Peer into the Darkened Recesses of Metal’s Transgressive Nature

Academic interest in heavy metal went public in the early ’90s with the publication of Deena Weinstein’s Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology, and Robert Walser’s Running with the Devil: Power, Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal Music. In recent years, books such as Hideous Gnosis, Metal Rules the Globe and Turkish Metal: Music, Meaning, and Morality in a Muslim Society have dug deep into varying aspects of the genre. On the distant horizon, yet to be published, lurks Metal Music Studies — a journal solely dedicated to unpacking metal’s many layers with a multi-disciplinary approach.

Before that, however, Heavy Metal: Controversies and Countercultures is here, with essays from across academic disciplines, peering into the darkened recesses of metal’s transgressive nature. The aim of this book, like the majority of academic works on metal published for public consumption, is to examine the genre’s distinct cultural aspects. In this case, the book leans hard on metal’s cultural politics, examining the hows and whys of metal’s controversies and its various scenes.

Of course, the very existence of Heavy Metal: Controversies and Countercultures comes with its own share of controversy. Metal is a genre that celebrates controversial creativity, but academics exploring that, or investigating metal’s distinct cultural attributes, have encountered critics both vocal and vicious in their disapproval.

In April this year, Bowling Green University in Ohio hosted the four-day Heavy Metal and Popular Culture conference (organized by the International Society for Metal Music Studies), at which attendees from around the globe met to discuss and listen to lectures on many aspects of metal. While the conference wasn’t the first such gathering of metal-friendly academics and fans, it was the first to receive such widespread coverage in the mainstream media. That coverage brought a loud response, not all of it supportive.

On the positive side, the conference exhibited to the wider public and academia that metal is imbued with a great deal of a forethought and intelligence. Academic studies of the genre present a multidimensional picture of its artistic, social and political import, which is no different to examining, for example, how hip hop, punk rock or country music construct a sense of identity and community, and it’s also important to note that the vast majority of scholars analyzing metal are fans of the genre themselves.

So where’s the problem? Well, as the negative coverage and sometimes mocking online commentary about the Heavy Metal and Popular Culture conference showed, studying metal is also met with a fair few howls from within the metal community–along with the expected mainstream scoffs and coughs. Academic studies of metal are often greeted with instantaneous putdowns in the online world of metal bloggers and commentators, and there are a number of reasons for that.

Metal fans who don’t like the genre being examined by academics often point to the supposed intellectual snobbery of the academic world as a big problem. That’s understandable, in a sense. Much of the language and many of the concepts and comparisons used in metal studies could be seen as catering to a closed circle of contributors. Metal fans have suggested that academia is too condescending and constricted to discuss the genre–if it should be discussed at all–and that academic voices dehydrate or dull down metal’s visceral nature. Also, many metal fans see no need for the genre to be ‘legitimized’ by academic study, believing that to do so taints or undermines its rebelliousness.

Those are all valid points of discussion, and something the metal-friendly academic community will come up against time after time, but there’s a whole other side to the debate, too. Clearly, metal doesn’t need scholarly examination to legitimize its importance for its fans, but that doesn’t mean metal shouldn’t be examined from that perspective. An academic voice in the metal community might not be wanted by some, but metal is interesting, so it attracts academic interest–there’s nothing complicated about that.

For over 40 years now, the genre has thrived on people discussing its philosophical, political, and provocative aspects. Representations of violent, debauched and/or occult themes (primarily suggested rather than acted upon, murders and arson aside) have fueled metal, and the genre’s transgressive themes have inevitably led to controversy. That controversy might seem to be less of an issue these days, but it’s only natural that such discussions should continue outside the concert hall or club. Also, it’s important to note that scholars looking at metal are only one part of a much wider metal community, a community that already entertains many points of view.

Metal is frequently maligned as being damaging somehow, yet it provides a vent for societal and personal frustrations, and creates a global community that supports a massive range of thoughts and sounds. Inevitably, it has grabbed the attention of those who gauge the societal importance of outsider culture, and you could argue that it’s a credit to metal’s complexity and value that it’s discussed in academic circles at all. More to the point, after 40 years of noise, many of those studying metal are no doubt simply fans with fancy letters behind their names, come of age in universities around the globe, all bound by a common love of the genre.

