Heavy Metal Holidaze

“My sins sicken me like pus in my bones
Help me, Jesus, Lamb of God
For I am sinking in deepest slime”

— Bach, Cantata 179, composed in 1723


In an article titled “Facing Up, Finally, to Bach’s Dark Vision,” musicologist Richard Taruskin pointed out the 200 year-long program of sanitizing the essence of Bach to fit within the bourgeoise Christian culture’s limited idea of “high culture.” But if one actually pays attention to the text in Bach’s Cantatas, it’s clear that Bach revealed bitter truths that the world is filth and horror, that humans are helpless, that life is pain, that reason is a snare.

Not much has changed in the last few centuries. But one difference is that since it was recognized as a genre in the early 1970s, heavy metal has not been whitewashed for consumption in respectable concert halls (with the exception of Metallica’s 1999 concerts with the San Francisco Symphony), but rather reviled and vilified by critics and conservative self-appointed guardians of culture. Critics dismissed the music as simplistic, primitive and worthless, while ideologues like Dr. Joe Stuessy, Carl Raschke, and the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) waged ideological terrorism by grossly misinterpreting the lyrics. In an astounding display of historical amnesia, the critics conveniently and hypocritically forgot that many composers like Schumann, Schubert, and Mussorgsky abused drugs and alcohol as much as any artist, and Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique glorified drugs, violence and Satanism. The transgressive themes addressed by metal are hardly new and unique. Most operas make most metal songs read like children’s stories.

Ozzy Osbourne was put on trial when his song “Suicide Solution” was blamed for a double suicide of two 20 year old men, when the lyrics are about a friend who was drinking himself to death, and were clearly anti-alcohol and anti-suicide. In Judas Priest’s lawsuit, the lyrics didn’t even matter, as the accusation was hidden backwards messages. In reality, at least in the 80s, metal rarely delved into nihilism or Satanism. Instead, an actual look at metal lyrics reveals portraits, and often moralistic takes, on the dark side of the modern capitalist security state — war, greed, patriarchy, surveillance, and control. Other themes covered were assertion of or longing for intensity; lust; loneliness, victimization and self-pity; romantic regret and longing for love; anger, rebellion, madness. Basically, metal tells it how it is rather than resorting to hippie flights of fancy. Much like the blues, much like Bach.

Despite the fact that metal accounted for a whopping 20% of the total album sales in 1988-89, the conservative ideologues won the battle. Warning stickers kept albums from being distributed to major retail chains like Walmart, bands were dropped from labels, and MTV axed the Headbanger’s Ball show and greatly reduced the amount of metal in its programming. By 1991, metal seemed dead in the water and irrelevant, at least to those in the mainstream. Heavy metal fans, however, were not discouraged so easily. The “proud pariahs,” as Weinstein calls them, are not unaccustomed to adversity as cultural underdogs. The 90s simply reflected the further fragmentation of metal into literally dozens of subgenres. 1991 saw the first serious (and sympathetic) academic study of metal with Deena Weinstein’s Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology (the subtitle was later changed to The Music And Its Culture). This was soon followed by Robert Walser’s Running With The Devil: Power, Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (1993). Just as metal faded from the mainstream, it started to receive respect from academics, musicologists and critics.

Now over 35 years old, metal has influenced (some think infected) nearly every subgenre of hard rock. Ozzy Osbourne is now adored by both metal and non-metal fans as a doddering, potty-mouthed TV dad. Metal may no longer dominate the Billboard charts and MTV, but hundreds of bands manage to make a living, while the Ozzfest tour dependably pulls in fans year after year, and dozens of bands play at Milwaukee Metal Fest every year. A new documentary is awaiting general release, called Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, directed by Sam Dunn (an anthropologist) and Scot McFayden. It’s a far more sympathetic look at metal than Penelope Spheeris’ sneering 1988 documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, featuring interviews with Dee Snider (Twisted Sister), Alice Cooper, Rob Zombie, Vince Neil (Motley Crue), Bruce Dickenson (Iron Maiden), Ronnie James Dio, Lemmy (Motorhead) and Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath). AC/DC were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, and holy serendipity! Just as I’m writing this, it was announced that Black Sabbath were announced as one of the inductees for the 2006 ceremony.

