© Mike Yost
© Mike Yost
“Why do you have to listen to it loudly?” my partner yelled, looking at me from the passenger seat, his face twisted into a tight knot. I didn’t respond right away as the speakers in my truck pummeled out some random metal lunacy. “I can’t hear myself think!” he pleaded.
“That’s the point!” I yelled back with a smile. He didn’t he return the grin. I then had to choose between turning the music down or sleeping in my truck. It’s a good thing I keep a pillow in the cab.
But that really is the point. Sometimes I just want to shut my mind off, and drinking a bottle of whiskey every day isn’t really an option (though I sometimes wish it were).
It’s metal that keeps me (somewhat) sane. It certainly keeps me from lighting the mall on fire, laughing manically while I pour kerosene on my head in front of a burning Abercrombie & Fitch store surrounded by screaming shoppers choking on smoke and the smell of burnt flesh.
And when I worked customer service to put myself through college, metal kept me from bringing an axe to work and lopping off the heads of all those condescending customers—laughing manically while I did it, of course.
Metal is a bastion when you lose your job and find yourself selling your plasma to buy groceries. It’s the grotto you climb into when you discover your girlfriend/boyfriend moved out, taking the computer and the dog. Metal is what you listen to right before every family christmas dinner.
It’s something my partner (who listens to nothing but jazz and classical music) will never get. Which is fine, as long as I keep a pillow in my truck.
And that’s not to say all metal is just one-dimensional pulp vomited into your ears to drown out your own depressing, strangling thoughts. On the contrary, engaging lyrics can rip you out of your own stolid perspective. Just read the lyrics to almost any Agalloch song. And the samples in “Faustian Echoes” are wonderfully though provoking.
Faust: “So, still I seek the force, the reason governing life’s flow and not just its external show.”
Mephistopheles: “The governing force? The reason? Some things cannot be known. They are beyond your reach even when shown.”
Faust: “Why should that be so?”
Mephistopheles: “They lie outside the boundaries that words can address, and man can only grasp those thoughts which language can express.”
Faust: “What? Do you mean that words are greater yet than man?”
Mephistopheles: “Indeed they are.”
Faust: “Then what of longing? Affection? Pain or grief? I can’t describe these, yet I know they are in my breast. What are they?”
Mephistopheles: “Without substance, as mist is.”
Faust: “In that case man is only air as well!”
Metal isn’t afraid to claw away at that comfortable social veneer most people saturate themselves in—to reveal the horror of an unexamined life.
So, here are a few of my favorite metal songs that explore this duality. They run the gamut from poetic music inspired by John Milton to raw animosity. Listen as loud as possible.
Dying Fetus “Second Skin” [intelligent growls]
“Gracious second skin
Courteous facade accepted
The cultured do not harm
Fitting in amongst the sheeple”
Hevein “Last Drop of Innocence” [the death of childhood with a cello and a violin]
Draconian “Expostulation / Heaven Laid in Tears” [Paradise Lost as metal]
Agalloch “Not Unlike the Waves” [astronomy as metal]
TV Commercial: “If you’re thirsty, try (insert shitty sugary sports drink here) to quench that epic thirst!”
Movie Review: “Bruce Willis stood in front of the White House in a torn, bloody t-shirt while firing machine guns and bazookas in slow motion with explosions raining down all around him as terrorists were being blown away by the dozens. It was fucking epic!”
A Friend: “So then, we go to (his or her) place and start having sex on the kitchen counter, and (he or she) pulls out this epic glass dildo from the cupboard!”
As Islander has lamented in previous posts, the word epic has proliferated metal blogs to the point that its overuse has the opposite effect. Epic now equals insipid. Superficial. Commonplace. I become very skeptical about an album when I see it in a review. I can’t help but think it’s being used to compensate for music that’s just plain bad. Or maybe the author of the review was just too tired after a long day at work and passed out at the desk looking for a thesaurus. (I’ve been there.)
This is unfortunate. Because there are a few bands out there who are epic. There are a few albums that are epic. Even a few songs.
The first time I listened to the song Crimson by Edge of Sanity, epic was the first word that came to mind. Holy fucking shit! were the next three words that came to mind. When the song ended, I just came.
To begin, there are some talented fucking musicians at the helm: Dan Swanö and Mikael Åkerfeldt. Those names alone should give you a raging boner, and an idea of the professionalism and epic talent behind the music.
Shit. I used the e-word. Awesome talent? No. Massive talent? Meh. That works. I’m tired. Next paragraph.
Crimson is forty minutes long. A one-song album. When any song runs longer than the average television show, a number of assumptions might be made: The song contains tasteless, long-winded solos that are less about art and expression and more about the musicians showing off. The riffs become mind-numbingly repetitive. There are probably large sections of creepy ambient noise and samples from bad horror movies linking transitions in the song to add to its length.
