In 1980, Judas Priest released their classic heavy metal anthem ‘Breaking the Law’ on the British Steel album. In the song’s lyrics, the protagonist thematizes law-breaking as his way of empowerment. This topos of ‘breaking the law’ is relevant in metal until present days. It is connected to metal’s idea of ‘metalness’ and scene-internal norms. Metalheads all around the world know the lyrics, at least the chorus.
In a video clip of a live performance of the song, Rob Halford introduces the classic by saying that it would have become ‘synonymous’ to his band and metal at large:
A second well-known example is Metallica’s album …And Justice for All (1988). Its cover and title-track work with narratives and semiotics of the allegedly corrupted laws of the American legal system. Here, law is represented as a field of oppressive norms.
The cover takes up the ancient imagination of the Roman goddess of Justitia and reworks it in a metalness version. It was ‘translated’ to the semiotic aesthetics of 1980s thrash metal:
Even more telling, since decades, metal’s scene language knows idioms like ‘heavy metal rules’ or even ‘Heavy Metal (is the Law)’, which is a song title by early Helloween. Here, literally metal-as-law is synonymous to scene-internal norms and rules. Metal makes the law. Despite this evident empirical relevance of law-related phenomena in metal, there currently is practically no research on this.
Addressing the gap: a research agenda
Addressing this substantial gap in scholarship, the author has applied for funds from the Austrian Science Funds (FWF) for a three-years research project. It is planned to research the role of law-related phenomena in the scene-building process in Graz and Styria since the 1980s.
The proposal is affiliated with the Institute of the Foundations of Law at the University Graz. The project team consists of the author as a cultural historian, of a musicologist, and a of board of legal scholars. Also scholars from other disciplines are involved.
In the project, which centres empirically on Styria, Graz and Austria, we want to answer three questions, that also have relevance when addressing the gap on a fuller scale:
How did ‘law’ function cultural-historically as a category in sense-making processes?
Did that (those) mode(s) of sense-making change over the period from the early 1970s to the present?
What role did ‘law’ play in the construction of a scene community in the long run?
On balance, we hope this could be a fruitful addition to metal music studies.
Next week will see the 2019 edition of the black metal theory symposium in Ljubljana on 18 and 19 April. As I will not be able to make it there (but you should go there! 😉 ), though I want to take the event as my occasion for a short blog post on interidsciplinarity and metal culture.
Cultural-historically, black metal theory, both its journal and its symposia, is an immensely exciting phenomenon. The discourse attempts to bring together the robust spirit of black metal and metal studies. Hence, if taking its own credo seriously, it has to stay permanently pulsating, oscillating and on the move. In this way, it is hybrid. Historically, this discourse can be interpreted as a process of knowledge production, an attempt at creating knowledge practices in such a hybrid way.
Metal studies’ own credo stresses interdisciplinarity. It does not want to be an independent discipline, despite the fact that many of its current academic procedures, processes and gate-keeping rules tend to aim at a direction of canonization and discipline-building. As well, this is a process of knowledge history that influences significantly how metal will be researched in the next few years.
The fascinating historical fact is that we can bind back those processes of researching metal to metal history itself. ‘Invented’ and established above all in the UK in the 1970, then being diversified into mushrooming sub-genres and globalized in the 1980s, currently metal culture adapts itself to a new era of digitalization – with all its advantages and flaws of digital connectedness. Historian Wolfgang Schmale’s theory of a cultural ‘hypertext’ of history seems to be illumating when researching this history in a view of long durée.1
Fascinatingly, all those 50 years of metal history permanently have consisted of processes, in that the knowledge forms and practices of metal culture relied on hybridity processes. Black Sabbath used established patterns, thrash and speed metal cultures combined eclectic elements into a new genre, so did death and black metal – always, newness started from established concepts and genres of doing and knowing rock culture. Genres are results of hybridization processes, so is metal itself.
The essential consequence, which arises from this, is quite a simple thought. Black metal theory tries to know metal culture using a hybrid paradigm. Metal heads and metal musicians know their music and culture in eclectically hybrid ways (despite all claims of ‘authenticity’ and ‘trueness’). This situation given, canonization, disciplinary narrowness and gate-keeping structues are metal music studies’ worst enemies. The academic field itself reflects the hybridity of the culture studied and will only work fruitfully if it will be capable of keeping its positive coherence of heterogenous approaches.
W. Schmale, Gender and Eurocentrism: A Conceptual Approach to European History, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2016. ↩
The field we are working in is commonly referred to as metal studies or metal music studies. I prefer the second because it makes clear it is research on a music culture, and in this way avoids already possible questions on the subject of research. Recently, Heather Savigny and Julian Schaap reminded us of ‘putting the “studies” back into metal music studies’.1 In their critique, they demand more methodological rigour and more reflexivety in questions of epistemology. In this short post, I want to take up this point and throw in some questions from the point of view of a trained cultural historian.
