Barratt-Peacock, Ruth & Hagen, Ross (ed)-Medievalism And Metal Music Studies: Throwing Down The Gauntlet (Book review)

Reviewed: March 2020
Released: 2019, Publisher: Emerald
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: JP

It is no secret that the academic study of Metal has grown immensely in the past few years.  Organizations like the International Society for Metal Music Studies have been founded, academic conferences are held annually around the world, documentaries are filmed, and the now regular publication of formal papers on Metal related topics have all contributed to a generous body of work that has really only scratched the surface.

While some observers (academic and otherwise) tend to denigrate or dismiss study of the genre, I for one am very interested to read what others have to say about Metal.  As Metal as a genre now hits it’s silver anniversary, I can only see the amount of time and money dedicated to exploring and understanding the genre increasing exponentially.   To that end, this spring (2020) as we hit the official anniversary of the birth of Metal (Feb 13th, 1970) I am going to write a series of three academic book reviews.  The good people at Emerald Publishing have been supportive of the study of Metal and to date have published no less than four books about Metal and more enroute!  When I say books, I am more specifically meaning published collections of studies and papers written by academics from a variety of disciplines from around the world.  These titles are…(in order of publication)

1. Gender Inequality In Metal Music Production (Berkers, Jun, 2108)

2. Heavy Metal Youth Identities: Researching The Musical Empowerment Of Youth Transitions And Psychosocial Wellbeing (Rowe, Oct, 2018)

3. Australian Metal Music: Identities, Scenes, and Cultures (Hoad, Jun 2019)

4. Medievalism and Metal Music Studies: Throwing Down The Gauntlet (Barratt-Peacock/Hagen, Sep 2019)

5. Metal Music And The Reimagining Of Masculinity, Place, Race and Nation (Spracklen, May 2020)

On this site, I have previously reviewed Gender Inequality in November of 2018 and Australian Metal in December of 2019  and I decided to formalize all these reviews into a more comprehensive and hopefully on-going review series. My thanks again to Emerald Publishing who provided me with these titles for review and while I am merely a Metal fan with a lowly BA and not currently engaged in any formal academic institution (other than being an occasional guest lecturer), my hope is provide a centralized set of reviews for academics to use these books as material for their own research into the wonderful world of Metal!  To visit any of these titles, consult your local library or visit.

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Of the titles in the series I’ve reviewed thus far, I believe THROWING DOWN THE GAUNTLET is my favourite book so far.  Published in Sept of 2019, this 190+ hard bound collection consists of 13 papers written by academics from America, Canada, Denmark, England, Germany and Spain. The reason this is my favourite collection is the topic, medievalism.  Perhaps like many people my age who grew up in North America with a steady diet of ‘fantasy’ based books, comics, games, literature and film , Medievalism is a familiar and dear topic. That is not to say that I don’t find the gender and youth topics interesting, it is just that this one is more near and dear to my heart.

The collection is divided into three sections Part I; Metal’s Medieval Frames (four papers) Part II: Nationalism and Identity in Metal Medievalism (five papers) and Part III: Historical Source Materials In Metal Musics (four papers) for a total of 13 chapters.  I would stress that my review is strictly from a laypersons perspective coming from a place of genuine interest, so for me to even attempt to conduct some sort of formal critical analysis of these fine works would be a disservice to the authors.  Hence I will provide a very brief  overview of each papers and hope that the reader and/or academic can glean enough information from my comments to be able to determine if that paper could be useful in their own work or area of interest.

The book opens with a Foreword by Scott Bruce titled ‘Good Music-Bad History’ who suggests the main theme behind many of these contributions is that often researcher have discovered that many metal musicians and content creators adopt a warped mish-mash (my words, not his) of flawed and inaccurate perceptions of what medieval life was like and incorporate that into the lyrics, music and imagery of Heavy Metal.  I am personally shocked to learn that my Manowar album covers may not be completely historically accurate!  More seriously, Bruce points out that some groups use these misconceptions about Medieval life to romanticize it with a personal agenda (often a negative one) and that one could be wary when approaching these topics.  Seems like sound advice.  Next is an introduction by the editors, Ruth Barrett-Peacock from the University Jena in Germany and Ross Hagen of Utah Valley University in America. This is essentially a synopsis of all 13 contributions. In the chapter credits (below) I’ll list each full title and author for your reference.

The first paper is a collaborative effort that provides a nice overview as Metal as a complete medium, not just music, and how medievalism (the middle-ages, the dark ages etc) are represented sonically, visually and in text. Sometimes those representations are accurate, much of the time it is not. They tie in the concept of the ‘fight for glory’ in reference to the past and how often this concept or very phrase appears in Metal.  The tri-headed beast of paper concludes with an example;  a case study of he bands Ancient Rites and they adopt medievalism and more specifically the concept of fighting for glory. Interesting stuff!

