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The heroism of heavy metal The genre was born of Britain's imperial grandeur and industrial might

Iron Maiden evoking the more successful episodes of British history. Credit: Gonzales Photo/Terje Dokken/PYMCA/Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Iron Maiden evoking the more successful episodes of British history. Credit: Gonzales Photo/Terje Dokken/PYMCA/Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images


January 20, 2021   6 mins

In my early teens, I got my tits out for Axl Rose and about 25,000 other people. The year was 1992, the venue was Wembley Stadium, and I’d been allowed to tag along with my brother, his friend and friend’s dad to a Guns N’ Roses concert, under strict instructions to stay with the group in the stands. I was, at the time, a very big fan of Guns N’ Roses, and there was no question of obeying this edict. Instead, I slunk away before we’d even got into the stadium and spent the whole gig in the moshpit, somewhat less clothed than I should have been.

I don’t regret the moshing, which was fun, though I’m mildly embarrassed about the tits. Now a parent myself, I do feel bad for the friend’s dad who drove us all to Wembley and whose gig I spoiled by disappearing. It all came rushing back while being made to watch the rock-themed 2020 kids’ film Trolls: World Tour with my own little girl.

The villain is one Barb, Queen of the Rock Trolls, whose dastardly plan is to unite all the troll nations forcibly under the dominion of rock music. Barb’s obnoxious-yet-fragile character reminds me a little of my own adolescent metal-fan days, screaming in ecstasy at the pint-sized Axl Rose and his leave-nothing-to-the-imagination white shorts. But the (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) depiction of heavy metal as the musical villain in Trolls: World Tour, gets the metal aesthetic both absolutely right — and also absolutely wrong. In depicting loud guitar music as in search of world dominion the film identifies, accurately, the way metal plugs into a High Romantic era of imperial grandeur. But it also misrepresents the cachet that High Romantic aesthetic has (or rather doesn’t have) in the modern world.

High Romanticism was baked into heavy metal from the start. Consider the irresistible temptation metal bands feel to play alongside that most High Romantic band format of all: a symphony orchestra. In 1969 the proto-metal band Deep Purple wrote, rehearsed and performed Concerto for Group and Orchestra, alongside the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, in a gala concert at the Royal Albert Hall. The score was lost in 1970, but that didn’t stop noise-loving musicologists from recreating it, and a re-run was staged at the Albert Hall in 1999.

The same year, American thrash band Metallica performed their own symphonic rock happening with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the live album S&M (Symphony & Metallica). Listening to S&M, the only real surprise is that “Master of Puppets” was ever played without a full orchestral backing; but the affinity between metal and symphonic music goes far deeper. You only have to listen to the last five minutes of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (composed 1824) to see what I mean: the whole mood is metal.

I’m sure there’s a proper music theory term for what I’m describing, but as my music theory education ended around Grade 5 I’m borrowing the term ‘metal’ to describe an aesthetic that’s both intensely serious and determined to throw the whole sensory kitchen sink at you. (Deep Purple, incidentally, were famously committed to throwing the sensory kitchen sink at their audience, which resulted in their 1972 accession to the Guinness Book of Records as the ‘World’s Loudest Band’.)

In symbolic terms, the Albert Hall — constructed 1871, at the zenith of Britain’s imperial era — was the perfect venue for Deep Purple’s foray into symphonic kitchen-sinkiness. A crowdfunded monument to Victorian engineering, public-spiritedness and looted imperial wealth, the Albert Hall’s inception fused elite seriousness with nationalism and popular culture in quintessentially 19th century high style.

A century later, though, the empire that helped bankroll the Albert Hall’s construction was dissolved, and the steel industry that forged its columns on the way to extinction in Britain. And yet heavy metal was forged at this fag-end of Britain’s industrial/imperial arc, amid the warehouses of Birmingham, in part thanks to an industrial accident. Aged 17, guitarist Tony Iommi lost two fingertips in a sheet metal factory, and changed his guitar style to accommodate the injury — in the process giving birth to the sound that would come to define Black Sabbath (formed 1968).

