Does its Geographical Location define the style of Heavy Metal? James Phillips
The University of Northampton
The purpose of this essay is to examine the link between geographical locations, the heavy metal genre and the influence it has in shaping the sound and structure or does place have nothing to do with the sound of the music and in fact heavy metal music is just influenced by past musical interests? This essay will explore the heavy metal genre in it’s travel from Great Britain, over the Atlantic to the United States of America and also it’s movement and evolution in Scandinavia whilst explaining the influences the varying environments have on the specific genres discussed. The essay will also explore mileu and the role it plays in creating communities of subcultures associated with the heavy metal genre. Heavy metal is a genre that is widely studied in terms of subculture, individualisation and authenticity but questions of if it is defined by it’s geographical and historical background are few and far between leading to this essay analysing and evaluating the fact that music is constantly evolving to adapt to it’s environments.
Whilst conducting this research, there is a strong belief that heavy metal evolved from the industrial areas of the West Midlands. The term ‘heavy metal’ was first used in the song “Born to be Wild” by American hard rock band Steppenwolf with the line “heavy metal thunder” in 1968 and this was latched on to by fans of the genre that were looking for a way to rebel against the social and global issues that were constantly in the news at the time. In Andrew L. Cope’s book Black Sabbath and the Rise of Heavy Metal Music (2010), the author talks about Peter Webb’s concept of “musical mileu”. It can be said that without a mileu of subcultural identities and demographical spread of identities, there would be no ‘scene’ in which musicians and group are able to play. This is something that has become vary apparent to me as for part of this research. Two interviews (see appendix 1 and 2 for full transcripts) were carried out to gather a female perspective about becoming part of what is traditionally a male dominated form of music.
The first interviewee was Jasmine, a former guitarist in a death metal band formed in the midlands. The first question asked was, what kick started her interest and association with metal? Abstracts of the interviews below gives a sense of the influence at the time.
JP - At what age did you get into heavy metal?
JS - I really got into metal from the age of about 14, when I bought some copied tapes off a market in Tooting Beck in London. I’ll never forget it; I bought Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ and Faith No More’s ‘Angeldust’. That was the beginning of a lifelong love of both bands. This also paved the way for me falling in love with metal and all of its subgenres. At the time there were two routes into metal, either Grunge or Metallica. Metallica never really did it for me; it lacked an emotional grit that Grunge provided.
JP - Were there any local venues (pubs,clubs, hang outs) that you would consider, played an influence in your musical preference?
JS - This only really happened when I moved into a large town. There were no alternative pubs or anything in more provincial backwaters. When I moved to Northampton, there was a burgeoning scene. At the time, mid 90s, the scene in this town was mostly Goth, as Bauhaus originated from here, it became like a mecca for trad goths. However, with the opening of certain clubs and the establishment of alternative pubs such as The Racehorse and The King Billy, these were the places that I started to go out to. At the time, there was a big metal venue called Bass Clef; I didn’t miss a Saturday night there in five years! I saw Iron Monkey there which was amazing.
The second interviewee is Lesley. She grew up in a small village outside of Cheltenham but there are similarities between Lesley and Jasmine’s experiences of stepping into the big wide world of heavy metal.
JP - At what age did you find yourself attracted to the heavy metal genre?
LV - Heavy metal music has always been very much part of my life, due to my mother’s love of this genre. My earliest memories involve listening to heavy metal and enjoying it immensely, and I was given my first heavy metal mix tape at the age of 7 or 8, if my memory serves me well. However, I started becoming an independent buyer of heavy metal albums and a true fan at the age of about 13.
Over the years, British heavy metal has taken may twists and turns and pioneers of the genre have emerged such as Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Def Leppard were seen as leaders of the sub-genre known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal or ‘NWOBHM’ for short. Whereas New York had the popular hang out of CBGBs for the punks, London was almost too British as the “NWOBHM had a room attached to the Prince of Wales pub in the north-west London suburb of Kingsbury.” (Wilkinson, 2009) In 1980 Judas Priest released the album British Steel that could be described as a reflection of British working class paired with the industrial atmosphere surrounding Birmingham. When Rob Halford (lead vocalist) is questioned about the album, Halford give the impression that the song ‘Rapid Fire’ “evokes both issues of masculinity and of Britishness” (Bayer, 2009) giving it sense of emotional pride and patriotism.
