The Metal Islands: a different journey through the music of the Caribbean
Is music changing or is it that possibilities for greater connectivity and collaboration have made the whole process more fluid in finding a sound that nourishes the soul? It doesn’t matter where those sounds come from or whether they coincide with the feelings of people in a far off land and begin living a long life there, as Barón Rojo of Spain proclaimed about rock and roll, or as the Puerto Rican band Dementium hammers away in Trash in Comand, in defense of that sub-genre.
This is the perspective of the documentary The Metal Islands (2016), directed by Professor Nelson Varas-Díaz and his team at the University of Puerto Rico. As he did previously with The Distorted Island (2015), in focusing on the heavy metal scene in his country, now he goes deeper into it while also taking a look at two other islands in the region, transgressing clichés about music in the Caribbean by analyzing the work of three bands in the area (Abaddon RD, Dantesco and Tendencia). Puerto Rico could be called the nation of salsa, with the Dominican Republic the nation of merengue, and Cuba the nation of son, or of more modern rhythms. However, these are also the “islands of metal,” as the documentary says, because they capture the force and perseverance of something created more than three decades ago.
We needed a documentary like this, demonstrating not just the existence of heavy metal in Cuba, but also its survival at a time when the music industries, clubs and places for music favor other tendencies. However, the fact that it was made is also a product of these times, when technology and social shifts help to bring visibility to potent scenes in the least suspected places. It’s the case with jazz, progressive rock, and also heavy metal in the Caribbean. Therefore, it is a film interesting not only to music lovers and those who stay up-to-date on contemporary music movements, but also others farther away who want to study issues such as diversity in the region, and its participation forming global cultures based on the consumption and production of sound.
The musical, social and cultural phenomenon of heavy metal is a key area that the documentary targets, arguing that this subgenre exists in the Caribbean as part of a global culture, but marked by the specific cultural, historical and political circumstances of each country. Reviewing its scenes makes it clear that the assimilation of heavy metal here in the 1980s was not an easy process (it still isn’t).
Another relevant aspect of this film is that it gets right to the heart of heavy metal. Why does it continue to exist with the same codes that gave it life in the 70s and 80s? It continues to be aggressive, violent music, because society also is; and this culture has spoken, with its language, about events of crisis, repression and marginalization in the Caribbean, while also incorporating other manifestations of regional art, such as painting and oral histories, shaken by these realities.
The Metal Islands is an anthropological documentary that helps us understand why music acquires a given projection, and why it sometimes refuses to be stylized. It is true that heavy metal musicians are increasingly interested in their sound, technical quality and artistic creativity. But the documentary digs deep and reminds us of something: the ultimate goal of metal is not its commercialization; this is a sound upon which an identity is built, that survives while society wins or loses, while eras and styles come and go.