Blood and Thunder: Metal Is for the Children

Both the underrated '80s drama River's Edge and the recently released Metalhead reflect on the importance of metal to the existential struggles of adolescence.

Back in late 1986 or early 1987, I happened upon an obscure new movie on TV that had all the warnings that would capture a 16 year-old boy’s attention: extreme violence, nudity, for adults only. Tell a boy that age that he can’t watch a movie, and you bet he’ll watch it. The movie on this late night was called River’s Edge, and as I’d quickly find out, not only was it nowhere near as titillating as the warnings implied, but it turned out to be a deeply serious portrait of young misfit metalheads in a scuzzy town, something I related to immediately.

On the surface River’s Edge toys with the sensational, from the ripped-from-the-headlines story of a teen murder and the clique who failed to report it, to the over-the-top and darkly funny performances by Dennis Hopper and Crispin Glover. However, the film runs so much deeper than that. Although not much is vocalized by the main group of characters — the group of Slayer-cranking teenagers are tight-lipped and emotionally distant, especially when dealing with adults — you know these kids are broken, they feel like they have no way out, and that all they have is each other, the music they share, and for some of them, the odd joint and beer. It brings to mind that great line from Robert Altman’s Short Cuts: “Seeing and the responsibility that goes with it.” The characters’ unspoken refrain of I just don’t know how to handle this situation or the rest of my life for that matter hit home so extraordinarily hard for yours truly, and River’s Edge has resonated with me, and a lot of other people my age, ever since. It remains the smartest, most accurate depiction of young metal fans ever committed to film.

It’s taken a long time, nearly 30 years, for another fictional film to show similar understanding of metal-loving outcasts, but a little movie from Iceland has been steadily attracting an audience over the past year and a half. Written and directed by Ragnar Bragason, Metalhead treats its headbanger protagonist with compassion as she and her family deal with the loss of her older brother, who is killed in an accident in the early ’80s. Young Hera inherits his record collection and guitar, and as a way of coping with the tragedy she immerses herself in the heavy music she discovers. As she grows into her teens she rebels more and more, feeling alienated from her close-knit, church-going community in which her parents are firmly rooted.

As time goes on, she starts playing her brother’s guitar more and more, develops her own musical voice, and as the 1990s roll around, she becomes more attracted to the more extreme sounds of black metal. You can probably see where this is headed, and indeed arson is involved, but that’s where this film surprises. No side is a caricature. The actions of Hera aren’t treated with condescension, but at the same time the Christian community aren’t villains either. Many metalheads like to think that all organized religion is bad, and devout Christians might assume metalheads are simply looking for trouble, but Bragason fully understands that both sides have their own good and bad qualities, and most importantly, there’s genuine good in both the corpse-painted kvltist and the deeply religious person. Showing that warmth is the film’s most wonderful surprise.

Of course, music is front and center in Metalhead, and plenty of moments will have anyone who grew up with heavy metal in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s grinning ear to ear. Whether it’s two polar opposites bonding over “Victim of Changes”, Savatage’s gorgeous, timeless “Strange Wings” serving as a recurring theme, or Hera’s own black metal composition — which is pretty damned good I might add — it appeals to metal fans on such an instinctive level, and could even show those who aren’t exactly into metal music just what’s behind its empowering appeal.

Metalhead first created a small buzz when it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013, and slowly made the rounds in 2014, including my own city, where it played in September. In advance of its 3 April release on Video On Demand, it’ll be screened in select cities over the next couple months. And, as timing would have it, River’s Edge was just released on Blu-ray, too.

