Varas-Diaz, Nelson & Scott, Niall, (ed) – Heavy Metal Music and The Communal Experience (Book Review)

Spread the metal:

Reviewed:  May, 2020

Released:  2016, Lexington Books

Rating:  4/5

Reviewer: JP


As regular readers of The Library Of Loudness may have noted, I enjoy reading and reviewing academic studies of Metal.   HEAVY METAL MUSIC AND THE COMMUNAL EXPERIENCE was issued in an expensive hard cover back in 2016 and I was immediately intrigued and wanted to read it.   I am not a member of academia (meaning I can not charge the cost of a book to an educational institution and claim the cost as research) therefore the $100.00 price tag dissuaded me from making an immediate purchase.  I could buy 10 Metal albums for that price!  However, patience is a virtue and this fine title has recently (late 2019/early 2020) been reissued in a more affordable paperback version.  At this point I must thank the publisher (Lexington) and editors Nelson Varas-Diaz and Niall Scott for a review copy.

HEAVY METAL MUSIC AND THE COMMUNAL EXPERIENCE consists of 10 contributions from academics from around the world: from Australia to America. After a brief introduction by the editors, we launch into the 200+ page book which is broken into five sections each consisting of a couple papers each, (more or less).

I’ve added this disclaimer to many (most?) of my reviews of academic publications.   I am not an academic, just a fan.  It would not do justice to any of these studies and papers to try to provide a critical analysis of each.  In addition the review would be a unwieldy 10 pages long! Accordingly, I’ll just provide a very brief synopsis each of the ten works and maybe an feeble attempt at a pithy comment here and there for my own amusement.  Hopefully this will be just enough to perk your interest in this book and if you are doing your own Metal study, point you in a helpful direction.

The first section, containing three papers, is called ‘Entering The Communal and Conceptualizing Collectiveness’.  It is a good staring to examine broad questions about what is the metal community.

Widely acknowledged as the first Metal academic, Deena Weinstein begins with an essay called ‘Communities of Metal: Ideal, Diminished and Imaginery’.   Right away I knew I would enjoy this paper because Deena Weinstein speaks at length about attending the Noctis Valkyries Metal Conference in Calgary, Alberta in October of 2013. This resonated with me because I was heavily involved in organizing this event and met Weinstein and had a few moments to chat.  Her paper, as the title suggests, talks about types of Metal communities and she holds up the Noctis experience as one of the best examples of Metal community, which made me feel a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Niall Scott is up next and discusses the absurdities and paradoxical nature of some metal communities that are destructive and unified in destruction and misanthropy. He relies heavily on Slipknot for his examples, especially when they fans, (self-dubbed as ‘maggots’) join with the band in destroying things in videos and so on.  He relates this phenomema to theories of community by Kant and Aristotle. It is an odd situation to be sure but a position that can be reconciled by insiders but perhaps not understood by outsiders.

Talking Metal by Ester Clinton and Jeremy Wallach provide in in-depth look at the nature of community based on the global habit of ‘hanging out’ and talking about Metal.  They look at metal communities around the world, with a special focus on Indonesia and how communities are created incorporating communication theory.  I suspect this is not unique to Metal, people who like sports or cars or butterflies or stamps can hang around all day with like minded individuals and passionately discuss the nuances of their preferred subject.

Section Two is called, ‘Strengthening Community’ and has two papers.  The first is by Toni-Matti Karjalainen from Finland.  As a side note I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him twice and both times he was a calm and gracious person.   His essay is about Nightwish and as a fan I was instantly on board. He looks at how the album Imaginaerum (a conceptual piece that which spawned two albums and a feature length movie) united Nightwish fans across the globe.  It is an excellent piece on the band which while firmly Metal will often have it’s own unique sub-set of fans who like the band but do not self-identify as Metal fans.  This cross-over of non-metal communities provides sort of an insular strength and there is strength in numbers.  For example, when Iron Maiden vocalist, Bruce Dickinson was recently asked, which currently active Metal band could achieve the levels of success that Iron Maiden has achieved. His answer?  ‘Nightwish’.

