In GLOBAL METAL, directors Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn set out to discover how the West's most maligned musical genre - heavy metal - has impacted the world's cultures beyond Europe and North America. The film follows metal fan and anthropologist Sam Dunn on a whirlwind journey through Asia, South America and the Middle East as he explores the underbelly of the world's emerging extreme music scenes; from Indonesian death metal to Chinese black metal to Iranian thrash metal. GLOBAL METAL reveals a worldwide community of metalheads who aren't just absorbing metal from the West - they're transforming it - creating a new form of cultural expression in societies dominated by conflict, corruption and mass-consumerism.
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Anthropologist Sam Dunn takes to the air to visit different parts of the world where heavy metal is booming. In doing so, he acknowledges the transition the genre has made from being a developing movement in the west, to a genre which has reached an end to its maturation and now is another voice into which others project. Indeed, as he visits anti-religious metalheads, religious metalheads, anti-Zionist metalheads and Zionist metalheads, teen rebels and people looking for a voice for their ancestral cultures that can compete with the booming sound of the West, Dunn discovers a change in metal. No longer is it being absorbed by a global audience, but changed by a global audience. He does this through a winding narrative featuring many shots of the director, often using his bemused poker face to poke innocently where trouble might lie. Knowing that interviews alone make a boring documentary, he intersperses them with tour de force cinematography that shows us the vastness and beauty of these different places, and music videos mostly featuring concert shots from each location. The intelligent choice here is to avoid “norming” places by emphasizing the we’re-all-the-same message. Dunn lets his camera and his subjects do the talking, although his frequent voice-over covers the boilerplate dogma we’re accustomed to hearing: metal is about self-expression, freedom, free speech, being an individual, and so on. But as time goes on, we see how metal is about being in a group that accepts the individual’s desire for rage and figuring things out themselves. Dunn’s final narrative affirms this: metal is a worldwide subculture to which people belong more than the politics of their nations. It is as if through his eyes, metal is a shout of rage at the modern world which has assimilated culture in its manic desire for power and commerce, and the insurgent forces of Hessians worldwide are reclaiming culture by first distancing themselves from it. For the person who is rightfully as cynical of the nitwit pretensions of individuals as of the face of state power, many of the people interviewed come across as surface treatments, and this is a general criticism of Dunn’s films we have all heard before. In the name of making them accessible, he pushes back the anthropology in favor of reveling in the power of the movement itself. For now, that’s not half bad.
We finally got our hands on a review copy of Glorious Times here at the HQ, and the verdict is in: much improved over version 1.0, but still a niche product, so those of you who want Death Metal History for Dummies will need to go elsewhere.
Glorious Times does a supreme job of immersing you in the culture, the music and the feel of the era without having to shape your mind with a narrative. This is both its strength and weakness. Compiled entirely of first-hand statements from musicians and writers from the era, the book lets you make up your mind and read for whatever interests you. This was I think a mature decision, because the writers recognized the niche nature of this material.
My co-editor, Kontinual, and I differ on the importance of this book. I see it as a compilation of primary sources; he, rightly, points out that it’s for a niche and not ready for mainstream consumption. I don’t see these two views as incompatible. Glorious Times is a primary source, and will be in for future academics and journalists, but right now it’s us nostalgia freaks who are checking it out.
And therein lies its strength. While the editors could have conducted interviews and comped statements together into a summary, imposing order and assessing data, that would have produced a linear perspective. Instead here you get the history told by as many people as wrote in for the book, which shows us how people differed in their approaches to this music, and yet also, where they converged. No linear narrative can show the same breadth.
Fans of the music, as opposed to academics and journalists, will find that like other legendary metal docs like Are You Morbid?, Lords of Chaos and Until the Light Takes Us, this book enmeshes us in the atmosphere of the time. You get to hear all about tape-trading, the personal lives of musicians, how people got into the music, and the decisions they made with their bands and lives. You don’t get the kind of clear but oversimplified summary that Sam Dunn peddles in his Global Metal (my personal favorite of his movies); instead you stagger into this strange land where gnarled figures emerge from the mist and tell you their story in riddle and rhyme, then leave you to drift onward along a hazy road. If you want to know what it was “like” back then, this type of book is your best guide.
Detrators will point out the weaknesses that correspond to this strength. They will also say that the layout is amateurish, which was true on 1.0 but is mostly fixed for 2.0, at least to mainstream rock book standards. Detractors will say that the lack of an editorial voice means that the contribution from band members are somewhat random, and that depending on this volunteerist attitude among subjects means that the bands that didn’t make it outnumber the important ones. While these criticisms, as are those of my co-editor Kontinual, are valid, they miss the point: this book is not here to offer an overview, a history or an ideological statement. It’s here to give you the feel for the time, and to provide rich primary source material for those who will research it in the future. I hope someday someone makes the sequel to this, in which they interview all of these bands for two hours each and then assemble the statements, but that would lose much of the atmosphere and require a larger staff and budget than any old-schoolers have at this time.
When we look back on any time, we tend to measure its information by what it would mean to us now. We are looking at single facts at a time, and we interpret them as they would fit into our current lives and technology. When we look at ancient Sparta, we are repulsed by aspects of their warrior culture that in our society, would be cruel and unusual. To them, these “repulsive” aspects were a matter of pride, and what shaped them as much as we are shaped by our pride in not being like Sparta. Understanding early death metal is a similar matter, in that our technology and society was so different back then that we cannot place many of these “facts” into context. We need to see them in their original context, and by seeing that social backdrop, understand the atmosphere before we start trying to pull facts out of it. Glorious Times keeps this atmosphere intact and, while it may be a niche for death metal nostalgia buffs at this point, for the future it is the first serious record of the early years of death metal’s genesis.
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