“One of the primary reasons why popular culture despises metal heads is related to their perceived hostility toward religion.” (Purcell, 2003, p. 116)
Much research shows that metalheads are much less religious than fans of other music, but listening to heavy metal music does not directly cause people to be unreligious (Arnett, 1996; Purcell, 2003). Most metalheads simply object to belief systems that result in mainstream conformity to one set of values, and have thus demonstrated their capability to define spirituality on their own terms based on the affinity for pluralism and tolerance (Arnett, 1996). Arnett (1996) reveals that many metalheads have embraced this pluralism so passionately that most feel “it is important to allow others to practice their beliefs without interference, [and] …that there are no important differences between one set of beliefs and another” (p. 123). Unfortunately, this liberality and compassion caused by the socialization process is widely misinterpreted as unreligiousness (Arnett, 1996). While many metalheads to not adhere to any religion in the traditional sense, most do have a belief structure based on “the ideology of alienated individualism” (Arnett, 1996, p. 127). Heavy metal thus provides the worship music of this individualistic belief system, which unites metalheads in their collective ideology (Arnett, 1996). Arnett (1996) states that heavy metal “concerts provide the ritual celebration of the ideology [and] the lyrics of the songs provide the text that articulates and legitimizes their beliefs” (p. 129). Hymns are sung, fellowships are strengthened, and sermons are in fact conducted at heavy metal concerts (Arnett, 1996).
A significant portion of heavy metal music, however, is overtly religious, and incorporates themes of traditional Judeo-Christian imagery, Hare Krishna and Buddhist philosophies, and other belief systems that do not operate based on the grossly stereotyped and distorted reverence of Satan (Weinstein, 1991; Trzcinski, 1992; Walser, 1993; Hansen & Hansen, 1991a; Binder, 1993; Moore, 1996; Clarkson, 1997). Weinstein (1991) states that religious texts and practices are the primary sources of the “imagery and rhetoric of chaos” of heavy metal, particularly with terminology that describes “battle[s] on earth between the forces of good and evil” (p. 39). The use of these archetypal tales of angels, demons, punishment, and divine intervention provide ways for metal musicians to indulge in both fantasy and faith, and can be simply “fascinating on a number of levels” (Purcell, 2003, p. 164). There are also numerous examples of bands that directly cite Bible verses in their lyric sheets, use Krishna ideologies as primary content, and perform prayer services before, during, and after concerts.
Initially, “Krishnacore” emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Straight Edge musicians Ray Cappo and John Porcelly of Youth of Today became attracted to His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, “who popularized Krishna Consciousness in the United States” (Haenfler, 2007, p. 15). The clean-living sXe lifestyle lent itself quite well with the “more puritanical aspects of Christianity and the monastic Hare Krishna lifestyle” (Haenfler, 2007, p. 185), and bands like 108, who are named after the amount of mantra counting beads on the Japa mala (Bharati, 2009), Refuse To Fall, Shelter, and Baby Gopal all put out Krishna-based albums on Equal Vision Records (Haenfler, 2007, p. 185). Haenfler (2007) notes that these bands toured extensively, shared vegetarian meals and Krishna philosophies with fans and community members, and cultivated quite a following with their music that was composed with intent to “spread [the] message of truth and self-betterment based on inner reflection and pure living” (Cappo 1993: iii cited in Haenfler, 2007, p. 47). The Brooklyn, NY-based hardcore band The Cro-Mags also had Hare Krishna influences, from vocalist John Joseph “Bloodclot” McGeown and bassist Harley Flanagan (Blush, 1994). In the early 1990s, Joseph regularly visited the Krishna temple on Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn, and began handing out flyers at Cro-Mags shows promoting “vegetarianism, anti-materialism and political pacifism” (Blush, 1994). Haenfler (2007) reflects on the dichotomy of the aggressive music with the calm sensibilities of these musicians by proposing,
“Not only did [these musicians] not drink, use drugs, eat meat, or have sex, they adopted a religion that many people consider to be a cult! [The] entire lifestyle seemed like a way of resisting parents, society, and the ‘cool’ kids at school. It was like they were giving the entire ‘normal’ world the middle finger and laughing all the way to enlightenment.” (p. 32)
Another style of music to use spiritual messages is Christian heavy metal, which originated in the 1980s with several bands called Stryper, Vengeance, and Mortification, which has been dubbed “White Metal” by critics, as opposed to the supposedly Satanic “Black Metal” (Walser, 1993).
