Skeletonwitch Logo

…wherein we affirm the tautology of an age-old maxim: indeed, one never truly can predict from whence quality metal shalt spring. And of how a group of five unlikely but determined Ohioans leapt into the global metal limelight in the most unexpected of manners.

I’m from Ohio. I know very little about my home state in terms of relevant historical facts beyond our production no fewer than eight American presidents and uber-heart throb George Clooney. What I can tell you for certain, however, is that Ohio is a very metal state, and has steadily churned out increasingly brutal bands since some outcast kid with a tattered leather jacket and a fuzz pedal in Youngstown got a Black Sabbath import in the late 1960s. The list contains hundreds of almost-and/or-never-were groups but a few standouts with a degree of international renown, even historical significance. It begins with Necrophagia, formed in Wellsville in 1983 and credited as one of the first American bands to call itself by death metal’s namesake. Chimaira, from Cleveland, a band considered a major player in the reputed New Wave of American Heavy Metal (NWOAHM) in the mid-1990s, and whose former drummer Kevin Talley famously auditioned for Slayer in 2001 (the leaked videos for which are all over YouTube, and rightly so, since Talley decimated Slayer’s practice space that fine day). Mushroomhead, another Cleveland-based band (though of the industrial metal sort) whose masks and costumes never appealed to me but made them second-tier darlings of the average Slipknot fan, likely accounting for the band’s worldwide sales of 2 million albums. Underground death metal bands during the 1990s like Decrepit and Gutted, the latter enjoying a short-lived record deal resulting in one full-length album, Bleed for Us to Live, and a prime spot performing at New York’s DeathStock in 1994. A stack of metal-core bands are Ohioan: Miss May I, The Devil Wears Prada, The Crimson Armada, Attack Attack!, and other breakdown-offering groups of twenty-somethings with more tattoos than a super-max cellblock and faces decorated like a bait and tackle shop. The late Jani Lane of Warrant was born John Kennedy Oswald in Akron, and Brian Warner from Canton would one day morph into shock rock icon Marilyn Manson. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in Ohio, and on a few occasions it’s done justice to music history by including rock and metal bands in its annals, most recently Guns N’ Roses.

And then there is Skeletonwitch.

From 2003-2005, I did grad school at Ohio University in Athens, a oasis of a university town in the Buckeye State’s extreme southeast.  Sprinting between classes one afternoon, I entered the Wendy’s on Union Street in downtown Athens to hook up grub with discount Skeletonwitchcoupons Santa had afforded me the previous Christmas.   On the Wendy’s door was posted a haphazardly sketched flyer, one clearly for a local metal gig that very Friday night. First came a minor sensation of shock: I’d been at school there nearly a year already, yet hadn’t spotted the first hint of metal in my college or surrounding community. Not so much as a random freshman roaming campus drunkenly in a Limp Bizkit tee – hardly passing the litmus test for metal but close enough for our purposes – outlandish when you consider there were over 20,000 students there from the lower-middle class backgrounds typically very friendly to the rock trend du jour. As for the flyer, it was minimally crafted with black pen on white paper, and lent the crude impression of having been fashioned by a 12-year old pimping every worn metal cliché – skeletons, pentagrams, and a nearly unreadable logo intended to convey evil. The artwork was scrappy at best, as though that 12-year old drew using his non-dominant foot, Sharpie squeezed tightly between toes, and with eyes taped shut. And so I thought: sweet! Kids getting outta the garage for their first real gig! I’ll make a showing, throw some horns, and support ‘em. They were called Skeletonwitch, which struck an immediate chord with in my balding rocker spirit, having played in the 1990s for a Virginia-based band called Witch Hunt.

And so Friday night came, I grabbed some friends, we went to The Union Bar and Grill in downtown Athens, and dicked with the billiards while awaiting show time. This was not the sort of venue I’d associate with metal, or live bands at all. The stage was nearly on the floor and looked as though it had been rigged solely for the occasion. There was no lighting rig, and I don’t recall even spotting a house sound PA. First, a teenage cover band playing Iron Maiden and Slayer songs went on and did a respectable job: “The Trooper” and “South of Heaven” were at least recognizable, and watching them struggle thru the leads transported me straight back to my own days of covering “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and thinking “War Ensemble” was the fastest thing I’d ever heard. I actually felt bad for the kids in this garage band Skeletonwitch: how would they compete with THAT?

And then Scott Hendrick and company hit the stage, forthwith undoing me of my pre-show, flyer-based impressions. They weren’t kids. All grown-assed men with facial hair and tattoos to prove it, Skeletonwitch were young professionals. Their songs were Skeletonwitch Live 2expertly structured and contained hooks both recognizable and infectious to my finely tuned metal ear. Each band member delivered his respective metal goods with a precision typically reserved for more seasoned acts. This was no minor feat considering the blast beats, dual-guitar speed riffs and harmonies pitching forth from Skeletonwitch’s sizable taken abyss and into the club’s poor acoustics were somehow all decipherable. The crowd loved them, applauding uproariously following the cymbal decay at the closure of every tune, and based on the studious looks and slow-spreading look of respect on the audience’s Abercrombie & Fitch wearing faces, I don’t think most present were the band’s friends or family. Instead, they were college kids who happened to be in the club for beer and pool and hook-ups, and didn’t realize Skeletonwitch were going to play or what they were about. And Skeletonwitch triumphed.  After they wrapped up the set and moved their gear out of the venue, I found Scott Hendricks at the bar cooling off, and introduced myself. He told me they’d formed only the year prior and hadn’t played many shows. But, he assured me, they wanted to get bigger, one day touring and recording. I wished him luck, and I meant it with all the sincerity I could muster, being a former metal musician and aspirant to touring greatness myself.

But did I realistically believe Skeletonwitch would snap the confines of the micro-cosmic and insular college galaxy of Athens, be catapulted into the broader metal universe, and attain acclaim amongst fans and musical peers alike? No disrespect to the guys, At One With Shadows Album Coverbut a resounding “HELLZ NO!” would have been my response were someone to query me for my sentiments on the topic. Your death metal band can be superior in qualitative terms, and yet you fail to keep your head above the waves, doggy paddle failingly in a tossing sea of exceptional sonic and resource competition. I’ve witnessed many solid bands never get beyond the bedroom, and prematurely chalked up an incipient Skeletonwitch as probable and unfortunate company among them.  Fortunately for everyone I’m not a gambling man, for my losses on that bet would have been gargantuan. Later that year, Skeletonwitch dropped their first album, At One with the Shadows, on the band’s own fledgling label Shredded Records. This release performed no miracles for the band in terms of international profile but did provide them an initial platform to make their first out-of-state concert appearances, though not properly touring. The greater United States and rest of the world would have to wait two more years before Skeletonwitch were unleashed for metal fans far and wide to behold. They best they could muster that would pass for true road work during this formational period was a three-day mini-tour in November 2006 with the band Cauldron, essentially a long weekend out of town, though this is hardly a strike against a band without a proper record deal and consequent label support.

In 2007, fortunes elevated rapidly and unexpectedly for Skeletonwitch, with the veritable flight velocity of a Napalm Death blast beat. After being signed to Prosthetic Records that year, Skeletonwitch released their third studio album, Beyond the PermafrostBeyond the Permafrost Album Coverand departed the comforts of home in Ohio to make their first protracted forays into the metaphorical metal frontline trenches. These trips underpinned the band’s simultaneous reputations as a nearly non-stop touring unit, and a group of affable, easy-to-hang-with and beer swilling Midwesterners who were uncommonly professional and organized in their approach to the business of touring. They played the New England Hardcore and Metal Festival, participated in consecutive tours with Weedeater, Withered, fellow retro-thrashers Municipal Waste and Toxic Holocaust, then ended the year on the Dying Fetus-headlined War of Attrition Tour.  2008 was no less exhausting for the band, by now a seasoned live unit. They hit the highways with fellow metal acts representing, with precious few exceptions, every genre of extreme music, even appealing to crossover audiences by performing alongside metal-core groups like A Life Once Lost and Veil of Maya. They slammed onto European shores for the first time on the Flames and Fury Tour, Breathing the Fire Album Covercriss-crossing ye olde continent with the likes of Hate Eternal and long-enduring Colorado weed and grind enthusiasts Cephalic Carnage. Closing out 2008, Skeletonwitch scored its biggest tour to date when they were picked up – amidst exceptionally stiff competition in the metal touring marketplace – for Danzig’s Blackest of the Black Tour, serving as one of four opening acts including Dimmu Borgir, Moonspell, and Winds of Plague.  2009 boasted much of the same, but with Skeletonwitch expanding its fan base and deliberately bounding its way up the package tour rosters in which they participated incessantly by this point. Spending virtually the entire annum in an extended touring mode, Skeletonwitch performed with a varied slate of contemporary metal acts from around the scene like The Black Dahlia Murder, Amon Amarth, Children of Bodom, and Kylesa, ultimately capping the year with another trip to Europe on a rotating tri-headline tour with Goatwhore and Toxic Holocaust. Late in 2009, Skeletonwitch released their third studio album, Breathing the Fire, which debuted at No. 151 on the Billboard 200 charts, evincing the band’s incrementing profile and amassing horde of fans.