My preferred name of our discourse is metal music studies. It contains three words. ‘Metal’, which is rather obvious (not mentioning the broad debates on the definition of metal) and names the subject of research. ‘Music’, the second element, is significant due to the fact that it tells non-insiders that we examine a popular music culture, i.e. heavy metal music. ‘Studies’, the third and the one which Savigny and Schaap problematized rightly, is the crucial one. It points out that this is an independent academic field.
From the point of view of a trained historian, the current state of the art is still characterized by a lack of historical awareness and of historic depth. There are books and conferences, which have the word ‘history’ in their titles.2 However, so far the history and cultural history of metal have been written by scholars ouside history as a discipline. On the one hand, this is good think because it sets history on the agenda of our discourse.
On the other hand, however, ‘putting the “studies” back into metal music studies’ consequently would also mean to take much more seriously the expertise of trained historians. Their expertise and knowledge of reading and examining sources, of historiography as a form narratology, and finally their knowledege of the broad contexts of the global history of the second half of the 20th century is key to writing a history of metal with more rigour. My upcoming book will not fix this issue but I address these questions.3
See H. Savigny and J. Schaap (2018), ‘Putting the “studies” back into metal music studies’, Metal Music Studies, 4:3, pp. 549–557, doi: 10.1386/mms.4.3.549_1. ↩
See, L. Meller (2018), Iron Maiden: A journey through history, Curitiba: Appris; also, see the call for paper for the conference ‘Somewhere in Time: A Conference on Metal and History’, Victoria, BC, 23 to 25 August 2019, at: https://www.facebook.com/download/1138331633226652/Somewhere%20in%20Time%20CFP%20.pdf?hash=AcpU2f1kwval0Th3. Accessed 8 March 2019. ↩
P. Pichler (2019), Metal music and sonic knowledge in Europe: A cultural history, Bingley: Emerald Publishers, forthcoming. ↩
When Bruce Dickinsion released his first solo album Tattoed Millionaire in 1990, he could not know that today every good hipster needs to have tattoos. They have become mainstream and, apparently, they are here to stay. In this post, I want to approach tattoos from another perspective. I reflect upon the question how they can serve as historiographic sources for a professional cultural history of metal music. This is a methodological question.1
It is quite evident to see tattoos as cultural-historiographic sources. Following Foucault’s discourse analysis, body history is an established approach to history.2 Body history researches the role(s) of the human body/human bodies in history. Also, we have detailled research on the history of tattooing as a practice of body modification.3
In our field of metal music studies, tattoos as semiotic traces are examined, too.4 What we do not have at this point, is detailled methodological analysis of the question how tattoos can serve as historiographic sources for a professional cultural history of metal. Of course, I cannot provide a full discussion of this in a short blog post but I attempt to discuss important points.
Four methodological dimensions
First, thinking of tattoos as sources, a definitional feature is their ‘materiality’. They are highly personal, intimate and often unique inscriptions on a human body. Like the human body itself, they do not last but wither, change, and when the individual dies, the original source usually disappears in history. Yet, the tattoo as a bearer of a certain meaning, constituted in the intersectional sphere between personal life and the colllective discourse, is there for a limited period. This first thought defines this kind of sources temporally. They are contingent and available only for a certain period of time, at least as originals.
Second, tattoos are very private and individual. They belong to a person’s private life. However, usually they are thought to be seen by (some) other people. Methodologically, this implies if we want to research tattoos, each scientist doing so has to be fully aware of and act in accordance with good legal and ethical principles of personal integrity, respect and approval by the tattoo’s wearer.
Third, tattoos are texts or pictures, or a combination of both. They require scholars in metal studies to decrypt the source’s sense by thinking either textually or figuratively, or a combination of both. In this way, tattoos are comparable to other sources of history.5 Cultural historians have to place their interpretation of the source and the wearer’s own statement/narrative in the context of broader metal discourse.
This brings us to our fourth aspect. Tattoos are an established code in metal culture around the globe. They constitute metalness. Combining this collective aspect with the prior three points makes us see tattoos as historic sources by which wearers express their individual metalness in the context of global metal discourse. They are a way of individualizing a person within a certain collective framework of meaning, i.e. the cultural framework of metal. Methodologically, this requires metal historians to ask for indivual identities within an established framework.
In a nutshell, tattoos are fascinating sources of a cultural history of metal. They are contingent, transient, individual, private and hybrid (textual and/or pictorial) sources of history, which render a person distinct in metal’s collective sphere. Hence, methodologically historians have to research them as sources which tell history in these ways.
M. Howell and W. Prevenier, From Reliable Sources. An Introduction to Historical Methods. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001. ↩
L. Kalof and William Bynum (eds.), A Cultural History of the Human Body, 6 vols., Oxford: Berg, 2010. ↩
M. DeMello, Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000; J. Caplan (ed.), Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000; M. Mifflin, Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, New York, NY: Powerhouse Books, 2013. ↩
S. Holland and K. Spracklen (eds.), Subcultures, Bodies and Spaces: Essays on Alternativity and Marginalization, Bingley: Emerald: 2018. ↩
Recently, the Ukranian black and doom metal group 1914 issued their new long-player The Blind Leading the Blind. According to Encyclopaedia Metallum, the band was formed in 2014.1 Including the mentioned recent one, the band has released two albums. What makes the group distinct and interesting for a historian, is their concept. Already shown in their band name, the whole of their creative output is only devoted to themes of warfare in the Great War between 1914 and 1918.