The term New Wave of British Heavy Metal was first used in 1979 in the now-defunct British music weekly Sounds. It encompassed a mass of young hard rock bands who swore fealty to Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, but who mixed this heritage with a new urgency and a DIY mindset, both derived from punk - and the scene was drawn together by a compilation album called Metal for Muthas released in February 1980. (Wilkinson, 2009)
The key area of the American Thrash scene was around the Bay Area of San Francisco in the 1980s drawing influences from the NWOBHM genre as well as hardcore punk to create a ‘thrashy’ type of sound with the significance of speed, time changes and the use of the chromatic scale. Bands such as Exodus and Metallica pushed the boundaries of heavy metal by combining the style of hair metal such as Motley Crue and Skid Row with the glam rock style of the 1970s. Because of the direct link between NWOBHM and Thrash metal, it can be said that the New Wave of American Heavy Metal (NWOAHM) took the same influences in the 1990s but from the post grunge era and this created the what is now could be known as “American sounding metal.” The geographical location of thrash could be said to have helped it popularity because of the ‘bay area’ term given to it, much like other areas that produce genre defining bands. Much like the other genres discussed in this essay, there needs to be a range of factors to enable the sub-genre and scene to take off. This was born out of frustration and rebellion towards the politicians that sat in the senate where some saw it as dictating to the American people and this came out in the style of music taking an anti-political and social critical view of the events going on at the time.
Because of the Cold War going on at the time, most of these artists believed themselves to be the victims of centralized government and its political wars detached from the daily lives of the people, and thus the ethics of the music were highly populist and individualistic. (Anon, n.d) Scandinavian Black metal carried elements of British heavy metal and the speed and technicality of American thrash metal. Originating out of the subcultures and music scenes of Oslo, Norway in the early 1990s, Black metal could be seen as a gimmick in some area of the metal community with it’s lyrical content about murder, satanic beliefs, blaspheme along with cultural and historical folklore. The geographic ideologies behind Norwegian black metal give the genre a sense of individuality by writing lyrics in non English languages. “The scene’s generic and geographic fragmentation has thus reinforced each other.” (Kahn-Harris, 2007) with all the associations that go hand in hand with the black metal scene, there are also member of the black metal community that want to talk about the good and positive impacts that the music has had on their lives and how it makes them feel. In Kahn-Harris’s book, Extreme Metal: Music and culture on the edge, he talks to individuals and asks them what their main musical tastes are. The replies are varied such as one individual named Dave who comments that his tastes range form “classical music, to Satan, black metal” and that “I enjoy a lot of calm music” such as Enya and the Irish band “Levellers.” This gives a sense that an individual does not necessarily have to be into one type of music but can also enjoy other forms without leaving the social group that Dave may be part of.
