‘Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey’ Offers a Thinking-Person’s Look at the Music Genre

Since he was 12 years old, Sam Dunn has been a fan of metal music. He recalls sitting with his friends in the bleachers at school, each trying to come up with the most extreme lyrics from a metal song. A Canadian from Victoria, B.C., Dunn had his own radio show in his teens. His passion for the music followed him into college, where he majored in anthropology.

Despite what his master’s thesis on Guatemalan culture might suggest, Dunn looks like no stereotypical tweed-clad, pipe-smoking academic. Instead, he sports long blond hair (perfect for headbanging), black metal band T-shirts, and other suitable (read: black) attire.

Yet as he explains, “Anthropology is the study of human cultures,” we realize that our guide on this headbanger’s journey is uniquely qualified to unravel the mysteries of a music genre and its loyal fandom. He has the knowledge and the belonging to bring us into this seemingly dark world that parents like Tipper Gore and others fear will compel their children into murder and mayhem.

Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey follows Dunn as he embarks on a physical and cultural journey into metal music, its artists, its history, its fans, and its mystique. He travels – by bus, by plane, by boat — to the United States, Germany, England, and Norway to interview band members, fans, and other academics about the subject. He also, through voiceover, guides us through what amounts to a cultural studies-informed approach to the music, including its sound, its origins, its themes, its branches, the public reaction, gender and sexuality, its fans, its religious and anti-religious messages influences, and its relationship with violence.

To address these subjects in more detail, Dunn lands the opportunity to interview some of the big name artists in metal music. He talks with Tony Iamni, guitarist for Black Sabbath and creator of some of the band’s signature riffs. A discussion about the diminished fifth and its medieval connotations for summoning the devil help develop the theme of death and darkness in metal music. This theme continues throughout the entire film.

Another part of that unique style comes from the singing. Bruce Dickinson, lead singer of Iron Maiden, brought a full, almost operatic quality to his singing, which according to musicologist Robert Walsh, draws from 17th century influences. Other influences include “bottom-heavy” (bass-heavy) classical compositions by Wagner, as well as African-American blues music, which both Rush and Black Sabbath claim as influences.

For fans, the music offers a type of escape and empowerment. For others, the music becomes a lifestyle, at least according to Rob Zombie. In many ways, fans such as those in the Kiss Army, become persecuted for their following of the music, something that unites them even stronger.

Dunn goes straight to one of the best sources for fans: Wacken Open Air, a huge concert drawing 40,000 metal fans from around the world to Germany each summer. There he finds some of the other markers that unify fans, including the black T-shirts, the leather, and the silver in what seems almost like a tribal attitude. Dunn, of course, blends right in. It’s one of the largest concerts in the world, he notes, yet most people don’t even know about it.

He also gains the opportunity to interview Mayhem, one of the most controversial metal bands, and Ronnie James Dio. The interview with Mayhem degenerates into a chorus of “fuck yous” and ego trips with each subsequent beer – Dunn calls this a lesson learned. The interview with Dio reveals the origins of (or at least the metal interpretation of) the devil’s horns, which he claims came from a relative who saw the symbol as protection against evil.

By now most people realize that Alice Cooper is quite articulate from his making fun of his own image, but an extended sequence with Dee Snider reveals his intelligence as well. In 1984 Snider, a member of Twisted Sister, was called to testify before Congress about his song lyrics and about metal music, and through archival footage of his testimony and parallel editing Snider reveals his strategy and explains their reactions. Snider arrived to the hearings in ripped jeans and make-up, know full well that the committee intended to play him for a dupe. Instead, he duped them, by writing a speech and then by handling their questions as they scrambled to respond to him.

Dunn addresses the slippery lines between gender and sexuality in metal well, explaining concepts that could seem contradictory. On the one hand, metal embodies Western masculinity and in some way seems like the last bastian for unabashed expression of that masculinity. As one person explains, “I like hanging out with the guys and doing dumb shit. It’s just that simple. I think metal is one of the few places where you can actually embrace that.” With this pool of masculinity, women seem to become objects for affection.

