I was once drinking some wine with a good friend- a wine friend- and we were joined by a Sam, a non-wine friend. This second friend is into the finer things of the Midwestern country boy variety: fine venison chilis, corn-fed beef, high-end fishing gear (presumably), and bourbon. As he sipped a little Beckmen grenache with us, he admitted plainly, "I can see why people like this."
He's still a friend, and he's still not a wine friend- it's just not his thing. But in his statement he acknowledged that he gets why it is some peoples' thing. It's how I feel about chess, about sweet role-playing video games, and about Wes Anderson films. They don't really do it for me, but I can understand how it is nirvana for some.
Of course, most things that we don't dig, we don't dig for a reason, and it is tough to put ourselves in the mindset of those who do. That's why we are floored when we read the figures on how much Luke Bryan rakes in, or when we see a line snaking around the corner from some cupcake shop. What the hell is with these people? It's what I can tell a lot of people think when you tell them you like Rush (which I do). I wondered the same about some music fans, until I found myself at my second metal show in recent months.
I work with Greg, a towering bald Missourian who apparently sleeps few to none hours per night; When he's not cooking steaks or driving for Lyft or Uber, he's the drummer for a black metal band called Enfold Darkness. I don't know anything about metal- like most music fans of my generation, I dipped my toe into the metal world by purchasing Metallica's black album, which was the band's entrance into the mainstream and also what I suspect true metal fans probably think was the band's crossing the threshold into total pussyhood. What sucked in middle-of-the-roaders- acoustic guitars, pretty traditional song structures, melodies, etc.- was probably what alienated the hardcore fans who, if they liked those things, would never have gravitated to metal in the first place. Other than using history to dub that mainstream metal, I don't know what to call it. What I am sure it is not is black metal*.
In a his now-famous act, Chris Rock sought to dispel the myth of black anti-semitism by saying, "Black people don't hate jews; they hate white people. We don't have time to divide them up into little groups." Such was my relationship with metal. Not the hating part, but the fact that I knew metal when I heard it, and I didn't have time to divide it up into little groups. I was oblivious to the nuances that demarcate the metal world.
I am still, though it has been explained to me (by Greg, no less) that black metal features a high-pitched, witch-like vocal style, as opposed to the low, demonic-bulldog growl of the death metal vocal. I understand this, though a lot of the Enfold Darkness vocal seems to have a fair amount of low growling to it, so I figured I better not ask any more questions. I am aware that there exists a genre called speed metal, although I'm not sure whether it is different than black- and death-metal, or maybe it's some kind of umbrella genre that covers both. I hope it's the latter, because when you hear the type of metal that does not include the word speed in the name you kind of think how much fucking faster is it possible to play? The small differences between these niche genres aside, I think it is pretty safe to say that, in terms of broad appeal, all of these types of music make Metallica sound like Air Supply.
I went to catch Greg's band open for Origin, who are hugely respected in their world. Given Origin's status, it says a lot about the size of the market that they were playing what is really a sweaty garage on Elliston Place- there just is not a huge population to support this genre. The first Enfold Darkness show I went to was the night before Thanksgiving, which is probably why it was not a hugely attended show. But don't get me wrong- the place was not empty, and aside from the supportive friends and coworkers and the girlfriends womanning the merch table, there were definitely some fans there. These kids wore the t-shirts, pumped the firsts, banged the heads, and shouted back the lyrics, which is a true bellwether of fanhood, considering that the lyrics are unintelligible. You can know the lyrics to The Gambler without being a Kenny Rogers fan, but knowing black metal lyrics takes some want-to.
I left that show with my ability to hear replaced with a healthy respect for the guys in the band. Not the kind of respect you grudgingly grant a mediocre songstress playing her songs to an uncaring coffeehouse, but real respect for their talent and musicianship and dedication to their type of music. These guys are all excellent musicians.
The music itself? It's extreme. The guitar is either crunchy and engulfing or shrieking and shrill. The bass is rumbling, and it's rare, even in slower parts of a song, for the kick drums not to sound like a uzi being discharged in a nearby room. When you see Greg behind his kit, his focus is palpable, and being "off" or underrehearsed is not really an option when you are playing this kind of music. If you're a fan of melodies, nothing to see here. The music is most satisfying in its precision and bursts of energy. The chords are dark, minor, and vaguely satanic. Greg told me that they use a lot of the "dark arpeggios" that centuries ago were banned by the clergy.
