Leading a Non-Metal Friend to the Slaughter

“I’m bleeding from my ass.”

A few weeks back, I took my friend Hank to his first metal show, the Los Angeles stop of the Decibel tour. The quote above, given the following morning, neatly sums up his experience. He’s a good dude; the first and only of my non-metal friends to take me up on countless offers to introduce them to the metal world. My mission was neither success nor outright failure, falling somewhere in the middle as more of an awkward, (hopefully) amusing footnote in our friendship. Time will heal you, Hank.

Before the big night, I prepared a pre-show primer of band bios, sample clips, and bare-bones genre distinctions — just enough to dull the initial shock of harsh vocals and a room full of black shirts, but not much more. Like Cosmo’s friend in the original article about taking non-metalheads to metal shows, Hank was a trouper — he never complained, just wrinkled his brow and studied the satanic theatrics with the mixture of curiosity and subdued horror you’d expect from a cautious outsider. Halfway through Behemoth’s headlining set, he tapped out. I had hoped for an instant convert, but I couldn’t fault him for lack of trying — he stuck it out through four hours of increasingly heavy metal.

“On a cerebral level I understand the energy, but there was no stirring in my loins.”

Looking around the room during Behemoth, heads banged in unison, synchronized fists punched angry holes in the air; the collective subconscious of everyone in that room (besides Hank) was on an elevated plane. Loins, on the whole, were stirred. Looking over at Hank, I could tell he was lost. The spectacle made an impression, but the overall effect was closer to someone watching a foreign film without subtitles. Better than outright revulsion, but not the desired result.

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Behemoth at House of Blues, Los Angeles, April 25, 2012

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I’ve tried to convert non-believers for years by presenting seemingly palatable bands to self-professed open-minded people; for whatever reason, it never works. A live show always seemed like a viable alternative: if I could just lure somebody to a show, that collective energy — the True Spirit of Heavy Metal and all that — would do the work for me, right? That hope dissipated as I watched Hank’s eyes glaze over. The risk of full-on immersion is sensory overload, I suppose. Theoretically it could work, for the right person in the right situation — throw ‘em in the deep end and let ‘em learn to swim — but for most virgin ears it’s probably too hard, too fast, too much.

This line of thought raises several questions. What is it that draws us to metal in the first place? Is it something instinctual, or can it be triggered by presenting the right band in the right context? Like anything else, I’m sure it varies for each of us. But beyond the abrasive aesthetics of metal, I wonder if some of it boils down to what, exactly, a given listener wants out of their musical experience.

“I kept thinking about Radiohead, because that was the last show I went to. The audience at a Radiohead concert is all in their own worlds, having Thom Yorke cleverness beamed directly into their mind holes, whereas last night was a shared experience. Like some kind of celebration.”

Hank picked up on the unified vibe of the crowd early on, recognizing it as foreign to his usual concert experiences. To me, this show was exactly what I wanted out of a “big” metal show — good bands and performances, sure — but more importantly that feeling of power, triumph, and bolstered spirits you can get from capital-letter Heavy Metal when it hits the right level.

“There were definite high-fives and eye contact, like ‘doesn’t this rock?!’ Nobody high-fives after ‘Karma Police.’”

It was one of those rare shows where people turned to each other to whisper “fuck yeah!” after an especially sweet part. I don’t think of metal camaraderie as something I actively seek, but it was in large supply for sure. This is where the psychology of subcultures comes into play, the idea of individuals who exist outside of “normal” culture coming together to celebrate their nerdy/weird passion, letting it all hang out.

Granted, the world of ‘metal’ — like other umbrella descriptors, such as ‘rock’ or ‘hip-hop’ — is big enough to be countless things to countless people, and there’s plenty of misanthropic noise that eschews the whole ‘gathering of the tribe’ thing. But until I’m able to lure someone to a show like that, that’s a digression for another day.

The outcome of this little experiment made me step back and re-examine some of my assumptions, namely that this is even possible. Frankly, introducing a fully grown adult to something they’re not already inclined to like may not be doable. It’s one thing to play “Ride the Lightning” for someone young and impressionable (i.e., induction by way of cool older sibling), but adulthood for so many people seems to bring a crystallization of taste into something too rigid, too firmly entrenched in comfortable patterns and routines to make any kind of breach even remotely possible. It’s not that they’re closed-minded — Hank was genuinely curious about this show, for the adventure if nothing else — it’s just that the mental tools necessary to wrap one’s mind around something so antithetical to normalcy in most cases may not even exist. It’s like a language barrier taken one step further, like trying to communicate with someone who not only doesn’t speak your language, but whose brain can’t even process sound as a form of communication. In other words: stalemate.

So where does this leave us? I offer no answers, only questions. If you wanted to convert someone, how would you do it? Do you take them to a show? Give them a gateway album and hope it sticks? Or is it even worth the effort? My first attempt wasn’t successful, but I haven’t given up. When I asked if there were any chance of a second metal show, like maybe years down the road, something, anything, Hank took the opportunity to quote Justin Bieber and offer a dim glimmer of hope:

“Never say never.”

— Aaron Lariviere
Header photo by Greg Cristman.

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