Whatever the case, and whichever side of the argument you sit on, it’s into that debate that Heavy Metal: Controversies and Countercultures strides. Much like the recent Metal Rules the Globe, this book takes a global approach, with authors from around the world covering a raft of metal’s sub-genres.

Edited by Titus Hjelm, Keith Khan-Harris and Mark LeVine, there’s no doubting the book’s editorial credentials from a fan’s perspective. Hjelm is based at the University College London, but also plays in power metal band Thunderstone. Keith Kahn-Harris is an honorary research fellow at the Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society at Birkbeck College, and author of Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge. Mark LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic studies at University of California Irvine, and also author of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam.

With a picture of a corpse-painted and spiked-gauntleted Ghaal (ex-Gorgoroth, God Seed etc) on the cover, there’s certainly nothing subtle about the intent of Heavy Metal: Controversies and Countercultures–although that’s not to say it lacks nuanced discussion. It’s broken into two parts, covering both metal’s ‘controversies’ and its ‘countercultures’, and the collected authors cover some fascinating terrain.

Separate articles from Andy Brown and Brad Klypchak cover issues about moral panic. Brown compares the debate around the gloomy emo aesthetic with the controversy during metal’s heyday in the ’80s, and the use of social media to successfully reduce the hysteria in modern times. Klypchak examines the legacy of previously controversial acts, such as Ozzy Osbourne and Alice Cooper, and how they have become tame compared with today’s extreme metal, which itself often struggles to raise the hackles of many.

Lee Barron’s examination of the often stomach-churning but rarely covered niche scene of porno-grind scene is fascinating. Barron argues that porno-grind pushes the boundaries not necessarily because of anti-feminist ideals, but as a means of offering the extremity that fans desire. Marcus Moberg’s discusses another marginalized scene, Christian metal. The scene thrives on fervent fans, but is routinely ignored because of its obvious ideological incompatibility with the majority of the metal community (and also because, in truth, it’s filled with of a raft of genuinely awful bands), and Moberg’s piece highlights the “double controversy” of Christian artists playing provocative sounds.

Ideological controversy is further explored in an essay by Gérôme Guibert and Jedediah Sklower on the French metal festival Hellfest. This event met with resistance and condemnation from the Catholic Church, but nevertheless has become successful, due in part to organizers and fans winning the hearts and minds of the local community, and that sense of community action is investigated further in part two of Heavy Metal: Controversies and Countercultures. It focuses on the notion that due to metal’s transgressive aspects its varying scenes are often labeled as countercultural (or sub-cultural)–particularly when provocation meets conservative and traditional social values.

Jeremy Wallach and Alexandra Levine contribute an article based on ethnographic research conducted in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Toledo, Ohio. It highlights that although metal scenes may be globally and even culturally distant, they are bound by metal’s outsider and frequently controversial status. Of course, for many metal fans, nothing is more controversial than National Socialist black metal (NSBM), and Benjamin Olson’s essay on this sub-genre expands on how particular styles and trains of thought in metal can be controversial within the wider metal scene.

Michelle Phillipov’s following article expands further on metal’s countercultural acts. Covering the early 1990s Norwegian black metal scene, she draws connections between violent actions that defined black metal’s villainy and bands that traded in the controversy to establish an identity, whether they participated in those acts or not. Identity, and what it means to be a metal fan, is also examined in Nicola Allett’s discussion and interviews with UK extreme metal scene members. However, two articles in particular stand out as thought-provoking works on what it means to be a metal fan in this day and age.

Kevin Fellezs looks at the African American metal band Stone Vengeance, and through interviews with frontman Mike Coffey shows the band’s struggles in playing to predominately white male audiences, tensions around ethnicity and expectations in metal, and how the bandmembers have been individually empowered through metal. Empowerment is certainly a topic that sits at the heart of Rosemary Overell’s essay on gender constructions and representations in the death metal and grindcore scenes in Melbourne, Australia. Through interviews and exposition, Overell transforms the notion of brutality in the grindcore scene into one of “affective intensity”, offering ethnographic evidence to counter the argument that metal is inherently masculine.