In one sense, then, the birth of heavy metal music is both a product of Great Britain in its industrial pomp — as well as being a semi-ironic, semi-nostalgic, working-class comment on that bygone era. In metal, class and culture fuse in complicated ways, but perhaps Bruce Dickinson (singer in perhaps the most Union-Jack-festooned metal band of all, Iron Maiden) was onto something when he observed in a BBC Hard Talk interview in 2012 that working-class people are culturally conservative. For along with its Hammer Horror humour and darkness, metal conveys a straight dose of imperial-era seriousness. And among the heavily ironic and post-nationalistic contemporary elite, this makes the genre more than a little embarrassing.

It’s not just the patriotism that offends today’s rationalistic status culture. Metal and symphonic music are both also jacked directly into the European mythological mainframe, where the old gods still lurk. Nowhere is this so visible as in the pivotal role played in the High Romantic symphonic canon by the most myth-laden, po-faced and profoundly metal composers of all time: Richard Wagner. For his crimes, Wagner is more than a touch ‘problematic’ in modern terms. He’s also so metal there’s even a fan Twitter and blog dedicated to counting the ways Wagner is metal.

Wagner drew his inspiration from Europe’s rich tradition of pagan myth, paving the way for countless metal bands to follow suit, borrowing liberally from Germanic and Norse myth alike to equal parts stirring and comical effect. While it’s hard to tell how seriously to take Swedish band Brothers of Metal (the official video for Prophecy of Ragnarök is pure LARP in the original nerds-in-costume sense), perhaps seriousness is beside the point.

Metal’s High Romanticism is not just a musical crossover, but a poetic one too: Iron Maiden made a surprisingly catchy 13-minute musical version of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Nor is it just an English thing: the German metal band Rammstein is soaked in Goethe allusions and even straight reworkings, for example this rock version of Erlkönig.

The seam of heavy metal dedication to heroism, mythology and sensory overload winds through Wagner’s Ring via another source of ring-themed mythology and metal inspiration, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. This isn’t just a question of thematic influence: in 2013 Christopher Lee, who played Saruman the White in the 2001-2003 movie trilogy, also released the deeply strange but also strangely marvellous symphonic rock concept album Charlemagne: By The Sword And The Cross at the age of 87.

So the taproots of metal run all the way through the good and bad of Europe’s imperial and industrial era, to that era’s poetry and deep mythological substrate. In this sense, metal is profoundly conservative, in a far richer way than today’s actually-rather-Whiggish Conservative Party. (The late Roger Scruton, incidentally, liked a bit of Metallica.)

Metal is also conservative in the sense of taking musical skill seriously. The best metal guitarists are astonishingly virtuosic, and often possess a grasp of music theory that would shame a concert pianist — or, as in this video of Tina S Cover absolutely shredding a metal arrangement of the presto agitato from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, facilitate pretty exceptional performances of a concert pianist’s repertoire. (For a classical/metal solo crossover in the opposite direction, here’s Facundo Lopèz of GEODA playing death metal on a flamenco guitar.)

So why does it all seem a bit, well, camp? 52 years after Black Sabbath was formed, I found myself watching the band’s legendarily wild frontman Ozzy Osbourne voicing the raddled father of Barb, Queen of the Trolls, in Trolls World Tour. You could read this as a sad end to a once-powerful genre, but I prefer to think it attests (like Christopher Lee, Brothers of Metal, or This Is Spinal Tap) to metal’s ability to hover always at the edge of self-mockery, without ever becoming entirely silly.

Metal may look from one angle like sonic overload and half-camp sincerity with a side order of ridiculous costumes. But seen from another angle, it’s the last resting-place of a heroic style that once held cultural pride of place in symphonic music, and was widely popular from the elites downward.

