Tag Archives: rock & metal

About Screaming

It is the late ‘90s, and I am at Don Hill’s, watching a band I wouldn’t normally go out to hear, except that two of the members are friends of my girlfriend. A mixed-gender power trio, good musicians, good people. Just not my scene. Anyway, at what may or may not be a pivotal moment in their set, the lead singer/guitarist starts screaming. And then the bass player, who also has a mic, starts screaming. And then some members of the crowd start screaming along with them. Listening to all this screaming, I think: “This isn’t really screaming. It’s screaming about screaming. They’re listening to themselves scream and getting off on it.”

Now, this sort of thing creates some pretty complex negotiations between band and audience. For example: when the crowd at such a show screams for more, are they really screaming for more? Or are they screaming about screaming for more? If the crowd unselfconsciously screams for a band that only screams about screaming, are they having the wool pulled over their eyes? One or the other might mistake a scream for a scream about a scream, or vice-versa. Clearly at Don Hill’s people weren’t enjoying the spectacle of a band screaming, but rather the spectacle of a band enjoying listening to themselves screaming. In fact, they were probably enjoying listening to themselves screaming at a band who were enjoying listening to themselves screaming, and were hence thrice removed from the experience, whatever that was. But isn’t this partly the fault of going to shows in the first place, of putting oneself in the position of art consumer, at best quasi-participant? If we really wanted to scream, we’d stay home with the kids or dog, get out the vodka and the drums, crank up the amps. I blame: live music, something else, society, capitalism, in ascending order of responsibility.

Metal has reached an interesting point in its evolution. Like any living genre, it is in flux, nourishing itself on a variety of musics: ambient, noise, punk, prog, etc. And yet that label, that omnivorous signifier, perhaps because of an imagined historical or cultural coherence, is consistently invoked to patch over a trainwreck of influences and styles, and to create an aura of musical coherence and continuity. Bands and fans position themselves at varying distances from an impregnable, ideal generic center, always close enough to point to, but never close enough to touch.*

Among other things, this means that lots of different kinds of people end up stopping by the same clubs to hear the same bands, or different bands on the same bill. This is at least as old as the subgeneric explosion of the ‘90s. But I think that something about the attitude has changed. I have a vivid recollection of a Halford show at B.B. King’s in 2003, for example: a sea-change in the crowd between Immortal and Testament, the two supporting bands; one wave receded to the bar (at least those old enough to drink) or out of the club as the other washed up to the stage. Whether they joined at the wellspring that is Halford I can’t remember. Today, I think it is less common—much more difficult, for a genre propelled forward by a combination of absorption, mutation, revival, and kitsch—to define one’s allegiance or heritage quite so narrowly. This heterogeneity, this instability, means that you can never quite tell how band and crowd are hearing each other. The same listener might position him or herself differently with different bands, and a single bill might require him or her to cross over two or three times in a night, toggling between facets of a bric-a-brac musical identity. That I find this sort of thing exhausting hardly matters; for a generation raised on internet multitasking and a dehistoricized mishmash of music, it is the order of things.

*

What got me thinking about these fan-band negotiations was last week’s Whores/American Sharks show, at the ecumenically metal St. Vitus.**

american sharksThe Sharks are a party band from Austin. They take a page out of Municipal Waste’s book—that I-was-a-shop-burnout/high-school-fuckup persona—although they’re too much a muddle of styles to worry themselves about reviving anything in particular. Actually, their music sounds like The Ramones wearing a metal skirt. Singer/bassist Mike Hardin, a big goofy teddy-bear of a guy, spins cock-and-bull yarns between songs about being the too-old loser living in his mom’s basement, meant to inspire moments of ironic reverie. Guitarist Will Ellis looks like a cross between the father from the original Hills Have Eyes family and Rudolf Schenker: blond, mustachioed, wearing short-shorts, and headbanging to the Scorpions records spinning away in that basement room in his head. He plays an upsidedown Gibson Explorer (at least the neck is), Hardin an upsidedown Fender Jazz—which, I guess, is a comment on how I’m supposed to take the Sharks: not seriously.

But then that’s the problem: they are so self-consciously trying to be not serious, are so intense about their irony, that it all ends up feeling a bit tired. Self-deprecating humor can become as masturbatory as an Yngwie Malmsteen solo. You get the sense the Sharks outgrew themselves before they even got started. (I’ve never felt this about the Waste, although I admit that with The Fatal Feast they’ve started to show signs of wear.)

Then again, you can’t not like the Sharks, or rather, you can’t claim to not like them, because to claim not to like them automatically opens you to the charge of taking yourself too seriously. If this blog proves anything, it is that I take myself too seriously. So draw your own conclusion.

whoresAfter American Sharks, how can any band, let alone one called Whores, appear as anything but Serious Music? They certainly looked more serious; singer/guitarist Christian Lembach (middle) is damn near clean-cut, in a punkish sort of way. Who knows but that they brought the Sharks along for sheer contrast, although more likely the two got really drunk together after their 2014 SXSW performances. It was certainly a Serious Comment Mr Lembach made partway through their set—unlike the Sharks’ truncated rambles, his were rather softspoken, and I missed a good half of what he said; but I did gather that they were happy to have good-time folks like the Sharks along with them on tour, that they were pleased to be back at Vitus, and that they didn’t sing about dragons and wizards—not that he had a problem with that—to each his own, it takes a rainbow, etc.—just not his scene. I wondered who this comment was directed at, if there was an errant Amon Amarth fan in the crowd looking at a subway map. Anyway, said Serious Comment disposed me to change my attitude, and Listen Seriously.

Not that Whores are devoid of humor; they did start and abort “Sweet Home Alabama” (they’re actually from Atlanta). But I appreciated the lack of desire to impress me with being funny, and that they instead poured all the sweat and energy into their music for a brief, pleasurably intense set. Whether they meant it or not, they sure played it like they meant it, which is a whole lot better than playing it like they really meant they didn’t mean it. Even the serious Mr Lembach ended up with his bangs stuck wetly to his forehead and his face all ruddy. His tonsorial trials, however, were nothing compared to bassist Jake Schultz’s, who had to push his hair up over his forehead after every song—I swear, I haven’t seen anyone push up their hair so much since the last time I went to hear Frances Fox Piven give a talk. But Mr Schultz, even more than Mr Lembach, was in constant motion. A study in ecstacy, he was; he does with his bass what Keith Moon used to do with his drums. He must have been doing this very thing for years alone in his room, the very room the Sharks are still ironically locked in. Somebody just pulled down the walls. In my mind, he joins that trinity of joyful lunatics and human tops: Gould, Monk, and Moon.

As for Whores’ songs, they’re infectious, grabby despite that dynamics-happy, basement-pitched monotony the subgenre demands.§ It was their sound, though, that most held me. Like the Sharks, Whores are a power trio, but theirs was by far the bigger sound. Not the sound I expected to hear out of Lembach’s Telecaster; maybe it was the Tele’s twanginess (or the prevalence of Schultz’s bass?) that gave those power drones their unexpected, all-enveloping richness. It’s like what happens when you’re hiking, and you’ve reached what you think is the view (Sharks), but when you get to the actual view (Whores), you realize how partial was the previous one.

I could say more about Whores—they never judge you, after all—but I’ll end with this: they made me miss my train. One song, one dip in that warm ocean of distortion, and I knew I wasn’t leaving until the set was over. And that’s saying a lot, when Greenpoint might as well be Key West to an upstater, and surprise, the G wasn’t fucking running, which made me ironically nostalgic for living in Bushwick. We got out just as the lofts were washing around our ankles, a Williamsburg hurricane reportedly heading toward our coast. But the important thing was to be able to tell my partner, Whores made me miss my train. I was late because of Whores. Tee, hee. Oh. But seriously.

 

* For a somewhat fuller (or maybe just different) discussion of this phenomenon, see “T-Shirts and Wittgenstein” (5.24.13).

** I ignore opener No Way because I only caught the last song and a half, which isn’t much to go on. Their sound made me think of the ‘90s band Filter (remember them? their big song was “Hey Man, Nice Shot”). I liked their frontman’s presence, that shirtless bodybuilder pose he struck while he serenaded somebody just a few feet over our heads. His voice made me think of a spoken-word John Bush (Armored Saint, Anthrax).

§ That is, noise rock, or sludge punk. As I have suggested, this is more than ever a matter of perspective—Spin, for example, listed 2013’s Clean among its top 20 metal albums of 2013. As Mr Lembach’s comment suggests, he might be a bit wary of the label. Of course, Metallica said the exact the same thing about their own music back in the mid-‘80s. Plus ça change? Or does the historical repetition (one Lembach has himself repeated in interviews) mean I am supposed to take this, too, as farce?

I Heart Goatwhore

 

Photograph by Stephanie Cabral (www.stephaniecabral.com)

Photograph by Stephanie Cabral (www.stephaniecabral.com)

Dear Goatwhore,

I love you.

I’ve loved you since I first clapped eyes and ears on you more than a year ago, at St. Vitus. Remember? Of course you do. You followed Three Inches of Blood. I was at the back of the club, watching Louis B., waist-length hair matted to his back and shoulders, harvest the unfortunate souls lined up in front of the stage. The venom, oh God! the absolute fucking venom that came out of that man’s mouth. Sammy’s, too, when it was his turn, holding his axe like the reaper his scythe.

I could have written you then. Or after that trip across Jersey a few months later, when I popped Carving Out the Eyes of God into the disc-changer, and my Toyota Corolla became a chariot of bones drawn by War-Death-Famine-Pestilence, razor hoofs all aflame, hurtling the bodies of the dead, and me behind the wheel screaming, “Eat your heart out, Judah Ben-Hur!”

But it was only after seeing you again this spring, on Easter, that I worked up the nerve to write you. I love that you came north for Easter, like a plague. (Never mind that you didn’t know it from Christmas, birth from resurrection, the nativity from the zombie-Christ.) And who was I to go a-courtin’ Satan, on Easter, of all days? But there I was, at St. Vitus, writing my St. Valentine’s to you in my head. I have made a habit of such trysts on the days of saints and martyrs, call me perverse! There wasn’t a spot of white in the whole club but that which made a word, a skull, an inverted cross, yes, St. Vitus himself was attired in black, and I just another spot—so how could you have noticed me? I was sick as a dog, too, of body, mind you, not of heart. But there I was, listening, watching.

Writing. Hence this missive, this confession.

Are you as promiscuous as your name, Goatwhore? I hope I’m not being too forward. I think you are. Just listen to that guitar! Rutting away, utterly abandoned to the flesh. I can’t think of a raunchier guitar sound in metal. (And that gatefold-cum-centerfold of you on A Haunting Curse: pin-up goat-girl, exquisite corpse!)

But raunchy’s not the half of it. No, you open it up, too—and not just those minor thirds in strummed tremolo, no, I’m talking about the way you let minor seconds in your riffs yang against each other (e.g., “Alchemy of the Black Sun Cult”), and even more, the way you’re not afraid to arpeggiate with heavy distortion, sometimes against a double-bass kick (yes, I’m thinking of “Carving,” and also “In Legions, I Am Wars of Wrath”). So many of your brothers and sisters forget what distortion imperfect can do. When you let those neighboring notes grate, those unhappy intervals sing, those filthy colors show—when you open up your blacken’d heart in this way—you impose upon me an eerie seduction.

But then you tease me, Goatwhore, and most mercilessly at that, one moment hissing in my ear, the next butting me with those proud horns. I’m an Ares—not quite a Capricorn, but I do know horns. From blast beats quick as a cook’s knife on a hibachi grill (sorry, but have you ever looked into the eyes of the children of the family gathered at the other end of the hibachi, watching the knife, the flames?), to incantatory triplets, to motoring four-square, to galloping warhorse, all with nary an “ugh” between—albeit a deep, bleeding “ugh” when it appears, as if to cast off all that had come before, like the residue of the unholy syllables you let fester on your tongue  … The words, yes, above all, the words! I knew from the moment I read your titles, many five or six words apiece, some as long as eight, songs that blast by sometimes in three minutes, stuffed full of words … at last, I thought, here is one who suffers possession like I do. We are possessed, you and I, by language, the rush when the words take control, overmaster us, pour out of us like from a cut vein. Even DCLXVI is a word, and unpronounceable as the name of God. Is not language the true father of lies? It is language that controls us, and this god admits of no repentance.

Oh, I know you build your motor out of parts from old Slayer, and Vio-lence, &c.—really, what is “Apocalyptic Havoc” but a slowed-down, re-tooled “Silent Scream”—but I wouldn’t dream of holding it against you. The way you polish it, and tune it, the love you clearly put into it, it hums like new. It is new. You’re traditional, but never holier-than-thou. I don’t hear irony, or a penchant for putting riffs in quotes; you’re the furthest thing from a revival band, and hallelujah for that. You play metal because you play metal, because you &c., period.

And yet, you play American black metal, or “blackened death metal,” as the internet has it. That has a fine Cajun ring to it. I hear elements of the great Scandinavians in your sound, of course, but none of that “in my kingdom cold” shit, no, the devil’s alive and well in rank, inscrutable, pestilential Louisana. Adders and alligators and who knows what crypto-beasties; squat, atavistic trees with branches like tentacles, draped in sacerdotal vines; the sucking death of the swamps themselves; the play of masks and travesty of our only American carnival; the voodoo and bloody crosses and sacked tombs, their gates creaking in the wind … and all this not even to mention (at least directly) the tortured, howling revenants of slavery … there’s dark, dark magic down there, all of us up here are sure of it, legacy and ambience enough to provision an army of ghouls.

Dear Goatwhore: come north again. Soon. We’ll go carving out the eyes of God together. And perhaps afterwards, in the wee hours, I’ll even try curing you of that medieval hangover called religion, but without any hair of the dog this time, even as we bathe together in the charnel waters of oblivion.

Smitten,

Helldriver

Two Quixotes

When I lived in the City, I used to spend my Friday afternoons tooling around the Village, working a well-worn route between used book and music stores, park benches and cafés. Generation Records, on Thompson a little north of Bleecker, was a frequent stop. One of the clerks there, with a badgery sort of face and most of his exposed flesh colorfully desecrated, was—likely still is—their resident metal expert, and now and then I would pick his brains about, say, a representative Wolves in the Throne Room album, or whether the new Deicide was available in an aerosol can.

One day I was in the basement flipping through discs toward the back of the alphabet, grinning at the relentlessly offensive names and cover art of bands and albums I would never hear. Said expert was playing something I thought I should recognize, but didn’t. I approached, inquired; he looked up and, eyes scourging me from under his tight-fitting commie-kitsch military cap, wordlessly stood a CD on the counter. It was Sepultura, Schizophrenia. Old Sepultura, clearly. Really old. And here I had thought Sepultura began with Beneath the Remains (1989). I was staring at a Sepultura album I didn’t know, Max Cavalera-era Sepultura, my Sepultura, proffered to me by someone who probably hadn’t yet been born when it came out.

Upstaged on my own turf by a coffee thug, I immediately wanted to talk about how I had seen Sepultura in their heyday, on the Arise (1991) tour, at a club in Madrid. About the posters I had seen around my Madrid neighborhood advertising the show: death squad on one end, Cavalera and his guitar on the other, facing them down, both cut out against a fire-orange background. About how I had tried to pull the poster down and hang it up in my apartment, but ended up tearing it.

I didn’t say anything.

Some months later I was in Baltimore visiting a friend, who related a somewhat similar experience to me. He works on an urban farm, and on weekends sells the produce in one or another of the city’s farmers’ markets. Who does he meet at one of these markets one weekend but a kid maybe half his age—a little older than his own son—who is enamored of ‘80s hardcore punk? We’re talking Dag Nasty, Minor Threat, 7 Seconds et al. My friend was a skinhead back in the day, was still wearing his burgundy Doc Martens when we met in college. (Keeping the hair short was easy: we were swimmers.) When he told this kid that he had been into all those bands, had been to all those shows, had a milk crate full of old hardcore records in his basement, he immediately became an oracle.

Or should have. As it turned out, the kid was reading a book on the history of hardcore, and knew a hell of a lot about the scene that my friend, who had participated in it half a lifetime ago, was not aware of, or had forgotten.

Result: my friend bought the book. He claims to have learned a great deal.

