“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…”
—Winston Churchill, 4 June 1940
The above quote is taken from a famed speech delivered by the cigar-chomping British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during the darkest days of the Second World War. It’s a celebrated piece of political oratory, and Churchill’s sentiments of never giving up, even when the odds seem overwhelming, are applicable to many situations in life. However, for fans of heavy metal, those words have another important role, as part of the introductory passage that sends crowds into fist-raising frenzies before Iron Maiden performs one of the greatest metal songs ever recorded: “Aces High”.
I first heard “Aces High” on Iron Maiden’s classic live album, 1985’s Live After Death. The song profoundly affected my then 14-year-old self, setting in stone a lifelong devotion to heavy metal by being a hell of a headbangin’ tune and, crucially, being one of the first songs I ever related to in metaphorical terms.
Every metal fan discovers their ‘eureka’ song at some point, and metal’s appeal is intrinsically linked to the connection you make with its overt, subtextual or symbolic meaning. When I first heard “Aces High”—noting its theme of battling against ceaselessly attacking foes—it resonated with me because I was waging a war on multiple fronts myself.
By the age of 14 I was already consuming substantial quantities of intoxicants in an attempt to neutralize the feeling that something was deeply wrong with me. Ahead lay the substance abuse and mental health problems that would devastate my life and damage the lives of those caught in the crossfire. In many ways, “Aces High” has defined my search for equilibrium and meaning. The song’s overriding theme of not surrendering to adversity still rings true, but most important, “Aces High” serves as a reminder that without heavy metal I simply wouldn’t be alive today.
Now don’t panic. This month’s Ragnarök isn’t a boo-hoo, poor-old-me litany of my misfortunes. Quite the opposite. I’m drawing from my life to show how metal strengthens resolve and dispenses the thunderous ‘fix’ many need to maintain stability. The fact that my life collapsed under the weight of crumbling mental health and a reliance on alcohol and increasingly harder drugs isn’t unique in any way, and I’m definitely not here as an advocate for clean living.
Rather, this month’s column is a testament to metal’s healing powers. It’s about heavy riffs that lift you out of ruination, and about how a genre so often maligned for its negativity can offer much positive traction in your toughest days, weeks and years.
Diagnosis, Difference, and Power
“Kill the spirit and you’ll be blinded. The end is always the same.”
—Black Sabbath, “Mob Rules”
It’s been well over a decade since I’ve supped, smoked, snorted, swallowed or syringed any stupefying concoctions, and in a world not often hospitable to the notion of abstinence, every day is a test. Life picks at the scabs of your past, and in my case, a legacy of fluctuating mental health can strip nerves to the bleeding-raw in a heartbeat. Still, I don’t indulge in my previous habits because they were forms of self-prescribed, protracted suicide—in the end, about as effective at remedying my particular quirks as wishing upon a star.
There are plenty of erroneous stereotypes attached to mental illness and addiction (as there are to heavy metal). Mental illness has a stigma all of its own, where labels are affixed irrespective of their validity, and sufferers frequently have their value measured when they’re at their sickest, not their healthiest. Being defined in this way leaves you feeling powerless, scared, and even subhuman. For me, and no doubt for countless others, listening to metal has helped deal with the bouts of self-loathing, isolation and helplessness that come from being labeled as different.
Metal is now my preeminent medication, and my addictive tendencies are firmly focused on the likes of Panopticon or Darkthrone, rather than pills or dope. Metal has been in my life for 25-plus years, and I’ve always been a heavy user. Like many other metal junkies, it provides me with a safe haven, and a high that tempers a raft of difficult circumstances.
Metal’s brawniness can add significant muscularity to your emotional arsenal. Certainly, as I grew older and my highly critical internal monologue became more problematic, I did my best to combat it with weaponry handed to me by Judas Priest, Twisted Sister or Saxon. However, metal’s all-important community of shared escapism can help, too. It provides a sense of interconnectedness that celebrates idiosyncrasies, and many fans gravitate towards metal because it is music for the outsider.
