Posts Tagged ‘death metal’

It is April 2014 and I’m living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Not the metal epicenter that teeming 24-million strong megacity Sao Paulo is, Rio still has enough to brag about in terms of extreme music culture. Definitely some solid local outfits – the all-female three piece Nervosa being the latest to grab metal headlines – and enough concert tours come through to slake one’s thirst for all things extreme.  Just this past week, in fact, both Obituary and Hypocrisy played on different nights. Yet I went to neither show. The tickets were too expensive ($80); the taxi to the venue too long (nearly an hour in traffic, and in Obituary’s case, in torrential rains); and show times were unclear based on the venue’s website, but in Rio you can bet they commence consistently late, frequently around the witching hour. Both shows being on weeknights and your bedraggled scribe knowing he’d have to labor at the office the following morning made neither show especially attractive. And on top of it all, I’ve been having lower-back problems, so standing for a prolonged period of time was out of the question.

Rounding third base and chugging toward age 40, I’ve been sluggish in my metal of late. And it begs the question: WTF, peeps? A lifetime devoted to the world’s most tasteful musical art form, yet has the wind has gone still from the flag I once so defiantly waved? The air seeped out of my once-oversized metal tires? The flame gone ashen in the torch I once held aloft in more youthful days? How can I sleep knowing that I’ve missed two of the most important and enduring groups in death metal’s illustrious and esteemed history over some back pain, a bit of a commute, rain, and a ticket price, when I get paid more than I deserve and don’t even pay rent in this acclaimed Cidade Maravilhosa? Bellow blindly unto the heavens, beseeching an answer to this existential torment, and thy response cometh in pained whispers from disappointed gods on high: thou art aging, old fart, and soon the hour may be nigh to retire thy metal jersey.

If I’m being truthful, this is not the first time I’ve contemplated retirement from the metal scene. Once I left my band, Witch Hunt, in 1997, a series of false starts followed in the 1990s and early 2000s, yet none were serious contenders and I continued buying music, going to concerts, and supporting the music at all turns. The most serious talk of retirement crept under the door in August 2008 following a night with Judas Priest, Heaven and Hell (Sabbath sans Ozzy), Motorhead, and Testament at the Nissan Pavilion in Manassas, Virginia. Were a soothsayer to have read the tealeaves prior to the show, indeed all signs would have pointed toward mighty metal triumph. Indeed, the summer concert experience was always a milestone on which I once judged the worth of entire calendar years. It’s how Motley Crue made 1990 the first best year of my teenage era, and Jane’s Addiction kicked 1991 in the ass (literally, since it was their final show of the original era, having announced their scheduled breakup weeks prior). It’s how Overkill made 1992, Suffocation/Dismember/Vader made 1993, Cannibal Corpse made 1994, and Death made 1995  have summers of distantly outstanding merit.

Thus it was that hopes were high on the afternoon August 11, 2008, while inching through Beltway-area traffic and on the brink of an Exxon-styled bladder spill from too much Mountain Dew, I arrived at Nissan Pavilion in Manassas, Virginia. I parked my Honda Civic in the dusty mega-lot and made sure I had my e-tickets. Featuring Judas Priest, Heaven and Hell (Sabbath sans Ozzy), Motorhead and Testament, the gig would be my first since returning from Iraq a month prior. THIS was to be my summer concert for 2008, so it HAD to count. Gazing out over the tailgating headbangers in the parking lot, barbecuing and already libating themselves into pre-show oblivion, it seemed to me this was more than a simple gathering of metal fans, something grander than the collective reliving of an outdated adolescent soundtrack. My post-Iraq readjustment had been an awkward process, and I needed an elixir, a metal feather to Dumbo’s magic one. Indeed, so robustly did I believe in the restorative capacity of the Metal Masters that I was certain the gig would set my world a-right. With all this swirling in my mind, for a moment, I took the sweet birdbath of memory, awash in a humid trickle of nostalgia. But the joy did not last long.

As harbingers go, ominous signs were already afoot, obstacles in the path of all enjoyment, even from my vantage position in the parking lot whilst I sat in my car’s air conditioning and demurred entering the late summer humidity for that long walk to the gate. Forgetting a cardinal protocol of platinum membership in the old school Metal Club, I neglected to recall that book-smart headbangers are still sometimes regarded with skepticism by our otherwise beloved cohort. Perhaps this explains why, as I read The Economist in my car before the gates opened, black-shirted passers-by eyed me with the jaundice Khmer fighters once reserved for bespectacled middle school graduates. On come accusations of selling out and being a preppy, despite the best Iraq mission-ready “mean mug” I could muster to shoot them as they passed and stared, jutting out my jaw line to its physiologically feasible limits. Not even inside the venue and I’d already been pushed from the litter of my brethren, a defective puppy never again to suckle at the metal sow’s guitar-shaped teat. Then getting inside the venue was a task in itself. I stood in line for half an hour, then stomped back to my car when denied entry due to my camera (“…by the artist’s request…”). I got back in line and waited, finally entering. A non-recoverable hour of life surrendered unto the abyss of venue bullshit bureaucracy.

