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Black Sky Thinking

Semesters In The Abyss: Metal's Town And Gown Lock Horns
Tom O'Boyle , June 3rd, 2013 05:56

Heavy metal is now at home in the broadsheets, the avant garde, the art gallery and the independent cinema, so why is the university lecture hall seen as a step too far by most fans, asks Tom O'Boyle

"Gi’ us a stick and I’ll kill it."

This is how Richard Littlejohn chose to open an article attacking Greater Manchester Police's decision to extend the definition of hate crimes to include attacks on goths and metalheads. In a typical piece of editorial for The Daily Mail dated April 4, this is apparently what his "Geordie mate Black Mike" says when he sees someone dressed alternatively. The GMP's decision was a direct result of the death of Sophie Lancaster who was savagely beaten to death in 2007 because of the way she dressed.

On the same day the hateful article was published, Bowling Green University in Ohio held a four day conference on Heavy Metal and Popular Culture, organised by the International Society for Metal Music Studies (ISMMS). Attendees were academics and fans from all around the world, gathered as an officially recognised society to present papers and discuss issues surrounding a scene frequently misunderstood and at times evidently vilified.

The conference is just one part of a burgeoning academic movement interested in metal for its cultural and sociological importance. It has already courted controversy within the scene for some of its published work on 'black metal theory' in the book Hideous Gnosis, a collection of essays from a symposium held by scholars in Brooklyn, 2009. Another collection of essays entitled Reflections In The Metal Void saw release in 2012; the apt quote on its back, "Heavy metal is argument".

This month the BBC has reported that New College Nottingham will be offering a two year foundation degree in metal studies, something which Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education was quick to dismiss as, "a waste of time". This was an opinion further propagated by an article which adopted Littlejohn levels of understanding of and sympathy for its subject: "Ignoring the fact that metalheads willing to pay £5,750 a year in course fees might be better off spending the money on personal hygiene products and learning basic social skills, commentators are focusing on this 'academisation' of heavy metal because the received wisdom is that metal is rock’n’roll at its dumbest."

Of course the idea of people taking heavy metal seriously has been raising giggles in the media for some time now. In 2008, The Guardian wrote about the first global academic metal conference with a censored version of the above opinion: "The quaint Alpine city of Salzburg is used to two kinds of musical visitors: fans of Mozart or the Sound Of Music. Next week, however, musical devotees of an altogether different sort will assemble under its baroque towers - and they'll be sporting ponytails, leather jackets, boots and black t-shirts emblazoned with images of skulls and gore."

Such a perspective makes clear its intent to reinforce the age old stereotype of the 'metalhead' and its ‘difference’ from more ‘traditional’ forms of music, failing to take into account metal’s classical roots, and indeed its penchant for flamboyant musical theatricality. If only the writer had also reinforced the notion that all academics were old, bespectacled and wore stuffy tweed jackets and that all locals were lederhosen, goat horn playing shepherds, then the any reader playing stereotype bingo could have called "house".

Such stereotyping was satirised by a recent Daily Mash article entitled Iron Maiden Fans Somehow Immune To Self-Consciousness Epidemic, which stated that "in an age where literally everything has to be arch, knowing, witty or retro, Iron Maiden fans somehow still don’t give a fuck. Their hairy backs aren’t a statement and when they wear double denim with a bumbag it’s in no way ironic."

The Mash at least acknowledge that in a culturally cynical era metal's core values endure, oblivious, but it fails to take into account just how much metal has evolved in its 42 year existence. It has spawned countless sub genres, draws inspiration from such sources as literature, science and politics, has legions of fans globally, its landmark albums are reviewed in the broadsheets, it has achieved a critical volte face going from being reviled by nearly all to being taken seriously in some avant garde circles and remains one of the most exciting, progressive and hardy forms that music can take.

So with mistrust and derision of the genre socially from outside sources stronger than ever (despite becoming more critically accepted musically) you might be forgiven for thinking that metalheads themselves would welcome anything that saw them taken more seriously. For example, you might think that a group of self proclaimed 'Metallectuals' who have taken it upon themselves to create a platform for serious discussion of the genre would be met with celebration, or at the very least curiosity from a metal world more used to disdain than genuine interest. This doesn't appear to be the case however.

Gunshyassassin.comM, a popular and irreverent metal blog, dismissed the legitimacy of the Ohio conference outright, with writer Chris Harris stating: "I love it when scholarly types get together to deeply analyse metal as a genre. I just think there’s better things to do with my time. Like masturbate. Or sleep. Or anything else."

