Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On Christianity, metal, and Christian metal

There's a large section of the underground metal scene that takes a rather principled stance against Christian music, and one that I've never fully understood. Viewing Christianity as a poisonous ideology? Fine, all well and good (though expressed more adolescently that I'd like it to), but refusing to listen to Christian music due to its inherent Christianity? Well, the silliness of this seems obvious- whether you necessarily know it or not, you likely listen to musical artists with differing (or even abhorrent) ideologies all the time, and taking a stance against Christianity specifically is a positional move. Not to mention where exactly the line falls with what defines something as "Christian" band. There's numerous musical collectives out there which feature Christian members (many of my own musical projects included) where Christianity is not actually a feature of the music. If there's anything my experience has taught me, it's that Christians are just as able to write songs about shit-eating serial murderers as the staunchest atheist.

However, there's the obvious trouble of Christian bands proper- where Christianity is an inherent ideology to the music that is expressed lyrically and musically. My issue with them has nothing to do with the ideology- I regularly listen to anti-white hip-hop with little concern, as I'm an adult who doesn't get virulently offended by those who might be positioned against me. Art is art. However, I have to speak out the other side of my mouth here by saying that most Christian metal (and Christian music in general) is quite terrible. I have a number of Christian bands in my personal musical collection, but only a small handful that I would listen to any regularity- those that, on a musical level, can stand up to their secular counterparts. It seems as though the best Christian metal is usually tied to hardcore or metalcore; Impending Doom, Common Yet Forbidden, and (to some degree, I suppose) Killers By Trade are all worthwhile artists in their particular fields.

So why does Christian metal usually fall flat on its face? Well, it's a simple matter, and very similar to the reason that NSBM fails so often: because it places ideology before music in many circumstances. If you would like to preach the teachings of Christ or a stance against some nebulous Zionist conspiracy, that's all well and good (though I think the positions themselves might be silly), but be sure to have sick riffs as well. Most Christian and NSBM bands do not because there's no system of quality control beyond expressing an ideology. Labels like Open Grave Records and any number of CDr NSBM labels often release very substandard releases that are only given a proper release due to their agreement with a label's particular ideology- the sheer number of terrible, terrible NSBM releases I own expresses this very clearly. Beyond the inherent litmus test of ideology, such labels seem relatively unconcerned with musical quality despite how substandard it might be.

But to divorce Christian metal from the NSBM comparison for a moment, I'd say that there's a deeper issue with Christian metal which prevents so much of it from being musically feasible which is, in part, tied to ideology. I don't inherently believe that the expression of Christian values is naturally antithetical to metal's basic aesthetic and conceptual tropes. However, the way many Christian bands go about it continues to drag them down to a feeble, uninteresting level. Christian bands, in effect, preach to the choir: ideologues simply looking for a reiteration of their personal values without any concern of fitting in to the genre they're ostensibly a part of.

Christian music (Christian metal included) comes from a position of conversion and propaganda more often than not. The goal of a Christian band is rarely to simply create great art where the ideology happens to be a part of it; rather, the priorities are switched. To be more precise: Christian metal tends to come from a position of weakness rather than strength. This is partly due to the form of Christianity preached in such music. Rather than taking the old testament's position on power, glory, and aggression against unbelievers, Christian bands tend to adhere to a modern, liberalized brand of Christianity where inclusion and egalitarianism is more important than the values of the religion itself. Christian metal is badly in need of a massive revamp to be relevant.

Anyone even loosely familiar with Christianity is fully aware that the Bible contains numerous tales of extreme subject matter perfectly fitting the aesthetics of metal: the suffering of unbelievers in hell, God's wrath striking down the unworthy through devastating displays of natural power, and an acceptance of suffering and cruelty in order to achieve a greater goal. So why is it that the lyrics and music of Christian bands don't convey this sort of awe-inspiring force of will and terror that the Bible so clearly emphasizes? Well, it's quite simple: people aren't as easily converted by tales of brutality and extremity as they are promises of the gifts of heaven. Yahweh, as we know, was quite cruel in the olden days of the religion, cursing those beneath him who did not properly worship- in short, extremely metal and viable as a topic for metal music.