Once inside, the open hand of extreme hunger guided my drift to the concessions booths. The deep-friend sirens on Chicken Finger Shore bade I partake of their greasy legged, white breasted wares. The hypnotic spell they cast is the only rational explanation for why I paid $13 for a tiny paper trough of three chicken fingers around a midget’s handful of soggy fries. The hand and fingers clenched tightly into a figurative fist that punched my wallet in the pie-hole. It still hurt even with knowledge that Iraq had treated my bank account decently, my genetic cheapness and sense of fair economic play both egregiously offended. My attempts to extract sympathy from the hag at the refreshments window amounted to nothing: the pearl of sympathy long stripped from her soul’s oyster, her dead-pan stare told me she had nothing left to give. I was thus left to sulk alone in my poverty. Urgently needing reaffirmation that things would be okay, especially after accidentally dropping my chicken fingers to the ground, I went to my seat under the pavilion and waited impatiently for the bands to start, naively certain that redemption lay on the impending horizon.

There was certainly enough to convince me this was the case based on a few superficial observations before the show began. The climatic conditions were as favorable as one can get on an August day in Virginia: the sun still shone brightly but the punishing humidity was at a late-day lull under the amphitheater’s cover. It was too early in the show for the smell of sweat and urine to flog my nostrils. The lighting trusses flickered blue and red and greens as the crew ran a few final checks, and smoke billowed side-stage. The crowd – at this early hour still filling few of the venue’s seats, was on Bud Light-heartened feet screaming mostly-coherent praise to whoever was preparing to go onstage, an eruption not generally afforded opening acts, certainly not before they’ve even begun their set.

You can tell how a show will go by the first band. This is not dissimilar to how the first kiss foretells a couple’s long-term compatibility. And in the world of metal, that first figurative kiss is everything.

Testament was on first. I stood in respect when the undisputed thrash metal titans confidently strode onstage. Let’s be honest: yeah, they had a few rough points along the way, but their classic-era work is scandal-proof, and you can’t lay claims against Formation of Damnation, the disc the band was road-dogging throughout 2008. Fully clad in black, their tattoos seemingly newly retouched and waist-length locks as lion-like as in their horn-raising heyday of the early 1990s, vocalist Chuck Billy made metal faces at us old-school style, serpentinely flipping his filthy-old-man’s tongue at the crowd, perhaps in homage to groupies who once were. Unabashedly pirating a whole chapter from Ozzy’s call-and-response playbook, the front man exhorted us to “get fuckin’ crazy” whilst the other band members took their positions. So far, so good.

But it was markedly downhill from that high water point, a musical disaster gathering momentum until control was surrendered wholly. As the intro tape for “Eerie Inhabitants” drew to a crescendoed close, Testament slammed into the first brash cords of opening salvo “Over the Wall”. Oh, how totally awesome would this first song have been if only Testament had simply played the tune from which the intro was culled, the first track of 1987’s The New Order, still the band’s finest work to diehards. The cognitive dissonance created by starting with one song’s intro, only to play an entirely different one, left me, in the spirit of the toked-up crowd, dazed and confused. And I’m the sober smart-ass reading The Economist. I can only speculate as to the confusion felt by the rest of the audience, all now cocking their heads to one side like befuddled puppies.

There was barely time to sort it out. Testament only played 30 minutes. They were squeezed onto a small space onstage, barely moved without bumping into one another, and experienced frequent sound trouble, including the magical vanishing of Greg Christian’s bass during, of all inopportune moments, his intro to “Souls of Black”. Vocalist Chuck Billy was too chubby to be headbanging. His insistence on wearing a cut-off tee merely added to the offense, revealing not a conquering metal god’s six-pack abs, but an unmanly muffin-top. In fact, my discriminating eye spotted the unsightly jiggle of belly fat all the way from Section 101, seat G-23. He flailed about in his oversized flesh and played air guitar on his mic stand during all the guitar solos, tummy truffles flapping in defiance of all coolness. And speaking of guitar solos, they were incredible, the highlight of the band’s performance. But every time he deftly executed one, fingers skitting across his Ibanez’s fret board, axe-man Alex Skolnick’s knees buckled like a girl in a mini-skirt for the first time, sheepishly hiding her hoo-hah from public scrutiny. It sapped the macho right out of Testament’s chest-beating theatrics and posturing.

