Friday 3 February 2012

Metal on metal

I can't pinpoint the exact moment I became a metalhead, but as for so many young men of my generation my gateway drug was Linkin Park.

Within the metal scene this is not considered a cool thing to say, to put it mildly. These days I merrily dismiss nu metal as nothing more than gentrified grunge mixed with hip hop, a bunch of whingeing poseurs ripping off Rage Against the Machine with none of the revolutionary politics or musicianship.

But those of us in our mid-twenties now headbanging to blast beats? We liked Linkin Park. We liked Korn. Some of us, God help us, listened to Limp Bizkit. On this now famous graph, we all started on the far left. When I was fourteen, nu metal was the heaviest, angriest music I'd ever listened to.

Of course, that's because I didn't yet know the real thing. I came across 'The Wicker Man' by Iron Maiden by sheer chance, picked up The Number of the Beast and Brave New World, and the rest is history. Maiden opened the floodgates: from there, I discovered Rammstein, In Extremo, Metallica, Slayer, Avenged Sevenfold (another old shame) and eventually Black Sabbath, Sabaton, Manowar, Helloween, Finntroll, Arkona, Forefather, Falkenbach, Nachtmahr, Saxon, Nachtmystium...

The point is that I can't possibly approach Metal: A Headbanger's Journey neutrally. Thankfully, director Sam Dunn doesn't just recognise that: he comes from the same place. Dunn got into metal with Metallica, Maiden and Slayer in the eighties, and has been a metalhead ever since. His film is thus openly, enthusiastically partisan: just like the genre, it wears its heart on its sleeve in a big, proud and sometimes embarrassing way.

Dunn travels the world to speak to metal musicians and producers as well as attending Wacken in northern Germany, the world's largest metal festival. The interviews are almost entirely delightful. Dunn himself - an immensely likeable, gentle man who nonetheless likes some of the heaviest music on this middle-earth - has a lot to do with that: he's a sympathetic but smart interviewer, always giving his subjects room to breathe, never cutting them off or leading them.

Anyone still clinging to the aggressive, even brutish image associated with metal will be flummoxed by the sheer friendliness of the musicians - from Tony Iommi to Alice Cooper - that Dunn talks to. The tiny, wonderful Ronnie James Dio (of Black Sabbath, Rainbow, and Dio) and Iron Maiden's warm, articulate frontman Bruce Dickinson stand out, but for my money Rob Zombie is especially baffling. Here's someone who's directed some of the nastiest horror films in existence, and he seems like a great chap to have a pint with. (The gentlemen of Slipknot, who put forth intelligent, well-argued viewpoints while wearing horror masks, are another highlight.)

There are two interviews which are not what you'd call successful in ordinary terms, and both are with black metal musicians. First, Dunn tries to talk to Mayhem at Wacken, and only succeeds in provoking Necrobutcher to a profanity-laden drunken tirade against... something, while Blasphemer just sits there peacefully. The second odd encounter takes place in Norway, where Dunn speaks to Gaahl, then vocalist for black metal band Gorgoroth. The interview is worth watching:

DUNN: What is the primary ideology or primary ideas that fuel Gorgoroth's music?
GAAHL: Satan. (takes sip of wine)
DUNN: What does Satan embody, what does he represent?
GAAHL: Freedom.
This is theatre. Gaahl is controlling the scene by the setting, his Pinteresque pauses and laconic answers. He's presenting Dunn with the most evil man in Norway. (Wish to hear Gaahl discuss fashion and art? Here you go, provided you read German.) What I can't figure out is whether it's a serious performance - a genuine attempt to impress the ideology of black metal on Dunn - or whether he's pulling the film crew's leg, contemptuous of the media's feeble attempts to comprehend the scene from the outside and thinking he might as well have some fun.

