heavy metal and its anti-exoticist core
Palms and distortions: in search of anti-exoticism
The sensation of exoticism: surprise. Rapidly dulled.
Exoticism is willingly ‘‘tropical.’’ Coconut trees and torrid skies.
Not much Arctic exoticism.
Victor Segalen, Essay on Exoticism
When Victor Segalen wrote his Essay on Exoticism, foundational in many ways for thinking and rethinking the concept, he attempted to analyse and theorise in fragments what exoticism really was beyond the languid and all too often imaginary landscapes of the tropics. A synonym for endless maritime explorations and continuous expansions of trade routes, especially western ones. ‚There is not much Arctic exoticism‚ he wrote for example.
Victor Segalen was committed to finding and deconstructing the structures and byproducts of a postmodern and obsolete „old exoticism“ in favour of one that would go as much beyond the „familiar“ equatorial territories of tourist postcards as it does the vulgar spectator view of the tourist-explorer. More generally, to go beyond the mental regime of geographical adventure. Segalen attempted to establish an exoticist thought that was imaginal rather than imaginary: a meeting place between „outside“ and „inside“. Between what is outside (exo) and what is inside (endo).
The French author had thus framed the potentialities of exoticism as the love of what ‚could be otherwise‘. The exploration of the Other as the supreme and only aesthetic escape from the relentless banality produced by the transformations of imperialism into capitalism and colonialism into mass society. In this context, the ‘exoticist’ is the one who, having abandoned the missionary and imperial gaze, ‘manages to return to himself after having crossed the other. Finally – perhaps the writer’s most valuable and ambiguous lesson – Segalen thought of exoticism as a journey outside ourselves, with time rather than space as the basis of otherness. An extreme exoticism that resonates with Leopardi’s “ancient” and “afar” as narrative, imaginative devices of the elsewhere.
After a century, however, at least when we come across posters and billboards propagating escapist clichés in colour-corrected natural paradises scattered throughout the subways and abusively placed in our visual space during the tired, distracted metropolitan commuting, it is legitimate to ask ourselves a question. Is it possible, after all, to revolutionise an uncomfortable exoticism that more than a hundred years after the writing of this text continues to haunt our imagination? How is it that exoticism, even during late globalisation, continues to be a resistant and perversely seductive narrative? What should be the development and use of these new conceptual tools initially theorised by the French poet?
Certainly, talking about exoticism, at least from a certain point onwards with the “discovery” of the current geopolitical order’s colonial and imperialist past has almost always meant solving the problem of exoticism; of what is an aesthetic movement often guided by an objectifying and belittling, racist and scientist outlook. In a word: essentialist. Although I don’t see exoticism as a problem to be solved, or at least have never necessarily seen it as synonymous with orientalism except in a majority of specific cases, I somehow feel that the discourse on the subject has evolved over the last fifty years through an often parallel and ignored (when not widely denigrated) subterranean stream of human cultural history. A path, however, that intersects with Segalen’s research by developing a point: how is it possible to relate ourselves to the Other?
To answer this question it is possible to ask the opposite: are there examples of marginalisation and reversal of the exotic gaze? Is there such a thing as anti-exoticism? Continuing from here, what you are about to read is an exploration of the concept as expressed by certain subcultures that are part of global pop music. An anti-exoticism that even when not politically explicit brings the poet’s discourse to its extreme consequences on several levels. Understanding this means looking at the cultural and social history of the genre which in the common imagination is perhaps furthest removed from an exotic made of giant palm trees and untainted beaches. The genre that more than any other continues undaunted to search for itself precisely in its extreme consequences. Believe it or not, the most popular and listened to genre on planet earth: heavy metal.
Although metal is not a genre completely refractory to exotic visions, it is nevertheless the one that has been most successful in establishing itself within uniform global canons of both orthodoxy and experimentation. Discourses on the genre and its evolution, despite the existence of solid gatekeepers, are increasingly co-participated, if not uniformly, at least in a scenario increasingly constituted by the influence of the global south. In this continuous search for a deepening towards heaviness – the sense of weight generated by distortions and the medium-low rhythmic-percussive section of bass and drums – metal seems to dig more and more inwards rather than outwards. This diggin happens in an ideological and philosophical sense but also in a social and obviously musical one.