Motorhead was up next. Before they began, I noted their road crew bore the hallmarks of crest-fallen Ultimate Fighters scraping for work. I thought I spotted Ken Shamrock sauntering about with cables and amps at stage right. And I’m pretty sure Tank Abbot – in his requisite shaven-headed, bearded thuggery – was the guitar tech. Personally, I wouldn’t let a dude who was last dispatched with by a toe-hold in under 30 be responsible for my guitar in front of that many people. As for Motorhead themselves, after 35 years in the business, they just didn’t seem to care. This was reflected metaphorically in their inclusion of select uninspiring songs like “Killed by Death.” While we can all agree it’s tough to break Cannibal Corpse’s monopoly on grisly ways to perish, I simply must believe that a $60 ticket price entitles me to a higher caliber of lyrical ingenuity if you’re going to sing about death. Moreover, all the songs they played were slow, decidedly bluesy and bereft of energy in their execution. And since when do the Metal Rules allow for even well-known opening bands to perform lengthy drum and guitar solos? Understandably legendary frontman Lemmy Kilmeister remained physically muted and stationary for most of the gig, and his occasional wobbles at the mic made me sense the lovable codger either couldn’t hold his liquor as deftly as in younger years, or was experiencing the onset of serious health problems (the latter being confirmed just a few short years later, I’m sorry to say). It seemed the entirety of Lemmy’s energy was expended on merely remaining upright, holding up that heavy Rickenbacher bass, and keeping his mouth firmly planted before the mic, clearly now feats of great concentration for the man. He evinced no energy the 45 minutes the band was playing, not even when parading out staple classic “Ace of Spades” (mumbling “…it’s time to play THAT song again.”). I know, I know… I ought to cut him some slack. Lemmy’s well past 60 now and he must be tired of life on the road. In a way, I feel bad for him, despite the joy he’s brought to millions and his admittedly unabashed torch carrying for rock and metal over the decades. But he knows he can’t stop. They don’t make 401(k) for aging rockers.

Heaven and Hell were third on the roster, the final band before Judas Priest. They had a massive stage set, something out of metal mockumentary This is Spinal Tap. The whole setup had a plastic feel to it, like Castle Greyskull for grown-ups. A rusty graveyard fence surrounded the band’s backline and the drum riser. There were full-blown gargoyles with red glowing eyes. The gargoyles blew smoke, choking the stage, and the first 10 rows with thin grey fumes for a full 20 minutes prior to Heaven and Hell taking the stage. The gargoyles’ gnarly, clawed paper mache talons supported light-up crystal balls, and every time they ignited bright yellow, ostensibly with some variety of mystical metal magik, the gargoyles’ eyes burned crimson, they belched smoke, and the crowd roared in apocalyptic – and one might assume inebriated – approval. Despite my expectation that the band would show their true renegade-ness by storming onstage and pretending to slay the gargoyles or jumping the faux-fence, they emerged as proper English gentlemen (with the obvious inclusion of one Ronnie James Dio, a metal gent for the nations), casually strolling onstage and smiling ever-so-politely. It is true: to be in their presence of the masters, the forefathers, is mind-blowing at the outset. Yet Tony Iommi’s guitar was muddy, nearly beyond comprehension. There was too much bass in the mix and Geezer Butler’s every hand-slap-on-heavily-gaged-strings was audible even on the law, creating an annoying clicking not in-time with Carmine Appice’s kick drum. Dio crooned and gestured broadly, and his voice wavering with a diva’s emotion. But ‘twas not sufficient to save Heaven and Hell from an overall sound more befitting of an opening band on poorly-run club PA, not guys with this much experience on state of the art equipment in one of the Washington, DC area’s biggest premier live music venues.

Four songs into Heaven and Hell’s set, during “Children of the Sea”, with the sloppy sund and the house still only three-quarters full, something came over me, a sadness of some inexplicable kind. Agitated by the previous months in Iraq, unable to stand or sit immobile for too long or concentrate for the length of time required of a musical performance, ill in the innards from the pounding yet muddy amphitheater sound, dismayed that my heroes could be so lackluster, I knew that, at least for me, the end was neigh, that my retirement from metal was on deck. I could not bear to witness the death throes of this entire performance, and would not stick around to see Judas Priest, who I’d wanted to see live since I discovered them with Painkiller in 1990 as a 13-year old. It was only fitting that my final act would be to walk out while Tony Iommi, the man who started it all, was onstage. As I departed my seating section, I halted occasionally for an uncomfortable pause and nervous deliberation, glancing over my shoulder at the stage. Was I really gonna do it?

I made it to the lawn area. I surveyed the sparse crowd seated around me. I looked for the loneliest face. Judging from the forlorn grills surrounding me in the lawn, I knew it wasn’t just me who needed a miracle at that moment. And then I found a special one, the one to be the recipient of my True Metal Miracle: probably 14 years old, pimply and alone, squinting to see the figures performing at a great distance, sipping a lukewarm Mountain Dew, likely on the lawn because his parents were too cheap to purchase him a seat under the pavilion, or his allowance and yard-mowing cash simply didn’t suffice for a more expensive ticket. Yes, I was once like him, and if he remained in the Washington, DC region then statistically he would one day indeed be me: a member of the walking dead, a government employee, relegated to his cubicle and subject to dancing to The Man’s unpredictable whims, wondering how glory had so easily escaped him and sadly reflective on his metallic teenage glory era. Yes, the boy would one day grow painfully aware that the magic does not last. That this time of musical discovery in his life will one day draw to an abrupt close, sooner than he anticipates and much faster than he is prepared to accept. His guitar gods will be revealed as nothing more than men, and they would someday pass from this life, their corporeal beings withered, their souls drifting unsung into the ether of rock history. There they will be celebrated on tee-shirts and posters and shitty mall kitsch that will NEVER do justice to the greatness of the men themselves, the wonderful contributions they made to lives of their fans who adore and love them, the dreams they inspire and the memories their music creates.

