Metal, Back from Purgatory

Volume is every child’s ultimate weapon. Betrayed by even their own bodily functions, powerless children wield a very limited arsenal. But they can scream. And they can yell.

Fill your diaper? Howl. Get something shiny taken from you? Rend eardrums.

The war between the oafish adult empire and the wily upstart child most often hinges on which side controls noise. At home, the big knob rotates clockwise, until the parent/ guardian/ property owner scolds “Turn that down!”At school, the lies, laughter, and liberties lead toward a chaotic crescendo, until the teacher/ coach/ administrative poohbah orders “Cut that out!” At work, the eerie stillness of false dedication necessitates excited interactions, an airing of gripes and shared circumstances, until the boss/ supervisor/ pushy editor with deadline dementia asks “Don’t you have that status report?”

The Man wants silence. Got it? So shut it, kid.

I hated silence. Growing up in a home filled with ten people, I never knew it. Stereos, televisions, sisters with phones jackknifed into stairwells — you turned the corner, there was a new noise. If you wanted to get heard over Facts of Life, you spoke up. So I did.

My teachers hated noise. The only noise they loved was the sound of their own voice. I couldn’t take it, most days. I wasn’t alone. Every school day became a pitched battle for class attention, class direction. The loud and the stealthy disrupted what we could. The teachers and poohbahs disciplined with what they had. After the smoke cleared, we scurried back to our trenches to prepare for tomorrow.

In the trenches, we played heavy metal.

Metallica. Led Zeppelin. Black Sabbath. Motorhead. Judas Priest. Iron Maiden. Guns N’ Roses. Megadeth. Anthrax. Slayer. Did I mention Metallica? Lots of Metallica.

I came of age in the last Golden Age of metal. During the ’80s metal was not just music. It was Identity. The kids who listened to metal did not hang out with the kids who listened to Phil Collins or Huey Lewis. Not where I grew up. No, the kids who listened to metal tended to listen to metal exclusively. Preferably on gigantic speakers as tall as a young me that could melt the face off the yuppie in the Memorex ads.

Before I appreciated metal, I knew I should listen to it. The O’Neill brothers, with whom I tagged along through most of my childhood, loved metal. My brother let me play Metallica and Guns N Roses in his car. Metal was the entree to an older male world, a male world which could care less about how well you could spell or throw a baseball. No, metal fans only wanted to make sure you knew what rocked.

And we did, and it was good. Until grunge hit. Then the Penelope Spheeris-directed party I wanted to crash ended. For good.

Metal didn’t fall off the map. No, in many ways it thrived through the ’90s. Metallica became one of the biggest bands in the world, able to sell out arenas from Anchorage to Amsterdam.

Unfortunately, the Metallica we knew and loved only showed up at the arenas. In the studio, the band stumbled about blindly for that awe-inducing sonic fury which used to be their stock in trade. Sharon Osbourne resurrected the career of her semi-conscious husband and Godfather of Metal, Ozzy, for Ozzfest- a corporate-sponsored circus of mediocrity that continues to fleece gullible metal fans each summer.

What went away was the community. My friends and I would elicit bemused smiles when we told people we were pumped to see Motorhead or Pantera. Where once we had a nation at our back, now we were just one more musical niche. No different than jazz enthusiasts. Ouch.

For the last ten years, I’ve searched low and high for my metal fix. I attended metal bills at Double Door in Chicago in the middle of January with maybe seven other people. I supported my good friend’s metal band and listened to him lament the limited gigs and outlets for their music.

Two bands, in particular, help me keep the faith. I first saw Oakland’s High on Fire sometime in 2002 in support of their rampaging masterpiece, Surrounded by Thieves. From the moment Matt Pike strode onto the stage, tattooed and shirtless, I knew- here is the man who can save metal. High on Fire does not so much record songs as prepare a playlist for Helm’s Deep. If songs like ‘Speedwolf’ and ‘Surrounded by Thieves’ don’t make you want to hoist a broad sword, well then, you’re just not dork enough for me.

