A History of Heavy Metal – mac, Birmingham

Reviewer: John Kennedy

Andrew O’Neill, with support band Reprisal, performs and illustrates an encyclopaedically referenced and evergreen celebratory love-letter (albeit written in blood-red crayon) to the origins and mutations of this never-say-tie-dye genre. Those familiar with Art-Lab, Jazz-fusion band Soft Machine might appreciate the dichotomy of emergent styles here.

Around the same time as the counter-culture road movie Easy Rider featured Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild lyric ‘Heavy Metal Thunder’, ragged-arsed Brummie, John Michael Osbourne was belting out Swarfega-soaked blues in fag-clogged City dives. He was to meet a bloke called Tony whose idea of a manicure was an industrial guillotine. By 1969, with Led Zeppelin already storming the States with their guitar army, the fuse had been lit but a new accelerant was sorely needed by the 16/17 year-old youth of the Midlands to re-ignite their insatiable snakebite-cider lust for gory. Enter Earth, soon to be re-baptised in a bidet of M&B Mild as Black Sabbath. It was still Progressive/Underground in those days – but chromosome-challengingly loud – though still a slightly less injurious experience than a post-gig bus-stop Skinhead’s kick in the kidneys.

With the self-irony bullshit-meter turned well up to eleven and copious quotes from his book The History of Heavy Metal, 2017, (did he mention there were a few copies left on the merch stall?) ‘Of paramount importance’, O’Neill insists, ‘is the fundamental differences between Heavy Metal and Goth’. Heavy Metal devotees like Red Dwarf, cider, skulls and, obviously, sewing badges. As for Goths, best not go there. In his binary universe, this is a Manichean matter of cats or dogs. O’Neill’s has a profusion of power-chords and a barbed-wired fist-full of iconic riffs to illustrate the progression of Heavy Metal through is disparate sub-genres and increasingly extreme sub-cultures. He pays a genuine-felt homage to Birmingham being the succubi source of all things later to gestate from Sabbath’s letting the genie out of the metal-city furnace.

This would become the world of bad-cider induced hysteria manifesting itself in the counter-aesthetic later labelled head-banging: a bonding ritual of hormonal sweat, acne and dandruff forming an ectoplasmic smog above the mosh-pit and where a Satanic pact might get you sick-note to skive off PE on Monday morning.

O’Neill knows and loves his subject and is consumed by its triumphs, betrayals, Occult obsession, ludicrous vanities and its sometime perilously Spinal Tap cod-Norse mythology aesthetic. He gives Paul McCartney the accolade of making Helter-Skelter possibly the first Heavy Metal song ever. Some would equally argue for Blue Cheer’s acid-soaked cover of Summertime Blues. There are suitable nods to the arms-race for volume and distortion pursued by Pete Townsend, The Kinks’ Dave Davies and contemporaries, with Davies reputedly razor-slashing a guitar amp speaker-cone to effect the Holy-Grail of distortion (Link Wray was there long before). Then Hendrix came along and they had to throw the book away. O’Neill’s Jekyll & Hyde homage to Metallica is highly entertaining, riffing on the repeated slide of Lars Ulrich standing behind his drum-kit. Sit DOWN Lars!’

There’s a salutary episode where O’Neill delves into the vortex of Scandi-death-cult nihilism where extreme Metal mentalism, progressing from self-harm on stage, culminates in suicide and murder. The transatlantic ping-pong exchange of rapidly mutating styles eventually sees Punk lend a much-needed impetus to the dying of the old-guard and the rise of nu-Metal. Black Country Grind-Core exponents, Napalm Death, are skipped over rather too briefly as is his ambiguous name-check to Rage Against The Machine as Hip-Hop meets Heavy Metal. Maybe because with Rage, their issues-based lyric eschews reference to snogging Satan and how Mum has wash-shrunk your denim jacket and your Anthrax badges have suffered dye-run.

An occult-cult tale of unleashed technology turned feral and pharmaceutically-charged egos, this is a highly entertaining and comical take on a quixotic, erring on psychotic, demi-world, where passions run high and arm-pit odours even higher. O’Neill hypothesises into the mid 21st Century – by 2050 Guns‘n’Roses still hasn’t cracked that difficult comeback album. He celebrates the healthy state of retro Heavy Metal and urges attendance at live gigs to keep the flame burning. If in the process the odd rogue-male decides to light a flatulent statement of bad-taste with it – so what? Significantly, the decidedly female-light roll of honours is not addressed. On the positive side, not a whiff of petiole-oil. With apologies to Korn and Coal Chamber – their sincerity, if not vision, was never in doubt. As for Limp Bizkit – seems the name says it all.

Reviewed on 18 February 2018 | Image: Contributed

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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