Black is the night, metal we fight
Power amps set to explode
Energy screams, magic and dreams
Satan records the first note.
–VENOM, “Black Metal”(Black Metal, 1982)
When metal is viewed from the outside, the observer first sees its titanic rage. The music is so powerful that it is difficult to get past this quick interpretation… 1
Some have eyes but still can’t see
Their plastic noise is anything but music to me
Mechanized and computerized
Switch off your brain and make sounds that dehumanize.
–KREATOR, “Love Us or Hate Us”(Extreme Aggressions, 1989)
* * *
A Guitar tech tests a majestically evil-looking guitar while the crowd mills about, postures awkwardly, cheering as the nondescript man plays some scales. The venue is small. Dingy would not be an understatement, and we can feel that we are in gritty Worcester, Massachusetts2
* * *
It all began some time between the third and fifth grades with the Smashing Pumpkins’, Tonight, Tonight; I was enraptured. And so I did the next logical thing: after having heard one song on MTV I went out and bought the entire double album… Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. I did not understood the title. I couldn’t have… Can one be an angsty 4th grader? Was I weighed down by weariness, my heart heavy with the troubles of the world? What about this melancholic, harsh music appealed to me, not even in my expectedly (clichÃ©d-ly) dark teenage years? Looking back, there is no process to extract meaning from the music. We use our logic and cause-and-effect to posit how I must have felt, what the music would have elicited. The angst seems impossible to miss when you hear the music. I quickly realized I had struck gold; “Tonight Tonight” was just a warmup, quite an epic one at that, but still–very much still a warmup for the main event: the buzz-sawing Zero; the crushingly distorted Bodies; Bullet With Butterfly Wings, with its hilarious chorus, “Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage”.
The social waters chilled as I unwittingly alienated myself from peers with exuberant Attention Deficit-fueled abandon. I didn’t inspire active, aggressive animosity; just a general distancing and idle, abrasive needling, teasing.
I was the fastest kid in school. We played touch football every day at recess, and I’d run for the hail mary, churning past the helpless defense. This was before puberty passed me by but took everyone else with it, leaving me small and irrelevant. I had a classic crush on a girl in my class named Claire.
The boys I played football with had figured out my little secret and so, naturally, they felt it appropriate to use this information for their own enjoyment.We were walking out to the football field one afternoon; the teasing banter continued to rain. I’d accepted futility of defending myself, and so tried instead to ignore.
I am my father’s son, and my mother’s father’s grandson; our blood boils hot and boils fast.
* * *
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.3
* * *
Time blurs; I see myself struggling with forces I do not—can not, will never—comprehend. Turn and face the cackling jokester, watching the last flippant jibe float off his lips into the air between us.
He was down, us both
Reeling, my world
Distilled into edged clarity, a cooling breeze across my neck.
One fist clenched to the gut, as I
Watched; spectator to my own
I offered him my hand, and he took it; we exchanged looks of mutual disbelief. Maybe I apologized; told him ruefully that he did ask for it, didn’t he.
* * *
Most adolescents begin to break down the ‘fourth wall’ in their teenage years. Humans are nicely equipped with tools for navigating the social landscape. People like me, with AD/HD, are a bit behind. We get there eventually, I’m told; even now, at twenty-two, I only have carefree interactions with a select few.
* * *
There are several major rock stations that are receivable over Frequency Modulated, full Stereo radio broadcast in the Greater Boston Area. Each tries desperately to define itself as THE DEFINITIVE SOURCE OF ROCK!!! in the area, no matter how similar their mindless blathering DJ’s, or commercialized programming.
[T]he politics of music is grounded in the consequentiality of that music for the lives of the participants and other members of their society, and that that consequentiality is always mediated through the participants’ experiences 4
There is no metal radio in Boston. Yet the metal scene is far from dead in Boston’s rougher blue-collar ex-urbs. The western cities of Worcester and Springfield are world-famous for their propensity to churn out solid metal.
[M]ost scholars of metal have interpreted the music as an expression of the frustrations of the blue-collar young in a de-industrializing society that neither requires their labour nor values their presence.5
So I moved on to a private mini-prep-middle-school (the only school that could keep my ADD ass in line), a climate where working-class music like metal is alien and strange. So I spent those years listening in isolation to crappy alternative rock/Hard Rock radio.