2010 saw Skeletonwitch support Cannibal Corpse on the Evisceration Plague North American Tour (and scenes featuring Skeletonwitch were captured for posterity on Cannibal Corpse’s Global Evisceration DVD), kick a 10-day run on that year’s Ozzfest, return to Europe with Warbringer, and participate in a series of other runs across the United States and Canada Skeletonwitch livewith bands like High on Fire, Job for a Cowboy, Withered, and death-grind stalwarts Misery Index. 2011 brought Skeletonwitch’s fourth studio album, Forever Abomination, and witnessed the band touring relentlessly as ever, on what by this point appeared to be an inspired and eternal mission to bring Skeletonwitch’s staple variant of blackened thrash to clamoring audiences anywhere willing to receive them. Jagermeister-sponsored fellow Ohioans Chimaira invited Skeletonwitch to tour, then the band bruised through North America with Forever Abomination Album CoverArch Enemy, Devil Driver, and Taiwan’s own Cthonic, and enjoyed a major bonus illustrating both their recognized draw as a performing unit and the hard-earned respect they were enjoying from metal’s business powers-that-be: Skeletonwitch were finally asked to run Europe’s summer festival circuit. They continued supporting Forever Abomination throughout 2012, making extended touring runs through the same stomping grounds repeatedly, though they spent an increasingly portion of the year in Europe this time to avoid the curse of over-exposure in their homeland. Their final tour of the year saw them return to the United States, however, and featured a schedule utterly grueling by any standard: Skeletonwitch headlined 63 shows in 65 days.

Finally, after establishing themselves as considerably more than a fleeting flash in the pan of extreme music, Skeletonwitch spent 2013 on hiatus from touring, a break they’d earned after nearly six years of incessant road work. Their down time was not necessarily idle time, though, as the band wrote and recorded their fifth studio album, Serpents Unleashed, and climbed right back into their touring saddle in early 2014 supporting Amon Amarth and Enslaved in North America. They were scheduled to make their first run of South East Asia and Australia as well in 2014, but due to an unexpected illness in a key member of the headlining Skeletonwitch were slated to support on the road, the shows had to be rescheduled.

Had I only known, that Friday night in 2004, that I bore testament to the commencement of a metal phenomenon, I’d have offered to serve as a silent investor in Skeletonwitch’s band coffers.

Advertisements

In April 1993, I was a 16-year old high school sophomore perusing an issue of Northern Virginia Rhythm. My area’s best (and if I remember correctly, only) free monthly music newspaper, I’d picked up the latest edition at Music City       Chainletterin Woodbridge, a few miles up the road from where I lived. In those pre-Internet days, reading the music circulars – always available in awkward stacks at area music stores – was the single reliable, surefire avenue to keeping one’s finger on the pulse of the local scene. Normally, Northern Virginia Rhythm, dealt in the rather vanilla wares of whatever the pop rock flavor du jour: and in the early 1990s, this meant predominantly alternative music. Yet and still, the Rhythm occasionally still ran quickies on select area’s glam/hair metal bands, those helium-throated remnants of the previous decade’s withered musical era, despite the tectonic plates of pop culture shifting brutally under their fairy-booted feet. Those infrequent news bits provided me just enough hope to pick up a copy of the Rhythm every month, praying that eventually the paper would pony up useful info about real metal of some variety. And so ‘twas that in April 1993, I found myself chuffed to spot a full-page article about a Maryland-based fanzine called Chainletter. The ‘zine dealt exclusively with all the most extremes subgenres of metal: thrash, death, grindcore, and black. I read with no minor dismay that editor Mark Gonce had already published 12 issues – entire multi-page issues packed with info about the latest and greatest in extreme music worldwide – without my knowledge.

Now, THIS was NEWS. I’d never heard of anything called a “fanzine”, but reading the article aptly surmised the essence of these homegrown fan-driven publications: cheap, photocopied, poor (or non-existent) copy editing, yet packed with information useful for networking with bands, record labels, and other publications, ‘zines were labors of immense and unabashed love by people who sought to connect other people of a community of very few people who were spread over an immense geographic area, i.e. the entire Planet Earth. The dedicated fans-turned-editors producing ‘zines wrote the articles and reviews, transcribed band interviews, and managed the type setting and layout all on their own. Their technologies were typically nothing more than a typewriter, Scotch tape, Elmer’s glue, and a Staples copy machine. The ‘zines served as focal point and clearing house for underground bands, record labels, publications, radio programs, and fans alike. The ‘zines brought people from different walks but common musical interests together through the global postal network: like the demo review you just read? Here’s the band’s address, and you can contact them directly. Practically whizzing my trousers with newfound metal animus as I finished the article in Northern Virginia Rhythm forthwith, in all haste I rushed two bucks out the door in a discreet white envelope.  A short week later, I encountered a brown manila envelope in my mailbox containing Chainletter #12. The handwritten letter of thanks penned by the editor himself immediately imbued me with a sense of belonging, since I knew I’d never get that sort of note from, say, a major publication’s editor upon purchasing a subscription

In the three months that followed, I continued faithfully purchasing the ‘zine every month, and by summer 1993 I’d formally dubbed Chainletter my lifeline to the metal scene. It provided my band Witch Hunt’s first exposure outside my high school, publishing a lukewarm review of one of our demo tapes, an enthusiastic two-song recording Witch Hunt first review ever Chainletter Magazine 1993derivatively entitled Born Dead. The ‘zine also provided info on death metal tours passing through the Washington, Maryland, and Virginia region, timely and immensely helpful since you’d be hard-pressed to acquire that info anywhere else. Editor Mark Gonce played drums for a band called Corpsegrinder, at the time fronted by and up-and-coming singer named George Fisher who was dual-hatted as a member of Monstrosity and would later be catapulted into death metal’s pantheon of deities as vocalist for Cannibal Corpse. If not for Chainletter, I’d never have gone to see Corpsegrinder play at one of the greatest death metal lineups ever to defile a Bathe in Entrails demo inlay cardstage: Suffocation, Dismember, Vader, and Virginia’s own Deceased in Manassas, Virginia in June 1993. But most crucially, the ‘zine raised my awareness of the talent in my own backyard, for it was through Chainletter that I learned of a Maryland-based band called Dying Fetus, then feverishly promoting their Bathe in Entrails demo. I wrote the band offering a demo trade, bassist/vocalist Jason Netherton dubbed me a copy of their material, and I sent the Witch Hunt stuff in return. Jason was a few years older than me and we lived a state apart; in teenage terms these both constituted a chasm between us, thus Jason and I didn’t run in the same circles in those days. But the pen pal contact we entertained did help us develop a relationship over time and, ultimately, we did each other mutual favors: Witch Hunt brought Dying Fetus to play their first-ever Virginia show in December 1994; and Jason invited me to road trip with Dying Fetus to Quebec City for a show in July 1995.

September 1995. It was early in my first semester of university at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in those days a foggy retirement town famous primarily for its Civil War history and useful as a stopover between the national capital and Richmond, nearly a decade before the Beltway’s hegemonic creep rendered Total Metal at College in VA 1995Fredericksburg a suburb of the Washington, DC. I should have been studying but was having none of it. Instead I was wholly distracted from all matters academic by the fact that after a protracted and awkward puberty during which girls pretty much kept their distance and there as no “getting lucky” to be had, now I lived in a co-ed dorm with semi-nude women routinely gallivanting in the hallway. And so I hung out in the women’s wing as often my hectic work, band, and class schedule permitted, praying to make the acquaintance of someone who might provide me company during the humid, pollen-rife evenings of the late Old Dominion summer. Aside from a few hookups, all of which were inconclusive by any standard, I speedily gave up the ghost and settled on having normal female friends: ‘twas far easier than evaluating every woman I met as a potential conquest, the eternal error of countless hormone-charged young men (and, unfortunately, plenty of old ones). And so I began frequented and spirited conversation with a gal named Becky. Preppy yet bizarrely inclined to speak to The New Long Haired Guy, it turned out Becky boasted a bona fide metal connection: her sister was in a relationship with a dude named Kelly, whose agonized throat provided the acrid pipes for Long Island-based ensemble Death Rune. I had never heard Death Rune’s music, but knew of them tangentially through tape traders I’d dealt with in the preceding two years. Both our bands – Witch Hunt and Death Rune – had been reviewed in a handful of the same fanzines, and had received occasional Voracious Contempt album coverairplay on the same late-night college specialty radio programs, the ones run by freakish metal kids playing violent music quite incongruous with the alternative tastes dominating modern rock’s airwaves throughout the ‘90s. As it turned out, within a few weeks of meeting Becky, Witch Hunt accepted an invitation to play Long Island. We’d been asked to open the show at Internal Bleeding’s Voracious Contempt album release party in November, which we readily accepted. Witch Hunt had been trying to get out of state, but unforeseen obstacles conspired to shaft our out-of-state tour ambitions. In September 1995, we’d been booked to play in Saginaw, Michigan but the gig was cancelled after pissed off parents picketed the venue when the occult imagery one of the other bands offended their religious sensibilities. The Long Island show opening for Internal Bleeding would therefore be our first “real” travel gig. I asked Becky to pass word to Kelly that he ought make it to the gig. Come November, we traveled to New York, played the gig, I met Kelly, and a friendship ensued.

