Historian, writer, and metalhead Helen Walden is, as those crazy kids say these days, totally killing it. She writes the hilarious and incisive zine Doctrinal Expletives (which you can get here and here), as well as the blog Order of the Gash. We would like to state for the record that we thought she was amazing long before she said anything nice about us in a public arena.
Why is heavy metal so awesome?
Well, first of all, the music is amazing, and there's a surprising (to some, anyway) amount of variety within. There's scrappy punk-influenced bands like Motorhead, bombastic symphonic bands like Therion, bands like Moonsorrow that incorporate European folk music into their sound, bands like Necrophagist who play super-technical stuff with a billion wacky time changes... I could go on forever, really. I used to be a little punk rocker, and I've always loved aggressive-sounding, energetic music. Metal offers that same aggression and energy with a little more sophistication and variety.
Second, metal is nerdy, in many senses. It's got a reputation is being a genre for meatheads, but a lot of bands are unabashed geeks. For example, look at Iron Maiden basing a 14-minute song on Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, or Karl Sander's lyrics to Nile songs being (in some cases), directly lifted from ancient Egyptian texts. And even bands who don't necessarily explore sophisticated concepts in their lyrics sometimes still nerd out with their music, in terms of playing solos and melodies that are technically complex yet still memorable as songs. A lot of these supposed meatheads do actually know quite a bit about music theory, and apply themselves to their music with a dedication I really admire and try to emulate.
Third, sometimes I really love metal as a subculture. Sometimes it makes me want to punch a wall, but at the best shows I've been to, there's this sense of "look at all of us scumbag longhairs, we don't fit in but who needs that when you've got all this?" which is just exhilarating.
Metal gets a bad rap for a lot of things: misogyny, homophobia, and racism, for starters (although one could certainly argue metal as a genre is no more misogynist/homophobic/racist than, say, Henry Miller). How do you negotiate being a feminist metalhead? And conversely, how do you deal with people who assume you can't be both?
I'll refer to my main man Robert Walser, a UCLA musicologist who wrote my favorite book about metal (Running With The Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music). In his chapter on gender, he points out repeatedly that while many metal songs and music videos are quite sexist, sexism (and homophobia, and racism) is hardly unique to the world of heavy metal. To say so would ignore the wider social/cultural context in which it is produced, where those forms of oppression are widespread. That is, I'm not going to pretend that some bands and fans don't traffic in pretty vile misogynist imagery (from Motley Crue's leering in "Girls Girls Girls" to the pile of sexually assaulted and mutilated women that populates Cannibal Corpse's discography), but it's not as though they're deviants in an otherwise egalitarian society. If I gave up my participation in metal subculture tomorrow, I would still be dealing with sexism in my daily life. And, speaking as someone involved in punk rock for the better part of ten years, I can say that even subcultures that claim to be politically enlightened when it comes to "women's issues" and female participation still fall short a lot of the time. So, I would say that I negotiate being a feminist metalhead in the same way I negotiate being a feminist anywhere else.
I was actually talking with my friend Greg a little bit about this--he's an out queer dude who has played drums for a couple awesome metal bands around here. To the people who claim that we're "outsiders" in metal because of our politics or our gender/sexual bent, I think we would both answer: fuck you, dude, you don't own this. Our love for the genre is just as fierce as anyone else's, and I think that's all that really matters. There's no specific lifestyle or set of beliefs attached to liking loud guitars. (I have heard some Internet blowhards attempting to expound on what they apparently see as an inherently right-wing traditionalist heavy metal philosophy, but I am fairly sure this is simply the result of a few too many hours spent feverishly masturbating over their dog-eared copy of Lords Of Chaos.)
Best metal album of all time?
Slayer, Reign In Blood. I would say that one of the high points of my life was seeing Slayer when I was 19--their encore was just playing Reign In Blood, beginning to end. Every song is the perfect fusion of melody and aggression. The lyrics maybe aren't the most eloquent in the world but they fit the music to a T: "Bones and blood lie on the ground/Rotten limbs lie dead/Decapitated bodies found/On my wall, your head!"
Some books you've read lately and found pleasing?
Angela Carter's Nights At The Circus, China Mieville's The Scar, John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let The Right One In (I loved the movie, too). I've been re-reading H.P. Lovecraft's stories, which I've loved since I was a teenager. I'm also currently reading Reza Negarestani's Cyclonopedia, which is this bizarre philosophical novel based on the premise that oil is a sentient entity and us humans are merely its pawns. Or something of that nature. Anyway, it's great.
Who are some of your metal heroes? Any advice as to how the general public can incorporate the awesomeness of metal into their daily lives?
Heroes? Let's see... Cliff Burton, for being an amazing bass player and writing some of my favorite Metallica songs. Whenever I don't feel like practicing, I sometimes imagine the ghost of Cliff Burton shouting in my ear "I used to do this shit six hours a day! Get off your ass!"It's incredibly motivating.
Although I don't listen to her band Arch Enemy that much anymore, I still admire Angela Gossow for being a high-profile woman in the world of metal who steadfastly refuses to talk shit on other metal ladies. I've seen far too many women take the "cutting down other women to fit in with the sausage party" route, and her outspoken opposition to that is refreshing. Plus she's probably inspired a bajillion teenage girls to form bands, which is terrific.
Also:Dio. Just for being Dio. And for providing me with my karaoke standard, "Holy Diver."
As far as incorporating the awesomeness of metal into one's everyday life, I recommend doing what I used to do in college and listening to Manowar's "The Gods Made Heavy Metal" every morning. Wimps and posers leave the hall!