January 20, 2021

In my early teens, I got my tits out for Axl Rose and about 25,000 other people. The year was 1992, the venue was Wembley Stadium, and I’d been allowed to tag along with my brother, his friend and friend’s dad to a Guns N’ Roses concert, under strict instructions to stay with the group in the stands. I was, at the time, a very big fan of Guns N’ Roses, and there was no question of obeying this edict. Instead, I slunk away before we’d even got into the stadium and spent the whole gig in the moshpit, somewhat less clothed than I should have been.

I don’t regret the moshing, which was fun, though I’m mildly embarrassed about the tits. Now a parent myself, I do feel bad for the friend’s dad who drove us all to Wembley and whose gig I spoiled by disappearing. It all came rushing back while being made to watch the rock-themed 2020 kids’ film Trolls: World Tour with my own little girl.

The villain is one Barb, Queen of the Rock Trolls, whose dastardly plan is to unite all the troll nations forcibly under the dominion of rock music. Barb’s obnoxious-yet-fragile character reminds me a little of my own adolescent metal-fan days, screaming in ecstasy at the pint-sized Axl Rose and his leave-nothing-to-the-imagination white shorts. But the (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) depiction of heavy metal as the musical villain in Trolls: World Tour, gets the metal aesthetic both absolutely right — and also absolutely wrong. In depicting loud guitar music as in search of world dominion the film identifies, accurately, the way metal plugs into a High Romantic era of imperial grandeur. But it also misrepresents the cachet that High Romantic aesthetic has (or rather doesn’t have) in the modern world.

High Romanticism was baked into heavy metal from the start. Consider the irresistible temptation metal bands feel to play alongside that most High Romantic band format of all: a symphony orchestra. In 1969 the proto-metal band Deep Purple wrote, rehearsed and performed Concerto for Group and Orchestra, alongside the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, in a gala concert at the Royal Albert Hall. The score was lost in 1970, but that didn’t stop noise-loving musicologists from recreating it, and a re-run was staged at the Albert Hall in 1999.

The same year, American thrash band Metallica performed their own symphonic rock happening with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the live album S&M (Symphony & Metallica). Listening to S&M, the only real surprise is that “Master of Puppets” was ever played without a full orchestral backing; but the affinity between metal and symphonic music goes far deeper. You only have to listen to the last five minutes of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (composed 1824) to see what I mean: the whole mood is metal.

I’m sure there’s a proper music theory term for what I’m describing, but as my music theory education ended around Grade 5 I’m borrowing the term ‘metal’ to describe an aesthetic that’s both intensely serious and determined to throw the whole sensory kitchen sink at you. (Deep Purple, incidentally, were famously committed to throwing the sensory kitchen sink at their audience, which resulted in their 1972 accession to the Guinness Book of Records as the ‘World’s Loudest Band’.)

In symbolic terms, the Albert Hall — constructed 1871, at the zenith of Britain’s imperial era — was the perfect venue for Deep Purple’s foray into symphonic kitchen-sinkiness. A crowdfunded monument to Victorian engineering, public-spiritedness and looted imperial wealth, the Albert Hall’s inception fused elite seriousness with nationalism and popular culture in quintessentially 19th century high style.

A century later, though, the empire that helped bankroll the Albert Hall’s construction was dissolved, and the steel industry that forged its columns on the way to extinction in Britain. And yet heavy metal was forged at this fag-end of Britain’s industrial/imperial arc, amid the warehouses of Birmingham, in part thanks to an industrial accident. Aged 17, guitarist Tony Iommi lost two fingertips in a sheet metal factory, and changed his guitar style to accommodate the injury — in the process giving birth to the sound that would come to define Black Sabbath (formed 1968).

In one sense, then, the birth of heavy metal music is both a product of Great Britain in its industrial pomp — as well as being a semi-ironic, semi-nostalgic, working-class comment on that bygone era. In metal, class and culture fuse in complicated ways, but perhaps Bruce Dickinson (singer in perhaps the most Union-Jack-festooned metal band of all, Iron Maiden) was onto something when he observed in a BBC Hard Talk interview in 2012 that working-class people are culturally conservative. For along with its Hammer Horror humour and darkness, metal conveys a straight dose of imperial-era seriousness. And among the heavily ironic and post-nationalistic contemporary elite, this makes the genre more than a little embarrassing.