* * *
A fan: [S]ince heavy metal is set apart from the mainstream, it can be a powerful vehicle for those who feel socially marginalized. From the actual sound of the music, to the lyrics, to the attitude of bands and fans, many of life’s oppressive forces are confronted, from the concrete figures of political and social authority, to organized religion, and then on to more abstract concepts—isolation, fear, violence, death. The theatrical and over-the-top posturing of being “brutal”and “extreme”may be laughable sometimes, especially to those outside the genre, but I think that confronting these negative powers, one CAN have a better sense of how to handle them and to be more independent.
I made the transition from dabbling in distorted guitars to immersion in mainstream hard-rock—and eventually, to full-blown heavy metal— during middle school.
Middle school was a stinking sulfurous hell on earth. A bastion of privilege, entitlement and pestilent wealth. And fucking asshole bullies.
And now I was small; I’d gone from 75 percentile to 25 percentile in both height and weight, and into a world where it mattered more than ever.
By 8th grade, I found myself with one real friend, and more than one enemy whose favorite pastime was to remind me of just how many friends I didn’t have. They were bigger than me, so no quick punch to the gut was going to solve anything.From punk (Offspring) and grunge (Nirvana) to hybrid grooving nÃ¼-metal (Sevendust) and gothic industrial (Marilyn Manson), my music darkened with each passing year.
* * *
It was my first real experience in romance, at summer camp the summer before 9th grade. Me and this girl’d been going out for about a week, I’d just been informed of the ending of our little arrangement by one of her friends. Devastated, I returned solemnly to my bunk, crawled in bed shoes clothes ‘n all, and turned up the Marilyn Manson (c’mon, it was the closest I had!). My friend stopped by and asked if I was alright. I said sure and he left. I laughed out loud, sardonically, to myself. Of course I’m not ok, I’m lying in bed, clothed, in an empty bunk, at 7pm, and listening to Marilyn Manson…
* * *
The next year at camp METAL, as I know it today, anticlimactically entered my orbit. There was an animal magnetism to these harsh, strange sounds; from the grim solemnity of growling death metal, to the epic and fantastic bombast of its cheerful cousin, Power Metal.
Jesper was 16, I was 14. When you’re 14, 2 years 5% more of your life than it would be to me now, at 22. Jesper was from a band called In Flames, from Sweden, what I now know to be the second most metal country in the world. He had long dark brown hair and a dry, caustic sense of humor. He owned a stunning guitar: a red Gibson SG. Jesper started a band and recorded a song with them. I tagged along and gained my eventual nickname, “roadie.”
The next summer Jesper showed up with a CD and a story. The opening song on the CD, was their song in a strange new form. Gone were the clean luke-warm vocals and mellow interludes. The guitars were thicker, harsher, and the only voice I could hear was all but demonic. Of course he had used the same main riff from the song he recorded the previous summer. There he was in the liner notes, Jesper StrÃ¶mblad. But the picture didn’t quite fit. The Jesper StrÃ¶mblad in the liner notes had long blonde hair and wasâ€¦ a different person. Our Jesper told us about the strict Swedish laws — that prohibited minors from publishing music, thus forcing the band to use a stand-in for the photos (and live shows? So he could goto school or something?). In any event, it’s unlikely I believed him then. I believed parts. I wanted to believe. I also don’t remember when, exactly, the illusion dissolved and he shed the identity of Jesper, but at some point he resumed his identity. But never lost that aura.
* * *
The crowd is filled with an unusual assortment of people. They are mostly men, and mostly white. The air is thick with the dropped R’s of anti-suburbia. Some have girlfriends or wives by their sides. The whiteness of the crowd is accentuated by the blackness of their attire: black shirts, black jeans, black jackets, long black hair. There are a few latinos, and one black man.
If he is there, people come up to him with curiosity and congratulations for upending the stereotypes of those who revel in subverting stereotypes (yet never really escape them).
* * *
While it is not clear to me if the motivating power of death metal is generating a vanguard of energetic youth or drawing artistic and creative young people into a trap of naive individualism, I believe that the political significance of musical sound is rooted in the meanings that the participants constitute and the consequences of those meanings for the participants’ lives and the larger society.6
* * *
10 more minutes of standing, shuffling for a better spot, and fighting valiantly to protect the spots that are already had. A restless whisper rises throughout the room, it is not clear where it starts, or to what it refers. The stage is now dark. Necks crane and eyes strain to make sense of the fresh, shifting darkness. The shapes on stage begin to congeal into outlines, and the murmur of the crowd grows louder.
The music begins with a soft, symphonic scape of oscillating synthetic tones. The darkly peaceful chords weigh down on the restless bodies, which grow quiet.
tssâ€¦ tssâ€¦ ts ts ts tsh
* * *
Not merely a continuous stream, our experiences of the possibilities of the near future and the certainties of the immediate past exist simultaneously with the experienced events of the hair’s present… This living present is the temporal window of the phenomenal world, the arena within which… experiences exist for us as numerous facets synthesised together, dynamic gestalts moving from protention to retention.7
* * *
six taps of a hi-hat later, the destruction begins.