Next is a nice overview by Vestergaard who discusses at length medievalism and heavy Metal album covers.  He suggests that there is a patchwork of images and concepts of medievalism, all borrowed/stolen/adapted from a myriad of sources. For example an album cover can be a drawing of an ancient myth, for example, Amon Amarth’s album SURTUR RISING or even an actual picture of a piece of medieval art, like a wood cut (many examples especially in Black Metal)  or a tapestry (Thy Majestie’s album HASTINGS 1066).

What follows in the third chapter is an in-depth examination of Black Metal and it’s heavy, consistent use of Medieval imagery and aesthetics.   There is some interesting statistical analysis with figures drawn from a Metal database about how often certain words associated with medievalism appear. There is a brief musical analysis of folk-Metal sounds and the chapter wraps up with how the alt-right and neo-nazi’s at times appropriate some of these images and concepts to try to tie in concepts of racial purity and a yearning for a lost, presumably superior, ancient time. A cautionary tale indeed!

Chapter four, I’ll admit was a little dry for me.  Titled, Computational Detection of Medieval References In Metal, is an examination of how to accurately collect data and count it in reference to studying Metal and Medievalism.  Since I am not involved in studying the material, the methodology behind statistical analysis of reams of data, that is largely based on words, not numbers (and the corresponding challenges that can pose) held less interest for me.  However, some poor TA who has been assigned to sift through mountains of information to find patterns (if any) and then make sense of it all, will find this chapter very useful.

The next section about Nationalism and Identity starts with another collaborative effort.  Topics include Neo-Fascism, Cultural appropriation, and Neomedievalism and Historical Accuracy. This broad chapters covers the perils and pitfalls of Metal bands misappropriating cultural iconography, intended or not, and the impact it can have on marginalized groups. There is a tone of caution and awareness, suggesting that this phenomena exists and does happen and the result is, for one example, Pagan Metal is starting to develop a bad reputation because of associations with far-right political viewpoints.  The piece maintains an even tone neither supporting nor condemning but clearly saying this could be a problem. This chapter serves as a bridge to the next section.

Chapter Six is one of my favourites.  Shamma Boyarin from University of Victoria in Victoria BC, Canada writes a really detailed analysis of the lyrics of a single Nile song, ‘Iskander Dhul Kharnon’ found on the 2009 album, THOSE WHOM THE GODS DETEST.  I love Nile, and in a feeble attempt to increase my ‘cultural sub-capital’, I’ll mention that I have been a Nile fan since I bought the second demo back in 1996, without really knowing what is was other than this cool new underground Death Metal band that sang about ancient Egypt.   However,  I admit my appreciation of the admittedly very in-depth and complex lyrics is superficial at best  (leaning towards non-existent at worst) except for my visceral appreciation of provocative phrases and song titles about writhing pits of snakes, howling Jinn, serpent masks, and masturbating war gods. Iskander is a song about Alexander the Great who also figures in Islamic tradition as well, and the thrust of the essay is about Metals engagement with Islam, which is admittedly, pretty non-existent, so that makes this chapter all the more interesting.

My knowledge of Spanish history is abominable.  I had to go look up who El Cid was, the central figure in Chapter Seven, ‘The Topicality of Rodrigo Diaz in Spanish Heavy Metal.’  This is another very specific paper examining how certain Spanish bands mythologize historical figures, specifically the hero El Cid.  Not many Metal bands have written songs about this historical personage, and not surprisingly the ones that have, are overwhelming Spanish, like Avalanche and Tierra Santa.

Chapter Eight is similar to Chapter Seven in that it is an examination of something very specific, in this case the band Tyr.  Tyr has reinterpreted some ancient Faroese literature (and spoken/chanted balled/heroic poem) in the form of their song ‘Ormurin Langi’ from their 2002 debut album, HOW FAR TO ASGARD. I’m a fan of Tyr as well and I found it very interesting in how they interpreted viking iconography and Faroese history into their lyrics and image.

Chapter Nine is in short an examination of…get this…Black Metal bands that have thanked Euronymous in their liner notes. This is getting pretty focused!  I was thinking, what could we possibly learn from this but it ended up being very interesting. The author Dean Swinford postulates that Euronymous since his death has been deified like a medieval king.  In addition, he suggests the lyrics of Euronymous  call for a third age, the next 1000 years, or a return to another dark age. In a series of interesting examples, such as the existence of an entire Euronymous tribute album, he presents a pretty compelling argument for this. I’m a Black Metal fan too so this all makes sense to me!

Part III is about Historical source materials.  Chapter Ten, much like Chapter Five is a bridge to the upcoming papers with a bit of additional food for thought.   It begins with a broad overview of the concepts presented inthe next including Chritsianity, neomedievalism, romanticism, post-modernism and more.

