Heavy Metal Religion

Heavy metal music is known for its volume, abrasive sound and lyrics, dark imagery, and its die-hard fans. It has been, since its inception, the target of criticism and concern from music critics, social commentators, religious groups, politicians, and parent groups. Despite these attacks and the multiple announcements from the mainstream music industry and its critics concerning the demise of heavy metal, it continues to be possibly the most successful and tenacious element of modern popular music (Walser 1993:8). This implies that the phenomenon that is heavy metal possesses a quality that touches something deeper or more primal than its existence as a viable musical commodity might imply. Metal music and the culture surrounding it lend to its adherents a sense of belonging and personal power which aids them in their attempts to overcome the existential issues of personal identity and interpersonal relationships in a modern world. It provides a framework for viewing the world, a sense of special community, and a strong, if often misunderstood, ethical sense. Metal music fulfills, for those involved, the need for religious community, expression, and spiritual experience.

Industrialization and modernization have had a drastic effect on the Western world. The combined effects of urbanization, commercial consumerism, modern science, and a host of other factors have “left us cold, alone and naked in an uncaring universe. It has stripped us of our ability to commune with the transpersonal, robbed us of our freedom to choose, and forbidden us to look inside our own minds for any kind of release (Schroll 2005:60).” Compartmentalization of the aspects of one’s life in modern society furthers a sense of incongruity and separateness. Professional life is often separate from family life; social life is often separate from religious or community activities. The multicultural and ever globalizing nature of the modern world creates its own difficulties. And strong sense of culture and community are rarely based on geographic location, but more often around a sense of one’s history and the beliefs, ideas, habits, morals, and aesthetics it affords. Thus, to find a sense of commonality one must often leave the neighborhood in order to gather with like-minded people. One’s neighbors are often viewed as outsiders at best, or potential threats not to be trusted at worst. Institutionalized religion has been unable to assuage the sense of isolation and disconnection in this world that is, ironically, so interconnected economically, politically, culturally, and technologically. Most major institutionalized religious systems in modern society, for all of their many strengths and contributions to their members and communities, seem to have been unable to provide a viable sense of oneness with one’s own world, not only interpersonally, but also inner-personally.

Finding a sense of identity and a place to belong in a world so full of conflicting information, ideas, and ways of life is a daunting challenge to young people growing up in this modern society. Once again, most institutionalized religious and educational systems have largely failed these young people in helping them address the changes they experience as they develop. Schroll recalls, “In 1968 Maslow wrote about the need to provide a voice for ‘many quietly desperate people, especially young people,’ whose ‘ frustrated idealism’ he saw as a cry for a new philosophy of life. He theorized that, ‘Without the transcendent and the transpersonal, we get sick, violent, and nihilistic, or else hopeless and apathetic (Schroll 2005:60).'” To cope with this impending self-destruction, young people turn to any number of outlets for the frustration they increasingly feel. Common outlets for young people are the cultures that develop around artistic and musical movements. The heavy metal culture has stood the test of time in a world of consumer trends, suggesting its connection to something more timeless, and its followers are as tenacious, loyal, and rambunctious as ever. It owes much of its longevity to its ability to bring people together and provide for them in ways that educational and religious institutions have been unable. Before looking at the numerous ways this subculture fulfills its adherents, it is important to understand some of its cultural and musical history.

Heavy metal music appeared on the cultural scene during the late 1960s. It initially grew stylistically out of blues and rock n’ roll music. The blues grew out of the culture of African slaves living in North America. This heritage is evident in both its rhythms and in its spiritual, and often occult, thematic elements, which would later become some of the identifying characteristics of heavy metal. Blues music also made use of the tritone, a melodic element that considered “demonic” during the middle ages; a quality that was to become highly favored in the heavy metal scene. (Dunn, 2006).

Elements of blues were later appropriated by white culture and became rock n’ roll. Rock n’ roll was a commercial success and was also quickly adopted by many youth movements and sub-cultures, including the biker culture and the hippie counter-culture of the 1960s. Thematically and culturally, heavy metal began in response to the splintering of these counter-cultures. The emphasis of this new form of rock music was no longer on the ideals of peace and love of the recent hippie movement. It drew from the sense of freedom and rampant hedonism of the hippie and biker cultures, but with a much darker sound and image (Sylvan 2002:153-154).

