Interview: Jeremy Wallach, co-editor of Metal Rules the Globe: Heavy Metal Music around the World

jeremy_wallach

Jeremy Wallach made a name for himself by studying metal before it was cool, and he has expanded upon it by taking his studies worldwide. As co-editor of Metal Rules the Globe: Heavy Metal Music around the World, he explored the impact of metal on different cultures and the impact of those cultures on metal around the world. In addition, he has written numerous articles on the study of metal from many other perspectives.

As a professor in the Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University, Wallach investigates many aspects of popular music, which led to his own book Modern Noise, Fluid Genres: Popular Music in Indonesia, 1997-2001. Those who have followed the development of metal academia may remember him from his numerous articles, presentations at metal conferences, and strong ties with others in the community. We were lucky to get a few minutes with him to ask some of the pointed questions that a metalhead might want to know of a metalhead academic…

Were you a metalhead before you became an academic? If so, what drew you to metal at that time?

I’m 43 and grew up outside of Philly. Like almost everybody of my age and background, I spent my teens mostly listening to rock music. My favorite band when I was thirteen was Rush and my favorite song from Moving Pictures was “Witch Hunt,” the heaviest track on the album. From there I branched out into the harder stuff: AC/DC, Priest, Maiden, BÖC, etc. By senior year of high school, I was listening to the likes of Anthrax, Slayer, Cryptic Slaughter, SOD, and Dead Brain Cells. A fairly normal, demented progression, really. As for what drew me to it, I suppose that could end up becoming a very long essay! In a nutshell, I was attracted to the music’s intelligence, complexity, social relevance, and brutality. It was music that for me told the truth about life.

You have a lengthy list of academic publications and credentials. What made you think to combine metal and academia, and research on this specific topic?

By my senior year of college, I was convinced of two things: one, metal was a valuable and compelling cultural form that was completely misunderstood by the adult world, and two, the approaches to music and culture that I had discovered in my ethnomusicology and anthropology classes could be used to explain the importance of metal to outsiders.

Being a part of metal studies has been a learning experience. One thing I’ve learned is that in 2014 metal is more diverse and inclusive than I ever would have thought possible twenty-odd years ago. Metal’s message has more global currency than anyone could have suspected when the genre first coalesced. The consequence of this has been a field of study that has more relevance to the contemporary world than the vast majority of new fields that focus on popular culture phenomena that had their start in the 70s and 80s. One of the most challenging topics in metal studies at this point is social class. Metal’s blue-collar fan base is often difficult to locate in the 21st century flourishing and diversification of the music, especially outside of the UK, New Zealand, and Australia. We should never lose sight of the fact that it was working-class folks, people without much formal education, who set the template for heavy metal’s musical sophistication, aesthetics, and dark vision.

I was attracted to the music’s intelligence, complexity, social relevance, and brutality. It was music that for me told the truth about life.

Some of your research appears to take an “ethnographic” approach, which is a study of culture. Do you consider heavy metal a culture? If so, does it inherit properties from a broader culture, or is it a wholly self-owned entity?

I was trained as a cultural anthropologist and an ethnomusicologist in graduate school. Ethnography is the primary mode of research in these fields as they are currently practiced. “Deep hanging out” is my favorite definition of ethnography, although usually it’s quite a bit more systematic than that. Basically it involves long-term engagement with a finite group of people, gradually learning to see and experience the world the way they do. You have to master local languages and idioms, really be able to listen, and be willing to be changed by what people tell you. It’s difficult and not everyone can do it, as you can’t really maintain any sort of comfort zone. Metal ethnographers spend lots of time at shows, clubs, and recording studios, but also in cars, bars, record stores, and anywhere else metalheads gather. Pierre Hecker’s book on Turkish metal is an excellent example of a book-length ethnographic study of heavy metal.

There is a range of theories regarding how music cultures like metal interface with the “parent cultures” in which they are embedded. It’s more common now to refer to metal collectivities as “scenes” than as “subcultures.” This is mostly because of advances in cultural theory that emphasize how no culture can be a “wholly self-owned entity” of homogeneous values. All cultures have porous boundaries and are composed of contested meanings. Accordingly, metal music scenes encompass contradictory sets of values, from the celebration of virtuosity and freedom of prog to the despair and resignation of doom to the nihilism and misanthropy of black metal (etc.), and within each of these subgenres there are internal tensions as well, as most readers here know. Some of these competing values echo those of dominant culture (male supremacy, individualism), others resist it (anti-religion, anti-war, pro-drunken revelry). Even the values that seem to fit with dominant culture are not passively inherited but instead tend to be actively renegotiated and rearticulated to fit the conditions of the lives of the actual metalheads composing, performing, listening to, and interpreting metal.

That of your work that I could find online seems to emphasize spaces, both real and virtual, in not only the work but the audience. For example, your analysis of a rock club emphasizes spaces by role (shades of Christopher Alexander) and look at social/cultural separation between bands and fans in an insightful way. What are spaces? Can they be psychological or even artistic? Where do you find them in metal?

