Watch & Learn

Metal and Cultural Impact conference at University of Dayton

By Allyson B. Crawford

Photo: Keynote speaker Josh Bernstein will present on the business of heavy metal; photo: Rob Fenn

Studying heavy metal as an academic pursuit isn’t new. The interdisciplinary study has gained popularity in recent years, first in European countries and now in America. This November 6-8, add Dayton, Ohio to the list. The University of Dayton will hold a conference called “Metal and Cultural Impact: Metal’s Role in the 21st Century.” The conference, brainchild of English professor Bryan Bardine, will welcome scholars, business professionals and musicians alike to the campus for three days of insight, education and fun. Events include a presentation on “Queer Metal Matters,” an art exhibition on masks and popular culture, a screening of the documentary, “March of the Gods” and presentations by special guests Alex Skolnick (of the legendary thrash metal band Testament) and Josh Bernstein (creator of the annual Revolver Golden Gods awards).

Bardine, a lifelong metalhead, said he was inspired to create a metal conference at UD after attending a similar event at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) in 2013. Bardine also presented at that conference.

“I was asked to be on a panel about metal and community,” Bardine said. “The last four years, I’ve been bringing in scholars [to UD] for different workshops and seminars. I brought one in on heavy metal and globalization. And we had four scholars, two from BGSU, one from Chicago – DePaul [University] – and the other from [University of] California, Irvine. They all talked about different aspects of metal and its influence around the world. And then, after the Bowling Green conference, I thought, ‘Why can’t we do something like this at UD?’ So we started the process.”

Bardine sought permission from UD officials to get the ball rolling. He’s been granted a lot of support, not only from the English department and grad students, but also campus officials like his department chair and even the Dean.

“I sort of borrowed the structure from the one at Bowling Green,” Bardine told the Dayton City Paper. “So instead of having concurrent sessions, we’re having consecutive ones. Once you’re here, you pretty much get to stay in the same place all day.”

Some folks from Bowling Green are also on the UD conference planning committee.

An academic conference takes a considerable amount of time to plan, from the day-to-day tasks like scheduling space for speakers and making travel arrangements, to dealing with the much longer process of formally “calling for papers” from academics across the country and world. And “world” is accurate since UD’s take on metal will welcome people from all over the globe, including New Zealand and South Africa, a feat that doesn’t exactly surprise Bardine. After all, he knew the interest was there.

“Metal studies is a legitimate field,” he said proudly. “It’s youthful and relatively new. But we’ve got great scholars working in this field now.”

In all, the conference will boast 13 sessions, including keynote speakers, meaning there’s likely something for everyone whose passion is metal. Like business more than strumming chords? No worry. Josh Bernstein, Director of Sales and Business Development at Alternative Press Magazine, will be a keynote speaker at the conference. The title of Bernstein’s keynote is “Heavy Metal: A Business, A Lifestyle, Past, Present, and Future.” He’ll address the business side of the metal world and provide an interesting commentary on an industry that has been turned upside down thanks to the Internet and file sharing. Surprising to some, Bernstein is a firm believer that the business side of metal actually helps spur creativity, providing outlets for new music and ideas.

“For years, the idea of ‘selling out’ was deemed the worst thing an artist could do; but, more recently, metal fans are smart enough to realize that it’s a necessary part of the process and essential in letting artists create, distribute and tour with their music,” Bernstein said. “People don’t think Leonardo DaVinci’s artwork was stifled because he had funding from the Medici family, or that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel was work-for-hire from the Pope. I think all musicians should know the basics of the business side of the industry to help protect their interests.”

One of the biggest draws of the conference is Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick. Not a fan of organized education when he was younger, Skolnick will address this as part of his conference session called “Louder Education.” Skolnick openly recalled his childhood and struggle with public education during a phone conversation about the conference.

“I went through the public school system and it was overcrowded and underfunded, and very little individual attention was given,” Skolnick explained. “I think there may be some that can do well in that environment. There are others, [such as] introverts, non-group-oriented people, creative types, that may not do so well in that environment. I saw that a lot. I saw a lot of unhappy, unfulfilled peers, and it’s unnecessary. Learning can be a great experience, but it was a prison-like experience for many of us. My whole association with education was tainted by this. When I discovered music, the guitar … it was the only thing I was good at. Gradually, I think I learned how to learn from that. The most frowned upon thing I did – which was getting into loud, threatening music – was actually the best and most educational thing I did.”