*

Don_Quixote_6In Book II of Don Quixote, the ingenious knight encounters a duke and dutchess who know of his exploits from having read his “history.” He is famous, and, as is due any knight, becomes the guest of honor at their castle … and the butt of endless jokes, a grand entertainment. He appears as a character walked out of a romance, into the real world of the present (la actualidad). So my friend must have appeared to that temporally-displaced version of himself: as a character from a moment in cultural history. To be viewed as a splinter of a dead scene’s true cross, a living, breathing historical artifact, like a thawed mammoth: it gives one a glow, an aura, for people who value that moment, but whose contact with it is purely textual.

But in that encounter between one-time participant and passionate historian, we—forgive the transition to the plural pronoun—become texts, signs. We are there to be read, not listened to; we do not speak, but are spoken. We are nothing more than that (faint) aura that surrounds us, exhausts us. Disposable saints, transparent as icons, the better for them to project their desire upon, venerated not in ourselves, but for allowing the worshipper to get nearer to God: that fantastic, unrecoverable past. Like Don Quixote, we are at once honored and ironized, empowered and neutered.

Bits of pottery without pattern, we can’t hope to represent our time. So-called living history is always a disappointment; flesh is no match for text. For they finally know more than we do: all our rare butterflies, the ephemera and esoterica, patiently netted and impaled. Suddenly, we are forced to recognize that our knowledge of our time is piecemeal at best, that we are inadequate historians of ourselves, that we are not masters of ourselves—that we are in fact mastered by their agglomerate, abstract vision, that sees us as part of a comprehensible totality, an island from the air, the earth from space. They can click through our whole history in seconds, and file it away on a chip. Our time, our history, our selves, stripped to bits of information, small enough for them to hold in their hands. What is lost to us is weirdly present to them, more present, yet only through the phantom agency of language.

They know much too much about what we were like to ever be us. How can they hope to be us when we knew so little about ourselves?

Conversely, what is present to me—the ambience, the outrage, the trace sensory impressions and other memories, emotions and stories, all knotted together into a sort of umbilical cord—is mine and mine alone. I can’t claim to know more, only differently. My knowledge, such as it is, is more in my muscles and blood than in my brain, is bonded by things non-textual, things that can be expressed only obliquely, when at all. Experience fuddles text, creates gaps, swells seemingly meaningless moments, hazes everything. When I reminisce with friends, we are not sharing information, but performing a ritual.

What can it mean to that clerk at Generation that I tore that Sepultura poster trying to pull it down? Yet the image on the poster, the weatherbeaten paper … I can still feel it, gritty from the dirt blown onto it while it was still wet, stiff and brittle as parchment.

We may listen to the same music, but we hear something entirely different. I don’t hear the Jimi Hendrix that, say, Germaine Greer did, and I wouldn’t recognize E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Beethoven if he pulled up beside me on the street, horn blaring. My Hendrix is out there, like the house seen from the piazza; the albums, the documentaries, the guy in Salt Lake who fixed my guitar and who saw Hendrix in ’68, are as close as I’ll ever get. I’ll never be able to strap myself to his Marshall cabinet, like to the mouth of a cannon, and experience the thrilling Liebestod of that opening chord. The left-handed general lowers his sword, Brrrang. Nor did my mother bring my infant self to Woodstock, like she did to the TV the night men landed on the moon. My love for him may be deep as the ocean, but my Hendrix is facts spinning around an absent center. Or at least, a different one.

Don Quixote is maybe too literary a figure to describe our experience. No one could be more loquacious, and his surprised interlocutors always comment on how his opinions are as judicious as his vision and actions are mad. In the event that I do speak, I feel more like one of those mechanical presidents on Disneyworld’s Main Street, who recite something sententious, patriotic, and very much in character about U.S. history. My mouth moves like a dummy’s, my eyes light up; when I am finished talking, I freeze again. They will get no more from me—everything else my body jealously guards—and no closer to the Thing Itself.

Half the time, the nickel gets stuck in my throat. Better to sit and wave, like an effigy on a parade float, and try to make my halo obvious as I pass by, and perform gestures as though to bless them.

The genius of the second volume of the Quixote—a genius which far surpasses the first—is in its transformation of the world into text: the duke and dutchess participate in writing the second volume, make themselves characters in Don Quixote’s legend. The madness of the knight transforms the world, which is revealed to be just as much fantasy and theater. So forgive us, young lovers of ‘80s metal and hardcore punk, if, in our roles as characters in your drama, we end up textualizing you as well. The book is reading you even as you read it. You are just as much a ghost. Your costume of me is a little baggy; you don’t quite fit my scene’s drama.

And yet, that is the only way I have myself: textually. I can’t resurrect myself as the monster I was, and were I to try, I would be no less baggy than you. And perhaps I’m gratified to see myself refracted in people half my age, listening to the music that that mythical we did. Amused, moved, the way we are by Don Quixote.

We’re not tilting at windmills, my friend and I. We’ve never tried to live in a mythical past, or to re-live our own. They are at least as much Quixotes as we are: driven mad by electronic libraries infinitely vaster than the knight’s, and by a text, music, infinitely more seductive than the epic of Amadis de Gaula. Because it convinces us, somehow, that it is more than text, that it captures an essence, that it bores a hole in time. That through it, and only through it, I, and my friend, and the clerk at Generation, and the young man at the farmers’ market, touch. What can we, the duke and the dutchess, do but play along?

For RJD

Arcless; or, Pure Dirt

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Really Like High On Fire

Fandom is the stuff of high drama. It demands a certain emotional immaturity, or a short-lived but full-throttle regression. We bond most closely with those bands and artists we discovered in our teens, follow them until the scales fall from our eyes, or they die, or break up, sometimes in the full noon of our love. If they don’t move on, we do. In either case, they become a yardstick for our development, allowing us to think of our lives in clearly-demarcated stages (“I used to be into x, now I like y”) and providing fodder for nostalgia (“Remember how great z was?”). Sometimes we move on because we think they’ve betrayed us, sold out. Growth is supposed to be organic, authentic, and artist-driven; selling out is artificial and market-driven. In fact, a band’s or artist’s growth is often figured as a sort of pilgrimage to authenticity, to the discovery of their “voice”; and this teleology allows us, the loyal fans, to map onto our own lives a similar sense of direction, purpose, and meaning under the aegis of art consumed. That said, the line between these two ostensible opposites can be blurry: one fan’s evolving artist is another’s sellout, and the latter fan may measure his or her own integrity by refusing the change. For those of us who stick with a band through their changes—and who, in that miracle of marketing, feel that a band has “stuck with us,” too—there are the purported rewards of growing old together.

The process of change over the course of a band’s career is often referred to as their arc. Career as fired projectile: trajectory and singularity, purpose and identity. Fractures and cobbles are smoothed into a seamless history. There is an implied normativity, too: the projectile is full of energy as it leaves the cannon’s mouth, reaches a peak—a state of equipoise between its native energy and the pull of the world against which it strives—and then falls. Bands run out of ideas, sell out. That sucking sound you hear is gravity.

But must the falling side of the arc be imagined as decay, as the projectile analogy implies? Let’s consider another career narrative, the traditional evolutionary model; perhaps it will give our projectile a little more life. Artists and bands—at least, first bands—often do begin full of naïve energy and unreflective passion, and follow with a period of expansion and experimentation, an adolescence full of straining and angst. The music becomes more and more complex, convoluted, self-conscious. In time, this reaches a breaking point, and from the break a new, simpler sound emerges: a sound, a voice that declares, finally, who this artist or band is. Simple, but no longer naïve or unreflective; the dynamic of complexity, gained from that period of experimentation, that journey to the self, is folded up inside it, like those extra dimensions in the string-theory universe. What appears simple is, for the careful—loyal, initiated?—listener, profound.

It’s probably no surprise to a habitual reader of this blog (?) that Rush is my template here. Consider the first decade or so of their 40-year career: from their beginning in the early ‘70s as a “Canadian Zeppelin” or Bad Company, to the Genesis/Yes-influenced period of 1975-78, to the British electro-pop/“world” music period between 1979 and the early ‘80s, at which point they (as the band tells it) “found their voice” and “became Rush.” For the purpose of illustration, the period from 1978 to 1981 is key. 1978’s Hemispheres was the most complex and Yes-ish in the band’s oeuvre. The first side is a six-part sci-fi rock-opera that actually continues a story begun on the previous album, A Farewell to Kings. There, the protagonist flew his rocket ship the Rocinante into the black hole Cygnus X-1. Here, he discovers the city of Olympus, and a society divided between mind (represented by the god Apollo) and heart (Dionysus). In the story’s climax, he brings balance to the world, figured in the sphere, and is re-christened Cygnus, god of balance. Now, a lot of people see Rush’s music as a whole as too much Apollo and too little Dionysus; Hemispheres is certainly their most Apollonian record, the peak of their Apollonian phase. It was, in fact, a breaking point, an odyssey of underworldly recording sessions. The Apollo-Dionysus conflict is a nice image for the band’s trajectory, and it might be said that their task post-1978 was to find that “perfect sphere” where the two impulses would be held in balance. Hemispheres is thus a prophetic record, charting a course for Permanent Waves (1980) and “The Spirit of Radio,” as these overly-regenerate Who fans found a way to bring the unregenerate three-chord brilliance of “Baba O’Riley” back into what was, after all, only rock ‘n’ roll.

One difficulty with using Rush as a template is separating pattern from history. Rush have always been a most protean and omnivorous band, and the shrinking and re-packaging of their sound at the turn of the ‘80s has as much to do with a response to the currents of the time as to their own maturing artistry. Other major progressive bands, like Yes and Pink Floyd and Genesis, similarly attempted to re-create themselves. But with the possible exception of Genesis, these bands’ heydays had come and gone—and Genesis did such an about-face by consolidating a poppier sound under the leadership of soon-to-be pop superstar Phil Collins that they seem only nominally equivalent, like Gilmour’s Floyd to Waters’. Yes split in two, one half combining with ELP to create something called Asia, a mildly embarrassing superproject, and very much the embalmed corpse of ‘70s prog rock. Then there was 90215: genial, radio-friendly, and about as much the Yes of Relayer as Asia. Only Waters’ Floyd succeeded in marrying the art-rock concept record to the radio single … then put out one more fraught record and promptly blew themselves to pieces. In sum, voices long-since discovered, these bands were on the falling sides of their arcs, pulled hither and thither by changing lineups, and working out of the crucible of punk reactionism. Rush, hidden away in the Great White North, listening to the signals of distant revolutions over their radios, the younger band by a little under a decade, were still on the restless upper climb when the ‘80s landed.

If we look after 1983 or so, to the parallel progressivism of underground ‘80s metal, for whom the classic and progressive rock bands of the ‘70s were as influential as NWOBHM, I think the evolutionary arc emerges more clearly from its historical circumstances. It is as though, once woven by history, a pattern becomes detachable, and able to be worn as a garment by future artists.* When Metallica moved from their magnum opus … And Justice for All (1988) to the more pared-back metal of the suggestively eponymous Metallica (1991), Lars Ulrich justified the change—which enraged so many loyal fans—with the words, “More than any other band, we are like Rush.” In fact, Ulrich described a breaking point not so different from the one Rush described with Hemispheres, in his case after playing the nine-minute title track live for the umpteenth time, and, if I remember correctly, stabbing his drumstick into one of the “lady justice” props on his way offstage (how symbolic!). This sort of piggybacking has more than a bit of self-promotion about it—we’re talking Ulrich here, after all. But then it wasn’t only Metallica. Many of the prog-metal bands I most admired from the ‘80s (Voivod, Queensryche; to a lesser extent, Iron Maiden) went through a similar evolutionary process, from a straight-ahead sound to a more experimental one, to a distilled, popular form.

This is all well and good for peaks. But the falling projectile still troubles me. The preceding discussion leads me to wonder whether a band’s achieving their voice really leaves them anywhere to go—whether the meridian isn’t also the onset of night, whether there is something vital and sustainable in that achievement, and whether other voices are possible, or at least other registers. Finding one’s voice might simply spell the end of something essential about a band’s life-cycle. This is precisely the case many have made about Rush: after the aesthetic and popular peak of Moving Pictures (1981), the band began a long downward slide, with a big dip at the end of the ‘80s and a spotty record since. Perhaps Floyd, or at least Roger Waters, did well to move on; perhaps Yes was right to continue re-configuring line-ups. Perhaps marriages, at least in rock ‘n’ roll, were never meant to last.

And yet, Rush has kept on changin’, whatever we might think of the quality of their output, and has managed to sustain and even expand their fanbase of 30 years ago. Clearly, a voice is a sound, not a style—Rush keeps dabbling in the latter despite the stability of the former.** If we imagine the peak as full maturity, or the achievement of identity, or self-understanding, is there something approaching wisdom, at least for some bands, when we look later in their careers? Perhaps we should ask a different question, one I suggested earlier: Does the listener have to be a fan, even a lapsed one, to really hear the later work? A year or two ago, a friend of mine who is a big Dylan fan floated me one of the bard’s more recent albums—I don’t remember which one—because he felt it had crystallized elements of Dylan’s art in a way that many weaker recent albums had not. I confess I couldn’t hear it; it sounded like bad Dylan to me. But my knowledge of Dylan ends with the major albums of the mid-‘60s and a few other well-known songs; my favorite of his records is still The Times They Are A-Changin’, for God’s sake. So how could I hope to understand what made this recent Dylan album different, special? In this way, consciousness of evolution—a sense of history—allows certain canons of knowledge to revolve around fan identities: what appears trite to the outsider is, in the context of an ouevre well-studied, profound; fidelity is rewarded by (presumed) insight, as the later works become runes interpretable only by the initiate.

It’s true that the evolutionary arc is a bit like Monty Python’s theory of dinosaurs: thin on both ends, thick at the middle. And from the emotional and intellectual gratification I receive, and from my vaunted academic training, it follows that I want to squeeze anything and everything I can into such a model … and when I can’t, to use the model to explain away anomalies. Even more, as the projectile implied, I want to use the model normatively, so I can judge the success or failure, authenticity or artificiality, completeness or incompleteness of a band’s career. It’s just so neat: the vulgar Hegelianism of it, simple-complex-“simple,” innocence-experience-wisdom, life-death-rebirth. And yet, for me, the neurotic fan, the reluctant follower, it begs the question of whether alternative models of evolution are possible, or desirable, and what it means as a listener to throw the template aside and embrace something completely different. And it begs the question whether it’s possible for a band not to evolve … and still remain vital.

*

HOF       I first read about High on Fire in the Village Voice, of all places. This was back in 2005 or so, shortly after I’d discovered Mastodon, and HOF was listed along with them and Shadows Fall and Lamb of God as bands that were remaking contemporary metal. Now, HOF had long been paired with Mastodon; the bands had some joint early releases and tours, and their big, lumbering sounds had yoked them together in the “stoner rock” or “doom metal” sub-genre.§ In 2006, when Relapse bundled new versions of the songs on Mastodon’s “Lifesblood” (2001) and “Mastodon” (2000) EPs with material from their original demo, they bundled that with a sampler that included two tracks from HOF’s Blessed Black Wings. Based on these tunes, my first impression was of warmed-over Kill ‘Em All-era Metallica, with some reconstituted Sabbath and Motorhead dumped in. And so, for the following several years, I wrote them off.

In hindsight at least, Mastodon and High on Fire make an odd pair. Like Metallica, Mastodon might claim they are “like Rush,” or maybe just “like Metallica”: from the punk-length, solo-less miniatures of the early work, through the crushing Remission, the proggy Leviathan and Blood Mountain and, to a certain extent, Crack the Skye, a title suggestive of that pinnacle/breaking point, and an album on which one can already hear the paring back to a more popular, anthemic, vocal-melodic style of The Hunter. Mastodon have clearly made the arc part of their identity, and, like the progressive rock bands of yore, expend a good part of their artistic energy in the self-reflective mapping of their career.

But High on Fire? They’ve been mired in a sound, the sound of sounds, since Matt Pike was roused from Sleep. They are the Neanderthals to Mastodon’s Homo sapiens. Evolution has never been the point. As with their career, so with their individual albums—two-speed bikes all of them—and songs, which work less through development than bludgeoning repetition. There’s no hiding here, either the band in their music or the listener from it. It has a single dimension, and it demands surrender.

Said surrender was never more apparent than at the Bowery Ballroom last winter, my sadly belated introduction to HOF live. I started out in the back, by the bar, a little skeptical, mildly disappointed. But the longer the show went on, the closer I got, wending my way song by song through the crowd; and the closer I got, the more my critical and rational faculties were beaten out of me, until, by the time the band ended with “Hung, Drawn and Quartered” and encored with “Snakes for the Divine,” I had no resistance left. The “stoner rock” and “doom” labels thus fit nicely, even mesh: music as inescapable as Fate, as the potsmoke-haze of distortion that envelops everything. At the Bowery, you could hear that distortion humming between songs; the amps sounded restless, twitchy, as if the music were a tiger hidden inside them, waiting to pounce.

Like his music, Pike is all of a piece—what you see is most certainly what you get. And what you get is ugly. It’s important, no, it’s essential that Pike be ugly. Pale, sweaty, bloated, tattooed, shirtless, snaggletoothed, strings of hair sticking to his face, guitar strapped to his body: he is metal’s answer to Stevie Ray Vaughan, and that dirty, sweaty, snaggletoothed sound he gets owes as much to his one-time Gibson Les Paul as SRV’s did to his Strat. (The other two, bassist Jeff Matz and drummer Des Kensel, are not bad stand-ins for Double Trouble; Matz even looks a little like a younger Tommy Shannon.) As for his voice, what would you expect it to sound like, coming out of that jagged hole of a mouth? It has that heart of a heart of a Gibson crunch, too, as if, by following each other so often, guitar and voice had come to be parts of a single instrument.

Pike. Even his name is a weapon.

The Bowery stage didn’t transform Matt Pike, or anyone in High On Fire. Or anyone in the crowd. At the Bowery, no one, nothing becomes beautiful. But then this is a music, a band, that tries with might and main to make a virtue of an aggressive ugliness. What’s amazing is how often it succeeds.

*

It was Snakes for the Divine (2010) that turned my ear to High on Fire, that made me want to turn back to the earlier records. There’s some sense in this. With the opening riff of the opening and title track, the album announces itself as more riff-oriented, more traditionally power-metal, than what I had heard previously. The songs as a whole are less chorus-averse, and sometimes even downright chorus-friendly, more invested in structure than droning repetition. The production on Snakes (and 2012’s De Vermis Mysteriis) is a little cleaner, too; the chord progressions are a tad less jagged and time-screwy than those on, say, Surrounded by Thieves (2002). These differences are probably what enabled Snakes to serve as a way “in” to the bands oeuvre. And yet, the idea that Snakes marks some new stage of growth, some new incarnation of High on Fire that more closely mirrors my taste, is impossible to sustain, since these differences are overwhelmed by the general sameness of a decade’s music. The pummeling, bludgeoning feel is as much in evidence on Vermis as on the debut Art of Self-Defense (2000) … to the point that any music critic who would grapple with writing about HOF has to dig deep into the Thesaurus to find new words meaning “to be hit with a blunt instrument.” The sound is still hugely oversaturated, with a humming layer of hyperdistorted bass, although, as noted, it has pulled back a little from the edges. Songs still regularly wander into the six-to-eight minute range, trading on a certain amount of droning monotony to get there, if (again) a little less relentlessly than a decade ago. Nor did the heavy riffing really start or stop at any particular moment; I can point to Snakes as having more of them, and “Snakes” as having the sort of über-riff that is worthy of video-game immortality; but Self-Defense is hardly riffless (cf. “Blood from Zion”). Even Death Is This Communion (2007), the band’s most “experimental” album (according to Pike), keeps experimentation firmly on the margins, as preludes, postludes, and interludes, hardly troubling either the typical bent of the songs or the overall sound. Thus, small differences of degree submerge occasional, tantalizing differences of kind.

I mentioned before that HOF is a two-speed band, either full ramming mode or smoke-clearing-after-the-battle rumination, menace, and self-regard. Of the two, I go for the lower gear, and a cross-section of such songs demonstrates both the essentally static nature of the band’s career and the subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, changes between records. “Thraft of Caanan” (2002) could be “Death is This Communion” (2007) could be “Through All Dark We Pray” (2010) could be “King of Days” (2012). All exhibit the doom sound in full regalia: the heaviness of Fate; the certainty of Death in the slow, tidelike motion of Time; or some other such statement ending with a capitalized, abstract Noun. It’s music that sounds smelted; you can hear iron and sweat, smoke and blood. Fuck, you can almost taste it. But within this essential continuity, differences: the jaggedness of “Thraft,” pared back to a near-hypnotic groove on “Communion”; the latter’s minimal riff extended on “Through All Dark” into something more Sabbath-flavored; while “King of Days” has the vibe of a heroin anthem from an old Alice in Chains record. Differences, yes; but never any sense that the band is building toward anything, that this series forms part of a growing edifice, where each album is a stone lain atop the last. With HOF, the edifice was there from the start; the band have just been exploring chambers within it, some a little more classical, some more modern.

Again, the contrast with Mastodon is illuminating. Mastodon build songs out of smaller parts, adding them together, and then trying to create bridges between parts, or just letting them jangle against each other, in either case hoping that they add up to something greater. This is seldom the case with High on Fire. They don’t build up and out; they dig down, mining the guts out of a single riff, burying themselves and us in their groove. With Mastodon, at least as late as Crack the Skye, you’re just getting a taste of a riff when they change it on you. HOF cram it down your throat until you choke on it. There are no sudden shifts, and sometimes no feeling that a chorus or bridge (insofar as they exist) is climaxing a song. Instead, what you feel is a vein exhausting itself: walls collapsing, oxygen giving out, tissue beginning to die. You can’t really like or dislike part of a HOF song—you either take it whole or don’t take it at all. It’s carved out of a single stone; its success or failure is integral, not additive.

That stone isn’t only the monotony of a single power-chord progression, or riff disguised as such, but of a sound: one that depends on voice and instruments all saturated and downbeat-pounding on that riff together. Listening in particular to the earlier albums, you sometimes get the feeling that the musicians have all found the same frequency, and that the recording is in the process of shaking itself to pieces. (Remember that movie we all had to watch in science class, of the suspension bridge coming apart, the roadway twisting like a sheet of cardboard, the cables snapping, the towers crumbling? Like that.) These are unfinished, half-emerged carvings in noise—noise feeding on itself, muddling everything into a hivelike, motoric drone.§§ Pike’s endearingly sloppy guitar playing only multiplies that overall noisiness: double-tracked solos a la Tony Iommi, big bends with a wavering semitone to grate against, speedy runs that feature a wildly-picking right hand.

Maybe one’s whole listening life isn’t about coming to terms with noise. Hell, maybe music is a way back to noise, and not the reverse …

Mastodon, then, are building a cathedral, crafting a legacy with a self-consciousness about and worshipfulness toward rock tradition befitting a prog-metal band. The idea of the quest, which has been with them through all their albums since 2004’s Leviathan, folds into the broader quest for a sound, a voice, and nicely into the Rushian arc. With Mastodon, one can’t really predict the next record from the last. Nothing could be less true for HOF. I’d as soon ask a record store clerk what the new High on Fire sounds like as ask a druggist how their latest shipment of aspirin is. Their career is a flat line, slope 0, with bumps and divots, hillocks and gullies. If we want to imagine anything like directional change—and I’m always looking for it, and making it up when I don’t find it—I would think not arc, but straight line with a negative slope. Let’s borrow a word from the band, redefined for our purposes: devilution. Here, perhaps, is the Cartesian equivalent of that mining I described earlier: a distilling, a purifying, an attempt to become yet more themselves, to dig down to the essence of something that has been present from the beginning, only in mixed form.*** That they seek this purity in dirt, in noise, is, I think, what makes them so interesting, and what keeps me listening.

 

* I don’t mean to imply that this template begins with Rush, or progressive rock more generally; it is clearly part of the way an artist’s career is measured against his or her life. But since a rather interesting idea has emerged, I’m going to let the discussion stand.

** It’s different for a band that reach their meridian and then stall, or for the band that achieve something toward the beginning of their career and then find they have nowhere else to go, no way to really build on that sound. In such cases, after a few iterations, we start to get the feeling that the band are performing themselves. Rage Against the Machine, Tool, maybe Living Color. Consider Tool: after they had fully achieved their sound with the brilliant Aenima, less by transformation than by organic expansion, the few subsequent albums—each longer-awaited and more elaborately packaged—added nothing to what they had done before. A few great tracks on Lateralus, and a couple of quite good ones on 10,000 Days. But those albums sound a little forced; the psychedelic, faux-Eastern, fractally-multiplying minimalist sound had already been perfectly realized; all they could do now was lard it. Of course, such an assessment is much influenced by the first album one hears by a particular band, as well as by the listening background that brings one to them. (By the way, that Rush were considering what it meant to be a band on the other side of a megahit like Moving Pictures (and their resilience in the face of this) is suggested by the chorus (and title) of “Marathon,” from Power Windows (1986): “From first to last/ The peak is never passed/ Something always fires the light that gets in your eyes/ One moment’s high/ And glory rolls on by/ Like a streak of lightning that flashes and fades in the summer sky.”)

§ For me, the pairing goes deeper. The Bowery Ballroom, the first place I saw High on Fire, is the same venue where I first saw Mastodon back in 2005, after waiting a very good hour in front of the sold-out club for the bouncer to grace me with a point and curl of the index finger.

§§ I may have parodied the idea of metal being a drug in “Vermis Odium” (02.11.13), but only because I am intrigued by metal’s (like all music’s) potentially therapeutic use; I’m actually still waiting to receive a scientific paper to this effect from a presenter at April’s Heavy Metal and Pop Culture conference. Seriously, there’s a reason I listen to Miles Davis on the way into work and Napalm Death on the way home. Distortion, noise itself, has to be therapy. Writing this post called to mind an experience my partner and I had while working in Spain as WWOOFers back in 2002. At one of the fincas, the proprietors informed us of a technique where one person lay relaxing belly up on the ground while another blows into a didgeridoo, moving the end of the instrument all around the person on the floor, about a foot away from their body. I don’t remember what the outcome was supposed to be, or whether I felt anything when it was done to me; but it was clearly intended to be therapeutic (relaxing? exciting?), and it strikes me that the sort of all-consuming distortion HOF trades in might have a similar effect on the listener. A vibrational purging, like those tractors with a vise on the front, that shake the ripe olives out of a tree at harvest.

*** Or perhaps I have stopped writing about High on Fire here, and started writing about Meshuggah?

Attacking the Big Screens

At the Tokyo String Quartet’s farewell performance last May, I picked up the Winter 2012 issue of the classical music magazine Listen, which I had just begun to receive gratis for my occasional concert attendance at the 92nd Street Y. It would be mid-summer before I cracked it, and found a short article about the rise of multimedia presentations in classical music venues. Reading it convinced me that I should clarify my own position on the matter by posting an addendum to “The Last Waltzes” (07.01.13), which ended with a kvetch about screens at the Van Cliburn competition. Then, after seeing Lamb of God the other night at the soon-to-be-defunct Roseland Ballroom, it occurred to me that these thoughts might warrant a separate post.

Called “Attack of the Big Screens,” the article (by Colin Eatock) describes the different ways video has been employed in symphony halls around the country—from the naturally spectacular (e.g., NASA images of the solar system to accompany Holst’s The Planets) to more interactive and involved productions, such as those by the CSO’s Gerard McBurney. Reception has been largely positive, at least according to the promoters quoted, while producers and critics alike herald a bright new age. McBurney, for example, sees the screen as a way to help free the symphony hall from the shackles of convention, and audiences of their ossified expectations, “wean[ing them] off one of the great destructive influences of our culture—which is to treat art like something you consume, like a burger and a plate of fries”; and Alex Ross’s claim that the New World Symphony’s production of Thomas Ades’ Polaris convinced him that he was “witnessing the birth of a new artistic genre” suggests the potential of multimedia to transform the contemporary concert experience.

Let me begin by saying that I do privilege “abstract” music, music that is “only about itself” (!?), that eschews visual and narrative programs, and the concert hall as a space to experience music qua music. We don’t need the image of Napoleon on his horse or Obama at his podium to feel our hearts swell, particularly after Waterloo or the ACA. We don’t need NASA images of Jupiter, either, though I’m sure they’re lovely. (No, I’m not going to rehearse the arguments or rebuttals about music deriving its greater power from the absence of such programmatic fixity.)

That said, I have no intention of presenting myself here as another version of the “angry man screaming from the balcony” cited in Eaton’s article—although, it must be said, balconies are fine places to scream from. Marx’s aside, I’ve never been one for manifestos. I can think of nothing more pernicious than an artistic manifesto. Visual media present wonderful possibilities for creating other dimensions in our appreciation of music, and vice-versa, and new aesthetic experiences when combined; the concert hall is a perfect venue for exploring these possibilities; and the music-going public should welcome such productions as they would the opportunity to hear any new work, or new take on a classic work. I would argue that the visual should strive to be an equal partner with the music, as in Ross’s “new genre”: to be more than an embellishment, or a literalizing of the program, if one exists.

Now, the Holst-NASA production may simply make obvious the thinness of the score, and there are certainly pieces like it that beg to be aided by some sort of visual prosthetic.* But the Holst example, unthreatening and dollars-and-cents savvy as it may be, is troubling when considered in the context of a broader, creeping visual parasitism—is troubling precisely because it is unthreatening and easily rationalizable. For such “enhancements” suggest that the musical concert experience is no longer adequate for an audience raised on and mired in visual media; and that this is particularly the case when the music is from another time.

What I object to (as I did at the Cliburn, and might, apparently, in places elsewhere, as smaller, nimbler cities race ahead of my own beloved grey dinosaur) is the injection of the TV aesthetic, its flattening/narrowing of the world, of perception and understanding, into every possible place of assembly. In the ostensibly public spaces of the city, it is obnoxious enough; in concert halls, where people go to physically interact with art and with each other, it is even more disheartening. Lap-space, phone space, iSpace, your space, my space: all are one and equal. Or perhaps not: as every place is re-imagined to accommodate the latest iShit, physical space seems increasingly an adjunct of virtual-cellular space. At a time when I can barely get my students to go hear live music—and who are by and large thankful for the experience when they finally do—articulating the concert hall as another version of the phone/home theater seems like an enormous loss.

I understand that the concert hall is not eternal and immutable, that it is a product of historical forces, that it may soon be another quaint object of nostalgia, like the classroom with the chalkboard and my vaunted public square. And I understand, and don’t regret, that the art-entertainment binary has been paradox’d out of existence over the last half-century. But none of this is an excuse to suspend reflection or judgment. Poetry is still different from advertising; corporations still aren’t people. The composer or visual artist who is inspired to think about how nineteeth- and twentieth-century music or painting responds to and intersects with contemporary culture, and to produce work that, pleasantly or unpleasantly, troubles an audience’s relationship to its culture and its canons, whether by transforming the space of the concert hall or by seeking out some alternative, genre-blending arrangement, is not the same as the bean-counter trying to get more twentysomethings’ butts into seats at Carnegie Hall. Go ahead, tell me about how it was always a business, how Beethoven was a “scheming careerist,” as Virgil Thomson wrote, or how the beboppers wanted not to create a new art form, but get their due as professional musicians, as Scott DeVeaux argued. It’s not purity I want, or its loss I mourn. I’d welcome a bit of dirt in a world where everything is distilled to profit.

Music is one way, maybe the best way, to get outside that. Not to escape it necessarily, but to have a space to reflect, to stand back for a long moment from the hive and the chattering tide, to meet the stranger on the other side of you. And so either there is a sad irony in McBurney’s comment about the screen being a way to wean the public off the idea of art as something to be consumed, or that comment was made in bad faith. Rather than defying expectations, the screen, at least from what I’ve seen, seems like the latest way of giving the people what they want—it’s just different people, with different expectations … the ones who have grown up in the culture of art-as-consumption, and consumption-as-art, and who could most use to have their burgers and fries spilled on them.

*

I don’t have a huge soft spot for the Roseland; it’s always felt more like a wannabe stadium than a big club. That stadium-ness was never more apparent than during the recent Lamb of God show, and it was the screens, the screens, that made it so.