Appropriately, Ozzy is the cover model for the new Rough Guide To Heavy Metal (2005). Hardly the first guide (that would be Martin Popoff’s The Collector’s Guide To Heavy Metal, published in 1997), it seemed to be cause for excitement for metal fans, as the Rough Guides are generally well written and researched. However, the Rough Guide To Heavy Metal will disappoint anyone who is more than a casual fan. One of the factors is that while it takes a broad approach to the various definitions of heavy metal, it’s all covered by only one writer — Essi Berelian. It’s unlikely that Berelian is an expert on all the subgenres and bands that are covered. Or not covered. There are numerous glaring omissions, including Anvil, At the Gates, Atheist, Bathory, Behemoth, Blind Guardian, Bolt Thrower, Children Of Bodom, Cult Of Luna, Cynic, Dark Tranquility, Dillinger Escape Plan, Dimension Zero, Dissection, Enslaved, Grim Reaper, Heavy Load, Hellhammer, Heavy Load, Immortal, Loudness, Mastodon, The Meads Of Asphodel, Meshuggah, Naglfar, Neurosis, Orphaned Land, Possessed, Prong, Riot, Samson, Soilent Green, Tank, Tiamat, Tygers Of Pan Tang, and Witchfinder General.

These bands are merely ones that are in my own personal top metal albums list. While not all of them are well known, many are hugely important to the history of metal. It’s simply wrong to exclude them while including dozens of bands that wouldn’t ever remotely be considered metal, such as Alien Ant Farm, Amen, Asia, Black Crowes, Boston, Bush, Creed, The Cult, The Datsuns, Filter, Foo Fighters, Incubus, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, Nickelback, Papa Roach, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Staind, Stone Temple Pilots, Taproot, The Von Bondies, The Who and ZZ Top. What’s particularly irksome is its redundancy. The Rough Guide To Rock already covers these bands. So non-metal bands are covered twice by Rough Guide, while other important metal bands are completely ignored by both guides. Additionally, the writing is spotty, there are numerous factual errors, and other gaffs that are inexplicable. For example, his entry on Metallica, Berelian manages to recommend nearly every album (including the vile Load), except for their most acknowledged masterpiece, Master Of Puppets. How is that possible?

For a true metalheads who want reliable information, the Rough Guide To Heavy Metal is useless compared to allmusic.com and Martin Popoff’s obsessively complete The Collector’s Guide To Heavy Metal, which comes in a single edition published in 1997 (with 3,750 reviews) and seperate volumes for the seventies (1,162 reviews) and the new eighties edition (2,528 reviews) which just came out November 2005. But for, say, a 13 year-old wanting a light overview, or a casual fan who enjoys the minimal band histories and little side blurbs on metal movies and descriptions of subgenres, the Rough Guide is an amusing diversion. The Collector’s Guide to Heavy Metal, in Popoff’s own words, is “truly sick.” It covers pretty much any obscure album that the most knowledgable fan could think of. A long time music critic for magazines like Goldmine, Record Collector, Guitar World, and editor for Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles, Popoff’s knowledge of metal is unmatched by any human on the planet. His personal tastes are pretty quirky, and his favorite metal albums contrast sharply with more popular choices. His writing is quirky and occasionally flips into subcultural metal argot to express enthusiasm or derision without actually describing the music. But singlehandedly taking on projects as massive as this, it seems unavoidable, as readers of Robert Christgau would confirm. But overall, Popoff’s body of work (over a dozen books and counting) is a treasure, and The Collector’s Guide to Heavy Metal Vol. 2: The Eighties is his best work yet.

What is Heavy Metal?

In the opening essay of The Rough Guide To Heavy Metal, Essi Berelian typically waffles. He mentions a few subgenres, fails to define anything, and in the end defers to Lemmy who says it’s all just rock ‘n’ roll. How useful. The academics do a better job. Both Deena Weinstein and Robert Walser agree that metal is defined by the almighty power chord. The chord in The Kinks’ 1964 song, “You Really Got Me” is commonly held as an example as among the first, though no one is willing to put their reputation on the line over it. Walser further elaborates that a power chord “is a musical interval of a perfect fourth or fifth on a heavily amplified and distorted electric guitar,” which can be percussive and rhythmic or indefinitely sustained. It’s a complex sound, “made up of resultant tones and overtones, constantly renewed and energized by feedback . . . the power chord seems simple and crude, but it is dependent upon sophisticated technology, precise tuning, and skillful control. Its overdriven sound evokes excess and transgression but also stability, permanence, and harmony.” Technology also made feasible a heavy bottom by amplifying bass drums and heavier bass guitar.

