Christianity And Heavy Metal As Impure Sacred Within Secular West: Transgressing The Sacred by Jason Lief

Rather than a stereotypical understanding of heavy metal as an oppositional form of cultural discourse, the subversive function of metal is deeply connected with a subversive interpretation of the Christ event. This is not the pure sacred that appeals to a transcendent divine power as the guarantee of the status quo, and it is also no a religious attempt to escape from material existence into some higher, abstract, spiritual world. Instead. heavy metal is related to an interpretation of the death and resurrection of Christ that sees the crucifixion and resurrection as a social and political rupture stemming from te inbreaking of an “event” – a manifestation of an unnamable and unmappable force that relativizes every social, institutional, and cultural form of ideology. This interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not a supernatural guarantee of a particular way of life, it is primarily an event that both demythologizes and remythologizes, rupturing the status quo to make possible a new way of being in the world. – Jason Lief, Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within The Secular West: Trangressing The Sacred, p.73

We walked away from Eden
Put Heaven in the sky
Put angels on the houses
That the devil lives inside – “In A Garden Made Of Stones”, Dead Soul Tribe, lyrics by Devon Graves

Polish Black Metal band Behemoth in concert. As I told my daughter when she told me they’re scary, “They’re supposed to be.”

Every once in a while, when on Amazon, I will type the words “heavy metal” and “Christianity” into the Books search bar. Up until a few weeks ago, all I saw were the usual, nonsensical “evangelical” books talking about how evil heavy metal is. What happened a few weeks ago was this book. I was shocked. Could it be someone had written the book I keep telling myself I’m going to write someday, a book that explores the complex, ambiguous, and contradictory relationship between heavy metal and Christianity, a book that takes both metal and Christianity seriously?

After hemming and hawing over the price – it was listed at $90, not unusual for an academic monograph on a specialized topic from a small publisher – I ordered it. Ironically, it arrived on Easter Sunday. I must admit I was excited to read this book.

Rarely have I read a book so poorly written, even more poorly printed (my copy is so filled with errata it became frustrating at  times to read), that said so little about something that deserves a far better treatment than it received here. While I applaud Jason Lief for the attempt, the execution was awful. It needed to go through at least one more rewrite with a polishing of proofs, judging just by the run-on sentences alone. This isn’t nitpicking. You’re supposed to be an academic. The least you can do is write like someone with an education.

Now, these are just the physical flaws in the presentation. It might have been rescued had Lief not said so little, said it over and over again, until I found myself having to wait a day or two between chapters. It is that bad.

First of all, if you’re going to write about the relationship between heavy metal and Christianity, you should be able to talk about the music qua music. It isn’t enough to point out that heavy metal represents more than just music, but a set of social and cultural practices. If you find yourself noting only, and often, that heavy metal music is loud, its lyric content often dealing in profane and even blasphemous subjects, you might want to stop and do research on the music itself. Not just the volume, but the mixture of timbres – heavily distorted guitars often tuned down, an emphasis on rhythm that pushes both the bass guitar and drums further up in the mix, vocal styles that range from operatic through nearly unintelligible grunting to heavily distorted screaming – the musical choices of modes and harmonic structures that rely on dissonance, all go to make up heavy metal’s appeal. The communities around metal form in response to the musical experience, then spreading out as other aspects, from the concert experience, serious discussion of lyrical content and choices, and setting the music in historic and social context. A serious discussion of heavy metal as a musical form (or forms, since there are varieties of heavy metal) is important if we are to understand how the music operates as what Lief calls “the impure sacred”.

Second, if you’re going to write about heavy metal and Christianity from the perspective both of a fan of the genre and a practicing, professing Christian, it might be a good idea to offer a clear theological framework at the beginning of your work, rather than relying on secular philosophers who, while certainly important for setting cultural and social questions in a larger context, are no substitute for a theologian or theologians whose confessional stance offers readers the opportunity to think differently about both heavy metal and Christianity. While I like the choice of Jurgen Moltmann as a theological guide, he is the only true theologian offered, and he makes a very late appearance at that. We are offered Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Bataille,Taylor, Bordieu, Zizek, and other social and cultural theorists long before we encounter an actual professing theologian. Again, this is not nit-picking. The title has Christianity as its first topic. It might be nice to have a serious discussion of the necessarily ambiguous nature of confessional theology when dealing with any cultural form. It might also be important to discuss, rather than just mention, how the profanity and blasphemy of some heavy metal operates; how it functions both as music and as cultural product; and the varieties of profanity and blasphemy on offer, from band names through stage presentation to the interactions of fans with fans as well as with the band on matters of religion and its symbolic place within heavy metal.

