Sam Dunn is responsible for some of the finest rock documentaries of the past few years. His main outlet is the cable station VHI Classic, who specialize in programming to the heavy metal audience. His first effort was Metal – A Headbanger’s Journey (2005), which was followed by the remarkable Rush biography Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage (2009). With Metal Evolution, Nunn is working on a whole new level. This 11-part series is the most thorough discussion of the music that has ever been done.
The episodes are all one-hour in length, and are presented chronologically. Thus we begin with “Pre-Metal.” I like what Dunn does here in tracing the music all the way back to some of the wilder classical composers of centuries gone by. Paganini is one example. One connection I had never previously made is that of the “Mars” section of Holst’s The Planets suite, and the song “Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath. When Bill Ward points out the similarities however, it becomes quite obvious. Dunn then proceeds into the blues and jazz antecedents, and makes some compelling points.
It is these kinds of connections, along with other anecdotes which make Metal Evolution such a winning series. Sam Dunn has a knack for getting the metal legends to talk, and to share some genuinely interesting aspects of their lives as performers. I attribute this to the fact that he is a true fan, and not someone just going through the motions. For one thing, he certainly looks the part of the ultimate metal geek. But he also comes across as truly knowledgeable and curious as to how the various pieces of the history fit together. Probably the ultimate accolade is the fact that he was able to actually get the notoriously gruff Neil Peart (of Rush) to sit down and talk to him, and even open up with some amusing stories.
I think the series does an admirable job of tracing the various elements that came together to create what we now consider heavy-metal, but things fall apart in the later years. The Grunge episode is the first one I have trouble with. Dunn’s basic thesis for this one-hour show is simply “Does grunge belong in a history of heavy-metal music?” Dunn seems to think it does, although most of the actual grunge musicians seem to disagree. We run into a similar situation with discussions of Nu-Metal and something called Power Metal.
Actually the Power Metal show is the funniest one of the bunch. For those of us in the United States who are probably (like Dunn) not very familiar with this strain, think of (the band) Europe’s “The Final Countdown.” He goes to a Power Metal festival somewhere in Europe (the continent) where this stuff is a big deal. All the groups seem to be big muscle-bound guys dressed up like Thor, and playing the most god-awful dreck imaginable. Frightening.
I like the fact that he has gone all the way with this though, even if for all intents and purposes most of what passes for metal since the early ’90s does not really qualify in my book. Still, when do you cut it off? Was Metallica’s black album the biggest metal record of all time, or the end of the genre? To his credit, Dunn takes no sides, although his credibility as a die-hard fan is never in question.
One thing is certain, the willingness of artists to participate in this series is impressive. Over the course of the 11-episodes he interviews over 300 people, be they artists, journalists, managers, or what have you – which allows for a very broad range of opinions on the various topics. Metal Evolution originally aired on VH1 Classic in winter 2011, and has just been released as a three-DVD set. The lone bonus feature is an interview with Dunn on the program That Metal Show with Eddie Trunk.