The Who expanded the use of the power chord, particularly in a live context, and Jimi Hendrix made it do a snakedance and literally set it on fire. Eric Clapton pioneered extended solos, another common trait of metal, in his white blues band Cream. Heavy blues and psychedelic music laid further building blocks for early metal, with the Yardbirds, Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly, Vanilla Fudge, Free, Blue Cheer, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent & the Amboy Dukes and Hawkwind. Even Judas Priest started as a psychedelic band in 1969. Many believe Led Zeppelin’s debut album in 1968 was the first metal album. I disagree, and so does Robert Plant, who said, “That was not heavy metal. There was nothing heavy about it at all…It was ethereal.” About half the songs on Led Zeppelin II features power chords, while the rest are more overtly plagiarized blues tunes. There’s no doubt that Led Zeppelin were a great band, but its first, third, fourth and fifth albums really don’t focus on power chords and solos. They explore many forms, including folk and reggae, making them more of a basic hard rock band with more in common with the Rolling Stones.

Instead, Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut released on Friday the 13th, February 1970, is at least the first proto-metal album. While it still employs blues structures and even a mouth harp, nearly every song is pounded out with power chords. Not to mention it sounds goddam scary, particularly in the opening title track’s use of the tritone, the musical interval that spans three whole tones, like the diminished 5th or augmented 4th. The gap between two notes played in succession or simultaneously was known by medieval musicians as Diabolus in Musica – the Devil’s Interval. The Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages forbid the use of the tritone, believing it was the work of the devil. Nevertheless, the tricky tritone made appearances in Beethoven’s Fidelio, Giuseppe Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata, Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, even West Side Story’s “Maria.” Often harmonized in thirds in the harmonic minor scale, it produces a feeling of dread. It creates a spooky tension that can either lead to a major chord resolution, or simply leave listeners dangling over the abyss of despair.

In addition to Black Sabbath, I agree with Martin Popoff that the other two early bands that forged what would become metal were Deep Purple and Uriah Heep. Deep Purple’s In Rock (1970) features blistering guitar solos by Ritchie Blackmore, and Ian Gillan’s banshee shrieks. Uriah Heep is a more wobbly proposition, with nearly equal parts psychedelic and progressive influences. But on the strength of the heavy riffing of “Gypsy,” “Walking In Your Shadow,” “Real Turned On” and “Bird Of Prey,” Very ‘Eavy, Very ‘Umble counts as a contribution to early proto-metal. Even more so, 1971’s Look At Yourself and 1972’s Demons And Wizards.

The use of the term “heavy metal” to describe the music can be traced to Creem Magazine, though it’s hard to know which of three writers first actually used it. In a 1971 review of Sir Lord Baltimore’s Kingdom Come, Mike Saunders wrote that they “seem to have down pat all the heavy metal tricks in the book.” He was referring to Grand Funk Railroad, Free, MC5, Blue Cheer and Led Zeppelin. In a 1972 interview with Black Sabbath, Lester Bangs quoted one of his favorite writers, William S. Burroughs. He referred to the character The Heavy Metal Kid from Nova Express, a denizen of Uranus. Yes, I believe the Bill And Ted/Beavis And Butthead style humor was intentional on the part of both Burroughs and Bangs. Or it could have been Dave Marsh who first used the term. Until some kind person indexes Creem we won’t know for sure. It is certain that Creem was the first to treat heavy metal with some sort of respect. Steppenwolf of course referred to the “heavy metal thunder” of driving a motorcycle down the highway in “Born To Be Wild” in 1968. But The Oxford English Dictionary traces “heavy metal” back to 1828, when it signified large guns and/or large balls (ammunition for the guns). In 1882, it adds, “ability, mental or bodily; power, influence; as, he is a man of heavy metal.” Given the music’s relationship to power, the roots of the term is wholly appropriate.

