Metal in the Mainstream (Part 5 of 6)
Plugged In Online's in-depth series on heavy metal music examines its history, subgenres, performers, fans, messages and influence on us all.
Here's a 72-point headline: Not everything in the metal world is uniformly dreary and depressing. Those messages are definitely in the majority, but a few bands do swim upstream against the prevailing current. They offer songs that encourage perseverance and hope instead of despair and nihilism—even if their music itself is every bit as hard.
Christian Metal Meshes With the Mainstream
Once upon a time, contemporary Christian music existed in a wholly separate, parallel universe that rarely intersected with the rest of the world. This was especially true for Christian metal, which arose as an alternative to secular material in the 1980s. When I began substituting Christian bands for secular ones late in that decade, artists such as Whitecross, X-Sinner, Bride and Shout enjoyed a wide following among Christian believers but were virtually unknown outside that scene.
Twenty years later, there are arguably more Christian metal bands vying for fans' attention than ever before. Unlike in the '80s, however, these bands are often on mainstream labels, tour with their secular counterparts and enjoy radio airplay on secular rock stations. Case in point: The hardcore band Underoath recently debuted at No. 2 on Billboard's album chart—an unprecedented feat for a Christian band. Others, such as P.O.D., Still Remains and As I Lay Dying, have also generated a fiercely loyal fan base that transcends the old Christian/secular divide.
Underoath's Define the Great Line exemplifies the paradoxical tension between brokenness and faith that's common in Christian hardcore. The perennial metal themes of alienation and isolation are definitely present. But they're intersected by songs that also include moments of hope and confession. A self-reliant man, for example, realizes his need for God on "Moving for the Sake of Motion" ("I don't think I can fix this/... But that's the problem/We never speak to Him"). "You're Ever So Inviting" rejects self-deception ("There's no room for cheating and being yourself") and echoes Psalm 34:8 ("Taste and see/I swear I know what's good").
Underoath's frontman, Spencer Chamberlain, recently talked about how personal struggles inform this tension between light and dark in the band's songs. "A lot of [our latest album] is about my struggle as a human with drug problems and emotional problems and fighting yourself and figuring out, really, how you're going to change," he told Alternative Press magazine. "But many people will be bummed out because I've been struggling with drug problems on-and-off since I can remember, even recently—really recently. I don't believe in lying to people. Being honest, at least I know I could help somebody. As dark and twisted as the songs are, they have that element of hope in their heart, that there was a God, and the only way for me to get out was to hold onto His hand. A lot of people may feel that they've done too much, or it's too late, but that's never the case."
Despite not being "restricted" by the same CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) boundaries his metal ancestors were, Chamberlain doesn't seem to want to dismiss his failures. He wants to make things right for himself and for his fans. Bandmate Tim McTague agrees that "when you're in a position like this, you need to set an example, and it needs to be good." You won't hear the likes of Slayer saying that.
Secular Metal Swerves Off the Beaten Path
Not every band with positive things to say can be classified Christian, of course. One that rejects despair and fatalism goes by the ominous name Killswitch Engage. Given such a moniker, I thought this influential metalcore quintet from Westfield, Mass., would be morbidly focused on death. On the contrary, Killswitch's latest offering, The End of the Heartache, is saturated with obvious spiritual allusions.
For example, "A Bid Farewell" exhorts, "Turn from deceit, the love of self is death." Similarly, "Take This Oath" instructs listeners to let go of self-destructive ways and try for transcendence: "Let us forsake ... all the things that lead to our demise/Open your eyes, see the divine." And in a genre so short on hope, the song "Hope Is ..." offers a rallying cry to hold on: "Hope is not lost/Weep no more, we will prevail/Grieve no more, we will prevail/This is our moment/Will you stand with me?"
This album simply was not what I was expecting. A bit more research revealed that three of the five band members grew up in Christian homes—thus the Scripture-influenced themes on this album are no accident. Guitarist Joel Stroetzel said in a 2004 interview, "I myself, Adam and Howard were brought up Christian but [were] never really heavily religious or anything like that. I mean, [we] definitely don't try to be blatantly like a Christian band or spread that kind of message. But I think it's pretty obvious if you read into the lyrics that there's some of that stuff going on [and] coming from that kind of background."
A Not-So-Morbid Mr. Mustaine
Megadeth is another group I never expected to see on the positive side of the metal ledger. But in the last several years, the Megadeth story has taken some surprising turns.
Late 2003 saw the release of The System Has Failed, the 10th album from Megadeth—the iconic thrash band fronted by the incendiary singer and guitarist Dave Mustaine. And it introduced the world to several recent plot twists that have made Mustaine's already-interesting story even more dramatic. At rehab in January 2002, Mustaine fell asleep in a chair and suffered a nerve injury in his left arm. Doctors gave him little hope that he'd ever play guitar again. Mustaine responded by announcing the death of Megadeth.
Then Mustaine found Jesus. And after a year of therapy, he relearned guitar and roared into the studio again. Though still a little rough around the edges (his language is still peppered with occasional profanity, for example), the guitarist has not been shy about the role his newfound faith plays in his life. He told one guitar magazine that God had to touch that which was most important to him—his guitar-playing—to get his attention. He's also talked freely about how his faith is changing his priorities and motivating him to be a better husband and father.
One of the most personal and theological songs on The System Has Failed (which debuted at No. 18) is "My Kingdom," which lays out the singer's testimony, of sorts. The first two verses describe Mustaine's changed allegiance: "The flag I once planted as a King, I abandoned/And now I reclaim this banner by God, my sword, and my name/... Drink from the chalice and be reborn/And the land with me, it will change and transform."
Further verses poetically detail spiritual truths Mustaine has learned the hard way: "No man who is false can win in combat against the truth/When he lies, he murders some part of the world/We must find what was lost/… I never knew how empty my soul was until it was refilled." The song finishes with Mustaine relishing redemption as he sings, "I have lived through others for far too long/And carried my guilt, my causes, my sins/I hope in the hereafter when I owe no more to the future/That I can just be a man."
Piercing the Darkness
The presence of bands such as Underoath, Killswitch Engage and the reborn Megadeth means ¬faith, hope, love and truth now compete with nihilism on the heavy metal stage. But it's important to note that competing doesn't equal winning. At best, these exceptions to the generally despairing thematic trend in metal represent flashes of light in a very dark (loud) place.
And even while gravitating toward the plusses of bands coming from Christian perspectives (or at least positive ones), it's important to stay engaged critically with their lyrics and to pay attention to the worldview they communicate. (Not everything in Megadeth's newest CD can be classified as good news.) Some bands' convictions change from album to album, others between tracks one and three. And thankfully, some hold firm.
In Part 6 we'll explore a case study in discernment as we look carefully at the new album from Stone Sour, a rising metal band fronted by Slipknot's frontman, Corey Taylor.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6