“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.
Lemmy, Insanity and Old Nick
“Rock ‘n’ roll ain’t worth the name if it don’t make you strut.”
— Motörhead, “Overkill”
In late 1999, I shuffled into the accident and emergency department of my local hospital and began my journey to recovery. I was no stranger to medical waiting rooms, but on that morning, after a dozen or so years of knocking away every hand that had reached out to help, I was finallyproactively seeking assistance.
Somewhere in my mental pandemonium was a glimmer of hope. I blasted my go-to psyche-up tune, Motörhead’s “Overkill”, a dozen times on my walkman to get me through the door, because detoxification beckoned and I knew I’d be heading to a psychiatric hospital. An admission of dependency I could deal with, but not, at that point, madness.
Away I went, to be locked up and to sweat, piss, cry, shit, vomit, howl, shudder, and scratch my body raw as the toxins were excruciatingly eradicated from my body. Then, when the worst was over, I shared the rest of my time there with the floridly psychotic and morbidly depressed, discovering I had more in common with them than I’d initially imagined. It was a harrowing experience, though a wholly necessary one, and if it hadn’t been soundtracked by heavy metal I’m not sure my mind or body would have endured.
I took a bunch of music with me into hospital. Neurosis, with its emotionally enriching restoratives, accompanied me to offset the incapacitation. Motörhead provided the pummeling noise to drown out the caterwauling (both mine and my companions’). Converge and Botch channeled the feeling of having both head and heart ripped apart. And Iron Maiden took care of the time spent staring at walls — the 13-plus minutes of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” on repeat being a fittingly trippy distraction when sweating buckets.
Metal proved enormously helpful in dealing with confinement, confusion, and claustrophobia, and it was a much-needed diversion from the insanity of my surroundings — opening a connection to some welcomingly fictional worlds. However, for all metal’s help while inside those walls, it was nothing compared with how metal has helped in the ensuing years, particularly when living without substances to mask the worst thoughts and feelings.
At the most basic level, metal is a barricade from which you can pour scorn upon those thoughts that would otherwise derail you. If you’re too exhausted to do that, then Watain, Trap Them, Disfear or Revenge can provide a raging voice on your behalf. On a larger scale, the myriad sounds of metal’s sub-genres form an adaptable armory of upfront countermeasures to confront mental instability whilst you endeavor to remain sober. However, substance abuse can be seductively efficacious in countering emotional pain, so bolstering the fortifications long-term is where metal’s strength becomes essential.
I went to one group support meeting after detox, but I left when they mentioned putting my faith in a higher power. Obviously, faith-based rehabilitation works exceptionally well for many people, and more power to you if that’s the case. Though it may have been the Devil’s tunes that helped me rebuild my life, I’ve always been of the ‘no gods, no masters’ school of thought. I saw no point in placing my faith in anyone but myself. Plus, the only quasi-religious figure I’ve ever had in my life is Motörhead frontman Lemmy, and he’s not the kind of guy you should base any model of sobriety on.
Still, Motörhead’s discography did provide abundant reinforcement while I walked to and from countless counseling sessions. As an enduring rehabilitative tool, metal allows you to tap into a stream of measures to mitigate doubts and insecurities whenever you want. Sure, it’s no replacement for therapeutic intervention, but as an additional ministration, metal provides magnificently heavy doses of fortifying grit.
Cleansing the Wounds, Controlling the Uncontrollable
“Don’t waste your time always searching for those wasted years. Face up, make your stand, and realize you’re living in the golden years.”
— Iron Maiden, “Wasted Years”
One of the harshest realities of post-dependency life is facing up to the fact that there won’t be a great deal of (or any) sympathy from those you have lied to, disappointed, or let down along the way, which is entirely understandable. Clarity is a gift, but it’s also a bane, and even though you may have taken measures to fix the problem, the guilt over the damage done to irrevocably broken relationships can be overwhelming.
Post-detox I was crippled by self-condemnation. An incessant, internal voice suggested that killing myself was the only way to atone, and it was so pervasive I couldn’t express anywhere near a full range of coherent emotions. All I had was anger, shame and grief.
Metal brings a crucial sense of structure to reconstruct a life from remorse, providing the masonry to build something robust and equipped to tackle regret. Technical death metal bands are there so you can count off fluctuating time signatures and construct mathematical riff-puzzles in your head, offsetting the incessant buzz of self-recrimination. Filth-laden death metal acts, such as Incantation, Antediluvian or Portal, allow you to submerge yourself in the putrescence and ghastliness of imaginary terrors, rather than become lost in those you’ve experienced yourself.
