What makes a classic? A short reflection

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.


  1. Behemoth, I Loved You at Your Darkest, Nuclear Blast, 2018. 

  2. Behemoth, The Satanist, Nuclear Blast, 2014. 

  3. Peter Pichler, Metal Music and Sonic Knowledge in Europe: A Cultural History, Forthcoming 2019. 

  4. Jan Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen, München: Beck, 1992. 

Between transgressive gender constructions and hypermasculinity: the recent balancing of gender in Scandinavian Extreme Metal music.

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

Myrkur

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.

Amon Amarth

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

I had to wipe the smile away

I was not yet a man, nor was I a boy

But still, I made that bastard pay (…)11

 

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 have needed 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 to need 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.


  1. 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. 

  2. 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. 

  3. www.metalstudies.org, accessed 31/03/2018. 

  4. https://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-Journal,id=236/, accessed 31/03/2018. 

  5. 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’. 

  6. Kahn-Harris, Introduction, pp. 3-7. 

  7. http://www.peter-pichler-stahl.at/artikel/homo-ludens-metallicus-on-huizinga-cultural-history-and-sonic-knowledge-in-metal-music-studies/, accessed 31/03/2018. 

  8. A. Anderlin-Mahr, Vielfalt und Diversität anstatt toxischer Männlichkeit, in Blog W. Schmale, Mein Europa, https://wolfgangschmale.eu/andreas-enderlin-mahr_ueber_vielfalt-und-diversitaet-anstatt-toxischer-maennlichkeit/, accessed 02/04/2018. 

  9. https://noisey.vice.com/en_us/article/6vgqe8/myrkur-facebook-threats, accessed 31/03/2018; http://www.metalinjection.net/hateorade/one-woman-black-metal-band-myrkur-is-tired-of-getting-death-threats-from-men, accessed 31/03/2018; http://www.toiletovhell.com/stangry-manchildren-send-myrkur-death-threats/, accessed 31/03/2018. 

  10. https://noisey.vice.com/en_us/article/6vgqe8/myrkur-facebook-threats, accessed 31/03/2018; http://www.metalinjection.net/hateorade/one-woman-black-metal-band-myrkur-is-tired-of-getting-death-threats-from-men, accessed 31/03/2018; http://www.toiletovhell.com/stangry-manchildren-send-myrkur-death-threats/, accessed 31/03/2018. 

  11. Lyrics to Amon Amarth, “First Kill”, released on the album “Jomsviking”. Metal Blade Records, 2016. 

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

A subtle gesture of irony? On sonic knowledge and the cultural history of the (mis-)uses of country music in metal culture.

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,5 Steve ‘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’.7 In 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.


  1. 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. 

  2. 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. 

  3. 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. 

  4. Steve ‘n’ Seagulls, Farm Machine, released 08/05/2015 on Spinefarm Records. 

  5. D. Elflein, Schwermetallanalysen. Die musikalische Sprache des Heavy Metal, Bielefeld: Transcript, 2010. 

  6. Steve ‘n’ Seagulls, Brothers in Farms, released 09/09/2016 on Spinefarm Records. 

  7. Me and that Man, Songs of Love Death, released 24/03/2017 on Cooking Vinyl Records. 

  8. Behemoth, The Satanist, released 03/02/2014 on Nuclear Blast Records. 

  9. 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. 

  10. White, Metahistory, 7. 

‘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.’ 

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. 

A short conceptual note on ‘Foucauldian’ and ‘Neo-Foucauldian’ thought in Metal Music Studies

Today, Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984), as a theorist of post-structuralism, is one of the most well-known sources of conceptual reflection in cultural history. In current cultural-historical debates, his notions of ‘discourse’, ‘archeology’, ‘genealogy’ or ‘governmentality’ are amongst the most freuently used ones.1 They are used to tell the ‘histories’ of very different subjects and topics, from a broad variety of  perspectives.

All those  seemingly Foucauldian macro-, meso- and microstories of historical reality share, despite their different narratological subjects and objects, the ontological background of post-structuralist theory. However, we have to be aware that today’s common understanding of a ‘Foucaldian’ methodology in cultural history,  is not exactly and ‘originary’ Foucauldian, strictly clinging to the philosopher’s intentions. Foucault claimed himself to be a ‘positivist’2 who examined discourses as positive and empirical formations of performative ‘speech acts’ in history.

