Metal Shoebox #1: Chris Smith of Narakah and Grey Aria Design Studio
In this series, Ivan Belcic invites sneaker-lovers from the metal world at large to share some favorites from their collections, pairing them with metal albums that fit just right.
"How do you listen to that stuff? It sounds like a bunch of noise! You can’t even understand what the singer is saying! What are they so angry about all the time?"
If you’re outwardly into metal and interact with folks who aren’t, you’ve likely heard something along those lines at some point in your life. Any time you’re passionate about something that others in your life are ambivalent about at best, you’re going to get questioned about it by people who can’t seem to wrap their heads around what makes that thing so appealing to you. But you know what metal does for you, and that’s all that matters.
The odds are high that metal isn’t your only joy, though. For me, sneakers are another. I’m not a career collector -- I don’t have boxes upon boxes of pristine deadstock sneakers stacked high in forgotten closets, and whatever pairs I do have, I wear. But I do derive a fair bit of satisfaction from a well-executed release. When pressed on this interest, I cite the materials, the color choices, the arrangement of both to create a specific colorway, the easily-glossed-over details that accent a specific release, the overall silhouette of the shoe, and the inspiration or story behind the design. Just as with metal, there’s plenty to geek out over when you’ve got a beautiful sneaker in your hands.
I knew I couldn’t be the only one out there with one foot in each of these worlds, and this hopefully at-least-semi-regular series aims to celebrate others also drawn to the unique and rich appeal of both metal and sneaker culture. Here, people immersed in the world of metal -- musicians, visual artists, label folks, and others -- will delve into their sneaker collections to showcase some of their favorite pairs. They’ll share the stories and memories that have coalesced around these objects, and in doing so, they’ll link each to an album of metal, or at least metal-adjacent, music that’s played a similarly meaningful role in their lives.
“At the end of the day, there's more to life than just stuff.”
Though his collection once boasted over 500 pairs, a deep passion for sneakers isn’t something to center a life around for Pittsburgh-based visual artist and musician Chris Smith. For the past decade, his Grey Aria Design Studio has provided bands with cover art, posters, album packaging, and merch while also delivering work for corporate clients, breweries, and sports teams. He credits the work of his father, a master printmaker, with influencing his work. “My father was a visual art and design teacher, and most notably a master printmaker, watercolorist, carver, and art collector. I definitely get some of my style from him.”
As the guitarist and lyricist in deathgrind band Narakah, Smith also applies his artistic skills to his own personal work. The band’s debut album Dark Light District dropped this February and is a pulverizing 16-minute sprint -- or as the band put it, “barbaric blasting cruelty” -- wrapped in Smith’s vibrant, 1990s-infused visuals.
Smith’s dedication to sneakers has been a lifelong pursuit. “I've loved sneakers ever since I was a kid,” he says, though at that time a new pair was a special and rare event. “I remember begging my parents for Nikes and Jordans,” Smith recalls. “We weren't rich, and they didn't want to spend money on expensive shoes. So I finally got them for school and had to work them off and earn them each time.”
Now sitting on a modest 265-pair collection, Smith eschews the hype-driven streetwear culture that’s sprung up around his hobby. “I'm not really involved with streetwear or sneaker culture at all. I don't find the overtly hype-driven mindset of the culture very alluring,” he comments. “I like a few brands and mainly just enjoy the kicks, like I always have.”
And now, in Smith's words: “The kicks. The stories. The music.”
-- Ivan Belcic
Air Jordan 6 “Black Infrared” & Air Jordan 6 “Carmine”
Probably my favorite shoe of all time. I was obsessed with these in 1991 and I still am. I begged my parents for them; they caved and I got them for the school year: my first pair of Jordans. The shoe is perfect to me. It's the embodiment of the early 1990s in my eyes, among a few other models like the Jordan 5 and 7. The design, the clear hits on the midsole and outsole, the lace locks, the pull tab-tongue. Don't get me started!
If I had to pair an album to this one, it would definitely be Pearl Jam’s Vs. or Ten — not very metal, but I used to be equally obsessed with them, and Eddie Vedder had the same Infrared pair and wore them for years. It's a memory that ties the two together. Grunge & J's: who knew? I’m also a huge Seinfeld fan, and we all know Jerry had quite the sneaker collection including the 6's. I also love seeing them pop up consistently in shows like Home Improvement -- the whole first season is littered with Jordan 6's -- and in movies like White Men Can't Jump.
Nike Air Escape 2 ACG & Nike Air Mowabb 2 ACG
Two of my favorite pairs that I wish Nike would retro. I love the 1990s colors and design of these two pairs. They're beautiful, and they're also falling apart because they are originals. Nike used "Regrind" Soles, made from recycled materials, on lots of early 1990s ACG models, so they're extra crumbly and completely unwearable. I had both of these pairs back in the day and ran them into the ground. I always loved the Huarache elements, like the neoprene sock bootie also seen on the Jordan 6, that Nike started using on their ACG models, Jordans, and cross-trainers around that time period. One of the best parts of these two pairs are the little characters on the soles: the "mucky man" on the Mowabb and the "grass mower" on the Escapes.
Here, I'd choose Disembowelment’s Transcendence Into the Peripheral or Sepultura’s Chaos AD. The Mowabb and Escape are both outdoor All Conditions Gear (ACG) shoes, so I'd liken the landscapes of these bands' home countries and the traditional instrumentation used on their albums to these rugged kicks. Two runners up would be Kyuss’s Welcome to Sky Valley, since it’s pretty desert-friendly, and one of my favorite albums — World Demise by Obituary -- for its 1990s design and nod to the environment.
