What exactly is heavy metal music? How deep do its roots go?
Long established as an undeniable force in culture, metal traces its roots back to leather-clad iron men like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, who imbued their music with a mysterious and raw undercurrent of power.
Heavy unearths this elusive force, delving deep into the fertile culture that allowed a distinctive new sound to flourish and flaying the source material to get to the beating heart of the music. From the imminent threat of nuclear apocalypse that gave rise to Metallica’s brand of volatile thrash metal to Bloodbath and Carcass, the death metal bands resurrecting the horror of medieval art.
But there are always more lines to be drawn. Cradle of Filth and Ulver trade in the transgressive impulses of gothic literature; Pantera lay bare Nietzsche’s ‘superman’; getting high leads to the escapist sci-fi dirges of Sleep and Electric Wizard; while the recovery of long-buried urns in the seventeenth century holds the key to the drone of Sunn O))).
Dissecting music that resonates with millions, Heavy sees Slipknot wrestling with the trauma of 9/11, Alice in Chains exposing the wounds of Vietnam and Iron Maiden conjuring visions of a heroic England. Powerful, evocative and sometimes sinister, it gives shape and meaning to the terrible beauty of metal.
This is a fascinating, intelligent and engaging examination of what it means for music (and a few other things) to be “heavy”. Using a few bands, their windows and genres as windows into the worlds of heavy metal, Franklin takes readers on an interesting tour of heavy music over the last few decades. I really enjoyed this.
It would appear that Franklin and I are of the same generation, as many of the events covered in Heavy I remember reading about at the time — for example, the black metal-linked church burnings in Norway, Cradle of Filth’s inflammatory t-shirt designs, and more. In addition to adding extra detail and colour, many sections of the book served as a welcome slice of nostalgia, as I remember where I was at the time, and what I was listening to at the time. Franklin begins with a quick intro to the history of metal, and the interesting similarities between the backgrounds of early purveyors of the style.
As mentioned above, Franklin uses a number of artists as guides and “case studies” for this thesis. Many of them I am already a fan of — Slipknot, for example — while others I hadn’t been as aware of. Since reading the book, I have purchased a number of Ulver albums, though.
In fact, Ulver is an interesting case in point, as they are a great example of the Scandinavian extreme metal evolutionary cycle. They, like many others, started at the more extreme ends of metal, but have mellowed and become more experimental. Other personal favourite examples are Amorphis (a band that has been inching back into heavier territory).
It was interesting that Paradise Lost — whose frontman, Nick Holmes, features frequently in the book — were not included in the discussion about this, even though they released Host (1999) and Believe in Nothing (2001) — two albums long-time fans seem to have hated, but I personally am very fond of.
Franklin engages with some of the darker and “old-fashioned” aspects of heavy music and the culture that has grown up around it. Phil Anselmo’s troubles with racist statements, for example, is used as an excellent case study for examining the long-time problems heavy has had. The genre is improving, and fans are expecting more of their metal idols.
I’m usually suspicious of anyone who writes a “think piece” about heavy metal, heaviness, and the genres’ relation with society as a whole. Most often, these pieces are not written by fans of metal (life-long or recent). Franklin, however, is different. In Heavy he engages with the genre he loves, from a place of honesty and genuine affection and passion. He doesn’t make excuses for the darker, less-acceptable aspects of metal and metal culture.
Heavy is a must-read for any fan of heavy music, and anyone who is feeling a bit heavy-curious. Definitely recommended.
Dan Franklin’s Heavy is out now in the UK, published by Constable.
Some interesting further reading recommendations:
- Andrew O’Neill The History of Heavy Metal (Review)
- Michael Moynihan & Didrik Soderlind, Lords of Chaos (recently adapted into a movie, same name).
- Duff McKagan, It’s So Easy (And Other Lies) — one of my favourite rock memoirs.
- “The Politics of Heavy Metal” by Catherine Hoad (Conversation)
- “Why Obama-Trump swing voters like Heavy Metal” (Economist)
- “Listening to ‘extreme’ music makes you calmer, not angrier” (The Guardian)
Feel free to share other recommendations in the comments.