It was time to pass the torch.

I tapped the boy’s shoulder. He wheeled to face me. Not defensive, just curious. I could tell the band transfixed him and that my contact jolted him from another world. Maybe this was his first concert, and though I was angry about its outcome for me personally, I fully understood how it was likely the proverbial Big Deal to the kid who didn’t have 25 years of metal concerts under his belt as a barometer for separating chicken shit from chicken salad. I forced a smile, attempting to conceal the heavy woe in my heart. No, I would have no one pity me in this final act. I gave him my ticket, pointing to the seating info on the page and giving him a quick thumbs-up. I patted him on the back paternally, my palm thudding soundly a few deliberate times, and I hoped each one would convey to him the gravity of the moment and the charge now upon him. A perceptive young man, he was already well ahead of me: if anything counter-balanced the sob welling in my gut, it was the sudden and unadulterated joy in the boy’s eyes. He jumped all at once and sprinted down the hill, all pretense of detached coolness gone from his exploding teenage heart. And for a moment, I was happy. I was free. I marveled at how we never exchanged a word, yet we both had said so much. The communicative power of music, I thought.

I began walking again, stopping only once to peer over my shoulder and deliver a silent goodbye to Tony and the boys. Thank you, gentlemen: I owe you the best of my youth. It was a good run.

At least since that obscure era of the neoliths, societies flung to the furthest reaches of the globe have debated what constitutes the essence of the human race. And in our enlightened modern era, as a society – with the lamentable exception of hardcore religious types still emphatic that the triceratops was a damned lie and the earth was created merely 6,000 years ago – we’ve come to accept that some folks are simply born a certain way. Just ask Rob Halford. Scholarly debate regarding nature-versus-nurture has forever attempted to calibrate the importance of one’s innate qualities relative to how one’s personality and character are shaped by experiences. Though nowhere close to possessing expertise on the topic beyond what I’ve skimmed on Wikipedia, I’m personally markedly inclined toward nature, which in large order accounts for why I was born METAL.

A hindsight-boosted analysis ought usher into clear focus the fact that while Paul McCartney, Elton John, and The Manhattans were sweeping the American music charts in that miraculous annum of my birth, 1976, an incipient me bellowed forth into the delivery ward of Mount Carmel Hospital in Franklin County, Ohio already hard-wired to march to the (blast) beat of a distinct percussionist. Though no one would have wagered such a bet at the time, a series of antecedents during my first 11 years of life served as the smelly, toothless roadies setting the stage for what would ultimately become my lifelong metal fandom.

For starters, I was born in Ohio, a Midwestern province forming part of the ill reputed American Rust Belt and once particularly renown for its heavy metallic industrial output. Not only was the general ambience of Ohio therefore one of figurative metal, but I’ve heard that literal metal found its way directly into the my corporeal being, owing to the weighty levels of lead (quite a heavy metal) in the tap water quenching my thirst in our home on Sibley Street in the sleepy agricultural hamlet of Van Wert. Thus it ought have shocked no one when, as a budding four-year old in pre-school, I once colored the rainbow black, failing to comprehend or acquiesce to the complaints of the headmistress.

Like all metal fans, so too was I preternaturally obsessed with image quite early in life, donning all manner of costume and uniform regardless of how ludicrous to distinguish myself from the lesser humanity surrounding me. For their part, my parents did their utmost to encourage such experimentation, likely without realizing its eventual destination. One of our family’s photo albums contains a snapshot of a butt-ass naked and grinning me sitting soapy in the bathtub, baby blond hair shampooed and teased into devil horns adorning either side of my noggin. Me and my brother Ben routinely dressed up as Batman and Robin, baby blankets draped over our shoulders serving as capes and colored leotards, cowboy boots, and masks our mother fashioned from scraps of cloth completing our respective ensembles. For authenticity’s sake, we also made thorough use of Underoos, a type of children’s underwear with a matching top and bottom featuring a superhero and mimicking the character’s distinctive costume. This was metal in its most youthful and elemental form, for the difference between a Shout at the Devil-era Nikki Sixx and either me or Ben decked out in such duds was, at best, negligible.

