Worldbuilding Music, Part One: Culture and Society.

This post – and the next few – are a slight change from my usual writing, in that I’m talking about my other big hobby of worldbuilding, and how worldbuilders can engage with music.

Though I spoke quite strongly about why I don’t worldbuild music on the most recent episode of the Artifexian Podcast, that discussion and the ensuing feedback on our subreddit did get me thinking. Music is my job, and it’s something I care a lot about, so as a worldbuilder I thought maybe I’m in a bit of a position to write a guide on how to worldbuild convincing and in-depth music in your fictional settings.

I am not an expert in all of these topics, and in worldbuilding there are no right answers. It’s very hard to make declarative statements about what is good or bad worldbuilding, especially when talking in the abstract and not referring to specific works. However, though I’m not an expert in all these fields, I have a pretty broad knowledge of a variety of music and music-related topics, so what I can do is provide some rough guidelines and differing perspectives from which worldbuilders can consider their setting’s music.

I’m going to split this into a series of maybe three blog posts, and this is the first, where I will discuss the cultural aspects of music and how worldbuilders can begin to think about creating believable musical cultures in their fictional settings.

There are a number of questions to ask when designing a musical tradition. These are by no means a definitive checklist, but thinking about these questions will help you to sort out your thoughts and situate your music in the wider context of the culture you are building. This framework can be applied, with some changes, to many other art forms outside of music.
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The Women of Botswana’s Metal Scene

Way back in the middle of last year when I originally wrote about the metal scene in Botswana, and in various versions of the paper I have given since then, I expressed an interest in seeing more work covering the women of the scene. This article on Hyperallergic gives us just that, and again it draws on the work of a photographer – this time that of Paul Shiakallis.

Shikallis’s series Leathered Skins, Unchained Hearts is the first work I’ve come across focusing specifically on female Motswana metalheads. It seems to support most of what I have written about Motswana metal – women participate in the scene, and their experience seems broadly similar to that of male fans. Fans report a strong sense of camaraderie within the scene, the metalheads are sometimes thought of as Satanists by other Motswana, and the difficulties of navigating scenic participation alongside mainstream life are felt particularly strongly by female fans. Female metalheads dress in a similar fashion to the men, and adopt similar pseudonyms

The notes on Shikallis’s website suggest that participation in the scene is, for these fans, “a blunt rebellion amidst the ordinary of their lives”, and Hyperallergic agrees, saying it provides a means of self-expression in Botswana’s “conservative patriarchal society”.

Interestingly, Carey Dunne’s Hyperallergic article avoids the typical othering language to be found in much writing about the Motswana scene, which usually exoticises some aspect of scenic practice in order to exaggerate the scene’s African-ness. However it does instead exoticise their femininity – as frequently happens in discourse surrounding women in metal, where female musicians are either exalted or denigrated on the basis of their gender more than their ability, and female fans are singled out as being different to the majority male crowd. These women are not just fans like any other, but are referred to as queens – while male Motswana rockers are never called kings. Of course as a doubly minority identity within metal, and as a challenge to “all orthodox prescriptions of what it means to be black and African”, such titles are powerful and empowering. It’s a difficult for me analyze this, but it’s surely a point worth considering.

I am really looking forward to seeing more work on the Motswana scene, and more responses to Shikallis’s series as the first engagement with the scene’s intersection with gender. I have yet to see any evidence of female musicians in the scene, bar Skinflint drummer Sandra Sbrana; if scenic participation truly is a form of rebellion as Shikallis and Dunne both suggest, then surely more women performing metal in Botswana is a likely next step.

Gig Review – Deathcrusher Tour, October 26th, Vicar St

It’s rare that such a good lineup comes to Dublin. I’ve written about Carcass before and without wanting to sound overly dramatic or clichéd, I would not be here without them. Hearing Symphonies of Sickness when I was fifteen years old was my introduction to extreme metal, and it’s been such a huge influence on my musical tastes.

Doors for this gig opened before six, which is a sure sign that there is a long night ahead.

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Electric Picnic 2015

I thought I wasn’t going to get to a festival this year – though my trip to the MHM conference in Helsinki back in June more than made up for that – but a few weeks ago a friend rang me up with an offer of a volunteering job at Electric Picnic. How could I refuse? The job involved picking up cans and convincing festivalgoers to do the same – an idea most of them were surprisingly open to, given the reputation of festivals and Ireland’s generally poor record on recycling.

My main impression of Electric Picnic is that there is so much to do there; as well as a huge array of music – there are a dozen or so stages listed on their website, and that list doesn’t include some of the smaller venues! – there is a great selection of food, arts, fairground rides, and diverse other attractions.


What with getting ready to return to my teaching jobs and trying to sort out my office, I arrived at Electric Picnic with only the vaguest notion of who was performing. I knew Blur and Florence + the Machine were two of the headliners, and that was about all. I had really no idea what to expect from the weekend’s lineup. After getting set up for the job and collecting the necessary gear, the very first song I heard at the festival was Fetty Wap’s Trap Queen, played from a giant novelty radio. I took that as a good omen for the rest of the weekend.

