Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Metal makes the world go 'round

There will be a further delay in bringing the world up to speed on my life as I found a story that set my heart aflutter:

Metal goes global, with some surprising riffs

Globe and Mail - June 18, 2008

This is a story dripping with irony - ghoulish, blood-red irony.

It turns out that heavy metal, anathema to the moral majority, has spread Western ideals of freedom of expression and democracy more effectively than some more conservative means.

And globalization? The devil's music seems to be the definition of globalization at work, yet with the added bonus of letting metal fans worldwide feel the music is their own, allowing indigenous metal scenes to flourish.

That's the message of Global Metal, a documentary-film tour of not-so-obvious metal hot spots such as Brazil, India, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates, which opens Friday in theatres in Toronto and Vancouver.

"No one's telling you that you should be a fan of Slayer or Morbid Angel. In fact, most people are telling you you shouldn't! But how does that thinking apply for kids coming from different cultures around the world?" film director Sam Dunn said.

He and fellow Canadian filmmaker Scot McFadyen skipped the usual German, Scandinavian and suburban North American centres, which they had already visited in their 2005 documentary Metal: A Headbanger's Journey. That film served both as a general tutorial and as a defence against the usual criticisms of metal, ranging from its antisocial controversies to its perceived head-pounding dopiness.

The popularity of that first film allowed Dunn and McFadyen to continue their highly enviable ability to match their fondness for metal with burgeoning careers in film. And Global Metal, no longer bound by having to justify the music and its black T-shirted fans, thus has enough room to uncover a fascinating side story on the hidden quirks of globalization.

Take China. It hasn't been known for its metalheads. But metal has migrated there in an unusual way.

As a tax writeoff, record companies can destroy their inventory of remaindered CDs, particularly discs by bands no longer signed to the label. Often these are metal bands coming in and out (mostly out) of fashion. But instead of actually destroying the discs, the CDs are shipped through middlemen to China and dumped on the market there.

As Kaiser Kuo, a Chinese American who lives in Beijing and a founder of pioneering Chinese metal band Tang Dynasty, notes in the film, most of these CDs were worthless. But some were real gems and helped to get metal into the hands of Chinese kids.

Dunn adds that this "had, you could almost say, a random impact, where you could be walking down the street in Beijing, and there would be a street merchant. He or she would have a Madonna CD and a Slayer CD, and the person looking at it wouldn't have any reference points for either. So it enters on this equal footing, which is unusual."

And from that beginning, homegrown metal took on a distinct Chinese flavour. Tang Dynasty, the band started by Kuo, who was born in upstate New York and now works in digital marketing, incorporated ancient battle references and historical poems. A Chinese metal scene known for its particularly dark music was born.

"They created a metal which obviously had some relevance and meaning to Chinese people," Dunn says. And yet, although Western headbangers may get into Chinese thrash metal, there are other international metal offshoots that Western fans might simple declare dead wrong. The Japanese glam metal known as "visual kei" trades in thrashing speed metal, but then bands like X Japan will suddenly break into the schmaltziest ballad imaginable. Or there's the Israeli band Orphaned Land, which will suddenly shift from guttural vocals to traditional Middle Eastern singing.

"I think metal is being redefined by virtue of its spread. For the longest time, it was very much defined by the rules that you and I associate with metal, that it has to have certain hallmarks to be real metal," Dunn says.

"What's interesting is that the fringes of that core are starting to change. Introducing Israeli folk melody into metal may not be metal to some kids in the West; in fact, it may be something they feel quite opposed to. But in Israel and maybe in the [whole] region, there is something which to them still is metal," Dunn adds.

Then there's the rise of metal in countries emerging from dictatorships. The first Rock in Rio festival in 1985 was attended by nearly 1.4 million fans and prominently featured such era-defining metal acts as Ozzy Osbourne, Scorpions and Iron Maiden. As guitarist Rafael Bittencourt of Brazilian metal band Angra notes, it's not as if heavy metal helped to free Brazil. But metal became a vehicle for joyous self-expression after the military dictatorship fell. (Global Metal, however, makes it seem as if the first Rock in Rio was a metal-only mega-show: The Go-Gos, the B-52s, Nina Hagen and Queen were also headliners. But we're on the topic of metal here, and Dunn is an avowed Iron Maiden fan.)