In the context of current historical theorizing this seems to be an ironic or even awkward claim. We construct Foucault to be the main ‘hero’ of constructivist and deconstructivist cultural history. This, frequently projects an ontology of constructivism onto the discursive ‘screen’ of Foucauldian thought and concepts; yet, the French theorist himself , especially during the development of his core-framework of ‘discourse analysis’ int the late 1960s, saw his work as one of an empirical positivist.3

Thus, when telling cultural history by using Foucauldian concepts and methods, such as ‘discourse analysis’, ‘archeology’ or ‘genealogy’, we have to be aware – and honest to ourselves – that we use and re-use, hence modificate these notions, depending on our own specific interests of research. So, maybe it is unfortunate to speak and write of ‘Foucauldian’ thought in cultural history. Probably, to define current theorizing in cultural research as an ‘Neo-Foucauldian‘ framework would maybe be more accurate: we overworked Foucault’s theories by projecting our own historiographical demands upon his work.

Supposedly, Foucault himself, a strongly pragmatic and non-systemic thinker, would not mind. He wanted his theoretical notions and concepts to be seen as a ‘toolbox’, from which everyone should take the tools and notions she or he needed; adapting them to her or his needs in analysis.4 Exactly, this is the actual and strictly Foucauldian approach: it is not an approach that glorifies (de-)construcitivism but an endless play and re-play of rethinking theoretical terminologies.

The actual ‘constant’ (Foucault would strictly avoid this notion) in Foucauldian thought is a pragmatic and ontological one,  a specific ‘flexible’ perspectivism. All through his professional life, his work was an examination and cyclic re-examination of the theorectial notions he had used before. So, actual Foucauldian cultural theorism is one which puts terminoligical self-reflection into his main focus. It is a perspective which, again and again, returns to its core notions, re-works and over-works them, making them better suitable for its relevant empirical needs.

Hence, we could define actual Foucauldian thought in cultural-historical theorizing as one which has the endless modification, the constant critique of its own terminology as its conceptual core. To think in Foucauldian ways, therefore, means to lead a discourse of terminological critique. In Metal Music Studies, as a specific research field in cultural studies, Foucault is a frequent point of reference, too.5

Taking up my differentiation between ‘Foucauldian’ and ‘Neo-Foucauldian’ thought, could be a way of making theorizing in Metal Music Studies more accessible and clearer – by being more exact and self-reflexive, taking the self-critique of terminology as a more important point. When speaking of ‘discourse’, ‘archeology’, ‘genealogy’ or ‘governmentality’, we should exactly define how we use these notions; maybe giving an exact point of reference in Foucauld’s own texts, clarifying which phase of Foucauld’s own self-critique of theory we intend to operationalize.


  1. For an introduction to Foucault, cf. Leonard Lawlor/John Nale (eds.), The Cambridge Foucault Lexicon, Cambridge: University Press, 2014; Clare O’Farell, Michel Foucault,  London: Sage, 2005; Sara Mills, Michel Foucault, London: Routledge, 2003; Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, Minnesota: Minnesota University Press, 1988; for a broad introduction to Foucauldian thought in history, cf. Paul Veyne, Foucault. Sa pensée, sa personne, Paris: Albin Michel, 2008. 

  2. Cf. ibid. 

  3. Cf. ibid. 

  4. Cf. ibid. 

  5. Cf. Jeremy Wallach e.a. (eds.), Metal Rules the Globe. Heavy Metal Music Around the World, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011;Deena Weinstein, Rock’n America: A Social and Cultural History, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015. 

Getting naive in Metal Music Studies: can (Metal) music change the world?

In my last post, I reflected upon cultural-historical tendencies and processes in the year of 2016. I tried to elaborate on the question how this year, with its seemingly fundamental political ruptures, in a global and European perspective, could be told in scientific historical storytelling. Already this essay, as I ‘dared’ to measure the relevancy of one year in history without the advantage of temporal distance (I wrote my post on January 1st 2017), did not lack a certain degree of naivety. In this post I want to take, so to speak, ‘naivety as an epistemic tool’ and reflect upon a seemingly highly naive question: can (Metal) music change the world?