Furthermore, with regard to the matter of “Christianity”, please please please offer very clear definitions and distinctions. Early in the work, Lief attempts to separate “Christianity” from “the Christ event”, the latter being somehow separate from any theological or doctrinal impurities, as if speaking about “the Christ event” isn’t already offering a confessional and theological stance that needs to be fleshed out rather than merely stated. If, however, this is a distinction you wish to keep throughout the work, it would probably be a good idea not to use the terms interchangeably. Quite apart from the naive understanding of the use of the words “Christ event”, offering “Christianity” as a synonym even though you’ve already drawn in important distinction between the two terms was frustrating, to say the least.

The most frustrating thing, the thing that made me want to bang my head against a wall, was the repetition of the following phrase or its variant throughout the work: Heavy metal/the Christ event as impure sacred creates an abrupt break with the status quo, offering the possibility for genuine community and new forms of political activity. This sentence occurs so often, sometimes in the same run-on sentence, my eyes blurred when I saw it. My problem, however, is not the phrase itself; it is, rather, there is no discussion of how this happens or, except in a very brief discussion of Pauline theology, what constitutes these communities as distinct from the larger culture. Asserting over and over again that it happens isn’t enough. How it occurs, how these occurrences work themselves out in and through the various communities mentioned (but never defined) are all necessary if your goal is to show the similarities between heavy metal as socio-cultural practice and Christianity as more than simple confessional stance regarding the relationship between the created order and divinity.

I finished this book feeling taken advantage of. I spent a whole lot of money on a work that seemed to promise a thoughtful discussion of the complex and multifaceted relationship between Christianity and heavy metal. What I received was, for all intents and purposes, a poorly written first-draft of an undergraduate thesis that did little justice either to heavy metal both as a musical form and as cultural practice or Christianity both as confession and faithful practice.

I think it’s time I tried my hand at this.

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Pariahs And Extremes: Two Books On Heavy Metal Subgenres

Surely the line-blurring and inspired musical richness that has happened to metal, partly thanks to progressive rock’s influence, is occurring in reverse with prog rock. The two black sheep genres have shared commonalities for a long time – it’s only natural that they should be strange and very compatible bedfellows at this stage. – Jeff Wagner, Mean Deviations: Four Decades Of Progressive Heavy Metal (2010), p. 333

Death metal traditionally has been about pushing boundaries and being heavy and dark-sounding with its very own style of usually low pitched vocals. As long as all of the aforementioned are present in the music, it can sagely be categorized as death metal, and remaining true to the style’s origins. – Necrophagist guitarist Muhammed Suicmez, quoted in Albert Mudrian, Choosing Death: The Improbably History of Death Metal & Grind Core, 2d edition, (2016), p. 322

British Death Metal pioneers Carcass in concert

Every once in a while, mostly out of some sense of duty, I’ll try to sit and listen to opera. I suppose just listening to opera isn’t the same as seeing opera. All the same, I’ll give it a go. I always end up in the same place. This is unlistenable. I have nothing against people who enjoy opera. Much like those people for whom Elvis Costello is some master of music, an opinion I don’t share, I accept that there are people who find beauty in opera.

I don’t.

And it’s not because I don’t like orchestral music. Opera doesn’t move me. The sounds aren’t agreeable. The vocal style is ridiculously overwrought. The whole and the parts that make up that whole just aren’t my cup of tea. I don’t consider this a moral failing any more that I believe those who do find much to love in opera are bad or wrong for doing so.