Such dismissal is symptomatic of a defensive, exclusionary attitude rife in all strata of the metal scene. Whilst it's true that the culture is diverse and keen to promote itself as a liberation from "mainstream" ideologies, there are those who seek to draw lines between fans and bands that are "true" and "false". Such intense territoriality is usually a pursuit of nascent youth, but in a movement so obsessed with the integrity of its proponents, it can form the basis of the scene's self-regulation.

Such conflict may help to contribute to how misunderstood the world of metal is from those on the outside. The extreme attributes of all aspects of the culture are indeed intended to provoke extreme responses and provide a test to those who interact with it; "If it's too loud, you're too old" goes the old adage. Beneath the smoke however is a highly intelligent and diverse culture, with a lot to offer to a wider cultural discourse; "This IS the news!" goes that other old adage.

Jonathan Selzer, reviews editor and overlord of the 'Subterranea' extreme metal section for Metal Hammer, asserts that such a defensive posture is necessary for the upholding of metal's identity. "Metal will always expand and its boundaries will be redefined, or at least argued over, but if the term isn't going to become meaningless you need people sticking up for its original core values, because if you forget the terms of the argument, you've lost the argument."

Mr Selzer is also keen to remind that an overly academic take on the metal scene may well miss the point, "There’s a reason the inverted pentagram features so strongly within metal; it represents, amongst other things, the primacy of the body over the head, and a fundamentally visceral approach to the world that lies at the core of extreme metal."

The Ohio conference also featured in the Wall Street Journal, in an article that added weight to the argument that metallers see the lecture theatre as an inappropriate venue: "Metal bands and fans are often equally dismissive, preferring to have their debates on bar stools instead of podiums."

The article largely failed to take into account the variety of topics discussed at these seminars however, not to mention the diverse personalities of the attendees though. It was far from your clichéd gang of beer guzzling, bar fly head bangers. There were speakers of both genders and varied ages, backgrounds and perspectives contributing, as the Quietus can attest, having attended the Home of Metal conference held in Birmingham in 2011.

Speaking to the conference's keynote speaker, Dr Niall Scott, senior lecturer in ethics at the University of Central Lancashire, and chair of the ISMMS, he responded to the opinion that an intellectual study of metal is redundant by outlining the aims of the ISMMS: "Heavy metal is deeply provocative, so it naturally provokes intellectual interest. We are using and participating in the scene to produce new knowledge which can be applied to other areas of study. Metal offers a disordered world view which deserves expression beyond the music. It’s a way of putrefying ideas, letting them rot and allowing new growth to come out of them."

An opinion not entirely out of sync with Jonathan Selzer's perspective on metal's "visceral approach", the ISMMS acknowledge that the metal scene as a means of discourse has something to offer, but do they seek to legitimise this opinion? Dr Scott: "It doesn’t need legitimising, but for some people it works at that level. Some feel relieved that what they thought was present in the music actually is. Opening the complexity of the scene to the world as a multi-layered movement with a relevant discourse is one of our aims. We don’t stand outside the scene; we are just one part of the community."

That their work highlights the fact that metal contains intellectual discourse may irk those who feel patronised by such a statement. There are many fans of the music who understand perfectly what is going on without academics laying it out for them, and indeed may baulk at the notion of them actively decoding music which from the outset does its best to be impenetrable.

"We are aware of those tensions" asserts Niall, "Indeed, they are worthy of discussion. We are just talking about the scene in a different kind of language. There’s something about metal’s connection to life's ugly side. It confronts issues that most would prefer to avoid. It is unique in the alienated way that it deals with it, and that needs to be preserved."

Such defensive postures by fans can often be construed as a form of elitism, an attitude rife in the scene which Dr Scott describes as "adolescent". He says: "Every scene has that disease. It is an attempt at authenticity, but the trouble with that is that it is about being true to oneself. Therefore the idea of being true to a definition of what a movement should be externalises the very thing that should be internal. Elitism is inherently contradictory and untrue to itself; Nietzsche would describe it as a form of resentment."

With specific reference to black metal, Jonathan Selzer to an extent disagrees. "Surely elitism is synonymous with black metal? Who calls themselves 'non-elite black metal'?" The man has a point. Anyone wishing to enter black metal's void must prepare themselves for scrutiny. In a genre in which he describes the necessary conditions for its existence as "an awareness of the difference between wolves and sheep", he is quick to remind that such intellectual analysis of metal is at work within the music itself, citing the Brooklyn based band Liturgy. Their second album Aesthethica unleashed a storm of controversy upon its release in 2011, a lot of it due to front man Hunter Hunt-Hendrix. In an essay published in Hideous Gnosis entitled 'A Vision Of Apocalyptic Humanism', he coined the term "transcendental black metal", proposing "a clearing aside of contingent features and a fresh exploration of the essence of black metal".