So what is my ideal metal band? A group of fundamentalist, old testament Christians who are less concerned with converting unbelievers than damning them. I would love to see a Christian band that reveled in the suffering of heretics, telling stories of the destruction of entire city's through god's punishing hands. I don't need to be preached to- hell, a metal audience would likely be more interested and receptive to the ideas of Christianity if they were presented from a position of dogmatic, inexorable strength rather than the weak-kneed tolerance of modern Christianity. Long, dirgelike funeral doom songs detailing the suffering of Christ during the passions, violent black/death songs describing the smashing of Egyptian armies by the violent, swirling tides of the Red Sea- these are the stories and ideas I want expressed in metal, not a pitiable request that you repent, you know, if you feel like it.

Christianity can be metal. It's unfortunate that so many Christian metal bands reject it.

26 comments:

  1. I think I feel somewhat differently about this. If a band wants to proselytize, I take them at their word and judge their music (in part) on the values it represents. Thus, for me there's something slavish and sad about even the most brutal "Christian band."

    That said, though, I'm pretty open to metal that's INFLUENCED by band members' Christianity, as long as this makes sense in relationship to the music. Christians making black metal is pretty much a pathetic oxymoron, unless their Christianity is so unorthodox that it's barely recognizable as such. Christians making doom metal--like Sabbath, Vitus, Trouble, etc--are probably more convincing than anyone else. It helps that the guys in those doom bands represent their faith at its most artistic and open-minded, and draw primarily on its traditions of eschatology and social consciousness, rather than the moralism of evangelical pharisees. Plus they smoke mad blunts.

    Also, a theological/philosophical quibble. I can see how there's something pretty metal about sending the Angel of Death to carry out a genocidal slaughter of Egypt's firstborn, but remember that the Yahweh of the Old Testament emerges from a position of weakness too. Sure, he is a big burly asshole, but he's dreamed up as a counterweight to the very real strength of Egypt and Assyria. He's a product of weakness, and in a very real way affirms and preserves a weak way of seeing the world. He's the protector-God or shepherd-God of a small desert tribe, desperately fearful of harm. The empires threatening that little ethno-religious community are cast as the evil ones from whom God must protect them. When the Israelites lose, they lament their oppression at the hands of the cruel victors. When they win and take territory, they praise God for his gift to them. Everything about this attitude is reactive and weak. Also, remember that the Old Testament god doesn't valorize the strength of his followers--at every step he circumscribes their actions with rigid laws and demands not just their prayers and sacrifices, but their absolute submission.

    Hail Marduk, hail Baal!

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  2. I think you are too generous with religous music. Even if a Christian, Moslem, or Jew writes a good song it doesn't change the fact they, as individuals, are weak. Therefore, in my book, so too is their music.

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  3. @ anon: hope you have a full list of the religions of the members of the bands you listen to (and i hope you don't miss iron maiden)

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  4. Good post, definitely nailed it. The problem isn’t Christian music, but devotional music.

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  5. Tyrant the USPM band might be what you're looking for in terms of these kind of lyrics

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  6. Trouble is the only Christian metal band, besides Sabbath, that counts. Here is a sample. At any rate, this is probably the only consistently engaging metal blog I've found on the net. Keep up the good work.

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  7. Reminds me to put on some Vomitorial Corpulence again. Christian goregrind that combines early Carcass (of course) with the more straightforward grinding of Dead Infection. Their sole full length unfortunately omits the lyrics in the booklet but they are easily found on the web.

    An example: Hammer Inflicted Brain Seizure Of Satan's Crushed Head.
    Exploding Skull, Scattered Fragments Of Belial's Feeble Carcass!

