On Metal: An introduction to metalhead culture

Zack Clark

Metalheads have several reputations, none of them particularly good. For example, there’s always the angry white trash type — often bald and overweight, with all sorts of beard variations. He was likely fired from some gig involving a forklift and is now working off his fury in the mosh pit between shots of Jack.

Sometimes he can be seen playing bodyguard to one or more girls, providing a forcefield while they quietly headbang. Outside the pit, these guys can be either complete teddy bears, or consistently obnoxious as you’d expect from their sweaty, drunken appearance.

Just beyond the center there’s a somewhat more intense-looking guy. His favorite bands usually have words like “moon” or “spell” in the title — or both — and are often displayed on a shirt under a trench coat, despite the extreme heat of any metal show.

Toward the middle, wandering around with a goofy and worn-out headbang, you can always find the metal veteran, an aging guy who’s been to every show in the area since the genre’s creation and has the T-shirt, patch or hazy story to prove it.

Finally, working toward the back of the floor, there are one or two guys whose interest in the music is more intellectual than it is primal. They have shorter hair, perhaps a math degree from a credible university, and stand with their arms folded across a shirt of their favorite band as they count along to the music.

The music seems to move them in much the same way as the completion of a problem set, and they walk out of the venue analyzing and discussing the various criteria: sound quality, technique, set list.

As far as the lyrical content and aesthetic presentation of the genre is concerned, I think most people take it way too seriously. It’s very theatrical music. Onstage you can find all sorts of costumes, posing and pyrotechnics.

Ensiferum, a Viking/folk metal band from Finland, wears kilts at every show. Behemoth wears armor and face paint, while Gwar comes to every show — or interview — dressed as armor-clad demons and monsters.

The lyrical themes and album art are typically concerned with death and destruction, anti-religious ideas, and the occult. However, it’s often not so much about the literal subjects as it is finding words and images to match the extremeness of the music.

Slayer, for example, has a long history of anti-Christian lyrics and images that attract at least one vigilante churchgoer, who waves around redemption posters at every show. But their singer is Catholic, and most of the other band members are friendly, down-to-earth guys who consider themselves agnostics.

I think there’s an assumption that all the posing and theatrics of metal performers are permanent characteristics, that these guys are always growling to themselves about Satan, covered in corpse paint and blood on their way to the supermarket.

Most people know that Matt Damon isn’t evading Interpol in his free time, just as Toby McGuire isn’t fighting crime in a spider outfit — yet metalheads are consistently held to the standards of their onstage personas. In reality, that caricatured epicness is just an attempt to provide a healthy dose of escapism.

So try it out. As with any kind of extreme music, there’s a process of acclimation that I think even the most devoted fans experience. Let the track play long enough for that initial discomfort with distorted guitars and growling vocals to settle, and the song itself will emerge from all that noise.