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July 10 2011

World of leather

Heavy metal was born in the Black Country when its furnaces still blazed. Now the area is celebrating its heritage – with a raft of gigs and exhibitions. Stuart Jeffries straps on a Flying V and goes back to his roots

When Mark Titchner was a boy, he spent hours watching Black Sabbath's Master of Reality album rotating on the stereo of his Dunstable home. Not so much to revel in frontman Ozzy Osbourne's Lovecraftian horror, or the guitar virtuosity of Tony Iommi who, only four years before the album came out, had lost the tips of two fingers in an accident at a Birmingham sheet-metal factory.

No, it was the spinning label that captivated Titchner. "It was my first experience of rotoscopic art, and it floors me every time I see it," he says in his east London studio. The label, known as the "Vertigo swirl" after the record label that released Sabbath's albums, is a roto-relief, cribbed from those made by Marcel Duchamp. "I used to put it on the turntable and spend a nice long time looking into it, rising and falling with it into the abyss."

That youthful fascination feeds into Titchner's work in his new solo show, Be True to Your Oblivion, at Walsall's New Art Gallery. It's part of a sprawling season of exhibitions and events celebrating Birmingham and the Black Country as the birthplace of heavy metal. I'm particularly looking forward to Hell Bent for Leather: Judas Priest and the Heavy Metal Look at Walsall's Leather Museum, which will, fingers crossed, tell the neglected story of fetish gear, homosexuality and heavy metal.

Little Mark's Sabbath records inspired much of the Turner nominee's later artistic practice. His 2006 piece Ergo Ergot, to be shown in Walsall, consists of two large spinning roto-reliefs that form a geometric arrangement called the Titchener Illusion, after 20th-century psychologist Edward Titchener. "He's no relation," says the artist. "The illusion is that a circle surrounded by other circles looks smaller the larger the surrounding circles are."

This optical illusion is especially striking when, as in the case of Ergo Ergot, two circles of the same size are placed side by side, and then surrounded by circles – small circles on one, larger ones on the other.

I'd come to Titchner's work through his banners hanging outside Gateshead's Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, screaming bracingly fatuous messages such as "The Future Is Behind Us". Like Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer, Titchner in his text-based work establishes what he calls "a dialogue about how you receive thought and ideas". He's had sour fun recently with banners subverting the government cuts agenda – images of them feature on his blog.

One new work at Walsall will be a video portrait of Nic Bullen, founder member of Birmingham grindcore band Napalm Death. It consists of an extreme closeup of Bullen singing, slowed down so you can see his muscles working as he silently bawls – Titchner has muted his friend. The artist was inspired by Billie Whitelaw in Beckett's Not I: "All you see is that terrifying babbling mouth."

Before we carry on, let's define our terms. Grindcore music is not grime. Grindcore is a stupendously fast anarcho-punk music drawing from death metal, industrial music, noise and hardcore punk. It arose in Birmingham in the 80s (probably not as a response to Duran Duran, but you never know). Grime is dance music originating a few bus stops from Titchner's studio.

Is that a metal turd?

What's the allure of heavy metal? "The sensibility of metal has a darkness to it that draws me, but it has a social dimension – particularly as you get into the grindcore end of it. There's anarchism, but nihilism is far away."

I was brought up in Birmingham from the 1960s to the 80s, the very period during which some of the region's greatest metal bands – Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin, Napalm Death, Godflesh, Diamond Head – were making ears bleed worldwide. I never claimed this music as my heritage since I regarded punk as deflating its pretensions.

"That's only one way of telling the story," counters Titchner. "Another is that after punk came these grindcore bands who said punks are effete – let's go faster, be angrier and be proper anarchists. That movement still has its hive in the Black Country."

Titchner's views prompted me to revisit my birthplace and reconsider its musical heritage. But there was an immediate problem. So much of the industry that fired the music has gone, crushed by deflationary Thatcherite budgets in the 80s. My dad's story is typical. He was an engineer for car, aeronautical and metalworking firms across the West Midlands, but spent his final years of working life as a Youth Training Scheme manager. I suspect he taught kids to manage down their expectations: the pride he took in being an engineer could hardly be theirs in this deindustrialised region.

