‘Multilingual metal’: does metal have an own cultural-historical language?

Doubtless, metal music studies with its accelerating sequence of scholarly events, also its intensification of publication streams, is an emerging discourse in academia. Within these debates, an upcoming conference in London on 20th and 21st September 2018 will be devoted to the topic of ‘Multilingual Metal’.1 The information on the event states:

(…) the purpose of our multi-disciplinary conference is to explore further the textual analysis of heavy metal lyrics written in languages other than English. In cases where the primary language of the lyrics is English, loans or elements from other languages can be the topic of investigation.2

From a cultural-historical perspective, this is a very interesting approach to metal history. Seeing metal as a a multilingual discourse, at least in its lyrical and textual qualities, logically implies that this is a multilingual history. And, seeing metal as a multilingual history forces us to think of metal history as a transnational and transcultural history, whose defining character also is to be found in processes of translation. That said, historical research on metal has to apply a genuinely transnational approach, taking inspiration from discourses such as world history, entangled history, and – probably most important – postcolonial history.3

This need of thinking of metal history in a postcolonial perspective is urgent and reflected in current research.4 It leads to new, maybe fundamental questions on the history of metal. Conceptually, having to theorize metal as a discourse which hybridizes myriads of different, multilingual histories, narratives in their own languages, can we historically make sense of it in a single discourse in academia? Does metal have an own cultural-historical language? Something like a global cultural code which enables it to work in Birmingham and New York as well as in Borneo and  Malaysia?5

I guess, at this point of research we cannot seriously answer these questions definitely. But we have some serious hints in current research where we could go to better answer them. Already in 1991, Deena Weinstein identified metal as a cultural ‘bricolage’ having a more or less conservative ideology at its core.6 More recent research also stresses the transgressive traits of metal history.7 In 2010, Dietmar Elflein published his important book ‘Schwermetallanalysen. Zur musikalischen Sprache des Heavy Metal.‘, which already in its title hypothesizes that metal does have an own musical language.8 However, ironically the book was published in German language which does not work globally.

Concluding, asking for multilingual metal leads to a very important historical research perspective. It forces us to ask whether metal is a cultural phenomenon which developed its own historical language of a gobally working ‘bricolage’ of texts, riffs, music, sounds, practices, institutions, clothes, places, sites etc. To ask for the lyrical aspects can be just the beginning. Future research should strategically employ this conception of multilingual metal to get a better historical understanding of its subject.

  1. https://www.facebook.com/events/166129170755040/?active_tab=about, accessed 01/05/2018. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. J. H. Bentley (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of World History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011; D. Sachsenmaier, Global Perspectives on Global History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011; P. Manning, Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003; K. Hock and G. Mackenthun (eds.), Entangled Knowledge. Scientific Discourses and Cultural Difference, Münster: Waxmann, 2012; J. McLeod, Beginning Postcolonialism, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010. 

  4. J. Wallach e.a. (eds.), Metal Rules the Globe. Heavy Metal Around the World, Durham: Duke University Press, 2011; A.R. Brown e.a (eds.), Global Metal Music and Culture: Current Directions in Metal Studies, New York and London: Routledge, 2016. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. D. Weinstein, Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology, New York: Lexington Books, 1991. 

  7. B. Gardenour Walter e.a. (eds.), Heavy Metal Studies and Popular Culture, Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 

  8. D. Elflein, Schwermetallanalysen. Zur musikalischen Sprache des Heavy Metal, Bielefeld: Transcript, 2010. 

Homo ludens metallicus? On Huizinga, the historian’s gaze and sonic knowledge in Metal Music Studies

Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) was one of the pioneers of modern and postmodern cultural history. His narratives, overflowing with colourful, metaphoric and anthropologic plots of history, still inspire today’s scientific historiography.1 Originally being a scholar of Indo-European languages and linguistics, he turned to history around 1900. He became a professor of General and Dutch history at Groningen University in 1905, and finally of General history at Leiden University in 1915 (until 1942).

There in Leiden, he was resistant to antisemitism during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Huizinga’s most famous work is ‘The Waning of The Middle Ages’, first published in Dutch in 1919.2 In this classic book, he described the 14th and 15th centuries as an age of decline, metaphorically expressed in the picture of the season of fall; for Huizinga, they were the ‘autumn of the middle ages’.3 Other famous and influential works are ‘Erasmus and the Age of Reformation’ (1924), ‘Dutch Civilisation in the Seventeenth Century’ (1941), and ‘Homo ludens: a Study of the Play-element in Culture’.4

Methodologically, all of those books were highly innovative. They focussed on art, theatrics and discourse – long before the dawn of the New Cultural History at the end of the 1980s.5 One could go as far as describing Huizinga’s cultural history as ‘proto-constructivist’ or ‘crypto-constructivist’, at least in his deep understanding of the metaphorical and aesthetic constitution of culture.

In this blog post, I want to take up the methodology and questions Huizinga treated in ‘Homo ludens’. In this study, the author states that basically all culture has a an element of play. Play and playful elements, elements of game, are present in knowledge and science, law, art, languages, warfare.6 He gives  a reading of Homo sapiens as Homo ludens. This is his operational definition of play:

Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means.7

This definition of the plays Homo ludens is playing in constructing culture is (proto-)constructivist and relevant until today in several ways: it stresses the own space and time of plays which basically says that plays have their own discourses; it emphasizes that plays in culture follow fixed rules which is a core feature of discourses, according to Foucauldian theorizing, too.8

Finally, the closing remark on the formation of social collectives is nothing less than the thesis that plays have a fundamental role in cultural identity construction; by defining the differences between the collective ‘self’ and the ‘other’, in processes of ‘othering’.9

These are the kinds of plays which Homo ludens played and plays in the course of cultural history. Already Huizinga observed on several occasions in his book that music and its reproduction is play, too.10 Applying Huizinga’s key theorem of play on Metal culture, I want to ask whether in Metal Music Studies Homo ludens is to be defined as Homo ludens metallicus. In the following, I want to show that Huizinga’s perspective opens up the theoretical space of cultural history in Metal Music Studies.

Using the metaphor of Homo ludens metallicus, this post wants, on the one hand, to summarize my (so-far) results of research in this blog, in conceptual ways, showing that Metal Music Studies is a field on the brink of becoming an own discipline. Yet, Metal and Metal Music Studies are a culture and a scientific community which know that they have a past but which do not know this past in professional, scientific and cultural-historical ways – an argument to be proven.

As current discourse shows, there still is a lack of a self-reflexive theorizing of Metal and Metal Music Studies, as an emerging discipline, giving or at least aiming at giving answers to the question what Metal and Metal Studies are.11 This is where my current and future research comes in. It wants to help introducing the historian’s gaze to this flourishing discourse.

