Metal Evolution - "Pre-Metal"

Metal Evolution - "Pre-Metal"
Sam Dunn
VH1 Classic

All Access Review: A-

Pinning down that exact moment of conception when heavy metal became a living, breathing entity is next to impossible, as most observers know all too well. There was no “big bang” that, in the blink of an eye, brought this screaming, bloody musical anti-Christ – something akin to that evil baby with the fangs and devil horns that graces the cover of Black Sabbath’s Born Again album – into existence. Although some will argue that heavy metal’s arrival was heralded by Steppenwolf when John Kay uttered the words “heavy metal thunder” in “Born to be Wild” or that its birth occurred the moment Blue Cheer dropped that sonic atom bomb of psychedelic blues that was their cover of “Summertime Blues,” others might point to the first Black Sabbath album or the tragic industrial accident that claimed the tips of Tony Iommi’s fingers as the origin of this particular species. No doubt, all of these events played a role in giving life to the genre, but heavy metal’s creation story is a far more complex tale than even filmmaker Sam Dunn imagined when he undertook his “Metal Evolution” documentary series, an extension of his highly acclaimed “A Headbanger’s Journey” film. And it’s no accident that he included the word “evolution” in the title.

With the probing mind of an anthropologist and a fan’s heart, Dunn, ably assisted by partner Scot McFayden, examine in great detail the roots of heavy metal in the inaugural episode of VH1 Classic’s “MetalEvolution,” “Pre-Metal.” Immersing himself in the Wacken Open Air experience, Dunn launches into what is quite possibly the most academic installment of “Metal Evolution” with a fairly scientific approach, expounding on the neuroscience behind the fatal attraction people have to metal. Scientist Laurel Trainor of McMaster University studies this kind of thing, and on “Pre-Metal,” she talks in-depth about the effect of aggressive music on the body and mind, while measuring Dunn’s head and exposing him to various musical genres during a staged experiment with him. Over the course of “Pre-Metal,” Dunn journeys back in time to study, somewhat predictably, the influence of classical music, blues and jazz on metal’s development, while also taking detours to Sun Studios in Memphis to investigate the accidental discovery of distortion and to Britain’s Marshall Amplification factory to see how founder Jim Marshall, through trial and error, tried and ultimately succeeded in building an amp that would satiate Pete Townshend’s desire for overpowering volume.

That, in and of itself, is a fascinating piece of history, as the story of how the famed Marshall stacks grew into these monstrous delivery systems for explosive sound is inextricably tied to heavy metal’s rise from music’s primordial ooze. No less an innovator than Marshall, Sun Studios’ Sam Phillips had an ear for fresh, exciting sonic possibilities, as the story of “Rocket 88” and the damaged amplifier that wrapped what is considered by many as the first rock ‘n’ roll recording in hot, fuzzy distortion indicates. And Dunn and company link indirectly that historic moment with Dave Davies’ “You Really Got Me” riff – one that many metal musicians cite as having aroused their hard-rock sensibilities – in a subtle way that speaks to their ability to combine all these diverse elements into a cohesive and entertaining package. 

Not at all surprisingly, the non-scientific portion of “Pre-Metal” starts with Black Sabbath and explains how those doom-laden chords that sprung from Iommi’s imagination – their genesis found in classical music – filled their first album with horrifying menace and supernatural uneasiness. From there, Dunn segues into a discussion of classical influences, exploring how Niccolo Paganini’s frantic violin technique put Yngwie Malmsteen on an endless quest to conquer increasingly complex and virtuoso passages and the impact of opera on the vocal theatrics and dramatic stagecraft of the likes of Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, Judas Priest’s Rob Halford and Queensryche’s Geoff Tate. Going deeper, with great enthusiasm, producer Bob Ezrin reanimates the unbridled bombast of composer Richard Wagner’s grandest epics and transplants it into the body of arena-shaking heavy metal – the connection a logical one and not at all earth-shattering, although it’s hard not be moved by Ezrin’s explanation.

If nothing else, “Pre-Metal” establishes, yet again, that winning documentary style of Dunn’s that meshes his relaxed, albeit exuberant and intense, dedication to the cause with the amazing cross-section of interviews with heavy metal icons, lesser-known players, music-industry insiders, journalists and any other contributors who would talk to him with relevant and interesting historical treatises, rare, insightful anecdotes, a combination of incredible vintage and contemporary footage of some of rock and metal’s finest performers. Scott Ian, Kirk Hammett, the MC5’s Wayne Kramer and others talk about the salvation metal brought them, as Dunn and his collaborators seek to broaden the perspectives of “Metal Evolution” as far as they can. Then, they take it one step further, as they do in the segment on the blues’ influence on metal. With Hammett and former Deep Purple bassist/vocalist Glenn Hughes adding their own two cents worth, they take great pains to get to the heart of that hellish, animalistic quality the blues has – especially apparent in the works of Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf – that made the vocals and starkly minimalist instrumentation of its greatest architects so chilling. Meeting with the man who was the last living member of Howlin’ Wolf’s band, Hubert Sumlin (who actually died in December), Dunn – doing what every great interviewer does in that he divorces himself from the conversation and lets the subject tell his or her story the way they want – describes the scary power and roiling emotions inherent in the music and lyrics of a man who was uneducated in the classic sense, but who knew all too well the trials and tribulations that torture human beings.

While there is a structure to Dunn’s storytelling that is well thought out, the “Metal Evolution” series, and “Pre-Metal” in particular, reveal a tendency to step off the reservation when the spirit moves him. And it moves him in ways that are sometimes mysterious but are mostly rewarding and vital to his dissertation, which is what “Metal Evolution” is. The editing is superb on “Pre-Metal,” as almost every quote packs a punch and the appearance of concert and candid footage from long ago or today quickens the pace and adds visual interest to the piece. As those who have been watching from Day One will undoubtedly realize, Dunn and his crew were only getting started with “Pre-Metal.” 

-Peter Lindblad

Metal Evolution - "Pre-Metal"
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