past age but the churning of the machine inadvertently releases him and he melds with the machine and takes control of it. His intent is to finish his diabolical plot to destroy all forests and the life within them, possibly branching out Antaeus-style to destroy all life after that.

Naturally, our heroic characters launch on a quest in situ to defeat this monster. The intro mentions the pre-history: the humans also used to know of the existence of the fairies and during the black-demon cataclysm a Satan figure called Hexxus was spawned whose goal is to destroy the forest, and while the humans ran away and the fairies trapped Hexxus inside a tree. As you can imagine, a restoration of the magic in the soul brings back the fairies and possibly saves the last rainforest.

You probably do not want to watch this as an adult unless you are so drunk that you have an irrepressible urge to destroy rainforests and need a simple, step-by-step guide to changing your attitude. I mostly recommend this for adults to show to children, who are never too young to be taught the right propaganda — and I think this is probably better than the other options — to program them for zombie-like life among the office towers, fast food joints, sewage treatment plants and arms dumps of the modern world.

Antiviral (2012)

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Antiviral (2012)
Directed by Brandon Cronenberg
108 minutes

Death metal and horror films go hand in hand. Screaming victims, howling chainsaws, death and destruction, subjugation and helplessness, existential angst and nihilistic outcomes. But what about death metal and a film that crosses horror, suspense, sci-fi and disturbingly investigative psychological tension?

Brandon Cronenberg, the son of edge-of-insanity filmmaker David Cronenberg, directed Antiviral which hit the screens in 2012. Following in the family tradition, he peels back the layers of justification and shows us a metaphor for our psychology in this odd and disturbing modern time. Unlike his Dad, Brandon offers more of a sense of personality horror; this is abundantly character-driven in addition to being concept-driven.

In this tense film, which seems to be set in an alternative present, celebrity culture has reached a peak mania. People are so besotted with the celebrity experience that there is a lucrative trade in infections that have their origin in celebrities. A specialized industry contracts with celebs for their diseases, harvests those diseases and then reproduces them so that ordinary people can infect themselves and share an experience with the stars of the big screen.

The biggest of these stars is Hannah Geist, a starlet of comparable stature among the fawning life-dropout masses as Jennifer Lawrence back in our reality. She is worshiped by the herd and represents top-notch product for those who wish to sell diseases. Cronenberg emphasizes this with shots of people who act like slow-motion zombies, lost in an orgiastic reverie of union with celebrities, the focal point of social interest in the culture.

Brandon offers more contrast-based filmmaking than his father. Where the elder Cronenberg relishes the organic, the younger relishes the symbolic and the disturbingly out of place. He films in a kind of breathless patience that is moving full speed ahead to notice everything, which requires a manic (Adderall-like) focus on stillness and the smallest of events. He shows characters confronting their own limitations and fears, and as a result, has characters who do more than act out an experience. They grow, even if in dubious ways.

Much like the fiction of William Gibson, Antiviral is heavily metaphorical and reveals some unsettling truths about our rather mundane world through an exotic one. In doing so, Cronenberg creates an atmosphere of the surreal and disturbing that infiltrates all thoughts of comfort and stability and upends them with a view of the dark rotten core of own celebrity-crazed culture.

Immolation – Live at B.B. King in NYC, 2006

To sweeten the pot of the Hope and Horror EP, Immolation added a live DVD of a show demonstrating material from throughout their career. Pound for pound, this recording is one of the better live video and audio combinations to come out of extreme metal. The sound is a single track extracted from the soundboard, leaving out most crowd noise and faithfully capturing the instrumental sound in a thin but clear quality where optimally guitars would be louder. However, nothing cannot be heard and there are no fade-outs, which makes this a joy to follow along, especially since the videographer specializes in capturing tight shots of the playing of instruments as well as wide pans that show the enormous synchronicity and professionalism of this band. Unlike most videos, there are enough shots of the drummer and they linger long enough for us to see the interplay of hands and feet. The performance Immolation delivers merits quality cinematic treatment because it is technically precise, with medium levels of energy that allow the music not performer aerobics to be the focus of the video, and with none of the unprofessionalism or confusion that can make metal shows drag like extended sentences in foreign prisons. For technical reasons as well as the power of the performance itself this video should be commended.

1. Swarm of Terror (03:09)
2. Unholy Cult (06:25)
3. Into Everlasting Fire (05:27)
4. Dead to Me (04:11)
5. Sinful Nature (03:14)
6. Harnessing Ruin (04:27)
7. Unpardonable Sin (04:26)
8. Crown the Liar (04:41)
9. No Jesus, No Beast (04:45)
10. At Mourning’s Twilight (06:07)
Length: 48:18

Danzig – Archive de la Morte

(Music Video Distributors, 2004, 60 Min, $10)