Fast forward about a year, to summer 1996. I’d barely croaked through the final throes of my freshman year at university. I was still playing for Witch Hunt, and our debut CD, Prophecies of a Great Plague, was pending release Prophecies of a Great Plague album coveron Mexico’s X-Rated Records. But as would happen routinely with Witch Hunt – both during and after my tenure with the band – at the precise moment when things seemed on track, something always set the band back. In this case, the problem was mine. My college dorms were closed for the summer, so I had to rent a room from a family friend locally to remain in the area, that I might stick around to practice with the band. But due to a domestic violence situation involving the family I was renting from, I thought it better to move out. There was nothing else around for $25 per week, and so I was compelled to move to my parents’ place in North Carolina for what remained of the summer. I ended up spending the entire summer of 1996 at my parents’ place. Which meant I wasn’t rehearsing with Witch Hunt, and the other two guys unexpectedly had a lot of idle time on their hands. Witch Hunt’s drummer and the band’s primary talent, Erik, was looking for something to do. He’d been working at the Midnight Video Club, a porno video emporium in northern Virginia with a standing selection of 50,000 skin flicks at all times. Erik was making double minimum wage, wore metal shirts to work, and frequently served as chauffer to starlets in town for autograph sessions. Essentially, he was our hero.

Yet his sights were set on musical grandeur, and when Erik leaked word that he would be unencumbered during summer 1996, he didn’t wait long before opportunity came knocking. Dying Fetus asked him to sit behind the kit for a handful of American east coast and Canadian shows they’d scheduled to christen the release of the first full-lengthPurification Through Violence album cover album, Purification Through Violence, set to hit the streets in summer 1996 courtesy of Illinois’ Pulverizer Records. Erik did not have to be asked twice. And rightly so, since even a metal dufus could see Dying Fetus was on the cusp of something big, a breakthrough of some kind. Articles on the band featured routinely in all the most important underground metal publications, and even in a handful of the glossy-covered ones available in major bookstores chains like Borders, no petty accomplishment for a brutal death metal band in the mid-1990s. Yet despite the band’s brilliant songwriting intertwined with their high/low vocal interplay and John Gallagher’s arpeggio-sweep solos, percussion was persistently Dying Fetus’ weak link. Correctly sensing this was the only serious obstacle between their band and greatness, the band placed a call to Erik as they got ready for the album’s release and subsequent string of shows. Two weeks into Erik’s time with Dying Fetus, he called me excitedly, splooging into the phone that what was originally designed to be just a few shows had morphed into a full North American tour supporting Canada’s Kataklysm and Florida’s Monstrosity, easily two of Erik’s favorite bands. The tour was slated to run July-August 1996 and would see the band performing roughly 30 shows in the United States and Canada.

The day after speaking to Erik, I got a call from Kelly, who phoned me from Long Island. Unaware that Erik had joined Dying Fetus, Kelly dropped a serious knowledge bomb on me: he was tour managing for Kataklysm on the upcoming North American jaunt about which Erik had spoken. But apparently, Dying Fetus’ inclusion on the bill was Erik with Dying Fetus 2001not set in concrete yet, and a very animated Erik had committed the musician’s cardinal sin of prema-tour ejaculation when he called me. As it turned out, Kelly said, they hadn’t determined who would open the show yet, but had whittled the list down to two possibilities: Dying Fetus and a band from Ohio called Decrepit. Seeing the opportunity to help shore up the tour for Erik’s sake – and to repay the favor Dying Fetus had done me when they invited me to travel with them to Quebec the previous year – I recounted in lurid detail to Kelly my earlier chat with Erik and explained to him in no uncertain terms that, honestly, I probably wouldn’t be with Witch Hunt much longer, and wanted Erik to have other opportunities since he likely wasn’t going to acquire them through me. Kelly, ever a bro, decided then and there that the tour’s opening honors would thereby fall to Dying Fetus. And that, all ye death metal faithful, is how Maryland’s finest landed their first North American tour.

Violent Evolution cover

Violent Evolution: The Story of KREATOR is a page-turner from the word go. Why is that? I’ll attempt setting aside my lifelong proclivity for all things metal  – in particular well-scripted narratives about bands I’ve personally loved since my teenage years – and give the book an objective literary write-up in the following paragraphs. (As though it were ACTUALLY possible for a metal head to be objective about Germany’s thrash metal titans…)

Foremost is that any metalhead will appreciate Kreator’s chronicle. Older fans will be taken back, waaaaaay back, to the humble beginnings of it all. They will hence delight in the nostalgia Kreator’s story provokes: the olden days of VLUU L310 W  / Samsung L310 Wan incipient but global underground extreme metal scene characterized by fan unity, tape traders, Xeroxed ‘zines, high-tops and denim jackets with Venom back patches, all leap from the pages as you leaf through various chapter’s in Kreator’s storied career. This is especially true regarding the sections dealing with the band’s early career up through Coma of Souls, when Kreator was heir apparent to the throne of the second-tier of the thrash heap – behind the Big 4 – with bands like Exodus, Testament, and Death Angel. Younger fans have but a single reason to read this book: these rambunctious breakdown upstarts ought to know how the Teutonic legends laid the foundation for everything fast and belligerent they’re listening to on their iPhones today. Your Warbringer ring tone? Your 1,000-song iTunes playlist with Killswitch Engage and My Dying Bride co-existing sonically and peacefully? You can thank Kreator, and a very small cadre of bold men and women in Europe and the US in the early 1980s, for rendering it a reality.

Beyond that, young or old, anyone can appreciate a touching come-from-behind story like Kreator’s. They started off ravenous in 1980s, escaping the confines of mining town Essen for greener metal pastures abroad; the band experienced a lull in the 1990s when the sands of pop culture shifted under metal’s feet, and for a short while all seemed lost, perhaps a musical specimen relegated to the proverbial yesteryear; and then as the corner turned into the new millennium, Mille caught a second wind, bounding back with utter vengeance and producing three of the mightiest thrash albums of all time: Enemy of God, Hordes of Chaos, and Phantom Antichrist. These are the kind of records you expect young hungry bands to release early in their careers, not after 20 years and a million miles traveled. Compare Kreator’s latter-day work to contemporaries like Metallica or Megadeth who have long been soft and – in Metallica’s specific case – can barely sing/play their own songs anyhow, and judge for yourself: creeping ever-closer to 50, Mille and company could give any 21 year old a run for his metal money in terms of songwriting and delivery. It’s like they say in Chile, “Mas sabe el diablo por viejo que diablo.” (The devil is smarter because he’s experienced, not because he’s the devil.) That is a story worth telling, and the author’s done a noble job of recreating it.

The book’s strong suits are, first, that it was written with such passion. That much jumps off the page at every turn. It frequently feels like a friend is enthusiastically telling you stories, as opposed to reading them. I don’t know how SAM_0519much of this was apparent in the original German version, but if the Swedish translators of the English edition were faithful to the sentiment the author intended to convey, then it’s clear he had a hella good time, a lot of laughs, and a good amount of reflection while penning this work. It’s exciting to read. A corollary is that it was written with an eye toward evincing the fundamental human qualities of the band members themselves. While it’s true that he attempted to be complete – or at least as complete as anyone could be cramming 25 years into just over 175 pages – the majority of the stories in the book tend to focus less on the technical, functional side of the band (i.e. business), and more on the human one, portraying them as they are: working class kids from working class places, who made a far-fetched commitment early in life and stuck it out, living to tell a tale of success probably beyond their own wildest imaginations.

A second strong point is the host of tour stories. Pulling together a collection of the most relevant ones for a band that’s been on the road over 25 years is no simple endeavor. The author does as admirable job of sifting through the accumulated media haze existing around the band for over two decades, and culls the shots that relate Kreator’s storied trek to immortality aptly. He hits every stage of their career: the band’s formative years playing garage-styled gigs, the initial period of success through Coma of Souls, their mid-1990s period of diminished fortunes playing to small crowds after producing sub-par albums (Renewal and Endorama most notably) that left even the band’s most devoted fans scratching their heads with no small measure of confusion, and their comeback and subsequent festival headlining performances and lengthy independent tours around the globe. The stories flesh out the key component to Kreator’s ultimate success: being on the road, being a working band. They are ably buttressed by a comprehensive tour date archive in the book’s annexes. It comes to an abrupt halt in 2011, which I’m told was a publishing error. But other than missing a few shows here and there (I personally found one from July 1993 with Morbid Angel and Paradise Lost, as well as one from March 1996 with Skrew, missing), the overall touring archive is accurate and, anyhow, the author never claimed to be perfect. The fact that he even attempted to reconstruct the band’s road chronology in the first place is admirable: they’re done thousands of shows and it’s not like Ticketmaster has been keeping track of them all, nor making reference of them easy. The archive lists date, venue, and who Kreator was touring with whenever the info is available.

A third strong suit are the photos: an outstanding collection of snapshots – often ones I’m sure came from the band members’ personal archives – are arrayed strategically throughout the book. They are chronologically appropriate, adding a visual element of progression to the band’s narrative as it happens. The pics evince a band that enjoys itself SAM_0526immensely both at work and play. Most striking are the live photos, and in particular those of Mille when he commands massive festival audiences for which Kreator have developed renown the last few years, the headlining spots on which serve as Kreator’s just rewards for having spent a lifetime laboring sonically in the trenches of the thrash faithful, replete with the ups and downs the journey has necessarily entailed. If the book has any weak points, they are few. But they do exist, and one of them is critical. First, the book is too short. 25 years in roughly 175 pages can be done, but it’s not going to be thorough. The book, at its current length, merely wets the appetite. In a sense, it’s a good thing, leaving you wanting more, waiting for the encore. But it can be bad: what if the encore never comes, the house lights come on, and it’s just time to go home? Second, and most importantly, the book was released through a very small company that, from my understanding, hasn’t done much to promote it. And that’s the true shame here: David Lee Roth once told Vince Neil, in Motley Crue’s very early stages, “If your records aren’t in Tahiti, then they’re nowhere.” While it’s not reasonable to expect Violent Evolution to be in every Barnes and Noble, or heading up the New York Times Book Review, it would be nice to see it get wider promotion and distribution. If a tree falls and no one sees it, did it really fall?