The next essay almost feels like a prequel to me.   In 2018 Australian social work scholar, Paula Rowe wrote a book called HEAVY METAL YOUTH IDENTITIES.  I reviewed it for this site.  This essay ‘We’re In This Together and We Take Care Of Our Own’ is the precursor to her larger study detailed in that book.  I had read her other book first so much of this seemed familiar as she discussed how Australian youth ‘Become Metal’ and ‘Stay Metal’.  It is interesting because most studies talk to already established Metal fans and communities, not emerging ones.

Section Three contains a single essay contributed by the trio of Nelson Veras-Diaz, Sigird Mendoza and Eric Morales.  The overarching theme is porous communities.  These authors postulate that the Caribbean Metal scene is very porous and incorporates elements of local culture, perhaps moreso than other more closed communities in other parts of the world.  As a fan I could certainly agree I do tend to see that quality in Central and South American bands quite often.  They use the Puerto Rican band Dantesco as a prime example and I couldn’t agree more.  It is because of these local influences incorporated into their lyrics and music that Dantesco seems ‘exotic’ to these Canadian ears.

Section Four called ‘Tensions Within the Communal Experience’, contains two papers.   The first is an omnibus paper with no less than 10 contributors!  My apologies to them all, I’m not going to include everyone but it was spear-headed by fellow Canadian Vivek Venkatesh who is a charming and engaging speaker.

The full title is (deep breath) ‘Exploring the Language and Spectacle of Online Hate Speech in the Black Metal Scene: Developing Theoretical and Methodological Intersections between the Social Sciences and the Humanities.’   This is one of the more…shall we say…intense…papers.  Not necessarily because of the subject matter but the fairly detailed analysis of the methodology used to collect data about on-line hate speech.  Aside from a very broad and obviously necessary condemnation of on-line hate speech within the Metal community, this paper is not just bashing racists, but rather an examination on how do we study this phenomena of on-line hate in the Metal community, and how it is not adequate to simply state ‘Racism is bad’ and just leave it at that.  There is a lot of subtly within this type of discourse and distinctions between nationalism, casual racism, racism masquerading as nationalism and pure hatred.  It is a tough slog but a necessary one as I’m sure many of us have experienced the archetypical on-line ‘troll’.  This paper is a most interesting, topical and balanced discussion.

The next paper by Karl Spracklen lightens the mood considerably and is entitled, ‘What Did The Norwegians Ever do For Us?” with a slight nod to the British comedy troop, Monty Python.   Black Metal is the topic of the day and this might be one of the more controversial positions.  Spracklen suggests that the second wave of Black Metal is an imaginary community, a concept introduced to us by Deena Weinstein in the first paper. His suggestion is that Black Metal is too small, too insular to be a real community and that the ‘idea’ of Black Metal has become so wide-spread, homogenized and commodified that the original community doesn’t really exist anymore. He applies LaTour’s Actor-Network theory to provides examples.  While I objectively understand his point, and they are valid to a degree, I think this might be a case of Spracklen being too far entrenched in a community to see the broader picture.

Spracklen suggests that Black Metal is ‘mainstream’ and a community made of shy, rich people in suits.   Black Metal as a sub-genre within the global Metal community could be considered ‘mainstream’ as most Metal fans know a bit about the genre, the iconic characters, the main events and bands and so on.  However, mainstream as defined by everyone else (ie, the whole world, people who consume pop culture) Black Metal does not exist.  It is so far underground most people literally don’t even know it exists.  The ‘average’ person on the street barely knows who Metallica are and has probably never heard Iron Maiden let alone be able to identify Varg, Euronymous or know who Darkthrone is.

Sure there are a handful of great, isolated examples, which he makes, for example the hilarious cough medication commercial parodying Immortal, but taken in context and as a percentage of all the TV commercials made in the world, the hundreds of thousands (millions?) produced every year, the percentage of Black Metal references appearing are probably less than one-ten thousandth of one percent. The number is so infinitely small as to be negligible.  I could show that commercial to 99.9% of my friends, family, neighbours, co-workers, all of whom are not members of the Metal community, and NONE of them would understand it or get the Black Metal reference. It just would not register, they have no experience and don’t know what Black Metal is.

