Metal on Mount Olympus

KFB Fletcher & Osman Umurhan (eds.), Classical Antiquity in Heavy Metal Music

Bloomsbury, 272pp, £90.00, ISBN 9781350075351

reviewed by William Poulos

I never would have survived as a classicist if I hadn’t first been a heavy metal guitar player. After hearing the highly technical guitar playing in bands like Metallica, I quickly formed a pantheon of guitarists and treated them with daily reverence. To me, a guitar player in a metal band was a long-haired Hercules, and his guitar a long-necked Hydra he was trying to conquer. No one ever ‘conquers’ an instrument — there’s always something else to learn — but I was about 12 years old when I decided that I was going to dedicate my life to gaining musical muscle. I wanted to be the best metal guitar player in the world, and I quickly learned that the only way to do so was to practise. I knew it would take years. I knew I would have to sacrifice. I knew that no one would care. Dutiful only to my musical gods, I ignored the temptations of this world — girls, sports, books — and sacrificed hours of my day to repeat drills and exercises, hopeful for the reward of technical mastery. One of my goals was to play Metallica’s eight-minute track ‘Master of Puppets’ using only downstrokes with my picking hand; it’s how they do it. (Most people can apply more force to the strings using a downstroke, resulting in a more aggressive tone when playing riffs.) Playing consecutive downstrokes at Metallica-level speeds seemed like a task tougher than cleaning out the Augean Stables, but — you have to remember I was a teenage boy — I had a mantra to motivate me: ‘Upstrokes are for pussies.’ I still remember when I finally achieved it. It had taken me three years.

Some years later, when my musical career had failed to go anywhere, I enrolled in the classics department at a university. I’m still not quite sure why I did — I didn’t know anything about Greek or Latin and hadn’t read any major texts even in translation — but I quickly found myself suited to it. My professors taught me about extremely complicated systems of grammar and morphology. There was no way of reading a Greek or Latin text, they assured us, without mastering these systems first, and the only way to master them is through daily rote learning. This scared off most of my classmates (the class sizes halved by second semester) but I relished it: hermetic, lifelong dedication to a task with almost no market or social value? I had done that already. My hair was shorter, but my mantra was the same: ‘Translations are for pussies.’

In the past 10 years or so there’s been a growing trend in classics faculties to focus on ‘Reception Studies’, which, as the introduction to this volume admits, is sometimes an excuse for classicists to write about music, television, and pretty much anything else while still drawing a salary as an academic. Following Classical Antiquity in Rural Irrigation, Classical Antiquity in Modern Shoelaces, and Classical Antiquity in Green Leafy Salads comes Classical Antiquity in Heavy Metal Music. The last book is a collection of essays written by different people, but there seems to be a common problem: the essays in this collection manage to be laborious without being rigorous.

Two of the essays deal with manliness (or, in the prevailing academic jargon, ‘masculinity’) in the fields of classics and heavy metal. My excessively manly and competitive approach to these pursuits isn’t representative. The essays reveal that classics departments in universities haven’t been boys’ clubs for about 40 years and women, especially singers, are slowly becoming more common in metal bands. Yet the introduction stresses that ‘classics and heavy metal have both been traditionally focused on men and notions of masculinity’; Linnea Åshede and Anna Foka, who dedicate their chapter to ‘gender’, ‘genre’ and ‘femininity’, write that ‘heavy metal is . . . a musical genre that is stereotypically inspired by phenomenologies and narratives of powerful masculinity’. I doubt your average metal musician knows what ‘phenomenologies’ are, but he knows that his subject is more complicated than the academics suggest.

He’ll tell you that anyone who can make such a simple statement about heavy metal must have been asleep during the 1980s. In that decade, heavy metal bands sold millions of records. They wore long hair, make-up, Spandex, and gaudy clothes, creating the subgenre of ‘glam metal’. The appeal wasn’t so much masculinity as androgyny. Even Pantera, the musical equivalent of a bodybuilder, whose 1992 album Vulgar Display of Power has a man getting punched in the face on its cover, started as a glam metal band. The contributors to Classical Antiquity in Heavy Metal Music often claim that they are ‘dignifying’ the genre by treating it as an academic subject, but omissions like these show that they fail to take it seriously. Instead, Åshede and Foka waste space with sentences such as: ‘Because of the sonic power inherent in their volume and capacity to sustain tones almost indefinitely, heavy metal’s characteristic distorted guitars are typically gendered as ultra-masculine, as borderline phallic extensions of the male body.’ My phallus cannot sustain tones almost indefinitely. Should I be worried?

