PRINT November 2011


“Home of Metal”

Ben Venom, Don’t Wake Me Lucifer!, 2010, handmade quilted heavy metal T-shirts, fabric, batting, thread, 83 x 95".

RIDING THE IRON HORSE from London into Birmingham, I am always struck by how green and lush the outskirts still appear. Canals cut through the approaches, their crisp edges capitulating to the creeping undergrowth. You pass empty, smashed factories and brick warehouses to reach the city center, recently a riot battleground. Yet the green is a reminder that Birmingham and its satellite towns are inventions of the industrial revolution. This was a peaceful rural heartland until the eighteenth century, when the loom became the new plow and peasants were forced into the new city to work for the lords of the dark satanic mills—such as John “Iron Mad” Wilkinson, whose likeness I found stamped into the coinage recently on display at Wolverhampton Art Gallery. If the days of colossal industry that made the skies black and the air vibrate are long gone, the process Wilkinson set in motion still survives, as you could see in artist Chris Coekin’s “Manufactory” series, 2006–10: photographs of present-day wire factory workers juxtaposed with strange metallurgic residues, like satellite photos of uninhabitable moons. Upstairs at the gallery, you could lift a twisted chunk of bear iron from the Black Country’s last active foundry. It wasn’t much wider than a twelve-inch record, but it was heavy. On the walls, murky oils by Edwin Butler Bayliss painted circa 1900 showed figures stumbling through an ashen landscape, smoggily lit with orange flares.

This was a suitable entry point into the recent exhibition “Home of Metal.” The series of shows across the Black Country ambitiously aimed to show heavy metal, in its variegated forms and subgeneric offspring, not only as a culture but as an inevitable culture of this region. Black Sabbath’s guitarist Tony Iommi was literally branded in this environment: Working in a sheet metal factory, he got his fingers trapped in a steel cutter, and he had to carve thimble tips from melted plastic bottles.

The Wolverhampton’s small show of artists inspired and informed by heavy metal offered a patchwork of preindustrial pagan survivals and superstitions. It occurred to me that heavy metal was born of the region’s particular unrest in the same way that the apocalyptic graphic arts of manga and anime grew out of Japanese fears of tectonic shifts and atomic catastrophe. (Take Motörhead’s famous logo, the horned, tusked skull rendered in gleaming steel and dangling chains, like a medieval incarnation of the devil solidified in the molds that made the railways.) Jim Faure’s wool-wrapped skulls trailing wraithlike fronds of fabric and ribbon were floating embodiments of the occult presences that haunt newer offshoots such as black and satanic metal.

A display of 1960s living conditions at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery recalled the city’s “death trap alleys,” where residents lived in perpetual fear of walls and ceilings collapsing due to the incessant pounding of nearby factories. Heavy metal’s disquiet was literally composed from the earthshaking blare and thresh of heavy machinery and the siren hoots that infiltrated private homes. John “Ozzy” Osbourne grew up in just such an environment. His band Black Sabbath was rooted in a dark European pagan mind-set crossed with the kind of mumbo jumbo derived from pulp-horror novelists like Dennis Wheatley. Among the fan memorabilia and stage props on view here, Marcus Keef’s wyrd and witchy infrared sleeve for Sabbath’s 1970 debut LP, blown up to wall size, was a reminder of how metal channels ancient fears in a rational age. Exponents such as Judas Priest, however, achieved global penetration through corporate branding—and pioneered metal’s flamboyant, riveted leather stage wear. (A selection of Ray Brown’s near sculptural creations for the group was given its own room at the Leather Museum in nearby Walsall.)

Along with Sabbath and Priest, “Home of Metal” devoted space to Napalm Death, the grindcore quartet who heat-stripped the chromium burnish of corporate metal in the mid-1980s, hot-wired the chassis, and force-fed it with rocket fuel. Ken Sharp’s incredible photo of ND in action in a cramped Brixton pub froze the convulsive energy of this intense outfit, whose lyrics—laid bare in the handwritten notebooks of founder Nic Bullen—howled down the mass injustices perpetrated by warmongers, corrupt politicians, financial institutions, vivisectionists, etc., shearing like an angle grinder through encrusted layers of bullshit. “You Suffer” played on the gallery’s speakers, a record-breakingly short electric sneeze.

Forty years on, mainstream metal has toppled into self-parody (check the Ozzy “Bark at the Moon Collect­ible Rock Doll”), and the tropes that began as a response to the inhuman conditions of labor have settled into a consumer-friendly, generic comfort brand. But metal’s original oppressive, occult resonances have not entirely dispersed; instead they are being siphoned off to invigorate other art forms. In Walsall, the New Art Gallery hosted “Be True to Your Oblivion,” a solo show by Mark Titchner, an artist famously indebted to heavy metal monumentality. Titchner’s Ergo Ergot, 2006, was a pair of steel “trees” bearing rotating “vertigo swirls,” the optical illusion appropriated by Sabbath’s record label in a retrospective homage to Marcel Duchamp’s 1920s Rotoreliefs, flanked by video monitors flashing dates referring to the dismantling of civil liberties, and flickering at a speed supposed to make the brain ultrareceptive. The installation was a feat of mental and technological engineering: brute physics meets psychedelics (ergot is a hallucinogenic wheat fungus). In an adjacent space, Titchner’s prodigious steel wind-chime sculptures and stunning charred-wood relief patterns gave the impression of having been tooled by superhuman powers—by some machine that’s faintly imprinted with the organic memory of its human creators. This show felt like an act of salvage, preserving metal’s folk-brutalist impulses from the MTV effect and returning them home to a hallucinatory version of the Black Country’s industrial landscape.

Rob Young is editor at large of London-based magazine The Wire and the author, most recently, of Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (Faber and Faber, 2010).