I really like this paper, it is well written and engaging,  but he really overstates the impact the Black Metal on world culture and makes it sound like some global trendy form of music when really it is this tiny, insular community. Big artists like Garth Brooks or Madonna (or whatever contemporary pop artist you want to name) sell more records with one album than the combined album sales of every single Black Metal band on the planet in existence since the dawn of time.

I don’t want to belabour this but I’m on a roll…for example the world’s biggest Black Metal band, (let’s set aside discussions about if they are true Black Metal or not) Cradle of Filth have global world-wide sales over 25 years of about 4 million, and about 800,000 in the US.  By way of comparison, US Artist Taylor Swift sold 870,000 copies of her new album (Lover, 2019) in ONE WEEK!   She sold more albums in the US in just seven days than Cradle of Filth did in the US for their entire career of 14 studio album spread over 25 years.   She is in every magazine, every newspaper, every talk show, every radio station and Cradle of Filth is not.   There is just no comparison.  Black Metal never has been and never will be mainstream entertainment even if we, deep in the Metal community can point to a few isolated examples where the genre peeks it’s head out of the underground for 30 seconds like some rodent on Groundhog Day.    So to conclude, while I really enjoyed this paper, it just lacked objectivity as to Black Metal’s place in global pop culture.

The final Section, Section Five examines expanding the Metal community.  Keith Kahn-Harris writes a very interesting piece about health, well-being and care in the community. One foundational components in a community is that people take care of each other and Kahn-Harris suggests that by it’s very individualistic nature that is not always the case in the Metal community.   He draws a comparison of the British Jewish community, his other subject of passion and says the Jewish community is a holistic, cradle-to-grave community whereby Metal is not.  My observation is that it is not an equal comparison.  Judaism has a vibrant, rich cultural heritage for millions of people dating back thousands of years.  Metal a pop-culture spin-off that has been around 50 years old.  Of course Metal doesn’t have the traditions and institutions in place to develop the more advanced features of a community, it’s just not old enough.  Maybe in 50 years there will Metal retirement homes!   That is a great business idea.  Virtually every  retirement home or senior care centre I’ve visited seems pretty bland.  Why not have one that has Metal music playing all the time and showing Metal concerts in the common area and the care-staff dressed in Metal shirts?   I’d live there when I’m 100!

On a more serious note, Kahn-Harris asks unique questions, like, where do Metalheads go to die? Who cares for the sick, injured, aged and infirm?  He suggests that many members of the Metal community who value the individuality of Metal, sacrifice or eschew certain social aspects of community and therefore inevitably drop to the lower rungs of the social order into lower-socio-economic realms.   This makes sense to me and it somewhat contradicts Spracklen’s previous assertion that Metal is for rich people.  I’ve never met an independently wealthy Black Metal fan although I’m sure they out there.    I also noted Kahn-Harris’s observations contradict the concepts of community and the findings of Paula Rowe and her essay ‘We’re In This Together and We Take Care Of Our Own’.  His is a thought provoking essay to be sure!

The last entry is by Brian Hickam and I found it a bit dry.  In ‘A Shared Madness’ he discusses ownership of Heavy Metal History and studies.  It is however, an important question.  How do we study Metal?  How and why?    He discusses concepts of cross-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary studies with ideally an ultimate goal to grow advance the study of Metal across all fields.  I couldn’t agree more!

To me this is one of the best academic books on Metal today. You do not have to be a Metal scholar to enjoy this book. There are numerous references and examples of bands and albums in your own collection and the topic of community is broad enough to engage everyone.  Virtually all Metal fans belong to some sort of Metal community (unless they are extreme isolationists) even if they don’t think about metal and community in that context.  That is what this series of papers does, gets people to think about Metal and community, and that goal has been achieved.

There are many, many great academic publications about Metal and it can be intimidating for someone who wants to explore this world to know where to begin. This affordable, multi-disciplinary and above all interesting title, the result of the combined efforts of nearly two dozen of Metal academia’s elite thinkers, would be a very good place to start to your library.