Since its earliest days, metal culture has had a deep connection with historical topics. Classic metal songs like Iron Maiden’s ‘Alexander the Great’ (about the historical figure) as well as ‘Invaders’ (dealing with the Nordic invasion of Britain in the middle ages) or Judas Priest’s ‘The Ripper’ (about ‘Jack the Ripper’) are meant to take their listeners back in time to earlier centuries. Such songs frame the past in the form of metal music and lyrics – history becomes ‘metallized’.
As a cultural historian, this is where my research in metal music studies comes in. Historians are academic experts in researching past cultures. I examine how metal developed into its currently well-known form over the fifty years that has passed since Black Sabbath’s debut (1970). This past of metal is my first focus of research. Moreover, historians can tell modern society what role the past could play in the present. This is the aspect of the past in metal and is clearly discernible in the classic metal songs mentioned. Let us have a short look at both aspects.
Basically, every broader book or article that deals with metal studies starts with reflections on the origins of metal. Musicology, sociology, anthropology and related disciplines have already produced important insights into metal’s genesis and its global spread since the 1970s. Now, more and more historians are starting to work in the field and incorporating their specific historical research methods when examining sources of metal history (e.g. lyrics, fanzines, concert flyers, T-shirts and record covers as historical sources). As an example, my reading of the lyrics to Iron Maiden’s ‘Paschendale’ about a battle in the First World War probably would differ from a sociological reading. My specific interest lies in longer term processes that span decades and contributed to the Europeanization and globalization of metal since 1970.
Metal musicians have a fascination with the past of humanity – be it ‘real’ events like the history of ‘Alexander the Great’ or largely imagined tales set in historical settings, for example the stories in Amon Amarth’s or Enslaved’s brands of ‘Viking metal’, which create fantastic narratives involving the people of Scandinavia during the middle ages. This past in metal is fascinating to me, because such songs are nothing other than metal songs being ‘turned into history books’. Can metal be a good way of teaching history? Can we learn something new about the past from the history of metal music? These are the questions I try to answer.
In short, I employ a perspective that reconstructs the past of metal and looks into the role of the past in metal. Explaining both aspects as well as possible is the task of historians in metal music studies.
Songs to keep in your ear (besides those mentioned in the text)
Lauro Meller (2018)., Iron Maiden: A Journey Through History. Curitiba: Appris.
Peter Pichler (2020), Metal Music, Sonic Knowledge, and the Cultural Ear in Europe since 1970. A Historiographic Exploration. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner.