L’Enferno, Or Why It’s Time to Celebrate Italian Metal
Metal, like punk rock, was born in a cold, industrial city. While punk’s ancestral homeland is the embattled, riot-weary Detroit of the late 1960s, metal was born in dreary old Birmingham, England. Ever since then, metal has been a predominately northern affair, almost as if ice and four months of misery are perquisites for thicker-than-peanut -butter riffs and sonic devilry. Sure, there have been outliers. Brazil more or less invented Satanic blackened trash, while the New Orleans sludge metal scene of the 1990s was (arguably) the last gasp of innovation in all-American metal. Of course, we’ll always have the Bay Area and we should never forget the unbreakable link between death metal and Florida, even though a lot of those bands were snow birds running away from places like Buffalo.
Still, no part of the world cultivates such a cult of metal worship as Scandinavia. Like Senator Bernie Sanders’s desire to make America look more like Europe’s incredibly homogenous (and not so nice) far north, too many American metalheads want their bands to sound Swedish. Thus we had the metalcore craze of the early ‘00s, which, if we’re being honest, should’ve been called At The Gates-core or Slaughter of the Soul-core.
The reasons behind this desire are legion. Some simply prefer Scandinavian music and imagery, while others long for the shock, awe, and excitement of the Norwegian black metal scene (even including that scene’s reprehensible extracurricular activities). For every thrash worshipper or danked-out doomer at your local metal bar, there are ten to twenty dudes in Burzum t-shirts.
And why is this the norm? Why, out of all the metal sounds that this wonderful world has produced, do so many of us uphold Scandinavia for special appreciation? Look, I like Viking death and black metal as much as the next headbanger, and I too give a thumbs up to the fact that Sweden and Finland are the top exporters of metal bands in the world, but let’s not forget that there’s other European metal out there and it’s just as good.
For instance, what about that particular metal scene that comes from a country where a whole city is supposedly under the spell of black magic, metalheads murder each other for Satan, and even the judicial system takes seriously claims of devil worship during high-profile murder cases? That’s right—Italian metal is more than just Cristina Scabbia’s pretty face.
Like most scenes, Italian metal got started during the days of thrash. Bands like Necrodeath, Bulldozer, and the cheesier-than-thou Death SS slapped speed together with horror-themed lyrics that did not preclude a healthy respect for debauchery. Look no further than Bulldozer’s Venom-esque “Whisky Time” for clarification:
Come on let's go to the 'strip'
Looking for red shinning lips
if I don't get fucked never mind
We are ready to start
It's fucking whisky time
Whereas the Scandinavian metal bands of the 1990s went in for deadly seriousness, Italian metal in the 80s was all about undiluted schlock and Lucio Fulci-inspired exploitative excess. Bulldozer singer Alberto Contini took to the stage wearing a black cape and posing as a defrocked priest in the service of Satan, while the members of Death SS dressed up like the reimagined Universal creatures from The Monster Squad in order to look spooky next to some naked models. In a word: it was awesome.
As the 80s became the 90s, Italians went death metal. At first, the overall production suffered. Hack bands tried to ape their North American and northern European peers to little success. Then a formula was found among the rubbish—classical music. Despite also producing the technical brutality of Hour of Penance, the Italian metal scene is now mostly known for sweeping, almost operatic acts like Fleshgod Apocalypse, Opera IX, and the previously mentioned Lacuna Coil. Gothicism, romance, and the legacies of Verdi and Paganini, who supposedly sold his soul to the devil: these are the markers of contemporary Italian heavy metal. Black metal even has a foothold on the boot nowadays, with The Secret being the kings of the Apennines.
So, again I ask the question: why not Italian metal? Is it the clean singing, which seems to occur more frequently in Italian metal than most other places? Is it the fact that Italy doesn’t seem to have an analog to Birmingham or Gothenberg, even though Turin and Milan fit the requirements nicely? Or is it simple Scandinavian prejudice? Too many metalheads give non-Germanic bands the high-hat or the cold shoulder, whether or not they’re Italian, French, or from somewhere east or south of Europa. In this instance, the treatment is silly, for Italian metal is first-class stuff no matter how you slice the pie. And if the supposed juvenility of bands like Bulldozer or Death SS doesn’t appeal to your highly refined metal tastes, just remember this: most of those Nordic churchburners took their stage names from Lord of the Rings in order to frighten people. Let that sink in a little.