Though the outsider might see the festival going, battle-vested heavy metal fandom as a breed stuck in the glorious raunch of 70’s and 80’s fashion these are in fact expressions of tribal traditions– Monuments to the lasting foundations of ‘scene’ and community built by outsiders into empires that’d birth world class musicians, household names, and every possible niche for the all-inclusive (and sometimes ultra-exclusive) banner of heavy metal. It’ll be a difficult thing for the privatized fan of heavy music to understand, particularly if you’re not prone to attend live gigs (and especially festivals) as years of showing up and dumping money into the travelers who’d gift your city with their noise builds a confidence in the perpetual rewards of preserving that safe space for the freak and free-thinking independent. The battle vest is perhaps a tacky, dated hunk of collage art to the absurdist but for the absurd themselves it is a show of support… no, a literal plastering of support to be worn by folks who’re often nowhere near such peacocks in their daily lives. The jeans jacket patched, shredded, de-sleeved, chained, lined, and fucked with dust & dried three dollar beers is not so much a symbol of status but a commendable dedication to art by way of folk art itself and it makes good sense that it becomes the major focus of this latest book of photography from Peter Beste. Captured largely between 2015 and 2018 Defenders of the Faith: The Heavy Metal Photography of Peter Beste is essentially a ‘coffee table’ book roughly 275 pages thick with gorgeous n’ glossy photos of old ragged jackets, all generations of heavy metal fandom the world over, and a wide swath of candid shots that’d reveal a fandom and artistry existing on an equal plane of humility.
It wasn’t until I’d attended the early days of Maryland Death Fest and NW Terror Fest that I’d experienced battle vest culture firsthand and frankly in my early twenties the last thing that interested me was any form of ‘fashion’ ascribed by sub-culture. With time I’d eventually become the ‘band shirt guy’, but never quite crossed the threshold into full metal regalia. Take it as you will but across these last 20+ years I’d never really sat down and thought about, studied, or focused upon the battle vest until sitting down with this impressive hardcover book which otherwise collects three years worth of memories from Muskelrock, Keep it True, Maryland Death Fest, Brutal Assault, 70000 Tons of Metal Cruise, as well as various shows/candid photos of fans/artists in Oregon, Washington, New York, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Austria, and Spain. I believe Beste himself is based out of the Portland, Oregon area so the candid shots of members of Bewitcher, Skelator, Cemetery Lust, and Jef Whitehead (Leviathan) do a nice job of bringing it in closer to home beyond the general focus of the European metal festival circuit. As I’d alluded the focus is, however, the battle vest and the artistry therein and it all comes almost entirely without words beyond the forward. So, how does one review a book of photographs with an education in photography limited to a couple of community college course taken in the late 90’s? I’d like to focus on the illustrative properties of the book, the experience over time, and some conflicting appreciation for the subject matter along the way.
The sure sign of the fanatic and particularly the metal-obsessed ilk is their reaction to their favorite band’s logo. Throw a Tank, Sepultura or Running Wild logo in my periphery and I’m not likely to shut up about it until told… and that innate reaction does initially drive through this extensive collection of the long-haired, jeans-jacketed, piss drunk, patch-stuffed and largely working class maniacs depicted. Gaudy 70’s biker-tough chic as it all might appear initially the variety of bands, scenes, generations, and sub-genres covered within these mangled collections of patches provides a pretty wide blanket of representation in terms of band logo recognition. From Twisted Sister and Saxon to Urfaust and Sargeist it all becomes a spectacular examination of collage art, logo design, and evolving taste represented through merch purchases. Having pulled myself up from an obsession with 80’s hardcore punk into crossover and the heavy metal of the early 90’s there were some complex reactions to be had in terms of seeing a myriad representation of what I’d consider a ‘fashion punk’ equivalent statement plastered in logos but with the context of heavy metal history in hand the goal of solidarity is much more common than spectacle for most metal fans, depending on where you look. At festivals like Keep it True the aim is much in line with the old ways of Dynamo and still feels grassroots ‘in service of heavy metal’ in spirit. What am I getting at here? Beste does a fantastic job of capturing the reality of festival attendance with natural and candid shots of the most decorated and die-hard fans at each venue/event covered. Imagery is often vivid thanks to largely day-lit events and a sort of ‘heavy metal parking lot’ feeling reveals a paradoxical convergence of outcasts; Beautiful ‘freaks’ in the light of day, if you will.
Half of the fun perusing this book casually rests within the documentation of battle vests which are generally featured with a plain white background with stunning clarity that allows the eye to roam over the logo-drenched denim and various odd adornments otherwise. Hand painted variations, studs, chains, furs, paisley, and other crafted pieces go a long way towards explaining the battle vest as an item of personal fandom rather than a fashion statement; The level of sophistication and placement of articles on any given vest is [literally] tailored to the specific personality of the fan in every case. The other main draw here comes with Beste‘s selections unavoidably documenting the sheer joy of fandom which provided press materials aptly describe as ‘Dionysian’ with flowing beer and the hedonistic smiles of arm-in-arm crowds somehow managing to convey individualism en masse. It all reads as inspiring, tribally human and sheds a positive light upon the global metalhead experience that isn’t always obvious outside of those spheres. The focus on this die-hard side of metal fandom displayed through a fashion ‘uniform’ could easily come across as aesthetically shallow but the level of diversity and inclusion documented more or less wipe away this thought quickly.
For several days I’d found myself flipping through this book while recognizing certain fixtures of traditional and extreme metal along the way as the years of Metal-Archives deep-diving, press releases, and show attendance ensures that I’d recognize Mark Shelton of Manilla Road, Katon DePena of Hirax, alongside members of Blasphemy, Sadistic Intent, and the unmistakable Savage Master. Before I’d realized there was an index at the back of the book I’d had some fun trying to identify each musician/band and differentiate them from the shots of fans enjoying concerts and in most cases the only major difference once could observe is that the bands were slightly more comfortable posing for a photograph. This was probably the most profound takeaway from Defenders of the Faith, that heavy metal has long remained a force maintained by the demand of a strong and inclusive fandom. Sure, an event like 70000 Tons of Metal is weirdly corporate and photos taken at a festival like Wacken might’ve painted things in a different light but, the focus here holds fast to the idea that the underground is still alive and anyone can jump right in anytime they want. Comical, dorky, tacky and clumsily nostalgic as it could potentially be there is a lot of joy and care put into this collection of photos and I’d say Beste‘s latest is a worthwhile blend of photo-journalistic documentation and love letter to the steadfast fandom he’d include himself within. This all translates a bit more naturally than his previous metal sub-culture focused book True Norwegian Black Metal (2002, Vice Books) which felt largely posed and performative with an inconsistent flow of fidelity and imagery.
Overall this large tome of metal goodwill is an easy recommendation for a pretty reasonably price at a base level. The limited and artistic editions of this book include a few key extras for the collector including a ‘battle vest starter kit’ for the artist edition in addition to the extras of the limited edition: A leather slipcase and a 7″ EP with songs from Norwegian bands Aura Noir and Black Magic. Not only is “Belligerent ‘Til Death” a fantastic Aura Noir song but we’re given a look at how much Black Magic‘s sound has changed since the line-up of their debut no longer features members of Deathhammer (who’re pictured on pg. 49). The 7″ is probably worth it but you’re not missing out on anything majorly relevant in terms of the book itself.
Do it fast, do it loud, do it now! 4.0/5.0
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