When we think of metal music, many lapse into instinctual cliches and stereotypes of darkness, volume, and anger, and, while much of this holds true, there is so much more to the genre. Dan Franklin’s engaging and expansive book encourages us to think again about metal, how the concept of heaviness defines the music, and what it means in the 21st century.
The great achievement of Heavy is the way Franklin makes metal accessible and interesting, even for people who aren’t fans. He opens up a discussion into the nature of heaviness itself; its powerful ideological themes and physical forces. Franklin reaches well beyond the confines of metal to show us its cultural impact and how wider culture has influenced metal. The book reminds us that music is so entwined into our existence that it feeds upon matters of life and death—and metal is perhaps the most extreme form of this.
Franklin is quick to acknowledge metal in its most common form of bombastic intensity, that sometimes verges on parody, wrestling with the limitations of its pathos and always threatening to enter the sublime ridiculous. But in recognising and acknowledging its own sense of history and internal influence, metal is revealed to have a rich culture in its own right. Heavy dissects metal as a more various and nuanced range of bands than many of us who are not hardcore fans might expect.
Franklin’s skills and experiences as a music journalist (an often underrated form of writing) shine through in his ability to connect his extensive knowledge of metal in its many forms. The book moves from drone-based ambient soundscapes to earth-shaking, self-destructing sounds, to broader ideas around history, cultural critique, and art, particularly at the darker edge of inhuman behaviours and the extremes of love, lust, and loss. By looking outside of the world of music, Franklin breaks down metal’s reflexive influence upon major and minor themes such as body horror and spiritual angst, fantastical escapism, and social commentary. These shifts of subject are also expressed by the turns of metal music being fast and loud, but also slow and deep.
I’m only able to name a few metal bands off the top of my head, but I’ve always been interested in a variety of heavy music that might not fit into the metal genre, so the book is a great ear-opener to new music. Franklin name-drops many bands that are world famous, and for each one he shares his personal recollections of first listens and gigs, illuminating his own experiences of heaviness.
Again, Franklin’s personal relationships, through interviewing several of the artists he discusses in the book, make for a more nuanced angle as he digs deeper from these discussions to offer significant insight beyond the average interview questions. This reveals a more human side to the artist and adds depth rather than merely subtracting mystique. Hearing Pantera’s Phil Anselmo speculate upon his own struggles with addiction while praising the dark intensity of recent albums by Nick Cave was a revelation to me, as you hear Anselmo reflect upon the death of two of his former bandmates, their passing reflecting the journey of his subsequent musical career outside of Pantera.
There is also the, for some, surprising entrepreneurial flair of Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, a qualified pilot and motivational business speaker who Franklin places into a revived context given the singer’s support of Brexit. Placed alongside Maiden’s legendary revisiting of British identity and iconic heraldry where so many famous events such as the charge of the light brigade, and Tennyson’s poem in response to it, bring history back to the present. The band still proudly fly the Union Jack in much of their album artwork at a time when so many of us are reexamining what it represents in the current political climate.
As much a cultural artefact as an exploration that redefines the limits of metal, Heavy offers a reminder that heaviness in its many guises, as volume, physical weight, scale, and emotional force, occupies a unique philosophical place in many of our lives.