Saturday, July 12, 2008

My Metal Testimony

One of the things I said in my last post that I was going to write about was heavy metal, and, dammit, I meant what I said. This will be the first of many posts about heavy metal, but I want everyone to know where I've been (musically speaking), where I am, and where I'm going.

I used to gig at a Methodist church in Lexington, where I experienced something that, being raised Catholic, was wholly unfamiliar to me: the "testimony". For the uninitiated, this is, in essence, a speech given by a member of the congregation that discusses their life, the challenges they have faced, and their realization/affirmation of their faith. Well, my faith is metal, and this is my testimony.

I've experienced this curious teleological regression of musical taste over the past few years. I started college with the tastes of a fairly typical college-age intellectual. Actually, this is probably inaccurate. I started college listening to equal parts emo and neo-soul (a cursory glance at now-defunct Xanga from 2004 lists Erykah Badu, Van Hunt, and Brand New carrying equal weight), and, had it not been for a single momentous album purchase, would have probably continued to dig into aimless genre-dabbling well into my early twenties until I found myself buried underneath the indignant weight of a social networking profile laden with disparate and uninteresting albums, or, even worse, terrible pop-punk schlock like The Early November (who I actually saw live, embarrassingly enough).

Anyway, the point of the previous (seemingly interminable) sentence was to introduce the album that changed my life. Now, usually, when people talk about watershed albums in their lives, they talk about an album that saved them from a life of despair or opened up a whole new realm of spiritual beauty or really, REALLY sounded cool when they dropped acid (Pink Floyd fans, I'm looking at YOU, you unwashed and tasteless sons of bitches). This was not the case with me. The album in question was Mastodon's Leviathan, and the reason it changed my life was because it simply kicked more ass than any album I had ever heard. I bought the album based on the fact that pretty much every online music publication said something to the effect of "metal is for losers but not this album go buy it". However, my interest in Mastodon had less to do with Pitchfork's hyper-intellectual tastemakers and more to do with the fact that I am, at my core, a huge geek, and I thought that a concept album about Moby Dick, replete with a thrashing whale on the cover, was about the most kickass thing ever.

And guess what? I was right. I bought The Mars Volta's Frances The Mute and Leviathan on the same day, and took them home to my dorm room, where I immediately cued up the former. Now, let's not make any mistake here: Frances The Mute is a hard-rocking sonofabitch, and it's a great album, but, like everything else the Mars Volta does, when it hits song number four or so, it gets pretty esoteric and you have to be either extremely patient or extremely stoned to catch the rest of the kickass moments on the album. So, being neither, I decided to give Mastodon a try.

I will tell you this, loyal readers: if you have never heard "Blood And Thunder" before, and you have spent most of your last four years listening to Dashboard Confessional and his ilk, and then you hear Brann Dailor's opening fill and the line "I THINK THAT SOMEONE IS TRYING TO KILL ME" screamed at the top of Troy Sanders' lungs, it is like being revived with a hospital crash cart. Leviathan is the first album that I can remember buying and listening to all the way through on the first listen, absolutely transfixed. Leviathan made my world make sense. It was like I was alive for the first time, and my world was absolutely electric.

And then, I forgot about it. Well, that's not exactly true. "Blood And Thunder" made a regular appearance on my iPod that summer as preshow "Hype Music", but it was sandwiched between "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails (unbelievably, this got me hyped up), a couple of DKM songs, and "Helena" by My Chemical Romance (hey, we all make mistakes. And "The Black Parade" is the best album Queen never wrote, and if you think you're too cool for Queen, then FUCK YOU). Other than this, and an occasional hankering to suss out one or two of the absolutely soul-destroying riffs on Leviathan, I mostly shelved the album. It was a dark and trying time.

Fast forward to the beginning of my sophomore year of college: bored with the same old music I had been listening to for a couple of years, I asked my friend Brian to burn me a couple of albums. The albums I got were "All's Well That Ends Well" by scenecore favorites Chiodos (OK, their fans are lame, and Craig Owens is a huge tool, but this album remains a guilty pleasure of mine) and "Gutter Phenomenon" by Every Time I Die. Every Time I Die were the second band to change my life.

There's not much to Every Time I Die: Basically, it's five guys from Buffalo trying to make the music a bar fight would make. Every song, every riff, every note, is stripped lean and turned up as loud as it will go. There aren't soft, tender moments on "Gutter Phenomenon". There's no ambient sonic exploration or acoustic meanderings. You know why? Because no one gets drunk and starts a fight while listening to Explosions in The Sky, that's why.

