"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 25 July 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Kill 'Em All



You can learn stuff from pop

culture. Late at night on TV,

Jodie Foster looks sort of like

a chimp. More: Very early in the

morning, when you open your

fridge and look inside,

everything looks exactly like Ernest

Borgnine. While one may dismiss

such epiphanies as irregular,

trivial even, they are

emblematic of our popular mental

universe, and its parade of

whores with hearts of gold,

slam-dancing old ladies,

sensitive studs, and wise

middle-aged patriarchs.


If the essence of our shared set

of references and values is its

massive, headsplitting fucking

stupidity, then surely Heavy

Metal (massive, with its head

split, stupid, and fucking) must

bear some special relationship

to pop in general. Maybe they're

both dead.



Amid reports of heavy metal's

demise (in May, one AP writer

found blame for both Pat Boone

and Gen X's need for more

cynical forms), it would be both

reassuring and disturbing to see

what it looked like when it

entered the world, naked and

slimy. This is tricky. As you

may know, Ozzy got it from Mars

Bonfire who got it from William

Burroughs who got it from some

smacked-out space freaks. As you

may know, that's bullshit. The

phrase "heavy metal" doesn't

appear in Naked Lunch, which

the Steppenwolf bandmember wasn't

reading anyway when he wrote

"Born to Be Wild." But it's

definitely something real, and

if it's real it has a history

even if we have to make it up.



One thing's for sure: Origins are

red herrings. The quickest path

to the essence of something as

richly trashy and complex as

metal is to seize the baby, hurl

it out the window, and start

panning bathwater. Fuck Zeppelin,

fuck Sabbath, the Stooges, or

the MC5: Heavy metal started

after its originators, in 1971,

with the first heavy metal

practitioners: awesome debut

albums by Dust and Bang proved

there was something to copy. In

1971, "Metal" Mike Saunders made

probably the first reaL

reference to it, observing that

Sir Lord Baltimore's Kingdom

Come "seems to have down pat all

the best heavy metal tricks in

the book." Already, as close to

its inception as we're gonna

get, heavy metal was seen as a

bricolage, a bag of tricks.

Rather than a disillusioning

revelation about metal, this is

potentially an inspiring insight

into musical forms in general:

Every genre is made of, and

dissolves into, other genres.


Even as metal fragmented into a

million pieces (Lite, Death,

Speed, Gloom, Black, Classic,

Diet) in the '80s, its essence

popped up in places it wasn't

expected, like so many monster

heads emerging from your butt.

Far from taking punk-club spirit

into the arena, grunge dragged

arena metal spirit into punk

clubs, flashing some irony at

the door and pretending to be on

the guest list, which was why

Nirvana's smack blues was so

instantly recognizable when it

burst back out (the use of

"Louie Louie" helped). With its

rabid kineticism, fetishistic

hardness, and valorization of

the Stupid, the sound and

dynamic of metal is currently

all over techno like a bad

sequined suit; with the

Prodigy's US debut still

pounding the top 10, and former

English Dogs guitarist Gizz Butt

spanking monkey for the band

live, we may even get to hear

arena rock in an arena again.



The second-most insidious

appearance of metal is in hip

hop: the Wu-Tang Clan's Asiatic

D&D fantasy mythos could

have come straight out of a

Manowar album (subject to some

characteristically black pop

rethinking). While Run-DMC

already mastered the sound, this

is a return of the spirit: With

its image of an embattled,

self-reliant elite triumphing in

a vast cosmic war, Wu-Tang

Forever is almost an accidental

cover version of Kings of

Metal. Metal's darkest hour may

not in fact be its death, but

its indiscriminate cameos -

certain "country" tracks by

Shania Twayne are so aurally

close to Def Leppard's

Pyromania as to make you wonder

what isn't metal.


Every major new pop form of the

past 10 years contains some

transformed or concealed metal

elements. Still, the fact

remains that the only really

viable form of metal qua metal

around today is of the Nordic

Orchestral Barfcore variety:

Immortal and Emperor are so

fucked that only a grizzled

subcult of metal fans and rock

critics can stand them. Whether

metal returns, dies, or is

reincarnated next year doesn't

really matter: Having seen its

beginning, we know how it's

going to end. By imagining the

elements that are recombined and

cannibalized to form metal, and

seeing how metal itself becomes

one of these elements for other

genres of music, we can see how

a form lives and dies. In

watching metal contort, we can

begin to visualize how our pop

culture itself is one day going

to vanish: bit by bit, dispersed

to the point of disappearance.

courtesy of Hypatia Sanders

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