For some reason, people who enjoy styles of music that, for whatever reason, are labeled as pariahs or extreme, get labeled as bad people. There isn’t a single fan, say, of Fates Warning or Cannibal Corpse who would believe for one moment their music has, or at least should have, mass appeal. Those like me who hear in these very different kinds of music something beautiful, something sublime, something energizing aren’t bad people. Nor do we suffer from some kind of egregious lack of taste; on the contrary, fans understand precisely what the music is and what it does for them. Check out any web forum or Facebook page for any band labeled either prog metal or death metal and you’ll probably find lengthy discussions of the music qua music. They get it.

Heavy metal as a musical style has been around since the late-1960’s/early-1970’s. Very early, bands so labeled differed from one another in sound pallet, style, instrumentation, and songs. I cannot imagine two bands more different than Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Although both are firmly rooted in American blues, there is little that unites them musically. Yet both are called “heavy metal”, although (funny enough) both refuse the label. Adding in bands as varied as Deep Purple, Rainbow, Uriah Heep, and later Motorhead, it became clear very early on that, as a style, heavy metal meant pretty much whatever the person using it wanted it to mean. From the start, then, the basic form – loud, heavily distorted guitars; heavy drumming (Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath points out the only thing “heavy” about Led Zeppelin was John Bomham’s unsubtle drumming); non-traditional subject matter (most heavy metal songs aren’t about the usual boy-meets-girl) – could be used as a launching pad to create a variety of sounds. As malleable as the blues, heavy metal offered both musicians and fans exciting opportunities to experiment, push the envelope, be louder and faster and write songs about anything under the sun, from rage against political folly (Napalm Death) through the horrors of the Holocaust (Slayer’s “Angel of Death”) to a variety of spiritual quests (Morbid Angel’s early flirtations with Satanism; Pain of Salvation’s Be album). Through in a heavy dose of gore and violence (Cannibal Corpse, Carcass) and an overweaning sense of dread and even horror (use of augmented 4th chords, diminished 9ths, and other dissonant chordal structures), combined with impressive musical skill, and Metal and its various sprigs and sprouts offer something for everyone.

As long as you’re willing to pay the entry fee.

The fee includes setting to one side one’s expectations of what the word music means, or should mean. In particular, one needs to set to one side the notion we are dealing with some aberrant form of “pop” music. While rooted in the blues and owing much to rock’s 60’s experimentalisms, heavy metal is as distinct from rock as house music is from rhythm and blues. Another part of the fee is allowing oneself to feel as well as think about what you’re hearing. Prog metal, death metal, black metal – these are musics first and foremost about the feelings they arouse both in musicians and listeners. Whether rage or sublimity, power or serenity, you need to let the music open you up to feeling. At the same time, these various styles of music insist you think about what you’re hearing. While you’re hearing it. There is something that, should you let it, pulls you in and insists that you listen, really listen, to what you’re hearing. Active listening involves considering both the parts and the larger whole they produce.

Finally, probably the biggest hurdle most people who aren’t into these styles of music find impossible to overcome is the vocal style. While many progressive metal bands, from “The Big Three” Queensryche, Fates Warning and Dream Theater, to Sieges Even and Nightwish still use what’s called “clean” singing, part of death metal’s trademark is screamed or deep guttural vocals, epitomized in the impossible-to-understand George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher of Cannibal Corpse. Corpsegrinder’s vocals are more over-the-top than standard issue death metal vocalists. Death’s Chuck Schuldiner, Carcass’s Jeff Walker, Arch Enemy’s Angela Gassow and Alissa White-Gluz, and Opeth’s Michael Akerfeldt, while either screaming or grunting, are still understandable once you accept this is the way the music sounds. Sitting and feeling and listening and thinking pretty quickly makes it clear the vocal style fits the rest of the music exactly. Just as the quasi-operatic singing of Geoff Tate and James LaBrie fits with Prog Metal’s style.