Early heavy metal bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath typically came from large cities, from blue-collar families, and were musically trying to emulate black blues artists. Advances in musical technology, amplification, and new technical approaches to performing all came to influence and define the sound of heavy metal music: “heavy drums and bass, virtuosic distorted guitar, and a powerful vocal style that used screams and growls as signs of transgression and transcendence (Walser 1993:9).” Lyrics included, but went beyond the hedonism of metal’s rock beneficiaries and into explorations of more sinister aspects of human nature, violence and war, an often nihilistic world view, fantastic alternate worlds full of myths and monsters, elements of Gothic literature, science fiction, and a liberal dose of religious experimentation and the occult.

This style of music enjoyed some success during the sixties and early seventies, but then started to decline. It was revived in the late seventies with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, or NWOBHM. Major contributing factors to this renewed interest in heavy metal included the new focus on classical influences on melodic and performance elements of the music, shorter and catchier songs, improved production, and a high standard of technical ability of the musicians (Walser 1993:12). Virtuosity, particularly in the case of the guitar, became highly respected, and often expected. The vocal styles adopted elements of operatic range and projection. This combined with the screams and growls already extant in metal music led to a very powerful vocal style. In fact the entire heavy metal movement became a powerful force as it combined abrasive, operatic vocals, virtuoso guitars, bombastic drums, and growling bass lines amplified to ear-shattering volumes, with impressive stage shows full of pyrotechnics, lights, props, and imagery. This spectacle of heavy metal music corresponds with the larger than life nature that came permeates the scene, from imagery, to volume, to the lives of its tenacious and ravenous fans.

As the metal scene grew in popularity during the 1980s, it was also co-opted by mainstream record labels with access to radio and television, professional resources, and vast amounts of money. Heavy metal became the musical flavor of the month in a vast marketing machine. By the mid 1980s heavy metal had taken on the glamour and sensibilities of pop music, resulting in massive success for the artists and the labels. Between the years of 1983 and 1986, the percentage of all music sales in the United States went from eight percent to 20 percent (Walser 1993:12). Heavy metal bands like Def Leppard, Poison, Cinderella, and Bon Jovi enjoyed high-ranking Billboard status, and the high-profile indulgences, money, and debaucheries that accompanied their success.

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Such catering to mainstream culture was unacceptable to many heavy metal fans, who considered their music to be counter mainstream culture in general. Therefore, the popularization of heavy metal led those faithful to the subculture to take measures to ensure that heavy metal remained inaccessible to the mainstream by going in the opposite direction of the major record labels that were popularizing commercially friendly heavy metal music. The more underground heavy metal music became even heavier, faster, more sinister, and angrier. This new movement of heavy metal was generally known as thrash metal, and was pioneered by several bands from southern California. Bands like Megadeth, Metallica, and Slayer were influenced both by earlier heavy metal bands and by the punk rock movement. Their music took the heaviness of early heavy metal, combined it with the classically influenced structure and virtuosity of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and infused it with the speed and intensity of punk rock.

The commercial viability of heavy metal music has always been met grudgingly from both musicians and fans. Record labels provide the resources to help musicians and bands fulfill their goals of building a fan base, but this comes with pressures to conform to or maintain an image that is conducive to selling records and concert tickets to the satisfaction of the record label. Fans of heavy metal music benefit from the access to music that major label backing provides, but see the label presence as a threat to the principles of what heavy metal is supposed to be about. The rejection of commercial metal with a new, more extreme movement, and the later appropriation of the new movement into commercial viability has become a seemingly endless cycle for heavy metal since the 1980s.