This concept, for a historian working in metal studies, throws up interesting theoretical and methodological questions. First, on the narratological and discursive level, their conceptual scope is immensely focused, even narrow. Only and strictly re-working narratives of the years between 1914 and 1918 forces them to develop a narrative in metal music, in all of its dimensions (visuals, sound, live performances, medial self-representation), which comprehensibly represents WW I trench warfare. Their answer seems to be to attempt creating an ‘authentic’ atmosphere of a trench in their music and concerts:
The live video seems to underpin my impression. Yet, as always in art, that remains a construction. However, empirically and methodologically, for the case of 1914, it implies that history is represented in a mode of constructed authenticity, with all paradoxes such a concept brings with it.2
Second, on a more global level, a historian has to ask how ‘accurate’ and ‘reliable’, in a scientific sense,3 the representation of history can be or become in metal music. As examined in my upcoming book,4 even extreme metal, in an age where we do have the scientific discourse of metal studies and closer links between metal culture and the mainstream, is forced to modify its modes of the representation of history. They have changed towards more rational and ‘scientifically’ operating modes of telling history.
Also in the case of 1914, this seems to be true. Their approach requires a methodology of representing history that is very clear, focused, delineated from other narratives, and thus rational. The only and strictly work on four years of twentieth century history. They ask how it was to live everyday life in trench warfare in those years, attempt to exploit all resources of extreme metal’s discourse in telling that history. In a nutshell, their approach works like the one of historical anthropologists in scientific history whose gaze at history is as clear, focused and microscopical.5
On balance, we can conclude that things keep beeing exciting in metal studies, in terms of asking for history in metal. The culture of metal moves towards more ‘scientified’ histories of history. As a history of metal by trained historians still remains a desideratum, I want to work on such topics.
https://www.metal-archives.com/bands/1914/3540396156, accessed 7 December 2018. ↩
H. White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973. ↩
M.C. Howell, M. C. and W. Prevenier, From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001. ↩
P. Pichler, Metal Music and Sonic Knowledge in Europe: A Cultural History, Bingley: Emerald, 2019, forthcoming. ↩
G. Dressel, Historische Anthropologie: eine Einführung, Frankfurt am Main e.a: De Gruyter, 1996. ↩
Recently, Polish black/death metallers Behemoth released their new album ‘I Loved You at Your Darkest’,1 which is the follow-up to their critically acclaimed ‘The Satanist’ from four years ago.2 In fact, their 2014 release has been acclaimed more than critically, it meant the band’s scenic and extra-scenic breakthrough. In many reviews, it has been deemed a new classic of extreme metal. In 2015, I felt tempted to deem the album an ‘existential’ one. However, that was in early 2015, three and a half years ago.
Since then some time has passed. The Polish band went on extensive touring journeys of thoroughly ritualized concerts and thereby fortified their image. The recent issuing of the new album is a perfect opportunity of asking what makes a ‘classic’ in the cultural history of heavy metal. In the case of ‘The Satanist’, reviewers, journalists and fans have been quite quickly in their decision (as myself back in 2015, too).
However, if we look at other ‘classics’, such as Iron Maiden‘s ‘The Number of the Beast’ (1982), Metallica‘s ‘Master of Puppets’ (1986), or Mayhem‘s ‘De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas’ (1994) in Behemoth’s own genre(s), things look different. All those records’ status quo as such mystified ones resulted from decades-lasting processes of memorialization and collective memory-building of such narratives.
In my upcoming book with Emerald Publishers,3 ‘classic’ and ‘cult’ albums are an important topic. History is the science of time, of its past dimension, connected to the present and the future. Such records mark certain points in history, make them available in space and time. They are key elements of identity constructions of metalness. For the case of Behemoth, that implies one major conclusion. Perhaps, their ‘The Satanist’ marks 2014 as their classic year in 2018. Yet, as cultural collective memory is a matter of decades, usually needing about a generation to crystallize into less liquid forms,4 it is a classic in 2018. This does not logically imply it still will be one in 2028, 2038, 2048 or later.
Behemoth, I Loved You at Your Darkest, Nuclear Blast, 2018. ↩
In this post,1 I want to examine recent Scandinavian Extreme Metal music as a discourse, where gender balancing acts became a crucial field of negotiating the sub-genres’ structures. On the one hand, there is a growing number of female artists who perform harsh, “guttural” style vocals, which was a strictly male-connoted style of singing until about a decade ago.
This means there are transgressive gender constructions, which allow women aggressive, powerful and empowering enculturations of their gender identities. However, on the other hand, still hypermasculinity is prevailing in the field, being a major part of the genres’ codes of stylistic definition since the 1980s. I want to examine how this immensely conflictual contemporary history is kept in balance by artists, mediators, and their audience.
