Heavy metal? In conservative Munich? Yes, a relatively small but veritable, varicoloured scene. And it’s no surprise, says Randy M. Salo, a Munich-based documentary-maker pointing at a thick book on an office table in front of him. Looks like a government report, I remark. Well, it’s conference papers about heavy metal, he says, drawn from a recent gathering in Helsinki that explored the link between the rich world and the “counter-proposition of metal”.
Born into a Baptist family in South Carolina, Randy moved to wealthy Munich in 2011, not long out of film school in New York and something of a progressive metal bass-player himself. I know my Jaco Pastorius, I think of telling him. But instead tell him I’m a Miles-Trane freak — Miles Davis 1969-75 (adjudging it judicious to quantify) — then to Hendrix; James Brown; Sly Stone; Karlheinz Stockhausen and his trumpet-playing son Markus, by the way, whose god-gifted sound gives me goose bumps … And John Coltrane? Well, there was something ‘thrash’ in the animism of his music after 1965 — like waves breaking on a glorious shore. Here we reach the limits of our shared musical ground, but it’s been a nice contact. He promises to email a list of Munich bands.
The spirituality in the material he signals (check out the cover art of Heretoir’s “The Circle”), has clearly sprung from fields of sound to which Coltrane’s animism, let alone Markus Stockhausen’s clean-line trumpet, would never take me (nor for that matter would his sometime record company, Munich-based ECM). But there is, man, a mothering white guitar player, as Miles might have said, in Randy’s film of a skate punk group called Straightline, that stands my ear on end. A priori, it’s not my thing, but so what? The guitarist-singer, called just Bart, plays lines that motor — forceful, intense, mordantly inventive. He tells Randy’s camera he started out playing jazz.
I take this Straightline to the stoner rock cum groove metal of Godsground; Smoke the Sky (its fans known as “sky-suckers”) and fuzz box three-piece Swan Valley Heights; to the catchy experimentalism of Majmoon (pronounced: My-moon); Mr Serious and the Groove Monkeys — by now we’re a long way from metal — and the ambient post-rock of Pictures From Nadira, whose appealing self-titled debut album, released end-2016, plays as a continuous set. Miles’ “Panagea” flashes to mind — it must be that alliterating “a” — because these pictures have more in common with Tortoise’s “Millions Now Living Will Never Die” (especially the second track, Glass Museum). This I first heard in Adelaide, Australia’s protestant, God-fearing city. It was 1996 and I’d bought “Millions now living”, with its low-cost cover of stencilled fish (to feed the millions?), because listed among the year’s best by clued-up British music magazine, The Wire.
At Munich’s hardtack end, Hailstone sound to me like Real McCoy traditional metal, though proudly bill themselves as “melodic death metal”. To the uninitiated, the word ‘melodic’ — taken from the way certain Gothenburg Swedes inflected “death metal” in the ’90s — stretches the term, given the unrelenting bass drum “blast beats” and growling, Cookie Monster vocals. Heretoir, of the startling cover-art — what is it about Germanic culture and the forest? — typically combine translucent guitar and layered harmonies, with a devouring, ear-shredding vocal. But I’ll admit to a weakness for the last album’s most consonant track, “Golden Dust”, where vocalist David Conrad switches to vocals chant-like and clean.
The Munich metal scene undergoes the usual ups-and-downs, like any minority music, but is active, collegial and pretty well-organised, with numerous venues, two decent-sized festivals and a dizzying array of sub-genres. Randy tells me a “retro” brand of stoner metal, “doom, very analogue”, is currently popular. We’ve met again, this time for lunch in the retro “Baader Café”, a vast rectilinear stockpile of cassette tapes behind the counter to the right as you enter. As in other places where Metal is strong, like much of Scandinavia, the genre’s vehement ferocity equals rebellion against the nice life normalcy of a city with full unemployment and good wages, so plenty of spending money for gigs, recordings and all that archly boy’s club “merch” beloved of metal heads: caps, “zippers” (actually just tops with zippers), exploding head t-shirts and the like.
I look for Straightline’s album “Vanishing Values” around the corner from my apartment in a tiny record shop called Public Possession, access from the adjacent skateboard retailer is literally through a hole in the wall. Here an outsized black and white sign plonked in the middle of the floor reads: “Reasons for joining? None.” An earlier sign had read: “We went out of business years ago”. Occasionally, I’ve seen groups of people hanging out drinking in the street in the evenings or on Saturday afternoon, apparently connected to both the skateboards and the vinyl.
I moved to Munich almost three years ago, after 17 in Paris, and have come to see the Bavarian capital as a series of counter-propositions: seven state-subsidised orchestras and a metal scene; FC Bayern, the silver-tail football team, and Munich 1860, purportedly the working man’s club. Rich, yes, but largely without ostentation, Munich took 20,000 asylum-seekers in a single weekend at the top of the EU refugee crisis in September 2015, that’s the number then-British PM David Cameron pledged to take over five years. Sleek, Munich-made BMWs glide noiselessly down city streets that smell of cow shit — or can do, as my Franco-German wife had warned me. I was open-mouthed at hearing this, until one breezy, blue sky morning, the rarified effluvium actually touched my nostrils, and the back of my throat (well, my mouth was open). For the record, it was at the corner of Baaderstraße and Buttermelcherstraße in the trendy Glockenbach quarter. Pre-high tech, pre-big finance, Munich travelled the rural road to Bavaria’s first-stage post-war wealth, atop the cow, and particularly, the pig.
“Vanishing Values”, when I finally get it home, leaps from the speakers and takes a hold of my throat. Full-on, the best of it — a track called “Holy Wars” — features Bart’s guitar furiously soloing on an arpeggio played very fast. But it’s there and it’s gone. I reckon Miles would have had him play longer.
“The Munich metal scene is bigger than I thought it would be when I first arrived,” Randy tells me. His production company plans to keep the Munich Unsigned tag, but is branching out into non-Munich bands under the FreqsTV moniker. Both are on You Tube. Randy wants to grow the firm, he says, take it global, while staying, like so many of us now in the Bavarian capital, resolutely international local.