Mean Deviation and Choosing Death are both histories of very different – yet still occasionally overlapping – style of music. Both consider the musics under consideration to have deep histories Mean Deviation takes the roots of Prog Metal back to Black Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath album; Choosing Death, a more narratively-structured work, begins with the proto-grindcore of the pre-Napalm Death band Discharge, with their rejection of punk’s boring sameness in the mid- to late-1980’s. Thorough, encyclopedic without ever losing the reader’s attention, the books offer a journey across rarely-trod musical landscapes. While die-hard fans might quibble about this or that particular band being included while one of their favorites is excluded (one of the oddities of the fandoms of both progressive metal and death metal is the extreme boundary policing they perform, excluding all sorts of bands and music due to arbitrary, often nonsensical, rules). While he receives mention in both books, I have to say I was disappointed avant-garde jazz musician John Zorn and his band Naked City aren’t discussed at all. I also thought the distinction between prog metal as an approach to music and Prog Metal as descriptive of the far-too-many Dream Theater clones (Shadow Gallery and Symphony X are the two most well-known) was important, but took up just a little too much space. Honoring the weirdness of Canada’s Voivod, Texas’s Watchtower, Florida’s Atheist, and Germany’s Sieges Even, however, was more than welcome. Richmond Virginia’s Lamb of God, self-described “pure American Death Metal” isn’t mentioned at all, despite both their popularity and inventiveness.

These are minor quibbles. Both books offer both the die-hard fan, the regular fan, and even someone not at all familiar with either musical style or scenes, comprehensiveness, an openness to the varieties that exist under each heading, while still critical of musical shortcomings. Choosing Death in particular drags along discussions of the labels and the politics of the music industry in its discussion, something that fleshes out the context of Death Metal’s various rises and falls. Both books are written by men who are fans of the music as well as real writers – Jeff Wagner is a rock historian; Albert Mudrian is a rock journalist – so the books are free of the kind of bad writing that might plague others who would attempt something as monumental as chronicling these musical genres. Neither book attempts to defend the music in question (much as I did above). The existence and continued popularity of both prog and death metal speak for themselves; the styles need no defense. This lack of any apologetics might seem to bar the door to the non-fan who might be interested in learning more about these two strange sets of sounds. Or, it might offer a non-fan a chance to learn something without any time wasted trying either to explain or defend the musical choices these bands have made.

As I write this closing paragraph, the song “Vertical” by the Polish progressive death metal band Votum plays on Spotify. Clear vocals and keyboards mix with downtuned guitars over odd rhythms, yet all firmly rooted in the dissonance of odd and minor chord progressions. We’ve reached the point where musics cross-pollinate, offering new and interesting opportunities both for musicians and listeners. It will never be popular; these are musical styles that aren’t supposed to be popular. They are what they are, and these two works offer for the reader willing to set aside prejudice the opportunity to learn not only where they came from, but where they might be headed in years ahead.

Traces Of The Spirit: The Religious Dimensions Of Popular Music by Robin Sylvan

In a cultural landscape strewn with increasingly strange combinations of the sacred, secular, and profane, we as scholars need to develop theoretical and methodological tools that allow us to see traces of the spirit in these hybrid forms and bring them into sharp relief and focus. – Robin Sylvan: Traces of the Spirit: The Religious Dimensions of Popular Music, p.220.

A hip-hop show. A communion of souls

A hip-hop show. A communion of souls

One of my favorite songs from any genre is Metallica’s “Creeping Death”. My single favorite performance is the one captured in Seattle, 1989, as part of their Live Shit: Binge And Purge collection. At about two minutes and forty-seven seconds in to the song, one camera catches a fan near the front. He can’t be more than sixteen or seventeen years old. He holds up his tour t-shirt and suddenly, his eyes roll back in his head and a maniacal grin spreads across his otherwise handsome young face (the video is here, keep an eye on the time-stamp, or just watch and you’ll see). It is the archetype of what people think when they hear the word “possessed”. It would be more disconcerting if it happened in a different context, say he was talking to his parents when all of a sudden that look on his face appeared. As context is everything, however, it makes a whole lot more sense, particularly if you’re someone at least a bit familiar with the band Metallica, their music, and their fans.

In her published dissertation, Traces of the Spirit, Religious Studies scholar Robin Sylvan seeks to trace the continuities between particular elements of traditional West African musicoreligious practice and what seems to be the emergence of spiritual if not religious elements in particular musical subcultures. She examines four: Deadheads (low-hanging fruit!); ravers; metal fans; and hip-hop culture. She begins with a theoretical discussion, rooted in the history-of-religions school of scholarship, grounding her contention that our post-modern culture is peculiarly stationed to offer opportunities for spiritual and even religious growth in the context of secular, capitalist-commercial popular musics.

