Michelle Phillipov. 2012. Death Metal and Music Criticism: Analysis at the Limits.Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. ISBN 978-0-7391-6459-4 (hbk). 158pp.

Reviewed by: Ross Hagen, Utah Valley University

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Death Metal and Music Criticism is both a study of musical style and experience in the worlds of death metal and grindcore, and a broader critique of popular music scholarship over the past few decades. Phillipov argues that this scholarship has tended to privilege music and scenes that are anti-commercial, socially progressive, and politically engaged, often as a reflection of the researchers’ political values and desires. The book considers that the political lens also potentially creates blind spots or a sense of tunnel vision, by neglecting important aspects of musical experience that are not overtly political or that work against a progressive agenda.

Phillipov sees wide-ranging effects from the political focus of popular music scholarship, including ways in which this implicit agenda has determined the field of popular music scholarship. She posits that the academy’s early (and continuing) focus on punk rock and its oppositional, egalitarian, and anti-commercial aesthetic has served as a model for scholarship in the field. In more recent years, however, popular music scholars have been searching for the ‘next punk rock’, and choosing music styles based on their progressive politics and potential for social action. Even when considering styles of music that are privileged by the academy, political concerns seem to be amplified at the expense of other aspects of the musical experience. For example, Phillipov argues that the value placed on progressive politics in hip-hop studies has resulted in scholarly work that focuses on the egalitarian, empowering, and activist aspects of the genre. Areas of inquiry that do not fit within this narrative, such as hip-hop’s massive commercial success and its frequent forays into misogyny and sexual objectification, are often downplayed or reoriented to fit within the accepted political frame. Ultimately, Phillipov asserts that this frame necessarily limits both the types of popular music that are studied and the ways in which scholars study them.

Heavy metal and death metal are fertile subjects for this exploration. Metal musicians and fans generally tend to avoid explicitly political activity, even though the music includes extremely violent and gruesome subject matter. Indeed, Phillipov makes a powerful case that early scholarship on heavy metal developed a slightly negative tone because researchers were frustrated by the lack of political engagement in the genre. In Phillipov’s examination of death metal, she considers that the genre’s sonic parameters reconstruct the listening experience around complex song forms, harsh textures, and lyrics which explore social transgression without inspiring action. The chapters on Carcass and Cannibal Corpse contend that many of the musical and sonic aspects of the bands’ songs actively work against politicization. Carcass’s disjointed song forms and medically-focused lyrics ask the listener to envision bodily dissolution as a source of play, whereas the aggression and technical prowess of Cannibal Corpse’s music invite focus on the craft of performance as a form of distanced aesthetic appreciation. These insights are valuable in that they provide a window into the experience of death metal that places the qualities of the music in the foreground and then explores the types of listening pleasures that can be gained from it.

The overarching argument of the book provides a salient and timely critique of the practice of popular music scholarship, and it’s not always an entirely comfortable experience. Academic readers will likely find that Phillipov’s arguments illuminate biases that underpin much of their own work, even if heavy metal is not on their research agendas. For popular music scholars and graduate students, the text may inspire some valuable introspection and will certainly spark healthy discussions over how and why we work as we do. Metal scholars will certainly welcome a text that explores the pleasures of death metal on its own terms, considering what the music requires of its listeners and what experiences the listeners find within the music. Although Phillipov notes in her conclusion that thinking ‘with’ a genre of music can require one to adopt intellectual politics that are counter to one’s own (135), the exploration of these limits will surely provoke scholars to find new means of examining musical experiences and pleasures.