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.

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"Most people, even if they don’t admit it, like to look good. I sure do."

Tom Ballard

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For many people, sneaker choice is a pragmatic process. As critical pieces of athletic equipment, sneakers can make the athlete wearing them feel completely comfortable and able to perform their best, or leave them stumbling and struggling to adjust.

Whether built for basketball, skateboarding, or another sport, the leading athletic sneakers are the end result of many years and even more money poured into research, testing, and refinement. The fact that they also look incredible may be a distant secondary concern for the athletes wearing them, but for me, it’s the complete opposite.

I don’t skate, and I never have, but as I’ve mentioned in previous columns in this series, my longtime sneaker of choice is the Nike SB Dunk, a skateboarding sneaker. Some skaters would say this makes me a poser—it’s common to see collectors urging others to “skate your Dunks,” with the implication that wearing Dunks purely for fashion or comfort is illegitimate. The conflict between skaters, veteran sneakerheads, and newer enthusiasts over the SB Dunk has never been more heated than now, several years into a Dunk hype bubble that’s showing no signs of instability.

Some skate shops go to extra lengths to weed out non-skater customers from the purchase pool—a mandatory “do a trick” system to qualify for in-store Dunk release raffles isn’t uncommon. I don’t mind these barriers, implemented to eliminate me from the running, and I empathize with skaters struggling to get their hands on the performance gear they need. If I were a skater, and if I felt the SB Dunk helped me maximize my talent, I’d want to ensure my chances of getting a pair were as high as possible.

Like metal, sneaker culture is rife with the illusion of cred. Some believe skateboarding sneakers are only for skaters, and anyone who doesn’t skate isn’t eligible to wear them. Meanwhile, as prices rise and scarcity worsens with waves of newer and often younger collectors entering the hobby, old-guard sneakerheads paint these newcomers as trend-chasers.

In this, metal is no different, with the “name five songs” trope familiar to nearly anyone who’s ever attended a gig while not “looking metal” enough—or even worse, if you’re so brazen as to be a woman. We’ve all heard the tired bleating about how only “true” fans should wear a band’s shirt (but don’t wear that shirt to their gig!), and this mindset is as empty in metal as it is with sneakers. The cruelest act is to deny others access to that very same thing that gives you joy.

Tom Ballard, vocalist of Allfather, Herzschlager, and Wretched Empires, and I are coming at sneakers from similar perspectives. Neither he nor I are skaters, but there’s something about our respective favorite athletic sneakers that’s drawn us in and kept us hooked. And we’re both fine connoisseurs of the joy that comes with choosing the right pair to complement a pristine look.

“As Lou Koller once bellowed whilst guesting on the H20 track ‘What Happened?’: Fashion before passion! I one-hundred-percent agree, but fashion ain’t that far behind,” says Ballard. And he’s right. Sneakers are an inseparable aspect of fashion in many circles, most crucially streetwear and hip-hop but also extending to hardcore and punk.

The use and celebration of sneakers in fashion is no more or less valid than the performance side of their appeal, and selecting the right pair of sneakers from one’s collection to cap off an outfit is a prized ritual. “While looking good usually consists of a band shirt, camo shorts and trainers, I like to put a bit of thought into the shirt and shoes I’m gonna be wearing,” Ballard explains.

Ballard’s history with sneakers is a long one. “Ever since I was a teenager, even before I was into metal music and the merch that comes along with it, I loved a good pair of new trainers,” Ballard recalls. “I think this probably started with a pair of Reebok Pump Blacktops—until recently, the most expensive pair of trainers I ever got — back in my early teens.”

Though basketball shoes were his first love, Ballard soon fell under the spell of skateboarding sneakers. “Over the years, my love of high-tops morphed into big fat skate shoes from DC, Etnies and Globe—anything chunky, with big tongues, and almost always, icy white,” he continues.

But he hasn’t abandoned the styles that first drew him into the world of sneakers. “Recently, thanks to having a bit more disposable income, I’ve gone back to not only loving high-tops, but also expanding my tastes in other shoes,” details Ballard. “No longer do I operate on the three-pair system: one clean pair of best, one pair for shows, and a black pair for work. Now, I can pick and choose from a slowly growing collection.”

Here’s Ballard with a few choice selections from that very collection, along with the music that characterizes his journey in footwear.

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Nike Air Max 90

I coveted these for years until I finally dragged myself away from solely (no pun intended) skate shoes about three years ago and got myself a pre-owned pair from eBay in black and purple. They ended up being more pre-owned than the pictures suggested, but I really liked the silhouette and how well they went with shorts.

I’ve got three pairs now. One in white with neon yellow highlights, a similar pair but with burgundy highlights, and a black, white, and grey pair. The last pair features in [Allfather’s] live video for the track “Citadels.”

Me wearing big trainers is kind of a running joke in the band, and Al [Cordner, Allfather guitarist], who directed the video, wanted to make sure they got a good viewing. The black-and-white colorway goes really well with the vast majority of my band T-shirts, with white print on black fabric.

For our video, I wore a new Terminal Nation T-shirt, and it was filmed around the time their excellent Holocene Extinction album came out. They slowed down a bit, honed in on a killer guitar tone, and with absolutely scorching vocals, have gone and made one the best death metal/hardcore albums in a long time.


