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Articles : Metal Down Under: A History of Australian Metal (DVD review)

By on September 10, 2014

The old saying “We’ve come a long way” immediately came to mind upon viewing the documentary Metal Down Under; but, by that same token, so did the old adage “The more things change, the more they stay the same”. Metal Down Under by Nick Calpakdjian serves as a solid time capsule to the metal world we know and love and equally find ourselves disenfranchised with at times; featuring a rather comprehensive look back at the bands that stood as the forerunners to today’s groups, as well as providing a look into the current scene, and even some speculative murmurs to what may lie in store.

Opening with a short, incredibly honest, startlingly accurate and nigh poignant monologue from comedian Steve Hughes, the documentary immediately sets the tone for what is to come, and that is a rather bold faced look at the Australian Metal scene, and its then burgeoning community. Metal Down Under begins simply enough, with those dens of iniquity we all but over look these days: the venues, and with the itch within all of us that we needed to scratch: the desire to find, listen and wholly succumb to heavy music. It was as alive then as it is now, at Metal Down Under illustrates that perfectly; you know that guy, or gal, in their mid-to-late fourties that you see at almost every gig, completely getting into it and loving every band they set their ears upon? The world and time Metal Down Under purveys is the world and time these stalwarts grew up in, and it becomes easier to see what has them so wrapped to attention; the documentary is a stark look at the past, and a rather eye opening view of the origins of Heavy Metal in Australia.

Yet here we are, at twenty plus years and still an outlier to modern culture; readily parodied and easily brushed aside. Though this may sound unfair to say (though it is, admittedly and unfortunately, true), Metal Down Under provides an all important sound-bite, so quoted and abjectly agreed upon by band members and metal heads past and present, and that is “Australian Metal is about not giving a fuck”. (Not sorry about the swearing, editor) Though we may argue about what it is to be metal, and what genre or style constitutes as such, it is one thing that the egalitarian coda of Australian sensibility can hold true, primarily that we don’t care what others think about us and our music.

Whilst Metal Down Under displays the creation, and subsequent dissolution, of some of the predecessors of the Metal Scene, it also takes a look at the people who founded the bands that would follow. Featuring vignettes from members of bands the likes of Hobbs Angel of Death, Alchemist and Mortal Sin, one thing came out as abundantly clear from them about their time, and that is, back then, they could not be picky when it came to live music. It seems almost impossible to imagine these days, where we are spoilt for choice, with a number of incredibly talented new bands, and still standing older acts; it is something we, in this age, have almost taken for granted.

Remember earlier when I said “The more things change, the more they stay the same”, it is true. Where teenagers of the late eighties, early nineties had to rely on (as the Documentary itself jokes) the bygone version of file-swapping, (that is Taping) we have much the same in the way of various YouTube clips from bands you have likely never heard of, but have that one friend who has. As our horizons are broadened to music today, so to it was back then; we just have better tools. One might even go so far as to say that one purpose of Metal Down Under is to give us something to be grateful for; where we have stores like JB Hi-Fi and websites like Amazon, Melbourne had a single store the likes of Metal for Melbourne (on a personal note, major respect to Calpakdjian for including Greta Tate), and New South Wales had/has Utopia. An international metal act playing Australia would have been a rather daft notion back then, but now we don’t go a year without at least one. Where we have stores that readily sell band t-shirts from bands you never even knew had shirts (yet they still probably, officially, don’t), there was no such place, outside of gigs, to obtain such items. Indeed, things have changed, but when you look at it, they have stayed, very much the same it is just that we’ve gotten larger as a scene.

However, my aforementioned point still remains apt; we have come a long way. Metal Down Under also, admirably illustrates, the bands of back then striking out and trying to make an impact on the international stage; citing Hobbs Angel of Death and Mortal Sin as the forebearers of what would become the touring Australian Metal band. Whilst documentaries tend to make these sorts of things seem like the work of one, or a few, men, the truth of it lies just as well as the right attitude, in the right places at the right times; and now we have bands the likes of Orpheus Omega, not to mention Vanishing Point and Ne Obliviscaris, taking their music overseas, to many an appreciative audience. It would be easy to forget that without the work of these, I almost shudder to say, ancestors, the idea of an internationally touring Metal Band from Australia may well have remained a ludicrous concept.

Metal Down Under also touts another interesting hypothesis, and that is “Evolution”; which is an interesting thing to keep in mind. Music may well be considered a living, breathing entity, and it is with scenes of bands from the eighties that we can see where it started to gain its stride. It is an enlightening thing to look back and see what was, and compare it to what we now have; and that, I think is the prime intent of this piece. The people, the music; whilst is has radically changed it has also maintained a stasis.

As an instance, there is an almost unspoken order within the metal community; where you are walking down a major street, surrounded by men with short hair and women without piercings, where you get this sense of isolation and feeling that you are the odd one out. Then, you see a flash of long hair and a band logo printed on a t-shirt; you know nothing about this person, you may never see them again, but there is an immediate, silent kinship shared between you. One of you may say “Awesome shirt”, throw up “The Horns”, or just acknowledge one another’s existence, but there it is: proof that there are others like you. It is something one might easily forget, and it is all but shown it was the same back then; but so long as we have a Documentary like Metal Down Under as a reminder, it is something to take store in.

Metal Down Under, for its minor pacing flaws and omissions, is many things all at once; a reminder of how things once were and how they impact today, a nostalgic time capsule, a study on the evolution of mindsets and sounds in music, something an aspiring metal musician might learn a thing or two from and a clearing point of perspective for those currently in bands. It is no great font of knowledge, it doesn’t try to be, but it is a clear window into the scene we cast our lot with, with a few exceptional nuggets of wisdom to take away from.

One might even go so far as to say that Metal Down Under is an important piece for the Metal community, as it may well be, itself, a stepping stone to another such feature in the future; and that will hold promise for another time. How far will we have gone from then? It is a, frankly, exciting notion to have in mind. Until then, go out, get together with some friends, share some music and go see some local shows; for today’s bands may well be tomorrow’s harbinger of that new evolution.


Hailing from parts unknown (actually, it’s Melbourne), Tristan is a freelance writer and lover of metal, with a special place in his heart for Power and Folk metal. After playing in a number of local Melbourne metal bands, and completing his Bachelor of Arts, Tristan focuses his attention to the pursuit of writing, practicing the Liechtenauer School of swordsmanship, dabbling in Cosplay and reciting Babylon 5 quotes; in addition to hunting for a publisher for his novel. Until then, he enjoys metal, writing about metal and convincing people around his office that he is immortal and has lived for 3,000 years. (So far only the chick in HR is buying it)