A merry metal Christmas



After events last week, I definitely needed cheering up by the time the weekend arrived.  Happily, I was duly cheered up by the holding of Colombo Open Air 2019.  This was a heavy metal concert featuring mainly Sri Lankan bands held on December 14th at the premises of the quaintly named Otter Aquatic Club – actually a private club with swimming and other sports facilities – just off Bauddhaloka Mawatha in Colombo 7.


This was the first time I’d been to this venue and I much prefered it to Shalika Hall on Park Road in Colombo 5, which had hosted most of the previous live music concerts I’d attended in the city.  (The hall doesn’t have sidewalls, creating weird acoustics because much of the sound escapes out into the night, and causing discomfort because a lot of mosquitos get in.)  The Otter Aquatic Club provided a pleasant open courtyard with a covered stage for the bands and some other roofed-over spaces, including a makeshift bar, where the audience could shelter if it started to rain.  Fortunately, despite Sri Lanka being gripped at the moment by a protracted and seemingly interminable rainy season, the only rain that fell tonight did so during an interval between two of the sets.  Meanwhile, the Club evidently makes efforts to keep its premises mosquito-free because I didn’t see (or feel) one of the bity wee bastards all night.


The concert kicked off in the late afternoon with a competition whereby some less established / up-and-coming bands competed for the prize of a place in the line-up at the Indian heavy metal festival Bangalore Open Air.  Due to other commitments, however, I was only able to get there at seven o’clock, with the first in a series of established bands due to take the stage at 7.20.  It was here that I experienced the only bum-note of the night, because it transpired that the schedule advertised on Facebook differed from the schedule actually being followed, and the first of those established bands, Mass Damnation, had already performed their set and left the stage.  (At least I’ve seen Mass Damnation before, at Shalika Hall.)  What, things not following the official schedule?  That’s never happened before in Sri Lanka…


Oh well.  I still had three Sri Lankan bands to see, plus the concert’s headliners, Kryptos, a band from Bangalore, which seems to be the happening place for heavy metal in India these days.  (According to this Guardian article, Bangalore has Iron Maiden to thank for that.)  First on after my arrival were Paranoid Earthling, described by their Wikipedia entry as a ‘grunge, experimental, psychedelic, stoner rock, heavy metal’ band from Kandy.  One of their assets is their vocalist Mirshad Buckman, who always struck me as looking a little like the late, great Ronnie James Dio and sounding a little like the late, great Bon Scott; and who, with his between-song tirades about the state of things, is surely the grumpiest man in Sri Lankan heavy metal.  I was just glad that tonight when Buckman was railing against the media and the low standards of his country’s journalists that he didn’t glance behind him – otherwise, he’d have seen a screen at the back of the stage, which was advertising the concert’s sponsors, flashing the logo of Ceylon Today.


Next up were comparative old-timers – founded in 1995 – Whirlwind, who provide a denser and more mannered sound.  Due to ongoing scheduling issues, they hadn’t had time to do a proper soundcheck beforehand and were forced to give ongoing instructions to the audio engineer between songs.  I have to say I didn’t think this affected the quality of their music, which I found intense, immersive and even hypnotic at times.



After Whirlwind, by way of contrast, came death / black metal outfit Genocide Shrines.  Clad in ski-masks and gimp-masks, the Shrines present a thunderous assault of noise that, according to the Metal Archives website, is inspired by themes of ‘tantra / spiritual warfare’, ‘death’ and ‘arrack’.  So at that point, to get trantrically attuned to them, I bought a big glass of arrack at the bar.


The evening’s final hour was given over to Indian guests Kryptos.  It doesn’t surprise me that their Wikipedia entry says they are greatly influenced by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  (They’ve even supported Iron Maiden, which must have been a dream come true for them.)  This is because while they struck their opening chords, I immediately thought: “Judas Priest!”  And every song that started up thereafter sounded like it was about to turn into Breaking the Law.  I say that in an absolutely complimentary way, incidentally.


At the end of the night, with a smile restored to my face, and with my body filled again with good cheer appropriate to the season, I took my leave of Colombo Open Air 2019.  Thank you, Paranoid Earthling, Whirlwind, Genocide Shrines and all the other great guys (and ladies) of the Sri Lankan heavy metal scene.  And a Merry Christmas to you all.



Lanka metal



Back in 2014 when I moved to Sri Lanka, I accepted there’d be certain things I’d gain from the move and certain things I’d lose from it. Among the gains would be the following: sunshine, warmth, delicious spicy food, lots of interesting Buddhist and Hindu temples to explore, access to some gorgeous beaches, access to the equally gorgeous Hill Country of the island’s interior, and a chance to see an occasional elephant.  Among the losses…  Well, I assumed one thing absent from my new life in Sri Lanka would be the opportunity to hear my favourite musical genre played live.  No, I definitely didn’t expect to attend any heavy metal gigs there


Indeed, I imagined the only live music I’d come across would be some traditional Sri Lankan music – absolutely nothing wrong with that, I should add – and plenty of lame middle-of-the-road cover bands playing insipid versions of Eagles, Bryan Adams and Lionel Ritchie songs to crowds of sweaty Western tourists and moneyed local would-be hipsters in the big hotels at the country’s holiday resorts – absolutely everything wrong with that.


But one of the pleasantest surprises of my past four years in Sri Lanka has been my discovery that there’s actually a thriving heavy metal scene in the country.  Lanka metal is really a thing.  So here’s a quick round-up of my favourite local headbangers.   



A good place to start is Stigmata, on the go since 1998 (when the founding members were still schoolboys) and responsible for an impressive sound that, to me at least, combines the best of Iron Maiden and Sepultura.  Recently, they’ve played a few small-scale gigs at the Floor by O bar next to the Colombo Cricket Club and I decided to attend one of these.  (My previous experience of the band had been when  they performed a set at the 2017 Lanka Comic Con.)  I arrived early, when the band had barely begun to assemble their equipment, and before long none other than Stigmata’s vocalist and co-founder Suresh De Silva had wandered over to have a chat. 


After we’d had a blether about the new Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, we got onto discussing great heavy metal gigs I’d attended in the past.  The fact that I’d seen Megadeth supported by Korn in Chicago all the way back in 1995 must have made me seem ancient to De Silva.  But then when I went on to reminisce about seeing Nazareth play a gig in Aberdeen in 1983, he probably wondered if I’d wandered in from Jurassic Park


Later, Stigmata gave a thunderous live performance.  Unfortunately, by then, I was parked at one end of the Floor by O bar-counter and they were playing in a corner at the other end of it, and the photos I took of them – blurry and with lots of bar paraphernalia getting in the way – hardly did them justice.



I’m also a fan of Paranoid Earthling, whose Wikipedia entry describes them as a ‘grunge, experimental, psychedelic, stoner rock, heavy metal’ band from Kandy.  They’re of a slightly-younger vintage than Stigmata, having been formed in 2001.  Among their assets is their spandex-wrapped vocalist Mirshad Buckman, who has the enviable double-advantage of looking a bit like the late, great Ronnie James Dio and sounding a bit like the equally late, great Bon Scott.  Their best songs include Open up the Gates with its twiddly, thumping guitar sound; the punky, foot-tapping Rock n’ Roll is my Anarchy; and Deaf Blind Dumb, which borrows its stompy bits from Marilyn Manson’s The Beautiful People but is still a blast played live.