With the new documentary, Dunn and McFadyen, who have been friends for the past 15 years since attending British Columbia's University of Victoria, have planted their stake deep in the heart of the rock-doc niche. (Although the downtown west-side Toronto office of Banger Productions looks like a lot of start-up film and new-media offices around the city in some ways, the mounted horns outside the office door are a giveaway as to its specialty, as are the books of metal lore lining the shelves next to the Lonely Planet travel guides and Didi, McFadyen's black, metal-appropriate bulldog puppy, who makes her home most days in the spacious editing suite.

Banger Productions is now much in demand. On the office white boards are long to-do lists for upcoming major documentaries on Iron Maiden and Rush. In fact, Dunn and McFadyen's Rush film is said to be the first cinematic documentary of the publicity-shy band, rather than simply a typical concert DVD or a video-music channel profile. The members of Slayer also want to make a doc with the filmmakers.

Groups themselves want to work with the pair. After Headbanger's Journey, members of Metallica told the filmmakers something to the effect of, "Don't you dare make another film without us in it."

It should also be said that Dunn looks the part. With shoulder-length hair and wearing the perennial black metal T-shirt, he has appeared in both Headbanger's Journey and Global Metal as our guide to metal fandom. And yet, although he's as approachable in person as he seems on film, what's that look in his eye? A piercing clarity? And what's that he mentions, with his toothy grin, about possibly doing a documentary about Satan?...!

"We're even talking to Telefilm about it," adds McFadyen, also grinning, as he notes Bill C-10, which proposes to allow Ottawa to deny tax credits for films it doesn't like. Canadian Christian leader Charles McVety has been among those supporting the controversial bill. McFadyen and Dunn, even though they are serious about a Satan doc, both break into ironic laughter. It's the same laugh coming from the metalheads around the world in their documentary.

I loved Dunn and McFadyen's first documentary on metal, Metal: A Headbanger's Journey. Although, as Dunn notes in the interview below with George Stroumboulopoulos, it was basically a metal primer that didn't really teach veteran metal fans anything new, it was a serious and thoughtful take on a major subculture by an academic who is also an insider (Dunn has a Ph.D in cultural anthropology and is a lifelong metalhead).

Dunn and McFadyen are interviewed on CBC's "The Hour".

I've recently become aware just how wide the world of metal is. Although I like the metal that hails from the genre's "traditional" homes of England, Northern Europe and the USA, I'm also a big fan of a few Italian metal bands. But in more recent years I've grown to like some of the following:

Sepultura is Brazil's best-known metal band, rising to prominence in the early 1990s opening for Ozzy Osbourne. Although their earlier albums were faithful to the forms of American thrash and hardcore music, 1996's Roots album incorporated elements of music from Brazil's indigenous peoples, notably the Xavante tribe.

Israel's Orphaned Land combine elements of thrash, death and progressive metal with traditional musical forms from North Africa and the Middle East. Lyrically, they express a desire for understanding and brotherhood between the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), warning of dire consequences for all if peace is not achieved (most eloquently in their 2004 release, Mabool, or "Flood"). This distinguishes them from the earlier major Israeli metal band, Salem, who memorialize the victims of the Holocaust while railing against Israel's enemies.

Mainland China's Tang Dynasty sets legends from early Chinese history to heavy riffs, making them soulmates with the metal sword-and-sorcery epics of the European power-metal scene.

Much like the Scandanavian black metal bands of the early 1990s embraced an anti-Christian image to stand against a culture they considered oppressive, Taiwanese black-metal band Chthonic embraces myths from Taiwan's history to speak in favour of Taiwanese independence from mainland China. This has been a highly controversial political stance in their native land and has attracted criticism from the People's Republic of China. They are also noteworthy for the incorporation of the erhu, a traditional 2-stringed bowed instrument much like a violin, into their music. And bassist Doris "Thunder" Yeh is totally hot.

Eluveitie is a Swiss folk-metal band incorporating bagpipes, fiddles, and even a hurdy-gurdy into their heavy sound. Lyrically they derive from legends of pre-Roman pagan Europe.

Which only goes to show that Tenacious D are right: You can't kill The Metal!