What I talk about when I talk about metal

February 25, 2011

I’m a metalhead. This should be obvious from looking at me. I have two braids in my beard and long hair. I wear my Celtic Frost T-shirt to everything I really care about. Oddly enough, I’m gainfully employed, teaching university kids and after-school middle schoolers. Still, it’s probably significant that the one time I was actually searched at the border, the agent wanted to know if I was a Satanist, not if I was a Muslim, which is funny if you’ll consider I was born in the Middle East.

The first metal band I got into was Celtic Frost. I met them on their reunion tour. I shook Tom Warrior’s hand. Like so many others, I wept like a baby at the first “Oogh.” He does that, Tom Warrior. Ask any metalhead. They’ll set you straight. I was 17, I think, and crazy depressed. The only thing that got through to me was this one song, “The Usurper.” My best friend, Clement, the greatest guitarist I know, was randomly shuffling through songs on an MP3 CD someone had given him. It was mostly power metal (the only form of metal I sort of look down on generally…except you, Kamelot) but right in the middle was this random heap of darkness and fury. I’d just only started doing drugs. I was lonely. The girl I wanted had pledged her life to Jesus and I would have to go to church to have her. I’d become peripherally involved with gangs. I told Clement I really liked the Amorphis that was on that CD but I loved the Celtic Frost. All extreme metal comes from Celtic Frost.

Metal’s such a lower-class genre of music. It’s in a perpetual angry defensive crouch. I love it because of that, not inspite of it or ironically. It’s violent and furious. It’s powerless. It’s the music you make simply because you believe in it, in the belief that you can transcend your status/society/what everyone else likes through sheer will. It’s not music you listen to because you expect you’ll get laid though I’ve often found, in my mid-twenties, that it’s attractive in a rebellious sort of way. Listeners will have to defend their love all the time. It’s not an unfair charge, don’t get me wrong. Much of the issue, I suspect, even as metal revels in its filth, is that metal is naively aspirational. It believes a great deal in itself. Regardless of genre, metal has a sort of righteousness about it that’s very complicated. Whether through gore, evil, beer, brotherhood or gloom (thus covering in broad strokes: death, black, thrash, power and doom), it’s not music that’s accessible or inviting. It’s prickly because it’s so righteous. I don’t know any other genre so obsessed with message. It’s also what makes it the most innovative genre of music I know. I’m perfectly capable of writing an essay on French rap and Romanian rock and Arabic hiphop or any other such so don’t cross me on that 😛 It’s difficult to listen to Peste noire without thinking of French romanticism or Georges Bataille or carnival gypsy music. Anything can be folded into an aesthetic after all. Okay, so maybe electronica is just as innovative. But then again, there’s dubstep metal.

I’m a metal elitist. I’m one of those terrible people that will judge your taste in metal if I deem it to be of a lower standard. I’m not like that with anything else, except maybe soccer. While I love a lot of newer stuff and don’t usually call for perpetual reissues of bands’ demos and debut albums, I will take offense if you present false metal as your favorite metal. You’ll run into this issue with lots of folks that like black metal in particular. Black metal’s weird, by the way. There are a lot of racists in it, seeing as much of it’s all about Scandinavia and a glorious, simpler, more warlike time. I once jammed with a bunch of actual neo-nazis despite being quite obviously not-white. It was fun. We drank a lot of beer and they joked that it was a shame that I’d have to fight them in the coming race wars. But at the end of the day, they were just really pleased that someone, anyone, likes Morbid Angel and Immolation and necrophagist. I’m aware of the irony with neo-nazis that worship the guitar skills of a Turkish-German named Muhammad Suicmez but really, you’d have to be wilfully deaf to not recognize sheer talent when you hear it. Them’s the contradictions that make it all worth it though.

But anyways, I expect you have a metalhead in your life and want to get to the serious business of impressing them. Fans of different sub-genres typically don’t agree with each other on what’s good though there are some commonalities. The easiest subgenre to get into is melodic death metal. Stuff like At the Gates, Amon Amarth, Suidakra etc. You’ll actually like that stuff even if you hate all other metal. What I’ll suggest now you’ll classify as acquired taste. They’re not superaccessible but no matter what sort of metalhead you’re dealing with, he or she will agree that you’ve got unimpeachable taste if you pick these. If they don’t, they’re not really metalheads. QED.

My top five metal bands (by which I mean bands I will love always), in no particular order: Celtic Frost, Peste noire, necrophagist, Primordial and The Angelic Process.

Great video or greatest video ever?

Primordial has a DVD coming out soon. Buy it.

What I’m trying to learn to play right now and will probably never succeed at.

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