Book Review: Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge by Keith Kahn-Harris

I love reading about music almost as much as I love listening to music, so I thought I’d post the occasional book review. I’m starting off with a book I read recently, Keith Kahn-Harris’s Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge.

Let me start by saying that this is not a typical music book. It’s a sociological study of extreme metal music fans, and it’s fairly academic in tone and approach. In particular, the book starts off by defining the author’s approach to certain sociological concepts, like “subculture”, and it can get pretty technical. Even if you find that part hard going, don’t be put off, because once the author gets to talking about his actual research results, it gets pretty fascinating.

Probably one of my favorite parts of the book is the section where the author looks at the extreme metal scenes of four different countries: The United States, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Israel. I was particularly intrigued by his description of extreme metal scenes in the United States, where there are lots of bands and lots of musical activity, but where local scenes often seem to fade out when the bands in them achieve a certain level of global prominence (for example, the way the Tampa scene faded out after the initial rush of death metal bands, or the San Francisco Bay Area scene evaporated after producing a group of key thrash metal bands). He also notes that there seems to be a lack of scene “infrastructure” in American scenes – that they produce fewer record labels, distros, fanzines, and so on than comparable scenes elsewhere. It almost seems to be the case that the proximity of American bands to the mainstream American music industry almost harms the development of a more underground scene.

I also found the description of the Swedish scene really interesting, particularly where the author discusses how Sweden subsidizes music education, instruments, and practice space for young people, and how this has undoubtedly helped Sweden become one of the biggest exporters of music in the world. (Third after the United States and the United Kingdom). It would be interesting to know if other countries that “punch above their weight” musically, like, say, Finland, have similar policies.

This book also explains a piece of metalhead behavior that I find endlessly amusing and frequently frustrating: the seemingly boundless need that metal fans have for categorizing bands into incredibly precise subgenres, and arguing over those subgenres. It is basically a way of demonstrating “subcultural capital” by showing one’s knowledge of metal music. Which means that the next time that someone says to you, “I can’t believe you called that band death metal when they are clearly blackened progressive goregrind!” you know they’re just battling you for status.

The book also offers a window into how much the extreme metal scene has changed in a relatively short period of time. The research described in this book was done in 2005. Most people could still remember a time when tape trading and letter writing were the primary forms of activity in the scene. Email was pretty prominent, but blogs and webzines were in their infancy, and I’m not sure if the author mentions podcasting at all. And Kahn-Harris could still say with complete confidence that downloads had not had much impact, if any, on the sales of compact discs. I think the picture would look very different now, and I wonder if Kahn-Harris has done any follow up research.

The book concludes with two very interesting chapters on “reflexivity,” “anti-reflexivity,” and how the extreme metal scene deals with racism, homophobia, misogyny, and other problematic ideas. I’m finding it difficult to summarize these chapters outside of their context, but they are quite interesting and thought-provoking. I suppose the book is looking at the tendency of extreme metal to embrace transgressive ideas — whether it be the violent lyrics of death metal bands like Autopsy and Cannibal Corpse or the unsavory political ideas embraced by some black metal bands — but to also back away from those ideas and claim on some level that they’re not “serious” or that they’re not racist/misogynist/etc. It’s something I think about a lot as a metal fan – there are lots of metal songs with extreme lyrics and themes, and I think it’s important to realize that not all of it is meant to be taken seriously, but I also think that, “Hey, it’s not meant to be taken seriously” is not always a defense against being offensive. I’m not sure if I’m any clearer on where I draw the line, but these chapters have helped me think about it.

Anyway, this book is not light reading by any means, but if you’re at all interested in why metal fans do what they do, pick it up.

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