When I Was Metal (from Nightshift #5)

This piece originally appeared in Nightshift #5, a zine I co-produce with my girlfriend Abby Kashul. The physical zine has some sweet collage design elements and a bit more writing, so if you want to grip a copy leave your contact info in the comments or something.


I remember space

               and then

                         bodies. A crush of young men in black Ts, dotted with blushings of brave girls, boyfriended or in packs. In the pit space is to be filled, atmo jammed with noise, feedback detonations approximating a familiar song, the singer, crucially, barking “not over but through: like a lance,”[1] the constant struggle for inertia, to stay right there, polishing oneself against the belt-sander of the stage as long as muscle allows, to experience… what? Some moment folded over into the heart of a star, the burning and burnt tone whose after-ring we call tinnitus: “That’s the sound of the ear cells dying, like their swan song. Once it’s gone you’ll never hear that frequency again. Enjoy it while it lasts.”[2]


The space up there is my teen dude life in rural Ontario; I lived much of it without touching or being touched, ‘cept the bearable rack and percussion of wrestling with my friends and the battle for proximity at the rare metal show I’d wheedle my mother or aunt into driving me to, usually out in Detroit. Both forms of contact left me sore for days: arms unhinged by a session in “The Bear Trap” (buddy Merle’s cruelly inventive submission manoeuvre), neck tense and throbbing from a profound “bangover.” Otherwise: videogames, horror and fantasy, message boards.

Merle Langlois’ “Bear Trap” (Or Double-Chickenwing Headscissor): A How-To
  1. With both grapplers standing and facing one another, Wrestler A boots Wrestler B in the gut to double them over (low blow also works).
  2. A straddles B’s head, holding B in place with their thighs. (Standing headscissors)
  3. A leans down and overhooks both of B’s arms (B’s arms are trapped at the elbow by A’s armpits).
  4. A leans back and pulls B to the ground, wrenching B’s arms painfully while squeezing the headscissor hold. To an observer, the end result looks a bit like A is giving birth to a full-grown person (B) in reverse.

I like how local (Ottawa) zinester Sadboy talks about entry into the moshpit: “i felt that i had been inducted into the boy-world ritual of touching each other’s skin to confirm that we exist.” I’m privileged in that as a cis male I’ve never been in the position of doubting the maleness of my body, only its adequacy as a male body. I pulled away from physical comforts that might’ve signified a weakness or dependency on others (esp. family), and, in the absence of a girlfriend, that leaves what it leaves. A craving for physical experience, to be part of something, have my body act and be acted upon.

I sometimes think it was a pity I was a metalhead rather than a punk, because while punk is (or is often associated with) a sort of cause, metal builds nothing but metal. Metal’s inner certitude is based on its scepticism or outright denial of the outside world, its resistance apolitical and ultimately pacifist. Society is unalterably corrupt, so it is pointless to try to change it. Victory comes in not allowing the world with its bribes and browbeatings to belittle you. Change, or growth, tends to be equated with “selling out.”

I Haven’t Changed

What I mean by love and light,
what I mean when I say
dark or life,
I’m looking for a woman who already has my name.
The stairs twist into helixes;
I bump my face against the backs of steps
I haven’t stepped yet.
All the hours’ shit geometry,
concepts sketched out on paper / unbuildable,
I haven’t the jargon to argue.
The days erect structures around me,
while I plot the calendars, walk up walls,
tell you, I haven’t changed,
I haven’t changed at all,
write an empty box, pound symbol,
exclamation, dollar sign,
stuff a rag in a bottleneck, a rag on fire,
let the hangover explode in my hand.

You opt-in to yourself and -out of the everyday, the seal between cauterized by the aggression of the music. This music is not particularly friendly to the human ear, but if it clicks for you, you take an outcast’s pride in that. Each new form of extremity (thrash cum death cum grind cum x) you can push through is a new layer of fence between you and the sheep: you at least have made a choice to like what you like, to be the way you are.

I stared out at wide-open fields[3] and saw walls. It’s a peculiar kind of disorientation when you can’t even conceive of direction. When I was at my metallest, I had no faith in metal as a coherent ideology (and in my experience most sane metalheads don’t), but I felt hopeless and powerless and cynical and strange, and I didn’t want songs to commiserate with, or songs about love and acceptance, because it seemed apparent to me that none of that shit was likely to happen. (Maybe it would be more accurate to say I’d decided it wouldn’t.) I wanted music with strength and certainty, truckloads of riffs, forceful melodies and above all an absence of “whininess.” Being conscious of the relative insignificance of your problems doesn’t make them obsess you any less; it just makes you feel guilty for feeling shitty about them. Metal is less about who you are than who you wish you were; the best riffs make you feel filled with steel.

It’s like dance music in that the goal of most forms of metal is to affect you physically. I think this is why it has such a limited expressive range– actually, that’s not right. There’s an extremely broad range of emotions expressed in metal: despair dense and black as volcanic rock, incandescent joy, murderous fury. But what it expresses, it expresses absolutely. What is lacking is any gradation, the kind of nuanced, self-aware feelings one experiences in everyday life: vague disappointment, little pleasures snatched out of routine, ironic amusement.


Exhumed’s trademark delicate melancholy.

Think of the grand gesticulations of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” a seminal inspiration to heavy, dramatic rock music which has become a shorthand for the glories of battle. You might deploy that song ironically (a la Apocalypse Now) to comment on the brutal stupidity of war, but that irony is via its repurposing by another artist; there’s not a shred of it in the composition itself. The same’s true of genre classics like Sabbath’s “Iron Man”, about a lonely guy who literally turns into metal and massacres people for ignoring him, or Slayer’s “Angel of Death”, a stomach-turning account of Nazi medical experiments set to riffs that squeal like disembowelled goblins.