For a heavier sound – death and black metal – check out the Genocide Shrines, whose ‘lyrical themes’ according to the Metal Archives website include ‘tantra / spiritual warfare’, ‘death’ and, er, ‘arrack’.  Well,after you’ve spent all day waging tantra and spiritual warfare to the death, I suppose you need to relax with a glass of arrack.  Aside from their juggernaut sound, their most memorable feature is their fondness for wearing scary masks onstage, Slipknot-style.  Though I have to say I was a bit disappointed when I saw them live one time and at their set’s end they ‘rewarded’ their fans by taking their masks off and revealing themselves to be ordinary-looking blokes.  That spoiled their mystique somewhat.



Other Lanka metal bands I’ve seen include old-timers – established in 1995 –Whirlwind.  I have a copy of their 2003 album Pain in my possession and I have to say its opening song Break Away sounds unexpectedly and weirdly like Counting Crows’ Mr Jones. I’ve also see Neurocracy, Mass Damnation and Abyss, plus a couple of young up-and-coming bands who’ve equally impressed and amused me with their boundless Sri Lankan politeness and their boundless gratitude to the audience for turning up to see them.  In between their songs they kept saying, “Thank you, thank you very much, thank you for coming, thank you so very much…” and then a half-minute later they were emitting blood-curdling throaty black / death metal gurgles and screaming “F**K!  F**K! F**K!”


Much of the Lanka metal I’ve seen live has been at the Shalika Hall on Park Road in Colombo 5, which I have to say isn’t my favourite venue. For one thing, it doesn’t really have sidewalls.  Both sides of the auditorium open onto small outside compounds with dilapidated toilets – well, the male toilets are dilapidated – at their ends.  This means the acoustics aren’t great because a lot of the sound seeps out into the night.  Conversely, and especially if you turn up at the wrong part of the evening, a great many mosquitoes get in. There are also surreal moments when big bats flap in from one side, cross above the heads of the audience and flap out of the other side – sights that’d be more appropriate at a goth concert than a heavy metal one.   



The sound of Soundgarden


From trashhits.com


Bloody hell.  It’s common knowledge that rock stars suffer from a high mortality rate.  Though superficially glamorous, their lifestyle is an emotionally bruising and dangerously hedonistic one.  But if you made your name as a rock star thanks to the grunge movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which was centred on Seattle and briefly made contemporary music feel thrilling again, it seems your life expectancy is short even by the short standards of rock stars generally.


I say this after hearing the sad news about the death of Chris Cornell, singer with the mighty grunge band Soundgarden, three days ago.  This means that not only the frontman of Soundgarden, but also those of Nirvana (Kurt Cobain), Alice in Chains (Layne Staley) and the Stone Temple Pilots (Scott Weiland) are now pushing up the proverbial daisies.  In fact, there can’t be many of those iconic grunge frontmen left now.  There’s just Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and the Screaming Trees’ Mark Lannegan.  Oh, and that bloke from Mudhoney.


For many years, a debate has raged in heavy metal circles about whether or not grunge music should be seen as a branch of heavy metal – indeed, broadcaster Sam Dunn devoted a whole episode of his TV documentary series Metal Evolution to the question and never quite reached a satisfactory answer.  However, Soundgarden were definitely the most metal of the grunge bands, initially at least.  While I was living in London in 1992, I went to see them play at the Town and Country Club (now the O2 Forum) in Kentish Town, where they were supported by the sludge / groove metal band Corrosion of Conformity.  Shortly before Soundgarden came on, a couple of technicians were on stage performing some last-minute soundchecks and the sledgehammering bass-sound that suddenly reverberated across the floor prompted one of the guys I was with to exclaim: “Christ!  I can feel that going right up my balls!”  Soundgarden duly took the stage.  The ensuing gig was as noise-some as the soundcheck had promised and sent many more vibrations through the audience’s trousers.  Afterwards, I felt like my testicles had well and truly trembled.


Two years later, Soundgarden released their finest album Superunknown, which showed they had more strings to their bow than simply being heavy and grungy.  It contained such great songs as the jaunty Spoonman and the irresistibly anthemic Black Hole Sun, whose lyrics (“Black hole sun…  Won’t you come… And wash away the rain?”) became so ingrained on a generation’s consciousness that nowadays sad middle-aged men with terrible singing voices sing them in the shower when they think nobody is listening.  (I should know.  I’m one of them.)  So compelling was Black Hole Sun that it was later covered by artists as diverse as Peter Frampton, Paul Anka, Anastacia and, inevitably, Weird Al Yankovic.  Soundgarden’s next album, Down on the Upside (1996), was less enthusiastically received but it did have the whoozy, trippy and strangely Lennon-esque number Blow up the Outside World.


After Soundgarden split in 1997 – they would reform in 2009 – Cornell’s most notable project was Audioslave, the group he formed with three former members of Rage Against the Machine (Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk).  Audioslave never quite reached the heights of either Soundgarden or Rage Against the Machine, though the song Conchise off their eponymously named debut album in 2002 is pretty epic.


And in 2006, as a solo artist, Cornell got to sing the theme song You Know My Name for that year’s Bond movie Casino Royale.  Cornell’s song didn’t altogether work as a Bond one, though he was a brave and worthy choice for a movie that took some brave and worthy risks overall – casting a new actor, Daniel Craig, in the role of Bond and also rebooting the entire franchise.  And whatever the song’s shortcomings, Cornell was still a thousand times better than Sam f**king Smith.


© Spin Magazine


This week’s favourite song of all time


From www.dinosaurrockguitar.com


Great news!  I’ve found a brand new Favourite Song of All Time.  For this week anyway.


Actually, I find a brand new Favourite Song of All Time practically every week of my life.  In the past this title of Favourite Song of All Time has been held by everything from Jubilee Street by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds to Duality by Slipknot, from The Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash to Bikini Girls with Machine Guns by the Cramps, from Welcome to the Terrordome by Public Enemy to Touch Too Much by AC/DC, from Dayvan Cowboy by Boards of Canada to John Carpenter’s theme for Assault on Precinct 13.  (All right, those last two are ‘tunes’ rather than ‘songs’.)  A very long time ago, when I was very young, I remember the title being held by such epics as Benny Hill’s Ernie (“And he drove the fastest milk-cart in the west”) and David Bowie’s The Laughing Gnome (“Ha-ha-ha, hee-hee-hee, I’m a laughing gnome and you can’t catch me!”)  See?  Poor David Bowie is dead now but I still can’t shut up about The Laughing Gnome.


I discovered this week’s Favourite Song of All Time when recently I visited a second-hand CD, vinyl and DVD fair held near where my family live in Scotland.  While I scoured a rack of old rock-and-pop CDs, a sudden and inexplicable impulse compelled me to fork over four pounds for a compilation called The Very Best of Rainbow.


Rainbow were formed by guitarist Ritchie Blackmore after he quit the seminal heavy metal band Deep Purple in the mid-1970s.  Actually, lots of people were quitting Deep Purple and starting new groups in those days.  Another was former Purple vocalist David Coverdale, who formed the band Whitesnake.  I became aware of Blackmore and Coverdale’s post-Purple projects when I noticed at school how the heavy metal kids had split into two antagonistic factions, those who had the Rainbow logo stitched onto the backs of their denim jackets and were always slagging off Whitesnake, and those with the Whitesnake logo on their jackets who were always slagging off Rainbow.  It resembled a head-banging version of the rivalry that broke out in the Soviet Union between Stalin and Trotsky after Lenin was incapacitated.


