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Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge by Keith Kahn Harris

Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge
by Keith Kahn Harris


Metal music, developed in the sixties and seventies, is notorious for its dark and disturbing imagery and its aggressive sound. But there's nothing to be afraid of, says sociologist and fan Keith Kahn-Harris: it's all part of the mythmaking of metal.

Interview by Alec Ash

Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge by Keith Kahn Harris

Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge
by Keith Kahn Harris

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Most of the time we hear about metal through the musicians or critics. What is your perspective, as both a sociologist and a fan?

It is difficult for me to disengage my sociological interest from my personal interest in metal. I see myself as somebody who is both inside and outside the metal scene, both a fan but also someone who can take a more critical look. My sociological work is more analytical. It asks the harder questions about gender, race and power. Those questions are increasingly asked within metal, much more so now than when I first started doing research 20 years ago, but they’re the more uncomfortable issues that if you’re just a fan you might want to marginalise.

How did you first begin listening to metal?

When I was a kid, in the eighties, I had a number of metal records that I eventually threw away. I repudiated it because I just thought it wasn’t me. But then I got back into it in my mid-to-late-teens, not classic metal but extreme metal, bands like Napalm Death and Carcass which taught me that there was a form of metal I could embrace more. But I was pretty ambivalent up until my PhD. When I started my PhD on the global extreme metal scene in 1996, I thought that by the end of it I would be sick of metal, but in fact it got me into it much more strongly. Metal had always part of the musical menu for me, but it wasn’t at the centre of my life. My research drew me much closer into the scene, and now I identify more as a metalhead than I ever used to.

Your 2007 book Extreme Metal is about this fringe subgenre of metal. Can you talk us though what extreme metal is, and how it differs to metal or heavy metal?

Extreme metal is much less fringe than it once was. It developed in the eighties as a cluster of genres including Death, Black and Thrash Metal—and many more—that try and take to the limit traditional aspects of metal, for example removing it from melody, playing it faster, slower, or overdriving the voice so it growls and screams rather than sings. In the eighties it was a form of underground metal, but in the nineties and beyond it became a much more central part of what metal is. Now it increasingly common to refer to metal music rather than heavy metal, simply to acknowledge the diversity of what metal is, now that the genre is over 45 years old.

What are we getting wrong about metal? I’m especially thinking of the parent who doesn’t want their child to listen to heavy or extreme metal, because it’s seen as threatening.

Several of my book choices here deal with what we’re getting wrong about metal, and highlight aspects of it that people perhaps don’t know. The idea about parents not liking it is still the case, to an extent. There are still generational conflicts around metal in parts of the world. But there are also parents, like me, who grew up on metal – for whom it is not something bizarre, out there and threatening, but something that they themselves are into. Also metal is slowly becoming less critically derided than it once was. Some of its diversity is well recognised and is largely seen as positive in Europe, America and Western countries. Although it is worth reminding oneself that there are parts of the world where to be into metal can be actively dangerous.

How so?

Well, if you are in some Muslim countries, there have been metalheads who have been persecuted, even sent to prison. That happened in Egypt a few years ago. Certainly underground metal bands in places like Saudi Arabia – who do exist – keep a very very low profile, and certainly can’t play live. So we have to remember that metal doesn’t always mean the same thing everywhere in the world.

Before we get stuck into your book recommendations, can you give us a very brisk potted history of metal?

Historically, metal emerged in the mid-to-late sixties out a darkening of blues-influenced rock or the darker end of psychedelia. There were bands like Blue Cheer, for example, who created a version of ‘Summer Time Blues’ in the late sixties that is very dark and heavy, and that led to bands like Black Sabbath. Black Sabbath are often treated as the first heavy metal band. Of course it’s not helpful to look for a single point of origin because no genre has one, but Black Sabbath are probably the first unambiguously metal band.

“In some countries, metalheads have been persecuted, even sent to prison”

So throughout the seventies, metal was consolidating as a genre. The boundary between metal and non-metal was much fuzzier than it subsequently became, but it was really in the late seventies and early eighties that metal became a distinctive subculture and scene, with its own sound and dress code, mythologies and ways of doing things. Now it has diversified in all sorts of directions. I would say that metal is probably the most vital place of innovation within rock, in the sense that people are doing fascinating experiments with metal.