I started at Longbridge, looking at the wastelands of the car plant that once employed 50,000 people. Then I drove over to Wednesbury to visit my nan's house. She died in 1976, but I still remember sitting on her back step looking over the fiery blast furnaces of the Black Country at night. It's all gone – that fire and unspeakable beauty. My upset intensified as I drove around Dudley and Bilston, both so leafy that they felt like the Green Country rather than the Black Country. Counter-intuitively, heavy metal wasn't obliterated by Thatcherism: after the industry that spawned it was destroyed, metal music became more political and harder to listen to – expressing, perhaps, a howl over what was lost and a rage for those who took it.

At Wolverhampton Art Gallery, I experienced a corrective to this sense of loss in a show called From Iron Ore to Grindcore. On a table was something that looked like a metal turd – the final steel cast from Elisabeth of Bilston (the last Black Country blast furnace) dating from 1979, the year the flames were extinguished for good. In the years when Elisabeth and her sisters burned, local bands such as Judas Priest did something alchemical with industrial dust, fire and noise, transmuting them into music rich with fantasy, leather, desire and metallised beats – all of which makes it sound as Wagnerian as Alberich's metalworking cave in Das Rheingold.

I play the riff to Paranoid

In the next room is You Should Be Living: the Visual Language of Heavy Metal. My favourite piece here is Nic Bullen and Damien Deroubaix's installation in which visitors can sequence short grindcore audio loops at a mixing desk and scream into microphones. At least that's what I did: the guard eyed me narrowly.

Nihilistic art will figure prominently in some of Titchner's new work in Walsall. "I've long been intrigued by what happens when language ceases to communicate. That comes from Napalm Death – their almost primal scream music is a moral standpoint in the face of language that has lost its meaning." In a world of empty slogans, he seems to be saying, screaming is more authentic, more articulate, a nihilistic subversion of prevailing values.

Titchner says his latest work was inspired especially by Led Zeppelin's untitled fourth album, whose sleeve was decorated with intentionally baffling runic symbols, and by US black metal band Wolves in the Throne Room. He shows me the latter's 2004 album sleeve, featuring an unreadable hieroglyph.

"In this new work I was inspired by these kinds of metal non-typography to write strange neologisms on breeze blocks for a wall for the show. Then I carved them so it was like tomb carvings. Then I crossed everything out and it still wasn't right. So I obscured the text completely and mirrored it. I ended up with intractable symbols. It's a long, drawn-out process to arrive at a negation of words." It's the culmination of Titchner's text-based work, perhaps: instead of ironically subverting meaningless slogans, he batters them senseless. Very heavy metal.

Finally, I drove to Birmingham Art Gallery, where, in a space in which I've seen Renaissance art, is a show chronicling 40 years of heavy-metal culture. There I met the man credited with devising the first metal riff (possibly the one on Black Sabbath's Evil Woman), Tony Iommi. I shook his legendarily injured right hand. How did Iommi feel to see his music given the institutional imprimatur? "It's fabulous – but it's taken a long time. We spent a lot of time in the States because we were frowned on so much here."

Does Iommi think different bands have different riffs depending on the different metalworking jobs their members worked in? "Maybe. That might explain why Judas Priest sound different from us. Certainly the riffs I played on Paranoid or Iron Man only make sense if you realise where I worked as a teenager."

Iommi and I stood before a huge roto-relief, the Vertigo swirl. I told him that Titchner used to spend hours looking into it. "Yeah, a lot of our fans did – on dope probably."

Iommi wandered off to be feted by fans. I explored another room with electric guitars plugged into headphones for visitors to play. I strapped on a Flying V and tried to play a song I know well, Sabbath's Paranoid (it's my brother-in-law's ringtone). It sounded woeful. Clearly I need to work harder at reclaiming my cultural heritage. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 08 2011

Home Of Metal: a history of the heavy in seven objects

To salute Home Of Metal's new series of exhibitions across the West Midlands, a look at key items that tell the story of the metal movement

To celebrate four decades since Black Sabbath ushered in the modern era of heavy metal (sludgy, melancholic, grinding and defiantly anti-hippy) the entire West Midlands (near enough) has been given over to the sprawling Home Of Metal. Originally set up as an online folk archive of metal memorabilia, Home Of Metal is now a vast centrepiece exhibition in Birmingham, with other shows spread across various Black Country galleries. The programme takes in modern art, the region's industrial heritage, a huge academic conference, DIY guitar and fanzine making workshops and even a series of bat walks in Haden Hill Park (titled, naturally, Bat Out of Hell). With a tight focus kept on bands from the region (mainly Sabbath, Judas Priest, Napalm Death and Godflesh) it's a long-overdue tribute to an age where bands could invoke Satan, ride motorbikes on stage, record songs which were four seconds long and generally terrify polite society. Join The Guide as we journey up the M1 to tell the story of the music in just seven objects …

