Thursday, January 8, 2015

Restless and Wild: Germany and the Relationship of Culture and History to the Metal Music Culture

[This is a paper I wrote my sophomore year of college for a course called "Germany in the World". Only paper I've ever gotten a 100% on and I am extremely proud of it because of the subject. It was supposed to be five pages; I went a little overboard. I hope you enjoy.]

Rock music is synonymous with revolution, freedom, and camaraderie. For over sixty years, it has touched the spirits of millions of people and evolved in innumerable directions. There’s psychedelic rock, indie rock, industrial rock, punk, grunge, and so many other genres. Of all the rock genres, heavy metal may perhaps be the one to have the most unique history and complex characteristics; for over forty years metal has borrowed from other genres to spawn new sub-genres, survived adversity, and thrived to accumulate a worldwide culture of devoted fans. Often times when we think of the genre, we think of it as being a British import spearheaded by bands like Judas Priest and Motörhead or we’ll conjure up popular American acts like Metallica, Pantera, or Lamb of God. However, some of the most important bands have come out of Germany. Germany has not only been a huge influence on the genre by producing groups such as the Scorpions, Sodom, Blind Guardian, and Rammstein, but by lending its culture and history to become a significant part of the heavy metal subculture.
            The most successful hard rock band to come out of Germany is the Scorpions. Formed in 1965 in Hanover by singer Klaus Meine, and the guitar-playing brothers Rudolf and Michael Schenker, the group was united by a love of the rock music brought to them by American soldiers. In 1972 they released their first album, Lonesome Crow, which had a psychedelic sound reminiscent to Jimi Hendrix. The success of the album allowed them to open for UFO, Uriah Heep, and Rory Gallagher that year. After the tour, Michael Schenker was coaxed into joining UFO; they replaced him with Ulrich “Uli Jon” Roth. He would play with them on their next four albums, finely polishing their hard rock style. He would be replaced by Mattias Jabs, who remains with them to this day. The Scorpions became well-known to music lovers of in the United States after the release of their Lovedrive album in 1979. Their next three albums— Animal Magnetism, Blackout, and Love at First Sting— would propel them to phenomenal commercial success. Today they remain one of the world’s most popular rock acts, with a 75 million records sold worldwide.
            With the rise of hard rock and early metal groups in America and Britain, bands in Germany began to follow suit. One of the earlier metal bands to come out of Germany was Accept. The band came together in Solingen in 1976 with vocalist Udo Dirkschneider, Wolf Hoffman and Gerhard Wahl on guitars, Peter Baltes playing bass, and Frank Friedrich on the drums. Their eponymous debut album was released in 1979, brimming with the fast-paced guitars characteristic of the bands coming out of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWoBHM, for short). This album and the one after did not garner much attention. As a result, Accept chose to experiment with a harder and faster style, resulting in albums like Reckless and Wild, Balls to the Wall, and Metal Heart, as well as making them the pioneers of speed metal. As the years went on, Accept saw numerous changes in their line-up; most notably, Udo Dirkschneider left band in 1987 due to creative differences. He went on with a solo career, entitling his band U.D.O. and releasing Animal House that same year. In 1989, Accept released Eat the Heat with American vocalist David Reece. It would be their only album with Reece. After a couple year hiatus, they decided to go back to recording albums with Dirkschneider, However, the vocalist would continue to do work with U.D.O. After their Predator album in 1996, the band went on another hiatus that lasted eleven years, only to play a few European festivals and part ways again. Rumors circulated that Accept were planning to release a new album without Dirkschneider. In 2010, the rumors were proven to be true when they released Blood of the Nations with Mark Tornillo—another American— on vocals and Stefan Schwarzmann doing drum duties. They continue to tour and write music with this line-up.
A popular figure in the metal community is singer Doro Pesch. Her rise began in 1982 when she formed Warlock in Dusseldorf. In 1983 they released their first album, Burn the Witches. This solidified their sound, a brand of pop metal in the vein of Dio and Whitesnake; along with fast and catchy songs, power ballads also common on their albums. Their popularity in Europe enabled them to be the first female-fronted band to play at the Monsters of Rock Festival in the U.K. However the line-up of the group changed almost every two years, with Doro being the only constant member. After releasing their third album, True as Steel, the Warlock gained popularity with American audiences; many songs received circulation on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball, a program that often played music videos of hard rock and metal acts. By this time, Doro was the only German member remaining; now under American management, a legal battle began to formulate when former manager Peter Zimmerman sued for the rights to the name Warlock. He initially won, but Doro was still willing to fight back (Hinds); she would eventually win back the rights to the name in 2011. In the meantime, they would perform and record simply under the name Doro. With the rise of grunge, Doro lost prominence in the United States. However the band still had a cult following in Germany and Europe, enabling them to churn out twelve albums and continue playing to this day. Doro Pesch is also known for having duets with numerous singers, both on her own and the albums of other artists. Some musicians include Tarja Turunen of Nightwish, Bobby Ellsworth of Overkill, Klaus Meine of the Scorpions, and Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead (25 Years in Rock... and Still Going).
