Irwin, William (ed.) – Metallica And Philosophy: A Crash Course In Brain Surgery (Book Review)

Spread the metal:

Reviewed: July 2012
Released: 2007, Blackwell Publishing
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: JP


An intellectual (and fun) collection of essays about Metallica lyrics in the framework of philosophical analysis.

For about 20 years (1988-2008) I had pretty much given up on Metallica. After AND JUSTICE FOR ALL I felt they got bogged down in arena rock, covers albums, symphonic albums, self-indulgent grunge albums and poorly produced garage rock albums. Of course, my opinion is in the extreme minority as the band catapulted to the stratosphere to become one of the most influential, most popular, best-selling bands of all time. With the resultant fame there came all the peripheral products: DVD’s, a movie and of course books. Lots of books. There are photo books, academic books, historical books and several biographies. I felt it was high time that we got caught up on some of the many Metallica books that have been published in the past decade or so. This month I am featuring and reviewing six titles about Metallica and a bonus book about the origins of Bay-area thrash. They are (listed by authors last name)

-Daniels: Metallica-The Early Years (2012)
-Halfin: Metallica (2006)
-Irwin (ed.) Metallica And Philosophy (2007)
-McIver: And Justice For All (2004)
-McIver: To Live Is To Die (2009)
-McPadden: If You Like Metallica (2012)
and the bonus book, Oimoen/Lew: Murder In The Front Row (2012)

Please feel free to read and enjoy all the book reviews for Metallica Month. This list is by no means comprehensive there are many more books about Metallica for you to enjoy.

Although there has been a sizeable increase in the number of academic books about Heavy Metal in the past few years, this is one of the earlier books to combine academic writing with a Metallic angle. First published in 2007, METALLICA AND PHILOSOPHY (with the clever sub-title of) A CRASH COURSE IN BRAIN SURGERY is a collection of 20 essays about Metallica.

It is a standard paperback, hitting the 260-page mark. It is divided into five sections (with many Metallica-friendly references) that are roughly based around broader philosophical concepts, for example Section Two (called Disc Two) contains four papers about Metallica and existentialism. Other sections include themes of Ethics, Analytics, Metaphysics and Humanities. It’s not as intimidating than it sounds. For example, in the section on Ethics (Disc Three) there are papers on euthanasia, capitol punishment, suicide and other relevant social issues of today and how Metallica lyrics apply to these issues. It’s not just obscure, long-winded, nerd-speak, relating Metallica lyrics to ancient, dusty texts by dead Greek dudes. It’s much more relevant and fun than that. The editor Irwin, addresses that very point in his introductory remarks saying,

“…philosophy is relevant to your life-and not just for answering the big questions like “To be or not to be?” but for answering the little questions, “To watch or not to watch South Park?’ Thinkly deeply about TV, movies and music does not make you a ‘complete idiot’. In fact it might make you a philosopher, someone who believes the unexamined life is not worth living and the unexamined cartoon is not worth watching.”

In our case we may adjust the final line to say ‘the unexamined Metal album is not worth listening too’!

Due to the nature of philosophy, the papers concentrate primarily on Metallica lyrics. I found it interesting how two people interpret lyrics in completely different ways and still both be ‘right’. There is an essay by Bart Engelen (a PhD student in Belgium) called ‘Alcoholica: When Sweet Amber Becomes The Master Of Puppets’. He uses a fairly conventional, lyrical analysis of the song (among others) Master Of Puppets to discuss addiction issues. That’s cool. In Section Two (the existential-themed chapter) the author, an Associate Professor at Hartwick, J.J. Wisnewski, interprets Master Of Puppets as ‘An Existential Lesson on The Difficulties of Authenticity’ (p. 59). It is interesting to compare and contrast many of these papers. I’d suggest the bulk of the papers use the first five Metallica albums as their prime source for lyrical analysis and off the 20 papers in the collection I found the vast majority to very interesting. They really aren’t all that long so you can pick one at a time and you don’t have to read them in sequence. I enjoyed the critical essay about Metallica ‘selling out’, the Napster piece, the analysis of Metallica fans and many more.

One factor that makes the book appealing is that there is a subtle sense of humour in the presentation of the book. The brief biographies of the contributing authors are quite amusing as is the introduction by William Irwin and the back cover. A factor that makes it more readable than other academic works is that this seems to be a bit of a fun ‘one-off’ project than some of the formal academic dissertations I’ve read. The key difference is that in the essays in this book, the language is a bit more accessible and there are some descriptions of who the philosophers are, that are being referenced. In other formal philosophy papers, the author is expected to know who Socrates and Aristotle are and the professors who the work is being presented to, know as well. METALLICA AND PHILOSOPHY is a bit more introductory level, you don’t need a Masters in Philosophy to understand the papers. The collected works are not ‘dumbed-down’ by any means but a well-read high-school student who was so inclined, could read this book and not feel like the text was getting bogged down with endless citations of obscure thinkers from days of yore. To simplify; it’s not as hard to read as it sounds.

I was going to do an essay by essay description but that would make the book review just way too long and besides, if you have read this far you already know, ‘deep down’ that as a curious, intelligent fan of thinking man’s Metal, if you are going to seek this book out or not. Besides, I don’t feel morally obliged to do an in-depth analysis because a publicist may have sent me a free copy. No, in this case, I bought and paid for METALLICA AND PHILOSOPHY myself! On purpose. Give the book a try, at a bare minimum; you’ll impress your friends and family and that cute chick (or dude) in the library you are working up the courage to talk to.

Track Listing:

Technical Details:
Format Reviewed:
Publisher: Blackwell Publishing
Pages: 260