Stryper, which stands for “Salvation Through Redemption, Yielding Peace, Encouragement, and Righteousness” (McNeil, 2005, p. 379), reinterprets the codes of heavy metal to include messages of faith, God, Christ, and the Bible, and thus the music is used to “serve the purposes of Evangelical Christian sects and denominations” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 54). Weinstein (1991) reports that Stryper began the Christian metal phenomenon as a response to the widespread popularity of heavy metal in the 1980s, but through their transformation of metal codes, the band demonstrates that heavy metal music can be used to disseminate the power and “transcendent freedom” of Christianity (Walser, 1993, p. 55). The power belongs to God; the freedom corresponds to the benefits and rewards of the Christian faith, and the resulting “intensity” is a “religious experience” (Walser, 1993, p. 55). Heavy metal’s typical discordant cacophony may seem incongruent with the Christian agenda, but Stryper presents Christianity through heavy metal as an “exciting, youth-oriented alternative” that enables fans to enjoy the aggressive music of the genre and “feel virtuous at the same time” (Walser, 1993, p. 55). Christian heavy metal is thus a “well-crafted missionary effort to recruit members and save souls,” and this evangelical message is undeniable on the albums, Soldiers Under Command (1985), In God We Trust (1998), and the Grammy-nominated, To Hell with the Devil (1987), where the lyrics and artwork are “replete with references to Jesus” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 54). Additionally, the band threw out Bibles to concert audiences, and have cited and quoted scripture throughout much of their work, like the album cover for To Hell With the Devil that features references to Isaiah 53:3 (where the band name is derived) and Revelation 20:10 (Weinstein, 1991; Sweet, M., Fox, Sweet, R., Gaines, Van Tongeren, 1986).
Stryper garnered mainstream radio play and massive success during the height of 1980s metal popularity due to their airwave-friendly, lighter-than-most style of play. Other Christian bands like Vengeance, however, never gained widespread appeal due to their extreme thrash metal style, complete with “demonic-sounding vocals” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 54). Brainchild of Southern California Sanctuary Church pastor and singer Bob Beeman, Vengeance was formed based on the ability of its members to “infiltrate the underground thrash metal scene” with their knowledge of “apologetics and homiletics,” in addition to their progressive instrumental abilities (Beeman as quoted in Weinstein, 1991, p. 269). The band’s album, Human Sacrifice (1989) features artwork with an extreme close-up of Jesus’ bound and crucified palm, which fits directly in with the shocking, graphic and gory imagery of heavy metal music, yet analyzing the lyrics and chapter-and-verse citations of the songs reveal the bands inherent “religious mission” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 54). Song titles like “Fill This Place With Blood” and “Beheaded” are also consistent with heavy metal codes, yet the “blood” is that of the ritually sacrificed lamb, and the “beheading” is derived from The Book of Revelations (Weinstein, 1991). Additionally, the members of Vengeance engaged in “pastoral and evangelical interaction” with fans throughout performances, however, critics rebuked these actions based on the beliefs that Christianity, heavy metal, and moshing at concerts are not “compatible” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 54). Weinstein (1991) states that by the late 1980s, over 100 Christian metal groups, including Messiah Prophet, Leviticus and Barren Cross, were on a “musical missionary statement” selling records at Christian bookstores and secular retail outlets alike (p. 54).
Throughout the 1990s, Christian metal bands continued to emerge and push the boundaries of sonic aggression and faithful messages through death metal-stylized lyrics, imagery and vocalizations. The bizarre and somewhat contradictory juxtaposition of impetuous Christianity and unforgivably punishing death metal music is extremely compelling in a number of ways. Little Rock, Arkansas’ Living Sacrifice, which in itself is a reference to Jesus Christ, is one of these highly respected Christian heavy metal bands, even outside of religious circles. Images of crucifixion, crowns of thorns, fire and brimstone, apocalypse, mausoleums, and shrines pervade the album art on recordings like Reborn (1997), The Hammering Process (2000), and Conceived in Fire (2002), and song titles like “Breathing Murder,” “No Grave Concern,” “Local Vengeance Killing,” and “3×3 We Carried Your Body” all solidify the band inarguably as a heavy metal act, yet the band vehemently evangelize Christianity with their work. Lyrics for “Liar” censure hypocrites,
“Worthless / Want to / Be God / Loser / Imitation / Fallen from all grace / Lying beast, you’re bound / Lord of maggots, we rebuke you / Devil / Evil / No Authority / Whatever’s bound on Earth / Will in Heaven be bound / In Jesus’ name / Enemy of God / Every knee will bow / Every tongue confess / Jesus Christ is Lord / You’re already dead / Be seen for what you are / Liar / Liar / Liar / Liar / Enemy of God / Every knee will bow / Every tongue confess / Jesus Christ is Lord,” (Fitzhugh, Truby, J., Garvin, Truby, C., Reborn, 1997)
And “Reborn Empowered” offers hope in Christianity to those previously without faith,
“Reborn empowered / All strongholds broken / Old ways have died / Given new life / Boldness engulfs my every word / Strength empowered by God / Jesus / The strength in Christ’s name / Power / All knees must bow / Same Spirit that dwells in us / Raised Him from the dead / This gift freely given / You will believe / Evil, it’s plan to deceive / Manipulation, deception we bind / Rebirth / Confession / That He is God / Almighty / Reborn Empowered / All strongholds broken / Old ways have died / Given new life / Rebirth / Confess / Our Lord” (Fitzhugh, et al, 1997).