A rave. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is the one true Church, holy, apostolic, universal.

A rave. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is the one true Church, holy, apostolic, universal.

She also describes the results of fieldwork in Senegal, Mali, and Ghana where she observed traditional “possession” dances in which spirits or gods would take possession of people in order to perform what is, more or less, community service – answer questions, offer advice or help, reassure the anxious. What is of interest to Sylvan isn’t so much the practical effects of possession so much as the way the men and women open themselves to be so possessed, through a combination of rhythm, particular musical mottoes that invoke particular spirits or gods (it depends upon which society one refers if the people have to do with a god or merely a spirit). She then traces the histories of African people brought to the New World during the slave trade. She notes that the vast majority arrived either in South America or the Caribbean, with only 5% of the total coming to North America. She also notes that in particular those Africans arriving in South America among the Catholic Spanish and Portuguese colonists found fertile soil for a kind of synthesis that has resulted in Vodun (Haiti), Santeria (Cuba), and Candomble (Brazil). In the predominantly Protestant North American context, however, both the strictures on traditional religious practice and the difference between Protestant religious practice and traditional African religious practice led, first, to the subtle changes to African music going underground (something that continues to this day, although for commercial and ideological reasons). While minstrelsy saw both the theft and humiliation of slave songs as well as a kind of respect that couldn’t be acknowledged fully – race is our original sin; how would it be possible for whites to admit they liked the music of their African and African-American slaves? – it also saw the nationalization of these same musical styles that, even before the Civil War, began to merge with traditional folk musics from other immigrant subcultures.

After getting to the rise of rock and roll, the emergence of rock as distinct from rock and roll and the growth of musically-rooted subcultures – sometimes limited by race or class; usually tied in to the commercial desires of the recording industry – she makes the point that long-lasting musically-rooted subcultures are good testing ground for seeing if there remain traces of African and early African-American musical and religious themes. She stresses the physical, the psychological, the philosophical, and the ritual aspects are all areas to explore.

Testament fans at Copenhell. David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod.

Testament fans at Copenhell. David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod.

Of the four subcultures with which she works, she seems the least sure of herself when it comes to heavy metal. Her rather cursory – and erroneous – recounting of the history of the music, rooted in Robert Walser’s Running With The Devil: Gender, Power, And Madness In Heavy Metal and Deena Weinstein’s Heavy Metal miss the depth, variety, and profundity both in the music as well as fans. One would have thought the mosh-pit, which not only features people slamming in to one another, but mostly has people walking in a continuous circle – like the possession dances she observed in Ghana, or the ring-shouts of African-American Pentecostal Churches – would have been an obvious place to discuss how the power of rhythm can move people to become possessed. While spending a bit too much time of the superficial darkness of the music, she doesn’t seem to grasp that darkness – like the lyrics of hip-hop, to which she several times refers through the lens of Chuck D’s famous quote that it’s the CNN of African-American youth – and even flirtations with Satanic and Pagan imagery doesn’t exist either for its own sake or even, by and large, as a serious reflection of the bands or the fans. Rather, these are vehicles for expressing frustration, for the working out of rage, alienation, that sense of being Other both by youth and adult followers of the music. There is a great deal more she could have said but chose not to say about the spiritual aspects of heavy metal.

Spinners dancing and twirling in the hallway. Giants Stadium at the Grateful Dead Concert, 9 July 1989. Praise the LORD with tambourine and dance

Spinners dancing and twirling in the hallway. Giants Stadium at the Grateful Dead Concert, 9 July 1989. Praise the LORD with tambourine and dance

This, however, doesn’t detract either from the surprises her study offers. At a time when the mainline churches scramble to make sense of the changes in society and culture that push their numbers ever lower, it is refreshing to see there are real resources – spiritual, God-soaked resources – that, should they so choose, are available for these same churches. For far too long, all we have wanted to do is anathematize popular musics with a mindlessness that borders on the humorous. Wouldn’t it be far better to acknowledge that Spirit blows where it will? That maybe, just maybe, people as disparate as ravers and those in hip-hop culture have seeds that could bear fruit for all of us?