I certainly felt like an outsider when I was ‘diagnosed’ at 17 years old. That’s an age when we’re busy searching for our own individual identity. Being told my personality was going to be governed by a disordered mind was a terrifying prospect, and made me feel like a freak. Yet metal suggested it was acceptable—even preferable—to be different, and often marked it as a distinctly positive attribute.
Metal bands like Queensrÿche embraced the histrionic, My Dying Bride the melodramatic, and as my mind seemed to be playing a new theatrical production every day, that was extremely attractive. Such bombastic emotionality was a balm, and a vent for the frustration of feeling so highly strung. Metal numbed the pain of isolation, and there was no need to be paralyzed by social fear when swapping enthusiastic tales about Báthory, Venom or Dismember with fellow fans. It was an uncomplicated, immediate connection—something I lacked in every other area of life.
That sense of community, which has held metal together through thick and thin, could make the difference between harming myself or not. A simple conversation about discovering Celtic Frost’s Into the Pandemonium, Entombed’s Left Hand Path or Black Sabbath’s Mob Rules was often the key to surviving another day.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that metal has welcomed everyone with open arms on every occasion, but the importance of its community can’t be understated. Sometimes, for those lost in the turmoil, that tie is the only knot they have to hold on to.
If You Could See the You That I See
“Unable to express the pain of your distress, you withdraw deeper inside. You alienate yourself, and everybody else. They wonder what’s on your mind.”
—Rollins Band, “Low Self Opinion”
As I grew older, metal grew more diverse, and the grindcore, thrash, death and black metal scenes offered more evidence that difference didn’t have to be a bad thing. The various artistic visions of acts such as Repulsion, Suicidal Tendencies, Morbid Angel, Emperor, Carcass or Kreator showed extremity could come in many forms, and the frenzied and often eccentric energy found in extreme metal mirrored my own increasingly chaotic mind. That very abrasiveness and hyperactivity provided an outlet for my anxieties, and there was much solace to be found in recognizing I wasn’t alone in questioning the nature of reality—or in feeling as if my world was spiraling out of control.
Bands were also growing more lyrically adventurous, opening up about the alienation of modernity, the cost of capitalism, and the raw beauty to be found in desolation and depression. By then, I’d embraced punk for those very virtues, and when metal bands such as Eyehategod, Buzzoven and Grief began speaking candidly about delirium, sickness and smack, those acts became a crucial panacea. At live shows I could get lost in a crowd—be anonymous and hide, and yet be at one with my peers. The more that the metal I heard resonated with me, the more I sought out more music. It gave me one of few reasons to look forward to another day at all.
Metal is particularly helpful when you find an artist who speaks to you directly. In my case, metal led me to discover the musical and literary work of Henry Rollins, and that significantly changed my prospects of ever being well. Rollins Band releases, such as The End of Silence or Weight, matched their musical intensity with searingly honest lyrics, and from that fusion came the strength to consider a way out of chaos. Since his days fronting punk legend Black Flag, Rollins’ work has a staunch doggedness to it, acknowledging that if you want to effect any change in your life, you (and only you) have to take those first steps.
By pressing “play” on a Rollins Band CD, motivation and empowerment were all there, allowing me to feel like I had the capacity to make a choice. That was something no health professional, friend or family member had ever convinced me of before.
However you want to tag Rollins’ music—metal, punk, hardcore, or a mix of all—matters little. Ultimately, that combination of stentorian noise, lyrical candidness, and burly momentum can, and does, add positively to people’s lives. It’s easy to look at Slayer, Pentagram or Cannibal Corpse and see those bands as sinful, hedonistic, and dwelling in the macabre—and I’m not denying that much of metal’s very best work is wonderfully iniquitous and debauched.
However, within the muck and murderousness of metal, rebelliousness and autonomy are writ large. Metal argues in the very loudest terms that whatever your situation, you are in absolute control of your life, but you’ll need tenacity and courage to move forward. That’s something anyone can latch onto in times of trouble, and while no metal band can take the first step for you, there are plenty that will stand right by your side.
Metal voices the concerns and the rage of the disenfranchised and those injured by life’s follies. It shows you that the depths to which you can fall are not unique. For me, though I was descending into despair and addiction, metal was always there to offer a guiding light. Admittedly, that light may have been shrouded on many occasions, but it never went out.