Review of Sounds of Origin in Heavy Metal Music

Review by Heather Lusty, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Sounds of Origin in Heavy Metal Music. Edited by Toni-Matti Karjalainen. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018. 195 pages. 978-1-5275-1170-5, pp. vii – 195.


For decades, the slim body of scholarship on heavy metal music has been predictably and uninspiringly focused on fans, centered on questions like: Who listens to heavy metal? Why do they enjoy such aggressive music? Should we treat them like “regular people?” Does metal exclude women? While much of the superficiality of this approach lies in the interests of sociology itself, scant few other academic fields have willingly entered the foray of music scholarship since the “established” comprehensive surveys of Denna Weinstein and Robert Walsam’s 1980s studies. Yet the diverse body of heavy metal genres, concepts, and focus invite serious scholarly attention that is just beginning to blossom.

One such example is Toni-Matti Karjalainen’s new edited collection, Sounds of Origin in Heavy Metal Music, a natural outgrowth of the Modern Heavy Metal Conference (MHMC) Karjalainen founded in Helsinki in 2014. Every year since its establishment, MHMC draws more than 150 scholars from around the world, as far away as Brazil and the Philippines, and invites the genuine interest and participation of industry and media as well. Having had the pleasure of attending 2018’s symposium in Helsinki, I can attest to the wide breadth of creative approaches international scholars bring to the heavy metal studies scene. This collection reflects the theme of 2017’s MHMC, “Music and National Identities,” which coincided with Finland’s independence centenary. The essays reflect both the dynamic inter-connectivity and the unique national flavor of heavy metal around the globe.

Toni-Matti Karjalainen’s contribution, “Tales from the North and Beyond: Sounds of Origin as Narrative Discourses” opens the volume with a fascinating look at the use of country-of-origin references in media coverage, which often cherry-pick nationally-flavored phrases and stereotypes that usually do not accurately reflect the music (15). The chapter showcases Finnish metal, and provides copious examples of generic narratives that claim a natural affinity of Finnish musicians to “natural and mental landscapes, [and] the “northern” dimension” of a snowy, despondent, strongly Romantic ideal of Nordic melancholy — a consistent depiction of the Finnish metal scene, despite its impressive diversity of sound and construction. Karjalainen notes that the place-bound annotations and accompanied “narratives of origin” often have little to do with the musical content or style of the band/album being reviewed; yet these descriptions often create meaningful and vivid associations in the reader (3). Prefabricated narratives link historically shaped genres and locational styles, which may help metal-conscious readers of magazines to contextualize the band/album within the larger map of metal sub-genres. Karjalainen examines a wide body of metal-centered media to illustrate this stereotypical narrative, juxtaposing bands, scenes, sub-genres, and other identities and characteristics that make up the “sounds of origin” in Finnish metal with the generic “frozen tundra” references that have little to do with the sounds or foci of Finnish music generally (although it may fit a smaller, select group of Finnish metal bands).

A cluster of chapters focus on the influence of Norwegian black metal in other cultures, highlighting the local and regional influence on constructions of narrative and aesthetics. Baptiste Pilo’s “True Norwegian Black Metal: Nationalism and Authenticity in the Norwegian Black Metal of the ‘90s” explores the search for authentic Norwegian identity in the first wave of Norwegian black metal bands, emphasizing a desire to understand Norwegian culture as separate from that of contemporary European countries. This chapter admirably delineates the shortcomings of the initial categorizations or observations (and pearl-clutching) over the interest in distinct national identities in certain metal subgenres. Pilo cites Jean-Luc Chabot’s observation that “nationalism suffers from an imprecision of meaning and an ambiguity of use” (quoted in Pilo, 42), suggesting that “the nationalism of black metal is not patriotism [… nor] constitutive nationalism [… but] closer to a political nationalism, placing the interest of the nation above other interests; even if no band is committed to apolitical party [… [T]he nationalism of the Norwegian Black Metal actually is anachronistic since it is deeply anchored in the national romantic idea of the nation” (Pilo 42). There are three types of authenticity presented: expression, experience, and execution, which Pilo links to the authenticity of the “metal underground,” the pre-Christian heritage of the Vikings, and the political nationalism stances and aesthetic choices glorifying national heritage (44). National authentication is approached by musicians in myriad ways that cannot be shaped into a single lump of clay. This essay gives scholars a fresh approach to the complexities of “national identities” in heavy metal, which to date have been largely painted in black and white.

