Black Sabbath, Dust, and the myth of the “metallectual”

Black Sabbath, Dust, and the myth of the “metallectual”

When metal fans bang their heads, there’s actually a brain in there. This is news to The Wall Street Journal. On April 14, the paper ran a story titled “Heady Metal: Scholars Celebrate A Rock Genre’s Cultural Bang,” in which writer Neil Shah profiles the International Conference On Heavy Metal And Popular Culture. Held recently in Bowling Green, Ohio, the conference is “the world’s biggest gathering of scholars researching the loud, aggressive—and some say obnoxious—music called heavy metal.”

Some say obnoxious. Not Shah, though. Instead of making his opinions transparent—which would immediately flag his article as a cheap piece of exploitation—he equivocates. It isn’t clear whether Shah honestly thinks metal is obnoxious. Maybe he just assumes that pointing out metal stereotypes is the only way WSJ’s core readership would stomach a story about headbangers instead of, say, hedge-fund managers.

That’s what I get for reading an article about metal in WSJ. I’ll admit I’m a bit defensive when it comes to metal—and hardcore, and punk, and other forms of oh-so-uncouth music. I love these genres. Each in its own way has given me solace, catharsis, and inspiration over the years. I know that’s a painfully earnest way of talking about music, at least to some. Blasé, ironic detachment is a far safer way of being a music fan. It’s also a far safer way of writing about metal when you don’t know or care anything about it.

No one could accuse the subjects of the WSJ piece of being clueless about metal. The attendees of the International Conference On Heavy Metal And Popular Culture are cited throughout, and they express themselves well. Still, Shah feels the need to point out that they “extracted cans of beer from a cooler” while listening to a demonstration of how Link Wray’s 1958 song “Rumble” is a precursor to metal. And that their field research involves rock clubs and lots of cigarettes.

The whole check-out-these-uppity-Neanderthals vibe is summed up in the term “metallectual.” Shah didn’t coin it, but he spends it. The already silly portmanteau takes on the tone of sarcasm in the piece, a way to label and dismiss without having to actually scratch the surface. Serious consideration of metal, Shah says, is invading “an unlikely place: academia’s ivory tower.” No reason is offered as to why this is so unlikely, other than metal’s aforementioned obnoxiousness. Academics, after all, only study things of great beauty and harmony, right?

And that’s my main beef with the article. I can’t dispute the fact that metal has a streak of obnoxiousness to it—even if I think that calling metal obnoxious is a gross oversimplification on par with saying rap is violent and pop is fake. But I can say this: Far from being ugly music made by scumbags, metal is often beautiful and harmonious. 

Metal, in fact, started out that way. When Black Sabbath codified metal in the late ’60s, Ozzy Osbourne’s tuneful melodies and Tony Iommi’s supple arpeggios owed more to The Beatles than Beelzebub—in spite of Iommi’s use of the Devil’s Interval, a discordant tritone that hasn’t really horrified anyone since the 17th century. Deep Purple dabbled in psychedelia and symphonic rock before bringing those sensibilities to the metal crucible. 

Those are two of the best-known examples, but they’re not the only ones. In 1971 and 1972, the hard-rock outfit Dust--whose name alone seems destined for obscurity--released Dust and Hard Attack, two albums whose recent reissues are long overdue. Dust’s drummer, Marc Bell, is a rock legend; as Marky Ramone, he played in The Ramones throughout most of the band’s existence, and before that he drummed for the seminal punk group Richard Hell And The Voidoids.

When I was kid getting into The Ramones and The Voidoids, Dust was a footnote. The band's LPs would pop up in used record stores every so often. They looked ridiculous. Hard Attack in particular seemed like a parody of metal, with its Viking-inspired album art by the late, great fantasy artist Frank Frazetta. The music, though, is no joke. I won’t say that Dust’s two albums are long-lost metal classics, but they hold up incredibly well. And in their own way, they’re gorgeous. Amid brontosaur-riffed onslaughts like “Love Me Hard” and “Learning To Die” are folky, Zeppelinesque ballads such as “Goin’ Easy” and “Walk In The Soft Rain.” Other tracks, like Dust’s 10-minute centerpiece, “From A Dry Camel,” split the difference, incorporating soaring dynamics and lunging shifts between delicacy and menace.

Plenty of metal bands today use some variation of that old formula. One of my favorite young groups of today, Sweden’s Year Of The Goat, is both intelligent and catchy, a throwback to the sumptuous proto-metal of Dust (and its early-’70s contemporaries like Pentagram and Blue Öyster Cult). On YOTG’s debut full-length from 2012, Angels’ Necropolis, frontman Thomas Eriksson establishes himself as an accomplished, even lavish writer with a sure grasp on the intricacies of songcraft. It just so happens that those songs are about the sin of virginity and the virtues of slaying God. Even then, he aims for the mythopoeic.

That said, there’s no shortage of metal bands pushing every imaginable limit of atonality, abrasion, and lyrical transgression. But these elements aren’t inherently obnoxious any more than they’re inherently metal. They’ve been used by Western composers and authors of all kinds for centuries, and for a variety of desired effects. In that sense, metal is wholly worthy of academic study. What part of human culture isn’t?

The problem isn’t “metallectual” itself—it’s Shah’s clunky use of an already clunky term, one that typifies the worst sort of critical shorthand. The WSJ piece isn’t overtly offensive. It’s shortsighted, feckless, and tokenistic. The overgeneralizations don’t help. Chief among them is the sweeping claim that “metallectuals take pride in being misunderstood and marginalized—just like metal musicians and fans. There’s a grain of truth to that, but the reality is far more complex and interesting than some glib, sniffy one-liner. The statement is effective in one way only: It underscores the author's own misunderstanding and marginalization of an entire genre of music. And of those who view it through something other than a microscope.

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