The guys in the band clearly bust their asses. They're in fifth- or at least fourth- gear for the whole set, and even when there's a seemingly monolithic wall of sound pounding you from the stage, you look up and see each musician furiously fingerbanging his instrument. In these moments, the energy strikes you much more than the virtuosity; you realize that when everyone is soloing, no one is soloing. Greg's commitment is such that, although the fan seems him onstage with black t-shirt and dangling pentagram, he is actually wearing those five-toed aqua-sock things on his feet, which must be necessary to achieve the kind of speed he's going for but to me seems just about as non-metal as you can get. But then again, he's forsaking convention and coolness and expectation for the sake of the music, which now again seems extremely metal.
And about that whole satan-worshipping thing... there certainly does seem to be a fixation not on satan himself, but on sinister symbols, typefaces, and certainly lyrical themes. Despair and anger pervade, and a frustration with accepted society that can probably be best summed up in the fan's t-shirt which said FUCK YOU ALL! on the back. At the end of their set, before Origin went on stage, the singer of Enfold Darkness encouraged the crowd to Hail Satan!, but it was with all the conviction of a post-sneeze "bless you." It's just something you gotta say, I guess, and there's no spoilsport at the door checking satan-worshipping bona fides. Did we really think that Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were laying bodies out on the muthafuckin' Compton streets in the early nineties?
It's just a part of the deal, and it's not too hard to see why one would dive into the whole culture when the one that we're fed doesn't appeal to us. The fans are loyal, and they hang on every guttural (or screeching) word. The song titles reflect the same stuff- they are gothic and panicked and creatively syntaxed (The Adversary Omnipotent comes to mind). Some of the fans were sober, some were shitfaced, but everyone seemed to be having a great time, whether they were hanging back or effectively beating the shit out of each other near the stage. I'm sure if you showed up in Abercrombie & Fitch you'd feel a bit out of place, but there's a very come-as-you-are vibe that rules. Extra points to Greg for repurposing duck and pig skulls from work into picked-clean Enfold Darkness merchandise (available at shows only, for now).
Once, when Greg was playing some metal at work and I asked him (in a very circuitous manner, I'm sure) whether he really liked that music, he told me that when he was young and discovered metal, he identified with and was empowered by it. When he told me this, and told me that he wanted to be in a band that had that same influence on young kids like him, it was totally sincere and not just a version of the smoke-blowing "empowerment" that gets referenced in the media thousands of times a day. That's inspiring, and so is the commitment to the genre that these guys love and love to play. It's light-years from the supplicant attitude that can infect songwriters and musicians who hunger for their first cut and dream of the validation and the riches that mainstream success dangles in front of them. These guys play knowing that, even if they're really good, a huge portion of everyone is going to hate their music. They know that they are fighting for a piece of a minuscule pie. Not that they don't care at all; they want fans just as much as anyone wants fans. But they know that the pool of people they are going for is very narrow from the get-go, and they don't bend what they do to suck in converts. They play with a "Don't complain, don't explain" verve, which is enough to light a fire under any creative person. They do their thing, and if you don't like it, just move along.
Greg had talked up the headlining band as some of his heroes, so I had to stick around to witness what a next-level black metal band was like. They were great- masters of their instruments, natch- but not noticeably better or more ass-kicking than Enfold Darkness. But of course, I don't know anything about it. I'm not even a neophyte- just a guy who wandered into a world that was, and still is, extremely foreign. So I ditched before the headliner was done- before they got going, really. I paused by the drunken bouncer to look back in on my way out; back at Origin's violently expressive singer, the explosive band, and the soon-to-be hungover and bruised moshers slamming into and slugging each other with pillows (it's an Origin thing). I was ready to go home, but as I exited the sweaty dungeon of a venue into the frozen night, I acknowledged that black metal is still not my thing- but I can see why people like it.
*The doyens of this genre, my cursory research has revealed, are a Norwegian band called Mayhem, whose guitarist's (named Euronymous) first instinct when he discovered his friend (the band's singer, named DEAD) with slit wrists and a chunk of his head blasted away was to snap some pictures. According to legend, he called up another member and told him giddily, "DEAD did something really cool- he killed himself!" DEAD's suicide note read "Sorry about the blood- cheers!" This leads to all kinds of questions about what it means to be a "real" black or death metal band, as it is tough to imagine these guys getting excited about accruing Facebook likes or anything like that. Enfold Darkness has 45K, by the way.