Given its massive popularity in the 80s, it’s surprising that there haven’t been more attempts at a comprehensive history of heavy metal. For many years, the best was Philip Basche’s valient but unsatisfying book Heavy Metal Thunder (1985). It took another couple decades for a worthy history to appear in the form of Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal (2003). Author Ian Christe is highly qualified, being of the first generation to grow up with metal, getting turned onto AC/DC, Judas Priest, Motorhead and Saxon while living in Germany. After moving to the U.S., he hosted a metal radio show at WEOS in Geneva, NY at the tender age of 14. There he helped break bands like Venom, Anvil, Manowar, Mercyful Fate, Metallica, Slayer and Voivod to a larger audience at a crucial time in metal history.

The book starts on Friday the 13th, February 1970, the release date of Black Sabbath. Christe rightly chose that day as ground zero for heavy metal. With a poetic invocation of Black Sabbath’s origins and inspiration, the book takes off, addressing the murky origins of metal before it was recognized as such. While Christe acknowledges Led Zeppelin’s enormous influence, he characterizes them as “a group of musical interpreters more than originators.” Bands other than Black Sabbath represented more of small pieces of the emerging heavy metal aesthetic, with Deep Purple’s guitar solos, Alice Cooper’s stage show, Kiss’s makeup, Thin Lizzy’s complex duo guitars, and Rainbow’s medieval lyrical fantasies. Judas Priest was really the first to bring most of these elements into focus as the first truly quintessential metal band, along with, to a lesser extent, Scorpions. One of the only disappointing parts is in chapter two, “The New Wave of British Heavy Metal,” Christe attempts to map the influence of punk, but ultimately betrays his ignorance of the genre, giving undue attention to The Plasmatics, an American band whose outrageous stage show had nothing to do with the NWOBHM. Punk is dismissed with a couple of quotes from Rob Halford of Judas Priest (“There were only a couple great moments that had any lasting significance”) and Kiss’ Paul Stanley (“Punk has a built-in obsolescence”). Yet time and time again, metal would return to punk for fresh inspiration, from the California thrash scene, Scandinavian black metal, and a vast majority of 90s bands. This major flaw sticks out like a sore thumb.

Fortunately Christe quickly returns to what he knows best, and gives a nicely detailed account of how the NWOBHM bands like Motorhead, Raven, Tygers of Pan Tang, Iron Maiden, Saxon, and Def Leppard cut their teeth by playing multiple sets at semiprivate “workingmen’s clubs” to often hostile audiences of dock and factory workers in between rounds of bingo and meat raffles. Interestingly, Iron Maiden was offered a recording contract back in 1976 if they were willing to “go punk.” With additional bands like Venom, Diamond Head, Angel Witch, Girlschool, Witchfinder General and Tank enjoying some success, the scene became a major cultural force, attracting Australian expatriates AC/DC. Very little of the music made it to the U.S. But there were small pockets of fans in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where collectors held swap meets, trading bootleg tapes and import records and copies of Kerrang! North American bands like Anvil, Twisted Sister, Riot and Y&T became associated with the NWOBHM due to their somewhat compatible styles. Ozzy Osbourne also became a sort of ambassador, having moved to Los Angeles in 1976, and eventually recruiting guitarist Randy Rhoads from Quiet Riot for his solo act. Meanwhile, new bands like Ratt (inspired by Judas Priest), Steeler and Motley Crue were popping up. One of the first people to document the budding metal scene in the U.S. was Ron Quintana, who published a fanzine called Metal Mania. Also important to the scene was his friend Lars Ulrich, who took the original idea for a name, Metallica to use for his band. L.A. record-store clerk, DJ and fanzine publisher Brian Slagel set to work producing a compilation to document the scene called Metal Massacre on his new label, Metal Blade Records. An embryonic Metallica was a late entry to the compilation. Lars Ulrich was a recent transplant from Denmark who’s interests changed from being a nationally ranked tennis player to learning drums and following his favorite bands Diamond Head and Motorhead on tour in the UK and US. James Hetfield, who had played in Leather Charm and Phantom Lord, would jam with Ulrich in his bedroom while taping from his huge collection.

