Two years ago I walked into a guitar shop with a newborn baby strapped to my chest, and said the following words:
‘I’d like to buy a guitar and amplifier please. For playing heavy metal’.
I came home with an Ibanez SA360, a Marshall DSL5C, a bag full of cables, picks, pedals, and a ridiculous guitar strap covered in skulls. I did remember to bring the baby as well. But at that moment my life changed forever; not because I have become an incredible and famous thrash metal guitarist (still working on that), but because I became a Metalhead. And it has made me happy.
When my metal renaissance began I had no idea how much there was to learn; I was a freshman at the University of Metal, and although I’m still a long way from graduating, it’s time for a moment of quiet reflection in my very loud life.
- Knowledge Is Power
Two years ago I thought I knew about metal, because I had a couple of Iron Maiden and Metallica albums and had once seen a Korn concert. I knew nothing. I was so achingly naïve about metal that I cringe at some of the early posts on my blog. Metal prides itself on its history, and is constantly referencing that history, so that in order to be a true metalhead you must educate yourself. In order to join a subculture you must gain ‘subcultural capital’. So I set about listening, reading, and building up my ‘scene knowledge’; from the basics such as metal’s roots in Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, to metal’s 90s wilderness years, its split into countless subgenres, and the musical motifs that define those subgenres.
Now I write for an online metal magazine, Broken Amp, and although I can hold my own in some areas (musicology, my favourite subgenres thrash and grindcore, and, er.. fashion), I am so far behind the rest of the guys who write for the site- they are veritable encyclopedias of metal. But that just makes me excited about how much more I have to discover!
2. Metal Is Intelligent
Metal was saddled with a low-brow, apolitical, mindless reputation in the 1980s, thanks to affectionate spoofs such as Spinal Tap, as well as more sinister anti-metal campaigns waged by Tipper Gore and other conservatives. But those of us who love metal know that it is a complex, beautiful art form, which attracts intelligent and sensitive people.
Metal is now an academic subject in itself, with peer-reviewed journals, academic conferences and books containing the highest quality analysis. There is also some excellent metal journalism; I am constantly impressed with the standard of writing in Metal Hammer, Terrorizer, as well as many online magazines.
Metal is filled with cleverness, and I feel enriched from the people I’ve met. Testament’s lead guitarist has discussed with me the various merits of Thomas Mann novels; the bassist in Children of Bodom has explained Mozartian counterpoint to me; metal lyrics have led me to read HP Lovecraft, Carl Jung, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
3. Metalheads Are Nice
Of course there are Beavis & Buttheads, misogynists, neo-Nazis, nutters like Varg Vikernes. But they are on the fringes, and there are nutters on the fringes of everything. Metal welcomed me with open arms; I felt accepted from the beginning, and everywhere I go I encounter niceness- at gigs, festivals, even on Twitter, it’s a world of positivity. Metal fans take care of each other- picking you up if you fall over in the pit, queueing politely for beer. My favourite moment of Download 2016 was when I emerged from the pestilent horror of the flooded portaloos and a man with a tattooed face offered me a squirt of handgel.
My guitar teacher is in a well-known grindcore band that plays the angriest, most evil music you could possibly imagine. On stage he is terrifying. But in person- you couldn’t wish to meet a more gentle and considerate man. Metalheads are in touch with their feelings, perhaps because they have a safe outlet for them. A recent study at the University of Queensland found that listening to metal calms people down as much as classical music.
4. Metal Musicians Are Highly-Skilled
As a teenage pianist I needed a second instrument in order to get a place at a conservatoire, so I chose classical guitar. After a few lessons I plucked up the courage to tell the teacher about my metal ambitions. He was furious and launched into a tirade about how metal was not proper music, that these guys were ‘just twiddling about and pressing buttons’. I knew he was wrong but this was so deflating, and my classical guitar lessons fizzled out not long after.
Metal musicians are in fact the most highly-skilled in popular music. In the 1980s virtuosi such as Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, Yngwe Malmsteen, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani professionalised guitar playing, and since then metal guitarists have openly strived for technical excellence.
