Heavy Metal, and Cultural Markers for the End of the Century

Hanan Hadžajlić
Hanan Hadžajlić

The term heavy metal was first used in the mid-seventies as a disdainful label of an extreme musical genre known as hard rock.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of New Words, heavy metal is defined as a style of loud energetic rock music, characterized by the use of heavily amplified instruments (mostly guitars, bass guitars and drums), intense and fast beats (which refers to active, intense, fast rhythm and pulse), often energetic and spectacular performance and a generally rough and aggressive music style; as a later stage of the development of hard rock.

Often, just referred to by the phrase “metal”, it represents a musical subgenre of rock and roll and an explicit subculture of fans (“metalheads”) with its own rules, rituals, conflicting sets of ideologies and fashion.

With the ascendency of Christianity and Christian culture in the Western world over the past two millennia, music has always been a problematic area for both religious and secular authority.

Moreover, when it comes to heavy metal, a bunch of “satanic noise”, which critic Robert Duncan described as “pimply, prole, putrid, unchic, unsophisticated, anti-intellectual (but impossibly pretentious), dismal, abysmal, terrible, horrible, and stupid […]”,5 made by “slack-jawed, alpaca-haired, bulbous- in seamed imbeciles in jackboots and leather and chrome for slack-jawed, alpaca- haired, downy-mustachioed imbeciles in cheap, too-large t-shirts with pictures of comic-book Armageddon ironed on the front”, self-proclaimed moral authorities continue to frown upon the ecstasies of revelry and lusty songs, attempting to room them out.

The term heavy metal was used by William Burroughs in 1964, in his science-fiction novel ‘The Soft Machine’ (part of the ‘The Nova Trilogy’, along with the’ Nova Express’ and ‘The Ticket That Exploded’, the theme of which is control a novel depicted by machines that control people), which represents culture as the largest control machine. His character Uranian Willy is described as the “Heavy Metal Kid”.

“Uranian Willy ‘The Heavy Metal Kid’. Also known as ‘Willy The Rat’. He wised up the marks. His metal face moved in a slow smile as he heard the twittering supersonic threats through antenna embedded in his translucent skull.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, heavy metal has been used for several centuries as a term for murder and toxic compounds; as a technical term in chemistry, metallurgy and discussions on the topic of pollution.

“‘Heavy metal poisoning’ is a diagnosis that has long had greater cultural currency than Burroughs’s book has had, and the scientific and medical uses of the term ‘heavy metal’ are even cognate, since they infuse the music with values of danger and weight, desirable characteristics in the eyes of late 1960s rock musicians.”

For many rock historians, heavy metal began with white, mostly British musicians who had copied African American blues music. Groups such as the Yardbirds, Cream and The Jeff Beck Group combined the rock and roll style of Chuck Berry with early blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf.

The popularization of white guitarists such as Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page meant the oblivion of the black American musicians that Clapton and Page had imitated. According to Walser, in such a way the goal was to push Jimmy Hendrix, the greatest virtuoso of rock guitar in the sixties, to the edge of musical history.

According to Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind, heavy metal exists on the periphery of pop music, as an exaggerated picture and ventilation of masculine lust. Culturally speaking, rock and roll music stood squarely on the race and class-marginalized shoulders of rhythm and blues (but it was mostly made by middle-class white males in partnership with companies run by white males).

According to Walser, heavy metal began in Birmingham, England, an industrial city whose working-class formed bands such as Black Sabbath and Judas Priest in the late 1960s to early 1970s.

These heavy metal groups operated in abandoned industrial spaces, especially suitable for music that flourished during the American industrialization period. As the work of industrial production was invisible in mass media representations, the music work that was held and reinvested popular music actually took place at marginalized locations.

Bands such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath are often classified in the first generation of heavy metal groups (late sixties), while the second generation of heavy metal groups (which were active during the seventies) is represented with bands such as Kiss, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Judas Priest, Ted Nugent, Rush, Rainbow, and Blue Oyster Cult. Scorpions, originally from Germany, became the first successful band in the history of metal from a non-English-speaking country.

