20 December 2016

The Year In Metal

ENGAGE HEAVY METAL RANTING
Scroll to the metal dog to skip to the music.

It's been one hell of a year. A lot of crappy things have happened: friends and family have passed on; disasters and war have ravaged the world; the U.K. vacated the European Union; the U.S. endured one of the most exhausting election cycles in remembrance. But it was an excellent year in many respects. I published two books, got to enjoy the true pleasure of raising my children, made a lot of friends, spent time with my wife, even made it out to GenCon, among many other exciting and life-giving things. I also listened to a whole lot of heavy metal.

I've always listened to metal (at least since middle school, depending on how generous I can be with my definition of heavy metal), but my interest waxed and waned. The last few years have been pretty consistent in their laze: I'll find a new band or two a year, buy an album or two, and mostly stick to the stuff I have listened to since the early 2000s. Specifically, technical death metal and Slayer. The engines revved a bit when the "new wave" of thrash struck, and I began gobbling up all the bands rehashing the early '80s sound. But that ship flew apart as quick as it came, with only a few bands (Havok, Gama Bomb) sticking it out these days.


Then a series of events led me to Darkthrone and, more importantly, Fenriz. Darkthrone is my new Slayer, and what Slayer was for me was the bedrock from which all other metal sprang. Slayer has sucked in the last...decade or two, producing a few good songs and no solid albums, and so a void was there to be filled. I so identify with the Darkthrone sound and, subsequently, the tastes of Ted and Fenriz. I can count on one hand the number of tracks I've disliked on the 30 or so editions of Fenriz's radio show. That's saying a lot, considering the fact his choices range from '70s inspired rock to abyssic death metal.

It's that very show that's led me down a mind-filling path of metal consumption. Most nights I spend at least 20-30 minutes listening to bands I've discovered on BandCamp and old bands I am rediscovering. The locators are typically metal news sites, Radio Fenriz, or the "Band of the Week" Facebook feed he shares with Arjan de Vries. I've gone from old school heavy metal and black metal bands to punk to contemporary doom metal. My tastes have expanded, even encompassing a slight approval for certain progressive bands (I typically gag at the stench of "prog") and post- whatever. In spite my disciplined listening, I'd say I've probably listened to maybe 10% of the decent-to-great metal albums that have come out this year. Sifting through the many "Best of" lists to pop up in the last month, I'd say the consensus is that the number of bands out there that can at least sensibly blip on the radar of metal is completely overwhelming. And I love it!


Besides the pleasing soundscape of most heavy metal, I'm intrigued by it as a subculture. It's dark, often evil (aesthetically or superficially, as opposed to philosophically), putting a mirror to the more upsetting parts of life on this planet. It forces one to make decisions and take a stance. You cannot listen to metal undecided as you can with pop and other, easier dialects of the musical language.

As such, heavy metal music has pushed me to face the nagging voice in my head that constantly questions the validity of me, a devout Christian, listening to bands that preach directly against it.

Before I talk about that, though, I find it most helpful to make some distinctions. The first being the ridiculous charge that heavy metal (specifically black or death metal) cannot be "Christian" forms of music. This foolishness has been discussed by many more qualified than I, but I would like to comment on how sad this idea is. What it says is this: God, more specifically the redeeming power of the Crucifixion, is limited in His creativity. Something with an intense, or dark, sound simply cannot be of God in any capacity. There is art, acts of subcreation, that are not His. I reference Dan Wilt often, a theologian working to sever the ties of "secular versus sacred". His argument is often that any action by anyone who believes is a "sacred space". Too many Christians are obsessed with deeming things bad or good in absolute terms, and that is the curse of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If we are to bring Christ's Kingdom to earth, the question is not bad or good, but where? Where is God in these things we love, especially creative things (most things are). He is everywhere and filling all things -- even heavy metal.

Yet I can't find many Christian metal bands that are very satisfying sonically, and so I go elsewhere.

The assertiveness of metal forces me to question what I listen to. On that line of questioning, I had a profound experience in trying to find happy dance music to enjoy with my girls. I went straight to Bruno Mars' Uptown Funk, a modern classic for weddings and (pre) school dances. Giving a close listen to the lyrics was revealing: it's just a song about drinking and getting with women. Because we, as a society, decided that song was acceptable, the content doesn't really matter. It's not as in-your-face, sonically, so the message slips under the radar. Along that same line are pop songs like Daft Punk's Get Lucky, which apparently few of us parents realized was about, again, getting with women. A further example, not quite as topical, was the Target Christmas catalog from a few years back. Right there the middle, after the Legos, was the trilogy of 50 Shades books. Of course, these are romance novels centered on submission and bondage. The moment I saw it I thought, "If the moms of middle America decided that they loved Cannibal Corpse, then those album covers would be here instead of disgusting romance novels".