Yet, I think this a question, if our theoretical and methodological  prerequisites of cultural history are presented and used self-reflexively, being aware of the fundamental limits  inherent to them, can be elaborated on in a scientifically serious way. I suggest, trying to think of a conceptual answer to this question might add ‘ontological awareness’ to the research agenda of Metal Music Studies.

Getting naive…

Our starting point is a very simple thought: in the year of 2017, having in mind the first weeks of the new Trump administration and its policies, the coming important elections in France and Germany, the overall global network-like atmosphere of tension, uncertainty, even fear and panic, we could want to live in a better world; culturally, socially, legally, politically and economically. All the frictions and tensions of discourse in early 2017 – i.e. terrorism, migration, political radicalization, war-like conflicts – could make us long for a better world. And, this  being the decisive fact, wanting concepts from science to get into such a world.

So, the question, leigitimized culturally and morally, we have to think about, in ontological and discursively structural terms, is: can science provide us with ways to get into this ‘better world’? And, for Metal Music Studies, and cultural history in this subfield of academie, that question is to be modified to its specific subject of research: can Metal music change the world?

As mentioned above, this question seems to be one of purest naivity, even if taking it as ‘innocent’ naivity. How should music, even Metal music as subcultural field of popular culture, be able to change the world for the better? I think, on the very contrary, this naivety could be a good starting point for ontological reflection in Metal research; namely suggesting this naivety as an epistemic tool which enables us to open up for fresh perspectives.

…in Metal Music Studies

When we see this question as a a legtitimized one, this opens up a series of questions which penetrate into the deepest layers of the discourse of Metal Music Studies, its ontological prereqisites . Asking whether Metal music can improve the world’s current historical condition, we ask for a new evaluation of the theoretical core notions of cultural history in Metal Music Studies. These questions include the following: (1) what is Metal music in cultural history?; (2) how does Metal music connect and interfere with global discourse of culture?; (3) does this interference allow Metal music to change the world?

What is Metal music?

I address these very serious ontological questions (they basically define the subject of cultural history in Metal Music Studies as a field of research)  in exactly the order mentioned. Ad (1): trying to give a definition of Metal music in cultural history, means to give a preliminary description of a conceptual and empirical field of global history, since at least the 1970s. Starting in the early 1970s (having roots in the decades before), bands like Black Sabbath created a new, ‘heavy’ sound. Since then, this ‘heavy’ discourse emerged as an own cultural discourse. It developed its own narratives, imaginaries, style of clothes, gesticulation and networks to institutionalize them.1.

So, from the broadest possible perspective, Metal music can be understood as an own and distinct cultural discourse of popular culture. Today, it has its own history (and self-narratives of  this history) since over four decades.2 It is a structural sphere of culture, having its own rules of creating meaning, in its styles of clothes, music, practices, marketing and performing. In a nutshell, for cultural history Metal music is a discourse which globally creates meaning in an own way – according its protocol of the new cultural style encoded as ‘heavyness’.

How does Metal music connect and interfere with global discourse of culture?

Now, we can address the second question, again rather globally. Ad (2): The core argument of my ontological definition of Metal music is the adjective of ‘global’. This adjective, indeed, is of utmost importance for the second question. Here, we want to find an answer to the question how Metal music does interfere with global discourses of culture – the ones like politics, media, society etc. The adjective ‘global’ gives us the ontological key to find an cultural-historical answer.3.

This short word, ‘global’, implies that Metal music itself spans around the world. It is not only a product of this world, or a by-product of discoures lying hierarchally above it, but an own and, scale-wise and hierarchically, equal discourse. Metal music acts globally, therefore, it has the same and exactly equal rights as other discourses – such as politics, media, society etc. It may not have the same ‘discursive power’ but from a structural perspective it is global, and thus has the equal rights: to construct meaning, to construct the world. In a nutshell, aiming to formulate an answer to this second question: Metal music inteferes with global discourse of culture on an equally-righted base. Its demands of identity and narratives are no less important than any other – but not more important either.

Does this interference allow Metal music to change the world?