Metal culture has always been about claiming space. At the beginning of his book Running with the Devil, Robert Walser writes, “Metal energizes the body, transforming space and social relations.” It’s kind of a throwaway line in the first chapter, but like so much of what’s in that book, it hits the nail on the head. Steve Waksman’s research focuses on how metal’s powerful amplification made it the ideal music to fill arenas, while Keith Kahn-Harris’s work brings attention to the other side of the of the phenomenon: the proliferation of precarious spaces around the world for underground metal that becomes understood as a connected global network of unstable scenes. Emma Baulch has written about the importance of “territorializing” and thus localizing the underground metal scene in Bali, Indonesia, of claiming space, as Walser puts it, “in the name of a heavy metal community.” Nelson Varas Díaz has looked at practices of temporary space annexation by Puerto Rico’s proud and longstanding but highly marginalized metal scene. In all these cases “metal space” is anyplace marked by metal iconography, filled with metal sounds, and inhabited by metalheads. Seems obvious, but what’s not is what exactly goes on in metal space, which can only go on if metal space first exists. Lately I’ve become intrigued by the possibility that a type of metal space exists whenever two or more metalheads are interacting, regardless of whether the music or the iconography are in fact present at that moment. Like, I could be wearing a suit jacket at an academic conference and join some similarly-garbed graduate students in an intense conversation about Candlemass and somehow the space is transformed.

You have been a featured speaker at several recent metal conferences. How does it feel to be part of a rising academic movement? What do you think made metal finally accepted into academia?

It’s been great, of course. Metal studies appears to be an idea whose time has come. This is both a good and potentially problematic thing. Why now? An astonishing number of us were born around the time the first Sabbath record came out. We’re the first completely heavy metal generation, and now we’re finally old and established enough to change the conversation about metal in the mainstream press, rock criticism, and in scholarship. The last of these took the longest, due to the long slog of the academic profession, but we’ve made remarkable progress since 2008, thanks in part to the ease of international communication. There aren’t that many metal scholars in the world, and we come from Germany, Brazil, Finland, Turkey, New Zealand, the UK, California, Massachusetts, all over the place, but we keep in touch with each other, and the undeniable vitality and high intellectual caliber of our conferences and publications have won over more than a few formerly skeptical colleagues and administrators at our universities and in the wider academic world.

What do you think is the future of metal in academia, and how do you expect to support this with your own research?

I think metal studies has a bright future. Twenty-two years after completing my undergraduate thesis, it’s nice to see metal getting some respect. The truth is, we’ve barely scratched the surface. Metal matters — a lot — to tens of millions of people around the world and all indications are that it will not only continue to do so but that it will continue to win new converts in places like Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, India, and China, as well as among future generations in places already colonized. That means the study of heavy metal will matter, too, whether one likes it or not, at least for the segment of metal’s audience who cares about intellectual issues.

To answer the second part of your question, in my recent work, I have quite self-consciously tried to produce things that will be useful to scholars just beginning their research. The “Local Metal” piece I wrote with Allie Levine on how to study scenes (reprinted in Controversies and Countercultures) is an example of that.

What, in your view, is the (apparently) enduring appeal of heavy metal, such that it is now more than four decades old and going quite strong?

There are many schools of thought regarding metal’s appeal across the world. Some of the most common explanations, the “teenage need to rebel” and whatnot, are facile and condescending to the music’s audience. I would prefer not to speculate on this question. But I will say this: don’t forget that metal is great art. Metalheads listen to metal because they find it aesthetically compelling. To ignore this obvious explanation is to invalidate, to pathologize, the aesthetics of the fans—which I would never do, because I am a fan.

If metal was just about fulfilling male adolescent power fantasies, its appeal would be mainstream, not subcultural.

Much of your research seems to focus on masculinity in metal. Does metal have its own concept of masculinity? Is this concept stifled by society at large?

I’ve lately come to the conclusion that debates about masculinity and metal suffer from some significant shortcomings. It has become commonplace to maintain that metal somehow compensates men for the power they lack that they feel they should have in a patriarchal society that denies it to them. I have made similar statements myself. But this definitely oversimplifies things. What “men” are we talking about here? Young men? Working-class men, maybe? Men like that do have power — powerful bodies, powerful minds, power to defend themselves and others. There are external forces who want to harness that tremendous power and transform those who possess it into mindless worker bees or killing machines. Metal songs often advise people to beware of those forces; I think the music is also more about using and valuing the power one does have than fantasizing about the power one lacks.

Furthermore, such assertions make metal redundant. We already have video games and blockbuster action movies and in fact practically all mainstream popular culture that isn’t centrally concerned with the myth of romance. If metal was just about fulfilling male adolescent power fantasies, its appeal would be mainstream, not subcultural. Thus to understand metal, we need to dig deeper.

To its fans, metal is a powerful and empowering music; it gives listeners a sense of control over their own lives. That power is not always experienced as masculine, however, or as gendered at all. Metal’s detractors often charge that the music glorifies the dark side of power in its portrayal of war atrocities, serial killers, state oppression, nuclear destruction, etc. But depiction is not endorsement…I’ve gone on long enough already, but I’ll end just by saying that metal’s view of power is ambivalent, alert to both its allure and its perpetual dark side to which no one is ever immune. It addresses its audience as ambivalent empowered agents, never as emasculated victims. Some fans of course simply embrace the dark side, disavowing ambivalence. That’s one possible interpretive strategy, though it’s not the most common.

You are an acknowledged expert in Southeast Asian, specifically Indonesian, metal and culture. What drew you to this area? How is metal from this area similar to that in other areas? Are there differences?

Indonesia has had a vibrant, massive metal scene for three decades, quite possibly the largest in Asia. The scene is connected to those in two adjacent Southeast Asian nations, Malaysia and Singapore, which are similarly quite active and share a (somewhat) mutually intelligible language, Indonesian/Malay. Since, until the quite recent advent of folk metal, English was the only acceptable language for international metal, lots of bands from all three countries sing in that language, too. Since I began studying the Indonesian scene about twenty years ago (visiting there the first time in 1997), I’ve compared it to other metal scenes around the planet. I’ve found that Indonesia really is remarkable for the size, longevity, and dedication of its metal scene, which is older and a great deal larger than the burgeoning metal scenes in most other Asian nations (with the exception of Japan, of course). It’s also perhaps unique in that Joko Widodo, the current front-runner in the July Indonesian presidential election, is a proud, outspoken headbanger. So Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, might be the origin of the first metalhead world leader. Which of course raises the question, why is metal so big there? Still working on that one…

Do you have any personal favorite metal bands? If so, what are they?