Few underground bands will achieve a video document of this quality. It consists entirely of MTV-style song videos, professionally filmed and edited, which are either miniature movies in which the band is featured or high quality live recordings. The sound quality is excellent, as is the image quality, but having someone take the time to edit and shape the video experience as one might find in a cinema puts these in a different league. However, this DVD has a weak spot, and it is the choice of material. Where a disc of sloppier and less coherent videos from classic Danzig, namely the first two albums, would be a gigantic hit, there’s only one song from that era on here, and while the material from his later albums is good, it’s also more typical hard rock/heavy metal and thus does not show this band at their most adept and inventive phase. Furthermore, this DVD is literally an archive, and gives us six songs with up to three versions of the video for each, which makes it not only unsuitable for casual viewing but very limited. Couldn’t someone tack on some crappy handheld video of a live set at the end, as, well, that would be more the whole of the Danzig experience than this narrow snapshot? The videos are quite artistic, and feature heavy symbolism and plenty of evil moments. It culminates in “Mother ’93,” which is essentially the album track dubbed over some hammy but expertly edited live video. If you are a Danzig fanatic, this provides you with the videos you saw on MTV and the uncensored versions that you probably wanted desperately at the time. For the more casual fan, this video will probably seem like a hasty and unthinking compilation of material that documents the less triumphant moments of an otherwise influential act.

Bones – “Mayhem on a Cross”

(Fox, Episode 421, 4-16-09)

Covering metal as a setting presents a problem for television because it’s nearly impossible to reveal much about the genre from a mainstream perspective, especially since it’s not the topic of the show. On Bones, the topic is murder and the setting is an underground of black/death/nu-metal bands who use the corpse of a murder victim as a prop. Having followed Temperance Brennan in Dr. Kathy Reichs’ books for some years, I was glad to see the show clarified her character. In addition, this show obliquely tackles the issues at the core of death and black metal. Brennan represents science and rationalism; her counterpart, Seeley Booth, represents monism and aesthetics. The interplay of their characters reminds me of the interaction between Fitzwilliam Darcy (Bones) and Elizabeth Bennet (Booth) in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Much like people in modern society, they assume Rationalism as a basis of reality but find the details overwhelm them. In the course of the show, they explore a desire in parallel between the show and the metal bands represented — how to express the horror of a modern time in a way that makes you like it, and want to use it as a showdown between good and evil, especially evil disguised as good, and how Rationalism — linear, logical, discrete, symbolic thinking — can get in the way of understanding our task of understanding ourselves. Diehards will not be pleased that the genres get lumped together in the bands shown, but will be interested to see the show’s clinical psychologist analyze the difference between the two. However, since the show is not about metal, but murder with metal as the setting, the airtime given to these underground genres is generous and the depiction accurate albeit distant.

Asphyx – Live at Party San 2007


Asphyx – Live at Party San 2007
Ibex Moon Records, 60:32, 2009, $11

Asphyx make that which is heavy fun and compelling. This could be one of my favorite recorded metal concerts because it captures not only the professionalism, but also the minimal set-up and adornment, as well as the different frequencies of energy this band emit. They convert dark empty spaces to ones filled with a new kind of like, like twilight or morning, in which the darkness is never pure, having been converted to the inertia of day. All band members are professional and precise, and while Martin van Drunen gets his share of camera time, in my view it is the workmanlike and intensely concentrating Bob “Mister Asphyx” Bagchus who steals the show with his serious and intense facial expressions to accompany his exact drumming. Wannes Gubbels, bassist/vocalist late of Pentacle, injects a ton of exuberance, while guitarist Paul Wayyans shows us death metal the original way — a science and an art that both has to be kept simple and done so that it all makes sense in the end. These 62 minutes of powerful recording span the band’s entire career but focus on the classics from The Rack and Last One on Earth, giving us a set with career diversity but also a powerhouse of the songs that defined this band. Video is professionally shot with multiple camera angles, and while effects like the high contrast black and white flash, the rising fake flames, and occasional slo-mo are used, they are not distracting. van Drunen’s voice is excellent; I don’t know another metal vocalist who can make the guttural sounds of death vocals while keeping a forced scream going at the same time. He is an excellent frontman who both works the crowd, throwing out his ad libs with perfect rhythm to keep motivation high, and a consummate professional who uses his voice as an effective instrument. I think this should be mandatory watching in schools. This review refers to the DVD included with the release of Asphyx Death… The Brutal Way.

Until the Light Takes Us

(Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites, 2008, 93 min, $16)