On the other hand, I also want to concretize this new perspective, already starting to apply it to Metal and research on Metal. I do so by introducing my theoretical notion of ‘sonic knowledge’.  Using this notion, I want to help starting a historian’s narrative of Metal music and its study. Directing the historian’s gaze to Metal and Metal Studies, the notion of sonic knowledge wants to give a genuinely historic reading of its object, connecting it to large- and small-scale historical processes of world history. In some cases, Metal harks back to the Age of Enlightenment since the 18th century, but also to 19th century Classicism and Historism. In other cases, Metal even takes up the roots of ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Assyrian and other oriental discourses of culture and knowlegde.

‘Sonic knowledge’ means that I tread Metal music and all its surrounding networks as a form of (sub-)cultural knowledge which emerges predominantly from acoustic communication: music. This takes up the perspective of the recent discourse of ‘sound history’ which asks for the role of acoustic phenomena in history.12 From my point of view, the rather neutral term of knowledge already describes the formation of a specific discourse of Heavy Metal (from c. 1970 until the mid-1980s) as something new; but also as something new which only was innovative in its ways of connecting the fresh aesthetics of the ‘heavy riff’13 with rather old historic elements of culture.

Just to mention some historic discourses being already there in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, until today, which were picked up by Metal history: dark lyrics and atmosphere (this can be traced back, for instance, to Gothic novels and many other forms of literature); rebellion and revolution (rebellion is a key topic of any broad history of Europe and the world, like the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the struggle for Scottish independence and many others; there are countless examples).

Other discourses would be: violence and war (the fascination with violence and violent behaviour, for example, is a key topic in the development of the modern state which should canalize and prevent not-justified violent force; history is, basically, in many cases structured by wars, like the 20th century as the ‘Age of Extremes’ of two world wars); satanism (satanism, i.e. embodied by figures such as Anton Szandor LaVey or Aleister Crowley, was long there before Metal); the virtuosity of the musician (a core topic in the 19th century and its cult of the ‘genius’); the cult of the male (which is there since Ancient times) …

Introducing the historian’s gaze

So, what’s that, the ‘historian’s gaze’? Since poststructuralist theorizing, we know that every scientific discipline has its own discursive strategies and framework, leading to an own construction of its subject, also in theory. This can be charaterized as a discipline’s gaze on its subject. This, of course, is true for history, too. The historian’s gaze is different from the sociologist’s perpective, also from the philosopher’s or the musicologist’s views. This is, must be the case in Metal Music Studies, too – so the historian’s gaze on Metal also should be fruitful for this emerging discourse, if applied conseqently.

What is particular of this view on Metal? When thinking of current research on Metal, in all introductory texts, the history of Metal and Metal Studies is of utmost importance. For instance, Andy R. Brown (a scholar in Media and Cultural Studies) wrote a genealogy of Metal Studies;14 Deena Weinstein (a sociologist) wrote a social and cultural history of Rock and Metal in America;15 Brian Hickam (being a librarian) described the emergence of Metal Studies as ‘amalgamated anectodes’;16 Nicola Masciandaro (a scholar in English studies) authored a ‘personal archeology of headbanging exegesis’;17 a group of social psychologists led by Nelson Varas-Díaz gave a social-psychological reading of the history of the Puerto Rican scene.18

There is nothing wrong with these histories, and also similar ones – yet, they are written by culturalists, sociologists, librarians, linguists, psychologists and so on. In a nutshell and put consciously provocatively: from a historian’s point of view, Metal and Metal Music Studies are a culture and its study which know that they have a history but which yet do not know this history in scientific and self-reflexive, in historic ways. This is where the historian’s gaze comes in.

‘Sonic knowledge’ as a cultural-historical notion

So, what is then ‘sonic knowledge’ and how does it bring in the historian’s gaze? In a pioneering text from 2011, Dominik Schrage (ironically a sociologist again) wrote in a special issue of Studies in Contemporary History on the sound history of the 20th century:

The musical mode of hearing enables us as subjects to comprehensibly experience the effects of sounds and rhythms, be it contemplatively or expressively – plunging into music or dancing to it. Like images sounds cannot be transfered to linguistic meaning without fractures; but, both are experienced as being in harmony with each other, and correspond with moods, affections, and emotions in the experiencing subject. Sounds, melodies, chords and rhythms share a fundament across cultures; but in different musical cultures they are encoded, systematized and linked to harmony theories in different ways.19

Linking this core statement of sound history to the genuine interest of a historian working in Metal Music Studies, implies we have to write a history of the sound of Metal – connecting it to the overall history of the world; to our current era of postmodernity, but also to other eras like the 20th before ‘1968’, the Age of Enlightenment since the French Revolution, the Early Modern period since about 1500, sometimes also to Medieval and Ancient epochs. The key is to see today’s Metal as a historically formed set of elements of cultural knowledge – formed predominantly in acoustic musical communication. We can start introducing the historian’s gaze to Metal Music Studies by seeing it as sonic knowlegde in that sense.

Using the notion of sonic knowledge, we can historically ask how the acoustic encodement of sadness, darkness and gloomy atmospheres in Gothic Metal music is linked to the history of the ‘Gothic’ culture of the Victorian Age of the 19th century.

We can historically ask how the identity of the metalhead as a rebel in a social revolution, acoustically encoded in Metal, is connected to historical narratives of revolutions, such as the French, American and Russian Revolutions in the 18th and 20th centuries, but also the cultural revolution of ‘1968’, or the history of Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ – there are myriads of historic interferences.

We should historically research how the representation of and fascination with violence and war, especially with World War II and Nazi Atrocities, in Thrash and Extreme Metal music since the mid-1980, retells the history of the 20th century. Already the influential British historian Eric Hobsbawm called it ‘The Age of Extremes’.20 It do not think that the genre name of ‘Extreme Metal’, surfacing in the 1980s and 1990s, came out of the blue – rather this was part of the final phase of the ‘Age Of Extremes’.

Furthermore, historians should explore how the image of the ‘guitar wizard’ or even ‘guitar hero’, which is prominent in Metal culture, continues writing the history of the musical virtuoso of classical music in the 19th century, with figures such as ‘violin wizard’ Niccolò Paganini, or ‘piano heroes’ like Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt. This is, as known, a thought already to be read in Robert Walser’s seminal book on Metal from 1993, but – again – this book was written a musicologist.21 The historian’s gaze would look for a deepeer historical contextualization in the overall history of the ‘Long 19th Century’ (1789-1914).22

Also, we ought to take a historic look at gender roles in Metal music. There is a lot of ongoing research on gender in Metal Studies.23 However, it also should be deeply connected to concepts like historian Wolfgang Schmale’s theory of ‘collective performative speech acts’, as developed in his recent book ‘Gender and Eurocentrism: a Conceptual Approach to European History’.24

This is what I imagine the notion of sonic knowledge to do and to be. It should approach Metal and Metal Studies historically, seeing it as a contingently formed set of elements of cultural knowledge, constructed in the sound history of Metal. In this understanding of the term, knowledge is not only seen as a purely cognitive phenomenon but also as a discursive, praxeological, physical and sensual, most of all acoustic phenomenon in history.