Let me preface this by saying that my listening preferences are eclectic and I try to listen to both fashionable and unfashionable subgenres of metal. (For example, I really like Head Phones President, a Japanese group whose sound owes an obvious debt to the most vilified of American nü-metal bands; I also dig some power metal.) I’m also hardly esoteric in my tastes, and if I find out about an amazing obscure band it’s either serendipitous or, more likely, a recommendation from one of my students. All that said, of course! Recent discoveries: I got to hear some great bands in Puerto Rico back in March, including Tavú, Organic, and doom metal scene stalwarts Dantesco. Erico from Dantesco is currently my favorite vocalist, along with Silent Hell’s Kin Lin. Vallendusk’s a great atmospheric black metal band that sounds to me like a sort of a cross between Alcest and Panopticon, and they’re from Indonesia! I should also mention Winterhymn, who I saw on tour with Paganfest—great Viking/folk metal from my home state of Ohio. I don’t know what their story is, but their music is quite impressive and represents a sadly underappreciated subgenre in the States. As for personal favorites, mostly predictable I’m afraid: Chthonic, Fates Warning, Sabbath, Slayer, Maiden, Priest, Amorphis, Anthrax, Sepultura, St. Vitus, and the Indonesian bands Seringai, Puppen, and Slowdeath.

I will say this: don’t forget that metal is great art. Metalheads listen to metal because they find it aesthetically compelling.

Where is the best place for someone to go to read more of your work?

My website has an online CV with links to PDFs of many of my publications. The articles are there with the permission of the individual publishers, so not everything is up, but it’s a good place to start. Once I started putting things on the page, I started finding many more references to my work in the Indonesian news media, not to mention student essays posted online. Unfortunately a lot of what I’ve written is still hard to get a hold of for anyone without access to an academic library, though I know a number of public libraries now carry Metal Rules the Globe. Readers of this interview can always contact me directly, especially if they’ve actually read this far!

What’s next for you? You’ve got a book forthcoming and are rumored to be working on new research. Can you tell us what future directions you’re pursuing?

Esther Clinton and I are working on another edited volume, sort of a follow-up to MRTG. I probably shouldn’t say much about it, since it’s still in the beginning phase. I also think it might upset some people. Additionally, I’m working on various pieces of writing that develop ideas mentioned in this interview involving power, ethics, and sociality in metal culture. There’s other stuff, always more than I can manage.

Thank you for taking the time to do this.

You’re quite welcome. Metal on.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CR-IPCY3Dr8

4 Comments

Tags: , , , , ,

Heavy metal arises most frequently in wealthy nations

what_society_looks_like_to_an_outsider

The Atlantic’s CityLab writes how [heavy metal, the] music of disillusion and despair is, strangely, biggest in countries with very high quality of life:

Heavy metal is a strange case, then. The music sprouted originally from working-class kids in economically ravaged, deindustrialized places like Birmingham, England. Even today, it seems to be most popular among disadvantaged, alienated, working-class kids.

But take a look at the map below, which I wrote about two years ago, and have been thinking again about over the past couple of months. It tracks the number of heavy metal bands per 100,000 residents using data from the Encyclopaedia Metallum. The genre holds less sway in the ravaged postindustrial places of its birth, but remains insanely popular in Scandinavian countries known for their relative wealth, robust social safety nets, and incredibly high quality of life.

This should surprise no one. Heavy metal is not a reaction to external physical challenges like poverty, but a reaction to cultural decay. It exclusively arises in industrial societies, as did punk, because our problem is not that we do not have options but that we — in the view of these artists — picked the wrong options. Heavy metal is music of internal criticism of a society that believes it has lost sight of life itself in the midst of its own opinions, economics and other proxies.

As written in The Heavy Metal FAQ:

Heavy metal inherited all of this through a modern form because of its desire to escape the cognitive dissonance reaction to modern life. In part, this impulse comes from the metalhead who realizes that he or she is basically powerless, except in a future time when predictions about the negative nature of modern society will come true. Of course, in the now, parents brush that aside and go shopping, stockpiling retirement funds so they can carelessly wish their children a good life before disappearing into managed care facilities with 24-hour cable movie channels. A more fundamental part of this dissident realism is creative. People who see most of society going into denial because they cannot handle their low social status, the dire future of human overpopulation and industrialization, and the negative motivations hiding beneath social pretense, aka “cognitive dissonance,” will often mourn most for the opportunities lost when people value putting their heads in the sand more than finding beauty in life. It is the convergence of these ideas that creates the violent and masculine but sensitive, Romantic side to metal: it is a genre of finding beauty in darkness, order in chaos, wisdom in horror, and restoring humanity to a path of sanity — by paying attention to the “heavy” things in life that, because they are socially denied, are left out of the discussion but continue to shape it through most people’s desire to avoid mentioning them.

