Mapping Metal Music

Picture4.pngFew genres of popular music are as polarizing as metal (aka "Heavy Metal").  Depending on the listener, it can induce cringes, derisive laughter, or bliss.  Through its sound, lyrics, and visual aesthetics, metal has attracted millions of fans over the last five decades due to its transgressive nature of pushing musical envelopes and challenging social and cultural mores leading to a sense of empowerment.  It can exhibit escapist and cathartic qualities for those feeling trapped by the drudgery of daily life.  From its very beginnings it has also engaged with issues like inequality, war, history, mental health, and more recently, the environment.  It is a form of music marked by a level of intentionality that is hard to ignore regardless of one's reaction to it.

That may help explain why you have never stepped onto an elevator to the strains of Slayer's "Raining Blood" or enjoyed a sonic masterpiece like Iron Maiden's "Run to the Hills" while thumbing through magazines in your dentist's waiting room.  Ever since its origins in Birmingham, England in 1968 at the hands of Black Sabbath, metal has most often been associated with disaffected young white males in industrialized and de-industrializing Western societies from the dark and frozen cities of Scandinavia to the sun-drenched sidewalks of the Sunset Strip.  While it may not be surprising that Finland has the highest number of metal bands per capita in the world how do we explain the unique and burgeoning metal scene in Botswana in southern Africa or how Indigenous languages are being preserved by metal bands in Brazil and New Zealand?  Metal, with over two dozen sub-genres, is a global phenomenon and can be viewed as both a symptom and a critique of globalization.

Using the entries contained in The Metal Archives at Encyclopaedia Metallum, an online encyclopedia, with the help of the Center for Spatial Studies at the University of Redlands, Dr. John Glover built a geodatabase of over 150,000 metal bands spread across 150 countries and six continents from the 1960s to 2022.  The geodatabase allows the user to study and map the following variables, uniquely or in combination: band name, country, hometown, status, year founded, sub-genre(s), lyrical themes, record label, years active, gender, and number of members.

In the fall of 2022, the geodatabase was debuted in a new course, History 275 "Mapping Metal: A Historical Geography," that examined the historical geography behind the genre from its antecedents to the current day and challenged what we think we know about the history and geographic spread of the genre.  The research methodology at the foundation of this course is "Historical Geomusicology" or the analysis of how geography and music are interrelated over time.  The first half of the course examined the global historical context for understanding the birth and growth of metal as a genre alongside the development of its sub-genres.  The second half of the course was devoted to case studies of metal in major regions across the globe within this historical and spatial context.  Throughout the semester, weekly labs helped build skills in mapping and spatial analysis, primarily making use of Esri's web-based ArcGIS Online Map Viewer.   


In the summer of 2023, Dr. Glover presented his research and conducted a mapping workshop at The International Society for Metal Music Studies Conference at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada.  While Montreal is often associated musically with Leonard Cohen the city and the province of Quebec are the leading metal scene in Canada with a distinctive form of black metal that reflects Québecois history and identity.

The workshop provided an introduction to using the database in Map Viewer to a audience of metal music specialists with no prior experience in GIS.  The intuitive nature of Map Viewer coupled with basic instructions and examples allowed the participants to make a series of maps from the geodatabase and provided Dr. Glover with valuable feedback and suggestions for improving the work.  The time-lapse functionality in Map Viewer was a big hit as in combination with the filter tool, the viewer can watch the expansion of metal on a global or national level potentially isolating bands by sub-genre, record label, or lyrical theme(s).  Additional map layers providing socio-economic and demographic data from ArcOnline and The Living Atlas were also combined for added context.

Following the conference, Dr. Glover worked on revising the geodatabase, in particular following up on suggestions to restructure how sub-genres are organized and displayed as there are more than 10,000 different permutations of sub-genres in the first version of the geodatabase.  Metal bands are fond of mixing different metal sub-genres and even mixing in non-metal genres such as jazz leading to a large amount of hybridity.  This work resulted in the identification of 27 distinct metal sub-genres and two categories of hybrid sub-genres reflecting those bands that mix metal sub-genres with each other and those that mix metal sub-genres with non-metal genres.  Further work on the geodatabase will include geolocating those bands that are still missing latitude and longitude.  Ultimately, Dr. Glover intends to build an Esri Dashboard with the geodatabase to make the information and experience available to the wider public along with a companion publication tentatively entitled The Digital Atlas of Global Metal Music.


Mapping Metal