Finally, taking Metal as sonic knowlegde probably enables us to think new inter- and transdisciplinary research options in Metal Studies. So far, the most prominent disciplines in our field are social and cultural studies, philosophical reflections and musicology. Seeing Metal as such a form of knowledge opens up gateways to other discourses of knowledge, which are deeply linked to sociology, philosophy and musicology, for instance law and politology.

The perspective of law is especially important because the philosophical and sociological foundations of law are intrinsically linked to key topics of Metal such as rules, norms, rule-breaking and law-breaking. For instance, it would be extremely tempting to do a discourse analysis of the representation of law, human rights and the rule of law in Heavy Metal lyrics –  just think of Judas Priest’s classic anthem ‘Breaking The Law’ from 1980, which often is refered to as defining Priest’s identity. Another well known example is Metallica’s album ‘…And Justice For All’ from 1988, whose cover portrays the Roman figure of Justitia as a blindfolded statue.

In a nutshell, taking up the perspective stemming from Huizinga’s Homo ludens, we should use the historian’s gaze in the concept of sonic knowledge to ask whether Metal is a game historically played by a Homo ludens metallicus – a probably new figure in Metal Studies, playing all his way through history, creating new heaviness by combining it with quite old narratives of human history. This is what I want to do in my upcoming monograph on Metal history and also in a proposal for a four-years research project on the history of Metal in Graz, Styria and Austria, in a European and global context.25

  1. For a short portrait of Huizinga see C. Strupp, ‘Johan Huzinga’, in: L. Raphael (ed.), Klassiker der Geschichtswissenschaft, 1, Munich: Beck, 2006, 190-211.; also see W. Otterspeer, Reading Huizinga, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010. 

  2. For the English version, first published in 1924 see J. Huizinga, The waning of the Middle Ages: a study of the forms of life, thought and art in France and the Netherlands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, London: Folio Society, 1999. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Idem, Erasmus and the age of Reformation: with a selection from the letters of Erasmus, New York, NY: Scribner, 1924;  idem, Dutch civilisation in the seventeenth century, and other essays, London: Collins, 1968; idem, Homo ludens: a study of the play-element in culture, London e.a.: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949. 

  5. L. Hunt and A. Biersack (eds.), The New Cultural History, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989. 

  6. Idem, Homo ludens

  7. Ibid., 13. 

  8. A. Landwehr, Historische Diskursanalyse, Frankfurt: Campus, 2009. 

  9. For a recent example see M. Wintle, ‘Islam as Europe’s Other throughout History: some discontinuities, History , 101, 344 (2016), 42-61. 

  10. Huizinga, Homo ludens, 42, 158-162, 187-8. 

  11. See for introductory books and texts F. Hösch and A.-K. Höpflinger (eds.), Methoden der Heavy Metal Forschung, Münster: Waxmann, 2014; Jeremy Wallach e.a. (eds.) Metal Rules the Globe. Heavy Metal Music Around the World, Durham, NC: Duke Universtiy Press, 2011; A. R. Brown e.a. (eds.), Global Metal Music and Culture. Current Directions in Metal Studies, Abingdon: Routledge, 2016;  B. Gardernour Walter e.a. (eds.), Heavy Metal Studies and Popular Culture, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016; also this special issue on ‘Metal Studies? Cultural Research in the Heavy Metal Scene’: Journal for Cultural Research 15, 3 (2011). 

  12. See for an introduction to the field, especially in German discourse D. Schrage, ‘Erleben, Verstehen, Vergleichen. Eine soziologische Perspektive auf die auditive Wahrnehmung im 20. Jahrhundert’, in: Zeithistorische Forschungen/Studies in Contemporary History, 2, 8 (2011), online, URL: http://www.zeithistorische-forschungen.de/2-2011/id=4691. Accessed 26.02.2018; also see G, Paul and R. Schock (eds.) Sound der Zeit. Geräusche, Töne, Stimmen – 1889 bis heute, Göttingen: Wallstein, 2013. 

  13. For an in-depth analysis see J.-P. Herbst, ‘Historical development, sound aesthetics and production techniques of the distorted electric guitar in metal music’, in Metal Music Studies, 3, 1 (2017), 23-46; idem, ‘Heaviness and the electric guitar: Considering the interaction between distortion and harmonic structures’, in Metal Music Studies, 4, 1 (2018), 95-113; also see D. Elflein, Schwermetallanalysen. Die musikalische Sprache des Heavy Metal, Bielefeld: Transcript, 2010. 

  14. A. R. Brown, ‘Heavy Genealogy: Mapping the Currents, Contraflows and Conflicts of the Emergent Field of Metal Studies, 1978-2010, in Journal for Cultural Research 15, 3 (2011), 213-242. 

  15. D. Weinstein, Rock’n America. A Social and Cultural History, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015. 

  16. B. Hickam, ‘Amalgamated anecdotes: Perspectives on the history of metal music and culture studies ‘, in Metal Music Studies 1, 1 (2014), 5-23. 

  17. N. Masciandaro, ‘Metal Studies and the Scission of the Word: A Personal Archaeology of Headbanging Exegesis’, in Journal for Cultural Research 15, 3 (2011), 227-250. 

  18. N. Varas-Díaz e.a., ‘Metal at the fringe: a historical perspective on Puerto Rico’s underground Metal scene, in Gardenour Walter e.a, Heavy Metal Studies, 99-129. 

  19. Schrage, Erleben, Verstehen, Vergleichen. My translation. 

  20. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age Of Extremes. The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991, London: Michael Joseph, 1994. 

  21. R. Walser, Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music, Hanover, NH: New England University Press, 1993, 57-107. 

  22. E. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: Europe: 1789–1848, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1962; idem, The Age of Capital: 1848–1875, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975; idem, The Age of Empire: 1875–1914, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987. 

  23. For example, see F. Heesch and N. Scott (eds.), Heavy Metal, Gender and Sexuality: Interdisciplinary Approaches, Abingdon: Routledge, 2016. 

  24. W. Schmale, Gender and Eurocentrism: a Conceptual Approach to European History, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2016. 

  25. P. Pichler,  Metal Music and Sonic Knowledge in Europe, 1970 to the Present: a Cultural History,  Emerald Publishers, forthcoming, 2019; the working title of this project is: ‘Sonic Knowledge in Heavy Metal Music. A Basic Research Project on the Cultural History of a Global Subculture in Styria, Austria and Europe, from the 1980s to the Present.’ 

Scientific Concert Review: Batushka, Schammasch, Trepaneringsritualen

This blogpost has a rather peculiar title – what is a “scientific concert review”? Isn’t a review a genre of text, a piece which treats concerts normatively, depending on their quality? What I want to try here is something else. Last Saturday, 20th January 2018, I visited the Vienna club gig of Polish Black Metal outfit Batushka, supported by the Swiss band Schammasch and Swedish project Trepaneringsritualen. I visited this gig as a fan, my “fan-review” can be read here.