Crimson avoids such pitfalls, keeping the listener engaged form the beginning, punching you in the throat right at the start. A nice pace is established as the song vacillates between well-placed clean vocals and growls. The song develops not unlike a caterpillar morphing into a beautiful butterfly—an evil fucking butterfly that will chew out your eyes as you scream helplessly, your muscles paralyzed from the venom which digests your flesh just before its slurped up by the insect.
Anyway, as you listen to the song, you get the sense that you’re part of some epi – . . . part of some legendary struggle. Maybe fighting alongside Ghangis Kahn’s army as you clash with the soldiers of Vlad the Impaler in a macabre orgy of death to determine the fate of all mankind.
Which isn’t too far from the truth. Crimson is a concept album, the lyrics outlining the narrative of a future kingdom in which the human race is fading away. Bearing a child has, for some unknown reason, become impossible. The king of this vanishing empire dies. Then there’s a successor. The successor is challenged. Battles. Bloodshed. Betrayals. A single miracle child. Malevolent deities drinking the blood of men. Reminds me of a Greek tragedy. Only with really loud guitars and very angry actors growling out their lines.
There’s even a section where the dead king returns as a ghost urging his dejected soldiers to fight on, Dan’s voice layered in this ethereal reverb that punctuates the scene nicely.
Even the artwork on the cover of Crimson is epi—. . . remarkable. Duncan C. Storr draws a surreal, psychedelic chamber of stasis pods that contain the leaders of the kingdom. They have been frozen until a resolution to the impending doom can be found.
Doom. Almost as bad as the word epic. How about the word calamity? Impending calamity. That works. Next paragraph.
It’s important to note that Crimson was recorded in 1996. This was before the popularity of “progressive” metal was as it is today. Take just about any current band that combines growls with clean vocals and you can hear the similarities.
Like any good story, the song unfolds naturally like acts in a play. By the time it comes to an end, the body count is enormous. The future kingdom lies in ruins. But it has been saved by a brave few . . . sort of. I won’t spoil the ending. Just know that your brain will be mush from banging your head so hard for so long.
There is art. And there is exceptional art. Crimson certainly falls in the latter category. (Its sequel, Crimson II, is an excellent follow up, but lacks the authority of its predecessor). So, I argue that Crimson reclaims the power and substance behind the word epic. Conquers it, really. Dismembers the word and bashes your skull in with the bloody limbs—and it does this for forty epic minutes.
Note: The word epic is used fourteen times in this review. The irony is palpable.
It was just after 5pm, and I was pacing back and forth in my apartment, trying to watch a movie. The concert didn’t start until 8pm, and I was attempting to exercise some patience. Then I thought to myself: “Fuck patience. And fuck exercise, too!” I grabbed my ticket, some cash for swag, and my ID. I ran out the door, jogging (not walking) towards the theater where Agalloch was going to play.
Normally I wouldn’t stand in line for two-and-a-half hours to see a concert. Now days I’m more content to hang back and enjoy the music with a cold beer in my hand. But Agalloch isn’t just some nominal band rolling through town, and this wasn’t going to be just another show.
The concert was at Denver’s Bluebird Theater. An official historical landmark, the brick building is one year shy of being a century old. It was once a movie house, and its maximum capacity is only 500. This creates an intimate atmosphere between the crowd and the band. Best of all, it’s only a fifteen minute walk from my apartment.
There were only a few people at the door when I arrived. We chatted about metal, memorable concerts (mine was Depeche Mode at Red Rocks), and how this was the first time any of us were going to see Agalloch live. Soon I saw Aesop Dekker and Don Anderson walk out the front, lighting up cigarettes, though they kept their distance from the growing line of fans.
The doors opened at 7pm, and I made my way to the front of the theater. I snapped a few pictures of the interior architecture: Tall marble columns and long, flowing crimson curtains along the walls. Between the columns were bowl-shaped light fixtures with intricate designs carved into their surfaces. Mounted to the front of each fixture was what looked like a demon mask—white faces with malevolent smiles and black holes for eyes. Something a shaman would wear from some ancient, forgotten civilization to frighten off disease.
The band Velnias from Boulder, Colorado took to the stage first. They reminded me of Morgion, with slow, doomish tempos building and growing until a fortification of frenzied black sound came crashing down on our headbanging heads, pulverizing the skulls of the hapless crowd with primal screams, explosive riffs and devastating drum beats.
Taurus followed, slowing things down with muddy, morose guitar playing. Guttural screams pushed against the walls from the throat of the female lead singer, punctuated with frantic, feral drum fills. I feared the drummer’s body would fly apart as she played, her performance reminding me of Animal from the Muppets (which is a huge fucking complement).