From this point on, the majority of Sound of the Beast uses Metallica as a frame of reference, from underground influence of their 1982 demo tape, quaintly titled “No Life Til Leather,” to their subsequent stylistic evolution. Meanwhile, things were really starting to come together in the mainstream. Christe hits the nail on the head why 1983 was such a pivotal year for heavy metal — with hectic, high energy video games like Vanguard, Robotron, Asteroids, Battlezone and Defender at peak popularity, heavy metal was the only music that was fast and technical enough to work as a soundtrack. MTV debuted, and began showing some metal videos, turning kids onto AC/DC, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Dio, Def Leppard and Scorpions, which they’d listen to on Sony Walkmans while smacking baddies and blasting aliens on the Ataris and arcade games. The role playing game Dungeons & Dragons was at peak popularity, which involved playing characters such as elves, magicians, dwarves and clerics to battle monsters and collect treasures — subject matter often covered by heavy metal bands. Iron Maiden and Dio were touring with elaborate stagesets involving giant mascot ghouls (Eddie) and castles. Apple Computer’s Steve Wozniak funded the U.S. Festival, a four-day outdoor music fest in San Bernardino, California. The day that included a lineup of Quiet Riot, Motley Crue, Ozzy, Judas Priest, Scorpions and Van Halen attracted double the crowds that attended INXS, Flock of Seagulls, Men at Work, Clash, U2 and David Bowie to 600,000. Mainstream magazines like Circus and Hit Parader switched to all hard crock and metal coverage.

Meanwhile, Metallica embarked on a low budget national tour with Raven, and other bands like Slayer, Anthrax, Savatage and Jag Panzer cropped up. And we’re only at page 100/400! Christe goes on to cover the rightwing panic spearheaded by the PMRC, the flourishing thrash metal scene, Hollywood hair bands, hardcore punk, metal’s commercial peak, death metal, world metal, Norwegian black metal, more lawsuits, antimetal, and metal’s rebound.

Metal Goes To College

Not only is Deena Weinstein’s book the first real academic book on metal, but she’s one of the first professors in the country to teach it in class. She codes heavy metal history into a dialogic process, an ongoing historical conversation stratified into five eras. It erupts from 1969 to 1972, begins to crystallize from 1973 to 1975, reaching a golden age of full realization from 1976 to 1979. Then from 1979 to 1983 it undergoes a surge of growth, increasing in complexity and expanding its boundaries. After 1983 it fragments into subgenres. Weinstein goes on to summarize heavy metal’s codes in sociological terms, identifying the sonic dimension (what it sounds like), visual dimension (style of graphics, dress), and the verbal dimension. This covers the lyrics, which are fragmentary and suggestive signifiers of Dionysian themes, lust, doom, chaos, monsters, celebrations of rock (but rarely drugs, interestingly enough). Other lyrical influences come from fantasy and horror movies and literature. When metal fragmented into subgenres in 1983, the differences in lyrical themes were identifiable. For instance, lite/pop/hair metal introduced more common themes of love and lust, while underground thrash metal avoided sex and drugs (other than occasional anti-drug songs), and focused on forms of protest songs addressing politics, the environment and animal rights. Suicide and death was not a common theme, with the exception of good ol’ Slayer.

The chapter “Making the Music: Metal Gods” is rather silly chapter about desire to be a “metal god,” talent and skills needed, songwriting, dramatic skills, and “physical endowment.” Meaning, they jog to keep in shape for the shows! “Backstage chatter is likely to be about stomach-flattening techniques as about guitar electronics. The muscular upper torso required by the genre, highlighted by a stage costume that usually features exposed arms and bare chests, taking more than jogging to create.” I don’t know where this is the norm, but I recall a good portion of bands featuring sunken chests and beer bellies. The rest of the chapter covers the band as a social unit, creating the product, performing the product, achieving and maintaining success. Further chapters address the audience, including boring demograophic statistics that indicate fans are mostly teenagers. However, that was in 1989-1990, when metal has only been around in its “crystallized” state for 13 years. The age range is likely much wider now. Weinstein talks about fans’ preference for beer and pot, and the practice of headbanging over dancing. And in response to exclusion from the airwaves, fans retain even stronger solidarity. A long chapter on concerts reveals nothing new other than the fact that heavy metal audiences are much more polite and considerate than the country fans, according to security personnel.