But also I attented this concert at “Szene Wien” as a cultural historian, a scientist who does research in Metal Music Studies. And there was a lot of scientific material to see, experience and think about. Thus, what I want to do here is an experiment: I want to write an essay which uses the methods of the New Cultural History and recent research in Sound History to explain, or at least to take a look at a concert experience as scientific cultural-historical material.1 What I saw, smelled, felt, experienced at Szene Wien was not only leisure fun but also a form of historiographic and ethnologic empiricism.

In this essay, something like a first trial balloon on my blog, I want to approach the culture of Black Metal from an integral perspective; a perspective which takes the feelings of scientific concert visitors not only as immediate emotions but also as a form of cultural practice which is open to discursive meta-analysis. So – maybe and hopefully – this essay can give some fruitful insights to the cultural-historical implications of this gig. Indeed, there was an immense potential of history and historic discursiveness to think of.

As mentioned, last saturday Batushka, a Black Metal band from Poland, played, as part of their “European Pilgrimage” tour, a concert at Vienna’s Szene club. The band had Swiss group Schammasch, also a Black Metal project, and Swedish artist Trepaneringsritualen as their guests and support. I will start my analysis as a historian in chronological order, looking at the historical implications and contents experienced, listened to and seen, individually for each of the three artists/projects.

Trepaneringsritualen is an – at the first glance – obscure project from Gothenburg, Sweden. Soloartist Thomas Martin Ekelund claims to make “ritual music”. What he does on stage is a mixture of Black Metal screaming, performance and ambient music. Being the opener of the event, Eklund did a concert/perfomance of about twenty minutes during which he first covered his head and face with a hood, which he later removed. This is a photograph of his perfomance:


At a first glance, there is barely something historical about this show. But, taking a closer look, things change dramatically and give a lot of data for historical analysis. The key is the project’s name: Trepaneringsritualen. “Trepanation” is the still common notion, in medical and also historical discourses, which describes processes in which a human head is (forcefully) opened, using a drill, a knife, a saw or other devices.3 Practices of trepanation, having ritualistic, cultural and/or medical purposes and contexts, can be traced back to 12.000 BC.

Since the late 19th century, evidence discovered in shape of skulls show a vast history of trepanation around the globe. Such practices are often believed to have had ritualistic, cultural or religous characteristics (like metaphorically giving demons the opportunity to leave a head or get into it), but also medical contexts of healing. Too, many persons who underwent such processes survived, with their heads and skulls showing traces of healing.

So, from the point of view of scientific cultural history, what does Trepaneringsritualen do? He performs a solo show of Black Metal or ritual music for which he uses the ancient discursive code or notion of opening heads. By doing so, he performs a very drastic act: One could interpret Eklund’s performance as a process which metaphorically opens his, his audience’s or today’s men’s heads. And he does so, so to speak, via a deep historical practice. In Trepaneringsritualen, history has the role and function of using the past to invade and examine, quasi-culturally and quasi-medically, our current thinking and culture of the 21st century.

After Eklund, Swiss act Schammasch took the stage. This band’s performance was quite another experience. The group used three electric guitars, bass, drums and some additional drums played by their singer/guitar player. They used items like a goat head and the evaporation of thick fog on stage, and close to the stage, to create an atmosphere of ritualism, darkness and trance:


Music- and sound-wise, this performance was much heavier, thicker and doomier than the previous one. Consciously, the artists used a climax of slower and then growingly faster and rawer songs to create this experience. The historicism inherent of their concert used the imaginaries and symbols of religion,  predominantly of medieval Catholic tradition. The clothes worn by the artists (as shown for example in the photograph above) reminds us of monasteries, of medieval monks. Too, the hoods covered the faces and anonymized the band, which made their figures even more allegoric in their historicism.

I think it is not exaggerated to state that Schammasch’s stage acting contained and harked back to medieval figures like Saint Francis of Assisi. Combining this dresscode with items like a goat head, gave history a special role: in the anonymizing and conservative as well as metaphorical allegorism of monk’s clothes, it served to construct a juxtaposition of the Middle Ages and the postmodern sound of Black Metal. In this case, history was the optical design of Black Metal, triggering ritualism, darkness and maybe fear.

Finally Batushka got to play their set. This was the second time I saw the group playing their entire “Litourgiya”-album. On this record, their debut, the group used elements of Orthodox liturgies (chants etc.), and combined it with Black and Doom Metal to criticize this discourse of religion. This is a photograph from the concert:


History (and its present) cannot be used more explicitly than in Batushka’s stage show. Most of all their singer, wearing a robe ressembling of a priest (but also having the notorious Third-Reich-“SS”-skull printed on the hood), used a very strict and monotonous mode of stage acting (for example shown in the photograph above). The whole show can be read as an “Orthodox Black mass” which used the rich history of the Divine Liturgy since the fourth century AD.6 In this performance, history gets broken up and becomes a tool of critique and parodistic irony.

What can we learn from this? First, history is immensely present in the discourse of Black Metal, at least in these bands’ discourses. Second, we can see the attending of a concert not only as a pure and innocent leisure activity but also as a way of collecting empirical, cultural-historical data. Material which is beforehand seen, heard, smelled and felt, but is open to scientific enquiry and meta-analysis.

  1. See Peter Burke, What is cultural history? Polity Press: Cambridge 2008; and on the recent discourse of sound history see Horst Schulze (ed.), Sound Studies: Traditionen – Methoden – Desiderate. Eine Einführung, Transcript: Bielefeld 2008. 

  2. Photograph of Trepaneringsritualen, Szene Wien, 20.01.2018, copyright: Corinna Doppelhofer. 

  3. See Robert Arnott e.a. (eds.), Trepanation. Discovery, history, theory, Swets & Zeitlinger: Lisse e.a. 2003. 

  4. Photograph of Schammasch, Szene Wien, 20.01.2018, copyright: Corinna Doppelhofer. 

  5. Photograph of Batushka, Szene Wien, 20.01.2018, copyright: Corinna Doppelhofer. 

  6. See Robert F. Taft, The Byzantine rite: a short history, Collegeville, Minn. : Liturgical Press, 1992. 

A ‘trans-scene-ary’ fashion: some notes on the cultural-material history of Dr. Martens boots

Widely known, Dr. Martens boots (usually refered to as ‘Doc Martens’, ‘Docs’ or ‘Dr. Martens’) are one of the established fashion codes of several different subcultures. Being initially worn in Mod- and Skinhead-subcultures from the 1960s onwards, they were soon worn by Punks, ‘Goths’, and members of the EBM-, Wave- and Dark-Wave-scenes, too. Until today, they also are an established code in Metal culture. Being introduced to subcultural discourses in the 1960s, they until today bear with them an ‘aura’ of protest, proletarian spirit, of noncomformist identities. Given that today they are part of a huge branding and marketing discourse, whose final very conservative purpose is to earn money, it is somehow surprising that this code still ‘works’.