As expressed by Fenriz and Nicola Masciandaro on different occasions, metal, rather than evolving in a straight line, expands in a way for which its diversification also depends on remaining always the same, always true to itself. Rather than seeking a horizontal expansion, it preaches a vertical, or rather, transcendental one. This applies equally to its more materialistic and realist versions (goregrind, brutal death metal) as to its totalitarian and reactionary drifts (Hatecore, NSBM) in that they move around core ideologies of fixation with a set of themes transcending, respectively, forms of violence and the geopolitical order.
With this in mind, I believe that a closer look at the genealogy of heavy metal as a transnational social movement and growing global community is a way to observe how it has become both a practical possibility to expand on the research begun by Segalen – moving in the opposite direction to his theoretical path -, and one to correct its course by remedying some clichéd errors: an Arctic exoticism exists precisely in some subcultural currents of extreme metal.
Personally, therefore, I tend to define as anti-exotic everything that rejects otherness in a more or less reactionary or programmatic way and for which the encounter with otherness is seen as an encounter in space-time with a unity outside oneself. This is an outside which, however, unlike the exotic, expresses a familiarity and is sought within oneself so as to achieve a transcendence of said self towards a more authentic one in both an identity and a properly existential sense. Just as in Emma Baulch’s words most metalheads, supreme units of the community, tend to ‚gesture elsewhere‘. They reject identification with local identity, striving for a total and global dimension of what metal is as opposed to all that metal is not.
Specifically, metal shows us how an escapist and hedonistic culture born at the height of contemporary capitalism (Segalen’s book was born at the height of imperialism) as well as blatantly exoticist, chauvinist and objectifying, has become one of the most egalitarian and antiexotic subcultures in history. Metal has historically followed the trajectory of the old Orientalist exoticism outlined by Segalen towards the outside of itself, the conquest of the other and of the globe, and then, after its commercial downfall (but popular growth), has closed inwards tending towards a very specific and unifying otherness dispersed on the global scale of musical production and fruition as well as the construction of a transnational community and ideologies. But let us start from the beginning, or rather, from the prodromes.
Arenas of the imagination: exoticism, ‚cock rock‘, ‚Black Sabbath‘ and ‚Paranoid‘.
„We can’t be considered anthropologists or anything like that, but we know some good brothels in the Far East.“
Robert Plant in conversation with J.D. Considine
1973. After years of technological development in which large arenas had progressively replaced small and medium-sized concert halls, Led Zeppelin broke all their personal records in terms of musical career with a total of more than sixty thousand people at the Tampa stadium, Florida. A concert that not only represented the highest peak of a tour that had been made up of huge crowds, but also surpassed the previous historic record set by the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1966. The Zeppelin (or at least their press office) were announcing the most majestic tour in history. A harder form of rock had just become immensely popular. This event is even more relevant when we consider that, in the same year, Led Zeppelin were not the only ones to have made the globalising trend of live hard rock stronger. Alice Cooper was taking his own epic tour to fifty-six American cities (while the Zep would only visit thirty). A juxtaposition that was cloaked in explicit competition in terms of rock’s ’size‘ and spatial expansion.
Certainly Led Zeppelin were the first international expression of a certain type of hard music. An English band which had conquered the United States was already working with a perspective of global dominance. This prospect was not only a conquest of the imagination, but also a material one since the Beatles had already opened commercial routes touring Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand in 1964 as well as Japan and the Philippines in 1966. Alongside Led Zeppelin, another expression of hard rock’s global expansion was Kiss, who with their now familiar mix of marketing, merchandise and endless touring had achieved the status of businessmen or rather brands and had made global touring one of their hallmarks.
