Last week, I found myself in an awkward conversation with douchebag with a popped collar and frosted tips.
He asked me if I worshipped "the Devil," looking at my iPod's screen, where the gloriously disgusting cover of Cannibal Corpse's The Wretched Spawn was displayed. Or you know, maybe I practiced Wicca? Was I a witch? Like, in The Craft? Because Neve Campbell was so hot when that came out.
I couldn't help messing with him a bit, even with the weak come-on.
After shooting him a sideways glance that I hoped would be conveyed as Satanic, I thoughtfully sipped my Jack Daniels. Then I leaned in closely, asked if my black nail polish gave me away, and added that, duh, everyone who listens to metal -- especially chicks --practice secret Satanic rituals that work best with the blood of an unsuspecting male.
"We get bonus points within our cult if that blood reeks of Axe body spray," I sneered.
Needless to say, he was a little uncomfortable for the rest of the time he had to sit near me. But here's the kicker - the guy thought I was somewhat serious.
We all get it. The fact that heavy metal's image thrives on the dark side. It attracts the misfits, unwashed miscreants, the crazies. The aggression and precision speaks to them, gives them an outlet for their pent up rage or whatever hard-to-define thing lives inside them. It's the sound of rebellion, a soundtrack to the unknown and exciting. Oh, and it'll probably get you laid.
But metal's flirtation with the mystic has always been a two-way street. Let's not forget that Black Sabbath, in addition to issuing the blueprint for the heavy metal sound, wrote the first prominent Christian metal song. (For real, guys.)
"If you look starting in the '80s, there's a whole movement from Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, to what we did in thrash metal, and a lot of the themes was us questioning this stuff," explained Megadeth bassist Dave Ellefson, an authority in the whole heavy metal/religion feud, when I interviewed him. "So I think that pissed the church off. All the sudden they are like, how dare these people question God, how blasphemous! But guess what? We did question it!"
Heavy metal, more than anything, is about freedom, and that's how I found it, a 100-pound white girl from Kansas who stumbled into the music by way of drugs, drinking, and promiscuity. I believed in God, but felt the need to seek out other interpretations of my own nebulous spirituality.
As for those Satanic undertones, well, they make sense don't they? Satan ultimately represents rebellion: Lucifer was the angel that was '86d from heaven because he wanted to be God. Who better to identify with?
That's not saying that lots of metal bands don't take the Satanism bit too far. Norweigan death and black metal bands scare the shit out of me. Gorgoroth's singer reportedly tortured a man and made him drink his blood. Norway's Bruzum are known for several church burnings (not to mention a nasty neo-Nazi streak). Mayhem is the blackest of the black. Their lead singer blew his brains out with a suicide note simply reading "excuse all the blood," a members have stabbed each other, and have eaten parts of the dead singer (supposedly). One of Dissection's members was one of the earliest members of the Misanthropic Luciferian Order (now called the Temple of the Black Light).
Other bands play the idea up to humorous effect. Cradle of Filth might not truly be Satanic, but their "That Jesus is an a Cunt" and "Fingered by God" shirts are hilariously "evil."
But on the other side of the coin, things are very different.
"We don't question God -- we question how man can take something like this and twist it and manipulate it and use it for such tyrannical control over people," Ellefson says. "Those were the questions we had back in the day. And that's why we didn't want anything to do with it."
Plenty of heavy metal bands lay claim to the fact that they can balance religion and the life of a metaller. Like The Devil Wears Prada, who have told me that it really isn't that difficult to be a Christian metal band, and whose last album, The Dead Throne, focuses a lot of the anti-idolatry themes in the music industry. Demon Hunter is led by a Grammy-Award nominated graphic artist Ryan Clark, is one of the top-selling artists for Christian heavy music label Solid State Records. There's August Burns Red, As I Lay Dying, localites Blessthefall, Sacrament, and Thrice. Some of the most influential acts in heavy metal have turned from the dark side to the light, like Megadeth's Dave Mustaine, Alice Cooper, and Tom Araya from Slayer.
The Bible is a pretty metal book, too, a wholesome tome of wonderful Christian stories of disease, murder, adultery, suicide, wrath, hellfire, and sacrifice. Sound like a lot of metal tunes? Exactly.
Every decade since 1801, statistics have been harvested from every household in the UK, and at last count (in 2001), almost 400,000 people stated that their core beliefs were "Jedi," which, at the time, would have put "Jedi" behind Christianity, Hinduism, and Judaism. It was Ozzy who said "rock 'n' roll is my religion and my law," and clearly several others feel the same. There's got to be more people who would opt for heavy metal as a religion over Jedi, right? Right? In 2011, the petition to make heavy metal a religion listed more than 41,000 followers.
Unless your're one of the brain-eating, lead singer skull shard necklace-wearing, Swedish black/death metal bands extremists, metal as a philosophy is a simple one: Be who you wanna be.
"For me, [Christianity] is a great story and a narrative of how God gives us second chances. That, to me is a cool thing," Ellefson says. "When you dig deep into your soul and pull your own life into the lyrics, that kinda goes into the story of all human beings. The rise, the fall, the resurrection, the rebirth, and hopefully a second chance."
I was raised an Episcopalian--just like Marilyn Manson--who is probably the most profane figure in modern culture when it comes to his use of religious imagery. What does the "Antichris Superstar" have to say on the subject?
In an interview with Beliefnet, he spelled it out:
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"I think if I found Jesus -- which, I didn't know he was lost in the first place -- I don't think he would be all that different from me."
Nicely put, Antichrist. Nicely put.