Spending most of your waking hours following and listening to pop music is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, there’s pretty much always something new and interesting to hear, and the tap is always open. On the other hand, it’s hard to avoid the more obnoxious aspects of popular music, namely the kind of petty, childish drama that it can sometimes bring out of people. Anyone reading this column has likely already been inundated with stories about Beyonce lip-synching the National Anthem, or about what she wore at the Super Bowl. You heard about Chris Brown’s beef with Frank Ocean, further proving how much of an irredeemable asshole Chris Brown is. And let’s not forget the morning a bunch of small-minded jerks on the Internet (that must be really hard to find) attacking Grimes for voicing support of PSY’s “Gangnam Style.”
It’s enough to make me say, “Fuck this, I’m just going to go listen to some metal.”
Truth be told, that happens almost daily for me. Metal, for me, is a source of endless inspiration. As I explained over drinks to some friends, recently, metal is a genre that’s defined by its ability to dazzle. Metal musicians tend toward the virtuosic, and sometimes go well overboard in their capacity to show that off. For me, however, the more impressive metal bands are those who balance that display of flash and technicality with greater attention to songwriting. When done right, that delicate balance between superhuman musical ability and unforgettable melodies can be the most satisfying thing in the world. Metal is nothing if not first-class entertainment, not to mention incredibly cathartic. It’s a powerful and abrasive style of music, yet try as I might, I have trouble convincing others to share in my infatuation for all things heavy. But I acknowledge that it’s not for everyone.
My journey into metal began sometime around junior high, when my then-obsession with all things grunge, and heavier post-hardcore bands like Helmet and Quicksand, led me to embrace local hard rock radio station Rock 102.1, now known as Rock 105.3. Its format changed a bit over time, focusing less on now-forgotten Southern rockers Jackyl or Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’ and more on nu-metal acts like Chevelle, Stone Sour, Staind and Linkin Park. But in the ‘90s, it was a haven of enlightenment for an impressionable and volume-craving youngster entering into what would be the most awkward years of his life. (Ah, the memories.)
Between the highly sought-after spins of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains, I was introduced to a world of hard rock and heavy metal that I barely knew existed. Van Halen and Metallica were household names, of course, and I had some (just barely) passing knowledge of Black Sabbath. Yet soon I was introduced to Judas Priest. And Megadeth. And Faith No More. And Tool. And Danzig. Before I knew it, I was well on my path to lifelong headbanging (figuratively of course — I’ve never had hair long enough for it).
Still, for much of my maturity into accepting the heavier side of music, I always fancied myself more of a punk guy than a metalhead, though that’s only because I was too naive to realize you could be both without contradicting each other (see: Discharge). I had a hardcore band in high school called Demagog (because taking off the “ue” looked tuff). Most of my friends were punk rock types. And yet by the late ’90s, despite having branched out into post-rock and lo-fi indie pop, my most-spun band was probably still the Deftones.
A false sense of maturity and sophistication during my college years put the brakes on my metal quest, temporarily, even if the urge to rock the fuck out was bubbling just underneath the surface. Part of me was seduced by the lure of lo-fi beard folkies like Iron and Wine. But while I still like Sam Beam and other such hirsute troubadours’ music just fine, the great mellowing-out of ‘03-’04 was just a brief phase, after my brother did me the solid of introducing me to Mastodon’s Leviathan. Leviathan begat Boris’ Pink. Pink begat Jesu’s Conqueror. Conqueror begat Baroness’ Red Album. Red Album begat Converge’s Jane Doe. And somewhere down the line I found myself surrounded by kids in Mayhem vests at a Wolves in the Throne Room show.
That maybe doesn’t sound like that big of a leap, and maybe it isn’t, but it’s worth mentioning how broad metal has gotten over the past few decades. If we’re counting Black Sabbath’s 1970 debut as the birth of metal (and it seems like a pretty strong consensus at this point), then metal has had 43 years of life, growth and development, and in that time, too many subgenres to count have been born. While there aren’t many such subgenres that I don’t enjoy on at least some level, when I encounter one that’s even a little off-putting, more so than feel repelled by it, I look at it more like a challenge: given more familiarity, can I like it? The answer isn’t always yes, but when it is, it feels like a victory. I initially thought I wasn’t prog-dork enough to get into Opeth. I was wrong. Ditto Khanate, whose psychopathic sludge will send you to the dark side.
A couple weeks ago, LA Weekly compiled a list of what it deemed the 20 Greatest Metal Albums of All-Time, which was a fairly bold if expected move. And for the most part it delivered to expectations — Iron Maiden, Megadeth, Metallica, Pantera, Slayer, Judas Priest’s British Steel – with a few fun surprises, such as Baroness’ Blue Record. Yet as I’ve come to recognize after all this time, metal fandom is a highly personal thing and at times entirely defiant of canon. But there’s always a guiding principle in place when consensus can’t be reached: if it rocks hard enough and loud enough, the more fun it’s likely going to be.
I’m not here to debate the merits of LA Weekly’s list, no matter how many amazing records it leaves out, but in the interest of generosity, I’m providing a playlist below of my own personal favorite metal songs. Now, let’s all rock out together.