Into the Coven
by: T. DePalma
The Dragon spoke to Grendel:

"You improve them, my boy! Can't you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves. The exile, captivity, death they shrink from -- the blunt facts of their mortality, their abandonment -- that's what you make them recognize, embrace!"

(from "Grendel" by John Gardener)

Metal, perhaps more as an idea than an actual music genre, stands near the center of Western youth-culture, maintaining a constant global interest with the most sizeable followings in Europe, Canada, Australia, parts of South America and within the last ten years experiencing its most significant upsurge in popularity throughout America. Bolstered by increased commercialization, greater media and distribution power along with cross-cultural entanglements, the metal market has never been so saturated, available and accepted. But regardless of how much sells or even what it's selling, metal has always been maintained through networks of dedicated fans that reinforce its status as a distinct subculture.

In "Metal: A Headbanger's Journey", Canadian anthropologist / metalhead Sam Dunn investigates the origins, development and current state of metal in North America and abroad, classifying and interviewing on camera to find out why, after some thirty years at the front of extreme music, entrance into the billboard charts and a growing legion of fans, metal still represents a misunderstood, dismissed, even unnoticed segment of society.

The film, which took five years to complete and is now available as a two-disc DVD set, is presently the most accessible and balanced introduction for outsiders interested in the genre and a service to its fans, who have the advantage of not being portrayed (for the most part) as incapable, hopeless dirtbags -- even if they are, as Bruce Dickinson muses, "eternal fifteen year-olds". (The very point is explicitly played out in one surreal episode involving the members of Mayhem later on in the film.)

An all-star line up of musicians, the most relevant (and crucial to give the film any financial start) being Dickinson, Ronnie James Dio, Alice Cooper, Tony Iommi, Geddy Lee, Lemmy and Dee Snider, help begin our education. As a sign of their times, each articulates their profession with considerably more personality than the later generations we meet as the film progresses. Dio in particular is so charming and savvy while fielding Dunn's questions, masterfully slipping in several jabs at Gene Simmons while discussing the infamous "devil horns" salute and the controversies surrounding religion and metal. Alice Cooper, too, annihilates the pretensions regarding today's musicians and deflects criticism with a wit and attitude of such serene content in his achievements (both real and imagined) that makes him one of the most intriguing persons on screen. These are metal's entrepreneurs, true showmen who brought the music into prominence through skill and daring, a true dichotomy of art and entertainment.

A mix of academics like Deena Weinstein and Robert Walser, music journalist Malcolm Dome, producer Bob Ezrin and pop-culture ferrets like Chuck Klosterman are also on hand to provide the basics of music theory and explain metal's historical and cultural significance. A small group of mainstream rock musicians, like Monkey from Korn and Tom Morello, also add commentary. However, these scattered inclusions (the exception being Rob Zombie, who's incisive if musically irrelevant) seem to reiterate the trouble of getting a project like this off the ground in the first place, and much the same way certain retailers stock Atreyu next to At the Gates, are used to pad the cast and keep production stable.

Dunn, who based his Master's thesis on the struggles of Guatemalan refugees, frequently appears on camera to guide the way. He is tall and lean, with straight, long blonde hair, and nearly always dressed in black; a sympathetic figure that's intelligent enough to appeal to the general audience as well as the initiated. Able to give voice to thousands of fans, he steps onto the open grass of the Wacken festival with genuine breathlessness ("I'm in fuckin' heaven!"), re-cites the lyrics to Autopsy's "Charred Remains" on camera and confesses some butterflies while meeting his icons. Despite this, he seldom resorts to irrational defenses or apologetics about the content of the music itself, and his honesty enhances the chemistry and openness of his subjects.

In covering such a tremendous amount of ground in such a short time-frame, the film struggles with details and particulars (curiously, during the "family tree" segment there is a negation of speed metal in favor of the term thrash -- blame Martin Popoff, I guess) but still manages to illustrate key divisions such as its origins, environment and the issue of sexuality and gender (where somehow Slipknot is inserted where Rob Halford and Glen Danzig ought to be; Halford or his people apparently showed little interest in contributing to the documentary, a kind of nasty sleight when one considers several abhorrent MTV productions that the "Metal God" has lent assistance toward in the last few years). More in-depth inquiries into racial and class demographics go untouched, perhaps being self-evident but no more then the last set of strata. Instead we're given an offhand paean to the blues, some classical references and much more footage of groupie Pamela Des Barres and Vince Neil then is necessary to highlight the distinction between male and female performers -- and it's sort of melancholy that Angela Gossow and Girl School serve to represent the other sex during this portion.

