Don’t worry; I don’t know anything about metal either. As least, I didn’t know anything about it before I watched Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, a 2005 documentary on this vast yet much-derided musical subculture that you can watch free and uncut on YouTube. Sam Dunn, an anthropologist, bassist, and unapologetic metalhead, uses the film to ask many question about his favorite music: what exactly is metal? How do metal players get it to sound so evil? Why does one person give himself over completely to the metal lifestyle, while another barely notices its existence at all? What feeling do the most die-hard fans get from metal, and how do they get addicted to it? Why does metal’s mostly straight male audience thrill to the sight of metal’s mostly straight male performers strutting around in tight leather? How did metal grow so many subgenres — black metal, glam metal, power metal, death metal? Does Satan really have anything to do with metal, or does it all come down to a big piece of Halloween-ish theater? And how come northern Europeans take metal so deadly seriously?
In pursuit of the answers, Dunn travels the world interviewing metalists of every stripe, from Rob Zombie to Alice Cooper to Rush bassist Geddy Lee to Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider to Iron Maiden’s multitalented Rob Dickinson to a pair of masked men from Slipknot. He even talks twice to the late Ronnie James Dio, the singer who supposedly popularized the now-universal sign of the horns metal hand gesture. Seeking context for these first-hand accounts, Dunn talks to academic sociologists and musicologists as well as the mile-a-minute cultural essayist Chuck Klosterman. Following his anthropological instinct, he also puts in a great deal of time with fellow metalheads of myriad ages and nationalities (though they usually come from the same range of grimly dull childhoods). Dunn’s disarming personality and undying enthusiasm for the material offer a way into this seemingly contradictory musical culture of virtuosity and brutality, whose creators sing in death grows yet speak eloquently, whose hardened outsider followers somehow find in it a fount of community, friendship and belonging.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.
Pardon me, but “Iron Maiden’s multitalented Rob Dickinson” is incorrect. Rob Dickinson was not in Iron Maiden; Bruce Dickinson, his older cousin, was. Rob was in a band called Catherine Wheel.