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  8. I've got nothing to contribute per se, but speaking as an atheist, I appreciate the hell out of this post

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  9. @venusinpieces: thanks very much! and yeah, Trouble is pretty sick.

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  10. What pseudo intellectual garbage... I've read a few posts and jeez... get over yourself and just quit.

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  11. no i think this is a new one, the other one seemed to be an avid follower

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  12. lol i like that he posted that on seriously one of the most straightforward posts on this blog. you would have to be functionally illiterate to think this is "intellectual" at all, even pseudo-

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  13. Anon1 here (not pseudo-intellectual anon), it is obviously incorrect to assume weak people necessarily create weak music, my initial post was mostly for provocation though I still think you are too generous. Regardless I think the subject post took balls.

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  14. so basically you want a christian version of racetraitor?

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  15. more like a christian version of ad hominem but that works too i suppose

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  16. I like old Zao. Is that cool?

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  17. Rasmus from DenmarkJuly 1, 2011 at 3:19 AM

    An idea: rock'n'roll in general, and metal in particular, is in essence rebellious - it's the music your parents hate, etc. Perhaps this is one of reasons why overtly Christian metal sucks: you cannot embrace the spirit of rock'n'roll rebellion while at the same time embracing something as conservative, dogmatic, and utterly un-rebellious as organized religion.

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  18. of course as western society inevitably slides towards a more secular and liberal perspective, your tune may change as to what's rebellious...

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  19. "I don't inherently believe that the expression of Christian values is naturally antithetical to metal's basic aesthetic and conceptual tropes."

    Me neither. I actually think that Christian themes can work really well with stuff like technical thrash. Basically the kind of stuff that explores modernist themes of societal decay, decadence in general, alienation, etc. I think that's a fruitful line to take from a Christian perspective. Christian themes also don't really seem out of place in trad doom metal. As far as the whole 'fire & brimstone/taking delight in the suffering of heretics' approach...well, I'm pretty sure vindictiveness is quite un-Christian, so I look at that lyrical approach as sort of a cheap way to be both "Christian" and metal.

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  20. I think the bands and the fans are a problem. Remember your post about the supposed Jungle Rot sellout? How fans don't hate hardcore, they just hate the retarded version of it they think it is/is spoon fed to them by people as dumb about it as they are? Fans are the same way with anything/everything remotely related to the C word. I would know this PRETTY WELL, because I am a Christian who has been putting hard work into a group for almost a decade now (I'm 25), and an aspiring theologian, who, additionally, can tell you what any of your favorite philosophers or scientists (you know..the group that people LOOOVEEE to point at as being totally at odds with Jesus or whatever) wrote, when, and why. IN AMERICA, generally speaking, the "Church" has very little interest in Jesus Christ. The 'secular world', doesn't even have the faintest clue. That's why you see such amazingly broad sweeps of judgment from sides who, although not at all in the fray, are somehow experts on the topic(s) - usually because it benefits some petty bias of their own. That's why you've constantly got stuff like Bible-worship (NEWS FLASH: Christ is alluded to in the OT, but IS IN THE NT.. The NT, the Gospels specifically, are FIRST IN RELEVANCE.. NOT the ENTIRE BIBLE) from Christian people, and Bible-criticism from non-believers, who, due to the Christians and their own laziness, think the ENTIRE BOOK is this/that way, and is this/that status, relating to Christ, most of which is BS. Fans are also responsible for the trumpet of 'LYRICS DON'T MATTER!!!111' ....EXCEPT when there is any trace of the 'C' word, then this supposed progressive tolerance thing suddenly gets old, and all typically because someone somewhere told them a perception of a belief is something they can blame every worldly problem upon, no matter the accuracy.