In closing, all prosaic odes and ass-kissing aside, it’s important that we fans remember (or learn, if you weren’t around to witness it personally) how strenuously thrash’s forefathers worked just to get something recorded and out to even a tiny audience – or even to get shows in their own towns, let alone embark on those first national and international tours. We need historical record of how that tiny audience grew deliberately by word of mouth, how tape traders and ‘zines spread the gospel of this mighty music gradually to every corner of the globe (they were the YouTube videos-gone-viral of the era) and how it resulted in the Kreator – and broader international extreme music scene hosting the largest music festivals in the WORLD – that essentially all metal fans are not only to access with ease, but also enjoy without fear of discrimination, today. Kreator was at the forefront of making that possible, and younger fans owe the band a serious debt of gratitude. So get your pucker on, folks: it’s time to kiss the ring.

Book trailer on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjV-IA1bc40

Purchase on Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Violent-Evolution-KREATOR-Hilmar-Bender/dp/3944154940/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1394900350&sr=1-1&keywords=kreator

(I rifled my photo archives to find shots of me wearing the tees mentioned below. When those are not available, I used Google’s image search function to find the shirts in question. Thanks to all the nameless vintage metal tee collectors who posted this stuff online.)

I grew up in a military household. But even as a standard-bearer in his beloved “finest killing machine the world has ever known”, my dad was exceptionally liberal. He knew I wanted to play guitar and my brother drums, and helped us both finance our respective instruments. When we formed a death metal First Witch Hunt Shirtband called Witch Hunt in 1992, he made the family car available whenever we needed to play shows in the northern Virginia and Maryland regions. He let my brother Ben and I grow our hair down to our butts, as long as we kept it washed and pulled back at school, so the teachers could see our faces. In exchange for this freedom, he expected us to keep our grades up, respect authority figures, and steer clear of drugs and alcohol. His only mandate was that if he ever saw us “acting out” any stereotypical teenage heavy metal rebellion, that’d be the abrupt end of our involvement in the music and accompanying fashion. As long as we met he and my mother halfway, the old man let us do whatever. Part of that “whatever” was wearing metal shirts to school. By today’s standards, that doesn’t seem worthy of boast. The impression I get, now in my late 30s, is that kids today do pretty much whatever they want, and asking permission was as outdated as Betamax. But you didn’t see many kids – and certainly not on military bases – dressing metal in the early 1990s.

I never owned anywhere near the number of metal shirts many of my headbanger friends did. I probably bought, or received as a gift, 40 total tees over the 8-year period from 1988-1996, my personal Golden Era of metal apparel. Yes, 40 tee shirts sounds like a lot, but your average serious headbanger – especially fanatics of the underground scene – will have acquired far more over a shorter period of time. This is especially true in the Internet age, where all you have to do is click and wait to receive your coveted metal tee parcel later in the week through the timely, faithful dispatchers of Amazon.com. Though I risk damaging my street credibility by admitting it, that I had relatively few metal shirts was largely by design. The average cost of a metal shirt in the early 1990s was $15. That’s serious cash to a pre-teen whose income was derived from lawn mowing and babysitting, back when neither endeavor was the cash cow it is now.  Once I did begin working steadily – my first gainful employment being McDonalds from 1993-1995 – I was knee-deep in financing activities for our band. This included everything from purchasing and maintaining equipment to covering recording costs, paying for promotion, and sending out nationally and internationally hundreds of free demos to ‘zines, radio stations, and labels to spark their interest in our project. None of that, as you might imagine, came cheap. But perhaps more importantly, I was sick of being burned on bad purchases: the quality of metal tees back in the day SUCKED. The cotton used in their fabrication was thin and of poor caliber. This meant they faded fast, sometimes got holes after only a few wears, and at any rate shrunk quick once you put them in the wash.

Never the less, while it lasted, my metal shirt mania was as intense and devoted as any other kid’s. My first metal shirt came when I was 12 years old. It was Motley Crue’s Theater of Pain tee, received scan0254Christmas 1988 alongside a stocking-stuffer cassette of their Shout at the Devil opus. From time of receipt, I made a personal commitment to sport the tee at least three days per week, sometimes four. Eventually, though, I was forced to take it off. As those of you who own Theater of Pain know, one of the songs titles is “Louder Than Hell”. This was written across the back of the shirt along with the album’s other song titles. During lunch one day in the school Anthrax SoF shirtcafeteria in March 1989, a patrolling teacher noticed the “obscenity” and decided to make me an example out of me, moral regulator that she was. With a malicious censorship in her eyes, and a grand contempt for Motley Crue (and all that represented freedom to 12-year old boys) in her dictatorial heart, she ordered me to turn the shirt inside-out the rest of that day, and never wear again so long as I was enrolled at Fred Lynn Middle School. Not long thereafter replacement came in the form of an Anthrax shirt. I’d just seen their MTV breakthrough video for the song “Antisocial”; one day after school, the video debuted at #6 on Dial MTV. This was my introduction to thrash metal and I wanted to jump into the TV to be closer to the action onstage in the video. I later learned there was heavier stuff out there – this was still during Kreator, Exodus, Dark Angel and Napalm Death’s classic eras – but compared to the hair metal defining my tastes ‘til that point, “Antisocial” was off the cliff.  So the shirt was opportune.

My 13th birthday – November 1989 – saw a new addition to what would soon become a stable of Motley Crue apparel: the Dr. Feelgood album cover shirt, and on its heels a white Girls, Girls, Girls tee for scan0201Christmas that year. In early 1990, my dad went to South Korea for a temporary duty assignment, and returned with pirated Helloween Keeper of the Seven Keys shirt. It lasted two washes before it shrunk so badly that my chubby teen frame was evincing man-boobs, and I consequently discarded the shirt. I got my first Metallica shirt – the one for “Damage, Inc.” – in August 1990. And it was the sleekest thing I ever owned. Everything about the shirt, from fit to graphics, was badass. In those days, next to Iron Maiden, Metallica was the band with the greatest cottage industry of shirts. They had the market cornered setting appropriately dire imagery to a backdrop of teen angst, and any budding extreme metal fan worth his salt wouldn’t be caught dead without at least a handful of the band’s tees on deck. Shirts for the band’s first four albums, and in particular after …And Justice for All was released and Metallica starting headlining arena shows and selling albums in the low Total Metal with First Real Girlfriend Lissa in Hawaii 1991millions, were straight-up brutal. Gruesome skull imagery by underground skate-punk phenom Pushead made these black short-sleeved beauties a must-have metal wardrobe addition. I bought as many of these classic Metallica tees as I was able to afford: the “One” shirt, the “Damaged Justice” tee, and a white one with the band’s album photos across the front. Summer 1991 might well have been dubbed my Summer of Slayer, since that’s all I cared about as a 14-year old that year. A friend at the Christian school was I was attending grandfathered me into Slayer fandom, and I went off the deep end with it. I wrote a will and listed the band’s members as the first to be notified in the event of my untimely death; bought all their albums with hard-won lawn-mowing and babysitting cash; started writing my own song lyrics featuring death or devil worship every second line; and began buying their shirts as soon as I found some sufficiently non-Satanic that my parents would actually let me wear ‘em. First came the “Root of All Evil” shirt. Then appeared in my closet the classic “Slaytanic Wermacht” tee. Shortly thereafter came the “Spill the Blood” shirt, and then one that featured a sinister illustration of the band’s decapitated heads impaled on wooden spikes.

Around this time – summer 1991 at the age of 14 – I was desperate to grow my hair longer. But it wasn’t happening, not even by a long short. In part, this was due to being enrolled at a Christian school where hair wasn’t permitted past  ears or collar, whichever came first. Additionally, my hair didn’t grow down. Metal shirt on headInstead it grew up and out, like Beavis on speed. My best friend at the time – Dan Brill, who happened to double as the drummer in my first band, Speed Scream – came up with a crafty solution that seemed novel to us though it had already occurred to every Harley owner for a thousand years: wrap a metal shirt around my head. This way, I concealed the fact that I was lacking the long locks so urgently sought; did not, after all, a shirt tail cascading down the back of my skull give the impression of long hair, at least if you only looked at my silhouette? And let me tell you, it was certainly an effective way to control my frizzy mop in the Hawaiian humidity. Finally, it was  good for managing the sweat that constantly trickled from my face, as the shirt-’round-noggin motif acted as de facto sweatband. With the entire upper half of my body thusly covered in metal shirts, I felt justifiably badass and strutted ’round the mall, McDonalds, or the front yard. No photos of my fashion statement exist from that time, but I’ve recreated it for your viewing pleasure here.