Modern tastemakers have no patience for such elevated sentiment. When they’re not being skewered by The Kids as ‘Britpoppers’, our rulers decry greatness as patriarchal delusion, national identity as a vector for colonial depredations, mythology as a delivery mechanism for fascist sympathies and all sources of shared cultural meaning as dangerously exclusionary threats to egalitarian individualism. The Britpoppers’ monument was not a new Albert Hall but a big tent full of tat: the Millennium Dome. Under such leadership, small wonder heavy metal has to smuggle its Wagnerian aesthetic beneath a studded-leather cloak of high camp.

And still, despite being five decades old, with many of its pioneers either dead, in recovery or voicing animated trolls, metal still likes to think of itself as countercultural. In the ever more intolerantly progressive and anti-intellectual 21st century, perhaps it still is. For against that backdrop, perhaps the stealth-reactionary aesthetic of heavy metal is still, well, just a little bit metal.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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2s2iecs56s
2s2iecs56s
3 years ago

In one sense, then, the birth of heavy metal music is both a product of Great Britain in its industrial pomp

This is completely wrong: in fact, heavy metal is a product of Britain’s *decline* as an industrial power, of the late-60s era when British industry was “the sick man of Europe” and working class midlanders (in particular) were stuck in dead end jobs that were likely to lead to an early death. And it’s hard to see how the view of “industrial pomp” can actually survive reading any interviews with, say, Black Sabbath who were, and are, very clear about just how miserable their lives were in industrial Birmingham.

As for conservatism and patriotism, perhaps listening to “War Pigs” might actually be worth your time? If you can square: “Politicians hide themselves away/They only started the war/Why should they go out to fight?/They leave that role to the poor.” with a view of heavy metal as conservative and celebrating weird views of heroism, I’d love to see it.

Jeremy Smith
JS
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  2s2iecs56s

Love Black Sabbath but they were/are wrong on War Pigs.
The elite in the Western World has always paid the blood price. Ok, it might not apply to the wars since Vietnam but my point stands.

Ross Holloway
RH
Ross Holloway
3 years ago
Reply to  2s2iecs56s

Iron Maiden are still massive and still waving the Union Jack.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
3 years ago
Reply to  2s2iecs56s

Absolutely agree with this. The article is frankly, overwritten and stuffed with hyperbole and artsy rhetoric. Some of my family are Black Country folk, others are from places like the Don Valley in Sheffield and those areas are used to being condescended to and misunderstood.

Jeremy Smith
JS
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago

Rammstein are the inheritors of German music excellence.
Listen to Rammstein and you do want to ravage a country or two…

Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Verdammt! You got there first. Took my 12 year old son to the see them at the O2 in 2012. Changed my life.

Jeremy Smith
JS
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Maxwell

2012 ! I was there!

mike otter
MO
mike otter
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Legends – Paul Landers kissing the other guitarist in Russia had an almost Rosa Parks quality and deserves to be recorded by historians -as does Rammsteins amazing pyro.

Dragos Turcu
DT
Dragos Turcu
3 years ago

To write about British Heavy Metal without even a mention of the Gods of Heavy Metal – Judas Priest and only to mention Iron Maiden in passing is a complete lost exercise IMHO. And Breaking the Law and British Steel (pun intended) are pure working class desperation and revolutionary cries.

Betty Fyffe
BF
Betty Fyffe
3 years ago
Reply to  Dragos Turcu

Sorry, hadn’t seen yours, as I was scrolling from latest first.

Too right!

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
3 years ago
Reply to  Dragos Turcu

Misses out on the whole ‘Venom’ inspired Black Metal and Death Metal, Satanism and Norse Gods, Norwegian horror stuff. Pretty bad Karma in a lot of it.

I worked in industrial construction for a good wile where we did very long all night shifts in big, empty, factories and some would play loud music at full volume on pretty big blasters to keep the exhaustion and misery at bay (it was rough work). I would put on some metal at the end of the shift just for that blast of anti-social energy, or hard punk, something to just keep going after your last reserves were flagging. Most of the guys played Rap and Soul, and I had to listen to a great deal of that, but what I found is if you put on really loud punk and metal it was as painful to them as the rap was to me.