Atlanta’s Mastodon snuck up on me. Although once on the same label as High on Fire (Relapse), I was not made aware of them until my good friend Kevin told me they were the band he was most excited to see at Pitchfork two years ago. With his recommendation I picked up Leviathan, their second album. Wow! I still listen to that album once a month. Loosely based on Moby Dick, Leviathan plunges the listener into the most original and broad-minded metal I’ve heard in a long time.

When I found out that High on Fire and Mastodon would be touring together this autumn, I about smashed a windshield. I notified my editors and scored tickets. The concert would he held at Chicago’s Aragon Brawlroom, the location of the last metal show I so eagerly anticipated- Slayer/ Pantera back in 1998.

I told you it’s been a long time.

The two bands would share the bill with Boston hardcore vets Converge and the live cartoon band, Dethklok. The Rockista and I arranged to arrive back from Europe the afternoon of the show. When we landed at O’Hare I wanted to run straight down Lawrence Avenue to the theater. I was pumped.

I didn’t check the order of the bands that day. Oops. When I arrived, Converge just began their set. OK, maybe they started late. Nope. When Converge finished, lead singer Jacob Bannon announced Mastodon would be appearing next.

Yep. I missed High on Fire. Some columnist I am.

Matt, I am truly sorry. As punishment, I made myself listen to Poison all the next day.

I knew the show was all ages due to the start time, but I was still taken aback by the amount of kids at the show. I severely underestimated Dethklok’s popularity.

Converge put together a tight, loud set that evening. My days as a fan of hardcore are over, but I’m sure they converted a few young ears that evening. With song titles like ‘Reap What You Sow’, Bannon and his bandmates are not keen on resolving any lingering anger issues. I wouldn’t know what these issues were anyway, as Bannon growled spastically like Cookie Monster on speed.

Mastodon came out next, as did the gigantic HD monitor intended for Dethklok’s set. I have yet to warm up to Mastodon’s latest release, Crack the Skye. It’s a headphone concept album about Tsarist Russia, and I’m pretty sure I lost you right there. The problems I have with their latest album I also had with the show. First, I don’t want to hear keyboards on a Mastodon album. I just don’t. The instrument requires the band to bridle some of their ferocity, and (I believe) led to a vocal mix nearly as difficult to hear as that of Converge.

Second…um, I’m still trying to figure out what was going on with the monitor. Mastodon clearly constructed a light and visual element to correspond with their new album, which they played in its entirety. It didn’t help me make any more sense of the new album. In fact, it left me more confused. Don’t get me wrong- any metal set that ends with a Melvins cover (‘The Bit’) is one I wouldn’t want to miss.

But live and on CD, Crack the Skye sounds like a transition album. With Boss producer Brendan O’Brien behind the boards, the band is steering toward more mainstream popularity. I hope that direction is away from more concept albums.

Still pissed that I missed High on Fire, I debated whether to stick around for Dethklok. I admit I find their Adult Swim cartoon pretty hilarious. Heavy metal has always had a healthy sense of humor about itself (Spinal Tap, anyone?). The fact remains, though, that they’re not a real band. When the crowd began to chant “Dethklok! Dethklok!”, I figured I should not totally screw up my journalistic responsibilities and stuck around.

The best part of the show were the fake PSA announcements done by Dethlok’s version of Iron Maiden’s Eddie, Face Bones. The rest of the show was the band performing live while the HD monitor showed the cartoon. I couldn’t help thinking about the Banana Splits or Josie and the Pussycats. Bravo to Dethklok creator Brendon Small for turning some kids on to metal. I just hope many of these kids discover metal’s wonderful sincerity behind all the jokes. Metal is ridiculously over the top, but that’s the whole point.

The kids, Dethlok’s intended audience, loved the show. They sang along with all the tunes. When the house lights went up at the end they gave Brendon and the band a long, loud headliner applause. After the show on the L platform, many of the kids screamed at each other, their ears still ringing. I hope they enjoy that feeling, and want to experience it again and again. ‘Cause at the end of the day, that’s the only way metal will grow.

And fellow High on Fire fans, stay tuned for an upcoming Matt Pike interview. More metal. It’s what we all want.