In his essay, Victor Segalen describes how not only exoticism is a product of imperialist capitalism but how it is connected to a spatial-geographical dimension on the one hand and a sensory, especially sexual, exoticism on the other. In this sense, Led Zeppelin and Kiss embodied this exotic-orientalist trajectory perfectly. As Steve Waksman reminds us in Arenas of the Imagination, not only on the one hand had the imagery of global tours absorbed geographical-technological exoticisms whereby the Japanese special edition and the concerts in the archipelago had become synonymous with social capital (of having made it), but participating in world tours also meant experiencing a lot of downtime during which the performers mainly engaged in entertainment and especially tourism. In this sense, the common projection was that of the musician-explorer who had seen and known different cultures learning valuable lessons for his own artistic progress and open-mindedness. The reality was obviously quite different.
To think of a piece like Kashmir is to immediately perceive this reality in Led Zeppelin’s work. A pop tradition which in some ways began with George Harrison and which in the case of the Zeppelin aimed precisely at becoming a filter for presenting various world musics to the listener in a totally original and authentic way. It is therefore indicative to think that in Bombay in 1972, during the recording of some rearrangements with the Bombay Orchestra of Friends and Four Sticks from their just-released untitled fourth album, Led Zeppelin complained about the difficulty of working with Indian musicians due to their inability to follow Western standards of performance. As one can well imagine, the crux of the matter was that the band tried to explain to the musicians what sound they wanted them to perform rather than asking for collaboration in working on new sounds.
Turning then to the thorny issue of rock and its machismo, there are reasons behind the fact that from within both the feminist subcultural communities of the time and academia this kind of stylistic drift was renamed ‚cock rock‘. The term emphasises the highly sexualised (and objectifying) imagery. Of the physical appearance of the musicians as much as of the song lyrics and even musical choices. Similarly, both Kiss and Led Zeppelin saw the bodies of overseas groupies as an “imaginary territory” of libidinal conquest. A conquest whose peak was the figure of the Asian woman and where the pleasure of the groupie was always overdetermined and overshadowed by the social and emotional hierarchy of a rock built on the dominant male. From this point of view, the praises and descriptions of his Japanese fans qualities’ reported by Kiss bass player Gene Simmons in several places, including his autobiography, are famous and eloquent.
While Led Zeppelin therefore represented musical exoticism in the classical sense, Gene Simmons and more generally Kiss were the icon of exoticising sexual conquest. However, it must be kept in mind that this macho perspective is not monolithic and has instead been dynamically distributed over time in the form of subcultural conflicts. For example, as reported by some witnesses of the time, it was not uncommon for Led Zeppelin fans to beat up Kiss fans on the basis that their music was too effeminate. Luckily, despite the hypersexualising and marginalising roots of metal, and although it is almost always difficult to determine the precise historical circumstances of a genre neatly, today’s tendency is to identify the actual birth of heavy metal with two specific records produced by the same band: Black Sabbath. Specifically, the eponymous debut album and the subsequent Paranoid.
The style’s foundation came about mainly through sound. The sound of heavy metal became synonymous with the self-made iron prostheses that guitarist Tony Iommi used to play guitar after an accident with a press in the factory where he worked. A fuzz. A distortion generated by metal against metal. Although the story of Iommi’s fingers is the stuff of which the lore of the genre is made of, the influence and direction that Sabbath will give to metal is also crucial for its imaginary and ideological aspect. First of all, Iommi’s industrial incident says a lot about a sound that, at this point very literally, is that of a proletariat of factory workers and marginal subjects in the society of industrial capitalism. A theme that has shaped much of the band’s lyrical content.
As journalist Joe Sweeney explains in his article for Paranoid’s 50th anniversary, fitting perfectly into this genealogical discourse: „So while Led Zeppelin were promising to give you every inch of their love, Sabbath were recording songs such as Hand of Doom, about soldiers who turn to heroin as a way to cope with their PTSD.” In the same article, Geezer Butler, the band’s bassist and lyricist, explains to the journalist: “I was fed up listening to every band and singer singing about falling in love or breaking up, I wanted a more meaningful, realistic, working-class point of view in my lyrics.“. From here, Sabbath started an expressive current that would gradually include more mainstream bands. From Iron Maiden, with their songs about the Native American genocide and other war themes, along with Metallica and Slayer, to the early reflections on depression of bands such as Strid and Korn for different contexts and the musical activism of the more politicised extreme metal.