* * *
Metal. I can qualify it endlessly: Death, Black, Power, Progressive, Avant Garde, Symphonic, Viking, Doom, Folk, NÃ¼, NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal), Pagan, Christian, Shred, Neo-Classical. It becomes absurd if it wasn’t already.
What remains when the modifiers are removed?In my current context, one where metal is an extremely strange and alien concept, most of the people with whom I interact don’t see much of that emotional core. Finding out that I <3 metal can come as a bit of a shock for those who don’t already know a bit about me. But we all have our ways to excise the demons the world inspires within us. So I wonder, is that all this music serves to do? Does my love for metal extend beyond the realms of negativity?
* * *
Alexi Laiho, formerly the most gifted songwriter in the metal world (he sucks now), is a clown with a guitar as he admits during their epic live DVD in Stockholm, “So you see, basically we’re a bunch of fucking idiots… [proceeds to launch into a passionate stream of typically brilliant, pummeling, yet melodic face-melting metal].”
Poise and hubris in extreme. Superlatives ‘R Us.
Death be not proud,
though some have called thee mighty and dreadful,
thou art not so.
–Children of Bodom, “Follow The Reaper” (Follow The Reaper, 2000)8
* * *
A certain bleak cynicism. A morbid fascination with the dark, undesirable; a simultaneous familiarity with the emotional equivalents from a life of alienation and depression. A need for personal reality corroboration; art metaphors reflecting and reaffirming perspective validity.
Metal is about action and action denied; it is about frustration and about exploring and responding to the whole emotional complex that emerges from that frustration. Metal is not a mechanical venting of psychosocial steam… 9
In the metal universe, there can be no pleasure without acknowledging first the pain.
[T]o say that people are driven by their emotion is to say that they are determined by them; metalheads use the music precisesly so they won’t be driven by their emotions, precisely so they won’t be driven by rage or held back by depression.10
* * *
End of serious 2.5 year relationship. Abruptly. Destabilization imminent or already occurring. I lay on my bed in the holistic organic hippie house and listen to my numbness and the tickle of my stereo spinning up to speed.
A gated gauze of steel shredded, spinal cranial pulses alternate with delicate cymbal splash.
The perfect mix of tone and anti-tone: texture and full, pseudoarticulated power. And they resound through, across the void—a gaping maw of negative space—the phantom tempo echos across in protending waves of crushing.
My face defrosts into a demonic grin as the negative space of the bridge explodes into a mechanized chaos of terrible sound; tension, and release; tapping in somewhere deep wounded within.
Still you cannot bear all this pain
Still you cannot bear to walk away
Darkness still rips silently within
Still you cannot bear all the shame
I listen to the album Buried in Oblivion by Into Eternity in its entirety. Twice.
1. Splintered Visions
2. Embraced By ‘Desolation’
3. 3 Dimensional Aperture
4. Beginning Of The End
5. Point Of Uncertainty
6. Spiraling Into Depression
8. Buried Into Oblivion
9. Black Sea Of Agony
10. Morose Seclusion
Alone in your circle of despair
Your dreams are discarded
Clinging to a sterile existence
Self-pity and lingering grief
Depleted and beaten
Depleted and beaten
I manage to summon some non-destructive energy, just enough to drag my piteous self down to the kitchen for some much-needed sustenance.
I have stared my pain in the eyes
Breathed its stale breath
Felt the contours of its face
And lived to tell the tale
* * *
By 20, perspective reaches a critical breadth. Introspection becomes transcendental. Not I need more, but is this it?
* * *
I would be lying if I said I don’t enjoy the look on people’s faces when I casually mention that I listen to metal,
Wait, what? But… you’re not… like… tha head explodes
Difference is gold; nobody wants to wear a generic label, fit the mold.
How many hippie buddhist metalheads do you know?
* * *
In life, I have no religion
Besides the heavy metal gods
–Dream Evil, The Book of Heavy Metal
Does music satiate the same urge, the same hunger, as God? I was at Sunday service at a Mongolian Evangelical church where my host father, the pastor, lamented the youth’s finding God in ‘fun’. He used music as his prime example and mimed it out for the crowd, hands cupping imaginary headphones and head bobbing to an imaginary disco beat, he grinned absurdly, “Xogjim sonsdogâ€¦!”11 The service concluded with the parish band resuming their places on stage behind the illuminated clear pulpit, and leading the crowd in yet one more enthusiastic round of Jesus-loving song.