Christmas 1991 brought me Testament’s “Perilous Nation” shirt (around the same time I independently purchased the band’s “Electric Crown” tee as well) and Sepultura’s Arise (which lasted me a few years) and Schizophrenia (which lasted maybe 6 months, falling apart with a stretched neck and various moth holes) tees.  In late 1992, I discovered a place by the Potomac Mills shopping mall in Legion shirt reverse sideWoodbridge, Virginia called Central Newsstand; this place would be the downfall of many McDonald’s paychecks, though (with rare exception, provided the shirt lasted awhile) I always considered it money well spent. Central Newsstand no longer exists, having battened down its hatches sometime in the late 1990s, but it was THE place for metal shirt in those days if you lived in northern Virginia. The store was located nearby to Taco Bell and Staples, and all across from the Potomac Mills shopping mall, so you could get a your burrito on AND make copies of your band’s upcoming concert flyers AND try to meet girls after hooking up a new metal shirt, which you’d don immediately upon exiting the store. From Central Newsstand I acquired a series of shirts: Benediction’s The Grand Leveler, Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power, Overkill’s Horrorscope, an Obituary long-sleeve, Slayer’s “Chemical Warfare”, Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual de lo Habitual, and the DecideTestament Perilous Nation Shirt shirt for the Legion album, upon the back of which was a menacing photo of the band ready to beat everyone’s ass and the words “The End of God: The Way It Must Be”. This was the closest I ever came to approximating serious social offense, but I had the sense to keep the back of my Deicide tee covered by either a flannel or denim jacket if I wore it to school. I wanted people to know I was a headbanger, but it was never in my plans to provoke a fight. And in a Republican-heavy school, that would have provoked a fight, no question. It’s the same reason most Cradle of Filth fans didn’t parade around publicly wearing the band’s infamous tee with a crucifix-masturbating nun calling Jesus a very naught word rhyming with “stunt”. Even offense-desiring, gutter-dwelling metal fans sensed that maybe, just maybe, ‘twas better left alone. I don’t need to offend the entire religious world to prove something to myself or anyone else. The teachers at school and my parents never gave me any guff about my wardrobe, and I planned to keep it that way. So intelligence was in order.

I was gradually getting into heavier stuff. This is the natural progression of metal fans: the stuff you find out about first is typically commercially available lighter fare. Time passes, you research, you talk to friends, you read liner notes in albums, and you slowly discover “the rest” of what’s out there. Beginning With Erik before going to mall summer 1994my junior year of high school in 1993, I started hooking up shirts for underground death metal bands. These were ones you wouldn’t find at places like Central Newsstand; you had to buy directly from the band through mail order or at shows, or rifled the Blue Grape Merchandising mail order catalogue.  I purchased the very first Dying Fetus shirt in late 1993. A simple black short-sleeve number with the band’s logo in red/white across the chest, and the reserve side was blank. I bought it from the band by mail order for $10. In those pre-internet days, I was penpals with both Jason Netherton (who later formed Misery Index, which has now played over 1,000 shows in 40 countries) and John Gallagher (the only original Dying Fetus member still in the band) and they were promoting their first “official” release, the Bathe in Entrails demo. In early 1994, I saw Incantation and Postmortem live and picked up a shirt for each group.scan0105 The Postmortem tee, in particular, garnered considerable attention, as it featured a baby giddily slurping brains from an open skull using a spoon. In July 1994, I got a Cannibal Corpse long sleeve tour shirt for The Bleeding when I saw them play with Sinister and Cynic in Maryland. In November 1994, my band Witch Hunt brought Internal Bleeding down from Long Island for their first show in Virginia, and I forked over $20 for one of their “Total F**king Slam” long sleeves at the gig. In December 1994, we brought Insatanity down from Pennsylvania (a band whose primary renown was that one of their guitarists once played for New Jersey’s brutal death stalwarts Brian and Jimmy with Chris from Internal Bleeding 1994Mortal Decay). I acquired one of Insatanity’s long-sleeves after being convinced of their mightiness when their singer planted a massive wooden inverted cross onstage during their live set. But this one, like the Motley Crue shirt in 6th grade, didn’t last long at school, after it was pointed out to me that the difficult-to-decipher art on the shirt’s reserve side was actually the defiling of a nude angel. For Christmas 1994, Santa brought me Brutal Truth’s Extreme Conditions Demand Extreme Responses tee. In March 1995, I finally got to see Slayer live (on the Divine Intervention tour) and bought two shirts: a bootleg one for cheap in the parking lot before entering the venue, and an official Me and mom and Ben and Witch Hunt shirt Xmas 1995one for considerably more once inside. In June 1995, I got a Death shirt when we saw Chuck Schuldiner and his band of merry thrashers destroy Nick’s Nightclub in Alexandria, Virginia on the first date of the Symbolic North American tour. Sometime around then, I picked up a Pungent Stench shirt, but cannot recall if it was at a show the band played or thru mail order. Then there was my band Witch Hunt’s second and final tee shirt, a black beefy-tee beauty which got a pressing of perhaps 20. The shirt’s design was a replica of the cover art for our Darkened Salvation demo tape, which inspired a palpable buzz in the global metal underground of the mid-1990s. We each took one, gave a few to close friends, and the rest of the shirts went on sale soon thereafter at we opened Internal Bleeding’s Voracious Contempt release show on Long Island in November 1995. One of the proudest moments of my life was the next day, as we drove to get pizza, spotting a kid walking roadside wearing our shirt.

One of the things I remember best from this era was how much effort we all put into looking “brutal” before going to the mall to pass out flyers, meet girls, or usually both. I’d stand before the looking glass with my brother Ben, or my best friend Erik Sayenga (Witch Hunt’s bassist at the time; he later spent a number of years touring the world behind the kit for Dying Fetus), and we’d appraise each other top-to-bottom and commence the run-down: “Dude, how do I look?” “Dude, BRUTAL!” “Really, dude, brutal?” “Dude, yes, BRUTAL!” “What about me, dude, how do I look?” “Dude, BRUTAL!” ‘Twas a conversation composed of but four words not exceeding two syllables each, but it communicated all that needed be said.

A shirt meriting special mention from my senior year of high school (1994-1995) was a Brujeria one which featured a fist clenching a decapitated head by the hair and the words “matando gueros”. The reverse side was easy Insatanity 1994enough to understand: Narcos Satanicos might as well be English. Yeah, I got it. But matando gueros? My Spanish teacher knew the first word meant “killing” but we were all perplexed over the second. Assuming Spanish was spoken the same everywhere, I took it to our Puerto Rican, Chilean, and Venezuelan contingent, and the best any of them could do was “teenagers”. Killing teens? Didn’t make sense. It wasn’t until years later, when I was working in northern Mexico, that I divined the true meaning of the phrase: killing white people. A great irony for Brujeria, whose fan base is constituted almost entirely by middle class white teens.

One of the last shirts I purchased of that era was in October 1996, while on autumn break from my first semester of college. Me and Erik drove up to Quebec City, Canada. While there, we frequented one of Quebec’s many metal specialty shops, Metal Disque, and they happened to have their own long-sleeve shirts pressed up and on sale for the quite reasonable sum of $20. So I snatched one up. Nothing says credibility like having a metal tee that no one else does; and the fact that it was in French attested to my worldliness, a bonus.

I gave most of the shirts away (or simply chucked them once too threadbare) around 1998. Since then, I’ve sporadically acquired a few metal tees, thru the kind of low-intensity collecting that occurs by Bogota Grind Fest 6 shirtcomplete accident. In 2001, Erik returned from a Dying Fetus month-long outing to Europe and gave me two tour shirts, one of which had his photo (with the other band members) on the reserve side. I still have that shirt, and it reminds me how proud I felt of my boy when he got to have all the road experiences the rest of us didn’t, including playing the main stage at 2002’s Wacken Festival. In 2009, while living in Colombia, I bought a commemorative shirt for a metal fest in the capital city Bogota, an awesome keepsake of a foreign scene. In 2012, I helped in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico called Limerance write their bio in English, and one of their guitarists gave me a shirt in appreciation. I also got a Decibel Magazine shirt that year, as well as one for Nuclear Blast Records. I got the classic Relapse Records shirt as well, but had to return it after a few attempts at getting the right size: the medium was too tight, and the large left me swimming. Total bummer, dudes: I’d wanted the Relapse logo shirt since 1994, after seeing a photo of Dismember’s Matti Karki wearing it onstage in a Rip Magazine article.

…wherein we learn how the throwing of metal horns broke the ice and led to a memorable encounter between a wayward American and machete-wielding Rwandan possible genocide perpetrators; and a brief treatise on how collectivist cultures have been unfortunately usurped by governments to instigate the commission of unspeakable horrors.

SAM_3420

I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda on an exceptionally late-night Ethiopian Airlines flight out of Kampala, Uganda. Pulling into the cheapest hotel I could muster (and by cheap, I mean it has Wi-Fi yet, in a seeming contradiction in technological terms, offers not a solitary power outlet in my room) and slept until 8 AM. I awoke to the sound of straw brooms, dozens of them in the aggregate, their syncopated brushing cadence crooning a soft chorus on the streets below, the melody wafting thru my open window and, for some reason I can’t explain, giving me the ticklish feeling of a Q-tip digging deep in my ear.

Chatting up hotel reception before heading out a few minutes later, they informed me that on the final Saturday of every month, all Rwandans are compelled to clean their public spaces. They mandatorily labor from 7 to 11 AM in a government-mandated program known as muganda, taking to the streets and tidying the sidewalks, parking lots, common gathering places like plazas, and anything else not considered private spaces. Local commissars oversee (read: compel) the participation of members of every community. If they sleep in, feel lazy, or for some other reason simply aren’t particularly civic-minded, community members are fined 5,000 Rwandan Francs (roughly 8 USD); and if too poor to pay, the commissars see to it that a make-up cleaning session is rapidly arranged, and again local authorities are there to ensure compliance. Indeed it is true: gas or grass, but nobody rides for free.

Rwandans are quite serious about this cleaning business. Nothing was open, there were no cars roaming about, no moto-taxis whizzing thru the melee and haranguing me to take a ride, no casual strollers, nothing. Just people cleaning, dutifully and diligently. I began walking up the street, marveling at the silent industry of it all, when I came to an embankment at roadside. It overlooked a vacant lot that was full of people, around 40 Rwandan men with machetes striking down a considerable overgrowth.