Deena Weinstein is nothing if not a passionate advocate of metal. Yet her sociological approach leaves giant holes in the study of metal. The largest being the music. She never actually addresses the music. It’s as if the lyrics, the rituals, the fans, the performances all matter more than the actual music. Many academics have this problem. In 1992 I attended an academic conference called “Youth Music and Youth Culture,” hosted by Princeton’s American Studies department. Many of the presentations were dry and lifeless, lacking any sort of vitality their topics hinted at. Robert Walser presented a paper called “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Voodoo Aesthetics,” which addresses the socially constructed cultural hierarchy that excludes from “highbrow” culture anything from the last century. He asserted that heavy metal is ground-breaking in the way it appropriates and finds new uses for old classical music. Just as I’m about to doze off, he starts talking about Ritchie Blackmore, Edward Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, and Yngwie Malmsteen. Suddenly there’s a buzz as he plugs a guitar into the PA and Walser starts shredding note-for-note replications of Rhoads and Malmsteen solos. Everyone perked up and took notice, while I “floated the goat.”

Walser went on to use parts of that paper for his book, Running With The Devil. He easily made up for Weinstein’s shortcomings because he was actually a professional heavy metal guitarist for a period in the late seventies and early eighties. If anyone could address the actual music, it’s Walser. Throughout his book, he stresses how lyrics have been historically overemphasized and granted disproportionate significance, when it’s the music that is much more powerful in signifying meaning. For example, the exact same lyrics performed by both Frank Sinatra and AC/DC could signify hugely different meanings. And a wordless muzak version of the cloying “It’s A Small World” melody can take a screaming, raucous audience at an Iron Maiden concert and make them nearly instantly docile and orderly as they file out of the hall like sheep.

Walser dissects the anatomy of a power chord, which is the frequency that is the difference between the frequencies of the main tones, which are often lower than the guitar can normally produce. Power chords produce powerful signals below the actual pitches being sent to the amplifier, while at the same time, distortion produces a more complex waveform that produces higher harmonics. Sustain, distortion, and the resultant heavy tones are crucial the heavy metal’s sound. Understanding the seven modes of music that were borrowed from the ancient Greek theoretical system with scales named after cities and ethnic groups will help to make sense of the differences in genres also. Most pop songs are Ionian or Mixolydian, while heavy metal is Aeolian or Dorian, and thrash is Phrygian or Locrian. Deep Purple’s famous beginning “Smoke On The Water” riff is in Aeolian, or blues mode. In Ionian it sounds like a Pat Boone cover; in Phrygian it sounds like Megadeth. Walser doesn’t use classical harmonic theory to make claims that heavy metal is highbrow. But rather it’s necessary to study the music, which in reality is often quite complex, and rooted in classical.

Using the analytical tools of mode, harmony, timbre, rhythm, melody and solos, Walser deconstructs Van Halen’s “Runnin’ With the Devil,” and later discusses the virtuosity of the ground-breaking classical influences in Ritchie Blackmore, Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads and Yngwie Malmsteen. Malmsteen processes Paganini, Bach, Beethoven and Vivaldi, and produces some astounding technical guitarwork. His unrivaled ego reaches Spinal Tap proportions, as he claims he isn’t playing heavy metal, as no one else is worthy to be compared to him. Walser admits that virtuosity and individuality such as Malmsteen’s, with his rigid regimen of solitary practice, can lead little room for communal music making. In the end, Mangosteen’s music suffers for it, as it becomes boring and doesn’t evolve, because it’s all flash over feel and speed over songs. But there remains a small niche for this sort of avant-garde, mainly instrumental metal, with Steve Vai and Joe Satriani being the most well known proponents.

The remaining chapters, “Forging Masculinity: Heavy Metal Sounds and Images of Gender” and “Can I Play With Madness? Mysticism, Horror, and Postmodern Politics” seem almost tacked on, as if Walser felt he had to round out his detailed musical analysis with other trendy academic approaches that don’t dig up nearly as many fresh insights. Various points that stood out was the theory that because metal represents power, many kids eventually outgrow metal because they overcome their feeling of powerlessness in adulthood through economic independence and becoming parents. Walser brushes off the charge that metal lyrics are especially misogynist by comparing them to a series of much more blatantly offending lyrics by the “king of pop,” Michael Jackson. While it’s slightly disjointed, Running With The Devil is clearly unmatched as the first truly substantial academic analysis of heavy metal, and sets a precedent that begs to be built upon.