I start by giving a sketchy introduction to the field of Metal Studies and how contemporary history has an important position within its debates. I proceed by giving two examples of artists in the field: one of a female artist who represents the transgressive pole of the spectrum; and a second example of male gender constructions standing for the persisting and defining hypermasculine keycode. Third and finally, I will give a cultural-historical reading of this history, explaining how both can historically “work” and occur synchronically and meaningfully in a single regional discourse – with European and global implications.
Metal Music Studies and contemporary history
“Metal Music Studies” is a label for a global network of scholars who work on Heavy Metal music and culture, their interconnections, publications, conferences, and workshops. Roughly, research on Metal can be divided into three phases.2 A first phase between the early to mid-1990s saw pioneering monographic books by sociologists, anthropologists and musicologists. This was followed by a second phase of more intensified research and publications after 2000, but there was no such thing as Metal Studies yet.
This has changed since 2008. This year saw a conference called “Heavy Fundametalisms” in Salzburg, Austria. It catalysed the official launch of a learned society called the “International Society for Metal Music Studies” in 2013.3 Since 2015, there also is an own peer-reviewed journal entitled “Metal Music Studies”.4 In 2016, British sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris gave a description of the emergent field of Metal Studies:
What is the aim of metal studies? (…) At the one level the answer to this question is obvious. The aim of metal studies is to engage with metal in a scholarly fashion. This project needs no justification. (…) Yet there can also be a greater purpose for metal studies than simply the worthy creation of scholarship. The position of metal studies in relation to metal itself offers the opportunity for engaged scholarship. Most metal studies scholars are also engaged with metal as fans and metal scene members – but critically so.5
This is a thoughtful commentary on the current state of Metal scholarship. It is a discourse on the brink of – probably – becoming an own specialized discipline or, at least, a highly specialized subfield. According to Kahn-Harris,6 Metal Music Studies should promote reflexivity by (1) nurturing resilience, (2) nurturing memory, (3) nurturing critique and (4) looking to the future.
All four of those goals can take several different forms. However, the second one, nurturing memory, is deeply connected to the engagement of historians. There exist many historical reflections on Metal and Metal Studies yet these histories have been written by sociologists, philosophers, anthropologists, linguists, musicologists or other disciplinary scholars. As in any other specialized discipline, historians ask their own questions, different from the ones in those disciplines. Thus, the nurturing of memory in the field needs reliable scientific narratives of Metal history by historians, too.
This is the background of my own research, which tries to help introducing the “historian’s gaze” to the field.7 In our context, we can suppose a fundamental importance of two key research questions to be formulated by historians: (1) What have been the major historical developments of gender constructions in Heavy Metal music in recent years? (2) How has this particular history interfered, contrasted, or come together with a broader view on global and European gender history?
Two examples of Scandinavian Extreme Metal
In this respect, I choose Scandinavian Extreme Metal as an empirical example because it is a sub-discourse, where gender balancing happens in a dense, crystallized and symptomatic manner. This has at least three major reasons: (1) a first one being that specifically genres such as Thrash, Death Metal or Black Metal feature a pronounced gesture of hypermasculinity as one of their genre codes since the 1980s; (2) a second, regional reason being that several of the most influential forms of both Black and Death Metal music emerged in Scandinavia in the 1990s.
Finally, (3) a third can be found in the fact that, despite its hypermasculinity, Extreme Metal codified permanent transgression of the status quo, also concerning gender roles, as one of its other keycodes. Hence, in Scandinavia, the origin myths of Extreme Metal, its defining code of hypermasculinity as well as its permanent striving for transgression of boundaries form three highly conflictual strands interacting in a single regional discourse.
I want to give two examples of artists who represent both poles – one of empowering and transgressive female gender representation and one of persisting fundamentalist hypermasculinity; the latter should rather be called a “toxic” form of masculinity.8
The first example, Myrkur, is a Black Metal project from Denmark, led by songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist Amalie Bruun. In 2014, Myrkur released an eponymous EP, followed by the debut album “M” in 2015, and a live EP, “Mausoleum”, in 2016. All of Myrkur’s records and live acitivities gathered rather wide attention, were partially well received by critics. However, moreover they were partially criticized as being “superficial”, “not real Black Metal” or a “sell-out”.9
All the way through those debates, the fact that Myrkur is led and controlled by a woman build one of the most intensely discussed issues. Bruun even received death threats on her Facebook page.10 Following this discourse, Bruun as Myrkur released her second full-length, “Mareridt”, in 2017. This is the videoclip to the track “Ulvinde”, which accompanied the album’s release:
Representing Myrkur‘s identity after receiving death threats, the clip features differentiated strategies of female gender performance. At a first level, Bruun is shown as the conservative stereotype of a “soft woman” in a bright dress; on another, there also are sequences of female aggression, where blood is dripping from the artist’s mouth and she is screaming furiously. Both modes of female gender construction are shown alternating throughout the clip.