Often Dunn's inquiries become murky, presenting familiar rock experiences as though they were unique to metal: all night festivals, novelty merchandising -- "metal breakfast", homemade "metal fuseball" -- and hangovers till dusk. What these live segments and fan profiles eventually reveal and what the documentary ultimately aims for is the communal aspect that often goes overlooked in any sub or underground culture when examined by more sensational outlets.

Despite its status as magnet for freaks and psychopaths, the average metal concert is far less the fascist gathering it was once made out to be. I've always been struck with how social and talkative, how "normal" many concert goers actually are. And it's not necessarily something that appeals to me, this feeling of belonging (to a group); however, the fact remains that most metal shows and especially the underground concerts are generally some of the safest events a young person can attend. (Those in the crowd being the most dedicated and unlikely to jeopardize the event.) The incidents of injury and accidents naturally increase as the size of the audience grows -- and also the stupidity. It's no coincidence or proof of potency that groups like Ozzy, Priest, Manson, Metallica -- all big-name acts who cater to a larger audience -- have at one point or another been singled out as a negative influence or even direct inspiration for criminal activity; it's a numbers game. But the amount of distressed and often violent outsiders ready to act irrationality is only proportionate to the amount of anomie the system actually propagates. Some of these people are going to be into Slayer. Nature creates killers; but it is society, a corrupt and ineffectual society, that enables them. One reason why a lot of these people don't understand the music or the ideas is because it's being produced by kids, perhaps even their own, who haven't yet been broken and absorbed into their own dreary routine.

Violence and death being the order of the day, Dunn's explorations into Norwegian black metal and the death metal scene are fruitful if less comprehensive (he's bested by earlier documentaries like "666 at Calling Death"). Interviews with Emperor, Enslaved and Jorn Tunsberg of Hades Almighty follow in intense, articulate or stoic recollections of various events in the early '90s. (Worth mentioning that Dunn frames Varg Vikernes as "the most notorious metal musician of all time."Not a bad reputation to make at twenty years old...") Of course, the notorious interview segment with Gaahl of Gorgoroth is a highlight, but he's outdone by Ralph Rasmussen, minister at the Asane church, which was burned to the ground by Vikernes and Tunsberg in 1992. Rasmussen plays the timid, bruised priest to their reptilian coldness. If you can't laugh as he reiterates (a big gulp before he continues) that "it was not a happy Christmas that year", well, what kind of monster are you?

In an unusual split from the rest of the film, Dunn takes care to distance himself from any such activity and cautions against viewing the entire scene in this way. (He's actually taken to task for not condemning it enough by one viewer at a Norwegian screening of "Journey" -- see DVD extras.) Today, There is arguably little fuss to be made over such things in the first place, and watching these participants some years afterwards and in much less exaggerated form, I'm struck more (and pleasantly) by their lack of remorse, either in participating or in supporting such actions. Of course, circumstances open the way to understanding. In the United States, such stunts would fail immediately in breaking through the general psyche or return any sympathy whatsoever. The culture is far too heterogeneous. And let's not forget that people here actually attend service.

(Dunn investigates the Norwegian phenomenon further in a twenty minute documentary included on the DVD release. Although queries into the scene's early flirtations with nationalism and extreme right imagery are regrettably all silenced in favor of the connection between Satanism and black metal, there are some odd and surprising statements to wade through. One professor at the University of Oslo even ponders black metal as the ultimate and "moral form of anarchism" while making a point of the country's general sheepishness.)

In two of the more embarrassing scenes of Dunn's journey, Rose Dyson, author of "Mind Abuse", is surprised on camera with a copy of _The Wretched Spawn_ CD by Cannibal Corpse, speechlessly demonstrating how out of touch supposed cultural observers and media critics can really be. Messers Fisher and Webster blandly repeat the assertion that it's just entertainment ("look at the Vatican!"), but thankfully people like Gavin Baddeley and Keith-Kahn Harris were interviewed to save the genre from appearing as trivial as a child's bloody crayon drawing.

It's hard to gauge if Dunn's film has made any definite impact in the general perception of metal. His closing argument, that "metal celebrates what we often deny" is constant and true. But if the media has shown interest in this work and the music, it doesn't look as if they've really paid attention or attempted to dig any deeper.