This same principle underlies classic European and Greco-Roman art and music, the idea of an aggressive and warlike but wise and sensitive motivation that is both religious and scientific, peaceful and belligerent, because it understands a principle of order to the universe and asserts it because it is beautiful in that it is a “meta-good,” or the harmonious result of darkness and light in conflict. For this reason, it is not moral in the sense of judging as good or evil, and neither fits into the hippie “peace, love and hedonism” approach nor the conservative, market- bound ignorance-is-bliss smoke and mirrors of mainstream music and bourgeois art. Unlike any other musical principle, the one thing that unites the varied borrowings from baroque, rock, jazz, blues, folk, country, classical and electronic music that form heavy metal is this Romantic principle of doing what is right not in a moral sense to the individual, but in a sense of the larger questions of human adaptation to the universe, the conceptual root of “heavy” in metal and what throughout history has been called by a simple syllable: “vir,” the root of virtue in a sense older than a modern moral interpretation as chastity. Vir is doing what is right by the order of the universe discerned by asking the “heavy” questions, and speaks to an abstract structure of right as opposed to an aesthetic one, where the individual picks the non- threatening as an option to the threatening.

The point behind heavy metal is to discover the life that is denied. That is the “heavy,” or that which acknowledges existential doubts and fears instead of burying them behind socially popular ideas. This is why heavy metal is such outsider music: it sees most people as delusional because they deny the mechanics of life itself because those mechanics are dark, so it embraces the darkness to show us the wisdom found within.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SK2_eHJwtro

5 Comments

Tags: ,

Call for contributions to a new edited volume Black Shabbes: Jews & Metal edited by Shamma Boyarin and Keith Kahn-Harris

metalheads_in_natural_habitat

When the guitarist Marty Friedman auditioned for Megadeth, singer Dave Mustaine loved his playing but told his manager to get Friedman to change his name because Jews were ‘not metal’

Can Jews ‘be metal’?

Certainly, crude stereotypes of the Jewish male – weak, bookish, awkward, hypochondriac – and crude stereotypes of the metal male – sexually promiscuous, loud and tough – seem to be in conflict. Yet not only do these stereotypes hide the considerable diversity amongst both Jews and metallers (to say nothing of their gendered nature), there is a significant history of Jewish involvement in metal culture.

Jews have featured prominently in significant numbers of prominent metal bands, including Kiss, Anthrax, Biohazard, Death and Guns N Roses. Moreover, in at least some cases, the Jewish backgrounds of metal musicians has impacted on their careers, as in the networks of communal and family support that Anvil drew on during their long commercial decline. Further, there have also been metal bands that have drawn on Jewish sources and themes, including Israeli acts such as Orphaned Land and Salem and a number of more obscure artists in the US.

Yet whilst there has been a more than nominal Jewish involvement in metal, the significance and impact of this involvement is much less clear. What might looking at metal through a Jewish lens and Jewishness through a metal lens bring to light? A sustained consideration of the relationship between Jews and metal will illuminate this hidden history while at the same time raising wider issues in the nature of Jewish and metal identity and culture.

We invite contributions from academics, critics, writers musicians and others, for a volume dedicated to explore the connection between metal and Jews from a number of different perspectives. We welcome both non-fiction and fiction.

Themes can include:

  • The history of the Jewish presence in metal.
  • The use of Jewish themes in metal
  • Israeli metal scenes
  • The relationship between Satanism, anti-Semitism and Judaism as explored in metal
  • Anti-semitism within metal scenes
  • Reading/hearing metal through a Jewish lens – is a Jewish metal criticism possible?
  • Jewish community attitudes to metal

Please submit abstracts of 200-250 words (by September 30 2014), and inquiries to:

Shamma Boyarin sboyarin@uvic.ca
Keith Kahn-Harris keith@kahn-harris.org

5 Comments

Tags: , , , , ,

Sadistic Metal Reviews 05-19-14

heavy_metal_ruined_my_life

What are Sadistic Metal Reviews? We enforce the reality the metal community runs in fear from: music can be judged objectively, but most people “prefer” junk. They want their music to make them look cool to their nitwit social groups, so they deliberately select moron music. Falses, don’t entry!

triptykon-melana_chasmataTriptykon – Melana Chasmata

You do not hire the Navy SEALs to remove your fire ant infestation. Similarly, there is no point telling Tom G. Warrior to “make an album like all those other ones.” It’s the wrong tool for the job. This album is atrocious because it relies on very familiar and predictable ideas with no density, and then Warrior tries to shoehorn some depth into it but achieves on oil on water effect, like someone trying to layer Beethoven over Pantera. The result just dumb and painful. Run like hell.


lacuna_coil-broken_crown_haloLacuna Coil – Broken Crown Halo

This isn’t even metal. It’s the same smarmy cheesy shit that they sing in lounges for drunk bluehairs in Vegas, but they shifted from open chords to power chords. There isn’t even any particular focus on riffs here, just some blithe chord progressions shifting in the background while the vocals take it. But even worse, the music is entirely predictable. This is different from being “basic” in that it’s not derived from simplicity, but a generic version of the same stuff everyone else does. But that “everyone else” aren’t metal bands, and these entryists are trying to sneak that moronic garbage in through the back door.


aborted-the_necrotic_manifestoAborted – The Necrotic Manifesto

People are not bands. Bands are (composed of) people, but are not people. Even a band with good people in it can end up making music as interesting as poured concrete. “Oooh, look how flat it is!” But that’s kind of the problem here: Aborted is flat. It’s straight-ahead pounding death metal/grind hybrid that tends to like one- and two-chord riffs that shape themselves around a basic rhythm. Songs tend toward straight-ahead structures as well. The whole thing feels mentally hasty, like they aimed for a simple goal and then did one take and called it good enough. The highly compressed production just makes it excruciating to hear.


