In the 1970’s heavy metal acts like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden created dark, violent music that worked as much as political and social protest as it did as adrenaline-laced sounds energizing the mosh pit. In his new book Heavy Metal Islam, Mark Levine looks at the current Heavy Metal, Punk and Hip Hop scenes of the Middle East in this very way, presenting the backgrounds of each scene and exploring the social import of their messages.
With lyrics crying for political and social change these are the screams of angry youth, but angry youth that for the most part still regard themselves as devout Muslims. It's this dichotomy that makes the core of the book: these musicians trying to understand a bizarre, often violent world that doesn't match up to the promises made in their religion.
Broken into easily read chapters each one examines a different nation and its music scene. Although it’s not surprising that the most active centers are the more westernized nations like Morocco and Israel, the most fascinating chapters are those that cover places like Iran where the music is not just looked at with suspicion but often considered illegal. Many of the musicians are in their late teens and early twenties, making this a book Western teens will be able to read and use to make rare connections with their counterparts in the Middle East.
Unfortunately Levine does a poor job describing the music itself, throwing out terms like Grind Core and Black Metal without defining them. Readers already knowledgeable of different forms of Heavy Metal won’t have a problem with this, but anyone coming from the outside might find all the undefined labels a little confusing. Levine does, however, provide a useful list of websites (mostly Myspace sites) that provide samples of the music; a companion audio CD is sold separately.
What stops me from giving this a rave review more than anything is his writing style. Levine opens each chapter with a first person account of him sitting in cafe, heading to a club or hanging out in a record store. Levine as narrator and arbiter of taste keeps floating into the writing, whether it's an explanation of a band's history, and interview or a well-written description of a concert. It becomes obvious Levine sees these musicians as a force for positive change and this view intrudes quite a bit. I would have preferred he pull back a bit and let the readers make these conclusions for themselves. Sometimes you just have to have faith in the readers to figure things out. Although a more journalistic approach might make this work more convincing, it’s still a fascinating read about a unique subculture few will have the opportunity to experience for themselves.