Heavy metal is an expressive and, when correctly executed, brutally honest art form. Metal speaks its mind, consequences be damned. In keeping with the maxim that honesty is always the best musical policy, throughout my first decade of life I was exceedingly outspoken and – to the dismay of my parents, neighbors, and anyone else haphazardly within earshot – often in the most wholly inappropriate of fashions. I was always intelligent enough to avoid being too outlandish at school, thus evading the wrath of grade school teachers, who to me always seemed to simmer just below their superficially cool surfaces. But I tackled themes verboten with self-satisfying reckless abandon as soon as I successfully cleared the radius of the authorities’ status-quo enforcing clutches. While one could argue my fascination with taboo topics was a natural product of childhood and its concurrent sense of inquiry and experimentation, I cannot readily deny that I frequently took things waaaaay too far.

And so nothing was off limits for me conversationally. By age 8, I gathered that my father – a Marine officer whose government-mandated propriety usually kept his words few and disciplined in the workplace – found great reward on the home front in all things scatological. And for my old man, that meant discussing in exquisite detail every aspect, both theoretical and practical, related to his daily bowel movement. That his treatises on crap might be adorned with the fig leaf of legitimacy for the sake of his own parental self-image, he reminded us of the hard science undergirding them: where else would an eight-year old get an advanced lesson in the difference between solid, liquid, and gas? At certain points during my childhood, the old man’s work schedule was so busy that the only time we had to catch up was often while he took a dump; we would load into the bathroom and tell him about our days while “stinkin’ and thinkin’ ”, as his euphemism went. And so feeling fully justified in emulating daddy dearest’s example – not understanding that other kids didn’t hang out with their shitting fathers – one day I rushed into the front yard declaring to our neighbors what indeed was celebratory news to the 8-year old me: not only had I just flipped the scoreboard on Atari 2600 standard Asteroids, but moments earlier I’d successfully utilized the same two squares of toilet paper during seven consecutive folds, gleaning a solid wipe with each one.

Tending to my image and speaking my mind weren’t the lone hallmarks of metal I was showing from an early age. Like the glam metal groups that would shortly become my heroes, I was enthralled with girls. Verily, from a young age I felt perfectly comfortable in the company of females. I recall not being panicked about cooties in pre-school, when I sat next to a lass named Carissa during weekly show-and-tell. The ante was upped when in 3rd grade I dreamt that I was at school finger painting with Punky Brewster – in that era the most metal of television’s pre-teen female personalities. In 4th and 5th grade I regularly received, while in a state of slumber, celestial visions compelling me to actively seek a girlfriend. Bearing a halo, flowing white robe, effervescent aura and levitating off the ground, an angel would appear to me, its only human feature the face of a girl at school I had deemed prettiest. Then she would speak unto me: “Briancito, asketh of me tomorrow my hand, for love thee doth I!” Under what I considered divine providence, the following day at school I’d propose to the young lady in question. I even did so while on crutches after foot surgery- did Noah turn down God’s request for the Ark simply due to physical hardship? Invariably, she’d decline. And so a few days later, whilst slumbering anew, the second prettiest flower at school would appear unto me in a similar angelic fashion, the heavenly cycle repeating until I’d worked my way through every female prospect in class, including the ones who barely spoke English, like Anita Medina, Laurel Bay Elementary School’s sole 4th grade representative of the Mexican nation.

Like every metal band I would later love, I found nothing more satisfying than challenging the norm, from an early age taking some perverse personal pleasure in contravening convention and being consequently recognized for doing so. Being normal bore scant interest for me. In a manner akin to how many of the era’s glam rocker dudes took pride in looking uncannily similar to women, so did I invest myself in a brief period of cross-dressing around age 7. With a towel draped over my head to simulate long hair, and blanket wrapped ‘round my waist for a skirt, I also wore my mom’s nail polish and occasionally even her lipstick. Sometimes I’d even attempt sneaking one of her cigarettes, though never actually lit, convinced that smoking would speed my conversion to woman. And my fascination with womanhood wasn’t confined strictly to mere trappings of fashion: when the neighborhood kids played house, I’d duly assume the role of mother (and relegate my brother to family pet, usually a dog).

My intrigue for alternative lifestyles didn’t stop there; political movements defying the mainstream likewise endlessly fascinated me. At age 10, after watching way too many episodes of the GI Joe cartoon series after school, and relating far better to the evil genius of Cobra, I declared myself a terrorist. Enlisting two friends from school as my sinister cohorts, I ran them through homemade obstacle courses in the backyard as part of their training. Once I deemed training complete and began planning the next stage in our plot to global domination, I broke the cardinal rule of membership in a terrorist organization when disclosing our plans to my mother. In one of the rare instances in which she struck a firm heel into the dirt and crushed my creative impulse, she informed me in no uncertain words that if I wanted to be a terrorist, “your father will have to kill you. Because that’s what your daddy does. He’s a Marine. He kills terrorists.” And if obscure political movements captivated my imagination, then religious ones were not exempt from experimentation. At age 11, after watching Ghostbusters far more times than would reasonably be considered healthy by any practicing psychologist, I decided to become a devotee and worshipper of Gozer. Upon warning my father that his lack of piety for the Supreme One would land him squarely in the merciless crosshairs of Zul the fridge deity, he got up, bade me stand at attention, and in his finest formation voice ordered me to cease and desist all worship of any god but Jesus Christ in his house, thus abruptly curtailing my flirtation with alternative lifestyles.

Heavy metal’s predilection for dark subject matter also became an interest of mine during those formative years. Sadly, however, my introduction to the macabre was not through a harmless scary movie. Instead, a traumatic incident to which my family was subjected one summer evening in 1986 was the culprit. Without delving into every lurid detail, we saved a woman who had been raped, savagely beaten, and left for dead in the woods. Regaining a state of semi-consciousness, a miracle given how much blood she’d lost and that her skull was fractured in three places, she emerged panting and desperate from the woods precisely as my family passed while returning home from a movie; we were the only vehicle on that desolate stretch of road. My mom pulled into her the car and held her tight in the passenger side in front while my dad floored it, spiriting us to a nearby military base while the woman went into shock and began a descent into expiration. We made it to the base in time, and the gate guards served as first responders while the ambulance was on its way. But before we reached the base, from the back seat, I reached out and touched her shoulder, was frigid and wet despite the 90 degree South Carolina summertime late night heat. Drawing my hand back, I beheld my fingertips stained with blood and dirt. This was my first contact with evil, an overwhelming experience for a 10-year old. The experience morphed, for a brief time, into an intense fascination with death lasting well into my teenage years and manifesting itself first in drawings I made in art class, later as lyrics to songs I’d write.

Before I turned to metal as a full time lifestyle, I made a valiant stab at achieving the dream that society does its utmost to inculcate into every young boy: becoming a star athlete. And yet being a baller simply wasn’t inscribed upon my parents’ stars nor my own. Ever the self-taught artist, my mother’s orientation was that of loner. My father’s last year of organized sports came on the Tays Valley High School football team in rural Ohio his senior year in the early 1970s; while he played ball with my brother and I, the activity was never mandatory and he always encouraged us to find our own passions and deliver on them fiercely. From the ages of 6 to 13, I played an accumulated three seasons of soccer, three of baseball, and one of football. A multitude of elements conspired to turn me off to sports, though. I was genetically poorly equipped to do much of anything on a baseball diamond, football field or soccer pitch. I had a touch of asthma in childhood, combined with my general chubbiness, I was not physically equipped with the hustle required to round bases, kick goals, or speed triumphantly into the end zone. This problem was not the least remedied by having undergone a series of feet surgeries between ages 9-10 to correct an osteo-structural abnormality. I can’t say I liked most of the other kids I played with, largely of the uber-competitive variety and hysterical about winning to the exclusion of every other consideration. Nor did I care much for the coaches to whose whims and seesawing temperaments I was subject. I should not neglect to mention that along the way, I experimented with martial arts: initially karate and followed by a gingerly brush with tae kwon do. The fixation with chops, kicks, and anything that might involve throwing a ninja star into someone’s eye was the immediate and fantastic byproduct of living in northern Japan during three years of my youth, being exposed to the samurai and ninja culture which subbed for Japanese kids’ game of cops and robbers. But once I got my clock cleaned by most of the females in the dojo, and didn’t like hitting other people in general, I learned I was not long for the world of combat sports.

So metal really did come along to save me, to provide me a purpose and a mission. Unlike my infatuation with Cobra and terrorism, metal would not get me sent to Guantanamo Bay. Dissimilar to my flirtation with Gozer worship, metal would not result in my hasty ex-communicated from the Church. Metal’s sometimes-violent subject matter allowed me to embrace some of life’s unspeakable horrors, aiding me in a quest to make sense of the dark places from which those horrors sprang and the chaos they engender. Unlike sports, I did not need to depend on angry coaches and judgmental teammates. Metal, in its way, was simpler, more reliable and infinitely more rewarding in every respect: I could do this music on my own, independently and from the comfort and security of my room, and any gains I might make were directly proportional to the time, energy, and love I invested in it. This is why music is the savior of many a wayward young soul, for ‘tis an investment in, and fortification of, oneself. Not to mention death metal guitars are badass.

…on how a chance encounter and short-term friendship with a female bassist in early 1993 led to important life lessons, not to mention a two-degree separation from a popular CBS reality show.

Witch Hunt, six incipient months into existence, finally graduated from playing the Teen Hut in Quantico, Virginia to an actual club gig. Witch Hunt, still consisting only of me and my brother Ben, got slated to play an uninspired venue called the Tiki Fala sign 1994Tiki Fala in the dingy ville of Dumfries in February 1993. A novice at these things, I’d assumed locking down the chance perform there would be a touch more complicated than actually ‘twas. And yet miracles of the metal variety transpired on a frequent basis in those olden days of my teenage years: verily, indeed, I called the club, spoke briefly to the manager, and while pitching her on the virtues of our fine musical ensemble uttered a word meant to penetrate profoundly into her cheap-ass soul: FREE. Yes, Witch Hunt would perform for FREE. That Witch Hunt was an underage death metal band lacking a complete lineup, with but a single poorly-recorded demo tape to our name, and zero profile outside of the Marine Corps base on which we lived, mattered not to the madame of the Tiki Fala. And bless this woman’s bottom-line scrutinizing soul, she booked us to play two sets on Tuesday, February 23, 1993, opening for an all-female act out of Minneapolis cleverly called No Man’s Land. A short article on them ran in a recent issue of the then-reigning supreme overlord of American monthly metal publications, RIP Magazine. So I justifiably considered the metal stars shining upon Witch Hunt, for our first real gig would be sharing the stage with people mentioned in a major music publication.

We played the show, but despite our efforts failed to deliver the goods in a fashion that would bring new fans a-calling. We had so few songs down at that point that we had to play all of them twice each during each set. But on the fundamental assumptions that no one pays attention to opening bands (who opened for Motley Crue at the Blaisdell Center Arena in Honolulu in 1990?), and no one knew our songs in the first place, we worked through numbers like “Cryptic Death” and “Nothing Survives the Fallout” a baker’s dozen times, taking the precaution of introducing them under different titles every No Mans Land 1993time we recycled the songs. To no small dismay of the club’s manager, who heckled me between sets about why we didn’t have a full lineup, I had nothing to offer by way of excuses beyond shrugging shoulders and faking the sudden sickness of an imaginary bassist who hadn’t been able to make the date. But professionals that we were, I explained, the show must go on. As for No Man’s Land, they signed my issue of RIP Magazine in which they were featured, took photos with me, and handed us a free copy of their debut album. They spoke to our parents – our immensely supportive mom and dad who made it to every show we played in the early days – and provided advice about how Ben and I could beef up our musical chops. Sarah, No Man Land’s bassist, took a particular interest in us and I remained pen pals with her for a short period after the show. Sarah’s sudden presence in Witch Hunt’s death metal micro-galaxy quickly shaped one of the innumerable tangents we would take over our eventual decade of existence: I decided what we really needed was a girl in the band.  (Keep mind mind, this was well before it was common for women to be in death metal bands: Anneke hadn’t yet joined The Gathering (who were hardly death metal, but still…), Angela Gossow wasn’t even a mere itch in Arch Enemy’s crotch, and groups like The Agonist might as well have been the Jetsons.)  And so we’d find a female bassist… Who was around our age… Who could play death metal… Who had her own transportation… And could drive 2-3 times weekly onto the Witch Hunt First Club Show at Tiki Fala 1993military base where we lived to practice with two underage boys writing songs about slaughter and pillage.  Despite what you accurately assess as a broad base of inhibitors to pulling off a plan as zany as ours, the decision wasn’t entirely a senseless one. I believed then, as I do now, that sound logic undergirded that fateful choice taken in early 1993. First, prospects for a two-man band were limited. This was well before Local-H and the White Stripes blazed a new minimalist path in the alternative universe. And anyway, neither of those groups was metal. So I knew we’d need to flesh out our lineup if we were ever to be taken seriously as a contender to our local metal throne, let alone attain recognition on a grander scale. Second, watching No Man’s Land’s sound check and the first song or two of their actual set, I took note of something: people pay more attention if you have a chick in the band. It’s not like No Man’s Land had sold a lot of records, and in fact the band didn’t even have a proper record deal with tour support and promotion. And yet the Tiki Fala was gills-stuffed with bikers and all manner of local machista rabble that I estimated were not there to absorb the ethereal quality of No Man’s Land tunes. This newfound mission in mind, in March 1993 I fleet-footed my way to Music City in Woodbridge and posted a small ad on the musician’s bulletin board seeking our bassist. And right below ours was one posted by an 18-year old female bassist, into metal, seeking to join a band.

So I made note of the number, rushed home, and excitedly dialed. She answered. We talked. Jennifer Arroyo was a blend of contradictory elements. She was of Puerto Rican ancestry but did not speak Spanish. She was legally a Virginian who considered herself spiritually an offspring of Brooklyn or maybe Queens (though realistically any of the boroughs would do). Such was her mania to pass for a New Yorker that after seeing Biohazard live on the Urban Discipline tour a few months prior she even began feigning a New York accent identical in octave, attitude, and vehemence to that spoken by Evan Seinfeld himself. A few weeks before we met, Jennifer quit a northern Virginia-based hardcore/metal crossover outfit dubbed Open Defiance, hence the posting of her ad at Music City. I am not falling prey to selective memory when I say that Open Defiance were outstanding. As Jennifer played me the band’s first demo over the phone during our initial conversation, I sensed that had it not been for what I later learned were the exceptionally conflictive differences of personality betwixt the band’s members, Open Defiance could have risen to the top of the heap. With cutting thrash guitar work and thuggish, skippity percussion set against socially conscious lyrics about judicial corruption, the deplorable treatment of Native Americans, and decriminalization of cannabis, Open Defiance were a musical force of nature, the likes of which I scarcely imagined possible in suburban Virginia.