Because of this trend, heavy metal has been split into sub-genres both numerous and heavily contested. These sub-classifications are usually based around the subject matter the sub-genre emphasizes, or around stylizations that become the prominent feature of the music itself. Death metal and black metal have as their central focus themes of violence and Satanism respectively. Power metal, progressive metal, and grind metal are more generally terms describing musical conventions. These and the hundreds of other categorizations for metal are constantly being refined, redefined, debated, and adapted in attempts for bands to defy restrictive classifications, but maintain a familial connection to the heavy metal tradition. Fans also play a major role in redefining these classifications as ways to set themselves apart from other types of fans, and often as a way to validate their own tastes. While purism and dedication to a single sub-genre exists amongst metal fans, it is much more common for there to be open dialogue between sub-genres, both between the fans themselves and the musical stylings.

These tendencies to nit-pick, accompanied by an underlying sense of fairly unconditional acceptance among metal heads indicates the kind of close-knit, family-like community that those in the metal scene enjoy. Who makes up this misfit family and how do they arrive there? Fans of heavy metal usually discover the music during their teenage years. It is during this time of great personal change and upheaval that young people are in search of meaning in their lives and a sense of identity. In a chaotic post-modern world where relationships between young people and adults are as strained as most other social relationships, genuine, concerned, and effective guidance for teenagers is often hard to come by. Many feel the emotional and spiritual isolation that plagues the modern world, and are confronted by a world that often seems to run counter to their innate sense of right and wrong. Some of these young people who feel a particularly strong sense of indignation about the world’s numerous hypocrisies find a kind of solace in heavy metal music, which regularly, and loudly exposes injustice in very strong terms.

Young fans of heavy metal music also tend to be intelligent and creative, but with interests that tend to lie outside the realm of mainstream social normalcy. Musician and filmmaker Rob Zombie observes “Most of the kids who come to my shows seem like really imaginative kids with a lot of creative energy they don’t know what to do with (Gill 1999:115)” and that metal is “outsider music for outsiders. Nobody wants to be the weird kid; you just somehow end up being the weird kid. It’s kind of like that, but with metal you have all the weird kids in once place (Dunn 2006).”

Another major draw to the metal scene is the visual spectacle that accompanies heavy metal music and intensity of the performances themselves. Pyrotechnics and grotesque or outlandish costumes at concerts, sexual and violent imagery in music videos, and fantastic, grisly, and sometimes demonic imagery on album artwork are certainly enough to tantalize rebellious young people looking to violate social taboos.

Once inside the metal scene, fans often radically integrate heavy metal culture into their daily lives, often to the point of obsession. Collecting albums by favorite metal bands, and the acquiring of near-exhaustive knowledge of well-liked bands are both common endeavors by metal heads. Despite the emphasis on the individual in the metal scene, there exists a norm of dress code that indicates the strong ties holding the metal community together. Though not really a uniform, metal wardrobes can be fairly predictable: long hair, denim, leather, and numerous black t-shirts prominently featuring band logos of favored bands. Many fans are regular readers of heavy metal magazines, and some even publish their own independently. Another common metal phenomenon amongst metal fans is the desire to learn to play a musical instrument (Dunn 2006). Many will dedicate hours of practice every day to perfecting the demanding techniques necessary to play heavy metal music. Metal heads, both green and seasoned veteran, often spend significant percentages of income on purchasing more music, t-shirts, posters, magazines, videos, and concert tickets. This amount of dedication to the trappings and ideas of heavy metal music is a clear indicator of how important the community, experience, and even the rituals of the subculture are to its followers in their attempts to reconcile their self-image with an isolated and confusing world.

In order for a culture to maintain legitimacy to its constituents, it needs a sense of history about itself, and explanations for the world. For heavy metal, this sacred narrative is based in the documented history of the musical movement itself. Recognizing the history gives metal heads a sense of where they have come from. It also recognizes the contributions of those who came before as being integral to the formulation of the heavy metal culture and definers of what it would entail.