A political thread weaves its way throughout Heavy Metal: Controversies and Countercultures, and Niall Scott’s article, which ends the book, focuses on the direct relationship between metal and the political. Obviously, there are many metal bands for whom politics matter, and Scott acknowledges that, but he also looks to the stance of apolitical metal bands, who shun “politics in the governmental sense of the term” to avoid “conflict that can do damage to the unity of what it means to be metal”.

Perhaps, more than anything, it’s that unity that Heavy Metal: Controversies and Countercultures exhibits best. Though its articles cover the spectrum of metal’s sub-genres, and delve into many aspects of metal’s culture, the one clear factor that emerges is metal’s importance in offering a space for fans to gather and vent their frustrations. It shows how metal allows alternative identities to flourish, and how it allows people to indulge in what some may perceive as controversial music or lifestyle choices.

Obviously, that’s not news for any metal fan. That culture and community is exactly what attracts fans to the genre. Heavy Metal: Controversies and Countercultures certainly reaffirms why fans love their metal, and makes clear the wider societal responses to an affection for the dark side of life.

Of course, while Heavy Metal: Controversies and Countercultures investigates and elucidates on that, it also covers ground that many fans probably wouldn’t think was controversial at all. Listen to metal for a number of years and you’ll likely experience a kind of systematic desensitization to a lot that is deemed challenging (and certainly unlistenable) in wider society. That’s not to say that the misogyny, homophobia or racism you can find in metal becomes invisible, far from it, and debates rage within metal’s various scenes about just such things. Some fans choose to fight back against bands they find offensive, while others choose to ignore it–reasoning that they’re only really listening to the music. Either way, the fact remains that one metal fan will find succor in music that another will find hateful, brutal, intense or diabolical.

In fact, that’s par for the course at metal’s extreme end, and one of the prime reasons fans tune in. Catharsis, acceptance, and empowerment are all to be found in that chaos, and the authors of Heavy Metal: Controversies and Countercultures does well to explain where fans draw strength from unhinged cacophonies. Still, it’s worth pointing out that those very same explanations also raise a red flag for those who think academia should step away from metal. One of the prime concerns is that too much weight may be given to academic opinion, as though tertiary qualifications offer a more truthful or unbiased representation of what’s occurring in the metal world.

That’s certainly a common theme in commentary boxes and blog battles (eg “Who are you to speak for me about metal?”). The articles within the book present an analytical survey of certain scenes, reflect on how scene members view what others see as transgressive, and explain how that ties into metal’s overall culture. And all of that sounds great, in theory.

However, although interviews are drawn upon, the information gathered is interpreted by a small pool of writers (peer reviewed or not), and the end result may completely conflict with how fans personally view the scenes they enjoy. This leaves plenty of questions about academia’s accuracy, objectivity and subjectivity, and critics point to selective or incomplete coverage as examples of its failings.

There’s evidence of both in Heavy Metal: Controversies and Countercultures, and while you might say that the articles make for great discussion points themselves, critics of metal studies would probably point out that the forum to debate their content is only open to a select, elite few. Sure, the average fan can blog a response, but is that going to be heard or valued in academia? That’s the bigger question.

Still, as with all multi-authored collections, if something in Heavy Metal: Controversies and Countercultures doesn’t grab you, or you disagree with how the information is presented, you can either mull it over and grumble, or simply turn to the next article for a whole other angle on metal.

Ultimately, its multiple opinions are one of the book’s best features. Heavy Metal: Controversies and Countercultures grants a deeper understanding of how metal’s transgressive qualities have come to define how the genre is viewed from both the outside and within. It sits well alongside previously published and similar works, such as Metal Rules the Globe, and its interdisciplinary and global focus, along with its often enthusiastic and engaging viewpoints, present a fascinating portrait of how the controversy surrounding metal operates within wider society.

Will any of that placate those who think academia should step away from metal? Obviously not. But then, until all the temples of learning are burnt to the ground and we’re living tooth and claw, perhaps nothing will satisfy the most voracious critics. For now, let the arguments rage–it’s all healthy, necessary debate. None of the controversy takes away from such informative and interesting material, and for long-time (or fresh-faced) metal fans, there’s a lot of insightful analysis to enjoy here.

RATING 7 / 10