One on either side of the stage, they served two purposes. The first was to give those in the back close-ups of the musicians—just the band’s highly-regarded drummer, Chris Adler, and the occasional shot of guitarist Mark Morton shredding. They were stationary cams with a bit of fisheye distortion, and were not, as a whole, all that intrusive. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel that there was something even more dispiriting about this kind of video at a “club” show, Roseland-size or no. Metal shows are—should be?—about an ethic of participation and a total absence of personal space. The sort of contact you loathe on the subway is the reason you go to a metal show. Unless the sweaty, shirtless guy pushes past you and leaves a slug-trail across your arm-hairs; unless someone comes flying out of the pit and topples the people around them, so that you at least feel the ripple; unless somebody trying to get closer to the stage shoulders you out of the way, dragging his girlfriend behind him like a harrow; unless you push back; unless you yourself are touching the people around you and constantly being touched, can you really claim to have attended a metal show? And unless you enter the circle, or push past its madly spiraling currents to that dangerous reef between circle and stage, where the surfers roll over you in the waves of noise, and you feel the soles of their boots or sneakers against your scalp; unless you dare such a Hellespont, can you claim to have gained contact with the music?

It’s difficult to express the difference in power between the back and the front of a club like the Roseland. Each step toward the stage is like a step up the trail toward an erupting volcano. The sound rattles your ribs and pummels your heart; the angle of vision tilts up, so that the band crests over you like a wave. But then this was the precise angle of vision granted of Morton, the cameras hidden somewhere in the monitors. And so the video lulls, says, Don’t bother coming any closer. Don’t move. I am your limbs as well as your senses. Don’t desire; I have prepared a far more interesting spectacle for you that you can achieve for yourself. Why touch, or feel, when you can SEE so well? When I looked out on this sea of Lamb of Godders, they didn’t need the screens; there must have been forty or fifty watching the concert through their phones, martyring themselves, I suppose, so that everyone else in the world could bear witness on YouTube.

So many fans in the cave, taking the shadows for reality, and every wild-eyed, sweaty, bleeding S.O.B. who stumbles past him, a philosopher. But fuck Socrates, I’m talking about the orgies of Dionysus here. Hell, I’ve gone full-frontal Nietzsche …

I did say that LOG used the screens for two purposes, and before closing I should say something about the second. In fact, the first might have been more palatable if the second—which occupied the majority of the video-time—hadn’t been a textbook case in how NOT to use vids. Trite, context-less images of world chaos—you know, Vietnam carpetbombings, Saddam Hussein being arrested, darkskinned people weeping, etc. For other songs, creepy-looking Catholic icons, carpetbombings. For the chest-thumping patriotic song, U.S. soldiers giving the peace sign, carpetbombings. Every cliché of “political” turmoil, every cheapjack religious symbol, every fig of sentimental patriotism, all thrown together into the hopper. It was the sort of bad that revealed the danger of vids per se: that flattening and homogenizing of history until it becomes a reflection of the present, yours. Seriously, if I’d wanted to channel surf between cable news stations, I could have stayed home.

I’m not a devotee of Lamb of God, but I do like the couple of albums I have, and it was sad to see good music spoiled by bad media. And I couldn’t help comparing it with the last time I saw videos used for the duration of a metal performance. For Mastodon’s Crack the Skye tour back in 2009 or ‘10, the band used stills and repeating clips from Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, together with other images and color collages. The film was thus treated as a visual found-object poem; on a deep, intuitive level, a bridge was created between music and image, between the album and that most musical of directors’ film. The show was a model of multimedia being used to create a new aesthetic dimension for the concertgoer, and it has left a sort of trace beauty on the album. Not that we need his imprimatur, but it’s hard not to think that Eisenstein, that most open and curious and maverick and imaginative and all-embracing of directors, wouldn’t have been pleased … and Prokofiev, too, whose gift for melody so perfectly lent itself to telling images, and who is the only composer I can think of who raised narrative to the level of music, rather than forcing the latter to kneel before the former.

*

On the train on the way to Lamb of God I read Edith Wharton’s little essay about ghost stories, where she complains that “the cinema and the wireless” are ruining people’s imaginations. The wireless! How the terror of modernity haunts Wharton’s later stories. In “All Souls,” for example, the protagonist’s broken-footed hobble through her empty mansion leads her to … a radio. The disembodied voices invade the vault-like space; the servants have all disappeared. Who is the real ghost here? That was 1937, but ghostly Edith’s kvetches are hauntingly similar to mine. It’s funny to think of myself as a ghost, a curmudgeonly Edith hobbling behind the caboose of the times, waving my cane and shouting for the train to slow down, complaining about the kids today, their phones and other iThings, their short attention spans and abysmal reading skills. Maybe I have nothing to worry about. Maybe people just gather differently. But worry I do—about the degree and kind of mediation, and what that means for our selves, our egos, our bodies. Music will of course change as our conception of self and society do, as our technologies and modes of delivery do. But if the screen in the concert hall is another bow-shot from the future, I fear what it means for the ways we gather and interact on the one hand, and on the other, where, how, and whether we find space to reflect and meditate.

With apologies for these undertheorized thoughts, for their possibly shrill tone, and for using this blog as a balcony to shout from, the very fact of which undermines everything I have written. A good academic would be reading Habermas on this rather than blogging. My problem with theory is that you can sometimes theorize yourself out of a righteous passion, and what’s the fun of that?

 

* There are examples of visual art that helps us to understand or appreciate something about a piece of music, and which, although the purpose is perhaps partly didactic, has a beauty in its own right. A colleague recently shared with me the work of Stephen Malinowski, in which pattern and color is used to create real-time visual scores. Apparently, it was originally conceived of as a way to make complex scores more intelligible. Great stuff. Hope it’s projected soon at a concert hall near me …

T-shirts and Wittgenstein

hmpopcult      Packing for the 2013 Heavy Metal and Popular Culture conference in Bowling Green, Ohio, the first to be held on U.S. soil, I paused, a button-down shirt in one hand, a Meshuggah shirt in the other, looking back and forth between them, as though I were trying to match socks.

The question of what to wear had never loomed quite so large.

The morning of the first day, my mind was made up for me: I had gone directly from school to Penn Station, to catch the 4 o’clock Lake Shore Limited to Toledo. I was in Bowling Green by 7 a.m. My hotel room wouldn’t be ready for a few hours, so I stowed my bag at the front desk and walked to campus still wearing the clothes I’d taught in the day before: dockers, collared shirt, black dress shoes. It was a chilly morning, the sun just peeking over the rim of the western Ohio plains, wind blustering down the wide flat treeless main thoroughfare. The student union, the hub of conference activities, was at the far end of campus, a mile away.

BGSU is a flagship institution in popular culture studies. It’s still the only place in the U.S. where you can earn a graduate degree in the field, and is home to a renowned library (named after the pop culture department’s founder, Ray Browne) to support research. From the late ‘70s until just last year, the department had resided in a 1932 Sears-designed kit house, the ex-living quarters of four former BGSU presidents. Despite a joint faculty-student effort to save it, the house was bulldozed to make way for a new student health center.

My first impression of the BGSU campus made me nostalgic for the pop culture house, this though I’d only seen it in grainy internet photos. Past the Stroh Center, BGSU’s sports arena, I hooked right into a wasteland of squat brick student barracks; the academic buildings, into whose midst I entered a few minutes later, were hardly more charming. The student union was pretty much what you’d expect: glass and carpet, a cafeteria, chairs fit for dozing …

So I did, and came to a little after eight. A couple of women had appeared, one working at her laptop, dressed like anyone would for an academic conference—suit, spiffy glasses—and another, probably a student, with a purple streak in her hair, peddling logoed totes and guitar picks along with programs and name tags.

Then a third figure appeared, male, wiry and sunchapped, with a long, thin beard and a black cap pulled tightly over his skull, the words VERY METAL written across it. He was the first drop in a deluge: full beards, long hair, earrings, black sweatshirts and trenchcoats, ratty jeans and old sneakers, denim and leather and jean jackets covered with patches … and, of course, black T-shirts with the names of bands on them.

And me? Here I’d had the opportunity to dress for a conference like I would on any other weekend, and I was still in my teaching duds. In my bag at the hotel, one measly Meshuggah shirt. I might at least have pulled it on with the dockers and dress shoes, and made of myself an exquisite corpse.

*

If you think I’m dwelling on something petty or unrelated to this conference, think again. The blurb on the back of the anthology Metal Rules the Globe (Duke UP, 2011), co-edited by conference co-organizer and BGSU professor Jeremy Wallach, calls metal studies “a burgeoning field”; and when fields burgeon, questions of “Who am I? And what do I study?” necessarily raise themselves. What does it mean to be a metal scholar, with each word emphasized in turn? What are the musical and other signifiers around which the four-decade old genre on which we lavish our attention can be said to cohere? To what extent is metal present sheerly in the clothes, images and iconography of the subculture (or scene, or tribe, or taste public, or whatever) built up around the music? Is it possible to imagine the culture without the music—“metal beyond metal,” as someone cleverly put it? How has the subculture changed in its growing diversity over the last two decades, as global cultures transform local ones, and vice-versa, and more women and minorities distinguish themselves and participate at a variety of levels? It is not without meaning (to quote Melville, ever and anon) that the first two people I saw the morning of the first day were women, or that the first male participant I met had traveled all the way from New Zealand. With questions of identity so much at the center of inquiry, a paper examining modes of dress at a metal conference would have fit right in.

Lest you still think I’m making mountains from molehills: Matt Donahue, a local artist and musician who teaches in the pop culture department, has an ongoing “heavy metal T-shirt project.” He’s traveled around the world, stopping at shows and record stores and other hang-out spots, interviewing fans about what their metal shirts mean to them. There was even a room set up at the conference, next to the exhibit on metal masks and facepaint, for attendees to participate. On Friday night he took an hour so to scroll through a few hundred photos and show a couple of vids. In one, a burly bald guy in a tight black T ranted at the camera, boxing: “What, people think I should grow up or somethin’, that I’m some kind of fuckin’ dork ‘cause I wear this shit? This is who I am.”

This is who I am. I am, frankly, less sure about who I am. I identify strongly with the metal community, whatever that is, but can pass as a rumpled academic on weekdays, when my inability to tie a tie and keep my shirts pressed is interpreted as membership in the absent-minded professoriate rather than as metal-bred sartorial disdain. My beard is closely cropped, my hair mostly gone, though long in the back—a mixture of defiance, nostalgia, and disinterest. I have no tattoos (whatever that means anymore), only the superannuated desire to get one. I even took out my earrings for an MRI a few years back and never bothered to put them back in. But on Fridays, look out: I duck into the nearest phonebooth and come out wearing a Mastodon shirt. What on earth can it mean?

And what can it mean for my colleagues at the conference? Many noted they had alternate lives and fields of study: the sociologist who works with the Jewish community in London, the anthropologist who moonlights as a pianist for weddings, the classical musician who just started teaching a course in heavy metal—a one-time fan who, for reasons at once personal, pedagogical, and scholarly, was looking to re-connect. Style of dress hardly revealed one’s field of scholarly expertise—there was an enormous diversity of disciplines and professions represented, as well as nationalities—but it did say worlds about one’s identity, about the force cutting across and uniting all these creeds and approaches, and about what had drawn so many of us to this flat, dusty college town in western Ohio, to burgeon together over bagels and coffee, and to participate in the ongoing, collective fashioning not so much of yet another identity, as a sort of ur-identity: one that would help us find harmony among at least some those we already possessed, and enable us to navigate more confidently between them.

If this “we” has a father, it is Robert Walser, author of the 1993 study Running With the Devil. Word has it that he is a reluctant father—“the bastard father to the thousands of the ugly, criticized, the unwanted,” as Pantera once said—and his no-show for the opening keynote seemed to confirm this. Poor Professor Wallach was left up there doing a softshoe, waiting for Walser to walk down the aisle. Whispers that this was not the first time it had happened. Whispers that he is embarrassed about his status as metal guru.

In hindsight, I think Walser did us a favor. Running With the Devil may indeed be seminal, but the field, like the music, has moved on. God absent, he can be that much more easily reviled, his shrine toppled, even as his absence makes him that much more unassailable. At the conference, Walser was at once the most consistently cited and consistently challenged scholar. The hole he left at the beginning—of the conference, of the field itself—becomes a vacuum which younger scholars rush to fill. His absence forces us to look into that hole, rather than to him, for our identity; to look to the work of a community of scholars, newer stars around whom intellectual work can be organized. Keith Kahn-Harris, Steve Waksman, Kevin Fellezs: all attended, and all spoke; it was like a children’s story where the books in my office had come to life. And how could it possibly be more symbolic than for Niall Scott, a leading figure in the new sub-subfield called Black Metal Theory, to step in and fill Walser’s shoes? Wallach called it an example of heavy metal community, but it could be more appropriately read as a Beowulfian challenge: Who would dare step into Walser’s shoes? Who would dare take his mantle on this first morning? Scott went on to read a draft of a paper he would be presenting in a couple of weeks at another conference. Called “The Blackening of the Green,” it was a dark, poetic, playful, pro-putrefaction manifesto-critique of deep ecology. It made me feel like I was listening to a resurrected George Bataille read “The Solar Anus.” Scott himself exudes a sort of cheerful nihilism, a warm blackness; one of Slayer’s better titles, “Serenity in Murder,” jumps to mind. I don’t think I saw a band logo break the blackness of his attire the whole weekend. He is a sort of essential darkness, the personification of that “abyss-topia” (his term) he invited us to stare into—that void Walser had left us. No surprise that, later in the weekend, he would be elected president of a brand-new International Society for Metal Music Studies.

*

Dad may be deadbeat, but mother Deena (Weinstein, Heavy Metal, 1990) was there in force, all spunk and needles, looking never more the bruja, in leather and the darkest of shades, like a blind biker. During one panel I found myself sitting behind a woman who was wearing black fingernail polish, knitting. It wasn’t Weinstein, but for whatever reason I now connect this image with her.

In Running With the Devil, Walser criticized Weinstein for trying to wear the mask of an objective scholar even though she is clearly a fan. It’s not a bad starting point for thinking more heavily about the role of the metal T-shirt at the conference. What were we, really: fans or scholars? Was this an academic conference or a convention, or some hybrid of the two? (N.B.: This is the only academic conference I have been to where people in the audience who were not fans of the subject felt compelled to identify themselves as such.) Is it only much-disparaged metal, always under the boot of the intelligensia, that suffers from this identity crisis, where “metal scholar” sounds like an oxymoron? Or is it the expertise in one pop-culture artifact—Buffy, metal, etc.—that draws the titters, knowing smiles, and expectations of shoddy work by “scholars” overly invested in their subject of inquiry, clouding the serene waters of academic investigation? The metal T-shirt on the academic body seems to me a cipher for these issues.

Interestingly, what became evident over the course of the weekend at Bowling Green was the extent to which fandom and scholarship can be mutually reinforcing rather than mutually exclusive. Keith Kahn-Harris brought this out most forcefully in his keynote, when he suggested that there are kinds of “embodied knowledge,” ways of knowing through the body, that privilege the thoughtful, self-reflexive participant over the detached observer. This is not to idealize the participant-as-scholar in the place of the observer, but rather to problematize both the observer, who comes with a baggage all his own, and the binary that constructs the two as opposites. I am aware that this is not particularly new; feminists have been muddling the investigation-participation binary for a generation, and anthropology has been enriched by the practice of auto-ethnography, of which there were several interesting examples at the conference (a woman who studied underground metal venues in Leeds in part by recording her experiences as a gendered participant; a fellow traveler with female extreme metal fans in North Carolina (“Blasting Britney on the way to Goatwhore”); a self-described “bogan,” or working-class thrash metal fan from New Zealand, studying his own community). Yet, as fans and scholars, we are still haunted by the question of what it means to be both.

In his work on extreme metal scenes, Kahn-Harris builds on the work of Sarah Thornton to define two different forms of subcultural capital:* mundane and transgressive. The former consists of the “everyday activities that [constitute a] scene …—rehearsing, corresponding, trading, buying CDs”; it is “produced through a sustained investment in the myriad mundane practices through which the scene is produced as collective practice,” and is demonstrated “by knowing the complex histories of the scene and by having heard the music of its vast number of bands” (“‘You Are From Israel,’” MRTG 211-12). Transgressive subcultural capital, on the other hand, “is claimed through a radical individualism … It involves an attempt to be different, to challenge and transgress accepted norms within and beyond the scene …. ‘[G]reat art’ produces forms of capital that can be transferable into and out of other scenes; it is … a particular version of a form of capital that exists wherever artists and other individuals seek to attack taboos and ‘the mainstream.’” (214-15). Working in equilibrium with each other, the two forms of capital help to create a scene that is at once stable and innovative (215-16).