Beyond recent history, the sacred narrative also stems from an understanding that the world is a chaotic, unloving place, and it shows very little promise of improving. The reasons for this vary widely amongst metal heads, but generally involve views that governing powers are corrupt, religions are hypocritical, and that people are generally weak, deceitful, or dangerously ignorant. Though much metal music is atheistic in nature, questions of God abound in metal music. While many metal heads see the God of major western religions as a tyrannical and unjust ruler, others are professed believers in these religions. Religious experimentation and the adoption of alternate belief systems are encouraged as an individual exploration. Though the existence and nature of God are issues of personal investigation, and adherence to a certain theology is by no means expected, the permeation of religious and spiritual symbolism in heavy metal music indicates the importance of the consideration of a world beyond the purely material. Religion’s role in heavy metal music largely serves to further an attitude of personal responsibility. Ronnie James Dio, once vocalist of Black Sabbath, and current vocalist for his own band gives his summation of God and morality in heavy metal, “We live in heaven, we live in hell. God and the devil are inherent in each of us. It’s our choice to make. You can choose the road to good, or you can choose the road to bad (Dunn 2006).” This spiritual journey in the world of heavy metal takes on forms and symbols of a wide array of religious and spiritual traditions.

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Associations of heavy metal with Satanism are widespread, and in many ways deserved. The Satanism of Anton LeVay, founder of the Satanic church, has as its driving principle an individuality that runs much in line with the culture of heavy metal. Along with this correlation, Satanism provides a demonic, even if often tongue-in-cheek, imagery that lends itself well to the over-the-top sensationalism and imagery of heavy metal music. As in the Satanic religion itself, much of demonic symbolism in heavy metal music is almost satiric in nature. Shock rock pioneer Alice Cooper declares, “this isn’t Satanism, it’s Halloween (Dunn 2006).” However, more extreme strains of Satanism could be found in the several incidents involving early Scandinavian black metal bands. These bands saw Christianity as more than just an ideological enemy, but as a literal, social, and political enemy as well. These extremists took their enthusiasm for “evil” far beyond what even LaVey’s Satanism preaches. They engaged in nefarious activities like church arsons, Christian grave desecrations, and in several isolated cases, even murder. As extremists usually are, these individuals were largely out of balance and their movements fell in on themselves. These are extreme and very rare cases, but exhibit well the kind of hostility toward organized religion that can be found in heavy metal (Moynihan 1998).

There exists in the metal culture, seemingly completely counter to Satanism and, many would argue, the entire metal movement itself, is a sizable Christian movement. While early Black Sabbath songs certainly seemed to be sympathetic to a Christian understanding of the dangers of the devil, direct affiliation with Christianity is often heavily discouraged in metal music. Regardless, many Christian fans and bands have built a niche for themselves in the metal scene. These individuals tend to not fall strictly in line with any particular Christian sect or denomination, and themselves tend to be misfits within their own religion. Many of them take a personal, mystic approach to their faith that can run either coterminous with, or counter to, the liturgical and ecclesiastical norms of their religion. The individualistic nature of a mystical approach to Christianity is well suited to heavy metal’s sense of separation from the world. Indeed Christianity was originally a rebellious religion that defied religious and political powers. It encouraged a separation from the world in ideals and morals and promoted a very personal experience of the divine. The will of early Christians to practice their religion cost many of them their lives to the oppressive powers of their day. Viewed in this light, Christianity as a rebellion against corrupt society, often including corruption of the Church itself, fits in well with heavy metal ideals.

Esoteric and occult issues also find a forum for discussion among some metal heads. Far beyond the simply humanistic message of Satanism, these occult ideas consider very intellectual questions on the nature of the universe, the nature of existence, and the principles underlying reality. Drawing largely on traditions in the Western Mystery Schools like the Golden Dawn and Rosicrucians, Greek philosophy, and notable characters like Aleister Crowley, this field of interest in heavy metal music requires some dedication to educating oneself about the ideas discussed therein. Its symbols are veiled in mystery, attainable only through in-depth study and meditation. This also makes them a good source of creative inspiration in the metal scene that values the sensational and mysterious. The infamous Aleister Crowley provides a summing up of his own religion, Thelema, when he declares “Do what thou will shall be the whole of the law (Crowley 1976).” This often quoted, and often misunderstood, quote from one of the 20th centuries most enigmatic figures quickly sums up the attitude of many metal heads, and deeper understanding of the message underlying his statement further validates the heavy metal attitude.

