Reviewed: September, 2020
Published: 2020, Constable
In my mind the three words that characterized this book and my perception of it are; subjective, objective and generation-gap.
HEAVY is a new title authored by Dan Franklin and published by the good people at Constable/LittleBrown/Hachette. The book itself is a nice, standard hardcover with a dust jacket and the basic sliver/white on black cover is simple and eye-catching. There are several pictures inside with two sets of full colour photos on glory plates. It is topped off by an extensive set of notes and a handy index. Franklin, a British pop-culture afficianando and Metal fan has written a treatise; his love letter to Heavy Metal. It’s pretty cool. At 300 pages it is obvious he put a lot of time and energy into the book.
There are any number of books written by folks who have written metalography; their life-story presented in relation to Heavy Metal and this is similar but not quite the same. Franklin has engaged in a pseudo-academic look at the concept of the all too undefinable characteristic of ‘heaviness’. I use the word pseudo-scientific not as a term of denigration but as as a compliment. Franklin’s work examine Metal music is far more detailed and meticulously researched and referenced than many similar books, but falls short of being a strictly academic thesis written from the ivory tower.
As almost a preface to my review of the actual content of the book, I will say that I have not had such mixed feelings about a book about Metal in a long time and this will probably be a long and opinionated review so take that into account!
Let’s start with the positive. It is kind of hard to describe what this book is even about but it is an exploration of the nebulous term ‘Heavy’. What is Heavy? Franklin doesn’t seek to explain it or define it but rather he wants to as he puts it ‘re-mystify’ it. After recently reading numerous dry academic texts about Metal that, under the harsh, unblinking bright-lights of academia (that usually ruthlessly dissect the genre to its core) I can’t think of a more noble and important goal to bring Metal back into the dark.
Franklin states,”The mission of this book is to define what heaviness means to me, what it means to others, and how it binds other parts of culture to metal music.” (p. 7) an an ambitious goal and one I feel he largely achieved…with style. There are any number of examples where the author draws connections between classical art and literature and how Metal band have used these dark themes in their art. It almost creates a artistic continuum of heaviness. Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Wagner, Hobbes and Huxley, Hindu mythology and Christian dogma, all get referenced along with many more.
HEAVY also doubles as a lite-history of Metal. Franklin walks us through the time worn tale of the evolution of Metal from the steel mills of the Birmingham rust-belt; the birthplace of Sabbath, Priest, Rainbow and Dio and more. We get a chapter on Thrash, a chapter on Death Metal, a chapter on Nu-Metal, a chapter on Stoner Metal and each has a common thread of looking for and explaining what is heavy. We are treated to deep examinations of Carcass, Electric Wizard, Ulver, and Elder and more. What I really appreciated was that Franklin didn’t only focus on the old heritage/veteran bands or just on the cool new bands. However, I did get the impression that he included the former more out of necessity than pure desire.
I really enjoyed Franklin’s prose. He is a witty and engaging writer and tells lots of stories that bring a human element into the book. Franklin shares his experiences growing up Metal and adds a nice auto-biographical component but he does not just tell his life-story in a linear fashion. HEAVY really is a unique book that addresses interesting topics in a thoughtful, intelligent way. Franklin is engaged, knowledgeable and the book is free of major errors. He writes with passion; he really lives and loves music and to a broader degree, art and culture.
To top it all off the book is well researched, lots of notes and citations so those so inclined can dig even deeper into the source material. I have nothing but praise for the concept, design and execution of HEAVY.
Now for the negative part of this review. In all honesty, I really didn’t enjoy or agree with much of this book. I know this sounds bizarre after I just spent several paragraphs praising this fine and unique book.
In my introduction I used the words ‘subjective’, ‘objective’ and ‘generation gap’. Objectively, this is a fantastic book. Subjectively, it was not to my taste.
Tackling the generation gap concept first, Franklin is several years younger than I (or I am older, it depends how you want to frame it) and so his experiences, perceptions and attitudes about Heavy Metal are very different than mine. He seems to come from the modern, inclusive school of thought that says, “If a band has long hair and an electric guitar, they are automatically categorized as MetaI”. I come from the more old school train of thought that says, “Just because you have long hair and an electric guitar that doesn’t automatically make you a Metal band.” It is a subtle but important distinction.
That leads to the concepts of objectivity vs. subjectivity. I felt that Franklin struggled at times (as we all do) with the distinction between the two.
The bottom line is that people have very different perspectives of the subjective quality of heaviness. I am not trying to put words in his mouth but based on his own prose, and the bands he chose to hold up as examples of ‘heavy’ Franklin perception is Heavy’ is based on the slow. The dirge. The plod. The groove. The down-tuned. The minor notes. The low. The dark. Death. Violence. This is ‘heavy’ in his mind.
