September 29th, 2012

Books!

Brutal ...

This was a “win” from the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewers” program, and almost everything about it is a bit odd. First of all, of the four titles I put requests in for back in May, this was (to my thinking) the least likely to have been matched with my library (unless I'm grossly underestimating the preponderance of “rock books” in my collection vs. the other LTER members), then there's the matter of it being in the early reviewer book, as this is a 2003 edition, and it doesn't appear that it represents a new paperback edition or anything along those lines that might have made it surface as new. The author did have another book coming out this summer, but that was, well, a different book, so unless she or her publisher was simply trying to draw attention to her, it seems strange to have pumped a nearly decade-old book into the LTER review channel!

This is especially a pointed concern given that Natalie J. Purcell's Death Metal Music: The Passion and Politics of a Subculture is very much a “snapshot” in time (and space, as well … more on that below), and that is increasingly less germane to the topic as the years roll by. I have to admit to having glanced at other reviews for this book, and there are views all over the scale on it out there … but I wonder if many of these are recent approaches to it. One element no doubt contributing to this still being in print is that it appears to be a text book (although I have a hard time imagining a university that would use this), with an extremely high cover price for a sub-250-page paperback.

Now, I want to point out that I did not dislike the book over-all … and felt that the author did a reasonable job of balancing the “inside look” into the Death Metal subculture with the “formal research” aspects here … where many other reviewers have taken it to task from one side or the other, I sort of felt embarrassed for her, having launched into very enthusiastic undergraduate projects myself, which no doubt were even more cringe-worthy than this. However, the role of her being a long-time metal fan, immersed in that “scene” is in constant dissonance with her endeavoring to be a “professional researcher” of that scene, and much of the thrust of the research (although, I will grant her, this could be simply my perception a decade later when Metal was less a news topic) appears to have been designed to “prove” that Metal wasn't the bugaboo that the likes of Tipper Gore made it out to be way back when.

One thing I found frustrating here was that there was very little biographical information about the author, either in the book or out on the web, but from what little contextual data I could dig up, it would appear that this was done while Ms. Purcell was an undergraduate (so is all the more amazing that this is surviving as a textbook). This could go a long way to explaining the insufficiencies of the research, as it would appear that it was done without any funding, and very much on an ad hoc basis with other metal fans of the author's acquaintance. One of the weaknesses of the study behind the book is that it only dealt with American bands, and those specifically from two “scenes” (New York and Florida), the ones the author was involved in. The highly influential (what would become the iconic form of “Death Metal”) Nordic form barely registers here, except to note how attractive the female metal fans found the members of those bands.

While I do not have many “death metal” CDs, I do have a couple of Pandora channels based on certain bands in the genre, so have heard a certain amount of this music from time to time. Frankly, I would have a lot more of this in my collection if not for the convention of pairing unlistenable vocals (I typically describe the two predominant styles as “Beelzebub with a throat infection” and “squeal like a piggy”) with otherwise quite engaging music … I was quite interested to find that Ms. Purcell seemed to think of this as a feature rather than ”a bug” in that it created a situation where only the “true fans” would get into the music and its “scene”.

Given the extreme nature of Death Metal, it is no surprise that the lyrical content is equally extreme and often very offensive, disturbing, and disgusting to the average outsider. Most critics cite the lyrics of Death Metal music as their reason for condemning it. It is quite fascinating to note, however, that the lyrics in Death Metal are most frequently unintelligible, and many devoted Death Metal fans would be unable to recite the lyrics of even their favorite bands. Often, lyrics are poorly written (or even composed by foreign band members with little grasp of the language in which they write). For this reason, it is generally accepted that the lyrics in Death Metal (like album art and band photos) serve predominantly as a means for bands to promote an image that visually displays the aggression and extremity of their music.
Again, at this point, much of the “analysis” here is forensic, because so much of the narrative is that of a fan of a particular scene deeply involved with a certain set of bands which probably have not left much of an impression outside of their particular circle. The author uses the term “brutal” to define the approach to vocals in Death Metal, and raises a point which seems to have been prescient: “because many believe the boundaries of the genre are so explicitly defined, too much musical 'creativity' might produce great music but it would not necessarily be considered Death Metal” … i.e., if it's not played a certain way, and sung a certain way, it's not Death Metal, which leads listeners like me to, I think quite fairly, say “it all sounds the same!”. Purcell tries to make a case of how the various bands exemplify this or that sound, but, without an easy to access library of examples, it's simply a matter of either taking her word for it, or simply putting it off as her involvement in and enthusiasm for a particular scene at a particular place and time talking.

As noted, it appears that the whole thrust of this book was to defend the author's “scene” against the “unfair” attentions it was getting from various politicians a decade ago. Much of the survey/interview materials focus on violence, poverty, and depression/suicide, which evidently are in specific response to charges being leveled at Metal at the time. The book, and the research, could be said to make a reasonable counter to those charges, but the scope of these are sufficiently narrow to not be a particularly satisfying look at the “subculture” per se. There is a lot of “justifying” elements of this (from claiming extreme levels of “musicianship” for bands that were all essentially following a formula to claiming that they were simply being targeted for being “extreme”) subculture, which, again sounds more like the metal fan being petulant than making an argument.

In the final analysis, it is hard to recommend Death Metal Music to anybody but those with an interest in semi-popular music history, although it might appear to those with a fondness for random sociology as well. Part of this is due to the very high (textbook) cover price … nearly $40 for a 242-page paperback … which is not much improved in the used channel (again, probably due to its being an “academic” release). Your best bet, were you interested in picking up a copy, would probably be in an electronic version, as the Kindle and Nook editions are both just over ten bucks.


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