The boots were invented by German medical doctor Klaus Märtens shortly after World War II.1 In 1945, he injured his ankle and was looking for solid yet comfortable boots when recovering from his injury. He designed a boot using soft leather and air-padded soles made of tires. The new footwear was not an instant success; but in 1947, when meeting his university friend Herbert Funck, who was  impressed by Märtens’ invention, things changed. In 1952, they opened a factory in Munich. In 1959, the boots became marketed internationally, and British company R. Griggs Group Ltd. bought patent rights to manufacture the boots in the United Kingdom, where they were sold for the first time in 1960.

The company introduced the until today common name, slightly re-shaped the heel and, most of all, added the trademark yellow stitching. Also, in this first process of branding the soles were branded as ‘AirWair’ soles. Soon, the new shoewear was worn by police officers, postmen and factory workers. By the late 1960s, they were used as a cultural-material code in the early Skinhead-scene. In the 1970s and 1980s, as mentioned, they became part of the Punk-, ‘Goth’-, Wave- and Dark-Wave-Scenes, too. Also members of EBM-groups and Metalheads wore and wear their Docs.

Being a rather late starter, I decided to buy my first Docs this year (being 37 years old, this maybe is one of the first symptoms of a Metalhead’s midlife crisis). Buying these boots made me remember their history; as a cultural historian interested in Metal Music Studies, I am interested in how this shoewear managed to become a ‘working’ code in so many different cultural discourses over five decades. They were common when I was teenager, and still in in my twens. Today, they seem to experience a certain revival.  But, most of all, as a historian in Metal Music studies, I want to ask what these shoes can tell us about writing the history of Metal culture – in the context of a broader historiography of subcultures since the 1960s.

In this context, the mentioned ‘omnipotent’ subcultural capital of the Dr. Martens boots seems to be their most important historical feature. They ‘work’ in at least seven different subcultures: Skinheads, Punks, ‘Goths’, Wavers and New Wavers, EBM-Fans and Metalheads wear their Doc Martens. So, their cultural main feature is that they are a ‘trans-scene-ary’ code of shoewear. They construct these different identities and, at the same time, the transgress the boundaries between the scenes.

What could a cultural historian of Metal music learn from this? I suppose, we can discover two major aspects: first, the history of material artefacts, such as shoes, is a very good way to tell Metal history. Secondly, when writing this history, we have to be aware of these ‘trans-scene-ary’ features of cultural codes. They are liquid, form varying and oscillating circles of negation and the construction of identities. To tell the history of Metal culture, means to deal with material items that bear in them very heterotopic semiotic structures. We do not have to essentialize these codes but to see them as objects of constant definition and re-definition.

  1. For their history, cf. Martin Roach, Dr. Martens. The Story of an Icon. London: Chrysalis Impact, 2003. 

A culture contested: is (or was) Metal a ‘youth culture’ and/or ‘subculture’?

Usually, Metal is referred to as a discourse of popular culture for and/or of young people, called a ‘youth culture’ and/or ‘subculture’.1 Historically, looking at the origins of Metal in the late 1960s and 1970s, then its spread and diversification in the 1980s, this seemed to be the case. Heavy Metal was established, following the discourse of ‘1968’, as a counter-culture.

Metal is supposed to have been ‘invented’, performed and mediated by young, angry and critical people. Most of all, white, young and male artists were seen as the stereotypical carriers of its aesthetics, imaginaries and narratives. However, even in these early days,  starting with the global success of artists like Black Sabbath, economic success would not have been possible if it had not been backed by organizational structures of the music industry, leisure industry and media – and these institutions of (Western) societies were governed by experienced, often older stakeholders.2

Thus, coining Metal a youth culture or subculture, even in its early cultural history, is an abridging hypothesis. Rather, this narrative of youthfulness and a critique of society should be seen as a construction of discourse – constructed by artists, fans, industry stakeholders, media and other instances. However,  until around 2000, this narrative seemed to prevail. Grunge and Alternative Rock as new forms contested Heavy Metal discourse but still it was seen as a realm of young fans and artists.3

Let us take a look at the state of this (self-)narrative in 2017. First of all, the artists who ‘invented’ and popularized Metal in the 1970s and 1980s cannot seriously be called young anymore: the members of Black Sabbath are approaching the eighth decade of their lives; the musicians in Iron Maiden are in their fifties or sixties; so are the members of Judas Priest (with the exception of guitarist Richie Faulker who is not a founding member); also Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield, the creative duo of Metallica, left behind their fiftieth birthdays. We can expect their fans, at least a part of them, to be of a similar age.

The other aspect – interpreting Metal as a critique of society in the shape of a musical subculture – is even more important. In several of my earlier postings, one of my main findings was that since about 2014 Heavy Metal is increasingly accepted as a ‘serious’ form of art. It is seen ‘worth’ being a subject of academic research. Among other processes, this is the context of the emergence of Metal Music Studies as an own discourse in academia. Also, today Metal is seen as integrally linked to a very fragmented and diverse mainstream.

From the point of view of cultural history, these three cultural processes – (1) the (self-)narration of Metal as a ‘youthful’ and ‘critical’ culture, (2) the acceptance of Metal in science and the emergence of Metal Music Studies, and (3) the spread of Heavy Metal music’s imaginary and aesthetics into mainstream – form an interdependent network: the narrative needs acceptance as a ‘serious’ subject of research; research needs the spread into mainstream to ‘prove’ Metal’s global relevance as a subject of scientific inquiry.

From my point of view, this threefold network results in one major cultural-historical consequence: the discourse in its entirety of narrations, imaginaries, aesthetics and sounds, is at a crossroads, where its initial cultural textures – the image of ‘a youth culture’ and ‘subculture’ – is being recoded in this parellelogram of cultural forces.

  1. Cf. Deena Weinstein, Heavy Metal. The Music and its Culture. Boulder, Colorado, 2000; Rolf F. Nohr, Rolf/Herbert Schwaab, Herbert (eds.), Metal Matters. Heavy Metal als Kultur und Welt. Berlin e.a. 2011; Jeremy Wallach e.a (eds.), Metal Rules the Globe. Heavy Metal Music Around the World. Durham 2011. 