Another point that would define the imagery of metal forever was the theme of the occult and obscure presence of something. Nicola Masciandaro in his glossa of the band’s homonymous piece expresses and celebrates the philosophical scope of metal as an existential scenario of the horror of being someone and not being able to escape from this strangeness, this unwanted guest. It is interesting how the analysis essentially speaks of a confrontation with a total Other (the black figure in Black Sabbath’s lyrics) who comes from nowhere and who is even identified with the metalhead himself at the moment when the latter embraces the impossibility of understanding this strangeness; an unknowable obscurity that points again the finger towards the protagonist of the song. ‘What is this that stands before me? Figure in black which points at me‚. The stranger turns to the questioner, as if to say: ‚You want to know what I am, but you don’t know what you are!‚
Thanks to these two seminal albums, in short, metal finally had a class consciousness and was bent on its own lived experience. On a more existentialist and obscure dimension, (de)localised, in which the conquest of the other had vanished to make way for the (impossible) achievement of one’s place in the world. The sonic tradition started by Sabbath would only be completed with the arrival of Sad Wings of Destiny by Judas Priest. This is the first album which according to Deena Weinstein contains all the iconic musical, visual and verbal codes of the genre. Hard psychedelia, sounds of early Sabbath and (much less) Led Zeppelin, instrumental and especially guitar virtuosity accompanied by the sound of heaviness coming from the bass section.
This sound fused with lyrics about the Last Judgement and the human condition, as well as a fantastic and religious imagery becomes the epitome of what metal stands for. The sound is then defined by compositional and performative elements revolving around its core: an extremely distorted guitar. Around it would be built aggressive and prominent rhythm and bass sections and last but not least, emotional vocals ranging from classical singing virtuosity to the piercing and excruciating sound of false vocal cords sizzling, obliterating any possibility of understanding the lyrics. Heavy metal’s escapism was officially something that tended towards a vertical, transcendental realism, rather than a horizontal and materially geographical imagination. A gesture made towards an elsewhere. But where is this elsewhere to be found?
Individual & Transnational: heavy metal and the morphology of the metal community
“Marcio da solo
Perchè d’altro uomo passi
Spite Extreme Wing, Non Dvcor, Dvco
If the origins of metal show us how after ‚cock rock‘ the genre properly reflected on its interiority and left the outside behind, observing how a community has formed and consolidated on a global scale helps us to understand how such a specific subcultural genre could have such a widespread shared meaning and resonance.
Much of the bibliography on metal that has been produced, including that published since the inception of Metal Studies, is primarily concerned with „experienced metalheads“ and especially with bands and personalities who have made and are making metal history. More recently, the research, mostly focused on performers, has gradually shifted to fans without often looking at what leads an individual to become a metalhead. Looking closely at the search for a metal identity as an individual is actually a great way to understand how the formation of this depends on movements that are very rarely exotic, preferring to look into a surrounding of stimuli, technologies and tropes that are sadly familiar. A quest that puts music above all else.
As Paula Rowe has shown in her study of young metalheads in Australia, for many, becoming a metalhead means adopting a personality, or if you like, an identity capable of reconfiguring the difficulties of urban life (economic, family and existential) by gaining tools to fight against a world from which one feels marginalised and for which one feels an extreme rejection. A rejection that takes the form of an exclusionary modernity in terms of economic well-being or of a hypocritical and totalitarian social order.
Metal, with its imagery and even its clichés, provides a range of intellectual concepts and aesthetic cues of a paradoxically uplifting nihilism, projecting on and off itself an aura of strength and power. The affective and sonic overdrive caused by the music, the excessive visual culture and the lyrics composed of obsessive brutality and disgusting visions of all kinds provide the tools for those who embark on this path of listening to be able to interpret and deal with the bestiality of life in its entirety by accepting even its narrowest and most undesirable corners and thus partially regaining control of it. A narrative of a dominant self depicting the destruction of or victory over perceived forces of repression.
