Film Review: Så Jälva Metal – The History of Swedish Hard Rock and Heavy Metal


By Natalie Zed

Så Jälva Metal is a documentary on the rise and evolution of heavy metal music in Sweden. Directed by Yason Hillborg and produced by Laika Film & Television AB, the film traces heavy metal in Sweden from it’s origins as an offshoot of hard rock to it’s current state as huge cultural movement, both popular music and a form of outsider art simultaneously. The film was originally released in Europe on October 7th, 2011, and the Canadian premiere of the film was recently held as part of the NXNE film program in Toronto, with a screening at the Toronto Underground Cinema on Friday, June 15th 2012.

The film begins with a series of interviews and clips that reconstruct the rise of the hard rock bands and performers that first defined the heavier end of the Swedish music scene, such as the band Europe and virtuoso guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen. The film spends a great deal of time with Europe, chronicling their rise to fame and the explosion of their careers after “The Final Countdown,” and ultimately their fall as a crooked managed mis-handled their money, something they only discovered as their popularity waned. The early, hard rock aspect of the documentary takes up a great deal of screen time – in a recent interview, even director Hillborg admits that he thinks “there’s a tad too much Europe in the film,” and I am inclined to agree. The jump from heard rock to metal is also a bit jarring, moving from hard rock and proto-hair metal right into the heart of Swedish death metal with no mention of how the genre evolved – instead, it’s a sudden leap into harder, heavier music.

The section that focuses on death metal in Sweden, comparing and contrasting it to the black metal phenomenon raging in Norway, is the strongest of the film. The interviews are compelling and intense – and even touching at times, as former band mates remember Bathory founder Quorthon, for instance – and the film does a good job paying homage to some of the best extreme metal that Sweden in known for. This section feels a little bit truncated, and I wish there was more material here. Also, the film ends on a note about festival culture, metal’s ardent fan base, and the “new guard” of extreme Swedish metal bands. However, the band Hillborg chooses to focus on as an example of the new blood is At The Gates – a fine example of Swedish Gothenburg metal, to be sure, but as a band who were formed in 1990, perhaps some younger and more contemporary bands deserved a nod as well.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the documentary is seeing metal evolve from a different cultural perspective. He film spends time talking about bands that many North Americans may never have heard of, but nonetheless shaped the face of heavy music in Sweden. I was especially interested in Hillborg’s perspective on the moral panic about hard rock and heavy metal that paralleled a similar cultural reaction going on in the United States at the same time. As the Parents Music Resource Center, founded by Tipper Gore and Susan Baker, was getting warning labels put on metal albums advising about “dangerous content” in the mid 80s, a teacher in Sweden was campaigning against hard rock, spreading the false information that the music was physically toxic (based on a single, flawed, never-repeated experiment by Dorothy Retallack that she claimed produced evidence that rock music could kill plants).

I’d recommend the documentary for metal fans who are particularly interested in the origins of the genre and the roots of metal in hard rock. While I think the narrative could have been weighted more evenly, there is some fascinating archival and interview footage in Så Jälva Metal, and seeing the music from a new cultural perspective is refreshing and eye-opening.

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.