Chapter 11 is focused on the American band Obesquiae who use medievalism quite heavily. It also is a musical examination and I don’t read or write music so I found talk of chords and dyads and Minor E Triads, etc, to be beyond my realm of comprehension.   I’m also not familiar with the band so I found this essay to be a little dry but intrigued enough I might have to check out some of their music.

The second to last chapter was an interesting examination of one of the more curious Metal subgenres, Mittelalter Metal, aka ‘Medieval Market Music Metal’.  Yes, such a thing exists with bands such as In Extremo and Subway to Sally being two prime examples.  Enormously popular in Europe and virtually unheard of in North America  these bands play ancient type instruments like the hurdy-gurdy, bagpipes and so on.  To dig even deeper this essay is an examination of how the two aforementioned bands both adapted some material from a German poets (Zech) ‘adaptation’ of a French medieval poets (Villon) work called ‘Erdbeermund’, roughly translated as ‘wild’.  Yes, an adaptation of an adaptation of an adaptation.  It might sounds confusing but it does tie into the main thrust of the entire collection of essays how medievalism is used and/or distorted over time and re-presented in a modern context, in this case by a Metal band or two.

Fittingly the final chapter, Chapter 13 takes us back into the black with an essay called Satanic Bowels: Medieval Inversion and the Black Metal Grotesque.  The main concept is that Black Metal rejects traditional concepts of light, faith, intelligence, purity and higher consciousness, often thought to be cerebral and in the head, and focuses on the more (evil, my choice of words) realm of lower intestinal biological bodily functions of excrement, ejaculation, menstruation and so on.  As grim a concept as this sounds, it actually makes sense and Walter, from the University of Boston, points out how these themes of ‘bowelism’, as it is referred to, tie in with medievalism. That is, back then before people had modern understand of bodily functions; bile, blood, sweat and tears, etc, the concepts of demonic possession via orifices and disruptions of natural systems (ie, diarrhea and vomiting etc) was an inversion of what was pure and good.  Black Metal bands from Gorgoroth to Emporer and countless more capitalize on that inversion and incorporate it into their lyrics and stage show, which as an observer seems logical.  This essay, was probably the most fun to read as Walters has a descriptive flair in her prose.  Sentences like, “This awareness of the glistening viscera churning within the body serves as an abject reminder of our physical vulnerability’ (p. 178)  make me think she could write some pretty good lyrics for a Death or Black Metal band, a second calling perhaps.

Be warned, this book is not light reading.  However, 13 digestible chucks that you can enjoy at your own leisure and in any order you choose, make THROWING DOWN THE GAUNTLET one of the more interesting academic collections  I have ever read.


Product Details

Format:Hardback
ISBN:9781787563964
Published:06 Sep 2019
Publisher:Emerald Publishing Limited
Dimensions:216 pages – 152 x 229mm
Series:Emerald Studies in Metal Music and Culture


Chapters/Credits

Foreword; Scott G. Bruce Introduction; Ruth Barratt-Peacock and Ross Hagen

Section I: Metal’s Medieval Frames
Chapter 1. The Trans-Medial Fight for Glory; Johannes Hellrich, Christoph Rzymski, and Vitus Vestergaard
Chapter 2. Medieval Media Transformations and Metal Album Covers; Vitus Vestergaard
Chapter 3. Getting Medieval: Signifiers of the Middle-Ages in Black Metal Aesthetic; Eric Smialek
Chapter 4. Computational Detection of Medieval References in Metal; Johannes Hellrich, and Christoph Rzymski

Section II: Nationalism and Identity in Metal Medievalism 
Chapter 5. The Politics and Poetics of Metal’s Medieval Pasts; Shamma Boyarin, Annika Christensen, Amaranta Saguar García, and Dean Swinford
Chapter 6. The New Metal Medievalism: Alexander the Great, Islamic historiography and Nile’s “Iskander Dhul Kharnon”; Shamma Boyarin
Chapter 7. The Return of El Cid: The Topicality of Rodrigo Díaz in Spanish Heavy Metal; Amaranta Saguar García
Chapter 8. Making Heritage Metal: Faroese Kvæði and Viking Metal; Annika Christensen
Chapter 9. Black Metal’s Medieval King: The Apotheosis of Euronymous through Album Dedications; Dean Swinford

Section III: Historical Source Materials in Metal Musics 
Chapter 10. Finding the Past in the Present and the Present in the Past; Ruth Barratt-Peacock, Ross Hagen, and Brenda S. Gardenour Walter
Chapter 11. Obsequiae: Reconciling ‘Authentic’ Medieval Musical Styles with Metal; Ross Hagen
Chapter 12. The Villon that Never Was; Ruth Barratt-Peacock
Chapter 13. Satanic Bowels: Medieval Inversion and the Black Metal Grotesque; Brenda S. Gardenour Walter


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