The melodic death metal movement came out of Gothenburg, Sweden in the late 80s, early 90s with the likes of At The Gates, In Flames and Dark Tranquility being the founding members of a genre that took influences from the hardcore and punk movements of American social culture and because of “Sweden’s socialist government” (Mudrian, 2004, p.94) there wasn’t as much rebellion towards them, compared to the likes of the British and American punk movements of the same era. The roots of the Swedish metal scene were sown not in Gothenberg but actually Stockholm. One of the local hangouts for these groups of metalheads were in the tunnels and stations of the city’s underground network once the services had finished for the day. The term Bajsligan was given to these groups which translates to “The shit league” giving the group a sud-cultural identity and almost a sense of belonging to the metal community. It is explained in the book Choosing Death by the band Nihilist that their guitarist Leffe “came up with that sound from the Boss Heavy Metal pedal” (2004, p.99) leading to the beginnings of a new sub-style of heavy metal. Mudrian states that “Nihilist had inspired numerous Swedish youth to form new high-velocity, brutally heavy metal acts throughout the country.” (2004, p.101) one of these bands influenced was a Stockholm band by the name of Carnage who were founded by Micheal Amott, who was born in London but raised in Sweden and has since become known as one of the best metal guitarists in the world reaching number 74 in a poll conducted by Guitar World. (blabbermouth.net, 2004)
While the USA and the UK had a head start in the death metal and grindcore genres, other areas of Europe such as Sweden weren’t far behind. There wasn’t the same social rebellion towards the Swedish socialist government compared to the USA and UK but still had fans of punk and hardcore. Many fans would gather in the country’s capital city of Stockholm. (Mudrian, 2004)
One of the main areas that brought young people together were summer camps and a lot of the people there would be into the same genres of metal and this inspired groups of young people to form bands as these camps would have the equipment that they couldn’t afford. Building on this, people would remain friends and bands would evolve with the influences of different bands from within the genre and a mutual understanding. It can be said that with high numbers of attendees at these summer camps together with the equipment provided, there would be a high chance that connections would be made and foundations set. It can also be argued that place does not define the style of music being played. This can also be backed up from a quote whilst in communication with Rosemary Hill, where she described the issue as;
A lot of emphasis has been placed upon Sabbath's working class
industrial heritage, but that doesn't explain all metal - plenty of bands come from other kinds of backgrounds. These days heavy industry and
associated noises are not really part of our cultural psyche, but we still
make heavy music. I'm inclined to think there's a lot of romanticising of
place in these heritage stories, but that doesn't mean that those stories
themselves aren't important. (2013)
Musical milieu can be seen as an important and fundamental part of setting up a ‘scene’. It can be said that the for a scene to survive and become iconic, there also needs to be an element of historical background to the area. If you were to look at the history of Swedish culture and for example, the history of Charles XII of Sweden, there is history of violence due to the Great Northern war of 1700 and a high sense of patriotism that can be compared to the NWOBHM. A good example of this is the Sabaton’s album Carolus Rex (2012) and Judas Priest’s album British Steel (1980) that are full of historical context of their respected countries whilst keeping in the heavy metal genre and incorporating elements of their own backgrounds into the music but also poses the question, would Sabaton’s historical concept album be as relevant in 30 years time like British Steel has been? All three genres talked about in this possess a influences from their respected areas in relation to place. I can be argued that geographical location has no bearing on the sounds and influences of heavy metal at all but it is in fact the knowledge of the musicians involved that create the sound. Whilst in communication with Simon Poole who is a senior lecturer in cultural theory and popular music at Buckinghamshire University and previous drummer for the British doom metal band, Electric Wizard, argued that “My feeling is that in certain sub genres of metal, like doom, it is more to do with fandom and knowledge of the origins of metal than where you are geographically.” (2013) Just to point out that the word fandom is a word associated with subcultures who share a common interest with something and go into the smallest of detail to appreciate it, such as a group of Harry Potter fans who would turn up to a premier of the film all dressed like their favourite characters. It can be said that heavy metal, be it from anywhere in the world incorporates and demonstrates the passion and pride of where the artists originate from and their cultural upbringing but this also poses a rhetorical answer that heavy metal uses past musical exposure to influence the sound and style as well as adding it’s own creative edge to it. Heavy metal is easy to get in to as it draws influences from a wide rage of sources, from classical music to historic event and everyday life meaning that listeners can easily relate to the issues sung about. Each genre evolved from a city that can now be seen as iconic for that sub-genre of metal each with it’s own defining sound and style that the listener can identify as to what style of the genre it is. There are subtle differences between American thrash metal and Germany thrash metal as well as American death metal compared to European death metal so it could be described that these sub-genres are ‘Americanised’ in order to be successful to the large demographical audience of America. With a sense of place comes authenticity and in the eyes of the fan, if the music isn’t authentic enough then it isn’t considered to be ‘metal enough’ for them and look elsewhere for the style they are want. These musical styles have all been evolutions of previous musical genres and differing interpretations of heaviness as well as pushing the boundaries that what is and isn’t socially acceptable in terms of lyrical content and fandom. There will always been forms of elitism and extremism that will always want to push views and beliefs too far such with the association between black metal and church burning but this is pushed aside by the fans that understand the origin and history that can appreciate music for what it is created for, enjoyment and release from everyday stresses and strains.