Black metal bands like Gorgoroth, Marduk or Mayhem can open portals to the abyss, making space for you to howl at (and along with) the horrors that plague you. Grindcore groups like Napalm Death allow you to spit out the disappointment of finding that being clean and sober provides no instantaneous contentment. Meanwhile, traditional metal acts like Manilla Road or Slough Feg can simply put a smile on your face with their diverting theatrics. Metal’s ability to provide such rousing enjoyment is indispensable.
Countless metal bands can help you rebuild. Their individual contributions can be paramount to your recovery, but their collective impact can be life-changing. Clearly, metal is not the only key to gaining control over the uncontrollable, but listening to it certainly increased my ability to master what had been completely untamed.
On days when I had no interest in listening to music that investigated my discomfort, or when I simply wanted that discomfort slaughtered, then Godflesh, Pig Destroyer, or Bolt Thrower provided the axe. When I needed to wallow in sadness, Mournful Congregation, Evoken or Thergothon were there to acknowledge those feelings, without equating to any loss of control of my part. Metal can blunt the razor-sharp bite of tribulation, and over time it grows more effective as a long-term nostrum.
Mental illness and addiction are not easily understood or remedied. The reasons behind them are complex and often extremely personal and unpleasant. I’ll spare you the details of why I nosedived into the cyclical hell to be found therein, but many interlinking problems can gnaw at the gut, and they all chip away at your stability from varying angles. How metal helps in this regard is that it provides an unencumbered route to some much-needed catharsis.
A legacy of mental illness and addiction can leave you feeling decidedly unclean, stained with the memory of past actions and behaviors, and by those aforementioned stereotypes. Metal offers an essential purge that helps you realize that your past need not define your future. Every great metal album that has ever resonated with me has, in effect, exorcised me for a time. Metal has cleansed my wounds, and in those moments of emotional release it has allowed me to glimpse who I want to be. It bolsters my resolve to find that person no matter how many years I wasted, and if my dedication to the task should diminish, inspiration is just a click away.
“I’m going off the rails on a crazy train.”
— Ozzy Osbourne, “Crazy Train”
Critics of metal have often accused the genre of affecting those who are ill-protected in a wholly negative way. As if metal were a harbinger of great evil, and those who are emotionally vulnerable were helpless under its spell. If metal were going to force anyone to do anything, I was the perfect candidate, yet it never pressured me into committing any diabolic deeds. Not that listening to it improved my life instantly — I went looking for what I needed to survive in metal, and found exactly that, in abundance.
Metal didn’t make me sober, drug free or sane. I used, and continue to use, its transformative potential, taking what I need to make it through the day. Whether that is pounding percussion, filthy riffs, blasphemous odes, or socially conscious screeds, I harvest what I require, and use it to cultivate my own well-being. Metal is one of the prime philosophical and power sources in my life, but I’m the one conducting this locomotive.
For anyone caught in the whirlpool of mental health or addiction crises, the chances of recovery may seem bleak, and some may find it incongruent that I’m suggesting listening to the darkest or most aggressive music to bring about positive change. However, my experience is proof of metal’s efficacy if you’re awash in the tides of torment. I lit the torch for my recovery, and while metal was not the sole source of illumination on the path, it stoked the flames when I couldn’t see a positive outcome for all the gloom.
Bands from Absu to Zozobra prompt me to remember that electrifying jolts of imbalance in life don’t have to spark a downfall. Metal reaffirms that life is, after all, a series of adventures and misadventures. While I may no longer be able to share a beer when discussing the finer points of metal, it still allows me to indulge in plenty of rip-roaring, vicarious thrills — and with that comes riotously good times without the inglorious regrets of my past.
We all hide in the depths of our minds when life becomes unbearable. Metal fearlessly digs into those fathomless, inexplicable areas to unearth curative sounds from the underground. In metal I found freedom, discovering the tools I needed to wrest control from chaos, and it reminds me every day that there’s no need to live in fear — not when a roughhewn, ragged-edged antidote lurks right there in the record collection.
I was living in perpetual darkness, and now I am not, and while there have been plenty of soul-destroying days in my post-dependency life, without metal I wouldn’t have been here to experience any of them.