Finally it was time. Smoke and darkness rolled onto the stage as John Haughm came out holding a single candle. The entire theater grew quiet, and I swear those pagan masks turned their faces toward the front as Haughm lit the signature incense that starts each show, the soft light from the candle illuminating his face with a soft orange glow.
The aroma filled the air: rustic, saccharine, earthy. Soon the rest of the band members donned their gear, and the opening riff to “Limbs” spilled out of the large speakers.
Being a former drummer, I watched Dekker closely. His performance was flawless and intimidating. Though he was tucked away in the back of the stage, his volatile drumming carried through the venue, threatening to knock over those marble columns.
They played their latest song, “Faustian Echoes,” and the horde became unglued, starting a short-lived mosh pit before the song slowed. You’d swear Agalloch sold their own souls to Mephistopheles to play so brutally and beautifully at the same time.
One of my favorites followed, “Bloodbirds.” That eerie lead guitar winding its way through the percussion and bass as Haughm screamed into the microphone, “the god of man is a failure!”
To everyone’s elation, Agalloch played several pieces from Pale Folklore and The Mantle. When “In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion” filled the auditorium, I tried to film the performance with my phone. But at around the 11:30 mark, the band members become blurred images in the clip as I slammed my head forward.
And I swear those pagan masks on the walls were doing the same.
Agalloch has a reputation for putting on a memorable show, and their first concert in Denver was no exception–superlative, vicious, august.
When it came to an end, the multitude screamed for an encore, but the lights stayed on. I blame the high altitude with its thin air, because the crowed was ravenous for more. We would have stayed for another set. Two sets. The rest of the fucking week.
Before I left The Bluebird, with ears ringing, I bought a t-shirt with the lyrics to “Black Lake Nidstag” printed on the back. Then I bought a second t-shirt referencing “Faustian Echoes.” Then an Agalloch patch.
Then I ran out of the theater before I emptied out my bank account paying homage to these pagan metal deities who descended upon the mile-high city and were made flesh, gracing for one night a hand-full of fanatical Coloradans with their Cthulhu-like providence.
It was a small music store tucked into the side of an outdoor malljust south of Hill Air Force Base, Utah. I was flipping through a stack of used CDs (remember CDs?) and found this subtle yet intriguing album cover. It had a hand-drawn picture of a solar eclipse with a diagram of our solar system labeled in Latin.
I sat on a small stool near the cashier, sticking the disk into their CD player. I pulled the headphones over my head and pushed play. A sense of gloom coiled itself tightly around my body, and I couldn’t help but smile.
Listening to Morgion’s Solinari is a bit like being dragged slowly out of a bog just before you’re pulled under. As you lay on the ground gasping for air, your faceless rescuer comforts you withsluggish tempos, mournful whispers and haunting keys.
Then the tempo quickens. Guitars grow loud and angry. The whispers mutate into indignant growls. You watch helplessly as your rescuer picks up a large rock with both hands. The music surges to its apex, and the rock comes crashing down on your chest over and over until it breaks through your ribcage.
The music then subsides. Acoustic guitars fill the void, and your rescuer tosses your broken body back into the bog, watching silently as it sinks beneath the surface.
It was the first time I heard doom/death metal. I found a bastion. A medium to purge the past.
Almost ten years earlier I stood next to my older brother in our backyard. The sun was sitting comfortably in a naked sky. Not a cloud to be seen. The wind blew hard as my mom dug a small hole. My brother was visibly annoyed, but he knew better than to say anything.
She gathered all of my brother’s cassette tapes into a pile. (Remember tapes?) Then my mom set them in the pit, coated them with lighter fluid and lit a match. As the music of Def Leppard, Huey Lewis, and a smattering of 80’s hair bands melted beneath dancing flames, my mom told us how she was clearing the house of demons, something her church told her she had an obligation to God to do.
I was young, incredibly naive, and eager for my mom’s approval. I became convinced Satan was ensconced in secular music and vowed never to listen to it—not even the radio.
But the metal bug had already hatched in my brain and was eating its way through my temporal lobe, laying eggs along the way.
I started listening to Christian metal bands. To my surprise, my mom didn’t care (as long as it was Christian music). But the teachers at the religious school I attended told me electric guitars were instruments of the Devil—that I should burn my albums. I went out and bought more.
Then I graduated high school and joined the Air Force—escaping home and the church. I gave away all my Christian CDs, looking for something which reflected my anger at a church telling mothers to burn their kids’ music. My frustration at having to remain in the closet because of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. My despondency that I was stupid enough to believe Beelzebub lived inside a compact disk packed with digital data.
When I listened to Morgion for the first time, I found salvation in the very music I was taught would damn me forever to perdition.