  2. For an integral approach, cf. Deena Weinstein, Rock’n America. A Social and Cultura History. Toronto 2015. 

  3. Cf. ibid. 

Gender in Black Metal: a cultural-historical note on Myrkur’s new album ‘Mareridt’

Myrkur is a one-woman Black Metal project from Denmark. It is the brainchild of songwriter/pianist/guitarist/singer Amalie Bruun. Bruun started out performing with her father and the band Ex Cops as a Rock, Pop and Alternative artist. In 2014, she published, now as Myrkur, an eponymous EP, followed by the debut album ‘M’ in 2015, and a live EP, ‘Mausoleum’, in 2016.1 All of these records gathered rather wide attention, were partially well acclaimed by critics. But also they were partially criticized as being ‘superficial’, ‘not real Black Metal’ or a ‘sell-out’.

All the way through these debates – as a cultural discourse of most recent history of European and global Extreme Metal – the fact that Myrkur is led and controlled by a woman was one of the most intensely discussed issues. Bruun even received death threats on her Facebook page. So, this discourse on Myrkur and her art, first and foremost, is a history of gender in Extreme Metal.

On 15th September 2017, Bruun as Myrkur released her second full-lenght record, ‘Mareridt’.2 From a musical point of view, this album is a progression of her work on the mentioned earlier records. However, aggressive parts of Extreme and Black Metal riffing, blastbeasts and guttural screaming (by Bruun) got fewer; and on two tracks (‘Funeral’, ‘Kvindelil’) the artist cooperates with singer/songwriter Chelsea Wolfe. This new record, at least at its point of release, was well received.3 This is the videoclip to the track ‘Ulvinde’ which accompanied Mareridt’s release:

This videoclip, representing Myrkur’s current identity as an artist, features a combination of hybrid emotional aspects and strategies of narration which are rather unusual in Black Metal: Bruun is shown, on the one hand, as the classic female gender stereotype of a ‘soft woman’ in a bright dress; but then there also are sequences of female aggression where blood is dripping from the artist’s mouth and she is screaming furiously. Both styles and modes of female gender construction are shown alternating throughout the clip. Thus, Amalie Bruun as Myrkur is both: a ‘soft woman’ and a harshly screaming, seemingly suffering female.

From a cultural-historical point of view, especially this videoclip but also the mentioned records and the artist’s live shows are a remarkable strand of discourse. Here, the usual stereotype of male, Northern gutturally screaming Black Metal artists is trangressed, played with; in some ways (ie. the alternating strategies of softness and fury in the ‘Ulvinde’ clip), it even is dealt with and discussed, at least shown visually in a parodistic and ironic manner. The irony is – and remains – that Myrkur can be both: ‘tender’ woman and aggressive Black Metal frontwoman. The death threats sent to the artist by male fans give this cultural history of gender a bitter taste,  yet a transgressive and important quality too.

  1. Cf. Myrkur, Myrkur, released 12th September 2014, Relapse Records; idem, M, released  21st August 2015, Relapse Records; idem, Mausoleum,  released 19th August 2016, Relapse Records. 

  2. Cf. Myrkur, Mareridt, released 15th September 2017, Relapse Records 

  3. Cf., for instance, the review of the album on the German webzine www.metal.de, receiving a score of nine out of ten points; Url: http://www.metal.de/reviews/myrkur-mareridt-275140/, accessed 15/09/2017. 

Tau Cross’ second album ‘Pillar Of Fire’: contemporary history of the world in 2017 as hybrid Metal music

In June 2015, I published a reflection on multinational ‘supergroup’ Tau Cross’ (with members of Voivod and Amebix) eponymous first album. To me, it appeared to be a reflection of the world in 2015, which already knew developments of crisis in economies, politics, migration scenarios and many other areas of culture and their discourses. I coined their music a brand of ‘new music for a new age’ – but, this phrase and description was followed by a question mark. I was not effectively sure, from a cultural historian’s point of view, whether and how their postulate of ‘newness’ in music, meaning most of all cultural innovation, was really producing innovative patterns of culture.

My uncertainty stemmed from my analysis of the band’s music and discourse. Actually, I came to the conclusion that Tau Cross created a new form of music, and celebrated an innovative cultural-historical discourse. Yet, they used known and well-known elements from different subgenres of Rock and Metal music to create their own hybrid sound. This comprised artistical elements, in both music and lyrics, from Thrash Metal, Punk and Hardcore Punk, Crust, and Folk Music.The most distinctive and hence element that ‘bracketed together’ their music and discourse together were Rob ‘The Baron’ Smith’s unique, monotonous rough vocals.

This cultural mode of production in Metal music, hybridizing elements from Thrash Metal, Punk and Hardcore Punk, Crust, and Folk Music, writing apocalyptic and doomy, most dark lyrics, gave birth to Tau Cross’ own message in discourse. Their singer’s rasp voice was the perfect medium to perform and tell this picture and allegory of the world in 2015: basically, this message was one of hybridity and mélange – to cope with the difficulties of 2015, meant to perform an eclectic set of mind in the construction of identities.

According to Tau Cross’ discourse of cultural history of the world in 2015, to live positively, or to at least be able to survive, one needed to construct an identity which accepted and tolerated facets of belief, behavior, rules, ethics and politics from very different sources. It was a message of existential postmodernism, of relativism, liquidity and an ever-changing flux of identities in which their discourse saw a fitting modus vivendi for 2015.1

However, this was their discourse  of Metal music in 2015. In 2017, Tau Cross released their second album ‘Pillar Of Fire’.2 Again this is a very allegoric and metaphorical title which can be intepreted in many different, positive and/or negative ways. Taken that their debut from 2015 was a statement to cope with the then world by promoting hybrid identities, what is their current discourse about, analyzed from a cultural-historical point of view? The years since then have changed the world – we face Donald Trump as the president of the United States, the ongoing negotiations on the ‘Brexit’ in Europe, globally the rise of right-wing populism and the spread of terrorism.

Is hybridity, or maybe an even greater relativsm and hybridity, in the shape of irony or nihilism, today’s message in ‘Pillar Of Fire’s discourse? At the moment, because of the record’s very mythological and metaphorically open lyrics3, and its very recent release, having only gotten a part of its expectable reception, we do not know exactly. But we can assume that the album’s title track, for it is the song that performs the album’s title-message, contains its discourse’s main narrative:

Oh no, they’re burning their Gods again, the sacred and the profane
A pillar of fire

My my, its crawling beneath my skin. The visions are crowding in
My Heaven and Hell
From the garden of the dawn, to the ocean night

All is said and all is done
And nothing new beneath our sun
All we built and all we knew
Is turned to dust, just me and you
Falling through the universe

Hey hey, the Gods have all gone away
The people have learned to pray
To a pillar of fire
And these dark cathedral spires, point like fingers to the skies
Accusingly accusingly, accusingly, the question always why

I’m looking down, at a body on a table looking up
I’m looking down at the body on the table…looking up
And all we are is held by silver thread
Sewn into the earth, sent back to the dead.4

The lyrics open with the phrase ‘Oh no, they’re burning their Gods again, the sacred and the profane. A pillar of fire (…)’. So, a pillar of fire, is a fire which burns the world’s gods. Gods can be conservative and overcome policies, morals, religions, in a nutshell: worn-out identities. Supposed, in 2017 our culture seems to burn its old identites, it afterwards has to generate new ones. How to find or construct these new ones, in 2017’s world of terrorisms, fear, populism and crisis? Maybe we just have to read on to find the answer, according to Tau Cross:

All is said and all is done
And nothing new beneath our sun
All we built and all we knew
Is turned to dust, just me and you
Falling through the universe.5

If there is nothing new beneath our sun, there are only old and used things of culture – like Thrash Metal which has been there since the early 1980s; like Punk, Hardcore and Crust which stem from even the decade before; like Folk Rock which became succesful in the 1960s. Yet, again Tau Cross hybridize their elements of identities very conservatively – again Rob Miller’s vocals shape their discursive leitmotiv. What does that mean? In 2017, still and even more radical, Tau Cross emphasize postmodernist ‘hybridism’ to be the way of cultural choice. We have to build a ‘pillar of fire’ in which to burn our old identities – just to build new ones from new ways of combinations.