    I can tell you a few things more, as well, as somebody in the faith, and of intellect. Firstly, those two things do not at all contradict - if anything, 'Christianity' is a philosopher's walk. Secondly, I've found that - in case you couldn't tell from the rest of the stuff I just typed - Christ and what is 'Christian' in America has a pretty minute amount in common. Third, if there's those out there believing the age-old 'rebellion' concept cannot 'mesh' with what I think, consider this - The church, who by and large has a skewed vision of Christianity, is destroying Christ in the eyes of others by what they say and do. The 'others', are destroying Christ by sitting back and taking anything anyone does as absolute truth and polluting the meaning of what this is for all to see. The former has no place for somebody like me because I challenge them to be better. The latter, has no place for someone like me..........because I challenge them to be better. I am surrounded, utterly, by idiots, people who do backwards things which are both outwardly obvious, and not so obvious, who NEVER LISTEN TO ANYTHING, and ON TOP OF THAT, I have my own problems, mistakes I make, the frustration with being ONLY HUMAN, and the garbage it brings along with the glory it brings - to deal with. Do we think there is no rebellion in being DISCONTENT with all of that? Because there pretty much is, in a big, big way. I have got stories that would blow people's minds. (post continued..next)

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  21. (post continued here) Further, I think saying metal is simply about rebellion is a disservice. I have found that the thread that feels most common and deserving of intellectual attention is - AGAIN - the discontent. Metal is about discontent and dissatisfaction with the status quo, or the hand you've been given, or even yourself. The discontent with the fact that all things can always be made better but don't even live up to the minimum standard. It is not so simple and faux-romantic as 'rebellion' and I hate when it's lumped in with that half-a-century-old mindset that liberal arts students now purchase by the bushel by way of an artificial vintage rock tee purchased with Dad's money. I'm a metalhead, since about 10/11 years old when I got Maiden's 'Best of the Beast' comp on tape, and an honest believer in Christ who is trying to be as good and knowledgeable as he can possibly be as much as I can possibly be it. I am TIRED of having to deal with taking the brunt of others' failures. That's the spark of racism, and yet people see it totally acceptable to apply to creed, preference, regardless of even the moral question of said things (hint; there's nothing wrong with either of mine, at all). So while this isn't any kind of point-by-point reply - and I do like your post and the discussion it can bring - the point of my post is to perhaps give a perspective that I don't think is on here, for others to have a look at. I could get good responses, I could get typical extreme metal dude responses...either or. But I'll give it a chance. I respect the blog and this post.

    One more thing: My band, is Skyliner, and you can listen and look here: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Skyliner/10929787810 . I actually sent Noktorn the files from the new EP to review a while back. The lyrics are there too, in the player, in case you want to see how I might tackle this topic..that topic.......what 'Christian' music may be saying...... but it is not very typical or expected, or run of the mill. Hope you enjoy the (long) post, and the music..hit me up if so.

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  22. Jake, I am not sure what sort of responses you are expecting. Your disorganized comment did not really say much to illustrate what exactly you disagree with Noktorn about. Maybe I am not smart enough to understand a person "of intellect." I was, however, interested in the discussion of how metal fans react when they glean that something smells of the C word.

    Noktorn, excellent work!

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  23. Not sure if it's useful for me to wander into this posts months late, but i think a big factor in the crappiness of christian music is the built-in audience. The community that would go to christian-rock shows and buy christian-rock albums is people that will pretty unquestioningly consume anything with the "christian" label on it. So if you're selling yourself out there as a christian artist, you're practically guaranteed enough of an audience to make money off of. So it's an easy, lazy-ass way for christian musicians (or just musicians willing to pretend to be christian, as is frequently the case) to make a living at it.

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  24. That said, I got into a Christian death metal band for a short while in high school called Vengeance and my 15 year old self thought they were pretty brutal. Supposedly they were originally called Vengeance Rising. Haven't listened to them since, though. Ever hear of them? From what I recall they seem like they'd be just about what you're looking for.

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  25. vengeance rising were really sick and one of the only christian bands i will still willingly listen to today. the music speaks for itself. very solid all around.

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