The announcement that another documentary on the domestic metal scene was being planned was initially met with skepticism on my behalf.
Twice before – once by a respected music journalist and another time by a middle-aged couple from a university – I had been interviewed for similar projects and neither came to fruition. I had even lent my small collection of VHS tapes with live footage on them to the second team and waited almost a year for them to be returned. This one, however, is the real deal. Produced by a genuine film maker who is also a genuine metalhead, Metal Down Under finally gives Australian heavy metal its fair due, an exploration and celebration of a thriving underground domestic music scene that has remained ignored and spurned for so long. Unfolding his film over three 55-minute episodes, Nick Calpakdjian tells the story through archival footage, video clips, animation and interviews with the artists, characters, fans and media entities that have created one of the world’s best heavy metal scenes – people like Peter Hobbs, Steve Hughes, Jason PC, Matt Skitz, Adam Agius, Dave Harrison, Robyn Doreian, Andrew Haug and more.
Chapter one is a fascinating look at the development of metal in Australia, as bands began to move away from traditional forms of hard rock into something more visceral and primeval. Figures like Renegade’s John Gibson recount the derision they encountered from conventional metal fans as bands like his came out with the punk edge that defines early thrash; he uses the same argument later to defend the rise of the current breed of metal- and deathcore bands. The segments devoted to Hot Metal magazine and the role of public radio in the proliferation of local metal is truly excellent, nicely rounded off with an animated sequence of Nothing Sacred’s Airheads-like take over of Melbourne station PBS (a good six years before the film) and a lovely dedication to some of those early broadcasters who are no longer with us. Part two looks extensively at the Metal for the Brain festival and Canberra’s rather unique scene as well as some amusing insights into the career of Sydney maniacs Sadistik Exekution. Into the third chapter, Metal Down Under does seem to lose its way a little, becoming more of a series of vignettes about particular bands rather than the film’s stated goal as a history of the scene itself but there are plenty of great moments throughout, like Chris Rand talking about Segression’s brief time in Chicago as he casually tattoos someone, a clip of Jason and Matt from Blood Duster bagging out Psycroptic as Dave Haley stands only a few feet away and Matt Skitz recalling Sadistik Exekution beating each other up while on tour in Europe.
Having been involved in the making of this film as as interviewee, it can be a little difficult to remain objective and even with that said, Metal Down Under is still a significant piece of work. There are some omissions, however. In particular, there is no mention of Warhead Records, whose roster of bands dominated the Sydney scene in the second half of the late 1990s, or their flagship act Cryogenic who appeared at the Big Day Out an unprecedented three times in succession. It’s a strange exclusion that won’t sit well with some. From a journalistic point of view, some input from people not necessarily aligned to the scene may have also been nice – a word or two from Ray Ahn or Winston McCall, for example, could have added some objective balance and it would have been nice to have heard a little more from Lochlan Watt. Finally, the film does seem a little Melbourne-centred at the expense of other cities like Brisbane and Adelaide that aren’t featured at all and there will no doubt be plenty who will criticise Metal Down Under for some of the things it doesn’t include. There is perhaps enough scope for even a fourth chapter – as it is, this film is already almost three hours long, which just goes to show the depth of the subject matter.
Nick Calpakdjian has made a funny and engrossing film that finally sheds a light on a part of Australia’s popular culture that has been left in the dark for its entire existence, a vital and important document that even people who couldn’t care less about heavy metal should see. After spending two years of his life on this, he deserves nothing but respect.