Someone needs to do a study to see if the two musics are just not able to both be liked by the same people.

mike otter
mike otter
3 years ago
Reply to  7882 fremic

To quote David Allan Coe i love country, soul and rock n roll. Ok with early rap / hiphop and i love ska, reggae and dancehall, But if i had to choose it’d be speed/thrash/black/death metal and hardcore punk, bin the rest! I’ve got a few mates who are poly – genre but many are siloed by culture. IMO You need Motorhead for tube and tray bashing but something more cerebral for welding or glanding cables – say Ackercocke or CoF. Complete silence is the only safe accompaniment to final test and commissioning!

Andrew Best
AB
Andrew Best
3 years ago

At least people will still be listening to heavy metal in 40 years time, they won’t be listening to whatever passes for music now.
The Metallica album with a orchestra was
Terrible, they did not release a good album for almost 30 years .
You journalists/writers suck the life and joy out of everything.

Jeremy Smith
JS
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

There is a shelf life to everything. Metallica is done.
That is OK.

mike otter
MO
mike otter
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Good era ended with Cliff Burton IMO – black album good but metal by numbers, whilst i am very happy to watch Trivium or Lamb of God etc its hard to get too excited with decades of Sabbath, Priest, Maiden then SLayer etc. I know its highly subjective but i think there are only a few bands who ripped rock and roll a new one: In chronological order – Hendrix, Hawkwind, Motorhead, Dead Kennedys, Slayer, Mayhem and most recently Slipknot.

mike otter
MO
mike otter
3 years ago
Reply to  mike otter

it auto corrects Hendrix to Hendricks as in the gin – uncool!

Betty Fyffe
Betty Fyffe
3 years ago
Reply to  mike otter

How about Judas Priest? And Motorhead? More British than Guns ‘n Roses, who only had a British guitarist.

mike otter
MO
mike otter
3 years ago
Reply to  Betty Fyffe

Is Stoke on Trent still in Britain?

Betty Fyffe
BF
Betty Fyffe
3 years ago
Reply to  mike otter

Birmingham is in Britain — geographically speaking…

mike otter
MO
mike otter
3 years ago
Reply to  Betty Fyffe

I lived in brum 3 yrs as a kid and i loved the place and the people, still do even if the welsh irish gypsy mix is now more black/polish/arab. Stoke may be 40 miles from north brum but culturally its as far apart as Discharge and Quartz. Saul Hudson was only briefly in Stoke anyway. Lemmy was born there. Ask Stokie Steve in Private Eye’s “From the Message Boards” though i can’t guarantee a polit ereply!

Betty Fyffe
Betty Fyffe
3 years ago
Reply to  mike otter

Didn’t know Judas Priest – the local boys?

lewisjclark25
LC
lewisjclark25
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

Metallica released another orchestral collaboration album last year. It was much better than the first, which sounded too soft-focused and cluttered.

lewisjclark25
LC
lewisjclark25
3 years ago

You sure it was only 25,000 people? Pretty sure that Guns N’ Roses would have sold out Wembley Stadium’s 80,000+ capacity in 1992.

And Guns N’ Roses were hard rock, not metal, ok?!

Ahem… now that I have got that petty pedantry off my chest…

Another reason why ‘cultural elites’ might distrust metal/hard rock might be based in suspicions that it’s artists (and by extension, it’s fans) are racist, homophobic or mysoginist. In the case. In the case of Guns N’ Roses that was not, I’m afraid, a baseless allegation (see songs like ‘One In A Million’ or ‘Its So Easy’).

It’s notable that cultural gatekeepers are far kinder to the ‘grunge’ artists that usurped Axl & co in the early nineties (at least in criticaf not commercial terms). Kurt Cobain – forever their darling – was vocal in his support for PC causes

Chris Jayne
CJ
Chris Jayne
3 years ago

One of my favourite opening sentences to any article.