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MHM Conference, Helsinki

I’ve written about the metal scene in Botswana before for this blog, and last week I was very lucky to present my thoughts to an audience of metal scholars at the Modern Heavy Metal conference in the very metal city of Helsinki Finland.

The view of Helsinki from the plane as you approach the airport is cool – it’s mostly parks and forest areas all around. Not what I expected from a capital city, though all this green land explains how the hares that are Helsinki’s main pest animal are able to live in the city. At least it’s a cuter problem than rats or feral cats or wild dogs.

The conference’s opening evening featured a speech by guitarist Alexander Skolnick of the band Testament – though not working in metal academia himself, he’s a man with a lot of interesting things to say about metal and metal studies, and his own commitment to learning and scholarship is clear. He undertook a degree in jazz performance and started a second career as a jazz guitarist and bandleader, after already being hugely successful in Testament.

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Artifexian Podcast

I have exciting music things to report and relay.


If you like anything science-y, or related to speculative fiction, or have any interest in the lives of two handsome, beardy, young Irishmen, do check out this link.

Artifexian is a YouTube channel launched just over a year ago by my good buddy Edgar. He’s setting out to create an in-depth scientifically accurate fictional setting from scratch, and to take his viewers on the journey of learning and discovery along the way.

The new Artifexian website was launched to coincide with the Artifexian podcast going live. On the podcast Edgar and I discuss science, fiction, our lives, and anything else that we can tie into worldbuilding. And the world contains a lot of things, so we won’t lack for topics.

We’d love it if you checked it out.

Come back in a few days for a genuine bona-fide music post.

Gig Review – Aeternum Vale, Malthusian, Behemoth, December 11th, The Academy

The expected Polish invasion of Abbey St was disrupted by the bad weather yesterday: with all ferries across the Irish Sea cancelled, Behemoth’s fellow countrymen Decapitated were stranded in the UK with their support bands Grand Magus and Wintefylleth. Decapitated were a big draw to this gig, and though I’ve seen them before at a festival, I’d like to see them in a smaller, club environment.

Local bands Aeternum Vale and Malthusian were brought on board to fill up the bill – Aeternum Vale play compelling melodic black metal – lots of distorted trebly tremolo guitars. Their soundcloud is definitely worth a look.

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Gig Review – The Contortionist, The Safety Fire, Protest the Hero, November 28th, Voodoo Lounge

This kind of lineup – progressive and mathcore bands – often attracts a slightly hipper crowd with haircuts and snapbacks alongside more stereotypical metal fans, thanks to mathcore’s strong roots in the (post-)hardcore scene. I’m not fully sure where I fell on this spectrum. I was there in black jeans and band t-shirt and boots, but the band was Job for a Cowboy (a reformed deathcore band), and they were kinda skinny jeans, but on the other hand my beard is a little too unkempt at the moment to be considered hip. It led to a tension of identity, but one that on reflection I think allowed me to be the ideal audience member for a gig of this kind.

I managed to again miss the opening act, on account of being on a bus to the gig while they were on stage. London’s Palm Reader seem to be a catchy, aggressive outfit, with short and punchy songs, and were probably worth a look. Their debut album is on Spotify. Sorry guys, I’ll try catch you next time!

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Gig Review – Malevolence, Goatwhore, Dying Fetus, November 20th, Voodoo Lounge

Last week was the beginning of a seriously music-heavy few months; Wednesday and Thursday saw the ICC 10 festival, celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Irish Composers’ Collective. ICC are a wonderful organisation I’m involved in, allowing Irish composers the opportunity to have music performed by some the country’s top contemporary music performers. The festival was a great celebration of the past decade of new music, and it was a really wonderful experience to see so many members past and present in attendance, proving just how strong and vibrant the Irish new music scene is.

As well as ICC 10, there is a huge amount of metal happening in Dublin over the next two months, and this season was kicked off last Thursday at the Voodoo Lounge. This was a rare gig where I came away without any band t-shirts; I missed Fallujah, I wasn’t quite impressed enough by Malevolence to buy merch, and the other two bands I wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing in polite company. Continue reading

10 Facts for Bob Geldof

GB on tour!

Dear Sir Bob,

Thanks so much for doing the Ebola fundraising thing. We hope you raise lots and lots of money. The only thing is, there is a world outside your window Sir, but it might not be quite how you imagine it. We thought you might like to refer to our handy list of facts and figures to help you along when you do the Live Aid 30 re-edit.

Do they know it’s Christmas? – Lovely sentiment, great tune, huge money raiser, but ever so slightly bonkers!

Lets take a look at the facts:

1. There is water flowing in Africa, really quite a lot of it in fact.

“Where the only water flowing Is the bitter sting of tears”

What? What about the world’s longest river? The river Nile is over 4000 miles long.

(The 5 biggest rivers in Africa are: Nile, Congo, Zambizi, Niger, Orange river)


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