But their needs were being filled by the Jesus part, not the music, right?
Then why are there Christian death metal bands?
* * *
I discovered Buddhism; the un-religion; the anti-ism. I saw in it the intense introspection and honesty that I’d been forced to learn through years of social self-discipline, trying to learn the unwritten rules of society for which my brian found itself less than ideally suited. Yet there was also a belief in the ultimate power of human compassion to counteract our toxic egos and thought-demons. I felt a fit with my not un-ironic mix of cynical optimism.
Can I be Buddhist — live a life filled with compassion and happiness, and listen to Death Metal?
* * *
Music is cathartic; it allows one to virtualize the expression of emotions without the usually requisite associated experience. Thus pent-up anger is released when exposed to violent/angry music — as the mind sees the musical stimulus as violence in sonic form, allowing the listener its cathartic effects while avoiding its anti-social tendencies (that is, violence).
But now I am a metalhead. Metal is not therapy, it is part of who I am.
* * *
I step through the doorway; the shrine room swallows me in darkness glowing with dim fluorescent tubes, mounted bare to the wall. My eyes adjust to the cool light and suddenly I find myself face to face with a scowling demon — its face twisted in agony. Beneath his feet were tiny people, frozen in their desperate dash to escape his thunderous ego-crushing step. Then it hit me, all at once, in one contained this is metal thought.
* * *
The music excises the demons; so without the demons, can there be meaningful music? Isn’t it all about the music?
It’s not the music, but the feelings of the people we hear playing that are important to us… it is not the music as a physical stimulus that manipulates our moods, but it is using the music as a communicative offering to influence our feelings in a re-creative process.12
Good art conveys the message, conveys a message, makes the consume-er feel as though a message was communicated to them. We appreciate that which tells us what we already know.
Death metal is a creative response to difficult conditions with real benefits for the participants’ lives. In a world with little hope for social change, in a world where class is occluded13, the liberating emotional exploration of death metal performances serves genuine needs…
Picture the scene. Akron, Ohio, was once the tire capital of the world. Hobbled after years of deindustrialization, the children of tire workers stood that night bathed in the sounds and images of a glorious rage. The room itself, once home to a force for labor equality, is not merely crumbling, but completely unrecognized by the participants. All of the elements of social change are present—rage, community, skills, and talent—yet things remain the same. Death metal is neither an example of false consciousness nor a coping mechanism for the stresses of an unequal world. It is a promise unfulfilled.14
This music acknowledges the darkness of the world; it is dark, but that is ok.
* * *
[The great Tibetan yogi Jetsun Milarepa] lived in utter solitude, in caves and isolated mountains. His clothes were very poor; he had no nice clothes. His food was neither rich nor tasty. In fact, [for a number of years] he lived on nettle soup alone, as a result of which he became physically very thin, almost emaciatedâ€¦ And yet, as we can tell from the many songs he composed, because his mind was fundamentally at peace, his experience was one of constant unfolding delight. His songs are songs that express the utmost state of delight or rapture. He saw every place he went to, no matter how isolated and austere an environment it was, as beautiful, and he experienced his life of utmost austerity as extremely pleasant.15
* * *
The tonal dimension of music and the meanings that emerge from it are constituted by the subject’s active, perceptual organization of the sound in time.16
This is negative space — clusters of machined rips, lip-biting silence punctuates the in-between waiting spaces drawing pulling ears into false-comfort, tension to be delivered cosmically by the protending riff.
* * *
Gods stomping, stampeding, galloping across aural scapes–malevolent keyboards synthesize towards anticipation — and recreate the virtual stimuli that would have instilled such unease.
* * *
What is the meaning of a wrathful Buddha? We see all these wrathful images of Buddhas (gesturing around the temple). But in truth wrathful Buddhas have nine qualities. Their bodies are wrathful, heroic, and frightening. Their voices are laughing, threatening, and fierce. But mentally they are loving, peaceful, and powerful. Like all enlightened beings, their minds are peaceful, compassionate, joyful, and wise. If a being is wrathful on the outside and also angry in its heart, then it is a real monster — not a Buddha. Wrathful Buddhas look wrathful for a purpose: for pacifying, for taming negative forces. 17
* * *
One distorted chord. 1 and 5. Hold.
Channel the oppressive rumble of terrible empty space, of aural impartial Dionysus, the only God in a world of cellular automata. Carve dark the force through air-confined electrocuted sonic chaos. A glimpse of the Dionysian divine.