Here, the usual stereotype of male, Northern gutturally screaming Black Metal artists is transgressed, played with; in some ways, it even is dealt with and discussed in a parodistic and ironic manner. Myrkur can be both: “tender” woman and aggressive Black Metal frontwoman. The death threats sent to the artist give this cultural history of gender a very bitter taste; they show that this trend of transgressive and empowering female gender performance was partially perceived of as a “threat” to Extreme Metal’s definitional code of hypermasculinity.
Now, I go to my second example, representing the traditional gender codes of Extreme Metal, especially of the subgenres of Melodic Death Metal and Viking Metal. In these subgenres, Swedish band Amon Amarth is one of the most successful ones. Being founded in 1992, the group, so far, released ten albums. Their music fantastically constructs a vision of a pre-Christian, Viking Northern world.
Amon Amarth tell a history of the Vikings, in which brave and “real” men, weak women, violence, wars, and authenticity appear as the defining ingredients. In 2016, as a forerunner to their album “Jomsviking”, the band released a videoclip to the track “First Kill”:
The clip tells a very simple plot: a Viking man commits his first act of killing another man when this other man attempted to “steal his woman”. This form of hypermasculinity implies a representation of gender roles, in which women are men’s property; they can be “stolen” and a “real man” is forced to prevent other men from “stealing his women”. “he story gets even more extreme. After telling their audience of this “first kill”, the group continues the song with these lines:
(…) The first blood I spilled was the blood of a bard
In this quote, the “first kill” is told as a story of male initiation. A man’s first act of killing another man is narrated as a prerequisite of becoming a man. And the cause of committing this murder is that another man acted as a “threat” to his maleness.
Of course, Amon Amarth produce music as entertainment and fiction. However, in a frighteningly coherent way, this representation of toxic hypermasculinity, where a threat to one man’s maleness is perceived of as a matter of life and death, even of killing the supposed rival, also is a symptom of the logics of the death threats towards Myrkur. In her case, the artist was threatened to be killed because she invaded “male territory”.
In “First Kill”, the fictional story goes that one man must kill another man to defend or even in the first place achieve his full masculinity. Both cases follow the same logics of discourse: a threat to hypermasculinity requires such drastic reaction – but, shamefully and dangerously, the death threats towards Myrkur happened in the real world and today.
“Enter history”: making sense of the paradoxes
At this point, we know that the recent history of performances of gender in Scandinavian Extreme Metal music is one of the co-existence of seemingly binarily opposed poles: there is the transgressive pole represented by female artists like Myrkur; moreover, the toxic hypermasculinity which re-surfaces in “First Kill”. How can we make sense of this? How are those sharply divisive and contra-dictional gender performances balanced in a single discourse? My thesis is that we need deconstructive European cultural and gender history to start answering such questions.
In 2016, German historian Wolfgang Schmale published a thought-provoking book called “Gender and Eurocentrism: A Conceptual Approach to European History”.12 He put forward the hypothesis that, since Ancient times, a deep structural connection was established between performative discourses and gender discourses of masculinity. His theory of “collective performative speech acts” states that, since Antiquity, performative discourses were constructed to intrinsically, almost “logically” need such gender images to work at all.
This seems to be true for the Ancient performative speech act, which Schmale coins “homocentrism”, implying a dominance of the male. Most of all, this holds true for European cultural history since the 18th century and Enlightenment: since then, until very recently, history knows a collective performative speech act to be called “Eurocentrism”: performative discourses haveneeded visions of white, European and male hegemony to work at all.
This is a provocative claim because it states a deep and strong, almost “logical” discursive connection between male gender and performance at large. But this is not Schmale’s final conclusion. He comes to the argumentation that, today, history moves towards a new discursive structure of “post-performativity”, in which the almost “logical” connection between male gender and performance gets, step by step, discourse by discourse, deconstruction by deconstruction loosened – because of the disappearance of working speech collectives.
This thought-provoking result needs further research. However, this mode of explanation proves to be illuminating for our case study: it states that, since over 250 years, performative discourses were strategically constructed toneed logics of white, male and European hegemony to be able to balance their sense-making. This is no legitimization of any form of violence or discrimination arising from this; on the contrary, it emphasizes the constructivity of any gender constructions.
This can be applied straight-forwardly to our case: since its inception in the 1980s, Scandinavian Extreme Metal has continued the performative logics of hypermasculinity s to be able of performing performative speech acts at all. Nevertheless, today, we witness an emerging history of “post-performativity”, in which the strict coherence in sense-making between male gender and performance becomes loosened.
Exactly this is the way how artists like Myrkur and Amon Amarth can perform meaningfully in a single discourse. This, the slow trajectory towards a loosening between gender and performance is the way how the paradoxes are balanced. To conclude, this leads me to two main points as my result, perhaps furthermore significant for other discourses:
First, to balance gender and music in Scandinavian Extreme Metal, we need to establish a discourse in which the long-standing connection between hypermasculinity and performance since the 18th century can be discussed critically and historically. So to speak, Scandinavian Extreme Metal is a discourse in which, still today in 2018, the 18th century and the 21st century happen in the same place at the same time – however puzzling that is.