kill_devil_hill-revolution_riseKill Devil Hill – Revolution Rise

Some bands you don’t want to be noticed listening to lest people think you’re an imbecile. Kill Devil Hill is warmed over 1980s Sunset Strip glam “metal” (i.e.: hard rock) with some alternative rock stylings and occasional Rob Zombie infusions. That’s it, and the style tells you the content. In addition to mind-numbing repetition, like all rock music this dunce material focuses on the vocalist and some imagined fantasy mystical “power” to very cheesy vocals emphasizing very obvious emotions. It’s like watching Shakespeare done by a troupe of brain injury patients. Even the attempts to be “edgy” by working in oddball found sounds and minor techno influences falls flat because the whole package is so blindingly obvious and equally as plainly designed for thumb-suckers.


blood_eagle-kill_your_tyrantsBlood Eagle – Kill Your Tyrants

At least this has some balls, but metal needs both a warlike outlook and an interesting musical development. The latter is where Blood Eagle falls down: too much downstrumming, repetitive riff forms, repetitive song forms and reliance and skull-shakingly basic rhythms that involve a slamming conclusion makes this music no fun to listen to. It is like hearing a constant pounding with Pantera-style angry ranting in a death metal vocal over the top, but the plot rarely changes. When the band gives itself a little room for melody, as in the end of “Serpent Thoughts,” we see how much better this could have been. Instead it sounds like road rage stuck on repeat on a forgotten late night TV channel.


eyehategod-eyehategodEyehategod – Eyehategod

The New Orleans hit factory just keeps cranking them out. WAIT — that’s not what you want to hear about underground metal. Could the writer be implying that this trivial drivel is actually just pop music? Yes, yes he is. Eyehategod started out with a slow punk/grind mix that was boring but kind of aggressive. Then they made it with great production for Dopesick, which was a mildly interesting record. Since then, they’ve gotten closer to the hipster zone. Eyehategod makes me feel like I’ve stepped back into the early 1980s. Punk had just lost direction and every band was recycling old ideas or trying to be “different” with tricks that amounted to little more than stunts. The emptiness was staring us in the face, and no one was talking about it. This album is stereotypical hollow man hardcore with a bit of southern fried bullshit and a couple metal riffs. Why not just go listen to the failed albums by burnt-out and aged punk bands, because they at least have more consistent. This is just an odds ‘n’ ends drawer with a high production budget. You can sniff out the hollowness by how many times they hit you over the head with their image, working in every southern trailer failure term they can, and then performing their party act of ranting vocals over hard rock riffs. It breathes staleness and marketing like a home remortgaging plan.


day_of_doom-the_gates_of_hellDay of Doom – The Gates of Hell

Metal bands should know by now to avoid the formula where the entire song is based around a vocal cadence, with guitars trying for a really basic pattern the vocals can play off of, and drums in perpetual fill mode. This means that the simplistic plodding patterns of vocals define everything else, which means everything else clusters around the lowest common denominator, and you end up with music whose sole (no pun intended) purposes is to make you tap your feet and wave your head to an undulating rhythm. This works great if you’re a sea anemone, but not so good for anything else. Day of Doom is one of those slow-strobing-strum bands that clearly intends for the whole audience to bounce at the same time in trope, but forgets that this is mindlessly boring when you’re not in a concert setting. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with these guys, but what they’re trying to do is wrong (as in unrealistic and stupid).


on_top-top_to_bottomOn Top – Top to Bottom

Mixed hardrock/punk, On Top has a clever name but otherwise is exactly as predictable as you might imagine. Lots of bouncy riffs, melodic choruses, angry vocals that specialize in repetitive tropes. If you derive a lot of value from doing the same thing others are doing at the same time, this might be your thing. It’s super-catchy like Biohazard or Pantera were, with plenty of syncopation in vocal rhythms to give them some kick, and songs even develop one level past pure circularity. It basically sounds like something you would expect the rebellious character to listen to in a movie as he drinks his whisky and drives fast. Other than this one-dimensionality, this is one of the few things in this review batch with any musicality. It’s just applied in such a way that people who aren’t drunk and sixteen will rapidly tire of.

howls_of_ebb-vigils_of_the_3rd_eyeHowls of Ebb – Vigils of the 3rd Eye

Howls of Ebb adopt an interesting strategy, which is to hide a Maudlin of the Well style quasi-prog in the midst of a dirty modern heavy metal band. At its core, this is heavy metal of the late 1980s variety, but this is carefully concealed under fast death metal riffs and whispered vocals which expand into dissonant chording and riff salads of the post-jazz-fusion era. The catchiness of the basic heavy metal riffing and the tendency to use tempo changes which fit in that model remain, but the weirdness accentuates it. If you can image Powermad adopting a bit of grunge and progressive metal, then slowing down half of its parts in a melodic jazzy style reminiscent of Absu crossed with Maudlin of the Well, you have the basic idea. The result is not only not bad but stands up to repeated listens. It will probably stay B-ranked in that its compositions make sense on a musical level but convey little else, and often the riff salads meander off-course enough to leave an impression but not a clear one. Still, this is more thoughtful than almost all of the metal at this commercial level and while it’s not underground, it’s much preferred to the usual tripe.

personal_device-microorganismos_del_malPersonal Device – Microorganismos del Mal

First there was the faux 80s crossover thrash revival with party retro-thrash bands like Toxic Holocaust and Municipal Waste, then bands like Birth A.D. bounced back with actual thrash and reformed the genre. Now Personal Device take it a step both further and in a different direction by being a classic hardcore band that informs itself with early speed metal like the first Metallica and Nuclear Assault albums. The result is bouncy fast and precise punk like Ratos de Porao or even middle-period Bad Brains that is thoroughly enjoyable with riff breaks that resemble “The Four Horsemen” or maybe even “Live, Suffer, Die.” Their guitars are remarkably precise which creates an unusual sound for punk that by making it mechanistic makes it seem more inexorable than like protest music, and the result is a more testosterone-fueled and warlike approach. Mix that with the surging chord changes of speed metal and the fast repetitive chanted choruses from thrash, and you have a high-energy band. Its flaws are that experienced listeners may find this a bit too transparent, and that many of its rhythms are similar, but the band has administered its style with an editor’s red pen handy, cutting out any lesser parts, which gives it more staying power than all but a few albums in this stylistic range. This was a pleasant surprise to find in the review pile.