It’s not just the patriotism that offends today’s rationalistic status culture. Metal and symphonic music are both also jacked directly into the European mythological mainframe, where the old gods still lurk. Nowhere is this so visible as in the pivotal role played in the High Romantic symphonic canon by the most myth-laden, po-faced and profoundly metal composers of all time: Richard Wagner. For his crimes, Wagner is more than a touch ‘problematic’ in modern terms. He’s also so metal there’s even a fan Twitter and blog dedicated to counting the ways Wagner is metal.

Wagner drew his inspiration from Europe’s rich tradition of pagan myth, paving the way for countless metal bands to follow suit, borrowing liberally from Germanic and Norse myth alike to equal parts stirring and comical effect. While it’s hard to tell how seriously to take Swedish band Brothers of Metal (the official video for Prophecy of Ragnarök is pure LARP in the original nerds-in-costume sense), perhaps seriousness is beside the point.

Metal’s High Romanticism is not just a musical crossover, but a poetic one too: Iron Maiden made a surprisingly catchy 13-minute musical version of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Nor is it just an English thing: the German metal band Rammstein is soaked in Goethe allusions and even straight reworkings, for example this rock version of Erlkönig.

The seam of heavy metal dedication to heroism, mythology and sensory overload winds through Wagner’s Ring via another source of ring-themed mythology and metal inspiration, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. This isn’t just a question of thematic influence: in 2013 Christopher Lee, who played Saruman the White in the 2001-2003 movie trilogy, also released the deeply strange but also strangely marvellous symphonic rock concept album Charlemagne: By The Sword And The Cross at the age of 87.

So the taproots of metal run all the way through the good and bad of Europe’s imperial and industrial era, to that era’s poetry and deep mythological substrate. In this sense, metal is profoundly conservative, in a far richer way than today’s actually-rather-Whiggish Conservative Party. (The late Roger Scruton, incidentally, liked a bit of Metallica.)

Metal is also conservative in the sense of taking musical skill seriously. The best metal guitarists are astonishingly virtuosic, and often possess a grasp of music theory that would shame a concert pianist — or, as in this video of Tina S Cover absolutely shredding a metal arrangement of the presto agitato from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, facilitate pretty exceptional performances of a concert pianist’s repertoire. (For a classical/metal solo crossover in the opposite direction, here’s Facundo Lopèz of GEODA playing death metal on a flamenco guitar.)

So why does it all seem a bit, well, camp? 52 years after Black Sabbath was formed, I found myself watching the band’s legendarily wild frontman Ozzy Osbourne voicing the raddled father of Barb, Queen of the Trolls, in Trolls World Tour. You could read this as a sad end to a once-powerful genre, but I prefer to think it attests (like Christopher Lee, Brothers of Metal, or This Is Spinal Tap) to metal’s ability to hover always at the edge of self-mockery, without ever becoming entirely silly.

Metal may look from one angle like sonic overload and half-camp sincerity with a side order of ridiculous costumes. But seen from another angle, it’s the last resting-place of a heroic style that once held cultural pride of place in symphonic music, and was widely popular from the elites downward.

Modern tastemakers have no patience for such elevated sentiment. When they’re not being skewered by The Kids as ‘Britpoppers’, our rulers decry greatness as patriarchal delusion, national identity as a vector for colonial depredations, mythology as a delivery mechanism for fascist sympathies and all sources of shared cultural meaning as dangerously exclusionary threats to egalitarian individualism. The Britpoppers’ monument was not a new Albert Hall but a big tent full of tat: the Millennium Dome. Under such leadership, small wonder heavy metal has to smuggle its Wagnerian aesthetic beneath a studded-leather cloak of high camp.

And still, despite being five decades old, with many of its pioneers either dead, in recovery or voicing animated trolls, metal still likes to think of itself as countercultural. In the ever more intolerantly progressive and anti-intellectual 21st century, perhaps it still is. For against that backdrop, perhaps the stealth-reactionary aesthetic of heavy metal is still, well, just a little bit metal.