Unlike metal, academia is closely associated with what Pierre Bourdieu calls the “field of power”: the cultural capital it bequeaths is (still supposedly) convertible into economic and other forms of power. A discipline like popular culture studies, however, creates an interesting wrinkle, since it grants symbolic power to a kind of “savoir-faire”—Bourdieu’s term for the display of cultural capital—not convertible into other forms of capital. (E.g., at your college’s fundraising cocktail party, no one is going to give a shit that you know Dennis Stratton was Iron Maiden’s original second guitarist. In fact, it may be a deficit.) Like gender and ethnic studies, pop culture was a one-time academic coup; that it still sits uneasily in the academy is suggested by the aforementioned demolition of the pop culture house, which can be read as an act of disciplinary punishment, a reactionary swing of the wrecking ball back toward a more narrow conception of scholarship. At the same time, pop culture studies—Cultural Studies as a whole, really—has a well-recognized tendency to behave like a music subculture, with its own rock-star profs, theory groupies, hip brands, and so on. (Capital may be accumulated and displayed differently in different fields, but the rule that it must be displayed is field-neutral.)

In this light, rather than imagining academia imports a sanctified objectivity into the degraded fan discourse of a music subculture like heavy metal, it may be more productive to examine what sort of a symbolic economy is constituted when the two come into contact under the aegis of pop culture studies. Among metal scholars, knowledge of genre esoterica may be even more highly valued than in metal subculture per se. In this sense, we are distinguished by the degree of mundane subcultural capital we possess and, in Veblenesque fashion, conspicuously display—although its academic currency is limited to the tiny (but burgeoning!) market represented by the conference.** On the other hand, the many bona fide academic fields represented at the conference, the academic subculture called pop culture studies among them, aligns metal studies with the field of power; imported into metal subculture, the (mundane) capital of academia is transgressive. Knowledge of a variety of theoretical languages, partly field-specific, partly cross-disciplinary; the ability to toss around names of philosophers and critics as easily as those of bands and albums; an openness to diversity in gender and sexual orientation; and a political orientation that puts us rather to the left of the more populist mainstream metalhead—all of these things designate us as interlopers, “part of the scene but not of the scene” (Kahn-Harris 215), bearers of transgressive capital which we flaunt (in the scene proper) to our peril, but which, like good narcissists, we imagine is necessary to its progressive evolution. There was thus a tendency at the conference to see those engaged in metal studies as a sort of scene avant-garde, movers and shakers who, through minority-collective action, could spearhead generic innovation. This is the proper answer to the occasionally-expressed fantasy that the community of scholars gathered in the room was congruent or even identical with heavy metal subculture—a fantasy Weinstein was quick to deflate. The bearers of transgressive subcultural capital are never congruent with the scene; they aspire to make the scene congruent with them, aware of the risks this entails, indeed, thriving on these risks. (Then again, there may be no genre of music better poised for transgressive transformation.)

It might be asked who were the outsiders in Bowling Green, who the insiders: the producers, journalists and musicians, some of whom adopted the conventions of academic discourse for their presentations? or the scholars, some of whom wore metal T-shirts to announce their dual citizenship and difference from the “pure” academics, i.e., the musicologists, literary scholars, and others with only a passing interest in the subculture? Actually, everyone with a stake in the conference was a potential insider, engaged in forging, and being forged into, a new alloy. Between the various disciplines represented and the subculture of heavy metal, itself a heterogenous mix, we were participating in the evolution of a subfield, the construction of a new “insider” identity and discourse—one where the language of the fan subculture does not so much puncture the academic as give it a new (off-) color;§ where Pig Destroyer and Pierre Bourdieu rub shoulders in the same clause; where the grain of our voices whittles them into a new coherence. We were building an altar on which to sacrifice a binary that won’t stay dead.

One more thought: the problem of prestige has as much to do with the newness of the subfield as with its much-disparaged object of study. Rick Wallach, who I believe is still president of the Cormac McCarthy Society, once noted (a little more than a decade ago, I think) that he was writing at a moment when the study of McCarthy’s work was moving from having to legitimize McCarthy’s place in the canon to a time when that position was assumed, and the critic could turn to more purely scholarly investigation. What I find particularly fascinating is that those with a passionate investment in McCarthy’s writing—in other words, fans who also happened to be academics—opened up a door for a wider group of scholars to appropriate and write about his work. Exuberant fandom, then, can be the foundation on which a subfield is constructed. Perhaps all passions are scholarly passions in embryo, and vice-versa.

And in all this, the heavy metal T-shirt? It signified the need to perform the mundane rites of metal subculture in order to assert a particular scholarly identity distinct from the academic mainstream. The black T-shirt hugging the scholar’s body becomes a metaphor for both the embodied-ness of the participant and that body’s sublimation into academic language: the logo at the center, the obligatory blackness surrounding it.

*

For Saturday night the conference organizers put together a show with six Toledo metal bands at a Bowling Green dive bar. I’d already been sneaking downtown during the brief lunch and dinner breaks—the local hippie hangout The Happy Badger and Grounds for Thought café/used bookstore. As it turned out, the campus straddled the wasteland of highway and chain stores on the one side, and the much more charming old part of town on the other, full of colorful houses and a suitably gothic city hall.

At the bar I fell into conversation with a couple of conference folk. It turned out I wasn’t the only one with T-shirts on the brain, and, through feints to a panel on metal and community, we ended up doing quite a bit of wondering aloud about the rites and practices associated with “membership,” and how the T-shirt negotiates status. For example: Is it proper to wear a T-shirt of the band you’re seeing to their show? What limits exist as to what one can wear to a show and still blend in? (This has changed, by the way, as the crowd and bands have aged; you see a lot of pinstripe buttondowns nowadays, as grownup suburban kids go straight from their white-collar jobs to a venue.) Who can actually wear the shirt of the band nobody’s heard of? Who can wear the shirt nobody’s seen of the band everybody’s heard of? And what happens if you think you’re wearing the coolest, oldest, most obscure shirt by band X—call it shirt A—only to find that someone else is wearing a yet older and more obscure shirt of the same band—the dreaded shirt B? What can you do but hang your head, or slink around in the corners, or cross your arms over your chest and try to look natural, or run back to the hotel for another shirt, or something to cover up this one—maybe a dress shirt with the top button undone, so that the black T underneath appears as a sort of inverted priest’s collar? How ostentatious we are! How ruthless! No wonder the brightest among us just arrayed themselves in the purest black, a black into which all logos dissolve(s) and any can be imagined, expressing the essence of metal without recourse to the gladiator-pit of savoir-faire. There is something seductive about this black metal theory stuff indeed.

The point is, no matter how much we stand back and chuckle about it, no matter how much smarter we think we are, we do care about this stuff. We were in Bowling Green because we liked to think about this stuff, too, to be at once inside and out, to toggle between body and mind, to sully each in the other.

The subcultural capital had been flying all weekend, as the BGSU student union was turned into the floor of a metal stock market, scholars’ reputations were ruined in a matter of moments as T-shirt trumped T-shirt, participants were asked whether they had heard of obscure metal bands in far-flung locales, and one keynote speaker, Laina Dawes, confessed to be a “snob” because she was only interested in people who were out regularly supporting their local scenes—no “fair-weather fans” allowed in her pool. She actually had a good reason: as a black woman and a metalhead, her life had been one long battle to defend her identity against, on the one hand, a family and community who wondered why she didn’t listen to “black music,” and on the other a subculture that asked the question posed in the title of her memoir: What Are You Doing Here? (Dawes, as someone cattily noted in the Q&A, had decidedly not dressed metal.) Dawes is just a particularly stark example of what the genre as a whole has faced, and the reason metalheads have worked to carve out an identity against the elite and pop mainstreams. Reaction or no, irony or no, it is sad to think that the only way such an identity can be achieved is by aggressive policing of generic and subcultural boundaries. Are you authentic enough to join our church? Beware of poseurs, of outsiders, of coloreds, of injuns, of girls, of those who would ruin it, of those who aren’t sincere, of those whose love is not true. (The recent phenomenon of pop starlets enamored with Iron Maiden T-shirts almost makes me want to eat my sarcasm.) We’ve begun moving beyond a metal scene that is white, male, and heteronormative; if so, rather than allowing other forms of cultural capital to fill the vacuum—forms which, because they reflect the purported meritocracy of broader capitalist society, are presumed to be natural—perhaps it’s time to start imagining community beyond capital, cultural or otherwise, created by beings who are not inherently “capital-maximizing,” just as we have begun to imagine metal beyond metal.

Not to sound too much the missionary, but what if we envisaged community as an opportunity for inclusion rather than exclusion? A friend of mine, a writer, would always say he “envied me” when I told him I had not read this or that great work of literature. What he envied was my yet-to-come first encounter with a masterpiece. It was a little patronizing, maybe—he is five or six years my senior—but genial. A little more of this attitude in metal might go a long way. Imagine a sixteen-year-old kid surfing the internet, discovering Ride the Lightning for the first time. How can I not envy him (or her)? It is an envy particularly strong because it is mixed with nostalgia.

The easy availability of so much music through the internet—what Kahn-Harris referred to provocatively (and, I think, correctly) as a “crisis of abundance”—and the explosion of subgenres in metal has increased the number of fan positions and identities available. When items were scarce and required effort to obtain, Kahn-Harris noted, the boundaries of scenes were clearer. Today, with minimal interest and leisure time, one can occupy any number of positions along the continuum between a fractured, multiple center and their many peripheries, making the boundary lines much less clear. Simply put, to call oneself a metalhead today is a much more complex proposition than it was twenty-five years ago; and to kvetch about “weekenders” seems out of touch with the myriad other cultures and identities that coalesce around and impinge upon metal in our historical moment. I would guess there is an element of nostalgia here, for a time when scene boundaries were clear and “poseurs,” a word with such a quaint ring, more easily identifiable. Yet, we continue to operate according to this desire to appear insiders, to be in the good graces of our dearly-authentic peers—to have them authenticate us; there is no other way to be sure—to hysterically affirm our insider-ness, our identity, in the face of threats to our egos. All of us float around some mystical generic center, carrying the baggage of a hundred other identities, and of a highly individual archaeology of taste, each of us wearing a mask in the form of a T-shirt that we have spent the better part of our lives and the best part of our selves fashioning.

Anyway, by Saturday night everybody knew everybody, and everybody was dressing down, so to speak. The MLA woman I had seen on the first morning had put on a black leather jacket. The French rock critic, whose plaid shirt had made him look like an indie rocker snuck into the conference to sneer, came in wearing an old grey denim, tattered and faded as a well-loved paperback. Some looked like they had slept in their clothes for the past three days. For others it was the plaids and chamois that had sloughed off, revealing the black metallic skin beneath, at once soft underbelly and magic armor.

After the T-shirt discussion I listened to one of the bands for a while, and then approached another group: two who had presented on gender in extreme metal, and one Canadian musicologist who had analyzed death metal vocals with a computer. The latter pointed to my Meshuggah shirt. Was I into polyrhythms? I told him I was. Did I play drums? Indeed I did; at least, I had used to practice West African patterns with a drummer friend. We brought our beers to the nearest table. He wanted to play polyrhythms with cross-accents. We started with a simple 2 against 3, but entering on opposite beats, in something like the rhythmic corollary to the harmonic concept of imitative polyphony. Then the boyfriend of one of the two women came over. It turned out he was a drummer. She had wanted to go home. Too late, too late. I recommend a shorter leash next time, my dear. Now we were three, and the number of permutations exploded. We did the same exercise, but accenting the different beats on 3, listening to the “center” travel around the table. Then we got more ambitious: 3 against 4, 3 against 5, 7 against 2 and against 4; we started using our glasses, pens, any other objects within our reach to make the cross-accents clearer. We would all get it for a while, but it was hard not to start laughing, particularly when the death-metal analyzer would shout, “Oh my God, this sounds just like fucking Sepultura!” (the Brazilian extreme metal band known for incorporating polyrhythms and other elements of indigenous and Afrodiasporic percussion into their music; see Idelber Avelar, “Otherwise National,” in MRTG for an illuminating discussion). We would fall apart, like overzealous jugglers hurling pins at each other. Then we would decide drinking more might help. We did this until they closed the bar.

Ah, heavy metal community. And it all started with a Meshuggah T-shirt.

*

I’ve only written one properly scholarly article on metal, which started as a talk at the December 2006 MLA convention and was eventually published under the title “Heavy Melville” in Leviathan in 2009 (link at right). When I started researching the paper, I remember being struck by the fact that almost all the articles on heavy metal were at the John Jay library. John Jay is the criminal justice college in CUNY, and almost all the articles were about whether and how heavy metal contributes to social deviance. (Yes, this is partly what prompted me to write “Vermis Odium,” 02.11.13.) There was very little in the databases analyzing heavy metal and culture, or (God forbid) heavy metal as music. The only books I found were Walser’s and Weinstein’s. I somehow missed Harris Berger’s Metal, Rock and Jazz—it would have been enormously helpful in organizing my discussion of heavy metal fan communities—while Glenn Pillsbury’s and Kevin Kahn-Harris’s studies were just on the cusp of publication.

Focused on questions of prestige and aesthetics, “Heavy Melville” represents only about a third of my original argument; the rest, about form and gender, I had to cut for length. Someday, perhaps, they will form part of a book chapter. If they do, I’ll consider myself lucky to be working at a time when there is such a thing as ISMMS, with its on-line scholarly bibliography, a journal in which to publish scholarship (planned for 2014, fingers crossed), and a community of scholars to read and listen to and bounce ideas off of. I’m already happy to know that I’m not the only one who has taken on Walser’s idea that the guitar solo represents “freedom,” or who has been fascinated by the hand gesture I tried to describe in my now three-year-old review of Immortal at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple. (There is a high-profile metal blog called Invisible Oranges, the name drawn from that very gesture.) As for my T-shirt fetishism and missed opportunity to both present and re-present: apparently I’m to get another chance, in Helsinki, in 2015.

I’m already thinking about what to pack.

 

* Thornton herself builds on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital, that is, capital symbolically understood as a “resource that can be convertible into forms of power in particular settings” (Kahn-Harris 204). The difference between subcultural and cultural capital is that the former does not mirror the dominant position in what Bourdieu calls the field of power, which “represents those forms of capital (economic, educational, and so forth) that have the most currency in society as a whole” (204). Instead, subcultures set up alternative hierarchies where capital is not so easily “convertible into economic capital and to positions within the field of power.” See Kahn-Harris, “ ‘You Are From Israel, and That Is Enough to Hate You Forever’: Racism, Globalization and Play Within the Global Extreme Metal Scene,” Metal Rules the Globe (Duke UP, 2011), ps. 200-226 (particularly 204-218).

** While it would be stretching or even inverting Kahn-Harris’s terms, it is fruitful to imagine the opposite: that the mundane subcultural capital of something like metal is transgressive, and potentially transformative, of academia, and of the contours of the field of power. This is somewhat to put the cart before the horse, since it is the attention of those fields congruent with the field of power that converts once-subcultural capital into cultural and other forms of capital proper. But there is, there must be, a force exerted from below that drives such shifts, when mainstream and high culture fields absorb the creative energy of subcultures, coverting once red-lined cultural property into something that has currency in the field of power, and changing what gets to count as culture. (This is the moment when the college president smiles at you and says, “Dennis Stratton was fine, but he was no Adrian Smith.”)

§ An example: By the time the scholar at the first Friday morning panel on race and gender apologized “for the [mostly racist, homophobic] language” in YouTube comments, the F-bomb had already been dropped a few times the day before. Forty-five minutes later, the last presenter prefaced his paper with the words, “This is the best fuckin’ panel I’ve ever been on.” Laughter and applause from the audience. Truly, it was one of the best fuckin’ panels I’ve had the pleasure of attending.

The Apotheosis of Blitz

blitz      How did little Blitz grow so tall?