Nike Air Max BW "Marina Blue" & Nike Air Max 90 "Infrared"
The Air Max is another iconic shoe with so many great models and colorways through the years, a seemingly endless supply. I remember seeing that friggin' huge air bubble way back when, and I thought it was insane, the same way people nowadays are blown away by new kicks that are basically socks glued to foam. My cousin owned a few pairs of Air Maxes back in the day, and I'd always freak out when they visited and try his enormous shoes on before I had pairs of my own. His kids are now young sneaker enthusiasts too, oddly enough.
The Marina Blue BWs were my first pair of Air Maxes. I believe it was 1991 or so, and my grandmother bought me these for my birthday while vacationing at the beach. I loved them. Such an odd but cool colorway too.
Pairing an album to these, I'd probably say Air Maxes and Timbs are the official shoes of hardcore. So I'll pick influential Pittsburgh and Buffalo hardcore bands for this, both of which have members that like kicks. Enemy Mind’s Killer Beef and Pattern Life by Despair. Both important and great bands. As a runner up, I’ll go with Hatebreed and Satisfaction is the Death Of Desire.
Nike Air Huarache Tech Fleece
The Huarache. Another great, comfortable, iconic shoe designed by Tinker Hatfield. Another one I was gushing over. I remember a few friends having these in the early 90s. Back in the day, some of my classmates had some colorful OG colorways of this model. The Huaraches are basically yesteryear's version of the current lightweight knit runners. They were ahead of their time and they still hold up, even if Nike flooded the market with colorways when they retroed them.
Suitable albums for this model would be anything by Faith No More or Helmet: two all-time 90s faves. No particular reason, maybe because they are equally as memorable, but my mind kept drifting to these favorites of mine for the Huarache.
Nike Hypermax "McFly"
A really cool shoe that's a collectible too. Many people are familiar with the Back to the Future movies and the nostalgia they spawn. The auto-lacing Air Mags that Marty wore in the second movie are so iconic. Even more so, they actually exist in functioning fashion today. Would I like a pair? Hell yes, I would. But they're just one of those collectible pairs that are sadly out of my financial reach. The Hypermax McFly is a weird one. As I recall, the shoes were taken off the market and only briefly released in Australia. Nike got into trouble over copyright issues with Back to the Future at the time. Not sure how many of these exist, but nevertheless, it's a rare and interesting shoe.
I love this pair, it's got the Nike Mag nostalgia, and so a perfect album for this shoe would be Fixation on a Co-Worker by Deadguy. The aesthetic Tim Singer wove with the design and feel of the music is very colorful and diverse but cynical and chaotic too: great 1990s design. The album makes me think of the pulp comics, toys, newspapers, and characters of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
This album is also a big influence on my own work as a designer.
Saucony Grid 9000 × Sneaker Freaker "Bushwacker" & Saucony Grid SD × Sneaker Freaker "Kushwacker"
Let’s take a break from Nike and Jordan brand, bountiful as they are, as there are plenty of other amazing brands with great models. Saucony: amazing value, nice materials, good craftsmanship. These two pairs are collabs with Sneaker Freaker. The Grid 9000 is basically Saucony's answer to Nike's Huarache -- fairly lightweight, comfy, neoprene sock bootie, and in this case, bungee laces and lace locks. The Grid SD comes in luxurious buttery soft purple suede and lands on a nice cream outsole. Two beautifully executed pairs.
These don't make me think of just metal though. I'd pick Nathaniel Merriweather Presents... Lovage: Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By -- the CD is in the mail and didn't make it for the shoot. I’ve also got the Beats & Lyrics 2 compilation, Mobb Deep’s The Infamous, or Pharoahe Monch with Internal Affairs. Pairing a metal or hardcore album for the Kushwackers, I'd go with The Opposite of December by Poison The Well.
New Balance 580 × West NYC "Alpine Guide" & New Balance 999 × Ronnie Fieg "Steel Blue"
Another great brand with amazing collabs, craftsmanship, materials, and attention to detail. I got the 580, with the good ol’ Rollbar, back in 1997 from a friend I worked with at a vegan restaurant in Buffalo. This was my only "real athletic sneaker" at the time, since I was skateboarding ceaselessly in high school and wore skate shoes until well into the 2000s. Etnies, Airwalks, ES, Lakai, DC, Simple, they were all my staples.
The 580 Alpines are modeled after early 1990s outdoor and ski wear, and the mint and purple are beautiful on that soft suede and speckled midsole. Just throw on a Jansport backpack and a colorful windbreaker, and you're set. The Steel Blue 999s are equally stunning in their understated colorway, but man, are they soft and comfy. I love grey sneakers, so I automatically love both of these.
My New Balance album is one I first heard while wearing them for work back in the day: DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing. I’ll also throw in one for each shoe. First is an album that I designed and am a part of: my band Narakah’s recent release Dark Light District. The design and aesthetic for the album and the overall band is a throwback to Faith No More’s The Real Thing, many 1990s Nuclear Blast, Relapse, and Release Records releases and packaging like Namanax, Merzbow, Masonna, Incantation, and Disembowelment, and that early Dying Fetus merch.
I love outfitting really heavy and beastly albums with unassuming aesthetics and design. Something that's eye-catching and different, almost the opposite of what you're hearing, as a juxtaposition. I apply that to lots of designs I do.
The purple and bright green on the Narakah layout and cover are very 1990s, just like the NB580s. For the Steel Blue 999s, it's simply a perfect color connection and an amazing underrated band — and also a huge inspiration for Narakah: Burnt By the Sun’s Soundtrack to Your Personal Revolution.
Explore Chris Smith’s artwork at Grey Aria Design Studio, and check out Dark Light District by Narakah on Bandcamp.
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