There was actually a third musical splinter from Deep Purple – the band Gillan, run by Ian Gillan, who’d been the Purple vocalist prior to Coverdale.  However, the one thing that seemed to unite the Rainbow and Whitesnake factions at my school was the belief that Gillan’s outfit were a pile of old bollocks.


Rainbow found fame in the late 1970s and early 1980s when they reached the UK singles top ten with rocked-up power ballads like Since You Been Gone and I Surrender, the former with vocals by Australian Graham Bonnet and the latter sung by Bonnet’s replacement, American Joe Lynn Turner.  These songs gave me the impression that, for a supposed heavy metal band, Rainbow were a bit lame and soppy.  This was an era, after all, when Mötorhead were blowing the roofs off teenage parties and giving parents ear-bleed with Ace of Spades.  However, a listen to The Very Best of Rainbow has reminded me that in the years before Bonnet and Turner, the band had a very different type of vocalist: Ronnie James Dio.


From wikipedia.org


Dio, at five feet, four inches tall, wasn’t the biggest physical presence in heavy metal.  But he had a big voice – an Italian-American, he was heavily influenced by opera, especially by the 1950s tenor Mario Lanza.  He also had a big vision, for he was into all things medieval and particularly into Lord of the Rings-style medieval fantasy.  No wonder that he was fronting a band called Elf when he hooked up with Blackmore.  And his obsessions inform the highlight of his collaboration with Blackmore: the stomping anthem Stargazer, originally found on the 1976 Rainbow album, Rising.  When I listened to Stargazer the other day, I immediately thought: “Wow!  That’s my favourite song of all time!”


Stargazer begins with a madcap cacophony of drums courtesy of Rainbow’s then drummer, the late Cozy Powell.  (By the time of his death in 1998 Powell seemed to have belonged to every heavy metal band that’d ever existed, including Whitesnake, the Michael Schenker Group, Black Sabbath and Yngwie Malmsteen.  For a while he was even in Emerson, Lake and Palmer, who renamed themselves Emerson, Lake and Powell during his tenure.)  Then we get into the song proper: an unstoppably slugging riff and Dio hollering ominously about a wizard who glides ‘lighter than air.’  When the song rises towards the first of many crescendos, so the hairs rise too on the back of your neck as Dio wails: “Oh, I see his fa-a-ace!”


So what’s going on?  As the song progresses, it transpires that a powerful wizard – one of the Saruman rather than the Gandalf variety – has enslaved an army of people and set them to work constructing an impossibly-high tower, as in the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel.  But his purpose is not to reach heaven.  When the thing is finished, he intends to jump off the top of it and fly.  I like how Dio gives the tale a proletarian tone by telling it from the point of view of one of the wizard’s slaves.  Thus the chorus goes: “In the heat and the rain / With whips and chains / Just to see him fly / So many die! / We build a tower of stone / With our flesh and bone / Just to see him fly / Don’t know why!”


Right on, Ronnie.  Up the workers!


Much of the music is splendid, flavoured with a delicious Middle Eastern sound that accords with lyrics like “Hot wind moving fast across the desert.”  Supposedly, Blackmore used an unidentified Turkish instrument during the recording and I assume it contributes a lot to Stargazer.


© Polydor Records


Incidentally, if the song sounds heavy even by the standards of 1970s heavy metal, it’s because you’re not just listening to Rainbow.  For the recording, Blackmore managed to recruit the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, so you can hear them clunking around in there too.  Yes, if you’re going to go over the top, you might as well do so in style.


Also going over the top, two-thirds of the way through, is the wizard, who climbs the completed tower in preparation for flying.  And guess what happens next?  “No sound as he falls instead of rising / Time standing still, now there’s blood on the sand”.  With the vainglorious wizard reduced to a sticky red smear back on terra firma, the slave-narrator finds himself unexpectedly free.  The song ends with Dio singing, “I’m coming home, coming home, I’m coming home!”


The song isn’t perfect.  Around the five-minute stage, Blackmore’s guitar doodlings reach barely-acceptable levels of wankiness.  But overall, those eight minutes and 26 seconds of Stargazer are a great deal of fun.  Its crunching riffage would, for instance, sound brilliant played in a cheesy giant monster movie, during a scene where two Godzilla-type behemoths slug it out in the middle of a city and flatten everything around them.  Actually, Guillermo Del Toro could do worse than buy the rights to Stargazer when he finally gets around to filming Pacific Rim II.


Rainbow initially folded in 1984, but returned for four years in the 1990s with Scotsman Doogie White as their fourth vocalist.  And I’ve heard that during the summer of 2016 the band has been playing concerts again, though apart from Blackmore the line-up is a completely new one.


Meanwhile, Ronnie James Dio formed his own band, Dio, in 1982.  He also managed, over the years, to be a member of Black Sabbath – his albums with them, Heaven and Hell (1980), Mob Rules (1981) and Dehumanizer (1992), are the only Sabbath ones without Ozzy Osbourne on vocals that are worth listening to.  An endearing and witty character who clearly didn’t take himself too seriously – check out his cameo appearance in the Jack Black comedy Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny (2006) or his interview in the 2005 documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey – he sadly died from stomach cancer in 2010.


By the way, it’s said that Dio invented the ‘devil’s horns’ salute that’s ubiquitous at heavy metal concerts today.  He allegedly got the idea for it from a superstitious Italian grandmother who’d raise her index finger and little finger as a way of warding off the evil eye.  If this is true, then heavy metal fans owe a lot not just to Dio, but also to Dio’s granny.


From www.geeksofdoom.com




Was there anything this man couldn’t do?


(c) WingNut Films


For a man who epitomised evil to generations of film-goers – he played, after all, Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, Scaramanga, Comte de Rochefort, Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Blind Pew, Saruman, Count Dooku, the Jabberwocky, the Devil and, in the 2008 adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, Death himself  – the passing of venerable actor Sir Christopher Lee has sparked a remarkable outpouring of love over the last few days, in online newspaper comment-threads, on Facebook and on Twitter.


The love has flowed both from ordinary punters and from the countless celebrities who knew and / or admired him.  And those celebrities have included some of the coolest people on the planet: Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Scorsese, Sir Iain McKellen, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Alice Cooper, Slash from Guns n’ Roses, Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols, Bruce Campbell, Bryan Fuller, the Soska Sisters, the human movie-factory that is Roger Corman (who, in between tweeting to promote his new opus Sharktopus Vs Whalewolf, said of Lee, “Your talent, kindness and generosity will never be forgotten”) and Boris Johnson.  There was a deliberate mistake in that last sentence – did you spot it?


I don’t think the Queen has tweeted her condolences yet, but Joan Collins has, which is the next best thing.


From @joancollinsobe


Indeed, I’ve seen the adjective ‘awesome’ thrown around several times in description of the great man and his career.  But in my opinion, Lee wasn’t just awesome.  To me, he discovered the kingdom of Awesomeness and then journeyed in there and planted his flag (probably a skull and crossbones) on top of the highest peak of Awesomeness.  And to support this opinion, I’ll now remind you of a few of the things that Lee did during his 93 years on earth.


