Monday, January 25, 2010

Idioms to the lions

There’s a phrase that you’re, more than likely, familiar with to some degree. It has been pervading the sphere of metal for a number of years now. The term to which is being alluded is “Christian metal”.

In a frustrating and outright irksome manner this phrase has morphed superciliously into a sub-genre of its own. But the ugly truth is that it’s utterly ludicrous to assume that a word referring to set of beliefs can describe a band’s entire sound and style, and with that, appoint a weighty and infuriating burden upon their unwilling shoulders. But, how did this notion come to the fore?

Well, many would blame Stryper, the band who are accountable for some journalist(s) coining the, thankfully rarely used, term “white metal”. Formed in 1983, the band played a style easily paralleled to the glam dominance of the time, but instead of Girls Girls Girls, you had track titles like 'To Hell With The Devil' and 'In God We Trust'. Despite some reasonable attention, for many they were an amusing entity and in many respects that is true as in actuality, Stryper have been essentially a tepid, minute blip on the screen, and even remained so after their reunion in 2003.

But in more later times and with far more relevance to now, one must look at Living Sacrifice. Reforming only in 2008 after their original split in 2005, Living Sacrifice are a ruthless force of chaotic metal with dashes of death and thrash, but they’ve been dealt this unfortunate card of “Christian metal”. Granted, they are Christians, their lyrics are overtly religious, upholding strong Christian beliefs and damning the heathens etc. etc. An example of this is in the track, 'Reject' with the lyrics, ‘Not God, reject. Reject all lies. Rebuke, take hold. Intrepid Spirit of God.’ But just because of your lyrical subject matter, should it determine the name of the tag that the press and fans put on you? If so, by that, far too in depth and bluntly, fastidious logic Rage Against The Machine could be called something makeshift and inane like Political Angst Rock. Hell, Protest The Hero’s Fortress album would fall under Genghis Khan/Goddess Worship/Irish Mythology metal. Point made.

From the 00s on, “Christian Metal” is more associated with many mainstream metal acts, like As I Lay Dying and Underoath, who are enjoying some huge mainstream success. They’re on massive tours and have surprisingly high record sales in an age when people just aren’t buying albums. Yet you’ll still find an irritating exchange of words in many a conversation when some people are trying to describe them: “What are they like?” - “Christian metal.”

It’s a lazy cataloguing of music that grows more and more in this time where everything needs to fit snugly into specific boxes. Sure, As I Lay Dying are far from being a ground breaking act in their creative outpour of late. Artistically, they share the same, now inundated, vein as a lot of similar bands. But they still retain their own distinct edge that made them a fairly inventive band at the release of Beneath The Encasing Of Ashes, their debut record in 2001. The harsh repercussion of this explanatory indolence is that fans end up honing in too much on the fact that they’re Christians when discussing their music and attempting to describe it, it shouldn’t play any role.

But the oddest of all the Christian labelling of bands has to be in metal’s most extreme form; black metal. Christian black metal (or sometimes referred to as “Unblack metal”); this phrase has brought many a smirk to black metal purists’ face and to be honest you can’t blame them. Bands such as this include Horde from Australia. However, that’s not to say that a Christian playing black metal is laughable. But the purists will vehemently argue that what keeps this genre’s dark heart beating is abhorrence for religion and allegiance to Satanism or sometimes Paganism. The church burners will agree. The murderer Varg Vikerness will agree. With that still in mind, it is with boisterous candour that we should exclaim that times have changed.

Black metal was born from the, than original jammings of Venom (who actually gave us the term with their second record Black Metal), Mercyful Fate, Bathory and Tom G. Warrior’s early activity in the extraordinarily imperative Hellhammer and eventual Celtic Frost. From there, Norway stepped in and the infamous murders and church burnings of the early 90s occurred. Mayhem, Darkthrone and Burzum were the poster boys of anti-Christianity. But from that early Norwegian scene’s dogma rose the likes of Emperor and Satyricon who eschewed their brethren’s escapades. But the former scene obtained the most notoriety during this time. Their, let’s just be completely honest and have common sense, stupid and immature antics brought fear to people in Norway. They wreaked havoc, all in the name of anti-Christianity and Satanism. But, never have these bands been called Satanic metal, yet Satanism was and is their driving force for the most part. So, why are metal bands of Christian fate so wrongfully tarred? That is the million dollar question.

But let’s return to the topic of subject matter in black metal. Repeat: times have changed. Bands like Absu throughout their career tackled themes like Celtic and Sumerian mythology in their lyrics. In the meantime, everyone’s favourite black metal eco warriors Wolves In The Throne Room stepped away from the cliché. While they don’t print their lyrics Satanism barely registers as a footnote for them. They’ve urged that thematically, nature as well as Shamanism play a more vital role in their music. On our own island, Altar Of Plagues have abstained from typicality with their own elucidations of the ecosystem, urbanisation and oppression.

Black metal has transcended the initial ideology. You don’t have to be a die hard Satanist or purveyor of anti-Christianity to play black metal. Nor do you have to be a “rebellious” teen who thinks that drawing a pentagram on their maths book and adorning corpsepaint makes them kvlt.

But even though this change has occurred it shouldn’t deter bands like that of Gorgoroth, Marduk and 1349 from continuing their barrage of hate fuelled anti-religious rancour. If anything it should compel them to up the ante. Times have changed within the genre and rightfully so. Thus, now the old and new convictions create an enthralling push and pull between the rigid approach of yore and the engrossing experimentation of late. Black metal should not be strictly an ideal but rather a style with ideals open to interpretation which leaves an arena for debate and most importantly, great varied music.

That thought isn’t just for black metal, but all rock and metal. The aforementioned As I Lay Dying and Underoath are now quite big bands. This set of ears deems their success and ever growing fan base to the quality of the music, the work ethic behind their vigorous touring and not giving up. Like any band in their situation it’s earned through years of merciless toil. It’s difficult to imagine an album’s sales sky rocketing because the Pope gave it a thumbs up during the Easter Vigil. An extreme example but again, the point has been made. “Christian metal” has no defining element stylistically, therefore it itself is not a genre. A band of any or no religion can have big riffs, solos, screams and melodies or breakdowns. Lyrics do not determine a classification as was made abundantly clear earlier.

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