Adam Rafalovich has highlighted these traits in his analysis of lyrics from a dataset of various post-1980s metal pieces, showing how they changed as they gradually explored the inner dimension of the individual retreating into their own incommunicable and individualising experience of suffering, material or otherwise. Interestingly, among other things, the „she“ towards which the hostility of metal lyrics is poured in the first wave changes after the „anti-exoticist turn” to a generic „you“, showing the downsizing of misogynistic pressure and a shift towards a more propagated hostility that signals the widespread nature of aggression in contemporary metal music. Pantera’s I’m Broken, for instance, focuses on a dimension of introspection that describes an antagonism between the self and external forces. A tendency that will be refined to paroxysm by depressive suicidal black metal. That of a metal self is thus a quest which, while it may take place within a community (of neighbourhood metalheads for example), is fundamentally an individual and solitary quest by individuals encountering the genre.
It is indeed interesting to note that although the feeling of hostility towards a certain type of mass culture imagined as a mixture of corruption and glitter and its supposed emissaries is very strong in the genre, there is in fact no term to define “normal people” as is done with the term “normie”. A derogatory term grossly identifying anyone who is imagined to lead a mainstream lifestyle. While it could be argued that the closest equivalent within metal is of course „poser„, it is however true that the term serves not so much to identify those who live outside the artistic, ideological and social environment of metal, but on the contrary those who claim belonging to it without the necessary militancy requirements; those who, in short, do not possess enough subcultural social capital to be what they say they are. In this way, the metal community does not necessarily exercise control over those who are excluded, but inquisitively over those who are admitted. On those who are identity and not alterity.
With these considerations in mind, it is therefore no coincidence that metal seems to take root and develop, as Jeremy Wallach and other researchers have theorised, especially in unexoticised contexts of deindustrialisation, on the outskirts of urban centres and especially among the working classes. Even if one does not participate directly in the class discourse because, perhaps, is still too young to work, the relationship with the capitalist expansion of the urban industrial fabric nevertheless affects the economic and social conditions of those who live in those areas, causing in a feedback loop the conditions that favour the reception and development of the metal subculture’s contents: the experience and conjecture of a marginalising and rotten industrial system. A modernity that is visible but from which one is irretrievably excluded.
By the 1980s, metal had become a fiercely globalised international community, thanks also to the commercial expansion of its sub-genres more akin to the decline of western civilization, such as hair metal. Clothing and aesthetic elements were completely codified and every metalhead, however on the outskirts of the empire, becoming one through his first records and T-shirts, began to participate in a transnational discourse of recognition based on each person’s subcultural capital: from knowledge of the genre to the type of participation and ability to support and expand the scene. Even where geographic origin, e.g. the historical and European metal markets, and age act as hierarchical principles of authority, the right to participate and discuss what is metal and what is not, what is more or less extreme, brutal, fast, aggressive and devastating now belongs to all fans and is increasingly based on geographically delocalised knowledge.
Hence, the scene almost immediately comes to coincide with the development and circulation of a metacultural discourse focused on the genre itself rather than with its spatial distribution. Indeed, metal’s growth is certainly harnessed by the production of new music, but as Masciandaro and Wallach point out, the commentaries of fans and followers, „talking about metal“, becomes part of an open and unfinished process of classification and canonisation. In this sense, the production of new music and its discussion in relation to earlier foundational works are two sides of the same coin in which the practice of metal, verbal, visual or musical lives in a debate on how to evolve to become more and more itself.
Thanks to this kind of internal practice based on strong mechanics to divide the insiders from the outsiders, metal and metalheads manage to maintain control over the definition of its terms. From academia to journalism to hordes of concerned parents and psychologists, metal and its participants have always been reluctant to define and allow themselves to be defined outside of their own circle of practice, thus becoming resistant to an exoticised and idealised view of the movement. The antipathy of a great number of practitioners towards intellectualising tendencies to talk about metal outside their own circles is no secret and is instead an integral part of its ethos.