An anvil

"Birmingham," wrote the historian William Hutton in 1781, "began with the productions of the anvil and will probably end with them." The birth of the West Midlands heavy metal scene is inextricably bound up with the centuries of heavy industry that followed Hutton's observation. Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath and Glenn Tipton of Judas Priest both worked in the steel industry. "The factory I worked in was a massive steelwork labyrinth, riddled with polluted canals, massive grimy workshops, foundries and steam hammers," recalled Tipton. It doesn't take a great leap of imagination to realise why metal ending up sounding the way it did. "There were no safety regulations," added Tipton, as Iommi found to his cost: he lost the tips of his fingers in a metal press and had to relearn the guitar using leather-coated tops of washing up bottles as ersatz digits.

A Laney amp

Iommi's lack of fingertips led to other crucial mutations in his guitar playing – namely the use of thinner, detuned strings. However, the key element of his seminal metal sound was the none-more-distorted Laney amplifier, first built by Lyndon Laney (then playing bass in Band Of Joy with Robert Plant and John Bonham) in his father's shed in Great Barr, north Birmingham. Iommi still uses a GH100TI, a monolithic 100-watt amp head that proudly boasts of "being equipped for out-and-out metal".

Lars Ulrich's fan letter

Before email, an international metal network was sustained from the West Midlands in epistolary form. Exhibits at Home Of Metal include Lars Ulrich's polite missive to Brian Tatler of Diamond Head thanking the band for looking after him when he arrived in England as an unknown fan – Ulrich promptly returned to LA and formed Metallica with James Hetfield.

A denim jacket

Faded denim is right on trend for this year, although sadly the 2011 fashion incarnation doesn't include a variety of cheap embroidered patches stitched on to every available surface. "Every metal fan would have to choose their backpatch carefully," says Ken McCormick, whose patch-encrusted tabard takes pride of place in Home Of Metal. "I liked mine because it made old ladies tut." Also influential on the development of the metal look was Judas Priest's astonishing array of homoerotic studded leatherwear, which now forms the basis of a separate show at Walsall's Leather Museum.

Black Sabbath's logo

Tedious graphic design types are always quacking on about Josef-Müller Brockmann et al but frankly those tasteful Swiss types are a bit of a one-trick sans-serif pony. Metal's grasp of fonts managed to be both wildly inventive and easy to replicate on clothing, and continues to regularly crop up in modern graphic design (Arctic Monkeys' new logo appears to be a straight lift from Black Sabbath's Master Of Reality album). A Wolverhampton art show running concurrently with Home Of Metal includes Matias Faldbakken's reconfiguring of the vicious Slayer logo, and Ben Venom's quilts constructed from iconic metal logos.

Napalm Death's zine

Despite actually being enormously popular, British metal has always traded on "outsider" status. The genre's lack of mainstream champions helped fuel a rudely healthy fanzine culture; stand-outs at Home Of Metal include the Sabbath bible Southern Cross ("Dutch picture sleeve singles special!") and Anti-Social, produced by the future founders of Napalm Death, aged 11 (sample cover lines: "Cassettes are fabbo" and "this costs 15p – don't let them rip you off, ok?"). Suffice to say, these items – handmade, deeply political, anti-capitalist – now look about as quaint as illuminated manuscripts and magic lanterns.

A Judas Priest banner

Perhaps the most telling piece in the whole Home of Metal show is a banner by Turner Prize nominee Mark Titchner, looking out on to the front of The New Art Gallery Walsall and declaring "I'LL CHOOSE MY FATE" in Judas Priest-quoting, fire-encrusted letters. A music scene that once frightened authority, was embroiled in court cases and accused by local documentaries of damaging teenagers' brains is now accepted as a legitimate, slightly cosy part of English folk culture

Events and exhibitions run at various venues to 8 Jan 2012, see for details © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Home of Metal exhibition – in pictures

Home of Metal is currently taking over art spaces in the West Midlands. To celebrate, here's a selection of art works, objects and memorabilia

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