Zeitgeist

Death (Metal) of the West

November 12, 2009

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Death (Metal) of the West

Alright, you win. Reading all these blogs, I can’t avoid the subject of fist-pumping Heavy Metal any longer. A metaller since the tender age of 13 (coincidence?), I’ve been worshipping the gods of rock’n’roll even longer. But, don’t worry, that doesn’t stop me from being a proud Orthodox Christian.

I’ll use my seasoned veteran status in an attempt to explain why this seemingly unorthodox subject keeps returning to Takimag. In fact, I’ll use it shamelessly, because I don’t believe that these recent pieces did a particularly good job justifying the importance of Heavy Metal to an uninformed audience.

Love it or hate it, Metal has been contributing to a European cultural revival of sorts. This focus on the West, including (gasp!) the classics, makes this genre’s youthful demographic—the largest constituent group of fans is, indeed, in their late teens and 20s—an asset. You and I both know what kind of culture, or lack thereof, youth is normally subjected to at academic institutions and through popular media.

Speaking of which, it is the North American media that largely bears the responsibility for your negative perception of heavy metal. Individual exceptions notwithstanding, metal is depicted in the States as a sex-drugs-and-rock’n’roll genre that peaked during the exuberant 1980s and then pretty much died. The only scholars of the genre are Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar of Aurora, Illinois.  

By contrast, European popular culture acknowledges that metal, with its multivalent genres and intellectual themes, is alive and well (and not necessarily in hell, either, officially.) Take Dimmu Borgir’s and Enslaved’s wins at Norwegian Grammys, for example. This broad cultural acceptance is the reason why dozens of European, particularly German, metal festivals offer something for everyone: middle-of-nowhere underground events with a couple a hundred people, the ones I prefer, like United Metal Maniacs, and mainstream ones like Wacken, with tens of thousands in attendance.

What attracts all these people to heavy metal? The beer? The rocking out? The girls dressed in black leather? All of the above. But recently sociologists have revealed a few surprising facts about metalheads, at least with regard to the European scene. In Hard rock, heavy metal, metal. Histoire, cultures et pratiquants, for example, Fabien Hein writes that a significant percentage of metal fans are not the “Beavis and Butthead” types, but rather successful people who pursues post-secondary education and beyond. Of course, I don’t need a professional researcher to tell me how many of my friends and acquaintances all over the world manage to combine day jobs and/or college with bands, sometimes fairly well known ones.

In addition to the social aspects of heavy metal, its fans are, of course, consuming the product of creative autonomy. There are certainly well known bands like Nuclear Blast (though it would be a stretch to compare them to popular music giants.) However, self-produced, self-distributed works have always comprised a significant component of this subculture, which largely functions on the word of mouth. More importantly, this autonomy lets metal bands—the worthy ones—delve into a variety of forbidden subjects both lyrically and musically, whatever their dark hearts desire!

And what they desire often happens to be European cultural survivalism. For example, Norway’s Kampfar, the Iceland’s and Germany’s Falkenbach, and Russia’s Temnozor write about ancient pagan pride, Nordic and Slavic, respectively. You may be turned off by the fact that many of such bands are either anti-Christian or, at least, pagan. However, this direction is always and necessarily linked to indigenous European traditions. “It’s been more than a thousand years, but still I am proud, still I am Norse,” in Kampfar’s case.  There are certain exceptions, like the Christian band Horde. More important, these musicians inspire a general interest in the Death of the West. Canada’s Thesyre, for example, advocates against the “welfare state protect[ing] the weak” in order to “save our culture and heritage.”

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What I find more worthwhile and an intellectual step above local European mythologies is the fact that certain bands “cover” literary classics: Britain’s Iron Maiden has done Tennyson’s and Coleridge’s poetry, Norway’s Ulver, Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Australia’s Destroyer 666, various Nietzsche works, and Russia’s Aria, Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, to name just a few. Have you ever stood in a large concert crowd which chanted direct quotations from such works? It’s a powerful experience. Many fans, particularly younger ones, admitted to me that they would not have shown an active interest in pursuing literature if it were not for their favorite band.

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Is it really a surprise that heavy metal is popular gateway to classical music as well? Finland’s Alexi Laiho shreds Vivaldi, while his mentor of sorts, Sweden’s Yngwie Malmsteen, “does his thing” with a bouquet of Classics. Good American boys aren’t exempt from this phenomenon either: how about Jason Becker and Paganini?  And neither are girls: Beethoven meets jaw-dropping Great Kat.

Metal is so Eurocentric that even Japanese bands pride themselves on emulating old-school German thrash. And others like to sing about Russians and Germans in World War II. In fact, when I was in Japan this year, I wanted to hear all about “German power!...Russian power!” so much that I caught Sex Machineguns’ performance in Morioka, Japan. And just like the band’s leader Anchang, “I believe heavy metal power”!

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