In short, this drive to move in the same direction, even if from multiple angles, towards a musical, global and conceptual core, has created a scene and a community which, however tremendously diversified, remains compact on at least two points: a discourse in which the further expansion of the genre coincides more and more with a deepening of heaviness (and harshness, with black metal) and the pursuit of continuous transgression of the limit. This line is easily observed in the evolution of genres and subgenres; from speed metal in the late seventies to the advent of extreme metal with forerunners such as Venom and Mercyful Fate in the very early eighties along with the later emergence of thrash metal (Kill ‚em All and Show No Mercy in 1983) and the arrival of death metal in Florida in the latter part of the eighties.
This transgression is both a sonic and a social exploration in that is also a demonstration of how the infringement of limits (musical, religious, traditional, familial, societal, civil, political and social) through the assertion of one’s own individual will and power consequently proves the fictitious construction of these limits and their orthopractic necessity within everyday life. In this sense, the continuous search for the extreme also coincides with a continuous displacement of the limits it overcomes and an encounter precisely in what is beyond this limit. A totalising vision based on a quasi religious interpretation – which in some cases even has an apophatic effect – of music: a lens for interpreting the world and an instrument for feeling, reasoning and acting in it.
As Carlo Strappa, founder of the death metal band Resurrecturisand historical figure of underground metal in Italy, put it so well during a conversation, the genre proves to be much more than just a type of music; it is a real way of life. A faith, if you like, mediated by the musical practice of listening, performance and participation. It is precisely this participation that brings us back to the question left unanswered in the last section. The elsewhere is never a geographic elsewhere but a dispersed network of nodes and underground flows ranging from Rapanui to the Scottish highlands and internet forums to Native American communities and to those self exiled in the woods of Scandinavia and New Zealand. A network that, rather than intensifying as it approaches the larger record markets available to distributors, is configured, so to say, by proximity to the centre of a mosh pit.
A genre for everyone and no one: the transglobal community, a future without scenes and escapes to elsewhere
„Unlike rock in general, it’s rare to hear the claim these days that heavy metal is “dead.” Even the music’s detractors are resigned to the fact that the Beast goes on.“
Jeremy Wallach for the tenth anniversary of Metal Rules the Globe
It’s the 1990s. Metal has lost its grip on the market thanks to the ‚alternative‘ turn, progressively replaced by the advent of grunge and rap and demonised by the rapid succession of events caused by Mayhem, Emperor and Absurd. Despite everything, however, its popularity is not in decline but on the rise. Genres multiply year after year and it becomes very difficult not only to keep up with the amount of metal records that are produced every day in rehearsal rooms, semi-professional recording studios, bedrooms and basements, but also to reason about the contours of new sub-genres, their being more or less extreme than others and so on. In the new millennium metal culture embraces the internet as a vehicle for poorly regulated dissemination and massive archiving of content aimed at satisfying notoriously bulimic and demanding ears, bullying some supposed ‚poser‘ or ‚hipster‘ on the forums in between albums. Metal comes out of its circles to infect mass culture, which, between an appropriation of black metal fonts and one of the clothing styles recycles its symbols, simulating the contents and adapting them to other purposes.
Metal is increasingly taking shape as a dialogue between local interpretations, approaches and solutions to widely diffused narratives such as that of human extinction. As the introduction to Metal Rules the Globe reminds us: ‚These fans have stayed loyal to the music despite societal disapproval, occasional moral panics, censorship, and even government harassment and violence.” In 2021, metal is the world’s most widespread and popular genre. To be precise, although the top forty and society have more or less consciously concealed the state of affairs due to its low economic output, death metal is officially the most canonised sub-genre of popular music in history and which stylistic features are the most recognised, performed and explored worldwide. Sadly for Ed Sheeran, currently at the top of the 200 Billboard charts, metal is popular music in its final form.
