Is there a genre of music more spectral than heavy metal? It's all noise to outsiders, so explaining the differences between black metal, death metal, doom metal and dozens more subgenres and regional variants can feel like an exercise in anthropology. In other words, a good premise for a documentary.
That's where "Slow Southern Steel" comes in. The years-in-the-making documentary, which debuts at 6:50 p.m. Saturday at the Riverdale 10 as part of the Little Rock Film Festival, tries to identify what separates the Southern underground metal scene from the rest of the genre by methodically exploring the backgrounds and beliefs of the musicians who are a part of it. Which makes for a much better film than the typical music doc assortment of talking heads trying to parse influences and qualities.
"Slow Southern Steel" teases at how silly that sort of approach can be with an opening montage of musicians having a go at explaining the scene: "It has its own smooth groove," Christian Sweeney, of Beer Wolf, offers. "It's just one fucking gigantic, massive riff that just steps on you the whole night," Phil Anselmo from Down and Pantera says. It's "an intangible thing, but it's unmistakable," tries Dave Grissom, of Arkansas's Seahag. Plus, several people suggest gravy and sweet tea as the possible difference makers.
Instead, "Slow Southern Steel" offers a humanizing look at a subculture that, frankly, most people are probably scared of. Never before have big bearded, terrifically tattooed dudes wearing pentagram shirts ever talked so candidly and warmly about their childhoods and their friendships and their musical roots. Taken together, a group portrait starts to emerge of a deeply independent, slightly pugnacious group of slow-living, hard-partying and fiercely loyal musicians, most of whom grew up Southern Baptist, rebelled and never quit rebelling. Even if you can't identify with the music, if you grew up in the South, you're bound to recognize yourself in some of those interviewed. Like Hank III, Hank Williams' metal-loving grandson, who says in the film that he started rebelling after his Bible thumper mom burned his metal records, sent him to Christian school and forced him to go to church three times a week. Or Jimmy Bower, of Eyehategod and Down, who talks about racing dirt bikes as a kid. Or Kylesa's Phillip Cope, who shares a love of LL Cool J's "Rock the Bells" as child.
Producer Chris Terry — better known as CT, lead singer of the North Little Rock-based and internationally acclaimed band Rwake — got the idea for the film years ago from friend Christian Sweeney of Beer Wolf, who interviewed him for a book that was to be called "Slow Southern Steel." CT loved the idea and told Sweeney right away that he was going to steal it to make a movie. (He got Sweeney's blessing.) Director David Lipke, a long-time editor with Little Rock's JM Associates and a local metal fan, joined the project after pitching CT on a video idea for Rwake. Lipke had the technical knowledge to make the film and CT had the contacts and relationships with the musicians to set up the interviews and establish a narrative.
"We needed each other, and it kind of jelled," Lipke said recently.
After three years, thousands of miles logged traveling to concerts throughout the South and dozens of McDonald's dollar menu meals, CT and Lipke have produced a definitive portrait of a scene and a subculture. And one that should appeal to more than just metal fans.
CT said recently that in making the film, he thought about his parents or someone else's parents watching it. They'll be hooked "if they can just sit through the loud song in the opening credit," he said.
After the film on Saturday, Revolution hosts an after-party at 9:30 p.m. Chuck Shaaf of Deadbird will play a short acoustic set, followed by performances by Seahag, Hour of 13 and Music Hates You, all of which feature or have members that feature in the film. Admission is free for LRFF pass holders or a suggested $2 or $3 donation otherwise.
If you miss the debut on Saturday, "Slow Southern Steel" will screen again on Sunday at 1:50 p.m. at Riverdale.