            These bands—Accept in particular— allowed for Germany to become a central hub for metal in Europe. Because of this, it became a scene for three regional subgenres. The first metal subgenre is thrash metal. The bands Sodom, Destruction, and Kreator are regarded as the pioneers of German thrash. Each of these bands was heavily influenced by the NWoBHM bands Venom and Motörhead, so much so that they all initially adopted the three-member model; they also drew inspiration from the thrash scenes emerging from America, paying special attention to Slayer. The records that really brought the bands to light were Kreator’s Pleasure to Kill, Destructions Release from Agony, and Sodom’s Agent Orange. Known for frantic guitar work and shouted vocals, the thrash bands were considered to be extremely violent. Lyrical content often focused on themes of horror, the occult, and war. During the ‘90s, each band experimented with their sounds; Sodom dabbled in death metal and punk in their Tapping the Vein and Get What You Deserve albums respectively, while Kreator took a more industrial approach to Outcast.These bands paved the way for other thrash bands such as Exumer, Holy Moses, and Tankard, as well as laying the foundations for death metal in America and black metal in Scandinavia (Dunn).
            The second scene Germany cultivated is the power metal scene. The metal subgenre was an innovation of the band Helloween. The band’s first album, Walls of Jericho, was a speed metal record. Frontman Kai Hansen had trouble singing and playing guitar, so the band hired Michael Kiske to take over vocals. The results were Keeper of the Seven Keys, Pt. 1 and Pt. 2, the albums regarded as the first of many power metal albums to storm out of Germany. The speed metal riffs of Hansen and Michael Weikath, Kiske’s soaring vocals, Ingo Schwichtenberg’s fast drum beats, and Markus Grosskopf’s intricate bass lines rose eyebrows. While most of metal music possessed a dark and gritty feel, Helloween’s music had an uplifting feeling about it; Kiske’s epic melodic singing coupled with positive lyrics made them stand apart from most other metal bands in the area. However, Hansen would leave after touring due to creative differences and fatigue from excessive touring. He would go on to form Gamma Ray with vocalist Ralf Scheepers, releasing Heading for Tomorrow in 1990. In the meantime Helloween’s next couple albums had their sound tinkered with and veered away from their previous sound. Kiske would leave after the album, Chameleon. From then on Helloween would be fronted by Andi Deris, who made his first appearance on Master of the Rings in 1994 and returned to their original sound. About this time, Blind Guardian broke out onto the scene with albums like Somewhere Far Beyond and Imaginations from the Other Side. The band utilized overdubbing of vocals and guitars to give a more epic feel to the music, creating the sense of a choral effect. These bands have gained a massive following in Europe, Latin America, and Japan, though are relatively unknown in the States; other German bands such as Primal Fear (fronted by Ralf Scheepers after he left Gamma Ray), Rage, and Edguy have adopted the power metal style, as well as bands in Scandinavia and Brazil such as Hammerfall and Angra.
            The final scene to develop is a newer trend known as Neue Deutsche Härte, which translates to “New German Hardness.” The genre blends electronic dance music with industrial metal, utilizing synthesizers and digital sampling to help give a darker atmosphere to the music. Industrial metal had been pioneered in Germany by KMFDM, but bands like Oomph(!) and Rammstein took the music to a new level in the mid-nineties with albums like Sperm and Herzeleid. The latter band gained enormous popularity outside of Germany. The group is notorious for their live performances, which often include heavy use of pyrotechnics (including frontman Till Lindemann wearing flame-throwing gauntlets), cross-dressing, and sex simulation (Kratina).
            With so many bands coming out of Germany, one may why the genre became so popular in the region. Social and economic conditions have often played an influential part in music. Heavy metal itself war born in Birmingham by Black Sabbath— an industrial city and a working class band. The German people were facing the strife of a nation divided by the clash of communism and capitalism from the sixties through the eighties. Many of the bands consisted of members in the working class; for example, members of Sodom etched out a living mining coal in Gelsenkirchen.