High-tops, skate shoes and back to high-tops

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As a kid and growing up, I loved a pair of basketball boots, including the aforementioned Blacktops, but as I started getting into metal and hardcore, I started wearing more skate shoes, and my tastes started to lean more to hardcore and rap metal.

Whilst I loved Rage Against The Machine, it was the Downset album Do We Speak a Dead Language? and Sick of it All’s Scratch the Surface that really got me into hardcore and made me want to throw on a pair of Dickies shorts and a pair of Airwalks, as did seeing the Deftones video for “Bored” on MTV.

As rap-metal turned into nu-metal, the jeans got baggier and the trainers got bigger and bigger, and I went along with it. Nu-metal finally imploded, but I felt pretty comfortable with that look and do to some extent now, but with a lot less baggy jeans. I still pick up a pair of Etnies when I can, and still like wearing them with shorts.

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It’s also interesting to see how over the years, rap-metal seems to have become a bit of a joke, but there are still some bands incorporating rap and hip-hop into their sound to great effect. Facewreck from Pittsburgh put a little of their tongue in their cheeks, taking beatdown and adding some Limp Bizkit–style antics into the mix.

In the UK, hardcore bands like Gassed Up add a disctintly British tone to their rapped lyrics. Soul Glo from Philadelphia sound like Bad Brains playing punky black metal, and then sometimes just throw some straight-up hip-hop in the middle of it. Grid Iron have massive Downset vibes going on, and rapper Backxwash has continued to develop a heaviness into her hip-hop.

So, big skate trainers were my thing for an age, but a few years back Al from [Allfather] had a pair of Dunk High Varsity Reds he was looking to get rid of. They were fairly used and didn’t have a box, but were clean and in good shape. I told him they weren’t really my thing, but he insisted and said I could have them for £40. I said sure. And I loved them. Totally took me back to being a kid and having the Blacktops as well as these huge, white Hi-Tech boots I used to wear.

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Since then, I’ve bought four or five pairs of DC high-tops and recently bought a pair of secondhand black-and-yellow Jordan 1 Mids, but I’m hoping to get a pair of brand-new Jordan 1 Highs soon.

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Obviously the band shirt, combat shorts, and high-tops is a classic metal look, and one I enjoy rocking these days. I was a bit late to the pit on the first wave of thrash. I picked up on Metallica going into the Black Album phase, and while I went back to all the previous Metallica albums, it took me years to fully appreciate some of the other bands around that time, in particular Anthrax and Overkill. Thankfully, my wife’s record collection helped me with this.

Thrash has continued to evolve, with somewhat of an emergence over the past few years. Power Trip’s phenomenal Nightmare Logic album has allowed the spotlight to be shined on new up-and-coming hardcore bands that have taken the thrash template and made it work for them. In particular, Triple B Records from Boston have led the way on this, not only releasing early Power Trip records but also newer ones from bands such as Mindforce and Dead Heat.

But older bands continue to keep the thrash flag flying as well, with Overkill releasing some astonishing records over the past 10 years. One of my favorite records of this year is Steel Bearing Hand’s Slay in Hell. Check it out.

This all leads me onto a pair of trainers that are not only my favorite, but are by far the ugliest pair of shoes I own.

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Nike Blood Oncore High

In 2003, Candian heavy metal band 3 Inches of Blood released their single “Ride Darkhorse, Ride.” I saw it on the counter at the local record shop (R.I.P. Sounds Perfect) and picked it up and so began my love of the band.

Initially seen as a metalcore band but really, forever and always a straight-up heavy metal band inspired by legends such as Judas Priest, 3 Inches of Blood released five albums before breaking up in 2015. I had only managed to see them twice during this time, with one show being only five songs long after they had to sack their drummer the night before for punching a member of Saxon in the face. I was gutted and immediately started trying to buy all the band merch I could. I got quite a few shirts, a bandana, and wristband, and continue to look for stuff today.

However, a couple of years later, whilst mentioning on Twitter one morning that I was on the search for a 3 Inches of Blood hoodie—which I still haven’t been able to get in an XXL—someone asked if I had seen the 3 Inches of Blood Nike sneaker collabs they had put out while on Roadrunner Records.

I had not!

The Blood Oncore Highs were released by Nike 6.0 in 2009. To quote Blabbermouth, which I try to do as little as possible: “Inspired by Viking folklore and mythical carnage, 3 Inches of Blood worked with the product team on custom materials and colors. The upper, constructed with premium distressed battle-worn leather, is mixed with sanguine accents and the muted greens of rot and pestilence. Metallic side panels simulate armor and warrior-shields, while the blood-red outsole and tongue are an ode to the band's name.”

To look at, they aren’t pretty, I’m not going to lie, they look like a badly painted Warhammer figure, but I instantly fell in love with them and needed a pair, and then quite frankly, a miracle happened. I did a quick search on eBay, and there was a pair, in my size, unworn but without a box, for sale for about £45. Instant buy, and now they sit in pride of place on top of my wardrobe, waiting for a time when I need to throw on the most hideous pair of high-tops one could imagine!

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Enjoy all of Tom Ballard’s recommended artists with this handy Spotify playlist he made.

Herzschlager’s debut EP All The Nights Are Done released on May 7, 2021.