I have been battling away with my electric guitar for two years now, and it is slow going; even though I have a degree in classical piano, I still sound pretty rubbish and can just about knock out some standard riffs. The electric guitar is a complex instrument to be treated with as much respect as any orchestral instrument.
And let’s not forget about the other metal instrumentalists. Have you ever tried to fathom what Meshuggah’s drummer is doing? Because it’s a complex mathematical equation, and that’s before we even consider the immense passion and expression he adds to the mix. Steve Harris may be a ‘lowly’ bassist but he is the powerhouse and genius behind Iron Maiden’s 40-year success. Extreme metal vocalists are not just randomly growling and screaming into a microphone; extraordinary amounts of control are needed to achieve their range of sounds without damaging their vocal chords.
5. Metal Is All-Consuming
Before I became a metalhead, I use to listen to Radio 4, classical music, and sometimes even a bit of (god forbid) pop music in the car. Now I struggle to listen to anything that isn’t metal- I’ve become completely intolerant.
I’ve put on a stone in weight because instead of going to the gym I’m playing the guitar or writing about metal. And when I do go to the gym I no longer listen to ‘dance mixes’ but to Carcass and Exodus to get me pumped up.
I have thrown away from my wardrobe anything remotely floral, Boden catalogue, Marks & Spencer- basically anything that could be categorised as ‘Mum’. I only wear black band t-shirts, ripped jeans with an awesome chain hanging off them, and my beloved biker boots. Dressing is SO much easier nowadays.
I don’t buy women’s magazines anymore, only metal and guitar mags. I should really be getting a proper job again now my littlest is going to nursery, but I’m far too busy writing metal reviews for Broken Amp- that is now my job!
6. Metal Is Fun
Metal is the most fun I have had since I was a student. Metal is more fun than riding down the street in a shopping trolley after eight Long Island Iced Teas, eating a kebab at 4am then throwing up in the gutter. Actually looking back it wasn’t that fun.
Now I get up in the morning with things to look forward to beyond childcare and domestic drudgery. And that makes me a better mother, because I’m a happier mother. I look forward to gigs with the excitement of a child counting down to Christmas. When my copy of Metal Hammer arrives I get a warm glow and stash it away for a quiet moment without the kids, so that I can savour it. I listen to songs about dragons and Vikings without a trace of irony, but simply because they are fun. And extremity begets extremity- the heavier you go, the heavier you need, so that with my current favourites being Carcass and Entombed, goodness knows what I’ll be listening to in another couple of years.
7. Most People Hate Metal
My friends and family treat my new hobby with overwhelming contempt. She’s having a midlife crisis, she’s attention-seeking, she looks ridiculous, etc etc. It’s the elephant in the room, something we can’t discuss- as if I was having an affair or had had some sort of absurd facial cosmetic surgery failure.
The only person who has attempted to join in, mainly because he would like to see me once in a while, is my husband. He has bravely attended gigs with me and is even coming to Hellfest for a ‘romantic weekend’. But he just doesn’t like the music, and he has really tried. The only time he has found something to like thus far was at a Zeal & Ardor gig. Perhaps it’s either in you or it isn’t. My husband is understanding but in a sort of sympathetic way, as if I’m having a sort of prolonged nervous breakdown.
The kids roll their eyes: ‘Let’s just pretend she’s a normal mother’, I once heard them say to each other. My guitar-playing is mainly an annoyance because they can’t hear the TV when I’m practising, and they live in constant dread of me getting it out when they have friends over for playdates. Occasionally they indulge me- last week I had to review the new Iced Earth album so we played it in the car on the school run. ‘Mummy, what’s a Seven-Headed Whore?’ They answered it themselves:
2yo: ‘Is a bad bad bad bad lady’
5yo: ‘It’s like a dragon’
7yo: ‘IT CANNOT BE KILLED’
10yo: ‘It’s definitely not appropriate for us’
8. Metal Is A Global Community And A Force For Good
The first big metal gig I went to was Testament, when they passed through Oxford- just after I bought that first guitar. Seeing hordes of people making their way down Cowley Road wearing matching tour t-shirts gave me an enormous buzz, a sense of belonging, and this feeling is addictive. When you go to an Iron Maiden concert you are part of a global tribe. I love it when I spot a fellow metal shirt-wearer in an incongruous place, we catch each other’s eye and have a shared moment of fellowship. I suppose it’s like being a football fan, except that metal transcends local and national boundaries. It gives people an outlet, a voice, a safe space to channel aggression.