            Germany’s social, economic, and political climate would find its way into the lyrics of these bands. Songs such as Helloween’s “Eagle Fly Free” and “Future World” provided both criticism of the government’s policies (“Everything’s so supersonic/And we make our bombs atomic/All the better, quite neutronic/ But the poor don’t see a dime”) and an optimistic message that unity will reach the nation (“The feeling of togetherness is always at our side/We love our life and we know we will stay”). The imagery of a wall, quite possibly in reference to the Berlin Wall, can be heard in songs such as Gamma Ray’s “Land of the Free” from the album with the same title and the Scorpions’s “Still Loving You” off of Love at First Sting. Thrash bands often sang of war and horror, mistakenly having them perceived as pro-war. In response, Sodom’s Tom Angelripper said, “...we don’t want war. We wanna describe how bad the war is” ( The song “Deutschland (Remember the Past)” from World Chaos by Holy Moses warned Germany to not make the same mistakes that led to the World Wars and its downfall as a major power. Tankard attacks racist ideology—an issue that is still prevalent in Germany—in “Always Them” from their album The Meaning of Life.
            German culture has been integrated in the heavy metal subculture in a variety of ways. One of the more unique instances of syncretism is the blending of classical music with metal. Germany and Austria have a rich history of producing composers such as Beethoven and Mozart, as well as a slew of operas. Musicians such as Uli Jon Roth have studied and integrated classical music in their instrumentation. Several power metal bands— particularly Rage and Blind Guardian—utilize orchestral arrangements in their albums; Rage has even gone so far as to emphasize the orchestra, creating the Lingua Mortis Orchestra who tour with them. The practice has been used by many bands outside of Germany for special performances, most notably Metallica. The classical influences would also culminate in the form of Avantasia’s The Metal Opera. The brainchild of Tobias Sammet, the supergroup performs songs in an operatic style; different vocalists portray different characters to tell a story. Several guest musicians have joined participated in the opera; Michael Kiske and Kai Hansen leant their voices to the project.
            The German tradition of brewing has also found its way into lyrics via the band Tankard. Their song “Chemical Invasion” off the album of the same name makes reference to the Reinheitsgebot law, which dictates that beer can only be produced from barley, water, and hops.
            The World Wars have been a popular topic for metal bands. Motörhead’s frontman Lemmy Kilmister and Slayer’s late guitarist Jeff Hanneman were very interested in Nazi Germany; the former’s “Bomber” was about the bombing of the Ruhr region of Germany, while Slayer’s “Angel of Death” told of the atrocities committed by Josef Mengele. Lemmy has also incorporated the iron cross into his attire, something that quickly became adopted by many other metal bands. Sweden’s Sabaton has many songs about the World Wars, dealing with battles and the rise of Hitler. Other bands have incorporated German pop culture into their albums and songs; the Brazilian band Sepultura recently released an album entitled The Mediator between Head and Hands Must Be the Heart, a nod to the science fiction film Metropolis. Germanic and Nordic myth and history has also been a major theme. The imagery of Vikings and Goths has contributed to giving a masculine ethos to the genre. Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” and Manowar’s “Thor (The Powerhead)” are just two examples of non-Germans/non-Scandinavians taking inspiration the warriors of old.
            Even language has found its way into metal. Though most bands sing in English with a couple songs in their native language (Sodom’s “Ausgetbombt” and Doro’s “Bis aufs blut”), bands of the Neue Deutsche Härte movement and other extreme genres mostly sing in German. Outside of Germany, many bands chose to incorporate the Teutonic umlaut into their names. The belief was that the umlaut brought to mind the masculinity of Vikings and a sinister Gothic feel (Garofalo). However, the umlaut is entirely decorative; pronouncing the umlauted vowel would actually produce a weaker sound. Some bands that use the umlaut include Motörhead, Queensrÿche, Lääz Rockit, and Blue Öyster Cult.
            Metal music in Germany reaches its peak at the many music festivals the country has to offer. Dozens of festivals take place across the region. Some include Rock am Ring in Nürburg, the Hellflame Festival in Osnabrück, and the Ragnarök in Lichtenfels. The most popular event of the year, however, is Wacken Open Air. Every summer for two or three days, over 85,000 musicians and fans make pilgrimage Wacken, a town with a population under 2,000. The festival is kick started with a performance with the local fire department’s own band. A wide variety of rock and metal acts perform. In a span of three days, fans can see classic rock, punk, and heavy metal in all of its forms ( People discuss, share, and enjoy the music that has brought them together and bonds them in brotherhood.
            For over forty years, Germany has produced many bands influential to rock and metal. From classic acts such as the Scorpions to newer bands like Rammstein, it has been a central hub for music in Europe. Germany’s own history and culture have become deeply embedded into the metal subculture. Metal continues to thrive because of the passionate musicians emerging from the scenes there, as well as the fans and outsider musicians who congregate there to come to the festivals and partake in the excitement. Though only one country the genre has taken a hold of, Germany is arguably the one of the most important thresholds of metal music. Today the genre might even be more prevalent there than it is in America. Whatever the case, Germany will always hold an important place in the history of metal.

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  1. I mean, great essay and all, but what's truly impressive here is your works cited page. I think if I had to make that many citations, I'd get so angry I'd start a metal band myself. Good work!