Dubious and unhelpful statements about ‘gender’ aren’t the only pseudo-political analyses in this collection. In the introduction, the editors claim that they didn’t impose any terminology on their contributors. This is probably the right decision, although it causes a bit of confusion. KFB Fletcher discusses two concept albums based on Virgil’s Aeneid by the Italian bands Heimdall and Stormlord. He compares how the two bands differ in their arrangement and presentation of Virgil’s epic poem, and, while there’s nothing objectionable in his comparison, his method makes you wonder why anyone is excited about classics or heavy metal. I perked up a bit when he started using political vocabulary. He claims that Heimdall and Stormlord ‘avoid any kind of simplistic nationalistic reading of the Aeneid’ because they don’t directly mention Italy and don’t claim that they are heirs to Aeneas. Other bands do make such claims, and Fletcher says that to do so is ‘right-wing’, ‘nationalistic — even Fascistic’. It would be nice to know what Fletcher actually means when he uses these words. There are some very disturbing metal bands in Europe and the United States who claim that some groups of people are naturally better than others (most disturbing is the National Socialist Black Metal scene, which gets a few passing mentions) but slippery classifications aren’t going to help anyone understand the problem. Fletcher might need to get back in the mosh pit: metalheads are geniuses of taxonomy. Not even the term ‘Swedish Death Metal’ is descriptive enough for them: a death metal band from Gothenburg sounds very different to one from Stockholm.

Also seduced by easy politicisation, Matthew Taylor focuses on the band Eluveitie. He mentions that they’re from Switzerland and get their name from the ancient Helvetians, a Celtic tribe whom Julius Caesar conquered. Caesar is also our main source of information about the Helvetians, and Eluveitie base their lyrics on his work, with the goal of promoting ‘their identification with their ancient forbears’. Taylor points out the irony of a band trying to assert the identity of a tribe by using material written by the man who conquered them: they ‘take the characterization offered by Roman sources and celebrate it. Obstinacy and recalcitrance become defiance and a will to freedom, and the lack of faith Caesar observed in the Gauls becomes instead a refusal to submit to Rome’s yoke. In the manner in which Eluveitie reflect Rome’s picture of the Gauls back at them, their music should perhaps be characterized as postcolonial, in that Eluveitie’s Helvetian identity occupies a liminal space between a native or true identity and the identity constructed for them by their colonizers’. Earlier, Taylor says that Caesar’s commentaries on the Gauls ‘demonstrates how ethnography served the Roman ideology of imperium sine fine (‘empire without end/border’), since it uses native peoples both to mark the borders of territory and to promote Rome’s crossing of those borders’. If anyone is constructing an identity for others, it’s Taylor: notice how he conflates Rome with Caesar. If the old statesman were alive today and could read English, he’d be delighted that his principled opponents in Rome have been forgotten even by the people whose job it is to remember them. He might also find it amusing that Taylor sympathises with a band identifying with its ancient heritage, while Fletcher in the previous chapter rebukes bands for doing the same thing.

All the contributors in this volume focus on the lyrics rather than the music of the bands under discussion. (This might be for the best because they don’t show very much practical knowledge of music: one author incorrectly claims that the Phrygian mode is microtonal.) Yet there’s a debate about how much the lyrics in metal matter. (I’m a literary man and I don’t really care about them, and considering most bands shout, scream, or grunt their lyrics, I doubt most listeners know what they are.) Discussing the violence and ‘nationalistic agenda’ (there’s that word again) in the lyrics of the band Ex Deo, Iker Magro-Martínez says that the ‘music and lyrics must be disconnected from ethical and political dimensions’ because the experience of listening to metal ‘hardly requires listeners to connect the music and lyrics with real actions or the musician’s values’. Leire Olabarria quotes the frontman of the death metal band Nile, who says that his band is ‘entertainment, first and foremost’.

The recent trend in reception studies is probably a result of declining enrolments in university classics departments and an attempt to convince young people that classical antiquity is ‘relevant’ because some popular entertainers use it for material. Making this argument, academics will continue to lose young minds to easier pleasures. In a bizarre coda, Osman Umurhan, one of the editors, argues that the band Ex Deo shows ‘attention to detail’ because one of their music videos has costumes which pretty accurately represent the clothes of a Roman legion. Do academics not realise that by arguing ‘classics is important because some hip new band wears togas’ they concede the point that classics aren’t worth reading for their own sake? Is any young student going to spend hard, long years memorising declensions, conjugations, and vocabulary to become a costume designer? No — the only reason to study the Greek and Latin classics is because they are among the most interesting and provocative bits of literature that have ever been put to paper. I still remember the thrill I got when I was first able to read Sophocles in the original Greek. Only one other thing has made me so excited: playing ‘Master of Puppets’ with nothing but downstrokes.

William Poulos is a poet and journalist who publishes in Australia and the UK. Follow him on Twitter @PoetryPoulos.