Until his death on June 7th, he was one of the last people alive who could claim to have met M.R. James, the greatest ghost story writer in English literature.  As a lad Lee encountered James, who was then Provost of Eton College, when his family tried, unsuccessfully, to enrol him there.  Lee obviously didn’t hold his failure to get into Eton against James because in the early noughties he played the writer in the BBC miniseries Ghost Stories for Christmas.  (Previously, Lee had attended Summer Fields School in Oxford, where one of his classmates was none other than the future John Steed-of-The Avengers Patrick Macnee.)


Incidentally, though in the late 1970s he penned an entertaining autobiography called Tall, Dark and Gruesome, Lee didn’t seem to go in for writing per se.  But he had literary connections aplenty.  He was step-cousin of James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming; and by the time Peter Jackson got around to filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2002-2004), he could boast that he was the only member of the movies’ cast and crew who’d actually met J.R.R. Tolkien.  He was also good friends with Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), the fabulous Ray Bradbury, and posh occult-thriller-writer Dennis Wheatley, whose potboiler The Devil Rides Out Lee would persuade Hammer Films to adapt to celluloid in 1968.


Talking of Wheatley and the occult, Lee reputedly owned a library of books about black magic.  As a kid I remember reading a film book called The Horror People by the critic John Brosnan, in which Lee told Brosnan that his occult books were for reading purposes only and he would never try to practice the dark arts because – yikes! – “It’s too dangerous.”


Lee’s military service during World War II included attachments with the Special Operations Executive and the Long Range Desert Patrol (which was the forerunner to the SAS), but he kept schtum about what he actually did with them.  Decades later, though, he may have unintentionally dropped a hint about his secret wartime activities to Peter Jackson when, on set, he discreetly advised the Kiwi director about the sound a dying man would really make if he’d just had a knife planted in his back.


In the late 1940s he got into acting, although not with much initial success due to his being too tall (six-foot-four) and too foreign-looking (he had Italian ancestry).  During this period he at least learned how to swordfight, a skill he drew on when appearing in various low-budget swashbucklers.  During the making of one such film, 1955’s The Dark Avenger, the famously sozzled Errol Flynn nearly hacked off Lee’s little finger; although later Lee got revenge when, during a TV shoot with the same actor, a slightly-misaimed sword-thrust knocked off Flynn’s toupee, much to the Hollywood star’s mortification (and no doubt to everyone else’s amusement).


(c) 20th Century Fox


And I’ve read somewhere that when he made the swashbuckler The Scarlet Blade for Hammer in 1963, Lee taught a young Oliver ‘Ollie’ Reed the basics of sword-fighting.  I’m sure fight-choreographer William Hobbs and the stunt crew who worked on The Three Musketeers a decade later quietly cursed Lee for this.  (He starred alongside Reed in the film, playing the memorably eye-patched Comte de Rochefort.)  From all accounts, the ever-enthusiastic Ollie threw himself into the Musketeers’ sword-fights like a whirling dervish, and eventually one stuntman had to ‘accidentally’ stab him in the hand and put him out of action before he killed someone.


In 1956 and 1957 Lee got two gigs for Hammer films that’d change his fortunes and make him a star – playing the monster in The Curse of Frankenstein and then, on the strength of that, Bram Stoker’s famous vampire count in Dracula.  Apparently, Hammer wanted originally to hire the hulking comedic actor Bernard Bresslaw to play Frankenstein’s monster.  I suppose there’s a parallel universe out there somewhere where Bresslaw did indeed get the job; so that the man who played Little Heap in Carry On Cowboy (1965), Bernie Lugg in Carry On Camping (1969) and Peter Potter in Carry On Girls (1973) went on to play Count Dooku in the Star Wars movies and Saruman the White in the Lord of the Rings ones.


Playing Baron Frankenstein in The Curse of Frankenstein and Van Helsing in Dracula was the legendary Peter Cushing and he and Lee would hit it off immediately, become best mates and make another 18 films together.  Such was Lee’s affection for Cushing that I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded the other day when the ever-reliable Fox News f***ed up the announcement of Lee’s death by mistakenly flashing up a photograph of Peter Cushing playing Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (1977).


(c) Fox News


Lee was famously uncomfortable about being branded a horror-movie star and about being associated with Dracula – an association that might thwart his ambitions for a serious acting career.  He did, though, play the character another six times for Hammer, and an eighth time in the Spanish production El Conde Dracula.  Tweeting a tribute to him the other day, Stephen King said, “He was the King of the Vampires.”  So sorry, Sir Chris, but when the man who wrote Salem’s Lot says you’re the King of the Vampires, you’re the King of the Vampires.


(c) Hammer Films

(c) Hammer Films


As Dracula, he got to bite Barbara Shelley, Linda Hayden, Anouska Hempel, Marsha Hunt and Caroline Munro.  Last-minute interventions by Peter Cushing in Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) prevented him from biting Stephanie Beacham and Joanna Lumley, which must have been frustrating.  Meanwhile, the 1965 movie Dracula, Prince of Darkness was the first really scary horror movie I ever saw, on TV, back when I was eight or nine years old.  I’d watched old horror films made by Universal Studios in the 1940s, like House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), in which everything was discreetly black-and-white and bloodless, so I wasn’t prepared for an early scene in Dracula, Prince of Darkness’s where Lee / the count is revived during a ceremony that involves a luckless traveller being suspended upside-down over a coffin and having his throat cut, so that blood splatters noisily onto the supposedly dead vampire’s ashes.  I suspect that exposure to that traumatic scene transformed me from the morbid, oddball kid I was then into the normal, well-balanced adult I am today.  Or maybe it’s the other way around.


Thanks to Hammer’s success in the horror genre, the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s saw a boom in British, usually gothic, horror filmmaking.  And during that boom, Lee did many cool and memorable, though evil, things.  He drove his car into Michael Gough and squidged off Gough’s hand in Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors (1965).  He forced Vincent Price to immerse himself in a vat of acid in Scream and Scream Again (1969).  He turned up as a nasty, snobbish civil servant and tormented Donald Pleasence in Deathline (1972).


He did bad things to, and had bad things done to him in return by Peter Cushing.  As a mad-scientist-cum-asylum-keeper in The Creeping Flesh (1972), he brought a monster to life and then, after the monster had attacked Cushing and driven him insane with fear, he coolly incarcerated Cushing in his asylum.  Whereas in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) Cushing chased him through a prickly hawthorn bush – hawthorns are apparently not good for vampires and the experience, Lee recalled in his autobiography, left him ‘shedding genuine Lee blood like a garden sprinkler’ – before impaling him on a sharp, uprooted fence-post.  Meanwhile, the 1972 British-Spanish movie Horror Express featured a decomposing ape-man fossil that’d come back to life, was possessed by an alien force, had the power to suck people’s brains out through their eyeballs, and was generally such an evil motherf***er that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing had to join forces to defeat it!  Silly horror movies don’t get any better than this.


(c) Jack Morrisey / The New Yorker


Fluent in French, Italian, Spanish and German, Lee also found it easy to find employment making horror movies on mainland Europe, where the gothic tradition was raunchier, more lurid and looser in its plot logic than its counterpart in Britain.  He worked with the Italian maestro Mario Bava and with the fascinatingly prolific, but erratic, Spanish director Jess Franco.  Despite Franco’s cheeky habit of shooting scenes with Lee and then inserting them into a totally different and usually pornographic movie – something Lee would only discover later, when he strolled past a blue-movie theatre in Soho and noticed that he was starring in something like Eugenie and the Story of her Journey into Perversion (1970) – Lee held the Spaniard in esteem and championed his work at a time when it was unfashionable to do so.  (Since his death in 2013, Franco’s reputation has begun to improve and art-house director Peter Strickland’s recent movie The Duke of Burgundy is a tribute, at least in part, to the man.)