  1. Cf. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000. 

  2. Cf. Tau Cross, Pillar Of Fire, Relapse Records, released 21/07/2017. 

  3. Cf. ibid. 

  4. Source: ‘Pillar Of Fire’, released on ibid. 

  5. Source: Ibid. 

Between scholarliness and fandom: on distance and closeness, objectivity and subjectivity in Metal Music Studies

In my last post, I reflected on the identities of Metal scholars, in terms of the transgressive potential of Metal Music Studies, as an academic discourse. This discourse is constitutively interdisciplinary and breaks disciplinary boundaries. I stressed that this situation of  an emerging filed of study requires its scholars to work self-reflexively. We have to construct our subject and our ‘Metal scholar-identities’ between and often in conflict to traditional disciplines.

These conflicts make the emergence of our field a deeply ambivalent and ambiguous process. On the one hand, we need to employ the theoretical approaches of ‘conservative’ academic fields (in my case again the theories of cultural history) to find our own subject and areas of research; on the other hand, at least in the long run, we have to build our own ‘toolbox’ of theories, at least of own theoretical approaches which fit our interests of research.

This ambivalence of an emerging field of scholarship is the reason why we should put a strong focus on theorizing in our work. Of course, there is theoretical work in Metal Music Studies1 but most of it follows modes of thinking which try to adapt successful and established theories from other fields on Metal music. However, our discourse as an emerging field ought to find its own theoretical tools – at least in a long-term perspective.

In this respect, I want to put forward the hypothesis, or to be more precisely, the hypothetic thought that the identitary situation of most Metal scholars is an important source of reflection, maybe even of theorizing; or at least, a point from which to start theoretical self-reflection. Most Metal scholars are both: ‘Metalheads’ and academic researchers and/or teachers. In their hearts and in their heads, there are, usually, both identities which regularly come into conflict.

Why do they come in conflict? This identitary situation is very ambiguous: we have to find a balance between scholarliness and fandom, between closeness and distance to our subject of research. We have to find identitary ways  to balance the fan’s subjectivity and the scholar’s objectivity. I think, this situation – as complicated, conflictuous, ambivalent and even paradoxical it may be – actually favours theoretical progress in our discourse.

This situation forces us to find theoretical and formal language to express the newly found balance between the fan and the scholar. In most cases, this new formal vocabulary to describe our own transgression from subjective interest to ‘objectified’ scholarly work is nothing else than a theory.2 In a nutshell, the identitary situation of scholars in Metal research drives them to formalize their language; thus, what we ought to do is not to come up with brand new or unprecedented abstract vocabulary but just try to find  formal language which suits our reflection and thoughts; vocabularies which create the Metal Music Studies scholars inside us.

  1. Cf. Stephen Hudsons blog ‘Metal In Theory. Sourcebook for Scholarship on Heavy Music’ at: http://metalintheory.com/about-metalintheory-com/, retrieved 9.7.2017; also, cf. the distinct and own discourse of a blog and journal of ‘Black Metal Theory’ at: http://blackmetaltheory.blogspot.co.at/, retrieved 9.7.2017; another fine example is this article: Martin Morris, Extreme Heavy Metal Music and Critical Theory, in: The Germanic Review: Literature, Culture, Theory  90, 4 (2015), pp. 285-303 

  2. For instance, again the example of ‘Black Metal Theory’ can be seen from this angle; again, cf. http://blackmetaltheory.blogspot.co.at/, retrieved 9.7.2017 

Metal Music Studies go global: academic boundaries, ties and identities

From June 6th to June 16th 2017, I had a rather long travel: from Graz, Austria, to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada; then heading over to Norwich, Great Britain, and finally going back to Graz. In Victoria, at the University of Victoria (UVIC), I had the immense pleasure to be a part of the International Society for Metal Music Studies’ (ISMMS) 2017 conference, devoted to the topic of ‘Boundaries and Ties: the Place of Metal Music in Communities’. Over three exciting days, scholars, musicians and practitioners from all over the world, had intriguing talks on different facets and aspects of the liaison dangereuse between the local and the global in Metal culture.

Many talks focussed on Extreme Metal culture. My own talk took up the topic of one of my blogposts from 2016. I tried to conceptually come to the terms with the relationship between globalization and localization in Metal culture, taking the Metal on the Hill 2016 Extreme Metal festival as an empirical example. After the conference on Metal in Canada,  I flew straight to London, passing on to Norwich where I had a talk at the annual conference of the Research Network on the History of the Idea of Europe, devoted to the subject of ‘Europe and the East: Self and Other in the History of the European Idea‘.

(Re-)Reflecting on this ten days, flying almost over 20.000 kilometers and having scientific talks on two very different topics, on two continents, in front of two very different academic communities, I do not want to analyze or present my talks themselves. Much more, to me, the interesting aspect of this (rather exhausting) trip is how it happened: a cultural historian from Graz, Austria, who normally teaches und publishes on European Union Cultural History, left his European (home-)continent to fly to another continent, Northern America, where he gave a talk on his local Metal scene.

After this ‘breaching’ of my used geographical, thus spatial and temporal, even topical boundaries in academic discourse, I went back to my home-continent (after the ‘Brexit’, I still consider Britain to be a part of Europe) to have a talk on my home-topic of EU studies. I feel, this is a very interesting combination of spatial and temporal structures of discourse in itself. What happened?

As a scholar of the rather ‘conservative’ and ‘established’ field of EU studies, I left behind my used academic  territory of the ‘EU scholar’, also leaving the continent linked to this discourse (Europe). By flying to Canada, I spatially and temporally ‘stripped’ myself of my ‘EU scholar’- videntity and literally dressed up in the clothes of a ‘Metal Music Studies scholar’: when speaking in Victoria, I wore a Metal t-shirt of German band ‘Tranquillizer’.


