Metal from the Dirt: a short surface survey of Navajo extreme metal

Clarke Tolton, “Metal from the Dirt” (2018)

Unfortunately like other documentaries I have seen on underground heavy metal, Clarke Tolton’s documentary on the underground heavy metal scene among the Navajo people in the United States doesn’t actually feature any of the music from the bands it focuses on. The Navajo are the largest First Nation in North America and have a large reservation stretching over northeast Arizona and northwest New Mexico. Much of their land is remote desert with few highways and the sense of a vast land and being cut off from the outside world is very strong even in this short documentary. Lack of opportunity and access to education and work, unemployment, poverty and the psychological and social problems associated with these phenomena – various substance addictions, depression, a high level of suicide – are rife. Cultural trauma arising from loss of indigenous culture and values, and from past actions from the US government amounting to genocide, afflicts the Navajo. The frustration and desperation with their situation have encouraged the Navajo to take up heavy metal and especially extreme forms of metal such as death metal and black metal, with which the Navajo readily perceive parallels with aspects of their original culture. The scene, known as rez metal (“rez” being short for “reservation”) that has developed is a close communal one in which musicians and their fans and families support one another and express their traditional Navajo cultural heritage and values.

There are good interviews with individuals associated with Navajo metal bands like I Dont Konform, Mutilated Tyrant, Ashtaroth and Born of Winter. Despite having grown up poor in impoverished communities, these people readily perceive the problems they have and are very articulate in detailing the problems and issues they and their communities face. A strong DIY tradition exists among the rez metal bands: they amass huge cassette collections, and I am betting most of those cassettes feature self-recorded work that they share among their friends and other bands. Unfortunately the documentary does not say if bands share members and instruments, and act as roadies for one another.

The most interesting part of the documentary comes quite late in which one musician explains how black metal conventions and rituals mesh well with Navajo spirituality and religion. The wearing of corpse-paint matches the use of black and white paint by Navajo shamans; and black metal performances can be spiritual and transformative in the sense that performers and fans alike can forget (temporarily at least) their everyday cares and enter a different world through the portal of music where they find connection.

The cinematography is very good with an emphasis on the remoteness and isolation of Navajo people from the outside world, forcing them to be self-sufficient (which explains the DIY tradition) and to emphasise communal values over individual self-interest. Landscapes are very dramatic and there are scenes of mountains and valleys that could be straight out of science fantasy novels and films, and scenes where groups of musicians stand alone in the vast desert, silhouetted by blazing sunsets.

If only some of the bands’ music had been featured in the soundtrack, even as snippets of songs, I’d have been quite happy with this documentary, short as it is and only brushing the surface of a fascinating music scene. Tolton and other film-makers making documentaries on underground heavy metal are best advised to make their films for the people and the bands they are filming, and not for a “mainstream” public audience.