Franco also directed later entries in a series of movies about Fu Manchu that Lee made in the 1960s, in which he played Sax Rohmer’s super-villain in rather unpolitically-correct Oriental makeup and spent his time barking orders at Chinese minions, who were usually played by Burt Kwouk.  And when Fu Manchu’s secret headquarters got blown up at the end, Lee’s voice would boom imperiously through the smoke: “The world will hear of me again!”  A prediction that proved to be right.


(c) Compton Films


In the early 1970s, Lee finally got opportunities to make the sort of films he wanted to make, including Richard Lester’s two Musketeers movies (1974 and 1975); the ninth official Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun (1975), in which he taunted Roger Moore, “You work for peanuts – a hearty well-done from Her Majesty the Queen and a pittance of a pension.  Apart from that, we are the same.  To us, Mr Bond.  We are the best…  Oh come, come, Mr Bond.  You get as much fulfilment out of killing as I do, so why don’t you admit it?”; and Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), regarded by many as the best attempt at bringing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s deerstalker-wearing sleuth to the screen.


In that latter film, Lee played Holmes’s snooty brother Mycroft – the role that Mark Gatiss now plays in the popular BBC TV version with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson.  Lee also played Sherlock Holmes himself several times, including in a couple of early-1990s TV movies with Dr Watson played by his long-ago school chum Patrick Macnee.  And he played Henry Baskerville in the 1959 Hammer adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which had Peter Cushing in the role of Holmes.  But for some strange reason, nobody ever thought of casting Lee as Professor Moriarty.


(c) Hammer Films


In 1973, he also played Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, a film that needs no introduction from me.  It’s sad to think that recent years have seen the deaths of nearly all the film’s main cast members – Ingrid Pitt, Diane Cilento, Edward Woodward and now Lee – leaving just Britt Ekland in the land of the living.  So take care of yourself, Britt.  Go easy when you’re dancing naked around your bedroom.


Later in the 1970s, no longer so typecast in horror movies and with the British film industry on its deathbed, Lee decamped to Hollywood.  He ended up appearing in some big-budget puddings like dire 1977 disaster movie Airport 77 and Steven Spielberg’s supposed comedy 1941 (1979), but at least he was able to hang out with icons like Muhammad Ali and John Belushi.  And he didn’t, strictly speaking, stop appearing in horror movies.  He was in the likes of House of the Long Shadows (1982), The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985), The Funny Man (1994) and Talos the Mummy (1998), although Lee usually made the excuse that these films weren’t really horror ones.


The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf wasn’t really a horror film?  Aye, right, Sir Chris.  At least you got to snog Sybil Danning in that one.


From @sybildanning


Though he never relented in his workload, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Lee experienced a late-term career renaissance – no doubt because many of the nerdish kids who’d sneaked into cinemas or stayed up late in front of the TV to watch his old horror movies had now grown up and become major players in the film industry, and were only too happy to cast him in their movies: Joe Dante, John Landis, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Peter Jackson and Tim Burton.  Hence his roles in two of the biggest franchises in cinematic history, the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings ones.  Burton, meanwhile, ended up casting him in five of his films, though I suspect the only reason he put him in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2004) was so that he could have a scene at the end where Lee and Johnny Depp give each other a hug.  Aw!


From zimbio.com


When he was in his eighties, Lee must have wondered if there were any territories left for him to conquer – and he realised that yes, there was one.  Heavy metal!  He had a fine baritone singing voice but only occasionally in his film career, for example, in The Wicker Man and The Return of Captain Invincible (1983), did he get a chance to show it off.  In the mid-noughties, however, he started recording with symphonic / power-metal bands Rhapsody of Fire and Manowar and soon after he was releasing his own metal albums such as Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross and Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, which had contributions by guitarist Hedras Ramos and Judas Priest’s Richie Faulkner.  He also released two collections of Christmas songs, done heavy-metal style.  Yuletide will never seem the same after you’ve heard Lee thundering his way through The Little Drummer Boy with electric guitars caterwauling in the background.


Obviously, the heavy metal community, which sees itself as a crowd of badasses, was flattered when the cinema’s supreme badass – Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, etc. – elected to join them and they welcomed Lee with open arms.  They even gave him, as the genre’s oldest practitioner, the Spirit of Metal Award at the Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony in 2010.  And the other evening, when Alice Cooper received the Legend Award at Kerrang magazine’s yearly awards, he dedicated his win to the just-departed Sir Chris.


(c) Charlemagne Productions Ltd


So was there anything this man couldn’t do?  Well, it seems the only thing he couldn’t quite manage was to live forever.  Mind you, for someone who spent his cinema career dying – even when he was in his mid-fifties, he claimed in his autobiography that he’d been killed onscreen more times than any other actor in history – but who always returned to perpetrate more villainy, it feels odd to be writing now that Christopher Lee has finally and definitely passed away.


And if anybody wants to congregate in a Carpathian castle after dark and perform a ritual to resurrect the great man, by dousing his ashes in copious amounts of blood (freshly drained from Boris Johnson), I’m up for it.







(c) Seven Keys


Gay metal


From frabz.com


A while ago I was chatting with a mate about recent music we’d listened to.  I mentioned that the track I’d probably played most often last year was from an album called Why do the Heathen Rage?  The album is the work of a dance-music project called The Soft Pink Truth, which is masterminded by Drew Daniel – a fellow who’s simultaneously a member of the electronica duo Matmos, an Assistant Professor of English at John Hopkins University in Baltimore and a gay man.  (His partner forms the other half of Matmos.)  Meanwhile, the track in question is a cover version of the 2003 song Satanic Black Devotion by the Finnish black metal band Sargeist.


Now black metal is a sub-genre of heavy metal that’s known for its shrieking and guttural vocals, its fevered guitars, its demented drumming and a lyrical emphasis on the dark, the unwholesome, the macabre and the utterly hellish – an emphasis reflected by the fondness among the sub-genre’s earlier practitioners to come onstage with their faces ghoulishly slathered in ‘corpse-paint’.  However, while The Soft Pink Truth’s take on Satanic Black Devotion starts out in a suitably sinister and menacing fashion, Daniel’s dance / electronica aesthetic soon comes to the fore and the track gets unfeasibly funky.  And incidentally, the famous sample that pops out of the mix after one minute and 45 seconds was so unexpected that I burst out laughing.




In fact, Why do the Heathen Rage? is a whole album of covers of black metal standards that Daniel has interpreted in his own inimitable, dance-electronica style and I find the album a lot of fun, although I’m sure there are old-school fans out there who think it’s sacrilegious (which is ironic considering that black metal, with its long tradition of Christianity-baiting, is about the most sacrilegious music you can get).  In Newcastle-upon-Tyne, home of the ground-breaking black metal band Venom, there are probably Geordie fans who’ve heard Daniel’s playful version of Venom’s agenda-setting anthem Black Metal and who haven’t been released from hospital yet.