What are some of those experiments?

Well, for example, there’s something called Drone Metal, which uses metal music to create a sort of meditative drone. The most famous band in that subgenre is called Sunn O))). There is also experimental black metal that is very difficult to listen to, and often crosses over into Noise and other avant-garde genres. My favourite band of that kind is called Blut Aus Nord, but there many other examples. Metal is constantly pushing at musical boundaries. There is a very conservative element to metal that counterbalances the more radical end of it. But I’m personally attracted to the more extreme end.

Your first book choice is Running with the Devil: Power, Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal Music, by Robert Walser.

Robert Walser is a fairly eminent musicologist who has also looked at other popular genres. When this came out in 1993, it kickstarted academic research on metal. The book challenges a lot of misconceptions about what metal is, particularly in musicological terms, tracing some of the musical antecedents to classic metal to the use of guitar solos. Walser discovers the similarity between a certain kind of metal guitar, particularly the work of Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads, and looks at the similarities to classic rock music, as well as to other classical genres as well. There’s a guitar-only track by Van Halen called ‘Eruption’ which he analyses very closely. It’s a really fascinating and a very smart piece of work.

“Metal is constantly pushing at musical boundaries”

The other thing Walser talks about is that is central to metal music is what he calls the “dialectic of freedom and control”. To me that nails down a major aspect of metal aesthetics, which is very constrained, tight riffing punctuated by outbreaks of wild, free soloing. But in fact, as Walser shows, it is not entirely free and is based a lot on classic music models. Walser is still very influential in metal studies, and it is still a book that I return to that is worth reading by people who aren’t academics.

Tell us about Queerness in Heavy Metal Music by Amber Clifford-Napoleone, and how sexuality and gender infuse the metal scene?

The tragedy of this book is that it has been published as an academic hardback in the way publishers often do, so it is very expensive and really designed for library purchase only. Hopefully there will be a paperback edition, although that won’t be particularly cheap either.

Far from being in an inaccessible tome, this is a delightful read and also one that, like Walser, challenges a lot of misconceptions about metal in a radical way. At first it looks like it’s a book about the minority of people in metal who are openly or secretly gay, but Clifford-Napoleone is actually making a more fundamental claim about what metal is. Namely, that metal is essentially queer in a very deep way. That far from being a homophobic music—although there is homophobia within the scene—it can be very queer friendly and even reproduce queer ways of being. For example, she looks at how black leather in metal, which is a central aspect of the style, comes directly from post-war gay subculture.

“Black leather in metal, a central aspect of the style, comes directly from post-war gay subculture”

She interviews and surveys queer metal fans, and shows that while they didn’t say there was no homophobia, they find it a much easier space for queer people than that many would expect. But she also argues that a lot of what is central to metal is gender play. These spectacular versions of masculinity that you find in metal have a queer element to them. She is not talking about camp, although I personally think that metal is extremely camp. She’s talking about something different to that. It’s a really mind-expanding read. I don’t agree with all of it. I think that homophobia is maybe a bigger problem in metal than she allows for, but nonetheless, it confirms what that I had always suspected but never quite had the courage to pursue as an argument. There’s a queerness to metal that is liberating.

Perhaps both communities share a sense of being outside of, even excluded from, the mainstream.

That is an important aspect of metal, but sometimes not quite as important as one might think. Metal people balance transgression with mundanity—the mundanity of everyday life with the desire for a transgressive metalness. One of the things that my research showed is that a lot of them are perfectly well integrated into everyday life, with careers and families, but still have a strong outsider sense, as well as those who feel totally alienated from the rest of society.

So you’d be down the shop in the morning buying milk, but at night put your metalhead hat on.

For most people, that is the case. For a small number it isn’t, but for most it is.

Black Sabbath, as you have said, is seen as the archetypal heavy metal band. Tell us about Black Sabbath: Master of Reality, a deep dive into one of their albums, and the band more broadly.

Black Sabbath are of fundamental importance in developing many of the elements of what metal music became, and they’re also a band that is still adored to this day, as well as being a direct influence on some metal genres, particularly Doom Metal. John Darnielle’s book is very different to the two academic books before it. It’s part of a series of short books on particular albums, in this case Master of Reality, which is an album I adore and one of the reasons why I got into metal in the first place—but his response to it is not through non-fiction but through fiction.