As a metal fan who grew in the NW midlands in the 80s and 90s, metal was already considered a bit naff. But while other genres have come and gone metal still remains there under the mainstream with a huge and passionate following

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Very interesting and entertaining. I never liked the music myself and I have never particularly like Beethoven’s 5th, which is interesting given Mary’s comparison.

The first band I was in floundered because I was already into Joy Division and Einsturzende Neubauten etc and the others all worshipped Deep Purple, ‘Led Zepp’ and Rush. As Mary mentions, Roger Scruton was familiar with the finer points of Metallica and various rappers, which surprised me when I read a couple of his books on music. He certainly knew a lot more about them than I did.

Thomas Laird
Thomas Laird
3 years ago

There may be many front men. or women, to get one’s thrupennies out for. But Axl Rose??
Shame on you.

Is there any photographic evidence extant of this youthful misadventure?

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Thomas Laird

She was a teen

Thomas Laird
TL
Thomas Laird
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

So is that a no then?

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Thomas Laird

Teen crash on Rose was OK
Yes, picture please!

Thomas Laird
Thomas Laird
3 years ago

There’s a whole new season of Saxondale based around the comments on this thread. Henry Normal take note.

johnmckenna538
johnmckenna538
3 years ago

It was the KinKs with ‘ you really got me ‘ and even more so ‘ All day and all of the night ‘ that changed the rules so as to speak and created what morphed into heavy metal . In reality the KinKs were ahead of the game in nearly everything . Sadly the celebrity status along with sound management and media hype meant that the inferior Beatles et al led to much of the KinKs ‘outside of the box stuff. ‘ being only appreciated by later generations . I was one of the three thousand or so people who bought ‘ Village green Preservation Society ‘ on its release , likewise ‘ Arthur and the decline and fall of the British Empire ‘ it was interesting that people especially the jobsworths posing as music critics in the printed media and their counterparts employed by the BBC didn’t know what to make of it so ignored it . I guess nothing changes and now as a pensioner I wonder just how much good music ahead of its time and innovative in nature has been lost throughout the generations .

NIGEL PASSMORE
NP
NIGEL PASSMORE
3 years ago

The late John Lord, Deep P MkII keyborad player, was a classically trained pianist. Many others from the rock and prog era were also. So the relationship with orchestras is hardly surprising.

Note also use of Berlin Philarmonic on Rainbow’s Stargazer whose conducter (that’s Berlin’s not Rainbow) subsequently was none other than Jaz Coleman (classically trained pianist, violinist, chorister and composer) sometime front man of Killing Joke and once headlined (ridiculously as it turns out) the most Evil Man in Rock.

Sometimes seemingly odd collaborations are not really that odd after all.

Regards

NHP

stephen f.
SF
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  NIGEL PASSMORE

Indeed-Jack Bruce was a cellist.

mike otter
MO
mike otter
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

I think Ginger Baker wished he’d stayed a cellist!

Jeremy Smith
JS
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago

YES, YES, YES, YES, YES
Music (from Italian operas to heavy metal) proves the superiority of Western Civilization.
West is the Best!

mike otter
mike otter
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

You’ve got the clesmatic and mixolydian scales and modes in Sabbath, Slayer
+ much more metal besides. These have Arab, Indian, Gypsy and African origin and Christians once called them “diabolus in musica”. Praise Satan and long live unholy Norwegian Black Metal!

hangoverhall
hangoverhall
3 years ago

Deep Purple and classical (or western art if you prefer) music: I was once listening to Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending when a friend pointed out that the orchestral arrangement could be Jon Lord on keys and the violin was not far from Richie Blackmore. He has a point. Wider, Colin Seemarks the composer once pointed out in a music class that metal tends to use a lot of majors for dramatic effect and this is the same with metal. This was over 30 years back and he was talking about pre-thrash metal but much of that and the splintered genres of metal since do much the same.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
3 years ago
Reply to  hangoverhall

Drew, you wrote: “metal tends to use a lot of majors for dramatic effect and this is the same with metal.” What did you mean to write, please?

