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Being a Metalhead Today

As a young metalhead, I fetishized the old school. While my friends were getting into the new Nile or Marduk, I was going apeshit over Seven Churches and Darkness Descends. But sadly, my initial forays into old-school metal were sparked by the scorn of the worst types of dudes: Metal Historians. You know the type—grizzled veterans who hate kids today because they “don’t know their history” or “they weren’t there” or “they probably haven’t even listened to ____ yet”. I was on my way to being one of these dudes by 17. And sure, I still enjoy my history as much as the next guy—I will sometimes drunkenly brag about making it out to that Kreator/Destruction show at L’Amour when it was still around in Brooklyn—but these days, I can’t stand those guys. Whenever I hear someone bitching about the albums it takes to be a real or true fan, I’m disgusted. These used to be the new kids, and now look at ’em, talking about Emperor the way old guys talked about Judas Priest before them. The more things change . . .

For me and many like me, metal has always been there, in its entirety. Metal music exists in a weird fault in time where the gods and classics of the old world exist in strange proximity with new and far different methods of aural extremity. Because of that, the Historians’ point of view is valid. If some deathcore band’s album isn’t as good as Slaughter Of The Soul or Fabulous Disaster, then fuck it, no matter when any of them were made. What the Historians hate, really, isn’t the music, it’s that it’s no longer hard to get into, or be into, metal. This is because of the Internet. The web is a huge ever-present sounding and sharing board, where the international tape-trading of old is done instead with the click of a button. This creates two new breeds of listener. First, there’s the cross-genre metalhead, who accepts all varying forms of metal because he can access them for free. Second, there is the previously unthinkable: the casual metal fan, the guy who digs hard on metal but never believes in a tour shirt-wrapped tribe that he has to be a part of.

The casual metal listener throws on some Mastodon or Naglfar between Arcade Fire albums and wears a Slayer shirt now and then. Why not? It’s easy! Albums are now nebulous digital entities, varying series of vibrations that ripple through the electricity on our computers. CDs straddled the halfway point—they were physical music, could feature endless enjoyable listening hours, but were at the end of the day mirror discs off of which music was magically lasered. A record is a pure physicality of music—bumps dragged by a microphone needle, either a primitive recording device or the most futuristic washboard known to man—while the mp3 is entirely ethereal. On the one hand, this movement from physical to digital is a tragic loss, because we become detached from the object-importance sense of music, the love of not just a song but the physical shard that holds it: the case, the slip, the broad flat cover. On the other hand, discovering music via digital download provides a truly subjective experience. There is no object here, no square foot of cool album art, no song credits or The Band Would Like To Thanks. There’s just the music, just the sound of these notes in your head, in the air.

The old school is about records, and that’s not what a record is about. A record isn’t nebulous, it’s hard and black. Morbid Tales isn’t a ball of colored empathic light, it’s a blade. Classics have their place, and those records that deserve it should always be printed on vinyl, if only so that after the apocalypse oxygen miners can find that music in a physical item. That’s all vinyl is at this point—a fascinating relic. To have that square of art on your shelves used to stand for how far you’d come as a creature, the same way that having some illuminated Chaucer on your shelves stood for culture back when people wore seven layers of underwear and drank tea like motherfuckers. They’re cool—fun to look at, good for the cultural memory, and endlessly useful (don’t forget, you can’t roll a joint on an mp3), But that packaging, the possession of that object, only makes us antiquarians. Because the modern fan knows that the naked music is all that a band can really be judged by and that’s easy to access at any given time.

What this has also done for modern fans, I feel, is stripped the importance from the slipcases worn by the people in the scene. Remember Saxon’s “Denim & Leather”? Great riff, stupid song. “Denim and leather brought us all together / It was you that set the spirit free . . . ” The face-forward sentiment here is decent (we all had the look, but you had the fire in you), but I’m pretty sure the band was actually promoting something shallower here (fuck yeah biker jacket, fuck yeah jeans). More to the point, the whole brought-together-by-fashion thing is an old concept. These days, only assholes really care about what you wear to a show, and it seems like most people know that. Sure, everyone takes a crack at someone’s stupid haircut or ridiculous heels, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. Long hair or short hair, tight or baggy, it’s all just sweat and screams and distortion when the lights go down. This understanding widens the limits of what constitutes posers, making it acceptable to wear whatever the fuck you want so long as you have the attitude. Yeah, man, his whole Buddy Holly outfit thing is a little ridiculous, but the dude fucking LOVES Nifelheim.

There’s the idea that this is the problem—that the digital age gives nonbelievers access to so much that they never truly love the music they hear, leading to false metalheads who have tons of records but don’t like any of them. That’s shortsighted. If anything, the Internet is the ultimate appeasement for both old and new metalheads alike. The Historians can hear some of the new stuff out there while finding long-forgotten relics that have been uploaded to cyberspace, and Amateurs can learn about underground classics they may never have heard of otherwise. And honestly, it separates the wheat from the chaff, casting away the terrible albums that folks used to shell out up to 20 bucks for because the cover looked cool. The sad fact is, if the drug-addled ADD sufferers of the modern scene aren’t paying attention, it’s a band’s job to be so good that they have to.

The digital age, at the end of the day, has made being a metalhead a choice. Labels are everywhere in culture, so to adhere to one means making a concerted effort to support its most perfect incarnation in your mind. Metal is in its very nature intense and unequivocal, a genre and culture built on the idea of vitality of self. That is the one defining, objective trait of the genre—a belief in the grandiosity of life and the desire to take things further, higher, louder. It’s easy to appreciate that from afar without allying yourself to that culture, and that’s a noble path in its own right—this isn’t for everyone, and I’d rather deal with a tourist than a poser. But these days, when you take on a title, you choose to make yourself an envoy of the thing that, at its core, makes the most sense to you in the world.

The old school was awesome, but it always held a level of obligation, like old-timey religion, where the emphases were laid on the stupid physical traditions. It’s a time that the Historians lord over, but that many of them remember for all the wrong reasons, the outfits and the machismo and not the fucking music. It’s all wafers and water to them. To be a fan today is to have options, to let you define yourself, to look past all of the history and the fashion, and focus on the power and the choice. Fans can go back and study the traditions, either in an attempt to understand them or in aesthetic reverence of them. That stuff is easy, because it’s there, physically, waiting for you if you want it but not hurting you if you don’t. Not fully knowing yourself, however, is always a tragedy. It’s important to remember where you’ve been and what you’ve done, but at the end of the day, what matters most is who you are. And if who you are is as simple as merely a snapshot in history, as being alive the day Practice What You Preach came out, well then, good fucking luck. Not me.

You know what the sad thing is? The Historians did help me, in a way. By being utter dickheads and making me self-conscious about what I didn’t know, they actually forced me to find some of the albums that greatly affected me. What kept me from becoming one of them, though, was sin—sheer musical gluttony. See, I want it all. I want old-school thrash and funeral doom and flurries of northern darkness and bludgeoning gore hymns. I want a shade of blood for every emotion I may ever have. There is no time period where my heart decides to halt its progress and revel only in the past. While I love the songs of my youth, it is the metal of today that always interests me the most. And I want the music first, before the artifacts. I want to hear it, to feel it thunder through me, to let my heart and brain make it what it is. I am not a Bay Area throwback or a Williamsburg hipster or any one type of fan, I am all of them depending on whenever the fuck I feel like it. I’m Scab Casserole, it is 2012, and I am a metalhead.

— Scab Casserole

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