Ad (3): our third and final analysis is, probably, the most important one. Taking Metal music in global history as an eually-righted one, this leads us to formulate an answer which is promising and disappointing at once. It is promising because, when conceptualizing Metal music as an equally-righted sphere of culture, that implicates that it is on same hierarchical level as other discourses; hence, it, logically and normatively, can influence the world. The disappointig aspect is that, because it is one discourse among myriads of others, is potential of influencing the world is limited.

So, our answer to the third point is: Yes, Metal music has the potential to change the world; to be more specifically: it has the potential of changing its world. As an emancipative discourse, it can create (and indeed does create)4 its own visions and utopias of a better world. To me as a cultural historian, the most challenging task of examining these questions is to reflect upon the limits of cultural history in Metal Music Studies: where does the influence of Metal discourse meet its imits? Which limits and boundaries are the ones, maybe imposed by other discourses, which restrain its influence? How are these limits and boundaries, identities and non-identities, negotiated and fixated?5

 


  1. Cf., for instance, Jeremy Wallach e.a. (eds.), Metal Rules the Globe. Heavy Metal Music Around the World. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011; also, cf.  Deena Weinstein, Rock’n America: A Social and Cultural History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.; and: Dietmar Elflein, Schwermetallanalysen: Die musikalische Sprache des Heavy Metal. Bielefeld: transcript, 2011; finally: Rolf Nohr and Herbert Schwaab (eds.), Metal Matters: Heavy Metal als Kultur und Welt. Münster e.a.: Lit, 2012.  

  2. Cf. ibid. 

  3. Cf. ibid. 

  4. cf. ibid. 

  5. Source of the title image of this post: http://s2.quickmeme.com/img/d2/d2c1e23ecee906584f0a6844db58aa2070bf0666afe7407a7df27caf07937087.jpg, retrieved 6.2.2017. 

Darkthrone, ‘Brexit’ and Donald Trump: Was 2016 the Year of the Birth of ‘Homo conservativus hystericus’?

Recalling the past twelve months of 2016, trying to tell it as a history of an end-of-year review is not an easy task. 2016, as a remarkable year in recent history, globally, had in petto some tough ‘surprises’: first, here we can think of the ‘Brexit’-vote in Great Britain in June; then the election of Donald Trump for president in the USA in November. Always, it is very difficult to ‘judge’ historical events that still are very close to the present. Yet, I think there are certain cutural aspects and trends making the year of 2016 a remarkable one.

In this post, to be seen as a cultural historian’s end-of-the-year review in Metal Music Studies, I will try to highlight these trends and discuss their possible discursive meaning. To do so, I will start by discussing the cultural history of these two political events, the ‘Brexit’-vote and the election of Trump, then going on by contextualizing it with very similar discursive patterns in Metal Music discourse. Seeing those discourses together, should allow us to make sense of 2016 cultural-historically – at least for the moment.

‘Brexit’

On 23 June 2016, British voters decided, by 51.9% to 48.1%, to make the ‘Brexit’ become political reality. This historical event was new and different, therefore, a shock in several ways: (1) It was the first time a country decided to leave the European Union. (2) It was one of the first times that a political campaign, inspired by populism, harsh emotions, nationalism and conservatism, led to a big political success, sealing the further way of a whole country or nation. (3) It was one of the first events in which, on a macro-level of cultural discourses, the cultural trend called ‘postfactualism’ gave a highly important political process its central cultural features.

Taking these three points together, we can call this event of June 23 one in which the cultural discourse of conservativist populism became successful, politically. One central thing was really new about this discourse: it was not ‘common’ conservatism but conservatism that substituted its rational core in narrative by an emotional stream of passion. In Nigel Farage’s discourse, conservatism of a nationalist kind was painted in the colors of xenophobia, national pride, fear of the ‘other’ and guilt. In short: it was the real debut of ’emotional conservativism’ in Great Britain. Its structure as a historical event is to be found in the linkage of common conservativist topics and emotional language.