Great bands have built their careers on subtle irony; Pavement, say, or Television. Irony can be a pure and serious tool according to Rilke, but it corrodes metal like rust. A music of extremes does not lend itself to self-awareness. There are many hilarious metal songs, but few great ones are funny on purpose.[4]

Turn_Loose_the_Swans_Album_CoverFewer still are the great metal songs about healthy interpersonal relationships, minor crushes, dancing, relaxation, boredom, masturbation, maturation, political action or social progress. (Judas Priest alone have a remarkable arsenal of terrible lyrics about sex, but at least people fuck in their songs.) Other genres can handle these themes because most of them are not defined by their volume, speed and attitude like metal is. Metal tends to stick to the grandiose, the gruesome and the fantastical because in those contexts its musical tropes are actually appropriate.

I never got to be a direct part of a metal community as such: outside of some close friends and a handful of Deadites I felt no kinship with,[5] there wasn’t really anyone at my school I could talk to about the music I was into, no old heads to pester for recs, so I turned to books and the internet. The main guy for me was Martin Popoff, a reviewer from Toronto who was (and remains) almost an industry unto himself when it comes to books on the genre. I studied generically-titled tomes like Heavy Metal: 20th Century Rock & Roll and The Top 500 Heavy Metal Songs of All Time until I could damn near recite them, and Popoff’s limber, offhand way with phrases (and syntax) was so influential on me even the papers I turned in for class sounded like him. (His elegant description of Judas Priest as the “anchor and anvil” of the genre, meaning its stable base and the surface upon which its future was shaped, remains with me.)

If nothing else written here tells you what sort of person I was, the fact that 16 y.o. JM spent New Year’s Eve 2003 splooging out his first six reviews on Metal-Archives.com[6] should do it.[7] I aped Popoff’s style and opinions shamelessly, but over the next few years I discovered I had a few appreciators on the site’s Reviews message board, and I enjoyed getting to know them through our shared interest. Metal communities lack the utopian impulse common to punks, to build a separate society on the outskirts of the norm, but the online diaspora is populated by a range of personalities: articulate, aloof intellectuals; wise, funny old veterans of the scene; achingly sincere naifs; wall-eyed libertarian-literalist psychopaths.

I had a years-long correspondence with a nearly-blind computer programmer from New York. A witty Finnish reviewer sent me a package of candies and instructions on how to make a passable version of his local spirit by embalming them in vodka; they tasted so powerfully of anise that I could hardly stand to smell them, though I kept them for years.[8] A couple of guys sent me burned CDs of classic bootleg sets from their collections.

What I look back on mostly though, is the time spent discussing the craft with the other reviewers who were, it’s likely, the primary audience for the work. Appreciating the development of each other’s style, reading reviews of records I’d never listen to just because I was a fan of the writer. It was as much preparation for the poetry communities I’d find myself in a decade down the line as I ever got.


Of course, mercyfully, things change eventually. I remember sitting in front of my computer one day around age 18 in a particular mood I couldn’t identify, scrolling through my collection (…Artillery, Autopsy, Bathory, Beherit, Blut Aus Nord…) trying to decide on something I wanted to listen to and finding nothing, nothing. I think I was just content, y’know, faintly happy, and everything I had at my fingertips would’ve flattened it under a clustercuss of screams and whispers.

That was when metal’s grip on me began to loosen, and while the break was never total, I did soon reach that stage where I wasn’t able to fully connect with new material, even stuff that I’m certain would’ve swept me away if I’d heard it at the right age. I’ve spent most of my 20s ravenously sucking up new music across every genre out there; each new form, a new sensitivity articulated from the broader blur that is feeling. At concerts I like to dance and move, in the mass or alone and high in the centre of the floor, head aglow like a desklamp. When I come back to metal, it’s as I would a memory, until








it all hits me again.

Ten Metal Records That Hold Up

Agalloch – Ashes Against the Grain (2006)
Amorphis – Elegy (1996)
Coroner – Mental Vortex (1991)
Diamond Head – Lightning to the Nations (1980)
Earth – The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull (2008)
Gorguts – Obscura (1998)
Mercyful Fate – Don’t Break the Oath (1984)
Savatage – Ghost in the Ruins (1995)
Thought Industry – Outer Space is Just a Martini Away (1996)
Ulver – Bergtatt (1994)


[1] Paraphrase of reviewer Martin Popoff on Ozzy’s early style.

[2] Quote from Children of Men, the movie, which I remember being pretty good, but has little direct relevance otherwise.

[3] I’d like to say they had sheep in them, but I don’t recall any in Harrow.

[4] Megadeth’s “Peace Sells” is one. Most of the others are by Motörhead.

[5] I shit you not, there was one guy who would just belch-grunt the words “Burn the Priest” at me every time I talked to him. Burn the Priest was a crap band who later changed their name to Lamb of God, also crap.

[6] As of April 2015 it lists 102,408 metal bands, all thoroughly vetted by its stern volunteer staff of moderators.

[7] The first five Metallica albums and obscure New Hampshire prog band Divine Regale’s Ocean Mind, natch.

[8] Napero, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry for your postage costs.

This entry was posted in Harrow, Metal, music, nonfiction, poetry, Uncategorized, zines and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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