Album of the Week:

Manilla Road, The Blessed Curse (Golden Core)

The Wichita old-timers are back with their 17th album, and while their last couple were engaging enough to warrant mild recommendations, The Blessed Curse feels a step above. Guitarist and visionary Mark “The Shark” Shelton and his mates have put together a strong collection of songs that, while never wavering from the band’s classic heavy metal sound for a second, still manages to sound fresh and energetic throughout. All you ever ask from a band like this is that the songs have staying power, and thanks to tracks like “Luxiferia’s Light” and “Truth in the Ash”, this album makes a strong, lasting impression, thanks in large part to Shelton’s riffing and soloing, which expertly blend aggression, groove, and soul. The mostly acoustic After the Muse bonus CD is a nice little addition, but this band’s strength is epic heavy metal, and The Blessed Curse is deeply satisfying on its own. The rest is gravy. (Preview and purchase via iTunes.)


Also out this week:

36 Crazyfists, Time and Trauma (Spinefarm)

If you haven’t heard these Alaskans yet, don’t dismiss them just because they’re labeled as “metalcore”. Sure, they’re deeply indebted to that often horrible music that oversaturated the ’00s, but to their credit they actually put a creative spin on the sound. It often reminds me of what Shadows Fall did at their peak a decade ago, cleverly integrating very strong melodies into the hardcore-derived music, with Brock Lindow showing an impressive ability to sing with power rather than sounding like a scared little boy, which has become the norm these days. This sixth album is an impressive step forward (especially “Also Am I”), the band less dependent on clichés than ever before and refining their own voice, which has slowly morphed into something you could call original. (Preview and purchase via iTunes.)

Black Pussy, Magic Mustache (Made In China)

First off, this Portland band takes its name from the original title of the Rolling Stones’ classic “Brown Sugar”, so if you have an issue with it, take it up with them. If you can get beyond the band name, then you’ll discover a very likeable hybrid of Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age, and Torche that at times shows great potential of becoming something even better. As good as the hooky desert rock tunes are on this record, its best moments are when they trade the weed for acid and go headlong into psychedelic rock territory, evoking Hawkwind and Monster Magnet with verve on highlights like “Into Your Cosmic”, “Butterfly”, and “Farrah Fawcett”. This is one the Roadburn crowd will definitely gravitate towards. (Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.)

Brothers of the Sonic Cloth, Brothers ff the Sonic Cloth (Neurot)

Mention the band Tad to me, and I’m immediately taken back to the days of “Wood Goblins” and “Jinx”, when grunge was in its fresh, formative stages and was a vital alternative to the increasing extremity of heavy metal at the time. Tad Doyle made some of the heaviest music to trickle into the mainstream consciousness at the time, and now, more than a quarter century later, and with his new project Brothers of the Sonic Cloth he’s shown that not only is he still capable of some devastatingly robust grooves, but he’s just as adept at the more extreme side of doom metal as he is at proto-grunge. As colossal as the slower tracks on this monolithic album are, it’s when the tempo is shifted up a gear that the momentum starts to build, most notably on the thudding “Unnamed”. Perfectly suited for the Neurot roster, this is heavy sludge of the highest order. (Listen on Spotify.)

Death Karma, The History of Death & Burial Rituals Part I (Iron Bonehead)

If there ever was a black metal This is Spinal Tap, this scenario would be perfect for it.

“This is the first part of the musicalization of posthumous rituals and the perception of death in different cultures and countries around the world.”

That’s clever. What’s it sound like?


It’s “Lick My Love Pump” all over again, yet another example of how simultaneously smart and dumb metal can be at times. However, this project by two members of Cult of Fire deserves a little credit. Although this ambitious album doesn’t exactly follow through on its premise, at least on the musical end, the songwriting is good enough to keep listeners engaged. Keyboards are put to use in astute fashion, and the arrangements, which often veer from black metal into straightforward thrash, display a good knack for dynamics. As usual, you can expect a lot of hyperbolic praise from extreme-leaning critics because of its concept, its more-varied-than-usual songwriting, and its connection to the ultra-hip Iron Bonehead, but musically there’s little going on here that’s more than competent. Just because a black metal band knows what a melody is doesn’t make it revolutionary. Nevertheless, thanks to strong moments like “Journey of the Soul” and “Hanging Coffins”, this is a decent start.