The symbols, myths, and traditions of ancient, pre-Christian, cultures also appear prominently in heavy metal music. Interest of these cultures, even if skewed by modern paradigms and lack of historical evidence, run from quizzical allusions, to full on obsession. These interests could possibly be explained in that the mystery of ancient peoples is intriguing, but it also provides a way to connect to a human past that is unknown, and therefore flexible, in helping modern humans make sense of the world today. Some bands take their interest with ancient cultures and myths to such extremes that it becomes the defining thematic element in their music. A whole array of bands, mostly from Scandinavia, have made a conscious effort to align themselves with, and revive, the traditions and cultures of their Viking ancestors. Bands like Amon Amarth, Bathory, and Enslaved write almost exclusively on topics of Norse mythology and history. Nile, as their name implies, is focused on the rich and well-documented history of ancient Egypt and draws inspiration for compositional elements from traditional Egyptian music. Many of their song lyrics are direct translation of Egyptian texts. Melechesh makes ancient Mesopotamian culture the focus of their music. Other heavy metal bands focus around modern mythological texts and fantasies. Blind Guardian from Germany writes extensively about the fantasy world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and draws inspiration from other modern tale-tellers that they see as continuing the ancient tradition of the bards. Other bands take the themes of heroism found in many mythologies and generalize them into music that is heroic in subject matter and often epic in structure.

Despite their differences, this array of religious and cultural influence helps perpetuate the primary tenets of heavy metal ethics: Individuality, personal responsibility and experience, willpower, strength, rebellion, integrity, and tenacity. Though a specific moral code is noticeably absent from the discussion of values in heavy metal music, there is an underlying sense of right and wrong. Tom Araya, front man for the notorious thrash metal band Slayer acknowledges this, “Whatever fucking religion you believe in, whatever you feel is right, everyone knows what is wrong. Everybody knows there’s wrong things; things you do not do. And people who don’t believe that, don’t understand that, they aren’t really connected to themselves spiritually (Dunn 2006).” The virtues of metal combined with an acknowledgment for some underlying moral principle equip metal heads to fulfill another aspect of heavy metal ethic which is to courageously face the world for what it is, chaotic, violent, corrupt, confusing, and ugly. Heavy metal tends to expose, though not necessarily glorify, unpleasant aspects of human existence like war, violence, insanity, and death; things that many others would rather ignore.

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Perpetuating these heavy metal truths are the musicians themselves. They serve roles in the metal community as religious leaders and sometimes even attain such a level of influence and popularity that they attain the status of metal gods. Their role is shamanistic in nature, their authority coming from charisma and personal experience. They are looked to by the fans not only for entertainment, but inspiration and insight. Most of these religious specialists, if they do their job correctly, will return this energy by giving their opinions, but also encouraging their fans and supporters, in congruence with metal principles, to continue to find their own answers and revel in their own personal experience of the world. Nergal, the creative force behind Polish extreme metal band Behemoth comments,

“I definitely do not want to be seen as a seer or a messiah either. I don’t want to preach. I meet people who say that they like my lyrics, and that they give them strength. When I hear that, it’s the best thing you could ever hear. But I do no want to tell people how to live. Everyone has their own life. Think for yourself. Behemoth is a liberated band. Behemoth is about freedom. Free your mind, and go for your instincts. Use your brain, be intelligent, keep your eyes open and learn. And use these experiences. This is our message.” [Bowman 2003:19]

Musicians are obviously central to the entire heavy metal experience, and one of their main responsibilities is to provide a focal point and to set the pace for the ultimate heavy metal ritual that is the concert. The concert is the locus for possibly the most important religious experience of heavy metal culture:

The ideal heavy metal concert bears a striking resemblance to the celebrations, festivals, and ceremonies that characterize religions around the world… Ideal metal concerts can be described as hierophanies in which something sacred is revealed. They are experienced as sacred, in contrast to the profane, everyday world. The sacred takes place in its own sacred time and space, where the ens realissimum, the greatest reality, is found. [Sylvan 2002:168]

Fans prepare for the show for days or even weeks in advance, devoting much mental and emotional energy to the upcoming event. Before the event appropriate concert attire is donned. Once at the event, there is usually a fair amount of socialization, meeting with friends, and generally hyping up excitement among fellow fans for the upcoming show. When the house lights go down and the stage lights come up, the ritual comes in to full effect. The concert experience is different for all involved, but here the liminal state is entered. For the duration of the concert, the outside world does not exist.