24 Comments

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Heavy metal antiquity panel seeking submissions for Heavy Metal Classics: The Reception of the Classical World in Heavy Metal

viking_heavy_metal

Following up on the successful 2014 CAMWS panel on the reception of classical antiquity in heavy metal music, we are inviting contributions to a proposed volume on the reception of Greco-Roman antiquity by heavy metal artists. We welcome contributors from a variety of disciplines, including (but not limited to) Classics, Archaeology, Musicology, Sociology, Comparative Literature, and Cultural Studies, to illustrate and explore the enduring connection between heavy metal and the ancient world.

Possible topics include: the use of classical sources in lyrics; visual representations of the ancient world on album covers and in music videos; the role of gender in constructions of antiquity; the appeal of mythology; the use of classical material for political and social critiques; the construction of national identity through appeal to the ancient world; the use of Latin and/or Greek. The ideal contribution will demonstrate an awareness that a study of reception can show us just as much about Classics and its place and meaning in the modern world as it does about heavy metal as a genre. Such a contribution will also make it clear that song lyrics are only one aspect of musical genre.

Our proposed timeframe is: abstract submission by November 1, 2014; contributors notified of acceptance no later than December 15, 2014; first draft of contribution due by July 1, 2015; comments on contributions returned to authors no later than September 1, 2015; second draft of contribution due by December 31, 2015, with the shopping of the volume to presses to begin immediately after that. We will then submit the entire assembled volume to an interested publisher.

Send abstracts of no more than 500 words to heavymetalantiquity@gmail.com by November 1, 2014. Please include a bibliography, discography and current CV.

If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact us:

Kris Fletcher, Louisiana State University (kfletc8@lsu.edu)
Osman Umurhan, University of New Mexico (umurhan@unm.edu)

2 Comments

Tags: , , , ,

Obsessing over pop music and insecurity in metal

justin_bieber-heavy_metal

Insecurity and heavy metal should be as far away from each other as possible as they are from two vastly different worlds. One is of the brave and adventurous mind, and the other frightened and self-pitying. The cognitive dissonance is undeniable.

Still, a large number of “metalheads” choose to (beyond my understanding) make it their mission to “wage war on pop music.” This hits a whole new level of confusion for me, because there is nothing remotely metal about the likes of Taylor Swift or One Direction, but these people continue to insist that there must be. Why else would they compare them?

Modern pop musicians have never tried to infiltrate metal culture. I’ve never seen a tween pop icon wearing an Imprecation shirt, metal band patches, or spiked wristbands. And that’s because metal is separate, dangerous in terms of intensity both in music and lyrical themes, and not meant for mainstream consumption. Pop music and heavy metal are two completely different things that contrast in both ideology and musical form. So why are people who claim to be metalheads so frequently talking about pop music like it’s metal’s kryptonite?

Maybe because they’re insecure about themselves, and engage in this behavior because it makes them seem edgy or tough. They aren’t as into metal as they are into the image that metal provides for them. They want to be seen as the rebel, the enemy of the norm, unique, but with mostly nothing to back that persona up other than a few YouTube comments on Justin Bieber videos. It’s an easily obtained identity, but entirely deceptive.

There is another and scarier possibility as well. A scapegoat is a relatively innocent creature into which people symbolically project their sins so that they do not need to see those sins in themselves. As metal gets more pop, metalheads feel more pressure to point to One Direction and say, “See, that’s pop, not this candy black metal or lite-jazz tech-deth that I consume.” In this case, it’s a status contest for what economists call a “positional good,” or a product purchased to make the purchaser seem more successful and sociable.

If people who participate in this nonsense happen to be reading, know this: that behavior is doing nothing to benefit heavy metal or its future. The only thing it’s doing is making the public incorrectly view heavy metal culture as the whine of insecure teenage brats. It also sets the implication that metal needs the approval or acceptance of the mainstream crowd (which only wants to assimilate it). The future of heavy metal will do just fine without Hollywood’s hand to hold, I assure you.

The sure mark of a poser is one who talks about what he hates more than what he likes. You want to contribute? Support good bands, leave pop music be, and polish the throne. If you’re unable to do that, then it’s about time that you leave the hall.

29 Comments

Tags: , ,

Death metal albums of which I will never tire

morbid_angel-live

Early death metal (Bathory, Slayer, Hellhammer, Sodom, Master) emerged as an aggregate of the past, comprised of speed metal (Metallica, Exodus, Nuclear Assault, Testament, Megadeth), late hardcore (Cro-Mags, Amebix, Discharge, The Exploited, GBH), classic heavy metal (Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Motorhead) and thrash (DRI, COC, Cryptic Slaughter). As a result, most death metal bands exhibited some tendencies more than others, although the founding early death metal bands tended toward the type of tremolo-powered phrase-based riffing exemplified by Slayer.