The narrative is of a teenage American boy who has been institutionalised, against his will it seems, for mental illness. He starts off with a lot of anger, and as he spends more time there, we learn his narrative about himself and where he came from. Black Sabbath’s album is interwoven into that as both a symptom of how he feels but also a solace. I think it captures a particular kind of engagement, both adolescent and not, with metal – the way that particular bands can express anger and bitterness at the world, and alienation from it, but also provide a degree of comfort. John Darnielle gets that. The book also shows that responding to music through writing is a very difficult art, and fiction is a great way of doing it.

Is there a reason why it is set in a mental institution?

I don’t think he’s trying to make a wider point that heavy metal attracts people with mental health issues, although some people do make that claim. Early studies of metal in the eighties were very problematic in that they often associated metal with some kind of deviance, or at best as an expression of a wider dissatisfaction with society. As my own research has shown, while sometimes that is the case, more often it’s not. So this book just depicts the life of a particular kind of metal-obsessed teenager. No book, least of all fiction, has to represent all possible types of experience.

Metallica is possibly even better known than Black Sabbath. Tell us  something of Metallica’s rise, and your next choice Into the Black.

This is a two-volume biography of Metallica. There aren’t many good metal biographies, but this one is very well written and researched. Metallica is an important band, fundamental to the development of the genre, and in the nineties they became one of the biggest bands in the world. The second volume interests me more than the first volume, as it deals with Metallica from the nineties and onwards, when they conquered the world with what’s known as The Black Album of 1991, which was a compromise between their earlier style and a more commercial, mainstream metal sound.

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What I find fascinating is what happened next, in the extended midlife crisis for the band as they try to work out where to go next. The second volume shows in sometimes horrifying, sometimes inspiring detail Metallica’s struggle to cope with how you age in this kind of music. When you’ve spent the eighties developing an innovative new style, where do you go from there? What happens when you have achieved all your ambitions a thousand times over? I kind of respect Metallica for the messy way in which they’ve done it. I know that sounds odd. I think it tells us interesting things about how innovation and ageing works in metal, but also in the wider rock field as well. It is also a good read as they’re so exceptional and paradoxical. If you want to understand the challenges metal faces, studying Metallica is a good way of doing it.

Is there a generation gap between eighties metalheads and the kids listening to different forms of the genre today?

There is to an extent, yes. There are forms of metal that emerged in the nineties and noughties onwards that the old guard have been very suspicious of, to say the least. For example Nu Metal, which bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit developed in the nineties, mixes rap in with metal. A lot of metal people really can’t stand that, or the emo-influenced metal which emerged in the 2000s.

“I’m always struck by how a lot of the audience are like me, in their thirties or forties, or even older”

But I think we’ve reached a point now that with the internet, everything is available at once and those old lines between generations and sub-genres are much less clear than they used to be. It is certainly common to find young people influenced by bands that were making records before they were even born. And when I go to gigs by young, more out-there experimental metal bands, I’m always struck by how a lot of the audience are like me, in their thirties or forties, or even older.

Norway is famous its extreme metal music. Your final book selection is a photography collection of Norwegian black metal.

I didn’t know whether this was legitimate for Five Books or not….

We like having unusual picks.

I slipped it in anyway. In the same way that fiction can get to the heart of what music is, I think photography can do it just as well. We respond to music using a whole toolkit of aesthetic tools, and also I love photography books. This book is massive fat hardback, very lavishly produced, and is very satisfying to own.

Norwegian Black Metal is infamous for a series of church burnings and even a couple of murders in the early nineties. But now the scene is very productive, innovative, and still influential in the wider world. Black metal is of interest because of its commitment to a transgressive view of metal. It is often, although not always, openly satanic, occultist and pagan. It is also often espouses a very extremist, individualist misanthropy. Some people at the fringes have dabbled with forms of fascism, and aesthetically it is very challenging. There are a lot of screams, it is very fast and difficult to listen to if you’re not into it.

“Norwegian Black Metal is infamous for a series of church burnings and murders in the early nineties”

This book captures the scene very well, in particular that clash between the transgressive and the mundane. There are a lot of pictures of people wearing what is known as corpse paint, which is make-up a bit like Kiss, but darker.

So white foundation with black eyes, and running red streaks as if their face was covered in blood.