The experience of the concert is one of sensory overload. Sheer sonic volume, musical dynamics, lights and pyrotechnics combine with excited, active fans, singing along, slam dancing, and headbanging resulting in an overall experience that is awe-inspiring inducing a sense of euphoria in many of the participants. In exploring the primordial tradition of religious experience, Schroll states,

“Juxtaposed with organized religion is what I refer to as a somatic tradition of mystical experience that I believe forms out core religious experience, and represents the essential origin of all religious expression. This core religious experience is a signa-somatic experience.

Signa refers to the transmission of a signal or symbol or to the transference of information. Somatic, on the other hand, refers to a change of meaning or to a structural affect, in the body or matter. And yes, I do mean affect and not effect, as signa-somatic refers to an active physical change in our neurophysiology. Specifically, soma (body/symbols/signals) become significant neurophysiological impressions that are translated into symbolistic expressions fed out again as signa (signals/language/symbols) thereby creating unified fields of coherence, significance or meaning.” [Schroll 2005:62-63]

The euphoric sensations experienced in a concert setting certainly have neurological impact that affect one’s very perception of the world and one’s place within it.

The ritual elements of the concert serve to solidify the community of metal heads, nurture a sense of connection and belonging, and reinforce the values of the metal culture into participants. Fans often leave concerts exhausted, but conscious of the cathartic qualities the concert ritual has had on their lives. The healthy venting of tension and frustration, the sense of connection experienced during the concert, and the reinforced knowledge of not being alone in the world serves to prepare heavy metal fans to face the challenges of their lives in a post-modern world.

Though often misunderstood, the world of heavy metal clearly serves its community by providing for its needs for community and religious experience. Though some metal heads don’t acknowledge the religious nature of their culture, others have no problem recognizing it for what it is, “It’s purging. It allows us to get rid of a lot of tension. Is heavy metal sacrament? To some people it is. It is a spiritual force; a pipeline to God (Dunn 2006).” Despite all its dark and dangerous imagery, its counter-cultural and rebellious attitudes, metal culture transforms and fulfills its adherents in a manner as real and valid as any other genuine religious expression.

“I let it shift me…. My life did shift, I would say, to the positive. Because, I mean, if I had kept going the way I was, I would either go and kill people or I would kill myself or both, at that point, because I was so angry. ….I found a release when I went to concerts. Te feeling was an arrangement of excitement, self-love. Being myself means I love myself. Being involved in the music brought me to other people who like that style of music, so there’s my social life, my family. I found love…. It made me a stronger person. It made the depression go away…. I would have to say it’s a positive religion, what I believe in… I live a pretty positive life.” [Sylvan 2002:167].

Works Cited

Bowman, AnneMarie

2003 Blackest of The Black …With a Smile. Metal Maniacs, July 20(6):18-23

Crowley, Aleister

1976 Book of the Law. York Beach: Samuel Weiser.

Dunn, Sam, and Scot McFadyen dirs.

2006 Metal: A Headbangers Journey. 96 min. Warner Home Video. Burbank.

Gill, Chris

1999 Raising Hell. Guitar World, April 19(4):56-62;115.

Moynihan, Michael, and Didrik Soderlind

1998 Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground. Feral House.

Schroll, Mark A. Ph.D.

2005 Toward a Physical Theory of the Source of Religion. Anthropology as Consciousness 16(1):56-69.

Sylvan, Robin

2002 Traces of the Spirit: The Religious Dimensions of Popular Music. New York and London: New York University Press.

Walser, Robert

1993 Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music. Hanover: University Press of New England.