Pain is an excellent teacher. One thing you learn from years of metal and hardcore shows: There are people in this world who want to hurt you. You know the type. Usually big, usually dim. Pleasure is derived from the systematic punishment of the weak. Unfortunately—but understandably—violent music occasionally goes hand in hand with actual violence.
If there’s one good thing that comes from an especially vicious show, it’s the thrill of living to tell about it. Call it the crucible effect: Pain hammers you into shape, you toughen up a little for next time, and hey, you’ve got a story about the time you almost died.
These are the 3 most terrifying shows I can remember. The criteria for inclusion: genuine fear for life and limb. I’ve seen Devildriver against my will (don’t recommend it), chipped teeth at the hands (make that feet) of Jacob Bannon, seen kids tossed off balconies, and survived a few wall-of-death scenarios in my day; those almost made the cut. This list skews towards hardcore because I’m from New England, we had a lot of hardcore shows, and dudes at hardcore shows like to stomp weaklings like me. Such is life.
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3. Terror + Ramallah – Boston, Massachusetts – 2003
Boston shows are legendary for a reason: they turn mean quick. Must be something in the water.
The room was packed. Terror (featuring Scott Vogel of Buried Alive, and Todd Jones years before he’d form Nails) and Ramallah (Rob Lind of Blood for Blood) were new to the scene, but carried weight from their previous bands. Anticipation was high. Within the first seconds of Ramallah’s set, it felt like a tornado hit. A couple knuckle-draggers decided to reinterpret the meaning of a circle pit: rather than dancing or even acknowledging the music, they circled the room punching every third bystander in the face. I thought it was a joke, until they came my way. Fear struck like lightning. The crowd tried to move as one, meaning no one could move. One poor sap got slugged in the face and fell over a merch table—the rest of us knocked over the remaining tables in an attempt to get the hell out of harm’s way.
Picture this: a handful of thugs pounding faces vs. a room full of terrified strangers trying to hide behind one another. The brutes adapted fast, changing tactics to better obliterate any chance of enjoying the show. Working in teams, repurposing leap-frog for nefarious means, one dude would run towards the crowd where a waiting buddy gave him a boost, allowing him to reach over the front row and punch someone who’s hiding three rows back. The horrible, (possibly intended) consequence: an unusual amount of girls got clocked.
Being a DIY show in the back of a church, there was no security. The beatings just went on. Once I found myself on the far side of a merch table, I stayed put. The not-insignificant pain of others quashed any notions of bravery. Sometimes survival outweighs heroism.
Ramallah wrapped it up and Terror took the stage to a less memorable but no-less-effective dose of crowd brutality. Terror, for those unfamiliar, like to walk a delicate line between “crowd energy” and “fucking shit up”. There’s a brilliant website devoted to frontman Scott Vogel’s eminently quotable stage banter—”Maximum output! Activate the Pit!” He’s famously obsessed with stage-dives. One of my favorite quotes: “Fuck this place up, positive aggression, if someone falls pick them up. Positive Aggression. And more stage-dives!”
This crowd, sick of being terrorized (rimshot) by the few, was ready to unleash all sorts of positive aggression by the time Terror came on. Floor-punching, fistfights, and yes, stage-dives galore poured out like a flood—the place practically exploded. By that point I well knew my place: in the corner, observing. Better to live to write about it.
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Terror – “Keep Your Mouth Shut”
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2. Merauder – Springfield, Massachusetts – 2000
Brutality doesn’t require a crowd. When Merauder hit Springfield in the year 2000, they barely drew 20 people. In those days my friends and I would hit up anything with a flyer regardless of the bands, anything to escape rural hell for a few hours.
Early in the evening, the energy of that empty room shifted dramatically with the arrival of two dudes: instantly identifiable by the way they carried themselves, dripping contempt and creatine—they were in a crew. It wasn’t uncommon to run into FSU at Worcester or Boston shows; further west and closer to Connecticut we’d brush up against SDS guys. Neither were fun but both were known commodities, harmless enough if you kept your distance. These guys were something else.
Opening act 100 Demons took the stage; the smaller of the two thugs circled the empty pit, preening his tail feathers while his significantly larger buddy hung back. Buried Alive came on and it started to heat up. Jr. got excited and started shoving strangers; Big Man decided to take off his shirt. And there it was, across his back in massive Old English: CLEVELAND COURAGE CREW. Fuck. 6-foot-5-inches of sculpted physique, bent on wrecking the lot of us. (As hardcore “gangs” go, the Cleveland-based Courage Crew aren’t especially potent compared to FSU or DMS; but on the micro level they’re probably more apt to beat your ass for no reason).
Within seconds it turned into an interactive tag-team circus act: Big Man hurled Jr. into the crowd like a lobbed bowling ball, then swung him bodily like a fleshy ax chopping down terrified trees. It was every bit as absurd as that sounds—only terrifying. Other, lesser tough guys shrank to the corners of the room, discovering a new perk to playing wallflower: survival. My 19-year-old self—125 lbs of bone and insecurity—retreated in a rush of don’t-fucking-hurt-me panic.
