BGSU Magazine

Heavy Metal

by Bridget Tharp '06

BGSU faculty tracks heavy metal in new book

The lead singer pumps her fist and tosses her head back and forth, flanked by two guitarists who power through the gritty opening riffs. The Canadian metal band Diemonds dedicates the same energy on stage whether playing for a modest audience of about a dozen fans at Frankie’s, a bar and concert venue in Toledo, or a crowd of thousands in remote India. During an overseas tour three years ago, the rockers trekked rural northeast India for more than 50 hours on rudimentary roadways. Audiences of as many as 20,000 fans overwhelmed them. “We had armed guards. It was kind of surreal,” said Priya Panda, lead singer of Diemonds.

Heavy Metal: image 2 0f 2 thumb The popularity of heavy metal in such developing nations as India may indicate social change or a response to globalization, Wallach asserts.

“Metal seems to embody the ideology of freedom and independence,” Wallach said. “Looking at these bands and their historical presence in places like Poland, Belarus, Estonia and Lithuania and all the former Soviet republics, I think we’re underestimating their significance.”

Deep Purple and democracy in Indonesia
The topic of heavy metal music is a personal passion for Wallach, who is an ethnomusicologist, cultural anthropologist and self-described “egghead banger” — a flippant term for those involved in this emerging field of study. His new book is regarded as the first scholarly volume to explore the global context of heavy metal music. BGSU will host an academic conference devoted to the genre on the Bowling Green campus in April 2013.

Wallach first encountered the global reach of heavy metal more than a decade ago during his doctoral field research in Southeast Asia. His unconventional approach meant focusing on popular rather than traditional music in Indonesia. The country represents one of the largest heavy metal scenes in the world, he found, and his realization helped to shape his dissertation into his first published book, “Modern Noise, Fluid Genres: Popular Music in Indonesia.”

Though Internet access was not yet widely available in Indonesia during Wallach’s early visits, fans identified their favorite bands by trading mix tapes, photocopied fan ’zines, and music catalogs. Soon after Wallach’s initial visit, Indonesia completed its tumultuous transition from dictatorship to a democratic form of government. In 1999, the Muslim nation held its first free election in more than 40 years.

“I found that heavy metal is what economists call an ‘indicator,’” Wallach said. The popularity of the genre in a developing country may be a sign that people are ready to throw off the chains of an authoritarian government.

Fusing tradition and metal in Peru

Heavy Metal: image 1 0f 2 thumb As an educator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Dr. Kathryn Metz ’01 leads lessons for youngsters among one of the world’s largest collections of sound recordings and artifacts related to popular music. Before her background in ethnomusicology led her to work at the Rock Hall, Metz spent more than a year transcribing and studying indigenous music in a rural village in the Amazon rainforest of Peru.

With no electricity in her Peruvian village, radio had a unique function as both the primary form of entertainment and mode of communication. The typical broadcasts of American rock music from the 1980s or the regionally popular music, tecnocumbia, are interrupted when radio hosts need to share news of listeners. (There are few telephones.)

Metz found limited musical diversity on the radio in Peru until her visits with friends in the largest nearby city, Iquitos. Though only one radio station there was devoted to heavy metal and hard rock music, plenty of her friends embraced the genre, proudly wearing T-shirts for Black Sabbath, or Sepultura, the internationally popular death metal rockers from Brazil.

“One of the most important things for people who listen to heavy metal in the jungle is that it’s not tecnocumbia,” Metz said. “If you live in Iquitos, you listen to tecnocumbia because that is part of your culture. So this seeking out of something different or obscure is a pretty blatant act of rebellion.”

Transforming surf guitar into Slash

Heavy metal music is neither absent nor well-represented among the exhibits at the Rock Hall. Only a few of those named among the Top 10 Greatest Metal Bands by MTV — including Black Sabbath, Metallica, and AC/DC — have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Missing are several bands discussed in Wallach’s text. However, many of the other artists who are featured in the museum may not realize that they helped to develop the heavy metal genre, according to another faculty member at BGSU.

Dr. Matt Donahue ’92, ’01, instructor of popular culture and front man of the band MAD 45, points to various guitarists for their influence in the formation of heavy metal. Link Wray, “the godfather of punk rock,” was the first to experiment with distortion by poking holes in his amplifier. Dick Dale, whose staccato style defined surf rock, was the first popular musician to introduce the “reverb” sound on the electric guitar.

MTV was instrumental in popularizing heavy metal and elevating some of the first bands of the genre to superstar status in the 1980s. Although (and, perhaps because) MTV no longer highlights heavy metal bands, the genre continues to flourish and expand worldwide, Donahue said. “I think people like heavy metal because it is still underground music. It’s still kind of rebellious, outsider music. It still has that edge to it.”

Rebel sounds to international crowds

Those rebellious sounds fill at least a third of the shelf space at RamaLama Records in Toledo. Store owner Rob Kimple also helps to promote local heavy metal shows, including the recent Diemonds performance, with fliers by his cash register and posters in his windows. And why not? Kimple acknowledges that he owes some of his store’s success to fans of the genre.

That isn’t the only reason it seemed natural to host a book signing to celebrate Wallach’s collection — the author is a friend and loyal customer, Kimple said. Wallach found various treasures among Kimple’s collection as he prepared to publish his book, including recordings from heavy metal bands from Easter Island, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Kimple can’t remember exactly how the albums found their way onto his shelves, but cites the finds as evidence that heavy metal commands international followers.

“There are a lot of people that cling to it for life, more so than most genres,” Kimple said. “Metal definitely has got some very, very diehard fans.”