Part of why that will never happen is because metal is, like I say, assertive. There is no subtlety to it, no smooth bass line to enjoy whilst ignoring the singers hope of coitus; no simply designed cover to hide the abusive content there on the bookshelves of Target. Thusly when I listen explicit heavy metal, I have no choice but to confront it.

I find this to be very fulfilling and growing, spiritually speaking. That wrestling is what faith in Christ requires. Through prayer and meditation, and the help of Pastor Bob, I've drawn a few conclusions. First and foremost, there is no art apart from God. He is the God of creativity, and we are but subcreators. Even the most overtly evil, anti-Christian, pro-Satanic music is nothing apart from God (for various reasons). It cannot escape His mark. That sound, that beautiful heavy metal sound, is rooted in the physical and spiritual life God has made.

Secondly, the bigger issue is the one I mentioned earlier: your average Christians are, at least here in the west, are way too quick to judge and far too slow to listen. While much of the dark, evil, brutal imagery is strictly aesthetic (an aging aesthetic at that), as opposed to a lifestyle call, it brings attention to the parts of life on earth we don't want to look at, the things a follower of Christ probably should be looking at. When that imagery is more genuine, and less part of a visual package, such darkness comes from the hearts of men and women, children of God. I find it terribly sad and disappointing that it is dismissed outright by those called to help others in need, especially those in spiritual poverty. Rather than art with a message to consider, heavy metal music (from a partying Judas Priest song, to an overtly evil Gorgoroth song) is immediately treated as an opponent to confront.

Why is this so? Because, it seems to me, your average Christian is scared. They are terrified of having their foundations rocked in any way, and that is tragic. Can the God of the universe, and the redeeming power of Christ, not withstand the blackened screeching of an angry Norwegian teenager, or the image of a pentagram? Where is the threat to the holy throne? More importantly, these people, many of whom have been hurt by the church, deserve to be engaged with in a loving, friendly way. How can that be if corpsepaint and scribbly logos are an intolerable offense? In short, the church needs to get over itself and start thinking about these things. I'm certainly trying.

I realize I'm being very judgmental here. Sorry about that. Enjoy a funny meme to lighten the mood.


Ranting aside, I'd like to recommend a few of my favorites from this year. Let's enjoy the music!

Darkthrone's Arctic Thunder
A little obvious, but this album crushed. The production is far more accessible than other Darkthrone albums and the soundscape is a warm, toasty swig of mulled wine on a frosty, boreal evening. It's black heavy metal.


Cloak's In the Darkness, the Path
Atlanta is an underrated metal city. We have a lot of decent-to-good bands, but a few are great. Cloak is one of them and I can't wait for them to finish their full length. For now, enjoy this from their demo, released this summer.



Khemmis' Hunted
In an interview, these guys said they were going for mash of Candlemass and Thin Lizzy. Mission accomplished to satisfying effect.




Vektor's Terminal Redux
Thrash in space! As I said, I generally have a problem with progressive music. Prog means a bunch of disparate movements stapled together to make a horrid frankenstein of a song. Vektor take thrash and prog it up just enough to make it something entirely specific and wonderfully different.




Rust's Raw Shredding Death
These guys have the perfect blend of old school Norwegian black metal production, with enough thrash punk influence to get your head banging. It's perfect.



Spell's For None and All
A lot of bands are doing the '70s thing, but Spell has a certain quality that I can't quite put my finger on. It's got enough of a modern, heavy metal sensibility to give more kick than your average Sabbath clone.




Surge Assault's In Hell From Earth
Scouring the "black-n-roll" tag on BandCamp makes me believe few people get the sound. These guys do.



There's been so much more metal this year that I haven't even scratched the surface! But this is what I'm into right now and it gives me so much joy and energy. I'm excited for what 2017 has to offer my metal-gobbling ears. What are you listening to these days?

2 comments:

Jonathan Hicks said...

Some others you should check out:

Black Tusk - Pillars of Ash

Cult of Luna - Mariner

Amon Amarth - Jomsviking

Dark Tranquility - Atoma

Schammasch - Triangle

Teethgrinder - Nihilism

Haunted Shores - Viscera

On the shoe-gaze side, but:

Zhrine - Unortheta

Kreator released a killer single called "Satan is Real."

Derek A. Kamal said...

Awesome