One of my earliest, defining TV moments was back when I was probably four or five watching 3-2-1 Contact when I saw the most amazing thing. The segment I watched was all about the special effects that go into a live Kiss concert. Where other children may have been frightened by the volume or Gene Simmons’ spewing of blood and fire, I was immediately captured. It didn’t make a metal head out of me right then and there but from that moment on my hunger for thrills and loud music was sparked. In junior high I discovered Motley Crue, then Metallica and Megadeth, then Exodus and Anthrax. By the time I hit high school I discovered punk rock and hardcore and had to foster my love of metal in secrecy. I would never hear the end of it if my punk friends found me listening to The Number of the Beast. Today I openly embrace metal, new and old. As I write this iTunes randomly samples hours of metal, from Judas Priest to 1349.
Let’s face it, though. I realize how arrogant this may seem but metal fans of my caliber are the rarest breed. Those of us aging metal heads who manage families and white collar jobs keep our love of black metal firmly secured in the closet, afraid of what our co-workers may think. So imagine my surprise when I found this gem, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. I originally picked it up based on a little bit of hype coupled with my love of metal and quirky documentaries. Headbanger’s Journey is a top-down examination of heavy metal from the music to the culture that has sprung up around it from an anthropologist’s perspective. Director, Sam Dunn, musician and anthropologist, looks at the history and progression of metal, it’s impact on world culture, the fans and personalities involved and a host of other social elements. What it amounts to is a crystal clear vision of heavy metal that accomplishes more in 90 minutes than even the most ambitious metal documentaries from the past.
Sam begins with a little background on himself. Some context is necessary and it turns out that his introduction to metal was really no different than what I expect most people’s were. Metal seems to be very much a suburban experience. Even though many of the genre’s flagship bands began in cities, most of those band members began the heavy metal experience out in the sticks. Sam illustrates this by interviews with various band members. Members of Voivod talk about coming up in dreary Canadian industrial towns, Slipknot discuss the environmental conditions of Iowa and the iconic metal personality from Motorhead, Lemmy, talks about his own hometown and hanging out around a phone booth, the only source of light in town after dark. The stories told mirrored my own experience. Where the fans and musicians come from is a very important factor in crafting their peronalities and the music that they make.
This is followed with the origins of metal from a musical standpoint. Through interviews, the age-old argument of who was first is brought up. The usual suspects of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath are invoked. For the record, I’m of the opinion that Sabbath was there first. Though Zeppelin is a worthy contender, the subject matter and overall sound produced by Sabbath is much closer to what would evolve into the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and then on and on. Though, Geddy Lee does mention Blue Cheer. But first, it is established that metal has its roots planted firmly in the blues. Since both Sabbath and Zeppelin, along with just about everyone else in rock at the time, were heavily influenced by the blues, particularly delta blues.
The documentary moves along at a great pace, touching on every important aspect of metal. It goes from the music to the people involved proving that not everyone in metal is a total meathead. It dips into the sexual and religious aspects of the music, visiting the origin of the Sabbath sound and the use of the tri-tone, which was believed in the dark ages to be a sound used to summon the devil. We get the history of the two-fingered, horns gesture from Ronnie James Dio (who easily steals the show as one of metal’s most personable guys). There’s a visit to the Wacken Open Air Festival in Germany (considered to be metal’s greatest gathering of fans) featuring an interview with a very drunk, very surly Mayhem.
One of the finer moments of the movie comes when Sam and crew head to Norway to feature one of metal’s strangest chapters, the early 90’s rise of black metal and all the church burning, murder, satanism and naziism that happened along with it. For the unitiated, black metal is easily the world’s most confrontational, abrasive form of metal.
An extremist extension of the satanism toyed with by the likes of Slayer and Venom. Black metal was genuinely dangerous in its early stages that left two men dead and ancient monuments destroyed. These days, black metal has reached a global audience and embraces new musical ideas while playing the satanism for yuks and record sales, but a few remnants remain, evident in the interview with Gorgoroth vocalist, Ghaal, one of the doc’s most chilling moments. Even without the foreknowledge that he kidnapped, terrorized and tortured some dude in Norway (which he did some time for), the tone of the interview is frightening as he more or less declares war on Christianity and exudes a genuinely intimidating position.
It’s packed top to bottom with fantastic interviews and live footage of the bands in question. The source material, metal, is often thought of as music for morons but in many cases, with a couple of exceptions, the people involved on both sides of the stage are presented as ordinary folks, many educated. Though, I’m sure the target audience, metal fans, are going to be the only ones to really get it, the information contained herein is presented in such a fashion that anyone could be brought up to speed. Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey reinforces every reason that I love metal and it’s also one of the best movies I saw in 2006. Not a metal fan? Don’t turn your nose up to it, it’s packed with enough personality and a thourough look at the world of heavy metal that just about anyone could get into it. It’s also worth it just to see Ronnie James Dio bag on Gene Simmons.