Last year I emigrated due to my husband’s work, and that sense of displacement is really hard, especially for the trailing spouse. Metal gave me a very important sense of still belonging somewhere, as well as a ready-made community here in Switzerland. It also gives me an identity; as a stay-at-home mum who gave up her career, it can be hard to accept that people only associate you with pushchairs, nappies and breastfeeding, when once you were a career woman in a suit. I’m still a mum, and I’ll probably never wear a suit again, but I’m also a Metalhead, and that gives me an inner strength.
The Tipper Gore/Parental Advisory/’metal is Satan’s music’ days are long gone; metal bands care about their fans, care about young people, care about the environment. Metal is a force for good.
9. Metal People Tend To Like Wrestling
When I joined twitter a few months ago I followed lots of metal fans and writers, and noticed that they were all on about WWE. It just so happened that my sons also got into WWE this year, so now I know all about Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, Sasha Banks, Chris Jericho and the rest. I actually love collecting wrestling facts and toys with the kids- I’ve even been to see a live RAW show. And yes, wrestling is quite metal- counterintuitively positive values, escapism, tight trousers, controlled aggression, post-ironic visions of masculinity. And I am totally into it.
10. I Don’t Feel Marginalised As A Woman
Nobody within metal seems bothered either way that I’m a woman. In fact I’m rather regretting my ‘metal mama’ persona on social media, because it’s not even a thing. So what if I’m a mama? And I love that.
Of course there are problems with sexism and misogyny in metal- but hang on- that’s the world in general, sadly. And at least metal gives women a space to experiment with alternative versions of themselves. It’s no coincidence that a disproportionate number of metal scholars in academia are women- Rosemary Lucy Hill, Michelle Philipov, Amber Clifford-Napoleone, to name but a few. They want to understand why they were attracted to this form of music that supposedly excludes them.
Nowadays there are loads of female metal musicians, and not just the amazing vocalists like Alyssa White-Gluz and Cristina Scabbia. Nita Strauss is one of my favourite guitarists, Reba Meyers is completely brutal in Code Orange. Lzzy Hale is a metal star who happens to be female, but it doesn’t define her. It isn’t even necessary to mention when bands have female members anymore- it doesn’t need to be a thing.
11. Earplugs Are Ok
In fact they are more than ok- they are essential. When I first started going to gigs, particularly in Switzerland, I was astounded to see so many tough-looking people with bits of yellow stuff in their ears, and I even took the piss out of them. What kind of a pussy are you, with your earplugs….. metal is SUPPOSED to be loud! I was obsessed with the notion of affective overdrive, the need to drown myself in sound. But you can still do that while protecting your ears. As someone pointed out to me recently ‘There’s nothing metal about tinnitus’. I plan on still being able to hear this stuff when I’m old!
12. Metal Is Thriving
Anyone who thought metal’s heyday is long gone would be completely wrong. The old gods are still there, doing victory laps, comeback tours and ‘Best Of’ albums. But they are joined by a constant flow of exciting new bands. I’m supposed to be working on a ‘Best of 2016 so far’ album list for Broken Amp, and I simply can’t choose. And when I go to gigs there are loads of young people getting into the scene. These are exciting times for metal- the 1980s may have been glory days, but perhaps we are living new glory days now.
13. ‘Once A Metalhead, Always A Metalhead’
I believe it was Rob Halford of Judas Priest who said this. There is absolutely no going back for me now- this is my lifestyle. I will continue my quest for new and more extreme forms of metal, while worshipping my heroes and the classics. I will wear my metal clothing with pride. Next week I will be setting off on my first pilgrimage to Hellfest, where I hope to be taking my children and grandchildren for many years to come.
 Sarah Thornton, quoted in Keith Kahn-Harris, ‘Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge’