What We Talk About When We Talk About Metal


Version 2

Last Friday night, at a venue in Seattle with my fellow forty-something metal head friends Cam and Sean, I was standing in a queue for the bathroom when the guy behind me commented how unusual it was there was no line for the women’s bathroom.  I turned to face him, saw the gray hairs on his temples, and pointed out the obvious: there’s no line to the women’s bathroom because the only people here are 45 year-old guys.  He laughed and gestured at the band shirt he was wearing: an original Metal Church tour t-shirt from 1987.  It fit him a little bit tighter on Friday night than it did 29 years ago, but he was proud to be wearing a piece of history in honor of the band that was going to take the stage a bit later.  History is important to metal heads.

Metal Church was co-headlining with Armored Saint.  Both bands formed more than 30 years ago and have been recording and touring on and off ever since.  For the uneducated, I should point out that, despite the names, this was not a Christian metal festival.  They are simply solid heavy metal bands with no particular religious views.  I’ve never been a fan of Armored Saint’s studio recordings, but I loved their performance.  Metal Church had some problems with the sound, but they made up for it with enthusiasm.  I had a great time and was happy to add both bands to my concert resume.

After the show, the guys from Metal Church made themselves available to anyone who wanted an autograph or picture. When it was my turn to meet the band members, I overcame my usual celebrity shyness that leaves me incapable of speech and thanked the singer, Mike Howe, for his performance.  I think I felt at ease because we were, in a way, peers: middle-aged metal warriors who refuse to put away this particular childish thing.  When I told him how happy I was to finally get a chance to see Metal Church perform live, he said he was excited that they finally had a chance to meet me.  Aw, how sweet.

I was prepared for the autograph session, having brought along the liner notes booklet from the Blessing in Disguise CD.  Notably, 1989’s Blessing in Disguise was the first CD I ever bought.  While the band has experienced a lot of staffing changes over the years, I was happy to get the booklet signed by each member of this incarnation of Metal Church.  Technically, Mike Howe is the only person who should have signed that CD cover.  Other than Howe, everyone else pictured on the cover is no longer in the band. Blessing in Disguise was Howe’s first appearance with the band, having replaced original vocalist David Wayne, a legendary metal vocalist.  After leaving Metal Church, Wayne formed Reverend with members of Howe’s previous band, Heretic.  In effect, the two bands traded singers.  After a few years with Reverend, Wayne formed an eponymously named band, Wayne, that released an album called Metal Church much to the chagrin of Metal Church’s chief composer Kurt Vanderhoof.  Vanderhoof was on stage slinging his white Gibson Les Paul Friday night, but while he co-wrote the songs on Blessing in Disguise, at the time, he was no longer an active, touring member of the band.  He was trying to launch a hard rock project called Hall Aflame that burned out quickly as it was such a departure from Metal Church’s sound.  He recently re-formed Metal Church and I was ecstatic to have him sign the CD cover even though he wasn’t pictured on it.  Sean took the opportunity to tease Kurt by joking that he was disappointed they didn’t play “Death Wish” or “Big Guns,” little known songs only available on a 1984 Northwest Metalfest compilation record and a first European pressing of their first album, respectively.  Kurt was impressed with Sean’s knowledge of their back catalog.  Sean has an encyclopedic knowledge of metal.

I’m guessing most of my readers gave up on this post about halfway through that paragraph.  You probably don’t care about the obscure history of a semi-famous heavy metal band.  If you did in fact make it to this sentence, thanks for hanging in there.  You are fortunate enough to hear my point: metal is a musical genre for which history matters.  The information I shared about Metal Church is stuff I know off the top of my head. Well, I did need to look up  the name of Howe’s first band, Heretic, but the rest came naturally.  Sean’s knowledge of the obscure releases was a little seasoning on top of that knowledge sandwich. When Sean, Cam, and I talked about our respective appreciation for Metal Church, Cam was happy to talk about the specific songs he loved and when he first heard them.  We all care deeply about that history, and we love to talk about it.  I suspect it has something to do with the fact that heavy metal was born around the same time as we were (that is, February 13, 1970 when Black Sabbath released their first record), so we grew up together and have a shared history.

The love for metal history goes beyond my generation, though.  In previous posts, I’ve talked about a group of teenagers I’ve met who play metal music in a local band.  When Sean and I took them out for pizza to share our metal pedigrees, these kids knew their history.  They didn’t just know the big names like Metallica, Slayer, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden.  They knew obscure bands, bands they could have easily missed if they were casual listeners, like Stormtroopers of Death. S.O.D. was a side project that Scott and Charlie from Anthrax put together in 1985 with Billy Milano and Dan Lilker, formerly of Anthrax. Dan got fired from Anthrax by their previous singer, Neil Turbin, and…Oops, there I go again. When you fall in love with metal, you want to know it all, and you want to share and learn from others.  I love that my musical community has such a passion for the history of the music.

I suppose this happens in other genres.  I’m almost certain jazz fans get obsessed about historical details.  I can imagine country fans discussing how Blake Shelton’s latest release echoes back to Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys (by the way, I have no idea if such an echo exists. I like Bill Monroe, but I am unfamiliar with Blake Shelton’s music).  I am doubtful that there’s a lot of talk about the history of boy bands or trance music, but I’d be happy to be wrong about that. I hope no one talks about Justin Bieber, ever.

An appreciation of the history of metal has made the experience of listening to the music all the more exciting and satisfying, and I especially appreciate the chance to shake hands with musicians like Mike Howe and Kurt Vanderhoof and thank them for their contributions to the metal canon.  Cheers, fellas!  See you next time.

P.S., Trivia question: Who’s the only metal singer to sing two different songs titled “Mad House” in two different bands?  John Bush, Armored Saint’s vocalist who also did a tour of duty in Anthrax.  Both bands have songs called “Mad House” that are staples of their respective live shows.


4 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Metal

  1. Sharing a comment from my friend Cam (via Facebook). He said it better than I did:

    “Nice post on the show. Sorry you had to miss last night’s show. You’re correct about aging fans and their acquired metal knowledge. I have had the opportunity to meet several young men in their twenties who play our beloved music today. Having arrived well after the glory days they have become like archeologists, sifting through old recordings and interviewing old ones who were there. They test their knowledge with me, scavenge online retailers and thrift shops for bullet belts and battle patches, perm their long hair, and populate the circle pits at shows. I am glad for them. They aren’t just imitating the Gen X metalhead experience, because there is a shared continuity, they are inheriting it. That is an important distinction. This isn’t fashionable parody, there is no hint of mockery. In a way, because metal today is so unappreciated, it is so underground, that they are living a more authentic metal culture, devoid of poseurs who corrupted the genre and hastened its fall. To those that come after us, but love the music we love, I salute you.”

    • I figured as much, and it makes me happy for those fans. I hope, as my friend described in the comment above, that jazz attracts new, young fans who feel the need to dive deep into the archive and wallow in the delicious history. I’m not particularly moved by jazz, but I do appreciate the craftspersonship of it and the colorful history. I watched Burns’ documentary with rapt attention.

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