That kind of thing. There are some great pictures of corpse-painted black metallers out on the streets, one with an old lady around the corner trying to ignore them. There’s a wonderful photo of one covered in his own shit, literally, but he is in his bathtub which seems a bit bathetic. In another, a guy has been cutting himself and his blood is in the sink, along wish his tooth brush and toothpaste. It is that mixture of the very transgressive and the very normal that this book captures so well.

“There’s a kind of heroism, a self-conscious myth-making, in black metal”

There’s a kind of heroism, a self-conscious myth-making, in black metal, particularly Norwegian black metal. This collection both upholds that and subtly questions it as well. Black metal is ambivalent because it likes to be left alone in its own solipsistic world to do its own thing, but it’s also a critique of the modern world.

What is it critiquing, exactly?

There’s a paper that was published a few years ago about Norwegian black metal called ‘Social Democratic Satanism’. Some of the critique that black metal offers is that the modern world is too soft, or that it stamps down on the individual. There’s a kind of merging of extreme anarchism and misanthropic nihilism, which I don’t hold to ideologically at all, but it produces some incredible music. It’s a bit like climbing Mount Everest; I’m not going to do it myself, but I’m glad that somebody has done it for me.

I love the idea of ‘social democratic satanism’.

The paper looks at why satanic black metal emerged in a country with among the highest qualities of life on earth and a cradle-to-grave welfare state. Many people, including myself, have pointed out that a lot of these bands in Scandinavian countries are able to get assistance with paying for rehearsal rooms and other kinds of support. And Norwegian diplomats have used Norwegian black metal as softpower publicity for their country. So there are all sorts of irony that are fun to write about or photograph.

Where else in the world is metal going in interesting directions?

More or less everywhere. One of the most interesting things about metal is the integration of so-called ‘folk styles’ into the music. So it’s not just that people around the world are making the same metal that everyone else does, but they’re also doing it in distinctive ways. For example, one of my favourite bands is an Israeli band called Orphaned Land who mix in Middle Eastern and Jewish music into their work.

“There are black black metal bands. There aren’t a great deal of them, but they exist”

It used to be that metal was confined to Europe and the English speaking world, but now there are places in the world that had very small scenes in the last decade or two which have rapidly grown, such as China, South East Asia, India, Japan. Africa is starting to develop metal scenes as well, which is interesting giving that metal is often been associated with whiteness. There’s a scene in Botswana that challenges that. So it’s becoming a highly globalised music, and you shouldn’t just see it as cultural imperialism. There are people who are using this music to express what it means to live within a particular context.

So black metal isn’t just white?

No, absolutely not. There are black black metal bands. There aren’t a great deal of them, but they do exist.

One last question. As well as metal, you’re also a commentator on Jewish culture and society. Do you draw any connection between the two identities?

I do. I have studied the connection between metalness, Israeliness and Jewishness, and I wrote a blog called Metal Jew for a few years. As to the connection between metal and Jews, there have been plenty of prominent Jewish metallists, people like Gene Simmons of Kiss, just like there have been Jews in most popular music genres. But what I’m particularly interested in is those instances where Jewish metal is used to express Jewish concerns in distinctively Jewish ways. The Israeli band I talked about, Orphaned Land, do that in a very interesting way. Another examples is John Zorn, a Jewish radical musician based in New York who is hugely influential in some more avant-garde versions of Jewish music.

And as your final word, what would you say to someone just getting into metal music or curious about it for the first time?

Listen widely! And don’t stop with the music that you’re most comfortable listening to.

Interview by Alec Ash

January 16, 2017

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Keith Kahn Harris

Keith Kahn Harris

Keith Kahn-Harris is a writer and sociologist based in London, where he is an honorary research fellow and associate lecturer at Birkbeck College, in addition to lecturing at Leo Baeck College and running the European Jewish Research Archive at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. He is the author of Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge and Judaism: All That Matters, as well as two other books and regular journalistic writings.

Keith Kahn Harris

Keith Kahn Harris

Keith Kahn-Harris is a writer and sociologist based in London, where he is an honorary research fellow and associate lecturer at Birkbeck College, in addition to lecturing at Leo Baeck College and running the European Jewish Research Archive at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. He is the author of Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge and Judaism: All That Matters, as well as two other books and regular journalistic writings.