Black Metal

The nineties brought a crystallization of many more metal subgenres, the major ones being death metal and black metal. There’s also grindcore, doom metal, stoner metal, sludge metal, alternative metal, nu metal, industrial metal, rap metal, neo-classical metal, progressive metal, goth metal, hardcore [punk] metal, symphonic black metal, and power metal, which, for all I can tell, is just classic late 70s-80s style metal. The differences between some of the subgenres are so subtle that even those completely immersed in the culture and music may disagree on what’s what. Leading magazines such as Terrorizer and Decibel largely avoid the issues by putting most of the subgenres under the “extreme music” umbrella. Decibel editor-in-chief Albert Mudrian, in collaboration with longtime Grindcore fan John Peel, assembled a history based on band interviews called Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal and Grindcore (2004). While it’s much better than Natalie J. Purcell’s clumsy history, Death Metal Music: The Passion and Politics of a Subculture (2003), its enough to put all but the most hardcore fans in a coma.

More interesting (and sometimes sinister) is the story of black metal. In Lords Of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground (1997), Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind take an exhaustive, 350+ page look at the subgenre, its subculture, and the flare-up of church burnings and violence in the early 90s. While the story takes place largely in Norway, the roots of black metal go back to an English called Black Widow, who released three diaphanous hard rock albums between 1970-72, and Coven, whose 1968 album Witchcraft: Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls, would perform a full Black Mass at their concerts. They were even scheduled to perform at a sort of “Satanic Woodstock” where Anton LaVey, the infamous High Priest of the Church of Satan, was to speak. The whole thing was cancelled, but they performed their Black Mass at a Detroit nightclub the next night, scaring the wits out of an acid-tripping Timothy Leary. Musically, the core trio that kicked off black metal were Venom, Mercyful Fate and Bathory. Venom formed in 1979 in Newcastle, England, whose primitive, aggressive sound owed as much to punk as Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. While their second album, Black Metal, named the subculture, interviews with leader Cronos and the other members revealed that they were just normal, beer-swilling blokes who don’t subscribe to the ideological trappings of occultism, but just borrow its aesthetics and themes. King Diamond, of Denmark’s Mercyful Fate, had a much more intimate knowledge of texts like LaVey’s Satanic Bible. Under theatrical black and white face paint, Diamond at least appeared much more committed to Satanism, screeching his praises of LaVey’s brand of it with his operatic vocals. Swedish group Bathory, named after an 18th century Hungarian countess who bathed in the blood of young girls to maintain her beauty, were the most extreme sounding band of the mid 80s, awash in abrasive distortion and noisy effects. As the band matured, they slowed the tempo down and focused more on Nordic heathen cosmology and Teutonic folklore.

In the American 80s thrash metal scene, both Slayer and Possessed dabbled in diabolism. German groups Kreator and Sodom, and Swiss ensemble Celtic Frost also served as influences on the formation of black metal. Thrash metal gave way to death metal, which produced bands like Death, Obituary, Deicide and Morbid Angel from Florida, and Entombed, Hypocrisy, Dismember and Unleashed from Stockholm, Sweden. Unleashed in particular, drew upon pre-Christian heathenism, similar to Bathory. Norway had their own death metal bands in Mayhem, Old Funeral and Darkthrone. However, they were not content in sharing the spotlight with the Swedish bands, and sought to make a more striking statement that would “sear a mark in the history books forever.” Unfortunately, the worldwide media attention was to be focused on a depressing chain of crimes committed by a small group of people and at least one genuine psychopath.

Oystein “Euronymous” Aarseth founded Mayhem in 1984, influenced by Venom, Bathory and Hellhammer, the band the evolved into Celtic Frost. Their second album, 1987’s Deathcrush, is considered the first Norwegian black metal album. By the time he opened a record store (Helvete, which means “Hell”) and started a record label (Deathlike Silence), Euronymous was widely recognized as the key leader in the scene. He was a big influence on Darkthrone evolving into a black metal band, their new style manifested on their second album, 1991’s A Blaze in the Northern Sky. Another high profile participant of the scene was Varg Vikernes, who left Old Funeral to form the one-man band, Uruk-Hai, which soon changed to Burzum. Both are taken from J.R.R. Tolkien’s made-up language derived from ancient Nordic. Burzum means darkness in the made-up Middle Earth tongue. Euronymous released Burzum’s first self-titled album on his label in 1992. Immortal emerged from the remains of Old Funeral, joining Darkthrone, Emperor, Mayhem and Burzum to make up the core of the Norwegian black metal scene that had gelled by 1992.

