“History of Heavy Metal”
Andrew O'Neill Pleasance Dome 2245 until 24th August Reviewed 13th August £9.50 3 stars
At a festival notorious for overheated venues, it was a refreshing surprise to find the Pleasance Dome so cool and well-ventilated.
Then again, it makes sense that the technical staff would be well-prepared for Andrew O’Neill’s show. Not only for the demanding sound and lighting effects called for by his comedy-cum-concert set. More because a room full of metalheads has denser heat shielding than the core of a nuclear reactor, given the insulating properties of waist-length hair and blubber. At the last Mudhoney gig I attended, the moshpit resembled a yeti mating season held on the surface of the sun.
If that’s the kind of easy schtick at the expense of metal stereotypes you’re looking for, you probably won’t be satisfied with History of Heavy Metal. Sure, there’s elements of that – it’s difficult to do this kind of themed show without at least acknowledging the rituals and rhythms of a subculture, particularly when that insularity applies to social interaction as equally as heat. Yet what Andrew O’Neill manages to accomplish with his hour of guitar-based standup is a drawing together of an intensely esoteric ‘metal education’ show with a fairly broad-appeal humour and welcoming disposition.
You’re still unlikely to bring your grandmother along, (unless your gran is the kind with a c.1969 ‘Property of Hell’s Angel’ tat trailed down her coccyx). But there’s enough focus on pop metal here (Black Sabbath, Metallica) that O’Neill’s charm can make the more arcane stuff seem welcoming. I laughed at a Dave Mustaine impression, but even his explorations of Venom or NWOBM esoterica left me contentedly befuddled rather than cold.
For what it’s worth, I actually did learn a thing or two. Rob Halford of Judas Priest apparently came out in 1998, which makes his 1970’s pioneering of the ‘leather daddy’ wrist studs and dog collar outrageous. Sure, there’s always been a close interaction between gay empowerment and metal. But there’s something both beautiful and beautifully ironic about the idea that generations of awkward teenagers and angry young men have unashamedly worn this gay pride iconography as part of their anti-establishmentarian and fuck-you-mom-and-dad reactionism. It really fizzes with, and gives a fascinating subtext to, the 40-odd years of fashion trends that have followed. Also, it’s fabulous.
I can think of a dozen works of heavy metal comedy, but the most popular (Spinal Tap, Tenacious D – don’t flame, purists) are, inherently and by definition, popular in subject. There’s a fine tension between propitiating the metal gods (and Kerrang) with in-jokes that require encyclopaedic knowledge to enjoy, and appealing to the hesitant tourists metaphorically and literally huddled outside: Dethklok, for example, are never going to make an appearance on Wayne’s Power Minute. For a true metalhead, O’Neill’s show is possibly the best at the festival this year. For everyone else, it’s a solid night of music and comedy with the chance of learning something new.