My concept of what is ‘heavy’ is quite different. I find the hyper-kinetic, insane, note-dense speed of Dragonforce, the epic, orchestral bombast of Nightwish or the lyrical majestic heroics of Rhapsody far more intense, and exciting and ‘heavy’ than the generic plod of Sepultura or the lethargic chug of Pantera. Neither of us is ‘correct’.
However, Franklin seems to think there is one universal example or concept of heavy and I just don’t agree. Heaviness is subjective, not objective.
There is also a mild, but not obnoxious amount, of ego within his style and prose. Often he will take a subjective point and say objectively, “This is the way it is”, with little regard for alternate perspectives. The first prime example is the sub-title of the book, “How Metal Changes The Way We See The World”. If Franklin had called the book, “How Metal “Changed” The Way “I” See The World”, it would have been fine. However, there seems to be assumption made that we all think or feel the same way based on his experiences. I’m not sure if it was intentional or not but I’d like to think not.
Another example is, in the introduction Franklin somewhat immodestly says, …this book will leave you changed. Or at least alter your perspective”. (p. 31) A bold statement indeed! For me, it did neither. It wasn’t this earth-shattering revelation about Metal or epiphany about Metal music in culture. I learned virtually nothing about Metal and ’heaviness’ except a few obscure facts about bands I wasn’t interested in to begin with. Interesting? Most certainly. Life changing? No.
I don’t want to belabour the point but it’s topical. Further on in his introduction he says, “After finishing Heavy, you will also have a similar ability to perceive heaviness, to be able to identify its defining qualities and see its influence everywhere. Prepare yourselves for what you are about to understand.” (p. 20)
Sitting on my little high horse I chuckled to myself when I read the above. I thought to myself somewhat smugly, “Some punk-ass kid who actually thinks that the generic, Top-40, Rock band, Baroness is a Metal band (let alone ‘Heavy’) is going to lecture me on what is Heavy? This ought to be rich!” So I admittedly went into the book with a healthy degree of skepticism or a bad attitude, depending on your perspective!
This is a very common phenomena with new writers, that is, assume everyone had the same experiences and opinions as you. Accordingly, there were many times I had no clue what he was talking about and I had never experienced things he took for granted that the reader will (or should) know.
Another reason I didn’t like the book is that Franklin is a big pop-culture guy and I’m not. That is not a fault or blame scenario but often he was talking about things I’ve never heard of (or consumed) various books, poems, paintings, movies, plays, HBO dramas and American TV shows and a bunch of non-Metal artists. There is sort of this assumption that the reader knows of these things and when he uses them as a reference point, I felt lost. That is not his fault, if anything it is my fault for not being more culturally aware. This is a good point to mention the photos in the book. Franklin very cleverly included many shots of the pop culture references he made in the text that were very helpful for people like me and added very valuable context and a visual frame of reference to his comments.
Franklin also interjects this mild left-wing political commentary in the book but it is not too obtrusive and it’s pretty common these days for the younger highly politicized generation to want to state their political viewpoint in every arena of discussion; sports, art, music, theology, finance etc. I’m not quite sure what Brexit and the foreign policy of dead American presidents have to do with a book about the discovery and evolution of ‘heaviness’ in Metal but they they are. For example, Franklin takes Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden to task for his political views which doesn’t really add to the point of a book about exploring heaviness.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly the main reason I didn’t really enjoy the book is that Franklin talked about bands I don’t know about or care about. This this in no way be construed as a fault of flaw of this excellent book. However, the fact remains, many of the bands he discussed are the big, trendy, popular mainstream bands or the acts that that sort of sit on the fringes of real Metal; Nirvana, Tool, Korn, Type O Negative, Sleep, Kyuss, Cro-Mags, Baroness, Queens Of The Stone Age, Gojira, Mastodon, Def Tones, and a handful of Grunge and Nu-Metal stuff. He loves and worships this stuff and that’s really cool. Those are HIS bands! There were entire chapters on Tool and Pantera! I am not implying the chapters on those bands were not well done, just the opposite, there were very well done but I just didn’t care because I don’t really enjoy either of those bands.
His favourite bands are not my favourite Metal bands, I think Franklin might have a hard time with that because he is so immersed,so passionate and so thoughtful about his favourite artists it probably doesn’t occur to him that many people don’t feel the same way. When he said that he felt Phil Anselmo is the greatest frontman in Heavy Metal I almost burst out laughing! However, I know lots of people, (mostly younger people) who would vigorously agree!
So to try to summarize my personal (subjective!) dissatisfaction with HEAVY is that basically, a young(ish) guy wrote a fairly narrow, semi-politicized, book talking in-depth about a bunch of bands I don’t really care about and cross referencing those bands to a bunch of pop-culture and literary stuff I’m not familiar with. But man, did he do a magnificent job of it!
HEAVY is very different than any book about Metal that I have ever read and that is why it is so good, so intriguing and so worth your time, attention and dollars. If you like Metallica and Pantera and all those bands I referenced in the body of the review, I highly recommend you check it out! It might change your perspective!