They labored, their faces adorned with supreme concentration and submission to the task. They perspired, striated muscles tensing with every downward blow, knuckles knotted like stones atop fingers airlessly clutching their instruments. The men were bringing down their machetes with a fury and vengeance I would not normally have associated with removing weeds from a vacant lot. Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to take things like yard work with less gravity. But these men, no. They didn’t fatigue, and what’s more, their movements were in perfect union: the wavelength of their brutal and incessant synchronized rhythm was not dissimilar to heart cells coming together in a petri dish and gradually assuming the same beat.

Over the last 15 years, though not a farmer myself, I’ve developed somewhat of an expertise on the art of the machete. I’ve been to enough places and seen enough folks in action with this most ancient of cutting tools that, indeed, I can distinguish chicken crap from chicken salad. And let me say here and now that I didn’t even see machetes move so fast in El Salvador over a decade ago, when the country was still largely agricultural and folks there, even the ones choking the country’s too-densely populated urban centers, toted machetes around as a matter of daily course. The Rwandans had practically taken flight, their rusted gray blades a helicopter propeller’s blur in the crisp morning air.

SAM_3421I don’t have to spell out for you what the sight brought to mind. I’d assess that most of the men there were between 30-40 years old, which means the ones on the greater end of that spectrum would have been sufficiently old enough in 1994 to participate in the three-month enduring Hutu genocide of the Tutsi ethnic group, which killed roughly 800,000 people while permanently disfiguring and displacing scores more. This extermination campaign effectively cut Rwanda’s population by a full tenth. In Kigali alone, mass graves hold the mortal remains of 259,000; and I use the word “remains” loosely, since in many cases the corpses were first so brutally hacked, then left to rot so long – accordingly subject to the rapacious appetites of stray dogs and birds of carrion and a quadrillion predator insects – that by the time the killing came to a halt and the bodies were recovered and catalogued, little often remained but a femur or cranium for a man, woman, or child who just three months prior had been a breathing human being. I will also add here that while I’m not an expert in tribal or ethnic distinctions on the African continent, my understanding is that Hutus are shorter and darker than Tutsis. Quickly glancing over the lot and the men slashing about in it, I concluded that they certainly fit this admittedly stereotypical description. And so it was entirely likely, therefore, that a number of these men were low-level genocide perpetrators.

I observed them for five minutes collectively bludgeoning the ground (if this sounds like a short period of time, then I invite you to have a go at five minutes of unabashed machete work yourself) before one of them stopped and looked up. He didn’t even say a word. Yet he did not need to make a sound, for I clocked off a mental “3 Mississippi” before all 40 had stopped and began staring at me as well. It was like a human version of a YouTube video going viral, a meme spreading thru the group, without a word being spoken betwixt them. So if the rhythm of their machetes was locked in unison, so too were their stares a group endeavor. It was so sudden that I barely had a chance to register that I now had, from my vantage spot on the embankment, the absolute and undivided attention of this entire lot of machete-wielding men. I didn’t feel threatened; that’s not my point. They were merely stuck in a bout of compulsory labor and braking to gawk at the muzungu, who was likewise gawking back at them.

SAM_3416At an impasse, and cognizant that one of us had to blink first in this impromptu staring contest, I did the first thing occurring to me: took off my shades, threw up metal horns and greeted them with a hearty, “Hey dudes!!!” And I was greeted in return with a friendly whoop that exploded from the group all at once. A few of them tried throwing metal horns back at me, even, and I saw one of them gingerly correcting another who was doing it with the wrong fingers; he’d given me an Aloha sign instead. And so channeling the late Ronnie James Dio, the ice was broken by metal for this brief and alien moment, a wayward American and a band of machete-wielding possible genocide perpetrators. They did not return to work. They waited – as did I – for what would come next. So I threw them a “thumbs up”, and the whole group threw one back simultaneously. Both their timing and delivery were impeccable, evincing the same group cohesion they did with the chopping, staring, and metal horns.

Officially out of hand gestures, except for throwing up my middle finger (and I was NOT going to do THAT), I shrugged. One of them, near the middle of the mass, held up a garden hoe and said something in either the local language or Swahili – I’m unsure which – and his gestures and broad grin suggested he was asking me if I wanted to clean at their side. I’m in. I sprinted down to the lot, seized the hoe, and began. But they were chuckling; I was not sure why at first, since though I’m certainly no master gardener, I’m sure I know how to handle a hoe. After a moment, one of them spoke to another in French and I thought I heard the word “woman” in the mix. So now this had become a yardstick for masculinity, with a hoe being a lesser tool and the machete being the surefire barometer of a man’s fortitude. So I put down the hoe and pointed at a machete, and they commenced SCREAMING with what I could only describe at a sort of joy; did I pass the test, whatever it was? I bade them back up, and began hacking for all I was worth at the grass in front of me, praying to God that I didn’t cut off my own foot in the process of illustrating the size of my my macho. A few men who were coalesced in my most immediate vicinity scrutinized my technique and began offering advice. Though I did not understand a word they spoke, they touched my right arm, used their hands to attempt correction of my striking position, and made me go slower, guiding my motions. One of them, his own fearsome machete resting on his shoulder whilst he smirked, finally intervened, making me step aside and observe him as he hacked the bejesus out of the brush before us, demonstrating how it’s done. Just standing there, I could feel the wind generated by the force of his machete strikes raining down. At that precise second, a single thought occurred to me and it was this: can you imagine being on the business end of that? And the second thought that occurred to me was that, sadly, it’s quite possible a number of people found that out the hard way.

Eventually, the activity stopped and we all stood around in a circle, awkwardly smiling and making repeatedly failed attempts at communication. A young-ish guy, probably in his early twenties, approached me then, materializing in the group as if dropping from the sky, greeting me in passable English and even using the word “cool” in his opening sentence. He was dressed like any young American hip hop fan; both his brow and clothing were dry, so I divined he was simply a passerby who saw the scene, assumed he’d at least get a chance to practice his English, and came on down. Finally dispensing with formal niceties, he asked me if I needed help, if I was doing okay; I responded that I was fine. Then he, sensing that perhaps I’d benefit from an explanation of everything happening, began. I’m paraphrasing here, but the essence is accurate: “The president said we must avoid what happened in the past. Rwanda needs to be unified. Now we just have one major political party, and the opposition is very small and doesn’t matter. Since President Kagame controls the whole country [note he didn’t say whole government, but whole COUNTRY], he can get things done with no problem. Rwanda is very small and we are efficient people who follow orders well. So when he said we must work, and said we must clean, we know we must do it without question.” I had previously heard that for numerous reasons, Rwandans are methodical about following instructions from authorities. Now I was beginning to see how that manifested in real time.

SAM_3547At this point, two drunken men broke crashed the scene. They were messes, reeking of alcohol, and judging by the unfavorable odors seeping seemingly their every pore, I’m inclined to believe hadn’t bathed in a fortnight. Laughing and staggering, they each took to one side of me, and began jutting their hands into my pockets, saying something that included the English word “money”, for all intents and purposes rifling me for cash. The assembled machetes fell deathly quiet silent at that moment, assumedly sensing trouble. No smiles, no talking, just watching and waiting. I pushed one of the drunks away and stepped back from them both, gingerly smiling to keep things cool but telling them to stop. This was a pucker-factor-ten moment; I didn’t wish to piss off a group I assumed would side with another Rwandan over me. But I also could not let lushes lay hands upon my person and try to yank cash from my shorts, since what good would it achieve beyond showing me to be a lamb, intrinsically vulnerable to other wolves amongst them?

Enter a savior: my new twenty-something friend said but a few quick sentences to the drunks, speaking in hushed tones and, judging by the nodding heads around me, to the general agreement of all present. The two men immediately laid off, backed away, and smiled. I asked him what he said to cause such an abrupt change in their posture, and in his slow and accented drawl he explained, “I told them you are a visitor in our land and they are showing indiscipline. And this is bad.” That was all it took to stop them. Then two cops materialized out of nowhere, grabbed the men by their arms, and hastily led them away. To this, my friend said, “They will spend 3 days in jail to learn a lesson. The police will punish them.”

So I’d been on the streets of Kigali for fewer than two full hours and already felt I’d unlocked the key to explaining the genocide. First, a culture favoring collectivism, with tremendous peer-pressure to act according to specific behavioral guidelines, especially when anything involving the tribe or kin is at stake. Second, a bizarrely uncommon efficiency built into Rwandan culture, by which they are able to achieve results incredibly rapidly. Third, a strong individual work ethic which, when injected into a group context, focuses group members to the extent that they get tunnel vision and see task completion to be the only worthwhile goal, without necessarily questioning the task itself or the methods by which it is being completed. And fourth, a top-down institutional capacity sufficiently robust to compel community members to carry our orders to the letter. The combination of these fou can be applied for social good like collective cleaning, or for social evil like the Tutsi extermination in 1994.

…or how a passion for Spanish and undying devotion to heavy metal jointly shaped the course of my whole life.

