Saturday, February 20, 2016

Heavy Metal Globalized

The Wall Street Journal has a big piece on heavy metal today: "The Weird Global Appeal of Heavy Metal." Here is the theme:
Today’s “world music” isn’t Peruvian pan flutes or African talking drums. It’s loud guitars, growling vocals and ultrafast “blast” beats. Heavy metal has become the unlikely soundtrack of globalization. 
Indonesia is a metal hotbed: Its president, Joko Widodo, wears Metallica and Napalm Death T-shirts. Metal scenes flourish in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Russia and Scandinavia. China got an early seeding of metal 25 years ago when U.S. record companies dumped unsold CDs there. In a male-dominated genre, Russian band Arkona is fronted by singer Maria Arkhipova. Language barriers are less significant in the metal world, which is all about the sound, an often dissonant drone not grounded in any one musical tradition.
 Read the whole article for the details. From Botswana to India, heavy metal seems to follow economic development as mushrooms follow a spring rain. One of the earliest heavy metal bands in China was started by Kaiser Kuo, a Chinese-American who returned to China and formed the group Tang Dynasty:

Here is one of their songs, Pathway. Weirdly, Blogger won't embed it so you have to follow the link:

One interesting element in global heavy metal is the degree to which groups like Tang Dynasty or Dimmu Borgir from Norway evoke the ancient pasts of their regions through means like musical reference or the use of ancient instruments: this is termed "folk metal" or "pagan metal". In a way this echoes what Carl Orff was doing in his Carmina Burana. This partakes of a recurring theme in Western civilization, the return to roots or "primitivism" (taking this idea from Jacques Barzun's book From Dawn to Decadence).

Ironically, this particular primitivistic cultural gesture depends on fairly advanced technology: electric guitars, amplifiers, speaker systems, effects pedals and so on. While not a huge factor in commercial terms--a lot of the artists and their record companies are somewhat anti-commercial--it is a global phenomenon and you can find heavy metal bands and their followers in Norway, Brazil, Indonesia, Japan, Germany and a lot of other places. Heavy metal, though with regional differences, shares a fairly common culture both visual and musical.

What are its origins? Wikipedia has a pretty extensive article on heavy metal that you can refer to. My earliest years in music were involved with the antecedents to it, though we didn't call it that--the term came along later. But bands I played in played a lot of music by the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Cream, Jimi Hendrix and the Who, all bands that specialized in a "heavy metal" kind of sound: heavy drumming with extensive, distortion-laden guitar solos. For a short while I even played in a band that was a reverse of the Jimi Hendrix Experience: I, a white guy, was the lead guitarist and the drummer and bass-player were both black.

In the decades since the late 1960s, heavy metal has flowered into a host of different sub-genres that emphasize one or another of its basic characteristics. In one way it is reassuring that so many musicians are swimming against the tide of commercialism.

One of the biggest heavy metal bands is Metallica and here is a representative song from their 1991 Black Album, "Enter Sandman":


Jeph said...

I began taking an interest in metal a few years ago. Curiosity about the polar opposite of classical, I guess. For an open-minded listener, I think there's a LOT to appreciate. The speedy side of the genre interests me less than the "doom" subgenre, which trades in glacial tempos and drones. The bands Insect Ark and Bell Witch have impressed me with the way they sustain tension and drama over the course of an album with very few instrumental ingredients, used ingeniously. There's also a whole "second wave" of metal (much of it out of Scandinavia) which is uses the tritone as a functional tonic, see Nihill. Also, you may be very intrigued by an album by SunnO))) called Monoliths and Dimensions. Very droney and heavy, but the final track has a long denouement that morphs into a fluttery haze of orchestral winds in the most delightful way. Good stuff.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Jeph. This is the kind of comment I love because it points me towards some music I likely would not have run across on my own.

Christine Lacroix said...

I found it impossible to listen to both pieces you posted, Bryan, through to the end. I'll try some of Jeph's suggestions. Bryan you said 'One interesting element in global heavy metal is the degree to which groups like Tang Dynasty or Dimmu Borgir from Norway evoke the ancient pasts of their regions through means like musical reference or the use of ancient instruments: this is termed "folk metal" or "pagan metal". That made me think of The Trooper Overture covered by 2Cellos. Would their cover of it be considered 'metal'? It really does sound like Irish folk music. The song was written by Iron Maiden, an Irish group.

Bryan Townsend said...

Not too surprising! Heavy metal makes certain kinds of demands on its listeners. There are lots of examples much more demanding than the ones I posted! "Demanding" does not imply "good" of course! Though there does seem to be creativity in quite a bit of heavy metal. Iron Maiden were a really early metal band, but I think they are English, not Irish.

Interesting question: I doubt if heavy metal fans would think that what 2Cellos are doing is heavy metal. Even the Rossini intro aside, shorn of the heavy drumming and electric guitars, not to mention the visual iconography, two guys playing cellos in leather jackets does not a heavy metal tune make. I think that it is not so much the particular notes, chords and rhythms, but the way they are orchestrated and the associated attitude that makes up the genre of heavy metal.

Christine Lacroix said...

You're right, they are English not Irish. Just wondered if you'd seen this article in the New York Times:
and one of your posts was accompanied by an advertisement that you may have seen then I came across the extended satirical version by Funny or Die I thought you might appreciate: