Having first made their name with the feature-length documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, which charts a path through the hows, whys and wherefores of heavy metal music, Sam Dunn and Scott McFadyen, aka Banger Films Inc, have gone on to produce this series of TV documentaries for VH1 which expand upon the film’s premise.
While the movie takes an overview of the entire genre and, specifically, Dunn’s interests, including some elements of the sociology and anthropology behind the fans and musicians, Metal Evolution takes a slightly more in-depth look at the history of the genre, and some of its sub-genres, in a similar but, generally, more open way.
Starting off with an exploration of pre-metal heaviness it gets going well with sound bites from the likes of Blue Cheer, Steppenwolf and Led Zeppelin as well as a look back at the links from classical, jazz, blues and early rock ‘n’ roll – leading to some brilliant comments from Motorhead’s Lemmy about Little Richard.
Once we get past the fairly well trodden path of the history of metal across the first three episodes things settle into exploring sub-genres with various levels of success.
While its clear that Dunn’s interests lay more in the world of thrash and NWOBHM, so these episodes see our ‘presenter’ getting clearly excited to be meeting his heroes and is, therefore, somewhat deferential in interviewing them.
So, it is often the other episodes that are more interesting and show a side of metal, and its fans (of which I am one), that they often find hard to reconcile with the so-called ‘true metal’ image.
This first comes to the fore in the glam episode where we get a very skewed overview of the style that seems to have its own agenda largely regarding whether this is ‘proper’ metal and, while this can be a fun conversation to have in the pub, as an episode of a TV show it seems to give the genre somewhat short shrift – particularly considering the crossover appeal the style has had and, it is clear throughout, that Dunn still really isn’t that interested in Motley Crue, Poison and their ilk.
The same criticism can also be leveled at the grunge episode, however here not only does Dunn seem unsure as to why he is exploring the sub-genre, many of the musicians don’t seem to buy the theory that grunge is part of metal, most seeming to side with the idea that its part of punk or indie.
Despite this there are some illuminating points about how bands like Alice In Chains and Soundgarden were influenced by early metal and how grunge has evolved into the current crop of stadium rock of the likes of Nickleback, which adds a much broader scope towards the end of the episode.
The most successful episodes are the ones that tackle styles clearly within the over arching genre of metal but that Dunn doesn’t have such a close association with, either positive or negative.
So it is that the exploration of nu-metal, shock rock, power metal and prog metal are so me of the more illuminating episodes.
Of course, as with every documentary like these, there are moments where the musicians almost veer into self parody, either by taking their music so seriously and being so po-faced about it they fail to see the inherent absurdity of the things they are doing, or they are the genuine knucleheads the mainstream media like to portray heavy metallers as.
Between these however is a deep vein of fascinating discussion of just why so many people like this sort of music and why it has never quite, despite a few dalliances, totally made into the mainstream of pop culture with the late, great Ronnie James Dio, Lemmy and Alice Cooper all giving some great insights alongside some, frankly, ridiculous war stories.
In the end Metal Evolution is an imbalanced series that, as a fan of metal and music history in general, I did enjoy. Of course it would be easy to point out obvious omissions but, over all, I think it does capture something of the essence of what makes heavy metal what it is, though I’m not sure how much appeal it would have to anyone who isn’t already a dedicated fan.