With Merauder came true punishment. Picture Hatebreed with some Biohazard swagger, and you’re not far from Merauder (and they pull it off fairly well). Their songs are written for this express purpose: kicking ass. You know Van Damme’s signature spin-kick? Big Man had the move down pat, taking aim at faces and kicking them the fuck in, repeatedly. As Merauder dropped mosh riffs this dude circled a quickly emptying room, kicking the shit out of everyone. It was a free-for-all. People were tripping over each other to get away while Jr. ran through the crowd, shoving the escapees back into the pit. In my panic I lost track of the action, took a kick to the ribs. Knocked on my ass, but at least temporarily away from further harm. Pain was overwhelmed by shock as I watched this dude do a fucking cartwheel across the pit, launching into the crowd feet first.
The show ended a few minutes later—the brutal twosome was all smiles and back slaps: a night’s work well done. Merauder looked impressed—small crowd, big violence—not bad, right? I survived with no bones broken, just a hell of a boot-shaped bruise and a half-formed notion that life really is pain.
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Merauder – “Life is Pain”
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1. Slayer – San Bernardino, California – 2009
Hardcore shows are physically intimidating, sure. You might break something, or die, or wish you had died. But only a metal show can get truly apocalyptic. Horror on the cosmic level requires a horrific soundtrack, not just tough posturing. Leave it to Slayer to deliver the pain and fear like no other.
I envy all of you who got to see Slayer in your youth. This was my one and only Slayer show thus far, and the show itself was a blast (musically speaking; the rest of Mayhem fest not so much, but that’s a tale for another day). You all know Slayer and what they do to a crowd. If hardcore demands the mosh, Slayer demands blood. Call it a blood ritual: they deliver the goods, and the audience punches, kicks, and headbangs until everything within reach is bleeding. At least that’s how I imagine the pit, not that I could see it from my lofty perch on the back lawn far, far from the actual arena. I have limited experience with arena shows, so when I found myself in the dead center of the lawn, about 1000 feet from the stage, looking down on the nosebleed seats, I felt my first uncomfortable realization of the night: this might not be the best place to be.
Night fell by the time Slayer took stage. The main arena was reasonably lit, but the only lights on the lawn were spread hundreds of feet apart, barely illuminating a 50-foot circle in a sea of black. The darker it got the harder it was to make out the faces of the surrounding concertgoers—things quickly took a turn for the strange. By the time it was fully dark the lawn could have been a thousand miles from sanity, never mind civilization. Anonymity meant you could do whatever you want, anything to anybody.
In between songs, as the applause died, distant screams echoed across the back lawn. Maybe it was excitement, but it didn’t sound like it. A few newly liberated troglodytes decided to start a fire. Fuel? People had been dropping plastic cups, wrappers, and other human waste for hours—might as well burn that! Like most idiotic notions, the idea quickly spread: trash-fires raged across the lawn; clouds of smoke made the already thick shadows impenetrable. Suffocating on the stench of burning plastic might seem like an apt backdrop for apocalyptic thrash, but I don’t recommend it. But fire is merely a chemical process; it doesn’t mean anything until it threatens to burn something that matters, like your hair. When the degenerate mutants started shoving people directly into the fire it got pretty fucking scary.
Imagine a moshpit on a steep, slanted lawn. The air is pure smoke; you can’t see much of anything besides scattered fires and somewhere in the distance, Slayer. Not that it’s safe to turn around and watch Slayer. Populate the pit with the lowest of the lowbrow—think of the videos of dudes yelling “SLAY-YUR!”—you’re surrounded and they’re pushing, punching, fighting, trying to leap their own fires, trying to throw you into their fires: It’s hell on earth. Girls got groped in the dark; dudes picked up chunks of burning plastic with sticks and flung them into passing crowds. Worst of all, there was no escape. Security stuck to the safety of the well-lit concrete; the only way out was at either end of the massive venue, which meant a trek through the wasteland at the center.
Survival requires adaptation: My first attempt was to press to the front, ideally escaping the worst of the flames and moshing. No such luck: the smoke was pouring forward for some reason; Mother Nature smoked us out. The need for oxygen sadly outweighs the need to avoid physical pain at the hands of mutants, so took a new approach: head-on through the pit. After a few minor brushes with death I found an odd pocket of quiet, in between several fires, away from assholes. “Safety attained!” I thought, until a fireball of molten trash whizzed by my face. My second uncomfortable realization: Safety is an illusion, death can find you anywhere, and the cruelty of strangers in the dark knows no bounds. I moved away just as some mindless destroyer of happiness lit a new fire a few feet from my hiding place.
When Slayer finished, the moshing let up (mostly). I quickly made for the exit. Marilyn Manson was about to play—if I’m going to risk apocalyptic death to hear some tunes it had fucking better be Slayer. Ultimately I learned two things from Mayhem Fest: A large crowd + absolute darkness = uncivilization: humans acting inhuman. And, that seeing Slayer live is worth risking death.
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Slayer – “Hell Awaits”
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Ever seen a madball unleashed in the pit? Ever lived through a pigpile at a Slapshot show? I can only imagine some of you have seen far more terrifying shit than I have: what’s your best (or worst) war story?
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