Second, even more puzzling, we need to examine exactly which inventory of strategies makes possible successful transgressions, which could even more loosen the shameful and dangerous connection between Eurocentrism and gender. In Myrkur’s case, it seems to be the trope of courageous irony, strategically juxtaposing hypermasculinity and female aggression.
It is based on my conference talk at the conference “‘Music and Gender in Balance 2018”, Arctic University of Tromsö, Tromsö, Norway, 6 April 2018. ↩
Important works in the field are: D. Gaines, Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia’s Dead End Kids, New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1990; D. Weinstein, Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology, New York, NY: Lexington Books, 1991; R. Walser, Running with the Devil: Power, Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal Music, Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1993: K. Kahn-Harris, Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge, New York, NY: Berg, 2007; H.M. Berger, Metal, Rock, and Jazz: Perception and the Phenomenology of Musical Experience, Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press 1999. ↩
K. Kahn-Harris, ‘Introduction: The Next Steps in the Evolution of Metal Studies’, in B. Gardenour Walter e.a. (eds), Heavy Metal Studies and Popular Culture, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, pp. 1-2; for introductory texts to the field see besides this anthology also A. R. Brown e.a. (eds), Global Metal Music and Culture: Current Directions in Metal Studies, Milton Park: Routledge, 2016; F. Heesch and A.K. Höpflinger (eds), Methoden der Heavy Metal-Forschung: Interdisziplinäre Zugänge, Münster and New York: Waxmann 2014; and the special issue of the Journal for Cultural Research 15, 3 (2011), devoted to ‘Metal Studies? Cultural Research in the Heavy Metal Scene’. ↩
I just returned from an intriguing conference on Mediterranean Europe(s): Images and Ideas of Europe from the Mediterranean Shores in Naples, Italy. There, I gave a talk on how European Union historiography could look in times of existential crisis. Before my talk, I was introduced and my chair also mentioned my upcoming book on a cultural history of metal in Europe.1 In fact, in the exact moment when my chair mentioned this book, I did not look at the audience; but the mentioning of a “cultural history of metal in Europe” caused some laughter, however, most of all it caused interest and paying attention to my speech.
This is a situation, almost in a paradigmatic way, which I experience at practically every conference, lecture, course or other academic event outside of metal studies itself when my research on metal is mentioned. It causes a mixture of laughter, ignorance, however, predominantly it is a trigger of immediate attention. Here, the label “metal studies” becomes a signifier of novelty, interdisciplinarity but also of all stereotypes of metal culture. Hence, the question is how – strategically and proactively – metal studies should present itself to other academic discourses.
My “answer” also takes up an individual experience I had at the Naples conference. After the keynote on the event’s first day, I had an informal chat with the keynote speaker; she gave a really convincing lecture on theoretical issues of Mediterranean history, showing how personal stories and scientific historiography interact in historians’ individual careers and lives. After I gave her a short feedback, she told me that after hearing that I work in metal studies she had been asking herself: “Why does that guy research heavy metal?”
Again, here metal studies triggered immediate attention. However, this shows a fundamental lack of knowledge. I answered in a twofold way. First, I replied that most of all since about ten years metal studies has become a serious emerging field of research. So, I tried to give basic information. Second, I felt it was even more important to give a sense of how a European cultural history of metal is connected to the discourse discussed in Naples. In this respect, I anwered that – basically – a European cultural history of metal is part of a broad cultural history of Europe since the 1970s, of Europeanization, globalization and regional integration in the EU.
I mentioned two examples how metal history could give new insights: I told her that metal history in the 1980s was a cultural phenomenon in Europe, which crossed the Iron Curtain before 1989 – Iron Maiden toured Poland as early as 1984. I compared this phenomenon to other forms of culture such as cross-bloc-contacts in literature, academia or music. Like this, I tried to show how metal history was a form of subcultural European integration even before 1989.
Then, I told her about the development of extreme metal as a whole spectrum of subgenres since the 1980s. I mentioned that for a historian it is rather evident that extreme metal emerged in a decade which was the fin-de-siècle of an epoch which Eric Hobsbawm called the “Age of Extremes“.2 For me, there is a rather obvious, already linguistic connection between the emergence of extreme metal and the Age of Extremes. The latter is the context of the birth of new musical subgenres.
After this informal talk, the keynote speaker told me that this sounds highly interesting and she will look out for my book. One can intepret this as collegial practice of informal etiquette; yet this anecdote proves that metal studies causes interest. My idea is that to further nurture our field we ought to meet this interest strategically, proactively and respectfully. This means to provide basic knowledge about our field. Then, explaining the field’s aims and ambitions by describing cross-linkages to other discourses and giving empirical examples appears to be helpful.