King Woman, Doubt (The Flenser)

Good things can happen if you think outside the box. Take King Woman, for instance, who make an immediate, bold statement on this remarkable four-song EP. On the surface at first it seems like just another band exploring the dronier side of doom, but the foursome’s imagination quickly takes the music into unexpected territory. Instead of taking on the traditional metal singer’s role, Kristina Esfandiari channels PJ Harvey, chanting her lyrics in a way that echo Ms. Harvey’s own original interpretation of deep blues. Meanwhile, the rest of the band shows plenty of promise of their own, the arrangements subtly veering off into dreamier, psychedelic moments, highlighted by the hazy shoegaze influences on the extraordinary “Burn”. There’s huge potential in what King Woman has created in four short songs, and this EP will leave you craving a proper full-length album. (Listen on Spotify.)

Sumac, The Deal (Profound Lore)

Capping off a big week for sludge/doom, Aaron Turner’s latest post-Isis project sees him teaming up with Brian Cook from Russian Circles and Baptists drummer Nick Yacyshyn, and the end result is an interesting tangent from Turner’s Old Man Gloom, which just released a pair of albums on Profound Lore a few months ago. This band is a lot tighter thanks to its formidable rhythm section, and veers off into more of a noise-oriented direction. It’s all about that atonality, those moments that jar you a doom-induced slumber and create near-unbearable tension, and the more jagged the riffs on this record, the stronger it gets. There are moments where self-indulgence gets the best of Turner and his mates — “Hollow King” and “The Deal” meander too much — but it’s a fairly strong effort overall, and anyone who follows the prolific musician’s work is bound to be interested in this one. (Listen on Spotify.)


Head Above Ground

While AC/DC, Marilyn Manson, and Papa Roach (really?) continue to modestly dominate sales on the heavier side of music, the big story last week was the unprecedented success of Blind Guardian’s Beyond the Red Mirror. While its debut at 61 on the US chart was mildly impressive, the real story was on the numbers side, where the album raked in a very respectable 5,125 in sales, topping At the Edge of Time’s debut in 2010 (4,440) and 2006’s A Twist in the Myth (3000). In this age of declining album sales, when a band posts higher numbers than albums five and nine years ago, you take notice, and this is a very impressive showing for Blind Guardian. Power metal might not be cool enough for some people in the metal scene, but it still matters, and American fans of the genre have made their voices heard. Good for them.

Meanwhile, Halestorm premiered the sloppy new single “Mayhem” the other day, and one of the first comments threw the lyrics back at the band in brilliant fashion. “A little mayhem never hurt anyone?” one person wrote. “Try telling that to Euronymous.” Touché, and lock thread. (Thanks to fellow writer Jeremiah Nelson for the tip)


Track of the Week

For all his pretentiousness, Tuomas Holopainen remains the best songwriter in power metal and symphonic metal, and Nightwish’s gentle, lithe “Élan” is a welcome return to the band, whose forthcoming new album will feature the debut of singer Floor Jansen. The song is cut from the same cloth of the 2004 classic “Nemo”, only this time featuring the Celtic-tinged Uillean pipes of Troy Donockley, which are highlighted by Jansen’s tasteful yet powerful voice. It’s a rather lightweight song even by Nightwish’s standards — the only thing that separates this song from the Titanic soundtrack is a single power chord — and nowhere near as great as “Storytime” was a few years ago, but its hook is undeniable, and bodes well for the rest of the album. Please excuse the video, though; it is horrible.


Blabbermouth Headline of the Week


Horns Up: Andy Curtis-Brignell, Saxon’s Nigel Glockler, Eyehategod (stay well, Mike Williams).

Horns Down: Kuma’s Corner (eww, guys), New Zealand media’s hysteria over a metal t-shirt, metal media’s hysteria over H&M’s metal t-shirts.

Follow me on Twitter at @basementgalaxy.