David Faulkner
DF
David Faulkner
3 years ago

If you’re going to argue for the conservative value of musical virtuosity, then would it not also bolster your case by looking at the connection between metal and prog rock, given the growth of the prog metal genre?

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago

Ashamed to say that I’ve never been quite so keen on straight up British metal/rock as I have American or Scandinavian, probably because I’m a bit of a wuss and appreciate both their respective pop sensibilities far more.

That said, Sabbath era Brummies Magnum still tick that particular box for me and they’re still going after half a century, as do the highly underrated, absolutely brilliant live, Thunder.

Scandinavian stuff gets a mighty bad rap, possibly not helped by Armstrong and Miller’s still brilliant ‘Strijka’ sketches, but until you’ve listened to some of Finland’s Sonata Arctica’s earlier three or four albums or Denmark’s Pretty Maids, Volbeat’s or Norway’s Audrey Horne’s output over the last decade or so, I’d hold judgement if I were you if you think that might be your sort of thing.

To my mind, despite the age gaps, they all help to keep metal from rusting.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago

This is a great conversation maker…just last week I was talking to an uber-leftist friend of mine about how many “roadies” and technicians in rock music are silently conservative. All would be so much better if we could speak our minds without worrying about being “canceled”, but alas-not yet.

M V
MV
M V
3 years ago

Silly to generalise, but, as you say, one of the chief differences between metal and other rock/pop music is musicianship and skill. And, perhaps in that, it harks back to a different time. Somewhere along the line, tastes changed and the idea, and especially the explanation of an idea rooted in history of the artform, became much, much more important than the skill of the artist and the execution of the idea.

mike otter
mike otter
3 years ago

Such a broad genre, i have to say i think Gorgoroth, Mayhem, Darkthrone et al represent the

final evolution of Metal as rebel music. Much as i love Slayer, Machine Head and Slipknot they are overall quite a cuddly left wing bunch of guys as were Deep Purple, Led Zep, Sabbath & co. John Dolmayan of System of a Down is a keen Trump fan, and as such is perhaps one of the few still “sticking it to the man”

lewisjclark25
LC
lewisjclark25
3 years ago
Reply to  mike otter

Really? I thought that System Of A Down were a left wing band?! (Not soft and cuddly left, but hardcore left like Rage Against The Machine).

mike otter
MO
mike otter
3 years ago
Reply to  lewisjclark25

TBH i think a lot of bands are confused by politics – John M def on record for Trump, Serj comes across as lefty pot head but then is an on the record Armenian Nationalist, Shavo was actually born in Armenia but is on record as not poltical, no idea what Daron thinks – but he’s a brialliant musician and producer whatever his politics

James Moss
JM
James Moss
3 years ago

How apt. Whenever I check into Unherd, I am reminded of Anvil.

Rob Austin
RA
Rob Austin
3 years ago

Heavy rock had its day in the seventies; punk made it irrelevant in 76. NWoBHM lived off punks energy – briefly – and its demise was, thankfully, terminal. Thereafter it became, essentially, a comedy genre. HaiR metal its ultimate nadir and, thanks to Grunge… RIP. Good riddance! A persistent wart on the skin of Great British culture. Marillion anyone? Heaven forbid… The Darkness 🙁

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
3 years ago

Ok, so I’m the party pooper. I bought an LP by Deep Purple. I played it once, which seemed one time more than it deserved. I was far more interested in girls who got their t*ts out.

Stephen Follows
SF
Stephen Follows
3 years ago

The key point about Wagner as a composer is not his myth-making, but his ability to write complex counterpoint within an essentially tonal framework. Is Ozzy Osbourne any good at that?