The vocal styles of singer Bruce Fitzhugh are guttural, gravelly and harsh, and even undistinguishable at times among the blistering guitars, thunderous bass, and punishing percussion, yet the evangelical messages of Living Sacrifice’s music is quite clear, and has served as the foundation for many modern heavy metal and death metal bands with Christian agendas. Entire festivals like Cornerstone in Bushnell, IL, have emerged due to the attraction of heavy Christian music, and a litany of artists is active within the scene. Bands like Hope For The Dying (Jonesboro, IL) are gaining support through national tours with acts like War of Ages (Erie, PA), Inhale/Exhale (Canton, OH), and Sleeping Giant (Redlands, CA), while other bands like Impending Doom (Riverside, CA), With Blood Comes Cleansing (Albany, GA), Thy Will Be Done (Providence, RI), and August Burns Red (Lancaster, PA) are all capitalizing on their Christian metal messages on a somewhat larger scale. Entire production companies like Facedown Records have been formed for the production of Christian hardcore bands such as Bloody Sunday (Virginia Beach, VA), No Innocent Victim (San Diego, CA), and A Plea For Purging (Nashville, TN), and some bands like Demon Hunter (Seattle, WA), Norma Jean (Douglassville, GA), Extol (Oslo, Norway), and Grammy-nominated As I Lay Dying (San Diego, CA) and Payable on Death (P.O.D.) (San Diego, CA) have all had extended, influential, and at times quite fruitful and critically recognized careers in the industry.
A representative from the band War of Ages states the intentions of the band, and use of Christianity in heavy metal by emphatically stating,
“Everything we do should be considered a ministry… That’s what we were created for. We are men known for our faith, which has become as much a part of our band as it has for us personally… From the very beginning… we started going, ‘you know what? This is what we want to do. We’re going to change lives.’ We want people to see Christ through us. When we pray before we go onstage and stuff, and when we pray at the end of the night, we just go, ‘God, if we ever start to dwindle and fade away from what we started this band for, then strip it from us. Take it away, because we don’t want it anymore.’ We’re very serious when it comes to that, to staying focused and staying on track.” (Facedown Records, 2008, p. 1)
The amount of dedication and commitment that bands like War of Ages put toward their music, faith, and lifestyle is admirable in the face of such overwhelming opposition from Christians who denounce metal, and metal fans who oppose Christianity. Likewise, the band Impending Doom is especially criticized for using their incredibly brutal death metal music to spread the message of Jesus Christ, and the band members have been outspoken upon the reception of these personal insults. Impending Doom vocalist Brook Reeves even wrote a song called “Silence the Oppressors” because “it is especially tough getting criticism from our Christian brothers and sisters who say we can’t worship God through the kind of music we play” (Facedown Records, 2008, p. 3). The lyrics (that are stylized in such a death metal fashion that it is difficult to decipher even when following along with the lyric sheet while the music plays) from the 2007 album, Nailed. Dead. Risen. are as follows,
“To the following Christians listen closely / We bring our light to a new realm / A realm you dare not enter / Passing judgment behind stone walls / behind your absence of understanding / We will crush your walls that dictate where our ministry goes / Don’t you ever tell me I’m using God as a gimmick / I’m not a heretic / I’m not a hypocrite / Those insults make me sick from the ones I have fellowship with / We aren’t doing this for our own / But for one name holy and alone / These venues are our church / We are the gospel in the darkness, and this is our exaltation / Are you listening!?!?! / We’ll crush the walls that dictate where our ministry goes / This is our church / This is our worship / GORSHIP / This is our church / This is our worship / GORSHIP”
Reeves explains that “Gorship” is a self-appointed term to express “worshipping God through gore-type music,” and the critics and hypocrites that he censures are “trying to take the church and God out of everything when the solution is Christ, plain and simple” (Facedown Records, 2008, p.3). Many non-Christians, however, are willing to accept the music just for music’s sake. Walser (1993) poignantly summarizes, concludes, and extols heavy metal as a religion in its own right by pronouncing,
“If religion functions both to explain the world – providing models for how to live, tenets of faith and empowerment, and comfort for when they don’t work – and to offer a sense of contact with something greater than oneself, then heavy metal surely qualifies as a religious phenomenon.” (p. 154)
Links to all references can be found here: http://www.heavymetalmediastudies.com/cultural-sociology-of-heavy-metal-music/
Featured in the image is the band Demon Hunter