The most interesting thing, however, especially in the context of our discussion of the genre’s anti-exotic nature, is that over time, if we remove the four largest record markets in the world, the historical centres of heavy metal production and trade (USA, UK, Germany and Japan), the popularity of heavy metal increases. It is precisely the world’s most exoticised territories that are progressively the forces weighting the most on metal’s global dimension. On the one hand, the career of the Brazilian band Sepultura and their collaboration with Mato Grosso’s Xavantes and Carlinhos Brown become propulsors for a significant spread and politicisation of the genre in Latin America. On the other, Bandung, Indonesia, becomes the city with the most metal bands on the planet (128 according to a 2018 study) and home to some of the world’s most renowned bands in a state where these genres of music contributed to the fall of dictator Suharto and are a constant space for social protest. Not surprisingly, all places where the grip of colonialism, imperialism and capitalist industrial extractivism has made a history for itself.
From the emergence of one-band scenes to the development of rural-themed music, heavy metal is heading towards an ever more progressive fragmentation and diffusion. The genre is also dealing with the problem of its progressive logistical impossibility – and therefore partial geographical disappearance – which revolves around increasingly difficult social organisations as well as the disappearance of venues that offer or are suitable for providing music of this calibre on a regular basis, and in short, crumbling scenes and generational changes that take place less and less organically, particularly in the West. Moreover, despite the fact that metal still tends to be a male and sexist genre, and despite the resistance of the more reactionary and orthodox fringes, it seems to be progressively becoming a queer space as well, which is also true in movements stemming from academia, or at least a genre in which to experiment with new forms of less oppressive masculinity and unorthodox inclusion.
Stripped of its ability to project an exotic gaze onto the lands and bodies of others, therefore, metal is left, as at the beginning, with nothing but a vertical flight towards the sky or the centre of the earth. An escape from-into the abysses of the cosmos or of time as the only escapism. If exoticism mourned the loss of pre-imperialist and colonial innocence, its florid and uncontaminated lands, its palm trees and languid women, metal screams a loss that always passes through a more or less violent negation – of God, the world, life and the self – and is constantly deeper. In this regard, it seems useful to me to use Stanimir Panayotov’s analysis of band Locrian as a possible conceptual point of arrival for an increasingly totalising tensorial process. That of metal ‘is the sound of every–thing falling down: the sound of a– conscious matter leading nowhere. The pestis of all spaces aiming at ground zero. Black noise is the auto-propedeuting theurgy of the created industrial world.’ Metal, at least in my opinion, has conquered and built a solid democratised and egalitarian imagery that can no longer be ignored because of the relevance it has socially and creatively in the lives of millions of people who experience it with spiritual devotion. It is nevertheless true that the danger of an exotic and dominant gaze is always present. From borealism, the fascination with the northern regions of the globe and their cultures described by Ross Hagen, to nostalgia for the Middle Ages, the danger of imagining landscapes and cultures fixed, unchanging and frozen in time, a black exoticism, rather than an anti-exoticism, is permanently lurking in the shadows.
In this article I have tried to show how metal, which was born from a capitalist, industrial and exoticist tradition, has evolved with a morphology that, if it does not make it Orientalism-proof, nevertheless gives it a remarkable resistance due to several ideological and socio-cultural factors: (1) a narrative that starts from the affirmation and struggle of the subaltern classes against the unstoppable modernity of late globalisation, (2) the aim to build a genre for everyone and no one through an international community that can only be defined by its participants, (3) the search for a heaviness and the extreme that looks inward rather than outward and goes through a series of rejections and negations of the outside, (4) the rise and spread of metal in a capillary manner and on a global scale (and its consequent familiarity) as well as the role of the global south in its current development, and finally (5) the progressive appropriation of metal discourse by queer musicians as a space in which to assert their individuality and existence. All factors that not only reduce the exotic and colonial potential of the genre, but also reassure us that heavy metal is not just alive and well. Heavy metal will continue its genealogic shredding for much longer. Brutality will prevail.
This article was previously published in Italian on NOT and has benefitted from several comments and suggestions received from friends, musicians and scholars. I want to thank Stanimir Panayotov, Enrico Monacelli, Jeremy Wallach and Alberto Ricca for the help, comments and suggestion of NON Copyriot as a possible destination for its translation. Last but not least, I want to thank Achim Szepanski and for his interest, support and proactivity.