With the development of glam rock, though, came an interesting twist on at least the appearances of masculinity: they became more feminine. Lace replaced the leather, mascara became an accessory of choice, hairspray became the means for taming the long hair sported by many band members of the time. Vince Neil of Motley Crue, a band epitomizing the subgenre, these markers were meant to make a statement different from other bands at the time. And, in a twisted way, becoming more feminine made them seem more masculine.

The stereotypical role of women within metal is as a sexual object, with the implication that they are powerless. Dunn offers several pieces of counterevidence to this assumption. He talks with Pamela Des Barres, who wrote I’m With the Band and who claims the groupies are right where they want to be. Women in metal talk about the difficulties of the pressures of image over talent, though the women are proving their abilities, right down to the guttural singing, which Angela Gossow of Arch Enemy performs amazingly well.

Dunn eventually turns the subject to the darker aspects of metal music, including its affiliations with religion and Satanism and violent images. The argument Dunn puts forth is that without Christianity, metal music would not be as we know it. Iamni mentions the Christian influences in Black Sabbath’s work, something that angered a local church enough to halt their performance (ironically, the church burned down not long after). Slayer attacks Christianity directly in its lyrics – consider one song title, “God Hates Us All.” Member Kerry King equates it with brainwashing, while another band member Tom Araya laughs about his Catholic upbringing.

The anti-Christian sentiment often becomes equated with Satanism. An extreme version of this viewpoint emerges in Norway, where, in the early 1990s, maybe churches were burned down. Dunn interviews an assistant priest whose church went up in flames, and he interviews several metal band members who claim that Satan drives their music and that they supported the church burnings. One member even suggests the burnings will happen again in the future. Instead of leaving the comments at that, Dunn adds a piece of historical perspective: Christianity was forced onto the country about 1,000 years ago over the old Viking traditions, so the argument here lies beyond the music itself.

The violent imagery emerges oftentimes in the subgenre of death metal. Images of violence and death appeared in Alice Cooper’s performances in the 1970s, but since then they have become more graphic and extreme. The band Cannibal Corpse uses extreme album art representing graphic images of death – the images are so graphic (and along with its lyrics) the band has been banned around the world.

Dunn concludes the film with this comment: “Metal confronts what we’d rather ignore. It celebrates what we often deny. It indulges what we fear most and that’s why metal will always be a culture of outsiders.” A sound montage of the different interviewees in the film then offers the individual’s views on the genre in conclusion.

Stylistically, this documentary seems fairly conventional. Dunn’s voiceover provides the aural transitions for the changes in location and interview. In those voiceovers he sets up where his going, who he is interviewing, and why they are important to metal. During the interviews, he is present, and we get a sense of his excitement at being there, particularly with Dickinson and Dio – a fan’s biggest dream. Interviews are framed in standard medium shots and close ups, with the talking heads appearing in their homes, on certain stages, or in their offices, in the case of some academics. Titles provide cues to major sections, and a computer graphic helps create a hierarchy for understanding the development and relationships of the subgenres.

Edited throughout the film is archival and live footage from various metal band concerts, including Twisted Sister and Slipknot. The footage provides an aural shock in a way from the quieter, more subdued interviews. Explaining this jolt is a little difficult. On the one hand, it might be an amateur mistake in sound editing. On the other hand, it might be a more sophisticated statement on metal music and its image: The music is meant to shock you with its lyrics and sound, so why not have the sudden volume change contribute to that?

While the film does address some major topics, it seems to skim over two important issues: racial and ethnic identity, and racism. For some bands racial and ethnic identity informs their lyrics and their politics. For other bands racial hatred (or at least undertones of it) becomes a theme in their lyrics. While not an easy subject to address, it is worth mentioning in a piece that connects the musical genre with some important ideas in cultural studies.

In all, though, Sam Dunn proves a knowledgeable guide into the mysterious world of metal music history and culture.

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