If we ask why instead of how an event happened, we find out what made the humans behind it do as they did. “Until the Light Takes Us” explores the why of early 1990s Norwegian black metal. Designed for people with no knowledge of that subculture, the film explains the black metal movement while making its actors emotionally accessible so we feel an urge to understand it. In a time of a sudden interest in metal documentaries, this film stands out by exploring the personalities and ideals that made people invent the music; other films look at the facts of how the music was invented but never the why. We don’t need another documentary telling us millions of people worldwide go crazy for heavy metal so it’s OK if we want to as well. We need to figure out what makes people pick this genre over every other. “Until the Light Takes Us” gets into the why of black metal and the church arsons, murder and media circus that followed. Through fragments of media footage, interviews, and footage of black metal musician Fenriz as he prepares to visit an art exhibit about black metal, this film explores the clash between fantasy and utilitarian modernity that sparked the radicalization of heavy metal. At its culmination, the documentary shows past colliding with present, and a fervent ideal of being against the modern world and believing in a mythic life full of fantasy, adventurous violence and conflict. It is both poignant and literal, like black metal a collision of alienated punk gumption and epic dreams. Like black metal, this film is a study of moods, overlapping in translucent layers, which as they are pulled away show us a simple shape of truth. Although some have bemoaned the inclusion of too much Varg or Fenriz, it became clear from other interviews that musicians are not an articulate bunch and the two who get the most screen time do so in part because they can explain themselves coherently. In the case of Varg, he’s easy to watch: he’s funny, sharp, friendly and his logic is lucid. Fenriz is moodier but his dark sense of absurdist humor commands the film. At the core of this genre, Ewell and Aites find a revolution against consumerism, equality, uniformity, utilitarianism and all other modern concepts by 35-year-old teenagers who never gave up on the idea that life should have adventure, constant discovery and a sense of meaning that unites the entire experience. Unlike most people, these individuals are fully aware of what death means, and when contrasted with the robotic plastic surroundings of the modern world, a parallax shift occurs: we go from seeing them as out of place to seeing their surroundings as out of place or perhaps, irrelevant. This film is a cipher, in that it gives us many entry points to a questioning of modern society and exploration of the ideas of black metal. Among other things, it is obsessed with the erasure of memory and culture, an inspection of the culture of convenience and the isolation it brings, and a hint that we should explore what Joseph Campbell calls “mythic imagination” and Varg calls “fantasy.” Without being socially critical, it is an exploration through the eyes of those who made black metal, and then saw it erased as it became a product with the passage of time.

Metal has been crying out for a movie like this for decades. “Until the Light Takes Us” does what even metalheads cannot do most of the time: it takes the genre seriously as an art form, and peers behind the outlandish behavior and image to try to understand what motivates people to cast aside society for evil metal. For this alone this film should be praised, but it very quietly exposes metal like a blueprint, all while showing us the emotions of the people involved. It is compelling. Clearly these filmmakers knew how to ask the right questions and patiently wait for their subjects to articulate their points of view, then snatch the moments of greatest clarity and present them with impact. Scenes of industrial desolation follow the impact of strident words, and fires of ancient churches melt into shots of the memorabilia and essential moments of a developing genre. Each fan will probably have a wishlist for changing this film, but that only shows how much it seizes the imagination. I would enjoy seeing a comparison between black metal and the European Romantic literature, theatre and music of two centuries ago. Others have commented that less Frost (of Satyricon) might accelerate the latter half, but this reviewer was not troubled by either detail. While much of the material in the movie is well-known in the form that leaked out through the media, rediscovering it through this artfully told history is a dream come true. The documentarians hide themselves and let the characters tell their own side of it. What makes it a dream to which we’d like to return is that it explores the why of this music, and in doing so shows us the fans why we found so much hope and possibility in black metal.

Samhain – Live in 1984 at Stardust Ballroom, Hollywood

(Music Video Distributors, 2004, 48 min, $20)

This hand-filmed, single-camera narrative documents a time when underground music was still struggling to find its path, and while the quality may not be that of a slick professional recording, the delivery of the band is captured in as much detail as is needed. The sound, when it is not cutting out, is good and separation between instruments and vocals can be heard clearly. Glenn Danzig is an energetic vocalist without either the jaded reserve or overindulgent showmanship of later years, and the crowd looks shellshocked and unsure of what they’re seeing, which has the advantage of them doing fewer stupid things to mar enjoyment of the performance. The band are economical with their onstage motions, and tight in their playing, which gives these songs the same power they have coming off of a CD. An enclosed sticker provokes some nostalgia for the time, an age of xeroxed posters and grimly absurd art, of people gathering in long-forgotten clubs to bash out violent performances. For those who like what Samhain were about, this DVD is everything that could be desired from this foundational band.

The Michael Schenker Group – Live in Tokyo 1997

(Metal Mind Productions, 2004, 236 Min, $14)

Despite the cheesy low-budget titles which preceded the actual performance, this video is quite competent. Video quality is high, color balance is good, and sound is as near to pristine as one can get through this medium. The problem is that it is filmed like a Bon Jovi live set, with too much focus on the vocalist and a total shortage of the crucial closeups of guitar playing that should accompany performances by people renowned for their instrumental ability. Is that rocket science, or what? We get plenty of wide-stage views and frontal closeup of “emotional” moments during the singing, but a fault of tight shots and creative angles. Tastefully the filmmakers avoid too much crowd interaction, which is smart since if one’s best qualification is having bought a ticket, it is probably not a sign that one has much to say/gesture of note. For this reviewer, the music on this DVD was too much of the hard rock variety, but it is clear that the performers are highly talented and it is hoped that with their next video release, there will be more focus on things of interest to musicians or people who simply admire classic guitar playing.