Spracklen, Kark Metal Music And The Re-Imagining Of Masculinity, Place, Race and Nation (Book Review)

Spread the metal:

Reviewed:  June, 2020

Published:  2020, Emerald

Rating:  4/5

Reviewer: JP

The good people at Emerald Publishing continue to support the advancement of metal studies with another book in their series ‘Emerald Studies In Metal Music And Culture’.   Metal Music And The Re-Imagining Of Masculinity, Place, Race and Nation is the fifth book in the series.

The author, Dr. Karl Spracklen, is a sociologist at Leeds Beckett University and has worked for many years in the field of leisure and culture. His has also been writing about Metal in an academic environment for many years. This book seems to be a very personal work for Spracklen who, says that he was the target of intense criticism from some of the Metal community for his earlier academic work and this book is a chance to refine his position, re-examine some of his older opinions and conclusions in previously published works and attempt to reach a broader audience.peopel

As with all the books in this series, it is a nice looking hard cover including  everything an academic might need to assist in their research; an index, citations, references and a discography.   At less than 190 pages it is very manageable length. It has a cool looking Viking dude on the front so it looks very Metal too.

In an attempt to provide a synopsis of this book I would say that Spracklen states that, some aspects of Heavy Metal (lyrics, song-titles, art-work etc) intentionally or not, perpetuate certain historical myths, archetypes and stereotypes of a northern, white, masculine, warrior-character which contributes to an unrealistic, racist, misogynistic, sexist, heteronormative world-view.   He suggests that many Heavy Metal bands contribute to this worldview and these attitudes are at best are problematic, and at worst, outright racist.  ‘Problematic’ is a not-so-subtle code-word deployed by the left wing used to label someone a racist without actually directly calling them a racist when there is insufficient, concrete evidence to back the claim.  The term it is a bit of a red flag for people who may want to approach a band with caution and also helps avoid falling foul to slander and libel laws.

How does Spracklen go about validating his claims?  Well, thankfully with a really well developed hypothesis!    He spends the first four chapters, almost 60 pages or so establishing his position.   He discusses race, religion, post-modernism, gender-order, traditional concepts of masculinity, populism, nationalism, patriotism, Darwinism, Christianity and so on.  It is a whirlwind tour and all very interesting to see how he feels how we got to where we are today in Western society.

We don’t start to get into the meat of the topic, the good stuff (namely talking about Heavy Metal) until Chapter Five, a chapter about Iron Maiden.  However, all this introductory material was interesting to read because it set the stage.  To simplify it, he says (paraphrased), This is my world-view and now we are going to look at examples of some Heavy Metal bands and how they contribute to this world-view.  Seems reasonable to me.

Spracklen traces back the warrior/viking myth and imagined history (his words) to the roots of Metal citing examples like ‘The Immigrant Song’ by Led Zeppelin and following that lineage up into the 1980’s where he says the hyper-masculine, hetro-warrior hero-conqueror myth really starts to manifest itself in the bands Iron Maiden, Manowar and Bathory.  Each of those bands are afforded a chapter, chapters five, six and seven, respectively. He provides a decent analysis of lyrical content and history of the bands for about four or five albums each,  providing examples from lyrics and art that support his thesis.

As a bit of a side bar, I would have liked to see Spracklen dig a bit deeper into the lineage and development of the warrior figure in Metal.  He completely missed one of the founding figures of the whole Viking Metal concept, namely the Canadian artist, Thor.  Thor as a Metal artist was the very first to employ the whole Nordic, warrior-king-god-viking imagery and lyrics and predating both Manowar and Bathory by at least half a decade, dating even back to 1973.  The author also could have given a tip of the horned helmed to Faithful Breath and Heavy Load who were both doing the ‘viking thing’ for ages back in the 70’s.  However, he chose to use about 1980 as the starting point and that’s fine.

Using Manowar, Maiden, and Bathory as his springboard he continues on for several chapters with an analysis of many Metal bands.  He settles into a chapter-by-chapter, band-by-band pattern of using fan-critic reviews to reinforce his idea that these bands perpetuate the romanticized concept, the imagined history (however inaccurate at times) of hegemonic view.   Each band is afforded the same consideration; an examination of albums, lyrics, artwork, and even public statements by various band members.  All of the reviews of the bands albums are drawn from reviews posted on-line and I must admit some of the comments are very amusing or disturbing or both.