According to Mr Selzer, Liturgy were onto something even if they went about it in a rather disrespectful fashion, also adding another layer to that particular debate, "That's if you accept Liturgy as part of the metal scene - and that is still up for debate. In my view Wolves In The Throne Room had a far more interesting, nuanced and ambivalent intellectual take on metal, largely because they still had so much skin in the game when it came to black metal's second wave. Liturgy might be more iconoclastic, but in their case it's a bit like [someone] setting off a bomb in the floor below you."

The lesson: if you are going to attempt analysis, redefinition or deconstruction of black metal, pay respect to your elders. When pressed for a reason as to why the work of the ISMMS has been met with hostility, Mr Selzer's response affirms the necessity of authenticity within metal, hand in hand with an adherence to its core values. "I think there is a sense that the academics don't have enough skin in the game (not that I think a dispassionate examination can't be enlightening), that a lot of proselytising is going on from without while still trying to take on the mantle of black metal, or that the term is being appropriated for obscure ends that are separate from what fans and musicians are looking for. I don't think many of us can read books like Hideous Gnosis and see ourselves clearly reflected in it.

"It also doesn't help that much of it is very US-centric and focused on exploding bands who have rejected huge swathes of the black metal experience, and then often celebrating them at their points of departure. Black metal IS a realm of ideas as well as a visceral experience, but its modes of altered perception lie within far more intuitive and occult realms than the majority of Black Metal Theory can touch upon."

One thing that this discourse highlights is that these are endlessly multifaceted issues. There is too much passion at play within the scene, too many disparate takes on what metal 'is' vying for attention and to claim that sacred air of authenticity, whilst simultaneously adhering to metal's codes of brotherhood.

Karl Spracklen, editor of the ISMMS journal Metal Music Studies and Professor of Leisure Studies at Leeds Metropolitan university is keen to highlight the fact that 'there is a paradox in metal, as in all subcultures and counter cultures. On the one hand, it is a site that is liberating, one that favours the individual, one that can be empowering. Inside metal's culture, we exclude and marginalise each other: black metallers say death metallers aren't true, and we all laugh at people who like power metal because we think they are nerdier than us."

Therein lies at least one indisputable truth, power metal is very nerdy.

There are two main ideologies constantly clashing within the metal scene - individual empowerment eternally at odds with the proudly upheld notion that metal is a brotherhood. It is the friction between disparate tastes and opinions which make the scene as intriguing and exciting as it is, influences merge and separate, creating new sounds and sub-genres even as formerly popular strands stagnate and die. It may not be as interesting if it were not for the degree to which fans argue amongst themselves, or from the malignity it pours upon the outside world, which in turns it gets right back.

This malignity, as pointed out earlier by Dr Scott, may be the very thing which causes metal to be so vilified by the outside world. Metal unashamedly confronts the ugly sides of life, it revels in the darker sides of the human condition in a society where most want to pretend that such thoughts and feelings do not exist. Metal’s role as devil’s advocate is culturally highly valuable; for those unafraid to decipher metal’s messages it provides catharsis and boundless thought space. Metal’s pariah status will continue, and its fans will continue to ignore the attitudes of the outside world; there is no validity in an ill-informed opinion, and they are too busy arguing and having fun amongst themselves to pay attention anyway.

Niall Scott's final words serve to reinforce metal's role in a wider cultural aspect, and to fly the flag one last time for the legitimacy of an academic movement that whilst polarising cannot be accused of lacking passion for its subject matter: "Metal is a cultural barometer. It shows us what is broken about western society. Because metal has become global it does this in other contexts as well, with women’s issues, in Islamic culture, or politically in dictatorships, for example. It is a liberating force, and that is both exciting and interesting! That is worthy of discussion, and worthy of being written about."

It seems ISMMS will continue to court from within and outside of the scene, regardless of whether anyone wants them to or not... a wilful spirit in the face of adversity that even their detractors would have to concede is pretty metal. The discussion generated will please them immensely. A major conference will continue to be held biannually, with smaller symposia held yearly around the world. Their first edition of the Metal Music Studies journal will be published in 2014, and will work alongside the existing journal Helvete, a work that discusses Black Metal theory, its second issue also due in 2014.

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