I’d been busy watching the slow striptease of that black satin shirt, a button here, a button there—normally he’d be as topless as a go go girl by the set’s end, this small, gamey man with the boxer’s nose smashed onto his face and the glowering blue eyes. Tonight, though, he only has forty-five minutes. Forty-five minutes!We’re runnin’ out of motherfuckin’ time here,” he cries, in a voice that distills twenty-five years of Turnpike grit and Jersey mockery, the voice of an old boardwalk barker or casino whore: wheezy, grating, peppered with expletives, and pierced now and again by hoarse, squealing laughter. He’s trying to get himself off, you see, and he hasn’t yet, and he’s runnin’ out of motherfuckin’ time. When he stands hunched in front of the mic, his head stutters more than bangs, somebody pull the clutch out, Bobby’s stuck. And those big entrances: sprinting for the edge of the stage, catching the mic stand along the way, tilting it over one knee; he has to time them just right to pick up the first words of the verse post-bridge. But with all the head-stuttering and sprinting, with “Rotten to the Core” and “Electric Rattlesnake” and “Wrecking Crew,” with the shirt that comes off in dribs and drabs, he’s still not convinced. And so neither are we. And though we try to give him the energy with our own violent movement and adoring expletives, we know Blitz isn’t there.

And then, during “Elimination,” it happens: Suddenly he is atop the monitors, balancing on one foot, splayed, enormous, chest heaving, driven there by the fury of the music, by the jackhammer in his voice, by the cut-tin edges of his breath driving through that scream, eliminate eliminate eliminate ELIMINATE!—newly tall, this electric man with the boxer’s nose and eyes that dare you to be tall, too. Now the whole band is ready for “Fuck you,” they needed “Elimination” to get them to the brashness of “Fuck you.” And here again, as the song nears its end, Blitz climbs atop the monitors—but slowly this time, squeezes his legs together, holds out his arms, middle fingers raised. A self-crucifixion in blasphemy, or at least vulgarity; the stiffly-raised fingers are the nails from which he hangs. Fully unbuttoned, the shirt clings to either shoulder; the belted pants ride low on his hips, exposing the join of thigh and belly, just shy of decent; his body is a braid of muscle, and entirely hairless, jerked, it seems, by sun, tar and rage. A mirror-Christ. In that moment I am sure he will ascend, hover a few feet over the drum riser in a halo of noise and power, the thin raiment of his shirt still clinging to him, and then disappear up through the lights, his body but the husk and the echo of that voice, its flesh totem.

Somewhere between the becalmed pose of inverted worship and the fragging on the grenade of his own rage—somewhere in that cross of sky-daring rebellion and sneering martyrdom, the soul of metal.

Vermis Odium

The structural formula of metal consists of a classic rock ring in its most basic 1-5 manifestation and an extreme state of dynamic compression, and is generally distinguished by the presence of one or more tritones (TT). A progressive rock (PR) chain of varying lengths may also be present (Figure 1.1). Like those molecules to whose structure it is closely related, metal and its derivatives mimic and potentiate the synaptic action of norepinephrine (NE) in the central nervous system, particularly in the cerebellum’s vermis, while inhibiting frontal lobe activity. A second, sedative-hypnotic “rebound,” thought to be associated with increased serotonin levels, has also been identified, and has become the subject of some clinical attention.

Metal was first synthesized at the end of the 1960s by O. Osbourne and his legendary team of occult doctors. Working secretly in laboratories around Birmingham, England, it is said that Dr. Osbourne did not immediately recognize the combination of dissonance, distortion, blues riffs and pounding rhythms as a distinctly new molecule, and that it was only upon mistakenly ingesting a small quantity that he cried out, “What is this that stands before me? / Figure in black which points at me!”

Usage of metal increased steadily during the 1970s, although abuse did not become widespread until the early ‘80s, when derivatives like glam and speed began to be synthesized for use in a wide variety of recreational settings. The latter represents the beginning of a disturbing trend in the history of metal abuse, as the speed derivative greatly increased the potency of the original molecule by adding one or more hardcore (HC) groups, and by turning up the volume of ingestion. Indeed, perhaps no other aurally-ingested drug has been so widely abused as metal, leading to concerns about its impact on public health. Over the last two decades, despite brief dips in popularity, metal has remained a drug of choice among the young, with new, even more potent derivatives appearing every few years, such as death, doom, goth, and black, as well as “designer” compounds, like nu and groove. Chemically, these derivatives can be distinguished by the addition of a rap group (HH) or EMO ion, and by the multiplication and permutation of PR, HC and HH molecules.

The increasingly potent strains of metal that continue to be synthesized are a logical response to tolerance, which develops quickly (5-10 albums) in many users, as is the increasing use of metal in combination with other drugs, either to intensify its euphoric effect or mitigate its toxicity. Research into clinical varieties that exploit the sedative-hypnotic “rebound” effect in the treatment of Obnoxiously Violent Disorder (OVD), ADD, and other anxiety and mood disorders continues despite concerns about the drug’s highly addictive qualities.

Characteristically, metal produces a state of euphoria. Psychomotor performance may be improved, although this is quite erratic and improbable. Users also experience augmented alertness and the fight/fright/flight response, increased wakefulness, and feelings of power, invincibility, and the urge to dominate. In its post-stimulant, sedative-hypnotic phase, metal acts like a low dose of barbiturates, inducing a mild euphoria almost indistinguishable from that experienced at low-dose ingestion, as well as an increased sense of well-being, relaxation, and relief from anxiety. In its everyday use, metal is often combined with amphetamines, marijuana, alcohol, and, less frequently, with hallucinogens.

Despite the number of derivatives available, the effects are quite similar to that of its generic parent, mostly varying in the quantity that needs to be consumed; therefore, so-called “classic” metal will be discussed at length, and its derivatives compared as differences present themselves.

Pharmacological Effects

Effects vary markedly with the dose of the drug. In general, though, they may be categorized as those observed at low-to-moderate doses (5 to 50 minutes at medium to high volume) and those observed at high doses (above 100 minutes, often administered via headphones or at concerts). Again, these dose ranges are calculated for classic metal. Low-to-moderate doses of speed metal range from 2 to 20 minutes, while the effects associated with high doses can occur at 30 minutes or even less. Death metal and grindcore derivatives such as Napalm Death, which contain several HC groups and few or no PR chains, are even more potent, and doses have to be lowered even further. According to one recent study (Benton, 2006), a single minute of Deicide was enough to kill white bunny rabbits and other animals associated with childlike innocence and goodness (hence the unfortunate moniker “Bunnycide” which the band has carried ever since). “Designer” compounds are qualitatively less predictable, as the synergies between HH, HC and PR groups on the compressed rock ring are still poorly understood, and the mildly inhibitory effect of PR on HC groups requires further investigation. Generally speaking, however, “softer” designer derivatives mitigate the more deleterious effects of “meth metal” by inhibiting the function of the HC group, whether by frontal-lobe reactivitation or by promoting reuptake of NE from the synaptic cleft (DeGarmo, 1989; Keenan, 1996).

At normal aural doses, metal induces an increase in blood pressure, and a variety of other responses that are predictable from drugs that mobilize NE and thus induce the fight/fright/flight response (increased blood sugar, increased blood flow to musculature, decreased blood flow to internal organs, dilation of pupils, increased rate of respiration, and so on). In the CNS, metal is a potent stimulant, producing both EEG and behavioral signs of increased alertness and excitement. Characteristically, wakefulness, a reduced sense of fatigue, mood elevation, increased motor and speech activity, euphoria, and feelings of power and task-worthiness occur. Task performance may improve, although dexterity may not, as evidenced by increased errors that can result from the irritability and nervousness that occur. When short-duration, high-intensity energy output is desired, such as in athletic competition, performance may be enhanced despite the fact that fine motor skills may be reduced.

These responses continue for up to 30 minutes after ingestion has ceased, with predictably cumulative effects for longer ingestion durations. At this point, most users will experience a rebound feeling of lethargy, satiety, and well-being, as after successful copulation, sometimes lasting up to 12 hours. Prolonged use of low doses of metal or single use of a high dose is characteristically followed by this relaxed, soporific, careless state, customarily referred to as metal-induced satiety (MIS).

At moderate doses (5 to 50 minutes), effects include stimulation of respiration, production of a slight tremor, restlessness, increased motor activity, insomnia, and agitation. Blurred vision and cardiac palpitations may also occur. In addition, metal prevents fatigue, suppresses appetite, and promotes wakefulness.

During chronic uses of metal at high doses (100 minutes or more), a different pattern of physiological effects is observed, in part because such high doses are usually administered through headphones or at outdoor rock festivals, at volumes intended to saturate the auditory system and maximize the rates of neuronal activity—all of which abet the suppression of impulse control and activate the subject’s “lizard brain,” with particular, unrelenting excitation of the vermis, the locus of feelings of hatred and aggression in the brain (hence the epithet vermis odium, or “hate worm,” for metal among the drug’s more literate addicts). Doses in the range of a few hundred minutes to several days have been reported. During prolonged, high-dose “sprees,” an individual experiences a manic megalomania—the so-called “berserker state”—induced by radical changes in brain chemistry, chronic lack of sleep, and high levels of distortion. Users are put at risk of injury and even death from the irrational, violent behavior that follows the ingestion of high doses. High-level earphone delivery provides a “rush,” described by users as being extremely pleasurable and very similar to a violent sexual orgasm. In addition, MIS is at once more intense and more extended than at lower doses. These pleasurable effects, however, are offset by the more toxic ones. After the sedative-hypnotic period wears off, the subject will still appear lethargic, but also anxious and intensely hungry. Food, counseling, and Neil Diamond may be helpful in this withdrawal period. Otherwise the user may turn to more injections of metal, thus initiating a new spree. In the words of Araya et al. (1994), the “chemical rush” of metal may “leave [behind] a suicidal hole.”

Psychological Effects

The psychological effects of metal differ widely, depending upon the dose administered. At low-to-moderate doses, an individual typically experiences increased alertness, wakefulness, elevation of mood, mild euphoria, possible freedom from boredom, and increased energy. Occasionally, aggression, hallucinations, and psychosis may occur, but usually only at higher doses.

High-dose “berserker” use induces a pattern of psychosis characterized by confused, disorganized behavior, compulsive repetition of meaningless acts (maniacal laughter, headbanging, violent bodily contact with others, making the “evil eye”), violent thoughts and urges (to dismember, eviscerate, defenestrate, etc.), sadistic megalomania, impatience with the weak and helpless, delusions of imperviousness to pain and bodily immortality, gross paranoia, apocalyptic hallucinations, a Manichean worldview, and mild irritability. Individuals who inject high-potency death, black, and grindcore derivatives on a regular basis often attempt to antagonize high-dose toxic symptoms by adding an analgesic or other CNS depressant (e.g., Pink Floyd; Led Zeppelin III, side 2). Such a concoction is called a “speedball.” Chronic metal users also usually consume large amounts of these CNS depressants.

Interestingly, MIS may be accentuated by the use of these depressants, and the euphoria produced by sedative-hypnotic rebound may be more intense, with users falling toward the hypnotic-anaesthetic range of the sedative continuum. Post-berserker “deep MIS” is characterized by a marked decrease in anxiety and aggression, feelings of peace on earth and goodwill toward men, renewed ability to deal with annoying people, and repetition of stock phrases like “it’s all good” and “no worries.” An increased ability to concentrate on minor tasks is only hampered by lethargy and overall feeling of a need to sleep. This is sometimes accompanied by a giddy feeling of having survived mortal danger, similar to that survivors of natural catastrophes or terrorist attacks feel, but without concominant feelings of guilt.

Reinitiation of metal use generally follows the end of deep MIS, initiating a new cycle.

Side Effects and Toxicity

The side effects induced by low doses of metal are usually extensions of the drug’s behavioral actions. These side effects are usually tolerable and decrease within a few days as tolerance develops. Metal can cause heart palpitations. Sweating, dry mouth, nausea and vomiting may also occur.

The side effects of prolonged use of high doses are more serious. Psychosis and abnormal mental conditions, general mental dimness, muscular fatigue, a negative outlook on life, infections resulting from neglected hygiene and a variety of other consequences occur because of the drug itself and because of poor eating habits, lack of sleep, and the use of unsterile listening equipment.

Most high-dose users show progressive social, personal, and occupational deterioration, and their course is often characterized by intermittent periods of hospitalization for episodes of toxic psychosis, often directly after attending a “show” or similar event where high-potency, prolonged use is collectively reinforced.

Fatalities directly attributable to metal are rare, but humorous. Individuals with no tolerance have survived three-day black metal festivals—in Norway, of all places—and even larger doses are tolerated by chronic users. The slogan “metal kills” does not refer to a direct result of a single dose but, rather, to the deteriorating mental and physical condition and the destructive behavior induced by prolonged high-dose metal sprees. Only rarely does a high-dose use of metal result in the lethal rupture of blood vessels or twiglike snapping of the brain stem as a result of prolonged, excessively forceful headbanging, or a “breaking wheel” or self-eviscerating accident in the mosh pit.

Dependence

Metal dependence is twofold: psychological and physiological. Psychological dependence is described as a compulsion to listen to the music repeatedly for its enjoyable effects. The “berserker” state that sometimes follows even moderate doses of metal, and the “rush” that may be induced by high-volume use, can lead to a compulsion for misuse. MIS may be itself habit-forming, although it cannot be regarded in isolation from the drug’s other effects.

Withdrawal from metal produces a period of rebound passivity and exhaustion, prolonged inactivity, and EEG changes characteristic of sleep. This may be followed by severe emotional depression, often brought on by feelings of abandonment, sometimes expressed verbally by the addict as having been forsaken by metal. Once MIS has worn off, the patient generally returns to his previous level of anxiety, leading to an ever-deepening cycle of anxiety, metal aggression, and rebound satiety.

Tolerance

Tolerance to the many effects of metal develops at different rates and to different degrees. The habitual user is able to increase the dose considerably and/or resort to more potent derivatives in order to attain a desired effect as his or her tolerance to the central effect builds.

Medical uses

Since the discovery in the late 1980s that MIS can moderate mood and anxiety disorders, particularly OVD, research has been directed toward developing a safe, non-toxic treatment derivative. Challenges are myriad, and include: the extremely addictive nature of metal; the drug’s widespread availability outside a clinical setting; the relatively short duration of MIS; and the rapid development of tolerance, necessitating new ingestions of metal at ever-higher doses and more frequent intervals.

Artificial forms of metal, such as mixing amphetamine derivatives like Benzedrine or Dexedrine with grunge, or combining Bad Company with selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), as well as low-potency dilutions of true metal, such as injecting grindcore with L-tryptophan, or adding a POP group or boy band (BB) subgroup to the metal molecule (e.g., My Chemical Romance), have thus far failed to produce either a weakened berserker state followed by extended MIS, or—grail of grails—to isolate the MIS period itself for subjects suffering from OVD. It is thus widely believed that the intensity and duration of the MIS period is directly proportional to the intensity of the CNS effects of metal and the duration of the ingestion period (Figure 1.2). Except in rare instances, low-volume exposure has proven ineffective (Halford, 1993).

Some evidence exists that, when low-potency, low-toxicity derivatives were administered to children with a genetic propensity for developing OVD, they acted as a gateway to true metal addiction, and that said addiction developed earlier than in untreated subjects (Portnoy et al., 2011). This seems likely given the rapid development of tolerance, especially among younger listeners. Regrettably, these compounds have become wildly popular among pre-adolescents, and are so cheaply and easily produced (and hence so profitable) that they are now available over the counter in most shopping malls and suburban convenience stores.

Results from short-term, high-dose “metal blasts” have shown more promise. Occulta and Apollyon (2002) showed that periods of MIS double the normal duration could be induced in patients suffering from OVD after a series of 30-second exposures to Amon Amarth.

If POP and BB  have failed utterly to treat anxiety and mood disorders like OVD in adults, this is likely due to the fact that children have as-yet underdeveloped senses of hatred, vengeance, betrayal, anger, and bitterness needed to appreciate true metal. In sum, while it may be true that music therapy has helped people to overcome a broad range of psychological problems, we are a long way from understanding how to use metal for this purpose. One must continue to strive for non-chemical alternatives to curb the propensity for violent behavior.

Metal and Public Safety

Given the pharmacological profile of metal that has been presented, what conclusions can be drawn about its social impact and continuing legal status?

While metal clearly has public health consequences, whether its production and consumption needs to be regulated, curtailed, or even criminalized, as some have argued, remains an open question. Certainly, metal culture has been demonized to the point that all recreational users are stereotyped as devil-worshipping baby-killers, and the music itself as a weapon of mass destruction against America’s youth. Consider, for example, the story of one young man, who, after 67 straight hours of listening to Pig Destroyer, was reported to have spontaneously combusted. In another, a Cannibal Corpse fan on a two-day grindcore binge began (according to his similarly inebriated girlfriend) bleeding from his eyes before collapsing; a brain autopsy later showed the cerebrum had been cooked into a hard paste which had to be chiseled off the inside of the skull. Stories of spontaneously aborted fetuses, massive cerebral hemorrhages, and literally exploding cardiac tissue have also made their way into the tabloid press. While they might be intended to warn users away from the drug, these sensationalized portraits of hardcore abuse at once attract new users (by the aura of glamorized danger) and serve as fodder for those groups lobbying for all metal’s criminalization.