From www.metalinsider.net


However, when you write about black metal, there’s an elephant in the room.  This is an elephant that speaks Norwegian, has a big swastika painted on its side and smells strongly of burning churches.  Because the general public, if it’s heard of the term ‘black metal’ at all, normally associates this music with the unsavoury antics of some Norwegian musicians in the early 1990s.  These include Pelle ‘Dead’ Ohlin of the band Mayhem, who in 1991 decided to honour his nickname by blowing his head apart with a shotgun; Oystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth, also of (the aptly-named) Mayhem, who made a necklace out of pieces of Ohlin’s shattered skull; Varg ‘Count Grishnackh’ Vikernes of the band Burzum, who feuded with Euronymous and ended up murdering him in 1993; and Bard ‘Faust’ Eithun, of the band Emperor, who in 1992 stabbed a gay man called Magne Andreassen to death.  For their crimes, Vikernes and Eithun received prison sentences of 15 and nine years respectively.


In addition to acts of murder and suicide, the Norwegian black metal scene of the early 1990s was accused of harbouring Nazi sympathies, although this seems to have been largely due to the influence of Vikernes, who described the music as “a nationalistic (Norwegian-centric), racist… revolt.”  Last year, nobody was surprised when Vikernes – who’d finished his Norwegian prison sentence by then – was tried and imprisoned for another half-year in France for inciting racial hatred.  Also, the scene’s enthusiasm for northern-European paganism and theistic Satanism made it anti-Christian to the point where, by 1996, hardline black-metallers had been blamed for some 50 arson attacks on Norwegian churches.


In an interview in the Guardian last July, Drew Daniel was asked about the paradox of a gay man recording a set of cover versions of a musical form whose most notorious proponents committed crimes that included the slaying of a gay man.  Daniel admitted to being both fascinated by black metal in its ugliest, early 1990s, Norwegian version – “I couldn’t believe the power of it.  It’s so single-minded and energising…  It was such a strange mixture of undeniably compelling music attached to deeply repugnant behaviour” – and obsessed by it – “You know the way pitbulls bite something and their jaw locks and they can’t let go?  That’s kind of the way my mind works with things.”  In a gesture designed to both subvert and atone for the activities of Vikernes and co, Daniel dedicated Why do the Heathen Rage? to the memory of Magne Andreassen, Bard Eithun’s gay victim 23 years ago.


I should say that black metal has come a long way since those grim Norwegian days.  The Guardian piece on Drew Daniel also quotes the music journalist Dyall Patterson, who describes the modern black metal scene thus: “It covers a huge spectrum, from left-wing to right-wing, from atheist and Satanist, and even Christian and Muslim.  There’s more to it than just the sensationalist aspects, because it’s entered a demographic that would be turned off by a lot of those things.”  And for the record I’m a fan of it myself.  I like bands like Altar of Plagues, Darkthrone, Deafheaven, Leviathan, Rotting Christ and the brilliant Wolves in the Throneroom.  I’m also a connoisseur of County Suffolk’s greatest cultural export, Cradle of Filth, who were once regarded as a seminal black metal act – though these days I hear they’re considered more ‘goth’ metal.


Anyhow, The Soft Pink Truth’s take on black metal has made me ponder the role played by gay culture in heavy metal music generally.  Of course, some people would assure you that gay culture has never played any role in heavy metal because such music is reactionary, sexist and racist, performed by and listened to by artless people who are exclusively and thick-headedly masculine, heterosexual and macho.  Which is nonsense.  The theatricality of heavy metal contains a quality that’s androgynous at its mildest and downright homo-erotic at its most extreme.


Yes, there are morons like Sebastian Bach, front-man of the woeful 1980s American glam-metal band Skid Row, who once wore a T-shirt saying AIDS KILLS FAGGOTS DEAD.  But if you look at heavy metal since it was forged in the early 1970s, you’ll soon realise that despite all its red-blooded braying about straddling big motorbikes, and straddling hot women, and slaying dragons, and entering Valhalla, and worshipping Satan, there’s bubbled beneath its sweaty, warty surface a great amount of camp-ness that would appeal to many gay sorts.  (Not all gay people like camp things, of course, but I know a few who do.)


After all, one of the music’s greatest icons has been Angus Young, a chap who hops around stages wearing shorts and a schoolboy uniform whilst twiddling a guitar for a band called AC/DC – which according to the LGBT activist website Queers United is “a queer code used in chatrooms to indicate that someone is bisexual and sexually interested in both men and women.”


(c) Chronicle Books


Even the strand of heavy metal that I find most annoying, the boorish, laddish and shag-happy glam-metal movement that emerged from America’s west coast in the 1980s and gave us the likes of Mӧtley Crüe, Poison, Ratt, Cinderella and Warrant – thanks for that, America’s west coast – is really very sexually ambiguous.  You only have to look beyond its lyrical obsessions with sultry babes and observe the huge amounts of eyeliner, mascara, hairspray, jewellery, high heels and ultra-tight leggings worn by its practitioners.  Mӧtley Crüe might have sung Girls Girls Girls, but not every male who was drawn to the band’s photograph on the record cover was necessarily thinking about girls.


Plus, of course, some prominent heavy metal folk are gay.


Nowadays, 1970s rock legends Queen are celebrated for their football-terrace chant-alongs, their mock-operatic epics, their Noel Coward pastiches and their off-the-wall soundtracks for movies like Flash (“Ah-aaah!”) Gordon; but once upon a time the band had a heavy side too.  If you don’t believe me, check out tracks like Death on Two Legs (on 1975’s A Night at the Opera) or Stone Cold Crazy (on 1974’s Sheer Heart Attack).  The latter song was covered by Metallica, and indeed Metallica performed onstage at the Freddie Mercury Memorial Concert in 1992 after Queen’s much-loved singer died of AIDS.  Other metal bands and performers who turned up at the concert to pay their respects included Guns n’ Roses, Extreme, Def Leppard, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi.


As well as casting a long shadow over heavy metal, Freddie Mercury was, of course, shamelessly camp.  Interestingly, in his memoir The Long Hard Road out of Hell, Marilyn Manson – a performer who cuts a sexually ambiguous figure himself onstage – recalls that at his Christian school in Ohio, pupils were regularly lectured on the evils of heavy metal and hard rock music.  But the band those Christian teachers seemed to fear and hate most of all was Queen, due to the effect that the prancing, preening and cheerfully gay Mercury might be having on the sons of God-fearing America.


From www.bryanreesman.com 


Meanwhile, when Judas Priest’s front-man Rob Halford came out of the closet in 1998, it wasn’t exactly a big surprise.  Early on, the band had cultivated a ‘biker’ look, a look that later became influential in heavy metal generally; but as Halford’s figure became increasingly bedecked with black leather, silver studs, spikes, chains, gauntlets and peaked caps, he looked less like a heavy metal singer, or a biker, and more like a member of Village People or Frankie goes to Hollywood.  By 2014, Halford felt comfortable enough in his own skin and in his own musical groove to describe himself to the Guardian as “the stately homo of heavy metal.”


Other gay metal performers include Doug Pinnick, vocalist with the progressive / funk metal band King’s X; Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert, respective singer and drummer with the progressive metal band Cynic; and Roddy Bottum, keyboardist with another metal band who’ve taken an interest in funk (and in hip-hop, punk, jazz and God knows what else), the mighty Faith No More.  Bottum announced he was gay sometime after he’d been involved in a heterosexual relationship with Courtney Love.  Inevitably, there was some scurrilous speculation that these two events might have been related.