We never actually brought her over to practice with Witch Hunt, but did develop a friendship of sorts in the coming weeks. In March 1993, she took me to an Open Defiance house party, where I witnessed a young pre-While Heaven Wept Tom Phillips jam with members of a long-defunct called Parasitic Infestation. I took Jennifer to my high school’s Sadie Hawkins dance in Brian with Jennifer Arroyo at Quantico HS Sadie Hawkins Dance 1993April 1993. We talked of bands and compared notes, and I went to see Open Defiance play live when possible. Ultimately, in summer 1993 Jennifer brought me into the band’s fold as a second guitarist. I even disbanded Witch Hunt to do so, playing two shows with Open Defiance in June 1993 before they imploded. Thereafter, Jennifer and I attempted putting our own project, but my lily-white vision of our shared musical affinity vanished into the thin air once we attempted jamming in the utility shed behind her mom’s townhouse. We just couldn’t write music together: it was as though I was auditioning for Testimony of the Ancients-era Pestilence, and she for any era of the booty-licious Suicidal Tendencies side project Infectious Grooves. Our musical collaboration would not, sadly, be a long-enduring one.  It did not matter, however, since Open Defiance reformed yet again in August 1993 and did not invite me along for the ride. Which was fine by me, as I’d opted to get Witch Hunt rolling anew, laying all my chips on Ben and myself. Open Defiance’s unpredictable on-and-off shenanigans, volatile personalities, and wanna-be thuggish hangers-on were apt to drive me into premature baldness were I to stick around a moment beyond my tepid welcome. I learned to appreciate the simplicity of Witch Hunt while I was away from it. It was much easier practicing with Ben at home than having to borrow our mom’s Jeep Cherokee and drive into Woodbridge for a rehearsal that may not happen if the members of Open Defiance blew it off. I liked the music Witch Hunt was doing more, preferred playing my own songs over someone else’s, and most importantly, loved my brother and trusted Ben intrinsically to do the right thing by me and our band.

Thus it was that both Jennifer and I settled happily into our respective grooves. There existed a certain kind of interaction between our bands over subsequent years, and we supported each other mutually. In early 1994, we invited Open Defiance to play with Witch Hunt at the Teen Hut in Quantico (though it being a military base, I had to make vocalist Chris Briton Jennifer Arroyo with TattoosPROMISE he wouldn’t swear or promote marijuana legalization in his between-song banter).  Once Witch Hunt completed its lineup mid-year with the addition of Erik Sayenga on bass, we began playing throughout the northern Virginia club circuit, and in September 1994 our two bands shared the bill one evening at a club called Maxim’s in the fine Nascar-supporting semi-metropolis of Manassas. By then, Open Defiance had a radically different lineup and was musically all over the map; they’d even re-written their “classic” demo-era songs in a manner that struck me as blatant pandering to the rap-metal style soon to become the rage du jour.  When I graduated high school and began university studies in autumn 1995, Jennifer and I fell entirely out of touch, the unintentional byproduct of people with different lives and distinct priorities.  From then on, we saw each other sporadically. In 1997, I ran into Jennifer at Ozzfest at the Nissan Pavilion in Manassas. In 1998, before I flew to Guatemala for a summer of volunteer work, we had a chance encounter at a Taco Bell in Fairfax. In 2001, fresh upon my return from Peace Corps service in El Salvador, Ben and I went to see Vince Neil play a solo Jennifer Arroyo livegig at Jaxx Nightclub in Springfield, and spoke fleetingly with Jennifer as she passed out fliers for Spine, a industrial metal band she joined on bass. Whether owing itself to so much time passing or my appearance being very different than in my metal glory days I will never know, but at the Vince Neil show Jennifer didn’t seem to remember me, even when I reminded her that we had once played in a band together.  That was the last time I saw her in person, though periodically I glean metal grapevine tidbits suggesting that “Lady J” (one of her multiple self-nominated noms d’guerre) has done well for herself, achieving on some level the success and recognition we both dreamt of a decade prior. While in graduate school in Ohio in 2004, I snatched a copy of Metal Maniacs at the university bookstore. And in its glossy pages, who should be photographed slapping away on bass for Canadian all-female band Kittie but Jennifer herself. The article mentioned that she had moved to New York, started her own music production company, and even joined a side project band formed by one of Biohazard’s guitarists. In 2008, after returning home from a tour in Iraq, I watched the Get Thrashed documentary – suitably titled for its long-form telling of the history of thrash metal – and noted Jennifer’s inclusion in one of the interview segments.  I looked up her awhile back online and learned Jennifer was on season 14 of CBS’ flagship reality show Big Brother.  And last week, while getting my daily dose of Blabbermouth.net news, I saw her featured in an ad for the Kickstarter campaign supporting Kittie’s 20th anniversary biopic documentary, currently being filmed for eventual DVD release.

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.

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.

(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.