Let's face it – books on metal aren't challenging. They may be well-researched and well-written, with rare photos and anecdotes. But in the end, they usually coddle the subject matter. No one writes on metal but metalheads and the clueless; thus, metalheads stay in fan mode when they wax book-length. Why spoil the party when outsiders do so too readily?
In Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge, Keith Kahn-Harris provides the most piercing critique yet of intolerance in extreme metal. Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind's Lords of Chaos discussed Nazism within black metal, but stayed fair and balanced. Kahn-Harris makes no such claim. From the outset, he makes judgments, calling out metal on its sexism, racism, and homophobia.
The book is really two in one. The first part analyzes the mechanics of the metal "scene," a term Kahn-Harris arrives at after a lengthy, laborious discussion. Kahn-Harris is a sociologist and writes very much as one. Expect sentences like, "Therefore, one possible way of drawing connections between the incommensurable empirical and theoretical elements of the scene is to use the concept of homology." Much of this reading is quite dry.
However, Kahn-Harris is spot-on in his analysis of the "scene." For him, the word requires a holistic inclusion of the music and everything around it – lifestyle, practices, values, economic infrastructure. No one has done such a comprehensive study of metal since Deena Weinstein, and Kahn-Harris picks up where her Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture left off (the '80s). He highlights the scenes of various locales (USA, UK, Sweden, Israel), investigates the idea of "subcultural capital" (i.e., scene cred and its dynamics), and in general provides a much more nuanced look at metal than outsiders and insiders usually do.
The book then segues into Kahn-Harris' critique of extreme metal. While it's juicy, it's too short, tucked away in 25 pages at the end. It's heavy on terminology like "reflexive anti-reflexivity," which, while technically incisive, feels distant. Though Kahn-Harris avoids simplistic sloganeering, he fails to stir up the urgency his subject matter requires. He points out sexism, racism, and homophobia within the scene, but offers no solutions.
Kahn-Harris is neither an insider nor outsider to metal. He's an academic who discovered the music; thus, he explores and enjoys metal, yet maintains analytical distance from it. Interestingly, this shows in his interview transcriptions. He retains every pause and stutter, giving a realistic portrayal of his subjects that can seem demeaning. The Neanderthal metalhead stereotype doesn't appear in the tightly edited text of, say, Decibel, but it's very much present here. At the same time, Kahn-Harris doesn't help his own cause by misspelling Chimaira, Vio-lence, and the name of fellow metal writer Ian Christe!
Despite its faults, this book is vitally important in a time when metal interacts with the non-metal world more than ever. When metalheads wear long hair and band shirts, they stand for something – but what? For too long, metal, supposedly a rebellious artform, has glossed over sexism, racism, and homophobia – established ideologies of the mainstream. Metalheads and non-metalheads alike would do well to read this book and challenge their own assumptions and prejudices.