On the other side is the phenomenal rise of metal rights groups in most major cities around the world, which advocate for the use of metal in its unadulterated, natural, “homegrown” form. These groups tend to paint a utopian picture, with metal in a role similar to that played by LSD for the “flower children.” Unlike acid, however, metal is understood as a conduit for channeling and dissipating “negative energy.” (“The releasing of anger,” remarks Phil Anselmo, a sort of tattooed Timothy Leary, “can better any medicine under the sun.”) The original sin, according to these groups, was the turning over of metal to vast record conglomerates, who make false metal for profit. The metal lobby has worked to have metal protected under the same laws that allow some Native American tribes to use drugs such as peyote in religious rituals, and “medical metal” has become something of a buzzword in the Bible Belt states, where religious fanatics are pursuing an aggressive ballot-initiative strategy to criminalize metal.

Of course, metal is neither a panacea nor a doomsday device. It is, rather, a faithful reflection of our aggressive, anxious times, where young people and adults alike consume drugs like metal to escape day-to-day problems, deal with assholes, and generally get by.

Correlations between metal and violent crime have generally been overstated. Even in a concert context, the controlled environment and relatively short duration of berserker effects post-ingestion, combined with the rapid onset of MIS, prevent violence from going beyond overturning and burning a few automobiles in the parking lot, a couple of fistfights, and a beer bottle broken over somebody’s head. Users are generally too stupified by the high-dose effects of the drug to plan antisocial behavior—as is to be expected, given the total inhibition of frontal lobe activity (the so-called “metal lobotomy,” the lack of EEG activity suggesting a cerebral “dead zone”). Rather, aggression is largely expended in the aforementioned behaviors, and the most dangerous effects seem to be confined to crowds in the grip of metal frenzy, and to the contusions, lacerations, head trauma, and acute spine and joint pain the high-dose user experiences as MIS begins to wear off, colloquially referred to as a bangover.

It is moreover unclear to what extent the other drugs often consumed simultaneously with metal are responsible for other violent acts for which metal bears the brunt of the blame. In short, neither informed current professional opinion nor empirical research has produced systematic evidence to support the thesis that metal, by itself, either invariably or generally leads to or causes violent crime. Instead, the evidence suggests that social and cultural variables account for the apparent statistical correlation between metal use and crime or delinquency.

The greatest danger to public safety today probably involves driving a car while in a state of acute metal intoxication. Feelings of invincibility, together with impacts on motor coordination and the visual impairment that results from headbanging, even with both hands on the wheel, can lead to excessive speed, erratic driving, extra miles, and poor choices.

While the public continues to debate the criminalization or regulation of metal, various harm-reduction approaches could be tried and evaluated. Safer modes of dispensing metal would go a long way toward curbing the more deleterious effects of the drug, as would federally-enforced volume limits. Albums could be made shorter, and listening equipment programmed with dissonance and dynamic compression sensors to filter total metal output. Perhaps the most conservative course of action would be for society to oppose widespread listening to metal, while at the same time refraining from punishing or demonizing those who choose this genre of music to listen to. Youth should be counseled, to borrow the words of Headlock, to “Tak[e their] hate and spend it wisely.”

 

Many passages in this post are embellished plagiarisms of passages from A Primer of Drug Action, by Robert M. Julien, M.D. (New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1988). Thanks to Dr. Julien for writing such an engaging textbook, filled with so many fabulous words.

Glee Metal

In the summer of 1994 my girlfriend and I went to see Metallica at Wolf Mountain, a ski resort-cum-concert venue near Park City, Utah. The Suicidal Tendencies were on the bill as well, along with overnight grunge superstars Candlebox; our plan was to catch the former and miss the latter. Would that we had read the tea leaves, or at least looked at Billboard, because we ended up doing the reverse—missing the venerable Tendencies, that is, and suffering through a Candlebox set that slouched its livelong way to the one-hit vanishing point “You.”

I was still smarting from being denied the “How Will I Laugh Tomorrow” pit—there’s nothing like an outdoor mosh pit on a hot summer day—when Metallica came on a little after dusk. By the time the sound of machine gun fire rippled over the PA, signaling the beginning of the Johnny Got His Gun-inspired ballad/suite “One,” it was full dark. The lighters came out, the crowd held its breath. Then, high up on a riser, James Hetfield appeared and played the opening minor arpeggio: ding-ding-ding-dang. A collective exhale.

Well … “appeared” isn’t quite the right word. He sort of swung around like he was mounting an invisible horse, assumed a cock-legged pose, backlit and frozen. And my girlfriend and I, we just burst out laughing. How could we help it? That pose—it didn’t signify Metallica anymore, or even metal; it signified rock star. Mind you, at that point I was still going to the mat for the so-called Black Album, and if you give me more than thirty seconds I’ll regale you with what I believe to be that album’s many merits. But this? Load, Some Kind of Monster, “Nothing Else Matters” with strings—in that moment, I saw it all, the whole ugly coast into ignominy.

Could we have been the only ones who laughed? I doubt it. Maybe the crowd roared with laughter.

Almost twenty years later, I’ve stopped blaming Metallica. I’m blaming Anthrax instead. That’s right—Anthrax! I blame Anthrax. Why, you ask, would I blame such a fun-loving bunch of guys, the band that epitomized the warm-and-fuzzy machismo of thrash metal in its heyday? A willful contentiousness? Partly, yes. But you see, I fell out with Anthrax back in ‘88, years before Metallica’s apostasy, at the very noon of thrash’s day. In hindsight, I think my quarrel with Anthrax—a premature quarrel, I admit, but a quarrel nonetheless—sheds more light on thrash’s then-incipient demise than the oft-cited narrative of Metallica’s starstruck fall on the one hand, and the rise of grunge, hip hop, and other heavy alternatives on the other. But don’t despair: my counternarrative has a happy ending. It’s called Worship Music, and it’s really what brought me to want to write something about Anthrax in the first place.

*

     1987 was a banner year for Anthrax. It was the year of their seminal Among the Living, the band’s second album with singer Joey Belladonna, their third overall, and the gold-selling metal-rap crossover “I’m the Man.” With Living, Anthrax’s sound had crystallized into something immediately recognizable: “buzzsaw” guitars, furiously-pedaled double bass licks, groovy mosh parts, and catchy, melodic choruses. The lyrics, which Belladonna delivered with a mix of opera aria and Bronx sneer, were as likely to adapt Stephen King as to address social issues—“Star Wars,” racism, drugs. And yet, despite their penchant for horror and social commentary, Anthrax were a good deal less bleak than their thrash counterparts. You could hear it in those chipper choruses, so unusual for the genre, and in the words that tended to look past problems, to solutions: flags of many colors, fighting for peace.

“Imitation of Life,” the last song on Living, is a genre-appropriate paean to authenticity, a great “be yourself” underground anthem against the “plastic” world of media-driven image-making that Anthrax was likely just beginning to encounter. The chorus is indicative of the tenor of the song: “There’s nothing I hate more than all these plastic people/ With all their plastic promises, and all their plastic deals/ They just can’t be themselves, and live their own lives out/ They’re just an imitation of what life’s all about.” Once it revs up, “Life” is easily the fastest cut on the album, as if the breakneck tempo were necessary to assure both band and listener of each other’s authenticity, their underground pedigree.

If you can see past the homophobia*—I won’t blame you if you can’t, but I’m going to—one verse is a nutshell response to the more lucrative, radio-friendly glam or “hair” metal that dominated the charts during the same era: “Bands dress like women, with hairspray and lace/ I’d pass an image law, stick it in their face/ Let’s see how long they keep dressing this way/ Wearing their image twenty-four hours a day.” Image versus reality; pop versus underground; poseurs versus “true metal.” One can’t help but wonder whether these lines are directed at the “friend” mentioned in the first verse: “Whatever happened to the guy I knew?/ A media creation, a monster grew.”

Now, replace “guy” with “band,” and by 1988 you could have asked Anthrax the same question.

“Monster” is maybe too strong a word, but “media creation” nonetheless … and one that the band, the whole scene, participated in creating: instead of “hairspray and lace,” high-top sneakers, jock socks, baseball jerseys or concert T’s, Bermuda shorts or cut-off jeans.** And here’s the really insidious part: the band that wears hairspray and lace might, if they so choose, remove it after a performance. But by ‘88, I have the impression that Anthrax was wearing their image 24 hours a day, trapped in the mirror they held up to themselves, and to the scene. Anthrax, that is, became “Anthrax,” a parody of themselves, an image they fell in love with and, like Narcissus, died trying to embrace (well … almost).

Is that your fist I hear, beating on the computer screen? You’re saying, They didn’t sell out. Metallica did—put on the eyeshadow and the furry vests, grew the Beatnik goatees and started listening to indie rock, went all Billboard on our asses. Anthrax always dressed that way. Yes, yes, all true … but isn’t this precisely how it happened? Anthrax were so preoccupied with authenticity—with the idea of thrash (“true”) metal being no-image music, and the scene a big family—that as they achieved greater success, they had no choice but to create an image of authenticity to project for their fans.

Look at the photo on the sleeve of 1988’s State of Euphoria: the band members shine like wax effigies of themselves, cutouts against a postcard New York. Quite a switch from the leather-clad Anthrax in the 34th Street subway station on the back of Living: from the underground to the top of the world. But it’s not the backdrop that really matters here, or the clothes. As for the music, what’s notable about Euphoria is not how different it sounds from Living—the sort of about-face we would expect from a “sell-out”—but how similar. It sounds, properly enough, like the zombie- or pod-version of Living (as in the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers).

I’m pinning a year on it, but in hindsight it’s clear the tendency was there all along: the progressive ossification of their sound between ‘85’s Spreading the Disease and Euphoria; the line-drawn caricatures of the band on the sleeve of Disease; the proliferation of their little Mario Bros.-style mascot; the increasingly tedious use of “mosh” and “not,” which by ‘87 had begun to creep their way into titles, choruses, and verses. This is how it happens: Anthrax lingo, Anthrax gear, Anthrax themes. The music becomes the logo, the image grows legs; the songwriting gets stilted, the lyrics predictable. At the time, though, it seemed to happen almost overnight, a crash landing off the peak of Living into the stale slough of Euphoria. (“His meridian is at once the darkening and evening of his day,” says the Judge about the human species in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Would that Anthrax had put down the King for a while and picked up McCarthy. Not that I dislike Stephen King, but I’m still waiting for the metal band that will tackle Blood Meridian with the combination of aplomb and naïve faith Mastodon did Moby-Dick.)

You’ll say I’m not giving them enough credit. There’s not a metal band with a better sense of humor, or one more adept at self-parody, and this should imply a certain level of consciousness about image-making: the tongue-in-cheek side project S.O.D. (Stormtroopers of Death), with their LP Speak English or Die; the tracksuit-and-Anthrax-bling cover photo on the puerile but well-intentioned “I’m the Man.” And yet, like the very “un-thrash” upbeat optimism of much of the music, humor was just part of who they were—part, that is, of the fun-loving bunch of down-to-earth Bronxites that coalesced into the master-image “Anthrax.”

In fact, it’s hard to think of a band that better embodied the goofy camaraderie of the scene: punk with the edges sanded off; a sort of feel-good hardcore, if such a thing is possible. Maybe this is why it was so easy for them to become an image not just of themselves, but of the scene. After Anthrax became “Anthrax,” it wasn’t long before thrash became “thrash.” Images live forever, but the scenes (and bands) that produce them, like the hapless characters in Adolfo Bioy Casares’s La invención de Morel, rot to death.

I have the feeling that if any devout thrasher were going to blame Anthrax for killing the scene, it would be for a reason opposite the one I’m arguing. Anthrax were one of the few bands—thrash metal so incestuously devoted to maintaining the bulwark of its authenticity against the dreaded pop Other—audacious enough to reach outside the genre for inspiration: into rap (“I’m the Man,” and later the cover of Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise”) and British pop (Joe Jackson’s “Got the Time”).*** Anthrax, my imaginary devotee might argue, were too open to rival musics, so that, even as they remained one of the lead proponents of genre, they were simultaneously breaking down the very musical barriers that defined it. They let the wrong ones in. (It should be noted that this openness to musical innovation was of a piece with their politics—a schmaltzy one-world liberalism they espoused when they weren’t singing about Judge Dredd, Randall Flagg, or poseurs. The band’s anti-racist tracks on 1990’s Persistence of Time could be read as responses to thrash’s genre jingoism.)

I don’t disagree with this argument, just with the sentiment that often accompanies it (i.e., “letting the wrong ones in”). I think the scene needed to die. The music needed to move on; the death-in-life of Euphoria needed to be transcended. I think that if you did a survey of metal albums in 1988, you’d find a lot of bands either stalling out or beginning to move in new directions. Anyway, that Metallica did what they did, as they did it, is hardly Anthrax’s fault; they just happened to arrive first, or maybe just most transparently, at that combination of ossification and innovation that happens in all scenes once they begin to become successful. Anthrax had to kill the scene in order to escape it; Anthrax had to help create the ‘90s in order to escape themselves.

There are some fine moments on Euphoria, of course, and even more on 1990’s Time, an album that was just beginning to break free of what had become Anthrax clichés (e.g., “Misery Loves Company” and “Who Cares Wins”), in part by digging in a more organic way into hip hop (listen to “Blood” and “Discharge”), helping forge a style that would explode as groove metal. By 1993, everything had changed: music had moved on; Sound of White Noise, with new frontman John Bush has little in it to identify the old Anthrax; it sounds more like Alice in Chains. The album would turn out to be their last hurrah, and the fact that it went gold probably allowed Anthrax to store up their proverbial acorns for the long, bitter winter to come. For the next eighteen years would be a limbo of delayed and squelched releases, remixes, remasters, reunions, best-ofs, rotating singers and lead guitarists, and guest appearances—a time, for all but the most observant and least jaded, of white noise and silence.

*

Before Worship Music finally arrived in record stores (metaphorically speaking) last September, turning the hometown tour-ending “Big Four” show at Yankee Stadium into a giant release party, Anthrax were probably the only of the better-known thrash bands that hadn’t yet put out a new album. Not for want of trying—I won’t go into the reasons for all the delays—or for lack of new material. Or, for that matter, for lack of energy: they had already been on the road with the Big 4 for a year, and were about to jump into another tour, supporting the new album, with Testament and Death Angel sharing the bill. But then a band with a day named after them (last year, Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. declared September 14th “Anthrax Day in the Bronx”) has certain responsibilities—ribbon cuttings, ship christenings, and relentless touring being just a few of them.

The tour wrapped up early last month at Times Square’s Best Buy Theater—the Venue Formerly Known As Nokia, and before that, something else; its “original” name, if it ever had one, has been buried under the rubble of a thousand brands. Part celebration, part history lesson, part nostalgia trip, the Best Buy show presented a perfect opportunity to gauge the health of a music enjoying a sort of second teen-hood … or, perhaps, suffering a mid-life crisis.

The Best Buy crowd was the typical mix of geriatric metal fans from the ‘80s and high school- and college-aged kids, and the bands’ song selections tended to mirror that generation gap, straddling old and new material and mostly ignoring anything in between. Death Angel’s set was an extreme example: they only played stuff off their debut The Ultraviolence and the new record, Relentless Retribution. It reflects both the arc of their career—at this point, DA’s revival has lasted twice as long as their first run, and has been equally prolific—and, I guess, the limitations of a thirty-minute set. Testament’s choices were a bit more varied, albeit very much first-songs-and-title-tracks fare. There were a few pleasant surprises—opening the set with “The Preacher” (from 1988’s The New Order) was a nice touch, and I was happy to see them still pushing full-throttle renditions of “D.N.R. (Do Not Resuscitate)” and “Three Days in Darkness” from their middle-years masterpiece The Gathering (1998).