From act.mtv.com 


Also, heavy metal has at least one prominent lesbian, Otep Shamaya, founder and front-woman of the nu-metal band Otep.  She’s a much-needed antidote to those macho lunkheads like Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst who’re found elsewhere in nu-metal.  And by 2014, heavy metal had acquired its first transgender performer – Mina Caputo (who until 2011 had been known as Keith Caputo), the singer with the New York alternative metal band Life of Agony.


Finally, and brilliantly, the Norwegian black metal scene of the early 1990s that I described at the beginning of this post has produced a gay icon too: Kristian ‘Gaahl’ Espedal, who’s been vocalist with the bands Trelldom, Gorgoroth and God Seed and who ‘came out’ in 2008.


Despite his sexuality, Gaahl has seemed happy enough to keep some of the bad old attitudes of Norwegian black metal alive.  Interviewed in Sam Dunn’s 2005 documentary Metalheads: a Headerbanger’s Journey, he described the Norwegian church burnings as “a thing that I support 100 percent.  It should have been done much more, and will be done much more in the future.”  In 2006, he was also accused of torturing a man for six hours, during which time he allegedly drained a cupful of the man’s blood and threatened to make him drink it.  Gaahl’s claim that he was acting in ‘self-defence’ was disbelieved and he spent nine months in prison.


On the other hand, he won Norway’s award for Gay Person of the Year at the Bergen Gay Gala in 2010, and he turned up to accept it, which was nice.


From pl.wikipedia.org


Even if you’re the type of person who’d sooner saw off one of their arms with a rusty knife than listen to black metal, or to heavy metal generally, I would urge you to sample the work of one of Gaahl’s recent musical projects, Wardruna.  Described by the music website The Quietus as “a truly remarkable outfit… focussing on immersive and ritualistic folk acoustics, making use of traditional instrumentation and clean sung vocals, and taking all its thematic inspiration from the Elder Futhark, the oldest set of Norse Runes”, Wardruna make a sort of medieval Scandinavian folk music that’s haunting, hypnotic and epic.  Actually, it sounds like the Wicker Man soundtrack re-imagined by ghost-musicians in Helheim, the Norse underworld.




A Bangkok heavy-metal Halloween


From th-th.facebook.com/ImmortalBarThailand


I first went to Bangkok in 1996 and, from my memories of the time, I seem to have perceived it as a dark, crowded, polluted, noisy, seedy and rather claustrophobic city.  But perhaps that was because of bad luck and bad choices – I got those impressions from the district I ended up staying in and the places I happened to visit and explore.  Also, that was before the opening of Bangkok’s Skytrain system in 1999 and Metro system in 2000.  Both transport networks have made the city a lot easier to get around and allowed visitors to sample more of its varied attractions and neighbourhoods.


Last week, I was in Bangkok again – my fourth trip there – and now my perceptions have entirely changed.  I think it’s a great city.  Somehow, it manages to combine the corporate and the cosy, the trendy and the venerable, the sacred and the salacious.  Yes, nowadays, there’s a danger that the first of those qualities, the corporate, will eventually buy everything up, take everything over and muscle everything else out.  But judging from the seemingly endless ability of ordinary Thai people to colonise any free space, no matter how concrete, bare and soulless, and transform it – small spaces into stalls, kiosks and makeshift eateries and boutiques, large ones into full-scale markets and food-courts – that corporate takeover shouldn’t be complete for a long time yet.  At street-level at least, Bangkok should remain intimate, decorous, bustling and colourful for a while longer.


Anyway, last week’s visit coincided with Halloween.  On the night of October 31st, I thought I would take the opportunity to check out two Bangkok music-bars associated with a genre that’s the sonic equivalent of Halloween monsters, ghouls, demons and macabre japery – heavy metal.


Firstly, I went to the Immortal Bar, which is on the second floor of the building at 6 Soi Bun Choo Sri in Dindaeng, about ten minutes’ walk east from the Victory Monument.  On the left as you go in is a lounge / terrace area with no front walls or windows, meaning that any air-conditioning system would be useless and for coolness you have to rely on some whirring ceiling-fans.  But it’s comfortable enough with sofas and pleasantly subdued lighting.  Needless to say, the inner walls are adorned with framed posters and T-shirts bearing angular, jagged logos for the likes of Sepultura, Soulfly, Naplam Death and Thai metallers Dezember.  For some strange reason, though, an end wall has a pair of old black bicycles mounted on it.


In one corner stands a san phra phum or spirit house – i.e. a miniature house or temple that accommodates the venue’s spirits, appeases them and keeps them from causing mischief – although this one is bare and empty-looking.  I’d expected the spirit house of the Immortal Bar to be populated by little effigies of long-haired, denim-and-black-leather-clad heavy-metal spirits, depicted in the act of playing air guitar.


On the right-hand side of the entrance, meanwhile, is a live-music area with a stage and, also, the bar’s serving counter.  A Halloween show was in progress when I arrived and the band on stage at the time was one called Tantra, whom I thought sounded a bit like the American trash / groove-metal outfit Pantera.  Due to my unfamiliarity with Thai-accented English (or to a distorted sound-system) I couldn’t decide if one song they performed was called Blow Up or Throw Up.  Then Tantra gave way to a band called Rusty Bomb, who did covers of songs by Black Sabbath, Mӧtorhead, Metallica and Slayer.  Their vocalist was a French guy and I scoffed when he announced that their next number would be a ‘French trash metal’ song.  To me, the phrase ‘French trash metal’ sounds about as promising as ‘English haute cuisine’ or ‘Scottish sunbathing terrace’.  But their French trash metal song was actually pretty good.


The pub’s clientele were mostly Thais, a few of whom were wearing corpse-paint make-up – although I’m not sure if that was because they were seriously into black metal or because it was Halloween.  A couple of fareng – foreigners – were present, but not many.


From there I went to the Rock Pub at Radchatewee, in the Hollywood Street Building that faces the Asia Hotel below the Skytrain line.  Supposedly founded in 1987, the Rock Pub is contained within one long room that resembles an austere, stone-walled chamber from a medieval castle.  It’s definitely more mainstream and commercial than the Immortal Bar.  For one thing, its beer that evening cost 30 baht more than the brew in the Immortal.  Also, there were quite a few fareng among the Thai audience, including a couple of flea-ridden old sex-tourist tomcats who’d picked up their ‘Siamese kittens’ for the evening.


When I entered here, another live Halloween show was in progress and a band called Sugar Rocket was playing.  Despite having one band-member in corpse-paint make-up, they were performing a cover of Song 2 by Blur (the one that goes ‘whoo-whoo!’ every other second).  The next band up, Nine Monkey Nine, were similarly eclectic – they managed to do covers of the Foo Fighters and Franz Ferdinand.  So the Rock Pub wasn’t really hosting a heavy-metal night at all, although the memorabilia on its stone walls did include mementoes of Iron Maiden and Napalm Death.  (The legendary West Midlands grindcore band seems to be a favourite in Thailand.  Indeed, they performed a show at the Rock Pub back in August 2010.)


In both pubs – and unlike most others I drank in during my sojourn in Bangkok – very few people were fiddling with their smart-phones.  Clearly, they were there to savour the music and enjoy the sociability of being among fellow heavy-metal / rock fans.  The only exceptions were those old fareng sex-tourist guys and their Thai girlie pick-ups.  Actually, I’ve noticed that, thanks to recent developments in technology, Bangkok’s sex tourists and their Thai pick-ups no longer have to go through the awkward, preliminary ritual of sitting in a pub and exchanging stilted conversation with one another.  No, now, both of them can bend forward over the pub-tables and spend the time quietly f**king around on their smart-phones.