For example, Deicide on its second album Legion arguably made the album that …And Justice For All wanted to be, with lots of choppy percussive riffing forming intricate textures from which a melody emerged. Early Master sounded more like a punk band with its simple song structures and emphasis on droning, protest-like vocals. Second-wave death metal like Death and Possessed had a tendency to apply speed metal song structures and riff styles. Even advanced death metal like Pestilence often sounded like a more technical and complex version of early speed metal.

But focusing on death metal requires we look at what was unique to it. Getting past the vocals and the intensity, what distinguishes it musically is its use of that tremolo-strummed phrasal riff. This in turn forced bands to escape from riffs integrated strictly with drums, and to as a result put more riffs into the song to drive changes that previous would have been done by the drums. That in turn forced bands to make those riffs fit together, what Asphyx call “riff-gluing,” so that songs avoided the “riff salad” plague that captured later speed metal.

These bands exploded onto the world from 1983-1985, inspired in part by Discharge’s Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing which hit the ground in 1982. Slayer in particular stitched together classic heavy metal and ambient hardcore like Discharge and GBH and ended up with its particular formulation, taking the tremolo and riffs independent of drums from Discharge and matching them to the complex proggy structures of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden with Motorhead speed and aggression. This was what launched death metal free from the shadow of speed metal, which was the first metal genre to break out of underground status despite being — for the time — fast, aggressive and dark.

If you want to get to the core of death metal, these albums might help. They’re albums I keep returning to year after year because they have enough complexity and that unquantifiable quality of having purpose and being expressive, perhaps even emulating the life around them and converting it into a beast of mythological quality, which makes them interesting each time I pick them up. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, the players….

Slayer – Show No Mercy

While Hell Awaits has more expert composition, South of Heaven better control of mood and melody, and Reign in Blood more pure rhythmic intensity, Show No Mercy captures Slayer flush with the fervor of youth and the belief in big concepts. As a result, it is an intensity mystical album, uniting a narrative about war between good and evil with the actions of people on earth. It is not like Hell Awaits more solidly situated in a single mythology, nor like Reign in Blood and after an attempt to explore the dark side of modern existence in a literal sense. Instead, it is a flight of imagination mated to an apocalyptic vision of a society crumbling from within. As a result it is musically the most imaginative of Slayer albums, creating grand constructions of visions of worlds beyond that stimulate the fantasy dwelling within our otherwise obedient minds.

Massacra – Enjoy the Violence

Another early album in very much the style of Slayer but with intensity cranked to the ceiling, Enjoy the Violence shows a band intent on conveying intense energy through their music. To do this, they rely on not only near-constant breakneck speed but also vivid contrasts between the types of riffs that are used in a song, welding a rich narrative from riffs that initially seem simple like the scattered twisted bits of metal left after a battle. The result is closer to epic poem that punk music and blows conventional heavy metal and speed metal out of the water with the sense of unbridled aggression and lust for life that surges through its passages. In addition, it carries on the mythological tradition of Slayer but adds a Nietzschean spin whereby constant war for supremacy and domination is the only path not only to victory, but to personal integrity.

Morbid Angel – Abominations of Desolation

Most prefer the more refined versions of these songs from Altars of Madness and Blessed Are the Sick, but my ear favors these nuanced and unsystematic detail-heavy songs which feature more of a blending of textures into what sounds like a communication from another world heard underwater or through the croaking voice of a medium. Trey Azagthoth’s solos were best when he used his half-whole step leaps to make solos that sounded like the creation of gnarly sculptures, and these songs powered by Mike Browning’s drums and voice have more of an organic jauntiness to them than the later mechanistic tanks-crushing-the-shopping-mall sound of the full albums. In addition, this combination of songs strays from the later more interruption-based riffing this band would attempt and instead brings out their inner desire to rip all ahead go at all times, creating a suspension of reality like war itself.

Incantation – Onward to Golgotha

When the idea comes to mind of death metal at its essence, this album will be mentioned because it creates a sound unlike anything else. Incantation took the Slayer riff and song formula and slowed it down, doubled the complexity, and focused on alternating tempos and riff styles to create a building mood of immersive darkness. The result was not only aggressive, but melancholic and contemplative, like a warrior looking out over an abandoned bullet-pocked city. Detuned riffs collide and deconstruct one another, resulting in a sound like the inexorable flow of black water through underground caverns as civilizations collapse above. This rare group of musicians achieved a triumph here that none have been able to repeat individually, suggesting this album was born of a magic confluence of ideas more than a process (ham sandwiches on a conveyor belt).

Carnage – Dark Recollections

If you want “the Swedish sound” at its most powerful, Dark Recollections offers every component synthesized into a package that has not yet had time to become self-critical and neurotic, and thus is an unfettered expression of the thoughts of precocious adolescents translated into sound. The components of Swedish death metal are the modified d-beat, the use of melody to expand song development, a gritty electric explosion of guitar sound, and a tendency to write songs that are half searing budget riff and half horror movie sound track.

Sepultura – Morbid Visions/Bestial Devastation

The first EP in this two-EP package is the more classic death metal version and packs a solid blast of inventive riffcraft staged with theatrical precision into songs that form narratives of the topics denoted in their titles. But the riffs are instant creations of their own, shaped from raw chromaticism and whipped into fury by two levels of rhythm, both in the change of chords and the texturing of the sounding of them. The result owes quite a bit to Slayer, Bathory and Hellhammer, but also to the punk hardcore underlying those acts and a good knowledge of dark metal of the time, and yet is still its own animal. Nothing sounds like this except it, and by giving itself a unique voice, it conjures a power of revelation that endows these songs with lasting enjoyment for the listener.