Peter Pichler, Metal Music and Sonic Knowledge in Europe: a Cultural History. Forthcoming: Emerald Publishers, early 2019. ↩
Erich Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991, London: Michael Joseph, 1994. ↩
The topic of a recent metal studies conference was ‘going to the country’, being focussed more precisely in the title’s second part ‘pastoral, national, musical’. 1 I am a contemporary historian who works in metal music studies; my aim is to write pieces of a scientific historiography of metal music as a ‘glocal’ subculture, giving it a scientific narrative.
When I reflect on the phrase of ‘going to the country’, my central thought is to narrate a history of ‘going to the country’ in metal. I ask myself: could this phrase be the ‘emplotment’ of at least a part of a cultural history of metal? My thesis is that, somewhat paradoxically, the phrase gives an answer to the question how musical, topical and aesthetical aspects of country music were integrated into metal culture. I argue that this processes between metal and country discourses, blending and hybridizing both, happened in a form of a historic emplotment, which Hayden White described as ‘satire’.2
l will go three steps to prove my thesis: as steps one and two, I discuss two empirical examples of recent metal culture, where country music was used in metal and hard rock music. By conceptually analysing both examples in a third section, I will try to show that this has the cultural-historical form of emplotment of ‘satire’, using irony in ‘going to the country’. This is an aspect of recent metal history’s development, being reflected in the emergence of an own academic discourse of metal music studies.
In these emerging debates, I introduced the term of ‘sonic knowledge’ to characterize the historian’s gaze on metal, which sees it as a historically shaped form of cultural knowledge in music. We can call this sonic knowledge.3
Steve ‘n’ Seagulls, ‘Farm Machine’ and ‘Brothers in Farms’
In 2015, the Finnish band Steve ‘n’ Seagulls (a pun on actor Steven Seagal) released their debut album ‘Farm Machine’.4 The group played classic heavy metal songs like Metallica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters’ and ‘Seek and Destroy’, or Iron Maiden’s ‘The Trooper’ and ‘Run to the Hills’, and hard rock classics such as AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ and ‘You Shook Me all Night Long’ on bluegrass instruments. They stripped the songs of their typical guitar-driven, distorted and heavy sound, and represented them as country music versions.
This redressing and reshaping of central musical and discursive elements of metal culture can be seen as acts of translation. The trope in which the final versions – bluegrass versions – appear is irony: playing originally heavy and aggressive tracks like ‘Seek and Destroy` or even Rammstein’s ‘Ich will’ in this style, prompts a caricature of metal culture and country culture. It creates a new space in which the stereotypes of metal (aggressiveness, anger, hyper-masculinity, satanism, etc.) as well as the cliché of country (farm life, rural styles of clothing, ‘primitiveness`, ‘backwardness’, etc.) are exposed as such constructions. This is the debut album’s cover:
Cover of Steve ‘n’ Seagulls, Farm Machine, released 08.05.2015 on Spinefarm Records.
Already this cover shows very clearly how the band sees ‘going to the country’: as a means of satire and irony; of satire of both – metal and country. This becomes even more obvious watching their Youtube clicks. Some of them went ‘viral’. Here is their version of Iron Maiden’s classic song ‘The Trooper’, which achieved no less than over 11 millions of views:
What is happening here? Being able musicians, they take a metal anthem, strip it of its core musical language of roaring guitars, speed and high-pitched vocals; instead of using this musical language of metal,5Steve ‘n’ Seagulls redress the song, sonically, as a bluegrass song. Their habitual appearance, which is a quite awful cliché caricature of farm life, makes fun of both – metal and country. In this case, ‘going to the country’ means going to the country via the history of Metal. The form, in which this cultural-historical detour is gone, is irony and satire. This going-to-the-country-as-detour also was the case on the band’s second album ‘Brothers in Farms’ from 2016.6
Behemoth, Me and that Man and ‘Songs of Love and Death’
Let me analyze a second empirical example. In 2017, Adam Michal ‘Nergal’ Darski, singer and creative head of the Polish extreme metal group Behemoth, released a country-inspired album called ‘Songs of Love and Death’.7In this musical project, Darski joined forces with British rock artist John Porter. Working together on dark country and folk-inspired, more or less acoustic guitar music, they called the project Me and that Man. Evidently, Nergal called himself ‘me’ whereas Porter was referred to as ‘that man’. Hence, this implies that Nergal is to be seen as the project’s actual protagonist, as the duo’s ‘self’ and ‘me’.
In this respect, forming a project which plays dark folk and country music, at the same time being the leader of a Polish extreme, black and death metal group whose latest album (‘The Satanist’ from 2014)8 was widely received as a seminal one, maybe even a future genre classic, becomes a remarkable symbolic act in discourse.
Nergal escapes his discourse of origin, which is extreme metal, and ‘goes to the country’. However, he does so by joining forces with an artist from the new field but at the same time sticks to his used dark lyrical and aesthetic contents. Somehow, one can see the album of ‘Songs of Love and Death’ as a reciprocal case of Steve ‘n’ Seagulls: Nergal used an optical travesty of metal themes to translate their core narrative of darkness to country. This is the album’s cover:
Cover of Me and that Man, Songs of Love Death, released 24/03/2017 on Cooking Vinyl Records.