In late December 1992, while laboring studiously as a high school student, I volunteered to sing Christmas carols at an old folks’ home. Always the death metal screamer, and proudly fronting my own band by that point, my scratchy pipes were poorly suited to serenading half-defunct long-past-retirees on themes of Yule tide. And yet there I was, Deicide shirt hidden beneath decency’s flannel shirt, hair tied back, and big dumb grin plastered across my face. What calling so great, what mission so worthy, that a teenage death metal fan would be caught in such a situation, concealing his very metal-ness and allowing non-Satanic song lyrics to cross his lips? It could have been none great than the vixen Dawn, a 12th grader who had invited me to the event and with whom I was desperately, wholly smitten.  I was getting desperate, as she hadn’t responded to my decidedly un-subtle onslaught all school year, and I thought that perhaps ratcheting the ante up would do the trick. In high school two year’s different constituted a virtual chasm separating us, and thus Dawn seemed all but unreachable to lil’ sophomoric me as 1992 faded to 1993. In the mania of my teenage mind, I assessed that perhaps – just perhaps! – crooning to a roomful of geezers would showcase al the qualities I was sure an older woman like Dawn might appreciate, compensating for my age and total lack of jock-ness: my holiday spirit, love of humanity, and if I were really lucky, my on-key delivery of choice Christmas classics.

It was not to be, sadly. The night before we caroled, my band performed, me on the mic. While I admit that it was a rousing performance in which I turned up the volume far beyond what any decent Peavey speaker cabinet can reasonably endure, my vocal cords were in a state of ruin: a collapsing Mayan temple, a dilapidated Appalachian shack. An agonized throat may well be music to a metal fan’s ears, but not so to my elderly audience that day. My pitch was atrocious, a hideous disfigurement of holiday music, and because of it, my much-trumpeted “love of humanity” and “holiday spirit” were sorely un-evidenced by the third song. It shown clearly upon my mournful countenance, and became even more acutely clear to all present after I started sulking. And why did I sulk? Because of an occurrence I had prayed to circumvent, but which the Lord decided to visit upon me that day, a Job-like test of my capacity for punishment.

More specifically: Dawn’s boyfriend made a cameo at the retirement home, held her lily-white hand, and macked on her before my very eyes, likely aware of my interest in his lady and staking his territory publicly. It is true, I mused pathetically in silence, that possession is indeed nine-tenths of the law. This immediately dashed The Master Plan for the eventual (though in retrospect impossible) conquest of her heart. Nearly ready to admit defeat and leave the premises of the retirement home altogether, I was looking for my final in-road, scanning desperately about the room to see if something, anything, would present itself as an avenue by which to woo this lass.

And that’s when I saw the Old Spanish Lady.

She was in a wheelchair, secluded in a corner of the room. Whilst the other retirees enjoyed our high school sing-song rendition of their cherished holiday ditties, she stared out a window, morose and downcast, isolated, clearly pondering with resignation how many feathers remained on the chicken of her life. I asked an orderly why she was there. “She’s from Spain and doesn’t speak any English. She doesn’t talk to anyone.” And just like that, I saw the gauntlet tossed at my feet as though by Destiny itself. I would woo the old bat with Spanish phrases I’d learned in school, by extension wooing my fair maiden who would doubtless witness this act of kindness and linguistic acrobatics. Happily-ever-after never looked so probable.

Verily I approached the old Spanish biddy, rolling up my sleeves in anticipation as I searched the abyss of my mind for precisely the right Spanish phrase for a knock-out introduction, rapidly reviewing every lesson I’d been taught in Dr. Stewart’s Spanish class, poignantly attempting to cobble together anything bearing even the slightest semblance of proper grammar and pronunciation. I slowly grew aware – neigh, intense was my cognizance! – that the entire room’s attention was on me.

And then, the singing of Christmas songs stopped. The crowd watched. Dawn gawked curiously. I had the spotlight and struck:

“Hoh-lah moo-hair… No haw-blow s-paaaaa-nol paaay-ro feluuuuz ni-va dude!”

It was my first complete Spanish sentence, ever, and I wasn’t about to let the total wrongness of every aspect of it deflate my pride in having spoken a foreign language publicly. Dawn’s cock-bag boyfriend, take THAT. I stood back triumphantly waiting for the Old Spanish Lady’s response. She continued to stare out the window, unaware, unresponsive, her stoicism befitting Shakespearean intrigue. And that’s when the orderly approached me anew, now with a clarification: “Oh sorry. She’s actually from Bulgaria.” I didn’t look up as the flop-sweats forced itty-bitty trickles of perspiration down my furrowed brow.

(In the background: the faint sounds of muffled snickers. A snort or two.)

At that very moment, I swore never to suffer that kind of public humiliation again.

Thus it was a function of terribly unfortunate timing that a mere three weeks later, in early 1993, I was compelled to smack the bejesus out of a chap named Paul, who embarrassed me one cold afternoon leaving the cafeteria and on the way to geography class. His transgression was egregious in my prideful land o’ leading a garage band: he voided his bladder on one of my band’s promotional fliers. We used to pass them out during lunch hour. Were we expecting some push-back from the other kids? Sure.  Hip-hop and Nirvana were in, and metal was anathema in those days.  But didn’t we deserve, demand, a modicum of respect for our labors?  So pissing on my flier was not something I could, with any dignity, take in stride.

But in truth, though his golden shower was the immediate precipitator leading to Paul’s humiliating comeuppance before half the student body, the roots of out tiff lay in a heavy metal beef set to pasture and grazing for six intense months by that point in the school year. Simply put, Paul hated me for being the superior guitarist to him. But it wasn’t my fault that his assigned lot in life was that of a six-string douche. We cannot all be cut from the cloth of musical glory.  So this, his lack of instrumental ability, I could forgive him as it affected me not.  I could even pardon his frequent public challenges to my birth legitimacy and sexual orientation. These, typical for teenage boys prepping the battlefield for a late-day scrap, were sufficiently vulgar (though, admittedly, creative) to have sent an arsenal of angry little rockets screaming out of any teenage boy’s affronted ego. I was certainly no exception.  But no, I contained my wrath, choosing to be the proverbial “bigger man”. But then there was the pee-peed flier… Oh, how that pee-peed flier obliged me to a full defense of my offended metal honor, so incensed was I at this punk’s contemptuous and cavalier attitude toward my musical art. As a (literally) red-headed step child, Paul should have known he was statistically six times more likely to be beaten, and whizzing on my flier that day exponentially increased those odds to the point of dead certainty.

The next morning I told my mother, cryptically, that she ought to “be ready to come get me by about 8”, and listened to Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power, strutting and flexing in front of the mirror to dissipate the horror I felt for what was about to happen. Truth be told, I’ve never been a fighter, and hate violence. And I was scared of Paul, who I was told had quite a bit more experience with fisticuffs than I.  But I knew what had to be done. Thus, by the time I got to school shortly thereafter, my jittery nerves counterbalanced only by the simmering ire I felt over the poor pee-peed flier, I exploded like Van Halen in 1984. Before homeroom bell even struck, I had delivered a sound thrashing with the precision of a smart bomb and the glee of a child on Christmas morning, a million purring kittens playfully swatting at the butterflies in my tummy whilst my clenched fist rocketed into Paul’s unsuspecting cheek.

Dr. Stewart, my high school Spanish teacher, intervened and broke us up, truncating my splendid brutalizing. She never let me live it down, constantly reminding me that only “bad students get into fights”, doling out goodly amounts of reproach to me whenever I came into her line of sight. And this bothered me: I was always a good and mindful student, filial to the end, and it was a cause of shame to me that a teacher would not think highly of me. I was not a big fan of foreign languages in those days, and unless a foreign tongue would help me nab one of the Mexican weather girls on Telemundo, I wanted nada to do with Spanish class in particular. But seeing that the only avenue by which to bring Dr. Stewart back around was to at least feign an interest in the material, I started paying closer attention in her class. I hoped my scholastic achievements would overshadow her low impression of me, showing her I wasn’t a bruiser but in fact was a responsible, upstanding young man.

Not so shockingly, it worked. Any teacher appreciates an earnest pupil. I was surprised, however, at how quickly I took to the language, and how speedily I began developing a taste and even talent for it. The following school year, 1994, my band Witch Hunt broke into the global underground metal tape trading and fanzine network. We recorded some demos and began shopping them to anyone who would listen to us, yet because of the ever-growing global network to which we were now party, we broke the mold of the typical gonna-go-nowhere, after-school band by marketing our material to other countries.  We established low-level distribution with a few helpful pen pals around the planet, paned off free copies of our demo material to select popular fanzines for review in their upcoming issues, and before I knew it, we were receiving interview requests and even fan mail from foreign lands.

Latin America became a particularly friendly region of the globe for us.  This was almost exclusively because of the efforts of one expatriate German buddy living in central Mexico with contacts all over the hemisphere. I began receiving weekly letters (mind you, this was in the pre-Internet days in which “snail mail” reigned king) from places like Colombia, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and even Cuba. And unlike the Europeans who boasted English usually better than mine, our Latin American brethren spoke only their own language. And I understood next to nothing of it. A conundrum; yet if they were confident enough to reach out, then in decency the only proper response on my part was to reach back their way. I began toting the letters to school, asking Dr. Stewart for her assistance in translating them and my responses. At first, she was dubious: how many high school teachers field requests from students who need help translating responses to Chilean fanzine interview requests? But when she saw the proof, she was entertained and, in no small measure, inspired. She realized, and rightly so, that this was her chance to make a difference to a student and a lot of other people that would be tangible, in print, for others to read and enjoy.