In Chapter Eight he discusses at length Enslaved, Windir and Wardruna.  In Chapter Nine he discusses a pair of Eastern European bands, Graveland and Drudkh.  In Chapter Ten he examines three of the ‘Big Five’ of Finnish Folk-Metal, namely Ensiferum, Finntroll, and Korpiklaani.   Chapter 11 looks at the phenomena of English Heritage Black Metal and bands such as Wodensthrone, Winterfylleth, Annwn (Wales), Saor (Scotland) and White Medal (Yorkshire).   Chapter 12 is neat because he examines some more contemporary bands such as Zeal And Ardour and Darkestrah who go against the grain in a chapter called ‘Challenging Hegemony?”   We will set aside the debate whether the aforementioned bands are Metal or not for the time being.  Spracklen says ‘Yes’, others say, ‘No’, but he makes some interesting points.

Chapter 13 provides some brief conclusions, heavily opinionated and slanted to the left but that is not surprising given the content and tone of the book.

I’m going to take a moment to poke a bit of gentle fun at Spraklen if I may.  His very last paragraph of the entire book he counsels that we must stop buying music and merchandise from bands that are racist and sexist.  On the surface that does not seem unreasonable. He says, “If we have bought a Bathory shirt in our ignorance, get rid of it by reusing it as a dish-cloth or dust-rag.” (p. 187)

This is actually very clever, intentional or not.  Spracklen doesn’t say, ‘Throw it out’.  To simply throw away your Bathory shirt is not symbolic enough, not enough to send the proper message.   He did not say ‘sell your Bathory shirt’ because it might have value, still exist and continue to perpetuate the myth when worn by someone else.  Also, it would be immoral to gain profit from selling racist merchandise as well. It just can’t be on the market.  He also didn’t say, ‘Burn your Bathory shirt’ because he would be sensitive to criticism that burning ‘art’ is reminiscent of the behavior of people through history who burn books and art. Inevitably some critic would surely accuse him of great hypocrisy. He is too clever to fall into his own trap in that fashion.  Giving your Bathory shirt an ‘authentic’ Viking funeral on a burning long-ship would be too symbolic and probably historically inaccurate.

No, instead, you must ‘reuse’ it your Bathory shirt, because you in your ignorance bought it by mistake dear reader, and surely, if you truly knew at the time what the racist Quorthon/Bathory stood for you, would not have made such a purchase. Now that you are enlightened (thanks to Spracklen) there is only one logical course of action.  You must dispose of the offending item… not by throwing it out, selling it or burning it, that is not enough.   No, you must recycle it in an environmentally conscious fashion, and use it as nothing more than a rag used to wipe dirt because that is all it is good for.  I suppose I may have to reconsider my plan to sell my original, mint-condition, vinyl ‘yellow goat’ pressing of the self-titled Bathory album on Ebay to pay for my kids university education in 20 years.   But I digress…

I have very little criticism of Spracklen is his prose, organization and style. It is all top-notch in my estimation.  At times he seems like writes with a bit of a chip on his shoulder but despite my teasing these can be very serious topics and he treats them  as such. Overall, all the book reads very well, is well-thought out.

Spracklen does wander off topic quite often specifically talking about the President of The United States and his personal distaste for him. Donald Trump gets at least mentioned at least a dozen times and most of the references are mild insults of him or his followers, and these add little to the point of the book.  I’m not quite sure what Donald Trump has to do with a book analyzing the content of about 20 Metal bands from Europe and the UK. (and Manowar!)  I feel that using Trump as an example of one of many populist leaders around the globe who have risen to political power in recent years, as Spracklen rightfully did in his introduction, would have been sufficient.

In the end I was left feeling very entertained but slightly bemused about the whole book.  For Spracklen to suggest that some parts of Metal and the Metal community are racist, homophobic, misogynistic, sexist etc is sort of like saying, ‘The sky is blue!’  It is not really an earth-shattering revelation!  Metal by it’s very nature, is supposed to be that way and until recently has always has been that way. Metal developed as a deliberately, contrarian and transgressive form of counter-culture leisure that very often consciously aims to provoke or inflame by targeting anyone and anything sacred or held in esteem.  That is the whole point.  It is like the infamous quote in the 1953 movie, The Wild One, where Marlon Brando’s character is asked, ‘What are you rebelling against, Johnny?’ and he answers, “”Whaddaya got?” Metal is angry rebellion against everything and for some folks that is ‘problematic’. There is that word again…

Spracklen to prove his point and bolster his thesis has undertaken the intellectual heavy-lifting and has provided a very well researched and articulate argument about how and why this scenario has developed, and wrote a really great book about it.

For what it is worth, I really don’t agree with many his conclusions and I certainly won’t waste our time providing counter-arguments or criticisms, but my personal opinion is irrelevant because METAL MUSIC AND THE RE-IMAGINING OF MASCULINITY, PLACE AND NATION, is an important and valuable piece of research.  I certainly encourage anyone who might have a knee-jerk reaction to anyone who criticizes Metal in any way, and encourage people who get defensive when their favourite band is accused of unpalatable content, to read and enjoy this book with an open-mind.