Anon. (2004). Guitar World’s 100 Greatest Heavy Metal Guitarists of All Time. [Online] Available at: http://www.blabbermouth.net/news.aspx?mode=Article&newsitemID=18446. (Jan 23, 2004) [accessed 15th April 2013].
Anon. (n.d). The Philosophy of Heavy Metal. [Online] Available at: http://www.anus.com/metal/about/philosophy/ [accessed 10th April 2013].
Bayer, G. (2009). Heavy Metal Music in Britian. Farnham: Ashgate.
Cope, A. (2010). Black Sabbath and the Rise of Heavy Metal Music. Farnham: Ashgate.
Ekeroth, D. (2009). Swedish Death Metal. Brooklyn: Bazillion Points.
Hebdige, D. (2010). Subculture, The Meaning of Style. Padstow: Routledge
Kahn-Harris, K. (2007). Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge. Oxford: Berg. pp.121-139
Mudrian, A. (2004). Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal & Grindcore. Los Angeles: Feral House. pp.94-116
Muggleton, D. (2002). Inside Subculture: The Postmodern Meaning of Style. Oxford: Berg.
Webb, P. (2005). Interrogating the Production of Sound and Place: The Bristol Phenomenon, From Lunatic Fringe to Worldwide Massive. In Whitely, S. et al, eds. Music, Space and Place. Aldershot: Ashgate. pp.66-85
Wilkinson, R. (2009). And the Bands play on.....and on. The Guardian. [Online] Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/jan/02/saxon-rock-music. 2nd Jan [accessed 16th April 2013]
Appendix 1 Primary research into Heavy Metal in the UK
This short interview is to try and gain an insight in to how people get into heavy metal music within their local area. Was it something that started off at a young age or was it something that developed over time?
At what age did you get into heavy metal music? I really got into metal from the age of about 14, when I bought some copied tapes off a market in Tooting Beck in London. I’ll never forget it; I bought Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and Faith No More’s “Angeldust”. That was the beginning of a lifelong love of both bands. This also paved the way for me falling in love with metal and all of its subgenres. At the time there were two routes into metal, either Grunge or Metallica. Metallica never really did it for me; it lacked an emotional grit that Grunge provided.
Were there any local venues (pubs,clubs, hang outs) that you would consider, played an influence in your musical preference? This only really happened when I moved into a large town. There were no alternative pubs or anything in more provincial backwaters. When I moved to Northampton, there was a burgeoning scene. At the time, mid 90s, the scene in this town was mostly Goth, as Bauhaus originated from here, it became like a mecca for trad goths. However, with the opening of certain clubs and the establishment of alternative pubs such as The Racehorse and The King Billy, these were the places that I started to go out to. At the time, there was a big metal venue called Bass Clef; I didn’t miss a Saturday night there in five years! I saw Iron Monkey there which was amazing.
What was your first experience with heavy metal within a live environment? This was probably my first festival. Monsters of Rock, Donnington Park, 1997. We drove through Donnington village to get to the parking section and I had never seen so many alternative people in my life. It was amazing! I can remember distinctly, watching Sepultura (although Max used Ozzy’s jet to fly back to the States with Gloria as the news had just come in of Dana’s shooting) and Andreas did the vocals. Whilst this was horrendous news obviously, when Krusher appeared on stage to tell us all, I’d never felt such a sense of community, of solidarity ever before.
My first experience of a mosh pit was watching Korn for the first time. All I could see was this little patch of blue sky directly above my head as I was squashed on all sides by big sweaty, hairy men!
What was your local heavy metal scene like? What did it consist of? Our local scene was directly born out of the nightclubs and pubs we went to. As a direct result of this, lots of people started bands, myself included. My first band, Ritual of Hate, joined a plethora of metal bands that were gigging all around this area. Friendships and bonds were made at an early stage.
Because of the live music scene, the venues, the pubs, all of it, the scene was massive in Northampton. There were more alternative venues, live music venues, piercing and tattoo parlours, alternative clothing shops than even Camden at one stage. Kerrang went so far as to call it England’s “Seattle” during the late 90s. It was also during this time that a local record label was started to signed my first band. Anticulture Records went on to be a clear and productive force in the underground metal scene until it folded about 7 years ago.
When you are with friends from your youth, does it feel nostalgic to hang out at a previous hanging ground that played a part in your musical up bringing? They’re not there anymore. This is a huge shame. Bass Clef finished because the owner was arrested for money laundering. Madisons (it’s second rate follow up) was ok for a while until the building was bought by a bowling club. Then there was The SoundHaus. This did really well for a substantial amount of years; I think it only closed a couple of years ago. There has not really been anything to take its place. There’s Embargoes that has The Blast Chamber on the top floor and this is a relic from not only The SoundHaus but a smaller “Thursday night” venue called The Cookie Club. Same DJs, they’re still in the scene now…
Where there any outside sources that influenced that style of heavy metal that you listen to such as Norwegian Black metal, American Hardcore or genres like that? Oh god yes! I was a massive fan of early Machine Head. “Burn My Eyes” was an astonishing album. This really got me into the Floridian death metal sound. As a result, years later, I really got into Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse, Slayer, Anthrax (and their subsidiary bands MOD and SOD) Death and Hate Eternal. The more I advanced in my guitar playing, the more I looked for inspirational and heavier, more technical metal. Death metal is the subgenre that really is perfect for my tastes. When I joined Theoktony, we supported Morbid Angel, Severe Torture and Napalm Death. We subsequently signed to Shane Embury and Mick Kenny (Anaal Nathrakh)’s label Feto Recs.
However, as far as the Scandinavian sound was concerned, I started really getting into The Haunted, Entombed, Dismember (Casket Garden is still one of my fave songs). This writing and compositional technique was very different to the Floridian sound at the time. It was dirtier, much less polished. However as death metal developed in Europe, it became the most expert out of all of them, in my opinion. Decapitated are still THE best death metal band in my book, pre-coach accident. It became much more about precision, exact and uncompromising aural assault that was technically unsurpassable that meant that was the pinnacle. Nothing else has really come close musically for me. When I was playing guitar for Theoktony, I knew that was the most technical guitar I would ever play. It bridged the gap between Death and Black metal and even a twenty minute set was exhausting. I had to practice on my 7 string Ibanez every single day or I’d get rusty, seemingly overnight! But it was incredible and I wouldn’t change a thing.
Primary research into Heavy Metal in the UK
This short interview is to try and gain an insight in to how people get into heavy metal music within their local area. Was it something that started off at a young age or was it something that developed over time?
At what age did you start listening to heavy metal music?
Heavy metal music has always been very much part of my life, due to my mother’s love of this genre. My earliest memories involve listening to heavy metal and enjoying it immensely, and I was given my first heavy metal mix tape at the age of 7 or 8, if my memory serves me well.
However, I started becoming an independent buyer of heavy metal albums and a true fan at the age of about 13. Were there any local venues (pubs, clubs, hang outs) that you would consider, played an influence in your musical preference?
In Cheltenham? Well, not really. There were, of course, a few local pubs where I saw some decent rock and blues concerts with my mother or friends, and there was the Night Owl club which played all sorts of genres. So, I don’t think that any pub or club really influenced my musical preference. What was your first experience with heavy metal within a live environment?
Specifically heavy metal, I would have to say the Marylin Manson concert in Manchester at the age of 17… does Marylin Manson even count as ‘heavy metal’? If not, then perhaps I could include some heavy metal concerts in Germany a few years later. What was your local heavy metal scene like? What did it consist of?
What scene? Sure, there were many people who loved heavy metal but Cheltenham was (and probably still is) dominated by dance or soft rock fans. I could be wrong, however. When you are with friends from your youth, does it feel nostalgic to hang out at a previous hanging ground that played a part in your musical up bringing?
Not really. My musical upbringing started at home. Were there any outside sources that influenced that style of heavy metal that you listen to such as Norwegian Black metal, American Hardcore or genres like that?
Not that I can think of, although I really like the German heavy metal scene, as well as the darkwave scene prevalent in Germany, although that’s another story.