The cover’s contents embody the project’s artistic mode of operation. It shows an old man and a wolf. So, most of all the project works allegorically. It is a metaphor-in-music of metal culture, translated to country culture. This is its mode of ‘going to the country’. It becomes especially obvious in the clip to the song ‘My Church is Black’, featured on the album:
In the setting of a red-light strip club, it shows pictures of striptease, physical abuse, darkness, being bracketed together by a short storyline. Optically, this clip is quite easily to identify as metal, yet acoustically it renains country and folk.
Cultural-historically, in its discursive mode of operation, ‘Songs of Love and Death’, being released just a year ago, builds a very interesting example of ‘going to the country’. It imports, via imaginary and allegorisms, metal culture to country culture. It substitutes country images (which in the case of ‘Farm Machine` and ‘Brothers in Farms’ was obvious humour and irony, in the shape of kitsch and cliché) with metal images. However serious this meant darkness does appear, its mode of operation is the same – satire and irony. The discursive and cultural emplotment modes in irony and satire are, amongst others, parody, juxtaposition, comparison, analogy, and double entendre.9
All these techniques of emplotment use the vice-versa-substitution of supposedly paradoxical elements as their key mode of storytelling: in parody, exaggerated protagonists or storylines substitute the original ones; in juxtaposition, reciprocal substitution of antithetic elements is obvious; in comparison or analogy, the substitutional similarity of different narratives is the core; finally, in double entendre, different meanings are played with and can be substituted with each other. Thus, the supposed seriousness of the country culture in ‘Me and that Man’ is satire, too. How can we use these findings for a cultural history of metal – and popular music at large?
Sonic knowledge: ‘Going to the country’ as irony and satire in the emplotment of metal history
As historian, I ask myself: how can these two examples of ‘going to the country’, standing for a broader trend of looking for connections to other cultures of poplar music in metal history, be interpreted? How are they to be interpreted using the historian’s gaze in metal music studies?
My hypothesis is we can only historically meaningfully do so by applying Hayden White’s narratology on metal history. In his groundbreaking book ‘Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe’, the author showed that basically all scientific historiography is narrative and narratological construction, too. ‘Emplotment’, White’s key term, was defined as:
Providing the ‘meaning’ of a story by identifying the kind of story that has been told is called explanation by emplotment. (…) Emplotment is the way by which a sequence of event fashioned into a story is gradually revealed to be a story of particular kind.10
Reading this quote, we do not have to descend into the depts and apocryphes of the philosophy of history. Historians themselves barely dare do to theory. But it tells us that in history, and thus also in metal history, we ought to ask how a particular narrative is constructed. We ought to ask for its mode of emplotment: in its musical language, its lyrics, its imaginaries etc. Doing so for the case of ‘going to the country’ in recent metal history, we see that the core mode of emplotment is satire and irony. In recent metal culture, ‘going to the country’ means to use irony and metaphor as deconstructive ways of storytelling to give an epistemological travesty of both: metal and country.
And, finally, this gives us a clue on how to better historically understand metal (and maybe other discourses of popular music) in their historic dynamics. Basically, emplotment and narratives, as introduced by White, are notions of knowledge. Telling a history, fashioning events into a narrative, is a way of gaining and presenting historic knowledge. This could be a historical agenda, applying the historian’s gaze on metal music: seeing it as sonic knowledge which is constructed in certain historical spaces at a certain historical time. This is what historians of metal can meaningfully ask and aim for.
Conference ‘Going To The Country: Pastoral-National-Musical’, 8 to 11 March 2018, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee; http://iaspm-us.net/2018-iaspm-us-conference/, accessed 23/06/2018. ↩
H. White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973; idem, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. ↩
P. Pichler, ‘Homo ludens metallicus? On Huizinga, the historian’s gaze and sonic knowledge in Metal Music Studies’, in Stahl, 26.02.2018. Online, Url: http://www.peter-pichler-stahl.at/artikel/homo-ludens-metallicus-on-huizinga-cultural-history-and-sonic-knowledge-in-metal-music-studies/, accessed 06/03/2018. ↩
Steve ‘n’ Seagulls, Farm Machine, released 08/05/2015 on Spinefarm Records. ↩
D. Elflein, Schwermetallanalysen. Die musikalische Sprache des Heavy Metal, Bielefeld: Transcript, 2010. ↩
Steve ‘n’ Seagulls, Brothers in Farms, released 09/09/2016 on Spinefarm Records. ↩
Me and that Man, Songs of Love Death, released 24/03/2017 on Cooking Vinyl Records. ↩
Behemoth, The Satanist, released 03/02/2014 on Nuclear Blast Records. ↩
White, Metahistory; more broadly see B. Connery and K. Combe (eds.), Theorizing Satire: Essays in Literary Criticism, New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1995; M. A. Seidel, The Satiric Inheritance: From Rabelais to Sterne, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979. ↩
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.
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. ↩
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. ↩