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Phillipov, Michelle
Death Metal And Music Criticism: Analysis At The Limits (Book Review)
September 2012
Released: 2012, Lexington Books
Rating: 4.0/5
Reviewer: JP

I’m always very pleased to see when the academic community take an interest in Metal and our regular readers of The Library Of Loudness I have reviewed many book of this nature. I’m always curious to read what people have to say about our beloved genre. Michelle Phillipov is a lecturer at the University Of Tasmania in Australia and like many books of this nature was an extension of her PhD thesis. DEATH METAL AND MUSIC CRITICISM is a compilation of a number of her works on the topic into a cohesive whole. Published by Lexington, he book itself is a nice little hardcover at a compact 158 pages. There are no extras in terms of photos or graphics, (except a little bit of tablature) and has the obligatory references, citations and index.

Phillipov’s theory upon initial analysis seems to be staring the obvious, Metal is not political. That’s like saying the sky is blue but she almost states this like it is a surprise. Almost every form of popular music except Metal is political; Rap is about disenfranchised urban black youth, country music is about the human condition of the white trash, lower class. The same applies to punk music with its pseudo rebellious posturing but overt willingness to enter into political dialogue and folk and reggae with their long standing lyrical traditions of being protest music. Alice Cooper, despite Punk music’s’ attempts to claim him as their own, has consistently stated that politics has no place in Metal and has often said (paraphrased) leave Metal to the punks, we (Metal bands) sing about sex, death and money.

Metal, lyrically and visually has always been strongly based in fantasy. Power metal is based in fantasy about ancient mythological times. Much of Black metal is based on fantasy of reclaiming an ancient time and a reversion to elder gods and old ways. Death Metal is violent fantasy about horror and gore. Glam Metal is often based hedonistic, Dionysian fantasy. More often than not Metal is escapist and a rejection of conventional discussion of systems of government.

One the rare occasions when Metal does address politics (often in the thrash sub-genre) the lyrics are not non-political just apolitical and quite simplistic, ie. war is bad, politicians are bad, big business is bad and so forth. Even Ted Nugent who is extremely politically active in his personal life, he does not allow politics to infect his music because Ted is smart enough to know his fans do not want to hear about it in his music. In fact, Metal that gets too political is often held in lower regard by fans because is loses it's transgressive power as evidenced by the heavily politicized but poorly received Megadeth albums The System Has Failed and United Abominations. The wholesale rejection of bands like the highly engaged and political band Rage Against The Machine, by traditional Metal fans would indicate that Metal and politics are like oil and water.

However the value of her work is not in stating the obvious, it is in how she explains why that

a) music critics have generally ignored metal because it is not political and therefore less worthy of analysis and,

b) her demonstration of how extreme music (Death Metal) can be analyzed outside of a socio-economic political context based on other criteria.

In this instance, I feel her work is brilliant for finally describing codifying what most metal fans inherently know, even if they are unable (or unwilling) to articulate it, but primarily for explaining why metal can be appreciated outside the conventional musical political analysis and criticism. This is a very valuable and ground-breaking work in my eyes.

On of the authors earliest points was that dating back to the 1940’s was that for the critiques of popular culture, …”the primary goal and effect of popular music was to legitimize and reinforce capitalist forms of social and economic organization.” Phillipov continues to say that, “Such a view is now widely rejected by contemporary scholars for it’s tendency to reduce consumers to passive dupes of the culture industries.” While in the field of academic criticism of popular culture this may well be true, this concept as it relates to the placement of Metal inside popular culture, I feel is widely accepted, not rejected.

Within the Metal community, fans, artists, journalists often brand them selves as iconoclasts and that the type of people who do embrace pop culture (ie. the mainstream types of music) are indeed ‘passive dupes’. The terms used to describe consumers of mass popular culture are ‘sheep’ or ‘the herd’ and Metal often views itself as an elite vanguard, claiming the moral high-ground by rejecting those very values of conformity and complacency so readily found in mainstream popular music culture. This is just an aside, and his little relation to the main thrust of the book, or my review, but it serves to illustrate a point of how the author is positioning the academic critiques of Metal in the larger scheme, which is the main focus of the first three chapters of Part I, entitled The Limits of Music Criticism’.

I found once past the introduction the book really slowed down. The author out of necessity to prove her theory had to demonstrate how other forms of music are perceived through popular culture. Accordingly the chapters on punk music and hip-hop, (p. 19-52) while probably necessary, were uninteresting to me. There were lots of citations about academic research into those two forms of music because I don’t know or care about that music, it was largely irrelevant to me. Chapter Four we get back into ‘the good stuff’ and get back on track discussing Metal.

Part II ‘The Pleasures Of Death Metal’ consists of four chapters each with an extensive analysis of various components of the genre. This is where the book really comes to life. Part I told us what we already know. Metal is apolitical and gets discriminated against in academia for that very reason. Easy. I just summarized pages 1-69 for you in one sentence. Part II is where Phillipov present a whole new way to view, appreciate and criticize Metal, that has never really been articulated before. She uses two influential bands, Cannibal Corpse and Carcass as her case studies looking at the way people perceive and enjoy Death Metal, by eliminating the traditional socio-political analysis usually employed by academic music critics. More simply put, why do people like Death Metal? By most ‘normal’ standards and on the surface it’s a pretty unlikeable music genre. Phillipov peels back the layers one at time and discusses how the components, (factors, features, attributes, whatever you want to call it) of Death Metal and how people can enjoy these traits. Her analysis of how in Death Metal the voice is considered an instrument, rather than a traditional melodic conveyance of lyrics is superb. She has articulated what many of us have known all along by providing examples such as the fact that the vocalists in Death Metal are ‘vocalists’ not ‘singers’ because they don’t sing. There are very interesting and accurate overviews of lyrics, vocals, musical composition, technical proficiency and other traits of Death Metal. She makes some very interesting points such as that for the most part Death Metal is really not all that transgressive (or culturally shocking) because the vast majority of the main-stream is not even aware of the existence of such a music. Accordingly, the fans of Death Metal aren’t really shocked or upset by Death Metal because they enjoy it and find it pleasurable.

Despite a bit of a slow start, this long study/short book is a fascinating and in my humble (ha!) opinion Phillipov is one of the few academics who has got it ‘right’. It’s not just a gushing love-letter to Death Metal but an extensive, well-researched and detailed analysis of one of the most curious musical genres of the last 50 years.
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