Friday, April 15, 2011

Peter Steele is dead

I saw Type O Negative once. I think it was 2007. They were headlining with Celtic Frost opening (yeah, I was lucky). Celtic Frost was amazing- 'Monotheist' had just come out and the band was reinterpreting all their old tracks with their new slower, heavier sound. Honestly, after that I wasn't sure that Type O Negative could match up. But then they came out- old as fuck, so many miles collectively on them- and proceeded to decimate the show. Impossibly heavy, instrumentally perfect, and performing with a passion absent from almost any other metal band I've seen, it was absolutely a moment to remember.

It's very strange knowing that the haughty New Yorker I saw on stage then is dead now. Really, when Steele was announced dead, I wasn't particularly saddened or torn up over the future of the band. I was just surprised. Steele, partly due to his self-presentation and partly due to simply being who he was, always seemed like a sort of monolithic figure. He'd been making incredible music long before I was born and long after, and really the very idea that he of all people could die seemed absolutely impossible. It still does- has it really been a year now?

Type O Negative occupied an odd space in the metal scene, both as being one of the only full-fledged goth bands to attain real legitimacy as well as a sort of idle side commentator to the metal scene as a whole. Type O Negative wasn't a band frequently on the metal scene's collective mind- they would come out with a new album now and then which received rave reviews and massive fan support, but then they would recede back into the shadows, content with no real self-promotion or ambition towards celebrity. It also made Steele's death that much more surprising and bizarre. Dio was one thing- he was old and he was such a huge titan that his eventual fall was something natural and logical. But Steele? Steele was like an old, worn stone statue. It weathers from day to day, but you never expect to come to the courtyard and find it absent.

The most impressive thing about Steele above and beyond his prodigious songwriting ability was the sheer intelligence of the man. There are plenty of intelligent metal musicians out there, but most of them still just seem to be intelligent within the system of society and scene. Steele attained an almost zen-like transcendence of all that, appearing to be one of the few major musicians out there (similar to, coincidentally enough, Tom Warrior) who really pierced the veil and saw reality for what it was. Steele chopped through moronic questions in interviews like firewood with a staunch, completely legitimate lack of concern for how he was viewed by others. A lot of musicians can talk a good game, but Steele had an edge to him. He was never one to make grand, sweeping philosophical statements, but his bullshit detector was powerful and that came through in his music.

Type O Negative (as well as the earlier Carnivore) was a supremely honest and mature band. Musically, they reinterpreted rock music within a metal framework, making songs that were catchy but deep and nuanced, possessing equal parts grandeur and attention to detail alongside spectacular variation. They could go from a massive doom dirge like 'White Slavery' to the nearly poppy 'Everyone I Love Is Dead' without even a stylistic hiccup. Lyrically, they were on a completely different plane of reality from almost all other bands. Type O Negative was unique in the metal scene in the sheer reality of what their songs portrayed. Metal is hugely couched in fantasy or reality through metaphor, but Type O Negative simply wrote songs about the small, almost inconsequential fragments of reality that tear men apart every day. Drug addiction, failed relationships, existential crises, all were fair game and at no point did it feel the like the band was passing judgment, condescending, or just going through the motions.

When I saw Type O Negative in concert, probably 70% of the crowd appeared to be made up of dead-eyed goth girls and their gormless boyfriends dragged along for the ride. They wandered around the outdoor area in front of the stage, aimlessly clapping and cheering, until 'Black No. 1' invariably popped up in the set list, to which they showed enthusiastic support. After that? Right back to the aimlessness and checking of cell phones. I can only imagine how depressed Steele must have been, seeing that this was his audience. A band known for deeply personal, heartfelt songs was being carried by a whole group of people who didn't even know they were cheering for a track that was a direct parody of them in particular.

That's probably the most important thing to remember about Peter Steele. For all his intelligence, dry wit, and incisive wisdom, he'll probably be remembered for the least important things about him. If you loved the band, dust off your old copy of 'World Coming Down' and put it on. I guarantee you'll find something just as haunting, beautiful, and real as the day it was released. And I guarantee that it's going to mean something to you and only you.

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