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Death Metal Music

Natalie J. Purcell

The Passion and Politics of a Subculture

(McFarland & Company, Inc.)

Jump In What Fire?

Here is Natalie Purcell’s guiding question for this sociological study: “Is it possible that a thorough investigation of the Death Metal scene might cast doubt upon the usual assumptions about Death Metal fans?” This potential rethinking eventually turns into challenging censorship advocates, as well as situating Death Metal into “the larger social order . . . [and providing] a key to comprehending deviant tendencies in contemporary culture at large.”

It’s an exciting mission, but it ultimately falters. The book reads like an acutely boring participant-observation study, with loads of quick, vague descriptions of bands, behaviors, attitudes, rushed analysis of controversy, and scant challenging of the mainstream’s assumptions about Death Metal. Purcell does decent, but not particularly unique work addressing censorship and the epilogue is especially admirable for its more personal perspective a confident writing, but those exceptions are drowned out by the drone. Boiled down, this work is a great idea, but ends up as the musical genre equivalent of a book report.

One of the worst things about the first two-thirds of this book is its style. Sociological studies are not poetry, but we can certainly do without such flats as “Death Metal music is usually fast, low, powerful, intense, and played very loudly . . . Other [death metal] bands play slow, deep, repetitive tunes with resounding and spooky guitars.” And while Purcell hopes that “this discussion [reveals] that within a single underground music scene, which most people have never even heard of, there is complexity, variety, and specialization”, it just doesn’t -— there is very little meaningful distinction between bands, and without knowing those groups, or a CD being included with the book, we simply cannot appreciate any of the alleged variety.

What actually enrages me is how skimpy the analysis is, especially concerning lyrics. At most, Purcell quotes a vivid, graphic passage from one group, then another, and then concludes that paragraph with a throwaway comment about how many groups “convey deep criticisms of Christianity.” Other missed opportunities for development and analysis include songs about vengeance, violence, sexual fantasies made more disturbing by being told from the perpetrator’s perspective, “humor in the gruesome acts of serial killers”, grossly misogynistic humor, the apocalypse -— all these are merely mentioned, haphazardly sampled, and moved on from. Purcell could do much more good for the scene if she simply slowed down and spent more time picking these issues apart. If she wants us to take this scene seriously, she needs to take the lyrics more seriously, and analyze them further, their religious implications, their use of mythology, their comic horror. All this is important if Purcell is to adjust the thinking of “most critics [who] cite the lyrics of Death Metal music as their reason for condemning it”. Instead, chapter after chapter, we’re given a mound of facts rather than a shaft of insight.

Until suddenly, in “Epilogue: Personal Reflections on Death Metal”, the writing comes alive—more substantiated, more fluid, and more connective. Maybe it’s the automatic refreshment of getting personal at the end of all this formula; maybe it’s how Purcell gets to admit she bombed at following “one of the standards of social science research [which] states that researchers ought not become emotionally involved in the topic of their studies.” She is an intelligent, articulate and concerned fan, and she lets that come through. Rather than the lame, textbook definitions of metal from earlier chapters, she probes further into its reaches with “Metal is a philosophical response, whether conscious or subconscious, to terrifying questions about nebulous human nature.” She asserts that “through its lyrical content, Death Metal is inextricably tied to illusion”, both a compliment and confession for the genre. As she jabs at Justin, Britney, and MTV, she’s an eloquent supporter of metal fans who she claims are leaderless but for the “metal” ones. She takes on senators, academics, pop icons, and the American mainstream with one of the finer moments in the book: “Americans are very worried about what Death Metal will do to American culture. I am very worried about what its absence could do to the thousands of youths who find identity and expression in its chords.” Some might argue that “metalness” is a symptom of alienation; Purcell rightfully considers it a balm for it, a unique form of identification.

Unless this book was a thesis or final project in sociology for Seton Hall, I can’t imagine why this chapter isn’t first, and all the rest of the work flows from/toward it, supporting and probing these claims through something more vitally interesting than quotations from surveys, statistics, and stilted descriptions. Even a few complimentary chapters applied to in-depth discussions of particular works of metal would give the book more balance and insight -— maybe a chapter on River’s Edge, a chapter on Slayer, or one devoted specifically to Cannibal Corpse, which seems to be both Purcell’s favorite and one of the more prolific, conscientious, and risky bands.

But that’s second guessing, that’s a reviewer editing after the fact, that’s what the book is not. The book might serve certain mainstream minds in opening them up to the legitimate vitality of this underground scene, and it might help to de-demonize some “extreme” music. Sadly, a wealth of fascinating points are brought up, and the writer is both informed and invested, but the book’s contentment with standardized sociology undermines its power. The epilogue, almost word for word, is a brilliant and important piece of writing—otherwise, there are several sparks, but no fire.

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