“Songs of Darkness: Identities in Italian Black Metal”—by Tommaso Frangioni, Filippo Masina, Giulio Pieroni, and Mario Venturella—reflects the initial findings of a larger study focused on the appropriation and adaptation of the Scandinavian black metal narrative in Italy. Although the field of Italian black metal is strikingly diverse, with at least five distinct branches—first wave (using both its grammar and symbolic/colloquial apparatus), NSBM, elitism inspired by the writings of Julius Evola, regionalism, and those drawing fully from Italian national culture)—they share similarities inherited from the Scandinavian model, including heritage and anti-establishment themes, pre-Christian origins, and conflict with the country’s Catholicism and bourgeois morality (44). All of the branches appropriate various elements of Italian history and culture “congruent with the aspects they intent to promote: feelings of misanthropy, nationalism, elitism, and rejection of modern bourgeois society […]” (45). The authors highlight the importance of understanding the function of adopting aspects of culture and heritage to form distinct identities through symbols, costumes, and historical memory—these comprise the foundational approaches to understanding imagined communities established by Benedict Anderson in the early 1980s.

Gianluca Chelini’s chapter, “Javanese Black Metal: Towards a Definition of Post-Heritage Music,” highlights the rapid growth of black metal-influenced local music in Java. A unique fusion of local musical traditions, literary influence, and cultural traditions (including philosophical concepts from Hindu and Kedjawan) highlight the process of what Chelini terms “heritagisation” in the Javanese metal scene (98). The radical changes in the social and political scene in Indonesia over the last two decades is reflected in the local metal scene, most notably in its hybrid nature, incorporating lively national debate on the values and significance of local traditions (97). Chelini discusses two distinct strands of Javanese black metal; the first she terms “Black Metal for a New Java,” in which musicians have commodified adat (Adat istiadat (rituals) are practices deriving from pre-Islamic elements outside the teaching of Islam). The other strand Chelini describes as a touristic culture and heritage mentality. Citing anthropologist Michael Picard’s work evaluating the importance of the economic value of culture and its importance to the cultural identity of an island people, Chelini notes that the Balinese developed an awareness of “culture” that has influenced the incorporation and monetization of local sounds, tales, and identity in the music scene.

The chapters remaining reach across the oceans – Joseph Norman’s chapter, “From the Bogs of Aughiska: Dark Ambient, Folklore, and Irish National Identity” presents the links between “Heritage Black Metal” and the distinct culture of the West Country—heritage, history, politics, landscape, and folklore. Drawing on the history and heritage of Ireland, and County Clare specifically, Norman connects the musical output of founder Conchur O’Drona’s Bogs project to the Irish Gothic tradition of the Weird, the uncanny, and the sublime. Although full of idiosyncrasies and contradictions, these reflect the tensions between black metal elitism and nihilism, and folk populism and optimism. Noting that Biddle and Knights[1] have argued for the nation as “a crucial but ambivalent category for understanding how cultural texts and practices function in the construction of personal and collective identities” (quoted in Norman, 118), Norman’s project connects personal experience to broader regional and national concerns, “using heritage to knit the Irish extreme music scene together, and to help disseminate that island’s culture and history to the broader associated with such musical scenes” (Norman 118, 136). O’Drona’s incorporation of tales and legends, local myths, and folk traditions in his music play a powerful role in the preservation of County Clare culture and identity.

Matt Sage and Caelli Jo Brooker explore the “Manifold Intensities: Musical Identities in Contemporary Antipodean Metalcore and Post-Hardcore” in their chapter, focusing on performance authenticity in Australia’s national music scene. The meteoric rise of the metalcore and post-hardcore subgenres reflect the inclusiveness and diversity of the Australian local scenes. The contrasting extreme and melodic vocal techniques exemplify the subgenre. Intense live performances are characterized by energetic mosh pits and anthemaic crowd accompaniment. Amanda DiGioia’s chapter ends the collection, looking at the heavy metal scene in a tiny sliver of New England. “Love Breed or Hate Haven? Localized Narratives of Identity in Heavy Metal Scene of New Haven, Connecticut” utilizes fan and musician interviews to explore the music scene on the East Coast. DiGioia finds that New Haven residents’ shared identity of civil rights (in a culturally pluralistic community) puts them and the local music scene in opposition to the general political climate of the United States. DiGioia also highlights the prominent visibility of marginalized groups and the inclusion of gender racial “others” in the scene.

Karjalainen’s “Epilogue” nicely ties together the complex negotiations on national and local identities in in the heavy metal scene, observing that the contradictions and paradoxes therein can be traced back to complex questions of authenticity and authority (192). The strengths of this collection are numerous, but the sheer breadth of focus emphasizes the underserved local scenes and under-explored approaches to contemporary music studies. As heavy metal completes its fifth decades, now arguably more popular than any other global music genre, the local narratives at the core of some of the earliest metal bands (Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Primordial, Venom) are still at the core of local and national scenes. Indeed, heavy metal is truly the music of the people in a world gone mad.


Works Cited

[1] Biddle, Ian, and Vanessa Knights, Eds. Music, National Identity and the Politics of Location: Between the Global and the Local, Routledge, 2007.