The late seventies and early eighties in the United Kingdom were marked by the new movement, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), which spawned bands such as Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Haze, Motorhead, Avenger, Saxon, Raven, Angel Witch.

In the early 1980s, influenced by speed metal pioneers Motorhead, who incorporated elements of punk rock and heavy metal, a style called thrash metal started to develop in America, led by groups such as Slayer, Megadeth, Testament, Exodus, Possessed, Metallica, and Anthrax. The most famous representatives of the first wave of black metal are Venom (U.K.), Bathory (Sweden) and Celtic Frost (Switzerland).

In the far north of the European continent, the seasons dominated by darkness and cold, provided a nurturing environment for black metal, the ideology of which incorporates traces of toxic rhetoric including Satanism and fascism.

Troubled working-class white youth that felt the need to compensate personal failures and social inadequacy with violence and aggressive behaviour became a new audience for Hitler cults and notions of Aryan identity. Over time, these movements became militant and aggressively advertised through developed networks of media, which led to a large number of supporters throughout Europe.

While globalization represents a virtually boundless process, which has the capacity to represent the changing possibilities of social autonomy and individual self expression related to the constitution of global, nation-transcending, transcultural identity and way of life; glocalization signifies adaptation of values and hybridization of globalization and localization.

It is not only a new term, but also a new concept, which occurs when media texts are being appropriated, adopted and localized by media audiences.

Another wave of black metal, known as Norwegian Black Metal, was led by bands like Mayhem, Burzum, Darkthrone, Immortal, Emperor, Satyricon, Dimmu Borgir, Carpathian Forest, and Gorgoroth.

At the same time, black metal bands active in America included Judas Iscariot, Black Funeral, Grand Belial’s Key.

In Britain, the leading group was Cradle of Filth, which developed an authentic black/gothic metal style. In Sweden, the main representatives were Marduk, Dissection, Bestial Mockery, Gates of Ishtar. Belgium black metal bands included Enthroned and Ancient Rites. In Finland, these were Behexen, Impaled Nazarene, Archgoat. French bands included Mutiilation, Blut Aus Nord. In Germany, the most dominant bands were Absurd, Dark Fortress, Nargaroth. Polish black metal bands included Behemoth, Infernum, Graveland. In Russia, Forest Stream and Tvangeste; in Japan, Bellzlleb, Sigh and Sabbat.

Death metal started in the United States, in Florida, and the concept of this subgenre, as well as the death metal school, is institutionalized by the term Florida death metal and by the work of bands Obituary, Morbid Angel, Deicide, Death, Malevolent Creation.

Across America there are groups such as Possessed, Immolation, Cannibal Corpse, Post Mortem, Suffocation, Necrophagia, Deeds Of Flesh. In Britain, the leading band is Napalm Death (which synthesizes elements of grindcore, crust punk and death metal), as well as Carcass and Bolt Thrower.

In Sweden, there are Unleashed, Dismember, Entombed, Carnage, and later, Swedish melodic death metal is developed, led by groups such as In Flames, At The Gates, Dark Tranquility.

Can a genre truly exist until it is named? Some movements are named during their time period, and other musical genres are named after they are gone. In the academic study of music, the terms “proto” and “post” are used as devices that situate a particular movement in time.

An example of this would be calling Blue Cheer, a “proto-metal band”, because they existed and played a musical form similar to metal in a time period before most critics used the term heavy metal, or calling a band like Meshuggah or Om “Post-metal”, because they play music that has clearly evolved beyond the parameters of heavy metal.

From the first form of heavy metal, which most often refers to traditional heavy metal or classical metal, many subgenres have developed with their internal divisions; thrash metal, death metal, black metal, power metal, jazz metal, gothic metal, folk metal, party or pop-metal, glam metal, metal-core, gore metal, punk metal, doom metal, progressive metal, industrial metal, grind-core, nu-metal, post-metal.

Also, there are subgenres such as deathcore and mathcore, which are actually a hybrid of aesthetic characteristics of hardcore/ punk music and technical/progressive death metal.

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