I went back to that store knowing next-to-nothing about the metal. But those eggs embedded in my brain began to hatch. Emperor’s IX Equilibrium: A wall of swinging sledgehammers that pulverizes your bones into a fine powder (used by Ihsahn to season his meals). Daemonarch’s Hermeticum: Infectious riffs and guitar solos that jab at your ears just before Fernando Ribeiro’s vocals claw your face from your skull.
I couldn’t listen to those albums enough. Some of the airmen I worked with cringed when I played them in the shop. One guy refused to carpool with me after Morgion’s “Nightfall Infernal” bellowed out of my truck’s speakers at top volume.
My brain is now a festering, writhing swarm of metal. A pulsating hive spawned by an innocuous death/doom metal album sitting in a small music store in Utah.
Check out the song below. Sinking slowly into a bog with a large hole in your chest never felt so fucking great.
Mastodon finishes shredding the frenzied crowd. The drummer tosses his sticks into the throng. The lights go up.
It’s between sets, so I sit with my back against a metal barrier that separates me from the larger crowd below. I shove in a pair of earbuds, turning up “Black Rose Immortal.” A twenty-minute Opeth piece of metal magnificence and mayhem that chokes out the white noise of conversations around me.
There’s something about heavy metal that’s primal. Cathartic. A juxtaposition of raw, exposed animosity eviscerated and dismembered by beauty herself, left on the dusty ground in a pool of blood to die—with a smile.
The lights drop, and I jump to my feet. I yank out the earbuds. The crowd stirs. The only illumination comes from the Fillmore Theater chandeliers hanging from the ceiling—glowing purple. Movement on the stage. The crowd starts yelling in anticipation. I join in. Blue lights grow bright to illuminate that signature O. Mikael Akerfeldt walks onto the stage. Metal ensues.
Opeth starts with their progressive rock from Heritage, Akerfeldt singing God is Dead!—the chorus from “The Devil’s Orchard.” Between songs, Akerfeldt comments that he loves Denver because the thin air makes him feel drunk without having a single beer. Someone from the crowd yells, play some fucking metal! “Patience,” Akerfeldt replies. “Or I’ll play the song ‘Patience.’”
Soon we are all rewarded for our patience, and the intro to “Demon of the Fall” begins. Angry growling death metal ensues.
Slamming my head forward with everyone else, punching the air above me with the traditional devil horns, I realize there’s another important characteristic to metal—solidarity.
Metal is about getting lost in the futile anger, disappointment and frustration of life, drowning out your problems for three hours. Finding absolution, and knowing it’s only temporary. Then slamming your head even harder, growling with everyone around you to each line of the song as your throat blisters and you start to gargle on your own blood.
Young or old. Bald or hair hanging below your ass. Straight or gay. During a metal concert, these trite distinctions just don’t matter.
Outside of a concert, when people find out I’m gay, they usually respond with, “you don’t act like it.”
Which is true: I don’t watch musicals. I loathe the music of Lady Gaga. I was dragged into a Banana Republic once. I wanted to light the entire building on fire.
I do own about a hundred band t-shirts—from Dead Can Dance to Agalloch to Velvet Acid Christ to Opeth. I drive a Dodge Ram (the lesbo-mobile, it’s been fondly called). I’m not offended (nor do I care) when someone around me uses the word gay to describe something stupid. And I fucking love metal.
Most of the music I hear in gay bars and on the radio lacks depth. Feels synthesized and forced. The songs have shitty lyrics. In a word—kitsch.
Nietzsche wrote that art made for the masses is valueless. Conversely, he added, music made for the sake of making music “at every moment make[s] life worth living at all, and prompt[s] the desire to live in order to experience the next moment.”
The concert ends with “The Grand Conjuration.” Opeth takes a few bows before leaving the stage. My shirt is plastered to my back with sweat. A woman I’ve never met before smiles, “that was fucking awesome!” Adrenaline still saturating my veins, I can barely stand still as I wait in line to buy (yet another) t-shirt. A guy in his fifties with a big, gray bushy beard and a tie-dye t-shirt stands next to me. Words like concert, kick-ass, epic, intense, and fucking are being thrown around—though not in that order.
And this moment is about sharing the experience of being pummeled by head-stomping riffs, double bass fills, and Akerfeldt’s demon-like growls. It’s about no one giving a shit I’m gay.
The sidewalk carries me away. Denver’s Fillmore Theater is swallowed up behind me. The traffic on Colfax Avenue saturates my senses.
I stick the earbuds back in. Take my time as I walk back to my truck, finishing “Black Rose Immortal.” Those pesky problems I forgot about are still lurking at the periphery, waiting patiently to rise blindingly with the sun.
But the rest of the night belongs to the fans. This moment belongs to metal.