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.
Other keynote speeches from included Deena Weinstein’s discussion of the current state of global metal’s strengths and weaknesses , and Martin Popoff’s presentation on Who Invented Heavy Metal?, based on his recently-published chronological survey of metal’s precursors and origins. (I was personally very pleased to see Iron Butterfly acknowledged in this list, as I always feel the influence of that late-6os psychedelia on metal is underestimated.) The last of the conference’s first round of keynote speeches was from Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian, who instead of giving a prepared talk on a specific topic, asked for questions from the audience and spoke at length on whatever topics came up. His style as a speaker is really down-to-earth and engaging, and I had the benefit of sitting beside Deena Weinstein and hearing her additional commentary on Scott’s account of thrash metal history.
The various papers given over the course of the week reflect the diversity of the field of metal studies. My paper on the treatment of Botswana’s metal scene was on a panel on global heavy metal, alongside presentations about metal in Tunisia, Malaysia, China, and the Caribbean. There were other panels on gender issues within metal, the visual culture of heavy metal, metal and race, and musical analyses of various aspects of metal. I could write a blog post on each of the panel I attended – and maybe I will in the near future – but for now I can just recommend that anyone interested checks out the open access e-version of the conference book, containing all the papers accepted for the conference.
Of course, those of us interested in metal studies tend also to be interested in metal itself – the two go hand in hand. Two very good gigs were organised in conjunction with the conference. On Tuesday night was a showcase of Finnish bands Shiraz Lane, Blind Channel, Ranger, and Bloodred Hourglass. Unfortunately I missed the first and last of these bands. Blind Channel were a fairly bro-ish post-hardcore/nu-metal kind of act – not at all my kind of thing but they had no lack of instrumental skill and some pretty good songwriting. Ranger were a classic thrash band with tons of energy – they reminded me somehow of Goatwhore in their performance despite being a different genre, and anyone who I’ve talked about Goatwhore with in the last eight months will know what high praise that is.
The Wednesday night gig was two fairly established bands – young thrashers Lost Society, and power metallers Battle Beast. Lost Society are about my favourite thrash band right now, giving the energy that only a gang of 22-year olds can, backed up by fearsome levels of ability at their instruments. Definitely worth a look for anyone into thrash. Obviously, I bought a t-shirt. Battle Beast are another band that aren’t really my kind of thing – it’s rare that I find a power metal band I can get into, but lead singer Noora has a stunning voice. They had a few tracks I enjoyed, with the highlight being one that began with the keytar player playing The Imperial March while downing a bottle of Karhu.
Apart from learning lots, meeting some great people, hearing good music, and discovering new avenues for me to explore, Helsinki is a nice city to visit, thought it’s expensive. Island fortress Suomenlinna is just a few minutes away on ferry (which is integrated into the city’s public transport system), and has so much to see – from the military museum to a lovely lighthouse/church to cliffside walks to formal gardens to abandoned naval artillery. I actually saw it on my first morning in the city, before the conference began, which was great as everyone recommended it as the best thing to see in the whole city, so I got it out of the way before getting to work!
I’m already looking forward to the next metal studies event!