In a nutshell, this on a first glance rather mundane process of breaching temporal, spatial and identitary boundaries can tell us something important about scientific discourses in general, and Metal Music Studies as a discourse of its own. (1) First, it shows very clearly that scientific discourses (like EU studies) are closely linked to spatial and temporal contexts. Most of all, EU studies as a discourse, takes place in Europe itself, and the identity of the ‘EU scholar’ is tied to his subject-continent.

(2) Second, Metal Music Studies as an  emerging scientific discourse had the power to make me break my usual boundaries in academia. It made me go to North America, leaving Europe behind, and somehow even forced me to strip off my used scholar’s identity. This is a very symbolical hint at the often subtle transgressive power of Metal: it pushes forward to transgress existing boundaries, something Keith Kahn-Harris tried to capture in his concept of ‘Metal beyond Metal’.

This leads to a simple yet exciting thought and argument which needs much more further reflection and work on it: Metal Music Studies implements the globalizing and identity-shaping potential  of Metal (‘Metal beyond Metal’) into academia. It is not only mere scientific reflection and writing but the construction of a new global research identity, having practices of its distinct own.

However, this means this new field is not very conscious of itself yet – it needs a lot more of theoretical self-reflection. For example, it would form an exciting project to edit a volume on different theoretical approaches in Metal Music Studies, shaping its subject from the various involved disciplines’ (musicology, cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, history, communication studies, business studies, gender studies) perspectives.

  1. The author giving his talk at UVIC’s conference on ‘Boundaries and Ties: the Place of Metal Music in Communities, 11th June 2017, potograph by Anna Chilewska. 

Black: notes on the transcending cultural history of a colour in Metal music (and beyond)

In my last post I dealt with the role of Foucauldian thought in the cultural history of Metal music. I want to take up this perspective and apply it to another, rather ‘fuzzy’ subject of Metal music research. In 1998, the Dutch female-fronted group The Gathering, on their album ‘How to Measure a Planet?’,1 released a song called ‘Red Is a Slow Colour’. This title seems to be enigmatic, even paradoxical: how can a colour have a speed as one of its constituting, maybe metaphysical or ontological qualities? Yet, the song’s title, in its proper context, seemed to ‘work’. It was well received, the album critically acclaimed.

Thinking of this supposed paradox is my starting point. I want to focus on a fundamental element of Metal culture, since its historical origins: the colour black. I want to put forward the hypothesis that this colour (as an essential discursive quality in music, texts, aesthetics,  in all form of practical, mental and physical practices) had a constitutive and, later even transcending historical quality in Heavy Metal. This colour made Metal become Metal, and, later, it opened up discursive links to other fields of culture, in popular music, society, literature, everyday practices. From the view of cultural history, the colour black is a transcending historical force in Metal music’s past and present.2

Constructing the colour framework of Metal music

It is rather obvious that, since the late 1960s and early 1970s, black is the central optical quality (in terms of colour) in Metal music history. The ‘godfathers’ of Heavy Metal, Black Sabbath, made this colour, taking up the title of a 1963 horror movie directed by Mario Bava,3 a part of their name. Thus, since its ‘birth’ Heavy Metal was associated with blackness as a constitutive quality of its aesthetics, lyrics, musical qualities; its discursive culture of imagination.

Later in Metal history, in the 1980s and 1990s, Metal music took up inspiration from bands of the ‘New Wave’ and ‘Gothic Rock’ music genres – subcultures which are part of what is called ‘Die Schwarze Szene’ (literally: ‘the Black Scene’) in German language until today. In the 1990s, in Gothic, Death and Black Metal subcultures, black, again, was a central point of reference – in terms of mood, melancholy, identities and practices. That the latter subgenre even was called Black Metal is the most obvious hint at the central role of blackness in Metal music history.

And, on 12th August 1991, Thrash Metal pioneers Metallica released their eponymous album which commonly is simpley refered to as the ‘Black Album’.4 Its famous cover is painted in monochromical black, showing, rather hard to see, a snake and the band’s logo. Historically speaking, the colour framework of Metal  (in terms of aesthetics, narratives of mood, practices in concerts etc.) is the result of a process of over 47 years of discursive construction since arond 1970. It is the history of a cultural framework of interpretation which made black become a central quality of its discourse. Black, as a word, a narrative, a mood, a sheer mass of practices, encodes central aspects and facets of Metal.

Cultural history makes us aware that, following Foucauldian paradigms, this history did not happen ‘automatically’ or ‘by itself’; but was the history of ever and ever again constructing the black framework of Metal, in negation processes between artists, fans and all agents involved. Cultural and socological research in Metal Music Studies  is able to show this central sztructural quality of the colour black.5 But, only history and especially cultural history as a scientific mode of historical narration, really can show its deep historical roots in the 20th century and earlier epochs – by telling this history scientifically.

Black as a culturally transcending force in Metal music history

This is where my perspective as a cultural historian comes in. By applying this view, we can tell the history of the colour black in Metal as the history of a cultural element which has a special and own historical quality. Not only is the history of black in Metal the history of one of its constitutive codes of cultural logics; historically, seen from a view of longue durée, black was a historical force which broke boundaries and transcended from earlier and synchronical cultures into Metal, and diachronically, later, went past Metal.

Black Sabbath defined Metal and took their colour inspiration from a 1963 horror movie: here, black served as a tool to historically transfer moods of horror from movie and cinematic cultures into Metal – and beyond, until today. The ‘Black Album’ by Metallica, historically seen, was not only the record which made them burst into mainstream: here, in 1991, the aesthetics of the album, its cover and discourse of blackness, build the historical force that made possible the transgression into mainstream. From a historian’s view, for the band, stressing blackness was a cultural key move to wider acceptance, recognition and fame.

Concluding, this leads me to a cultural-historical hypothesis on the role of the colour black in Metal: since around 1970, black has not only been a constitutive cultural code for Metal identity itself. More than this, it has been a temporally, synchronically and diachronically, transcending force of culture. Historically speaking, the colour black drove Metal music history.

  1. Cf. The Gathering, How to Measure a Planet, released 9th November 1998, Century Media Records 

  2. For the discourse on colours, cf. Harald Braem, Die Macht der Farben, Munich 2003; Harald Küppers, Die Logik der Farbe. Theoretische Grundlagen der Farbenlehre. Callwey  and  Munich 1981; especially, on the colour of black, cf. Michael Pastoureau, Black: The History of a Colour, Princeton 2008. 

  3. Cf. Black Sabbath, original title: I tre volti della paura, directed by Mario Bava, released on August 17th 1963 by Emmepi Cinematografica e.a. 

  4. Cf. Metallica, Metallica, released 12th August 1991, Elektra/Vertigo Records 

  5. For instance, cf. Deena Weinstein, Rock’n America. A Social and Cultural History, New York 2015; Jeremy Wallach e.a, (eds.), Metal Rules the Globe: Heavy Metal Music around the World, Durham 2011.