I stress the import of Every Time I Die because they played in Louisville soon after I got "Gutter Phenomenon", and, uninitiated and unaware, I went to my first metal show (partly because hometown favorites Haste The Day were opening). The thrilling experience of live metal cannot be truly done justice in writing, and, at the least, merits its own post (probably its own book, but who has the time?), but suffice it to say that it was enough to hook me into dragging two similarly minded friends to go see Mastodon that next month.

Remember when I said that I experienced a regression in musical taste? I wasn't always an ignorant third-wave emo twat. When I was in middle school, I LOVED thrash metal. Sure, I listened to nu-metal; we all did, and it was embarrassing, and we'd all love to forget that it happened, but that wasn't really my scene. What I loved, in those savage days before the Internet made instant gratification reality, was seeking out late-80's American Thrash: Megadeth, Metallica, Armored Saint, Anthrax, Lizzie Borden, et al. I was young, and had no idea that mail-order existed, and so, for me, every album that I longed after and then found was a gold nugget, an exciting treasure that I didn't have to share with anyone because, honestly, who gave a shit about OLD metal when a) NU metal was exploding, and b) puberty was making a savagely exaggerated mockery of our most embarrassing physical characteristics?

So, instead of bothering to learn appropriate social interaction, I turned into the world's youngest vinyl prick. And, when I finally got a girlfriend in high school (and was subsequently dumped), who was there to pick me up and cry with me but Chris Carraba and his ilk? I shelved my copy of "Rust In Peace" and didn't look back.

That is, until I saw Mastodon live. On the way home, sitting in near-catatonic amazement at what I had just seen, I put on my copy of Danzig II, and I realized that it rocked too. I found my copies of Ride The Lightning and Master of Puppets, and, guess what? They rocked. Rust In Peace? Duh. Rocked.

I realized that all the time where I had been lost in a sea of shifting musical sands, I was really just trying to come to grips with who I had been all along: a geeky metalhead. I was tired of liking bands for status, or for credibility, or because I felt I was supposed to. I liked Mastodon, and I didn't care who else liked them.

So this takes me to where I am today. After months of scouring the Internet, I finally found a CD copy of Pig Destroyer's first release; I have no less than three copies of this month's Relapse Records Mail-Order catalog (the one that ships with every vinyl order you make), and I'm listening to Electric Wizard while I type this. I'm very much still the same dork I was in the sixth grade: I get the same thrill from finding an out-of-print Agoraphobic Nosebleed split as I did from the Armored Saint album I found at a used record store when I was twelve.

But it's not about the collecting; I mean, that's a blast, but what it's still about is the music. Ultimately, metal makes something inside me come alive; like a sixth sense that only feels when I'm listening to metal. Why do I love metal? I love it because it can be so many things, but, no matter what, from Doom to Death to Grind to Sludge to Thrash to PowerViolence to whatever the hell genre you can think of, you can still bang your head to it. Let's face it; a whole hell of a lot of indie rock doesn't rock anymore, and the entire movement (if you can categorize the various fragments of indie rock as a singular movement) seems to be headed towards this over-orchestrated, lo-fi, chamber/twee/cutesy-pop bullshit that is so far away from rock and roll that the only people who could possibly love it are boring hipster pricks.

The most ludicrous argument against metal that I have ever heard is the argument that it is bloated and pretentious. This argument is usually leveled by the same hipster trash that stand, arms crossed, in front of you at every show you have ever gone to that is not a metal show. I don't know how this argument got started, but it is, for my money, the most hypocritical argument I have ever heard. What's pretentious about strapping on a gauntlet made of nails and singing about killer robots and broadswords? The very thing that I love about metal is that the pass-the-mic enthusiasm of hardcore has filtered down to the underground metal community; the unabashed, exuberant energy of playing and enjoying music is still alive and well in metal. After all, what's so fun about standing stock still and watching some prickly third-rate Nick Drake play a shitty sounding student glockenspiel while fifty other people make snarky comments about the jeans he's wearing? The whole point of rock and roll is to make you dance. If you think at the same time, that's great! If you can listen and think and analyze and dance? Even better! But, the bottom line for me is this: I love metal because it reflects the same headstrong enthusiasm that I find myself exhibiting for everything I love, from zombie movies to White Castle to kayaking. Metal is the TRUE geek rock, because it's not afraid to be excited about itself. What more is geekery than being excited about the things you love? I'm excited about metal, and I don't care who knows it.

Also, just so we're clear, this Pig Destroyer album is AWESOME.

1 comment:

Maddy said...

Band of Goddamn Horses.

I read all of this post for a second time, and you're pretty good at proselytizing. You might want to re-consider careers.

Also, metal guessing games.