Yet what could have been a creative watershed was squandered, arguably, by the distractions created by increasingly serious transgressions. Numerous church burnings started cropping up, and Varg Vikernes was arrested as one of the original suspects. Stave churches were the main target because of their easily burned wooden structures, and their symbol of Christianity being forced upon Scandinavia. Many were built soon after the arrival of Christianity in Norway around 1000 C.E. Meanwhile, Per Yngve “Dead” Ohlin, vocalist for Mayhem, shot himself in the head with a shotgun. Drama reached a peak when Bard “Faust” Eithun, former drummer for Emperor, randomly stabbed a gay stranger to death, and Varg Vikernes stabbed his former friend Euronymous to death. For about 130 pages, the book abandons any information about the music, and exhaustively interviews nearly everyone in the scene about the crimes and murders. It’s maddeningly confusing when it switches between the participants’ real names and their pseudonyms. In the end, the overall impression is that despite Norway being a very affluent country with a stable social democratic system, there are still plenty of stupid, disaffected youth. The handful of people mentioned above espoused a very childish, wrongheaded idea of Satanism and paganism that revealed a lack of education and understanding of the history of either area. Simen Midgaard, founder of the Oslo branch of the Ordo Templi Orientis, the occult order of Aleister Crowly in 1984 (and resigned in 1993), addressed their conflicting ideas of Medieval style Satanism with a heathen worldview:

I don’t think they understand very much, in general! Satan is a Judeo-Christian person, and if they are going to get rid of Judeo-Christianity, they will have to get rid of Satan as well… He is a sort of Trotsky in the revolution, when it comes down to it. Satan is useful in the Christian world. It’s a point to consider, because it’s logical — if you are going to be consequently anti-Christian, then is Satan just a mediating figure?

It seems that the Protestant Norwegian State Church was chosen simply by default, for the lack of any other obvious targets. It’s a fairly liberal church, hardly as intrusive as Christian Fundamentalism is in the United States in national politics and individual civil liberties. Only 2-3% of the Norwegian population are actually involved in regular church services. While Varg Vikernes’s rantings often veered into racism and fascism, few people even in the black metal scene shared those views. Pal Mathieson, a Christian writer on theological issues for Morgenbladet was confident that Satanism would not last, or at least evolve into something else, because “Destruction doesn’t give anything back. It kind of wears itself out, because what do you get back from thinking or being like that?”

Mathieson may be right. A number of black metal bands like Enslaved and Einherjar have completely abandoned Satanism to focus solely towards atavism. They explore Nordic heathen cosmology such as the folklore of the Oskorei, and Odinic deathcult that believed an army of dead swoops down and occasionally whisks away unlucky people. Even Vikernes is studying up on Norse gods and tribal practices in prison, when he’s not trying to cultivate a Charles Manson-like persona. Those who remain Satanists are more like Ihsahn of Emperor, who’s ideas are less childish and more in line with LaVey’s brand, and more like a Byronic aesthete.

Lords Of Chaos overall is somewhat of an unwieldy mess that could have used better editing. It’s frustrating that the back cover is nothing but sensationalistic quotes from the handful of criminals that make it no better than the tabloid papers that fanned the flames. Nevertheless, it’s a valuable piece in the puzzle of the motivations, issues and deep problems when a tiny subculture strives desperately to gain attention, and in a twisted way, respect. The biggest surprise of all is that in the end, some good

The author at Heavy Metal bar in the Gothic Barrio, Barcelona, Spain.
The author at Heavy Metal bar in the Gothic Barrio, Barcelona, Spain.

may come from the scene overall, despite the murderers who nearly ruined it. Just as metal bands around the world have inspired fans to read up on literature, religions, mythology and history that informed their music and lyrics, Scandinavian black metal bands have awakened a renewed interest in their own history and folklore that has inspired continued creativity and innovation in metal music.

— A.S. Van Dorston

Heavy Metal Holidaze was sponsored by SATAN.

Also read:

Top Metal Albums

Satan vs. Jesus


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