While all the bands were clearly old hands at playing on the expectations of a mixed-age audience, Anthrax had it down to a science. “How many of you here are seeing Anthrax for the first time?” (Cheer!) “How many of you crazy fuckers have seen us before?” (ROAR!!!) You know, that sort of thing. They certainly hit the peaks of their early career, spending the most time on the Everest of Living, and ignoring the ‘90s completely (if there was a token song from White Noise, I missed it). Somehow, the fact that they only played the covers off Euphoria and Time—regardless of the fact that these were singles—felt like an even bigger post-‘87 smackdown. No “In My World”? No “Now It’s Dark”?

All of the above suggests that the Worship Music tour was something of a continuation of the Big 4: after all, Testament and Death Angel are children of 1987, both born at the watershed moment the Big 4 was meant to commemorate. And yet, the fact that both these bands chose to close their sets with new material should not be lost on us—or on Anthrax, who went for the old, safe standbys “I’m the Man,” “Madhouse,” and “I Am the Law.”‡ I know they’re the quintessential NYC metal band—the blue-and-white jerseys, Joey’s Yankees cap pulled low on his head, Frankie and Charlie playing their first (and last) show after attending somebody’s grandmother’s funeral. This is metal concert as sporting event: you come to root for Anthrax like they’re the home team, and they give back that tough New York love (and buckets of popcorn nostalgia). But then I think of Testament playing “D.N.R.” Maybe that should be the injunction to all these comeback bands: We love to hear your old shit, sure. But 1987 is dead and gone, never to be revived. What have you done lately?

For what else can you say to a band that releases one of the finest metal albums of the last who-knows-how-many years, and then only plays four songs off it live—the same number they played off Living? Not that the choices weren’t good: the opener “Earth Is On Hell,” the pump-you-up zombie-killing anthem “Fight ‘Em Til You Can’t,” the Dio-worthy “Devil You Know,” and the metal mass “In the End.” But with an hour and a half to burn, I expected at least a couple more. There’s more than enough depth on the record to warrant it. Proportionally, Anthrax played less new material than either of their warm-ups, and Testament wasn’t even pushing a new album. Even before their set had ended, the shadow of the Big 4 growing ever longer, I started to wonder whether the band fully understood what a gem they had in Worship Music: not so much an album as an exercise in imitative magic, perhaps the only thing capable of breaking the thrall of the image of 1987 that threatens to pull the genre back under.

*

Death Angel’s frontman Mark Osegueda has always struck me as a bit of a prophet. He has the godlike ability to go from a growl to a shriek and back to a growl again in a breath, a hyperpitch jump across five octaves. (Eat your heart out, Captain Beefheart!) And the things the man says. No matter how tough you think you are, you’re never too tough to let yourself go. Yes. Despite his claims to have never quite fit thrash’s vibe—a little too flamboyant, a little too interested in Tom Waits and The Velvet Underground—I think his combination of waist-length dreads and tight black jeans/leather vest for the Best Buy show beautifully articulated the divided ethos of the Bay Area scene: part ganja-smoking hippie, part brassknuckled Hell’s Angel. Anyway, he didn’t let his reservations get in the way of being the genre’s oracle that night, with a pronouncement that disciples like myself would spend the next hour pondering for ever-deeper layers of meaning: We’re Death Angel from San Francisco, and we play thrash metal.

Inspirational, no? Rather sums the whole thing up. Very much the sound of the new Death Angel, too. In fact, the new Death Angel sounds more like they did in ’87 than in ’90, when, like Anthrax, they had begun to chafe at the boundaries of the genre. (The result was their masterpiece, Act III; there never was a IV or V.) The stuff they played live, at least—that endless gritty chugga-chugga-chugga on the low E string—suggests they have made it their mission to epitomize the genre-as-it-was.

This desire to thaw the frozen image of 1987 and breathe life into it, or at least nuke it, is sadly typical. The back-to-back nostalgia tours and reunion with Belladonna would suggest that Anthrax, too, have embraced the revivalist spirit. But Worship Music suggests something different, or at least something more vital and interesting. For even as that record looks backwards, reaching all the way down into the choral-melodic elements of the band’s power metal roots and the heavy riffage of their thrash metal coming-of-age, it manages to draw these sounds together with ‘90s grunge into an impressively syncretic whole. It is free of the late-‘80s clichés that hamstrung so much of Euphoria, and to a lesser extent, Time—yet it is still recognizably, inimitably Anthrax. In looking back neither from a desire to “relive” the ‘80s, nor to show they have “outgrown” the ‘80s—to cheapen it with an ironic sneer—but rather to work with and attempt to reinvigorate that musical tradition, Worship Music evinces a rare maturity of vision. This isn’t maturity in the sense that people said Anthrax “matured” after Euphoria—the meaner, darker Anthrax of Time and White Noise. They’re as full of humor and hope as they ever were, and as melodic, too—even moreso.

In some ways, the album seems to want to be heard as what the band would have put out after Persistence of Time had Belladonna stuck around. The ticking clock on the breaks in “Earth is on Hell” recalls the opening of Time; the solo cello of “Hymn 1,” which is really the introduction to “In the End,” is an instrumental quote from “Be All End All” on Euphoria. But in a transformation that is characteristic of the new record, following “End”’s break for chimes, as Belladonna comes back in to chant the hymn, he is accompanied by the guitars, which, buzzing with sustain and sweeping up and down the low strings, themselves sound bowed. Rather than a follow-up, then, Worship Music sounds like it’s having a conversation with the Anthrax of 1988-90 … but a conversation that could only be had at two decades’ distance.

As I noted earlier, Anthrax’s music was always more cantabile than that of their riff-centric comrades, and on Worship Music this element of their songwriting definitely comes into its own. Call it glee metal: upbeat, chorus-driven, effortlessly melodic. I can’t think of a metal band that writes choruses like this anymore, and it’s not like nobody’s trying: all those dreadful emo-death bands put a lot of stock in melodic choruses, the obligatory counterpart the growled verses. These desperate attempts to sound both heavy and emotional … as if they were mutually exclusive! I sound mean, but I’m really just hurt. Ugh. Anthrax could teach these bands a thing or two, and not just about attitude (metal! no wallowing!), but about composition: the call-and-response formats, the clear melodic climaxes, the canny uses of repetition in rhythm and phrasing.

I could go on about the unreasonably good songwriting here—pretty much everything on Worship Music is lean and harmonically seamless—but I’d rather focus for a moment on the use of breaks, of silence, to create a sense of space—always a gamble in a style of music defined by relentless noise. “The Devil You Know” is the most obvious in this respect: the two-measure-long riff is followed by two measures of silence, as if the band had stopped to listen to their own echo. With each break the sense of expectation grows; the breaks changes the way we hear the verse when the spaces have been filled and the song settles into a groove. This use of silence in the intro is mirrored later by the way the riff disappears at the choruses, then edges its way in at the ends of the choruses, and then finally overwhelms them, before a coda of (almost) fully-silent breaks in the “false endings” outro. “Devil” isn’t the only song that uses silence to build and release tension and to create space and contrast. There are well-placed (if briefer) pauses before the choruses of “Fight ‘Em,” dividing the pre-chorus football-squad riot vocals from the rise-up singalong that follows; the bridges of “Earth is on Hell,” “I’m Alive,” and “In the End” use pauses and silence to similar effect. I wonder if it’s this sense of space that allows Charlie Benante, always ranked among the genre’s top  drummers, to shine even more than usual, from the opening blast-beat of “Earth is on Hell,” through the tight, straightahead groove of “Devil,” all the way to the brick-throwing storm at the end of “Revolution Screams.”

     Which brings me, somehow, to “Fight ‘Em Til You Can’t.” It’s not just the soundtrack for a zombie movie-to-be (a few people have already made zombie-killing videos for the song; rhythm guitarist and founding member Scott Ian has posted one of them on his Facebook page). It’s also the Rocky theme of the band’s comeback … though the title’s reference to defeat suggests, once again, a more mature perspective. On the CD gatefold, together with all those photoshopped action-shots of the band in mid-shout or mid-leap, there is a cartoon (of course!) of the bandmembers fighting zombies. It takes a moment to notice that the zombies are actually deathly versions of themselves—that is, Scott Ian fights a skull-Ian, Frank Bello a decomposing Bello, and so on. A loaded image for sure, and one that speaks very much to the themes of this post. Is it the dark side of themselves the band is fighting, a spiritual message to accompany the praying hands on the cover? Is it the Anthrax of middle age, fighting back the image of their own death, recognizing that life is short, health not a given, time precious? Or is it not the future, but the past, the 1987 that refuses to die, that the band cannot quite manage to shoot in the head, even as they try to make themselves anew?

Like the cartoon, both the beauty and the problem of “Fight ‘Em” is that it can be taken so many different ways. Who are the zombies? Well, that’s just it: we don’t know. But it doesn’t matter—just fight ‘em. That’s the key; the vaguer the signifier, the more people who can sing along. The zombies are your parents, your teachers, the bully down the street, your two-year-old, your mother-in-law, the cops, the criminals, the government, the corporation, the terrorists, The Man. This is the strength and weakness of the comic-book approach, at once clear-sighted and myopic, deeply felt and shallowly conceived. The two lyrical faces of Anthrax have always posed this problem: they shift so easily between comic strip and protest that the one tends to bleed into the other: Marx (or at least Mill) is neutered by Judge Dredd; Reagan is still and always the Hollywood cowboy, just wearing a black hat instead of a white one; Indians become Injuns. Of course, it was just this ease at crossing over that made a peacenik protest song like “One World” palatable to the metal crowd. But at least there, when they sang “America, stop singing hail to the chief/ Instead of thinking SDI he should be thinking of peace” back in ‘87, their target was clear. Worship Music’s target, if it has one, is muddled. The lyrics are chock full of lines suggesting something more radical than the safely liberal Anthrax of the late ‘80s: “If you look for a monster you’ll find one”; “Find the monster, start the war”; “Heaven lives in every gun”; “One nation under me”; etc. It seems to be an album that celebrates the “beautiful violence” of revolution (cf. the major key chorus of “Revolution Screams”); we’re just not sure whose revolution it is—whose empire is falling, for what cause. All that matters is action: you have your back to the wall. Are you ready to fight? That’s cartoon politics: whatever you’re saying, just make sure you say it emphatically. Maybe that’s the problem of revolution itself.

Then again, this sort of ambiguity has always been part and parcel of metal, a genre perennially caught between fetishizing the power of authority and the glamour of rebellion. Hence the love for the righteous outlaw: Judge Dredd, Dirty Harry, The Gunslinger on “Lone Justice.” To be punk because it’s the only way to be straight; to choose, with Huck Finn, to go to hell; to embrace the noble monster and the outlaw with the heart of gold—these are the myths of America as much as metal. It’s just these tensions that make the music so fascinating, and certainly the reason it has lasted: metal might have swallowed punk’s rage, but it was never able to stomach its nihilism.

All this leaves me wondering where Anthrax’s politics are today.‡‡ Honestly, though, I’m not wondering too hard. There’s more than a little Phil Ochs in me (“I’d rather listen to a good song on the side of segregation than a bad song on the side of integration”). And so, with Worship Music, I’m content to worship, to marvel at the musical achievement, at the unlikely and contradictory rebirth of one of the better metal bands on the planet. On “The Giant,” they sing, “Drowning in an ocean to find my soul.” And so they have—not drowned (note the gerund), but dipped deep into the water to take hold of an image that has been rotting since State of Euphoria—their image, the genre’s image—wrestled with it, and come back with something worthy of the fight. It’s not an about-face, or a pastiche, or a nostalgia trip. It’s an unapologetic affirmation of who they are: melodic, comic, hopeful, and heavy as hell. And if I’ve been happy to point the finger at Anthrax for mercy-killing thrash, I’m more than happy to credit them for ushering in a new, tradition-savvy, roots-conscious way forward. I just wonder if there are any new bands out there with the ears to listen.


* For a good discussion of homophobia in metal, see Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City (Scribner, 2001), pages 79-81. For a more theoretical take on the same, see Robert Walser’s Running With the Devil. (You find the pages; it’s got an index.)

** Scott Ian, who has always been quite the genre spokesman, seems fully aware of thrash’s own fashion-consciousness, at least in hindsight. In his liner notes to the remastered Megadeth debut Killing Is My Business … and Business is Good, he describes the mid-‘80s metal underground, with a nostalgic sigh, as a time of “long hair, tight jeans, and big sneakers.” (That’s actually a paraphrase from memory; I don’t own the disc.)

*** By 1990 the strictures on what thrash bands could cover had begun to loosen, and anyway, those bands would soon have the choice of clinging to the life rafts of hip hop and grunge, or going (back) under. (Megadeth’s wonderfully vulgar “These Boots” cover (1985) isn’t really an exception.) Still, as late as 1994 Pantera was putting a ridiculous disclaimer next to their cover of “Planet Caravan,” assuring fans (probably still rending their garments over the Black album) that they were not “selling out” … by covering Black Sabbath!? Today it’s almost de rigeur to metalize something non-metal: Christmas songs, jazz standards, etc.

‡ Belladonna actually dedicated “I Am The Law” to the NYPD. (In fact, on my way in I had to wait for a convoy of beefy middle-aged guys holding printout tickets, one of whom I could swear was wearing a blue NYPD jacket.) All I could think was that it was a little tacky to dedicate a song to the NYPD only a week or so after officers had chased 18-year old Ramarley Graham into his home and shot him in his bathroom. I know, I know: a few bad apples. But then there’s the ticket-fixing, the spying on Muslims, the pepper-spraying of OWS protestors, Sean Bell … I’m still waiting for someone to convince me the barrel’s not spoiled. Is this the band that dared cross over back in ’87, and toured with Public Enemy in ’91? Does Chuck D still have a radio show? Chuck, can you hear me? Maybe it’s time to give Scottie a call and have a little on-air heart-to-heart.

‡‡ The one concrete reference I could find to activism on Worship Music appears on Scott Ian’s thank-you list: a call to support the PPA, Poker Players of America. The organization is apparently in a tizz about legal restrictions to online gaming. On the other hand, when I consider Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine’s recent endorsement of Rick Santorum, maybe I should be thankful for silence … those beautiful breaks again. Compared to Santorum, the PMRC—Mustaine’s favorite anti-censorship piñata—looks like a branch of the ACLU. And then I can’t help but remember Mustaine worked on MTV’s Rock the Vote drive back when he was still a junkie. (N.B.: When I lived in Utah, the state government listed “interest in politics” as one of ten warning signs your child might have a drug habit.)

Reign in Blood at 25

Twenty-five years ago this month, Slayer unleashed Reign in Blood, and the world became a slightly more evil place. The earth has spun a little differently on its axis ever since, as geologists can measure whenever a mega-dam is built: an infinitesimally-increased tilt toward the dark side.

On the night of October 7, 1986—the night Reign in Blood appeared—the sky was the color of tar. Holy men all over the world were racked by lascivious dreams. On October 8, on playgrounds everywhere, little girls’ heads spun around with a watch-winding sound, to the amazement of their little friends, and there was an epidemic of pea soup spit up on school lunch tables, though it was not on the menu of the day. Dead things of unknown species washed up on Pacific shores from Japan to Chile, and in California, flaming birds fell out of the sky like flapping meteors.

Twenty-five years ago Slayer unleashed Reign in Blood upon the world, and the moon had never seemed quite so large, or so yellow, or so beautiful; you felt its tug the way the tide does, as if it were your estranged home. You heard the laughter of bats, the songs of wolves, and felt an almost irresistible impulse to run.

Twenty-five years ago, the first time you heard Reign in Blood, that nasty little wish you’d been harboring for weeks, for months, for years, suddenly muscled its way up to the front of your brain, like some forgotten passenger sleeping in the shadows by the restroom at the back of an otherwise-empty bus, who awakes with an inexplicable, murderous thirst for vengeance. He clambers his way forward by the cushioned headrests; you watch him coming in the big rearview mirror, and think: Well, yes; why not? There are knives in the kitchen, in the drawer beside the sink; there are matches in the cupboard in the hall.

When you play Reign in Blood this evening, as you must in celebration of Samhain—if, that is, you wish to curry favor with the man downstairs—make sure the needle is sharp. Prick your finger with it if you’re unsure. Have a towel ready to mop the blood off the platter and stylus when the album is over. And lean close to the turntable while the record is spinning—not to the speakers, but to the actual puckered grooves in the vinyl. You just might hear the cries of lost souls rising from those freshly-opened wounds.

Happy Hallowe’en.