62 Comments

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The problem of commercialism in metal

black_metal_saloon

Some will tell you that metal cannot sell out because metal is not a large financial enterprise. The question then is, “What is large?” because if a genre supports dozens of labels, has top-grossing tours, and tens of thousands of bands, it seems that someone is getting paid more than they would otherwise.

But don’t take it from us. Look at what commercialization has done to another genre:

I was so blown away by the first “Star Wars” film when I saw it in 1977, I went back two more times the same week to wallow in its space age fantasy. But here’s the thing: George Lucas’ creation, basically a blown-up Flash Gordon adventure with better special effects, has left all too many people thinking science fiction is some computer graphics-laden space opera/western filled with shootouts, territorial disputes, evil patriarchs and trusty mounts (like the Millennium Falcon).

“Star Wars” has corrupted people’s notion of a literary genre full of ideas, turning it into a Saturday afternoon serial. And that’s more than a shame — it’s an obscenity.

He has a point, and reveals a situation parallel to that of metal. Sci-fi was too hardcore and dry for most readers, but then if you add in princesses in skimpy costumes, wookies and light sabers, suddenly it’s… an action movie with soap opera aspects. The audience can tune into that, and so can all the basement greebos who will cosplay, imitate and nerd it to death.

Metal was also originally too hardcore and dense for most listeners, but then if you added in the drama of burning churches and murders, people could really get into that wacky far-out identity. Suddenly it’s hard rock with distorted vocals and Satan. The audience can tune into that, and so all the basement neckbeards emerge to record collect and/or emo it to death.

Two sides rapidly form in any debate: one side says we should have purity of essence of what is being done, and the other side thinks that this principle should be more malleable in order to support social popularity and commerce. I say stick with the purity of essence: metal was built on years of accumulated knowledge, and turning it into entertainment flushes that all down the drain.

12 Comments

Tags: , , , ,

Interview with Brett Stevens at MetalRecusants.com

welcome_to_hell

Adventurous metal site Metal Recusants published an interview with myself that hopefully will not bore any of you too much. Metal Recusants is one of the more interesting sites out there as you found out when you read our profile of Editor Dom and his team a few months back. Be sure to poke around for their commentary and reviews, interviews, and other forays into the world of extreme metal.

14 Comments

Tags: , , , , , ,

Call for papers for Modern Heavy Metal: Markets, Practices, Cultures conference

modern_heavy_metal_conference

The international academic research conference Modern Heavy Metal: Markets, Practices, Cultures has issued a “call for papers” or request that those of you with something to write on this topic announce your thesis and send in your paper(s). This conference is hosted by the Aalto School of Business in conjunction with the International Society for Metal Music Studies and will occur from June 8-12, 2015.

According to its description, the conference focuses on this nexus of metal’s growth: “The evolution of metal, as any other music genre, is impacted by the technological and economic revolution that has radically reshaped the forms of music production, delivery, consumption and culture – let alone the role of social media in communication, community building and fandom. Altogether, metal is embracing new fans and markets, creating new practices, forming new cultures, while treasuring the strong and polymorphous legacy of the genre.” To address this, the conference participants plan to analyze and explicate “the current standing of metal; the plethora of its forms, cultures, practices, and markets.”

For those who have an opinion on metal-as-industry as it has come about in the post-1994 years when it left underground and transitioned to being aboveground but a recognized “niche market,” much like in the 1970s, this conference is an excellent time to record those thoughts in orderly and studious fashion and present them to an audience of not just fellow metalheads but also academics and industry. The organizers invite input of many forms:

We are particularly interested in contributions shedding light on the markets, practices and cultures, faced by the metal practitioners and fans in the current multifaceted and global expression of heavy metal and its countless forms and sub-genres. The event is open not only for academics focusing on metal studies (in business studies, cultural studies, social sciences, humanities, musicology, arts, and other fields) but also for scholars from the wide range of popular music and popular culture studies. We warmly welcome also views from “the outside” to discuss and compare metal with other genres and cultural forms and helps in positioning metal in the bigger picture of cultural production and consumption.

The suggested themes include (but are not limited to):

  • Metal music industry and markets; global and local views, formation and structure of markets, entertainment and cultural industries
  • Metal management; strategic thinking, branding, visual communication in metal, metal export/import, leadership and roles, creative management
  • Metal practices; music, production, technology, performance, delivery
  • Metal cultures; fandom and fan communities, local communities, transnational/global communities, tribalism metal and social media, mainstream and subcultures, metal generations, gender and metal, artistic identity
  • Form and philosophy of the metal genre
  • Sound and structure of metal music
  • Metal narratives, lyrics, and storytelling
  • Metal and belief systems, metal and religion
  • Politics, ethics and moral of metal
  • Artistic and aesthetic considerations; metal (in) art, metal representations, aesthetic experience, bodily experience
  • History, present and future of metal; transformations of the genre
  • Scope and methods of metal studies
  • Metal on the borderline; positions and connections of metal within the popular music and popular culture context
  • Various topics exploring the phenomena and representations of metal and related genres.

Alongside with more traditional research papers, novel and creative approaches to research are strongly encouraged. Theoretical reviews, practical case studies, conceptual studies, methodological papers, ethnographical reports, lyrical and visual analyses, qualitative and quantitative approaches, and various other forms and approaches are supported. With the long abstract and paper process, we hope that many new studies get ignited and completed for the conference.

Please note that the paper review process comprises two stages: abstract and full paper. Final acceptance is based on the full paper.

For more information, see the Call for Papers announcement.

4 Comments

Tags: , , ,

Classic reviews:
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z