Dartkthrone’s new album ‘Arctic Thunder’

On 14 October 2016, Norwegian Black Metal-veterans Darkthrone released their new album ‘Arctic Thunder’. When Darkthrone, as an artistic collective consisting mostly of guitarist/vocalist Ted ‘Nocturno Culto’ Skjellum and drummer Gylve ‘Fenriz’ Nagell, started out to establish Black Metal in the early 1990s, this discourse was fresh, rebellious, ‘dangerous’ and new. But, that was more than twenty years ago. Meanwhile, Darkthrone are still releasing albums on a regular base but their music is not pure Black Metal anymore. It is a hybrid form of Rock’n’Roll, Crust Punk , Heavy and Black Metal.

Their 2016 album is, seen in the context of overall-cultural history of this year, a remarkable one. It still is that new style cultivated by Darkthrone since several but its aesthetics changed. This is the record’s cover:

index1

The music on the records is not an essential change but the aesthetics hark back to the band’s own history. The cover shows a campfire in the night, dark woods, the band’s classic logo and the record’s title. This composition, as a discursive move, takes up classical Black Metal aesthetics which Darkthrone were famous for in the 1990s. Dark forests, night, campfire are key symbol in this discourse’s conservative aesthetics. However, there is one central difference between 2016’s Darkthrone cover and the ones from the 1990s: they feature the very same symbolism but ‘Arctic Thunder’ is pictured in colour while the old ones were black and white.

This, from a cultural historian’s point of view, is a remarkable shift which appears to be a ‘logical’ event in 2016’s history: discourse stuck to its conservativism, politically with UKIP and Nigel Farage, musically with ‘Arctic Thunder’, but it was painted with colour – which stands for emotions, passion, more liveliness and an overall new discursive approach stressing the role of emotions in postfactualism. Hence, the political programme of the ‘Brexit’-campaign had the same cultural structure than Black Metal discourse. As an event, it brought the dawn of ’emotional conservativism’ which is in Darkthrone’s case some sort of ‘colourful Black Metal’

Donald Trump

On 8 November 2016, Donald J. Trump, American businessman and television star, was voted to become the United States’ 45th president. This was a political event, not predicted by mainstream media and discourses, which was called upon ‘historical’ from the very first minute. A former businessman and ‘celebrity’ who cultivated a highly emotional discourse of populism, taking up narratives of xenophobia, nationalism, misogynism, sometimes even racism, was elected to become president. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, predicted to become president, lost the battle.

I do not want to join the global debates on that event, being shocked or delighted, pleading for political ‘revenge’ on the ‘establishment’, but to examine this event’s discursive structure. At its core, Trump’s political campaign and discourse was highly conservative, often right-wing, being embedded in the traditional Republican Party’s programme. Yet, this discourse had, on its surface, a very different appearance: it was aggressive, passionate, always full of emotions. Trump’s election is yet another example of the linkage of conservative thought and emotional language in 2016.

The birth of ‘Homo conservativus hystericus’?

Recalling this three very different historical events of 2016, the ‘Brexit’-vote in June, the release of Darkthrone’s ‘Arctic Thunder’ in October and the American presidential elections in November, two political decisions and one artistic speech act, they feature the same structural characteristics. They are conservative ‘to the bone’ but on the surface, concerning language and symbolism, their discourse is emotional, aggressive fresh and passionate. All three of them are ’emotional conservativism’.

So, when summarizing my thoughts in this post, the year of 2016 seems to be indeed a remarkable one. Recently, cultural historian Wolfgang Schmale published a monograph2 which has the theoretical concept of ‘collective historical performative speech acts’ at its center. It theorizes identities and narratives innovatively as ‘collective performative speech acts’ (i.e. ‘Eurocentrism’, ‘European Identity’, ‘Enlightenment’) which become influential points of reference – and Schmale thinks of our recent period as a history of change towards ‘post-performativity’.

We can take up this thougt for a cultural-historical end-of-year review of 2016 in Metal Music Studies. Seeing the similar structures in discourses in politics and music, too, we can think of 2016 of a year in which a new ‘collective historical performative speech act’ entered the cultural stage. Satirically, this new figure of discourse may be called ‘Homo conservativus hystericus’: he is, most of all, white and male, gains attraction by yelling emotionally; yet he sticks to his conservative roots.


  1. Source: http://www.nuclearblast.de/static/articles/253/253324-1.jpg/1000×1000.jpg, retrieved 12/10/2016. 

  2. Wolfgang Schmale, Gender and Eurocentrism. A Conceptual Approach to European History. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2016.