Metal completes its evolution


(c) Banger Productions


In 2005, Canadian filmmaker and musician Sam Dunn made a 96-minute documentary called Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, which as its title suggests was an exploration of heavy metal music.  It examined the music’s roots, its development and its popularisation.  It also examined its diversification into countless sub-genres – into everything from pop metal, glam metal and progressive metal to goth metal, industrial metal and the new wave of British heavy metal; from grunge, hard alternative and nu-metal to original hardcore, grindcore and metalcore; from doom metal, thrash metal and the first wave of black metal to Swedish death metal and Norwegian black metal.  (There’s a difference, you know, and it’s important.)


In addition, Dunn’s documentary didn’t flinch from looking at heavy metal’s propensity for attracting controversy, such as accusations of misogyny and of inciting violence and that parent-bothering fascination that some metal bands have with Auld Nick himself…  Satan!


Packed with interviews with musicians, producers, journalists, sociologists, musicologists and fans, what distinguished Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey from previous documentary and movie treatments of the music like The Decline of Western Civilisation: The Metal Years, Spinal Tap or the Wayne’s World and Bill and Ted films was the fact that it took its subject relatively seriously and dealt with it sympathetically.  (As well as being a dyed-in-the-wool heavy metal fan, Dunn has a Master’s degree in anthropology, for which he wrote a thesis about Guatemalan refugees, so he is well equipped to study the cultures and sub-cultures that this body of music has engendered.)  Any humour or silliness in the documentary tended to come from the interviewees themselves, either intentionally (the always witty Alice Cooper) or unintentionally (the hilariously po-faced, church-burning Norwegian black metal guys).


(c) Seville Pictures 


The only problem with Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey was that its running time of 96 minutes was nowhere near long enough to do justice to its complex and fascinating subject.  In 2011 Dunn tried to rectify this by making, with director and producer Scott McFadyen, an eleven-part TV documentary series called Metal Evolution, which was aired on the music channels MuchMore and VH1 Classic.  This added up to eleven hours-worth of television that allowed Dunn to study the metal world in vastly more detail.  He devoted episodes to the origins of the genre (classical music lovers, be aware that Johann Sebastian Bach and Richard Wagner deserve some of the credit, or blame, depending on your point of view); on its development during the 1970s in the USA and the UK; on the new wave of British heavy metal; and on some of the most prominent sub-genres that have appeared, namely glam metal, thrash metal, grunge, nu-metal, power metal and progressive metal.  There was also an episode dedicated to ‘shock rock’, which is an approach, as opposed to a sound or style — the Grand Guignol / horror-movie theatrics of the likes of Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson and Slipknot, guaranteed to inspire moral panics among generations of parents, politicians and churchmen.


As many fans noted at the time, though, Metal Evolution had one glaring omission.  There was no coverage of the ‘extreme’ metal sub-genres that include death metal, black metal and grindcore – sub-genres that encompass such awesomely sonic and awesomely monikered bands as Cannibal Corpse (from Buffalo), Dying Fetus (from Maryland), Darkthrone (from Kolbotn in Norway), Carcass (from Liverpool), Napalm Death (from Solihull), Cradle of Filth (from Ipswich) and Extreme Noise Terror (also from Ipswich – actually, Ipswich is good at producing extreme metal).  This was due to the networks’ reluctance to deal with the topic – the music and bands involved crossed what they believed was the line between acceptable and unacceptable taste.  However, in April this year, Dunn and McFadyen were able to unveil what has become known as the ‘missing’ twelfth episode of Metal Evolution.  This is devoted to extreme metal, was funded via a crowdsourcing campaign and is now available for viewing, free of charge, at the following address:




I didn’t see Metal Evolution when it was originally broadcast, because at the time I was living in Tunisia – which is a fairly un-metallic country, unless you can make it along to Le Plug bar in La Marsa on a weekend night.  I have, however, watched most of the episodes now after hunting them down on the Internet.  (There are half-a-dozen available on youtube, though with a variety of foreign-language subtitles at the bottom.)  One thing that struck me while watching Metal Evolution was that, for a music characterised by its detractors as being loud, dumb and nasty noise made by loud, dumb and nasty people and consumed by other loud, dumb and nasty people, most of the interviewees were highly eloquent and entertaining.  Among the 300-odd people Dunn interviewed for this project were the aforementioned Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Rob Zombie, Slash, Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, Rob Halford of Judas Priest, Scott Ian of Anthrax and the mighty, warty force of nature that is Lemmy of Motorhead.  They’re mainly the charming sort of people you could invite home and introduce to your mum, provided your mum has a high tolerance-level for corpse-style mascara, pentagram tattoos, skull rings, iron crosses and serial-killer masks.


From innertwineclothing.com 


However, it’s impossible to make even a 12-episode heavy metal documentary series that pleases everyone.  Indeed, any heavy metal enthusiast worth his or her salt will probably be grumbling slightly about what is and isn’t covered in the series – since no filmmaker can ever satisfy the completist zeal for detail and accuracy possessed by an ardent fan.


In my case, I’d have liked to see a few things added or done differently.  A little recognition could’ve been given to the role that AC/DC played in popularising heavy metal in the 1970s.  The episode about the new wave of British heavy metal talked about the antagonism that existed between many metal bands of the late 1970s and the punk ones who were then shaking British popular music to its foundations, but something should’ve been said about Motorhead – a band who crossed the great punk-metal divide and were nearly as popular among pogoing Mohican-headed fans as they were among head-banging long-haired ones.  Indeed, Lemmy has often included Sex Pistols and Ramones songs in the band’s sets and was even friends with Sid Vicious.  (He once had the job of task of teaching Sid how to play bass guitar.  Needless to say, he didn’t succeed.)


Furthermore, I think more should’ve been said in the nu-metal episode about this sub-genre’s antecedents – about Walk This Way, the 1987 collaboration between Run DMC and Aerosmith, plus the Beastie Boys, the soundtrack album for the 1993 movie Judgement Night and Ice T’s ground-breaking metal-rap band Body Count.  And it would’ve been nice if the power metal episode had made mention of heavy metal’s most elderly performer – actor Sir Christopher Lee, who’s recorded with Rhapsody of Fire, Manowar and Richie Faulkner of Judas Priest.  (Just the other week, Lee celebrated his 92nd birthday by releasing Metal Robot, an EP of heavy-metal versions of songs from the Don Quixote musical Man of La Mancha.  Bless.)


From cuerdasdeacero.com


And I’d have preferred it if Dunn hadn’t interviewed Ted Nugent because, basically, the man is a tosser.


Meanwhile, watching the episode about glam metal, the unspeakable sub-genre of posing, preening, spandex-clad, poodle-haired bands who emerged from Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip in the early 1980s, I couldn’t help wishing that Motley Crue, Quiet Riot, Ratt, Poison, Cinderella, Warrant and the rest of them had been buried forever under a million tons of radioactive sludge.  As Anthrax’s Scott Ian commented during the episode: “We never actually backed going out and beating up people wearing spandex and having big, poofy, hair-sprayed hair… but I certainly never told anyone to not do it.”