Whether Gaahl's technically accomplished performance in this scene is effective depends on whether you find the ideology of Norwegian black metal compelling. I for one haven't laughed so hard in a long time, and Alice Cooper gently pokes fun at the Norwegian bands' constant attempts to be more evil than everyone else in their rather serious devil-worship. (Gorgoroth split up at least in part because of theological differences between Gaahl and Infernus, the latter insisting Satan is a real, divine being, not a symbol of the self.)  But there is a more serious point, evident when Dunn asks about church burnings. Says Gaahl:
Church burnings and all these things are, of course, a thing that I support one hundred per cent. It's something that should have been done much more and will be done much more in the future. We have to remove every trace [of] what Christianity and the semitic roots have to offer this world. [...] Satanism is freedom for the individual to grow and to become the superman. Every man who is born to be king becomes king. Every man who is born to be a slave doesn't know Satan.
As Rolf Rasmussen, an assistant Lutheran minister at a church attacked by people associated with the black metal scene in the early nineties, points out, this is an uncomfortably elitist proposition. Though Gaahl is no fascist, the extreme individualism, worship of strength and associated contempt for other human beings associated with the scene help explain why there is a vocal neo-Nazi substratum in black metal.

Dunn rightly insists that outside the Norwegian scene, metal musicians have used satanic imagery primarily because it is transgressive and shocking, not because of any actual belief in the occult. (In Dunn's new television series Metal Evolution, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward are wonderfully frank about the use of occult symbols as a marketing ploy.) But I already knew that, and hence I was much more fascinated by Dunn's exploration of gender in metal.

Dunn observes that musicians and fans have historically been overwhelmingly male, but he doesn't stop there. As Dee Snider of Twisted Sister says, metal has tended to be both grotesquely macho and intensely homoerotic. (In all-male environments homophobia, machismo and anti-effeminacy often go hand in hand with all-out homoeroticism: watched 300 lately?) Rob Halford's leather outfits - generally preferred by metalheads to seemingly effeminate glam garb - originated in gay culture. Metal, Snider points out, creates a space in which men can still be men, by having another guy shake his nether regions at them.

But to say that metal is male is to ignore the women who've made their way into the culture over the years. Pamela Des Barres, 'the world's most famous groupie', rejects the claim that she was 'powerless' and 'objectified' because 'they're exactly where they want to be' - which may be true but nonetheless shows us the face of patriarchy. (Imagine the groupie gender-flipped.) Perhaps more positively, Dunn interviews Doro Pesch as well as members of Girlschool and Kittie on the pressures they've faced to be 'more feminine' and emphasise their looks.

Angela Gossow of Arch Enemy states that her tough stage persona as a death metal vocalist is important to her and has inspired young women. This is great, but I think Dunn is being a little too pat here, moving on to the next subject while leaving us with the impression that the gender divide has broken down. He observes that ultra-masculinity is associated with freedom, which should be the start of a debate - why is freedom gendered male? - rather than its end. As I see it, gender archetypes in the metal scene are still strong, with women encouraged to like symphonic metal and similar genres considered 'softer', while extreme metal is still overwhelmingly male. There's progress yet to be made, people.

A lot of time is devoted to the mainstream media's maligning of metal, the attempt during the eighties to brand the style as satanic and likely to inspire teens to foul deeds. While the footage of Dee Snider's testimony before congress is quite wonderful - and it's worth recalling a Gothic cathedral contains more images of demons, death & doom than any Cannibal Corpse cover - , my issue with this stretch of the film is that Dunn doesn't acknowledge that institutional attempts to suppress metal effectively ended in the early nineties. But the notion that metal is marginalised outsider music is hugely important to fans' and musicians' self-image: metal's counterculturality is constantly (re-)constructed, and those mechanisms would be deserving of their own documentary.

Dunn concludes that metal 'confronts what we'd rather ignore; it celebrates what we often deny; it indulges in what we fear most'. I think he's right. Metal shares that with horror (a reason, no doubt, why Rob Zombie is drawn to both genres). It deals with the ugly and abject, often transgressing boundaries and inverting established values: reckless abandon over the careful composure that would help our CV, aggression in a society that has monopolised violence. There is thus a countercultural core to metal: it is the Jungian shadow of a carefully maintained status quo, the garish reflection of societal aggression.

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