Dr. Stewart began giving me extra credit for answering the letters in Spanish. She named me, later that year, Spanish Student of the Year. As my knowledge of the language grew at a steady clip – in no small part due to the Latino exchange students who took me under their wing – so grew my understanding of the region’s politics, history, society, and culture.  These I could also discuss with my Spanish-speaking pen pals as well,  all more than willing to tell me in languid detail of the circumstances facing each of their respective nations. In this manner I learned about the Colombian guerrilla and paramilitary problem; Nicaragua’s long decade of the 1980s and their return to pseudo-democracy in the 1990s; the Cuban censorship police and their occasional crack-down on heavy metal because of their belief that its political content might incite counter-revolutionary activities; and even, as one Mexican contact put it, “That Taco Bell is not really Mexican food.” Latin immigrants from Central America were not very visible in those days at metal concerts where I lived in Northern Virginia, but they were beginning to make a dent in our local scene, gradually; and at concerts in venues like The Cave (Manassas, Virginia) and Jaxx (Springfield, Virginia) I always found one to speak with, to ask about his country, and to cut my Spanish chops. They were always more than happy to oblige, simply pleased that a gringo would take the time to try learning their language.

Such was my passion for this language and its people that once I got to college in mid-1995, I knew I would ultimately declare Spanish as a major. I wanted more, in any way I could get it.  Following my junior year in 1998, I spent a summer in Guatemala working as a volunteer with war orphans and street children. A year later in 1999, upon graduation, I took up with the Peace Corps in El Salvador. During that two-year period, I lived in a small community of 300 ex-guerrillas from the Salvadoran civil war, which had ended a few years prior to my arrival, and traveled throughout Central America. After Peace Corps, I taught Spanish in the US Virgin Islands, obtained a Master’s Degree in Latin American Affairs, and got full-time professionally into regional affairs. Since then I’ve resided in Colombia, Mexico, and currently Brazil (amazingly I speak Portuguese now as well), and have independently traveled the depth and breadth of Latin America.

Metal and Spanish have been, therefore, my two enduring loves. They have outlasted any pet, girlfriend, or hobby I’ve had over the years. And while my love for the Spanish has helped me developed my career in a different direction than most of the headbangers I used to run with, my dedication to the music has never dampened, not for a instant: I’m still a metal-head, and proudly so. It’s the only music that truly churns me, the only kind I find worth paying to see in concert, and the only tuneage to which the vast majority of my best memories are tagged and cued. A song for every personal highlight dating back all the way to the first time I heard Cinderella’s “Somebody Save Me” in 1987 and, intuitively, knew no other music mattered to me afterward.

 

I’m a happy guy, and I’d wager that people typically come away with the impression that I’m more buoyant than average. But since childhood I’ve been inclined toward macabre subject matter in film, books, and music. Even in pre-school, I colored black into the rainbow during a class activity, my teacher promptly admonishing me. I didn’t comprehend her disapproval; in my 5-year old universe, rayon in the rainbow was perfectly sensible. And as the saying goes, it was all downhill from there.

Interest in the sinister side of our earthly experience manifested – as will happen – in my pre-teen years when I began listening to metal, and by the time I was fourteen I’d become a full-throttle death metal nut. I’m from a supportive family with reasonable parents who let me listen to whatever music I liked. My folks only asked that I understand the difference between art and reality. That’s a no-brainer for any metal fan I’ve known. None of us would want someone carrying out the sort of activity you hear about in a Cannibal Corpse song.

The sad part is, there is a sick reality in which some people exist. And it’s everywhere. It’s not restricted to a single place, time, or group of people. History shows that the world over, some folks simply live on a bizarre different plain, and their values aren’t the same as yours and mine. They are thankfully a minority, but still: remember what the cops found in Jeff Dahmer’s Milwaukee apartment?

So the week I arrived in Kampala – a city sufficiently modern that they even have Mountain Dew – I was reminded of this fact by a newspaper article entitled “East Leads Uganda in Child Sacrifice”. Which, as you’d imagine, piqued my interest for all the wrong reasons. Are we to believe that the northern, southern, and western regions of the Ugandan nation likewise have peeps who engage in activities of such perverse suffering? And the east just happens to be taking the statistical lead? And why does the east do better than the rest: is it sheer talent or conviction propelling them to the front of the pack? There’s no way around it, this stuff is insane. It also occurred to me that while metal bands frequently sing about this stuff as a matter of routine course, and all we metal fans throw up horns in approval of The Most Brutal Lyrics EVER, this stuff truly is no laughing matter and, honestly, we probably shouldn’t be treating it as entertainment, even though we do so with no ill intention. It’s probably for the same reason that the majority of the gangsta rap purchasing public in America is middle-class Caucasians; they are intrigued by a reality that most (unless you’re Enimem or Vanilla Ice, of course) will never have to live, like a kind of intellectual or artistic tourism. But in Uganda, real kids are being cut to real pieces, and that’s wroth keeping in mind

After the article, I kept my eyes open for anything related to the topic, and was frankly floored by how rapidly I found myself surrounded by information tidbits related to child sacrifice. It’s as though the gates were opened and the information flowed forth onto my daily radar. To be fair, it’s not just Uganda. The world in general is a tough place for children. Not everyone gets the “level playing field” upbringing and opportunities that come from simply being randomly whelped by yo’ momma in the United States, Canada, or another developed industrial nation; and even in those places, there abounds a plethora of youth that doesn’t carry a light load in life. Ever been so southeast DC? Los Angeles’ skid row? The Mississippi Delta and many parts of Alabama or Arkansas?

But when you add the complicating, exacerbating elements of being born in a place like the Ugandan countryside to the mix, you’re staring dumb and defenseless into the grill of a downright combustible situation, the kind of place Pat Benetar referenced in the song “Hell is for Children”. Look at the poverty into which most of the kids here are born, even ones in the supposedly “better off” urban zone; the near-total dearth of education and onward employment opportunities; the lack of adequate health care for the overwhelming majority of the national population, resulting in a high infant mortality rate, massive HIV/AIDS infection incidence, and a life span on average of 54 years. Think about that last statistic. We’re still a full decade from official retirement age at 54 in the United States, and most folks will tell you that’s when you enter the best years of life. Don’t we all joke that mid-fifties are when it’s time for a second puberty, a mid-life crisis, a new Porsche? Not so in Uganda. You’re born into a fight-or-die scenario and it doesn’t shift even marginally more into your unfortunate favor even under optimal circumstances most of the time you live. So you get the impression that even when their parents are doing their absolute best, the striking multitude of Ugandan children don’t have reasonable expectation of a brighter tomorrow.

An additional consideration ought be voiced for little girls born into these places. The countryside practice of genital mutilation comes to mind as a gender-specific detriment girls here face from the time they leave the womb. Recently, reports have been numerous on local radio shows in Kampala about the practice of female relatives using coconuts to smash the breasts of girls once they hit their teenage years. The rationale, apparently, is to make them less desirable to men, thereby reducing the possibility of teenage pregnancies. It is hard for any reasonable person to understand how this short-sighted and brutal technique makes anything better whatsoever for the child in question, the community she inhabits, or the overall Ugandan nation. And national leadership’s near-total silence on the theme can only be understood as a tacit approval of it. Then again, this ought come as no shock: even the president here recently stated of homosexuals that “even with legislation [referring to a recent draconian anti-gay bill passing through the Ugandan Parliament] they will simply go underground and continue practicing homosexuality or lesbianism for mercenary reasons. […]. You cannot call an abnormality an alternative orientation. It could be that the Western societies, on account of random breeding, have generated many abnormal people.”

So a few days ago, I had to interview a Ugandan man as part of my official duties. He came calling for a tourist visa, and would be traveling to the United States to a known university that had invited him to present a paper about the practice of child sacrifice in the Ugandan countryside. Fascinated to meet someone on the “good guy” side of the divide – and to be sure, most Ugandans ARE on the right side of history in this case – I asked him things related to his job, already planning to approve his visa but assuming his endeavors were predominantly within the academic realm. I assumed he used solely words on paper to affect a change in people’s thinking, but that he wasn’t on the “action” side of the equation. All good, since anything to fight child sacrifice is noble and worthy, since it all has the potential of changing minds and drawing awareness to the issue.

But how wrong I was. Borrowing a page from Quixote’s “hazanas, no palabras” (actions, not words) playbook, this guy also has a hardcore side: he goes undercover to infiltrate child sacrifice shrines throughout the countryside, documenting those responsible and, tragically, the children who are on the business end of the knife. With all gravity he said to me, “Believe me, I could tell you some stories.” He then proceeded to reconstruct an abbreviated version of the laundry list of horrors he’d personally witnessed in the course of his labors, and told me of the specific things that had happened to the “fortunate” survivors featured in the two info pamphlets I included at the outset of this posting: tongues cut out, heads machete-whacked, though somehow saved last-minute and spirited away prior to hearts being carved from torsos. You can’t make this stuff up. It’s insane that this sort of stuff happens in the world, but outstanding to see even one person taking a stand against it.

The interview made me feel blessed for a litany of reasons. First, though I’ll preface this by saying I’m not an uber-nationalistic guy, times like these make me feel fortunate to be American. Yes, we have our problems, but they’re nothing like THAT. Second, I’m in a job that gives me the capacity, even in a very limited manner, to combat this sort of thing: the consular officer who approves the guy’s visa so he can travel to the US and bring attention to the issue; the political officer who demarches local or national government about it; the public relations officer who gives a speech decrying the practice and condemning it with every iota of the collective spirit of the world community. Never a dull moment, even when elements of the day-to-day grind can sometimes feel frustrating or you’re dealing in dark subject matter you’d rather not. But approving this man for travel was one of the bright moments for me. It really doesn’t get any better.