Two recent articles published by CNN and the Chicago Tribune exploring the supposed boom in heavy metal's literacy (Mastodon's _Leviathan_ provides the evidence for both reports) presents the usual and many comical misrepresentations of the genre. CNN in particular related a few bombshells meant to illustrate heavy metal's new social consciousness ("Lamb of God's albums criticize American foreign policy", Cattle Decapitation "...are vegetarians"). Metal, you see, is growing up. They've even begun to branch out into mythology! (Nile, of course.) It seems obvious that record labels are content to revise the genre's history to benefit their current rosters, and fans ought to know better. You conform to and coddle an arbitrary standard, and novelty is what you get. (Sadly, no one told the authors about Seattle, Washington's Bloodhag.)

Established media only recognizes the explicit. In an ironic twist, we've come from Satanic court trials flooding the media to a new-found interest and grudging praise for adapting "Moby Dick". As a listener who, like most, began listening to metal in my early teens, I see links between these artists and the fruit of more established mediums. The romanticism of life and death -- a perennial teenage motif -- fit within the eternal struggle of man and nature. It is heroism and honor and tragedy and decadence that does not shy from the red ending of it all. And that is the pleasure. Find it in Milton and Blake, in Shakespeare down to films like "Apocalypse Now" and "The Seventh Seal". (Countless horror movies provide a base for the atmosphere and sentiment, fixations of mortality and wonderfully bad taste that fill the gaps.)

The will toward transcendence is the urge kindled by metal's empowering sonics, endlessly searching for meaning in chaos. Yet it remains earth-bound, a solvent of moral category and reflection of youth's passion: knowing for certain what it's against and not always what it's for. The most interesting music then, for me, is that which considers the possibility of something greater in life than what's been inherited, both spiritually and creatively. The stipulation, of course, is that we may have to destroy everything to move beyond.

That metalheads are afflicted with a certain arrogance about themselves and their listening habits (and until more recently, a tribal hostility against most other forms of music) is beyond argument. It has its cretins and dullards too, but fans are much smarter and aware of art and literature than given credit for. Certainly more credit than the creators of "Metalocalypse", a new cartoon produced by Turner Broadcasting, allow them.

The show follows the fictional band Dethklok as they growl through tunes about coffee and visit a grocery store named Finntroll's, in the process serving metal fans the complete opposite of Dunn's endeavor, with mutant / zombie fanatics gladly signing a "Pain Waver" denying compensation for any subsequent injury inflicted at Dethklok's concerts. One is reminded of scenes like the pudgy young female who permitted Slayer to her corpse and other amusing personalities that do really exist. (Again, the infamous fan that carved "Slayer" into his arm on camera... Slayer rules.)

It's supposed to be an inside joke, but you get the feeling of being laughed at rather than laughing with. It's cute and hyperbolic, not particularly clever or worthy of repeated viewing. But there is a tendency to look at productions like these as only benefiting the genre, that any exposure is good exposure, and Arch Enemy's Michael Amott, members of Metallica, Nevermore and even King Diamond have all recorded voices for the show -- and of course it's another way to "metalize" your entire environment and habitat.

It's not exactly clear why metalheads seemingly need to be surrounded by and express themselves through such tacky commercialization in the first place (usually the more feely types, who drone on about metal "not judging them" and always being there... for them). But the earlier generations of metalheads would most likely have laughed it off and paid no attention, as would their hardcore counterparts, who are experiencing much of the same thing today. Custom belt buckles, chain wallets, liquor flasks, decals, shoe-laces (shoe-laces!), action figures, ring tones and underwear of your favorite band! -- this safe and transient junk now finds interest beside the traditional and more tribal signifiers such as hair length, T-shirt and above all: the tattoo. Is it the eternal fifteen year old at work, or a weakening of standards and integrity?

At a time where metal's identity is continually morphing in the public consciousness, "A Headbanger's Journey" helps classify and understand how it came to be, and does so admirably. At the moment, nothing more is expected or has been announced from Dunn on the subject, though it wouldn't be a surprise to see him again and returning to this issue in one form or another. There's still much more to delve into, and if it inspires others already interested to look and learn more closely, then all the better, I say. So long as they remember this: that if everyone did understand it, there would be little use for it at all.

"Metalocalypse" airs Sundays at 11:45 EST on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block.

Visit the Metal History website from the latest news on Sam Dunn and his Journey.

(article submitted 20/9/2006)


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