The conference marks a first for Skolnick. He recently gave a lecture on metal and hard rock guitar solos as part of The New School’s Make Music Monthly podcast. “That was an academic look at rock guitar and I’ve written about metal before, but I’ve never done a true academic conference,” he said.

Even without a doctorate, Skolnick as a conference presenter makes a lot of sense. Not only does his professional music background provide more than enough education for him to speak authoritatively, but he also grew up around the academy. His parents are both academics and he concedes things have now come full circle.

“My rebellion and escape from my academic upbringing was hard rock and heavy metal music and the guitar,” he said. “Somehow, it’s now leading me back to it on my own terms.”

Bernstein agrees about learning and expression through music, pointing to a couple of well-known success stories. “We currently have a president that grew up listening to the Rolling Stones, smoking pot and reading Conan the Barbarian comics,” he said. “In a few years, it won’t seem so far-fetched that we could have a Commander-In-Chief that spent some time in a Slayer pit, read Rage Against the Machine lyrics or drop D tuned [his or her] guitars. Just this year, Joko Widodo was elected President of Indonesia. Joko is a devout fan of Lamb of God, Cannibal Corpse and Napalm Death. Heavy metal is the music of the people and real cultural and political change can come from the power of those same people.”

But it’s not just about sitting and listening to experts. The conference will offer some extracurricular entertainment value as well. 

“The evening events will be big too,” Bardine said excitedly. “[We’re showing] the film, ‘March of the Gods’ [on Thursday, Nov. 6]. I just watched it. It’s excellent. No one thinks there’s metal in Africa anyway, but when you see what these guys have done in Botswana, it’s really incredible to see how they’ve taken it and made it their own.”

Also, on Friday night, conference attendees may enjoy a special art exhibit entitled “Masked Performance: Facepaint, Head Coverings, and Masks in 21st Century Popular Culture.” The exhibit will take place at UD’s Roesch Library. 

Perhaps the most unique part of the conference is the capstone concert, the brainchild of Bardine and Neilson Hixson of Western Noise Entertainment and Oddbody’s Music Room. Most conferences don’t feature much traditional entertainment, but, for an academic pursuit focused on heavy metal, getting together for a rock show just seemed to make sense. 

“We put feelers out to any bands in Ohio to see if they wanted to be included in the show,” Bardine said. “We got many replies and we picked five. … We sent those to Alex and he chose the three he liked the most. Those are the three that will perform. Forces of Nature and Engine of Chaos are both from Dayton. Lick the Blade is from Cleveland. They will open the show and play for 30 minutes. Engine of Chaos will play next for 45 minutes and Forces of Nature will finish it up, going for 45 minutes as well.” 

The concert will be held at Oddbody’s in Dayton (5418 Burkhardt Road). You can get in for $10 and don’t have to attend the conference at UD to see the show. A portion of proceeds from the show will benefit Project READ and the Ronnie James Dio Stand Up and Shout Cancer Fund. To date, the University of Dayton is the only group permitted to the use the Dio Cancer Fund logo for publicity purposes. Doors for the concert open at 8:30 p.m. 

The conference will open with Amber Clifford-Napoleone’s presentation, “Queer Metal Matters: Metal, Sexuality, and the Future.” Other session topics include “Women and Metal,” “Metal as Performance,” “Cultural Legitimation of Metal” and many more. 

All University of Dayton faculty, staff and students are welcome to attend the conference for free. Fees are $50 for graduate students from other schools and $100 for everyone else. The screening and panel discussion of “March of the Gods,” taking place on Friday, Nov. 6 from 8-10 p.m., is free to conference attendees and $5 for the general public. Online registration is now open. 

The Metal and its Cultural Impact Conference will take place Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 6-8 around the University of Dayton.  To learn more about the conference and to check out the entire rundown of presenters and topics, as well as times and locations, please visit ecommons.udayton.edu/maci/Program. To learn more about the English program at the University of Dayton, please visit  udayton.edu.

Allyson B. Crawford lives in Kettering and writes about ’80s metal bands on her daily blogbringbackglam.com blog. You can usually find her at all sorts of metal shows around Ohio and across the country. Allyson can be reached at AllysonCrawford@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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About Allyson B. Crawford

View all posts by Allyson B. Crawford
Allyson B. Crawford
Allyson B. Crawford lives in Kettering and writes about ’80s metal bands on her daily blog bringbackglam.com. You can usually find her at all sorts of metal shows around Ohio and across the country. Allyson can be reached at AllysonCrawford@DaytonCityPaper.com

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