One golden evening a few years ago, I sat on the front steps of Pillar Church in Holland. I was interning there, and we had just wrapped up a worship service for Hope students who stuck around for the summer. Steven, the pastor of worship arts, and I were having a discussion about music, and more specifically, about listening to music. There’s all kinds of history thrown into a conversation about music listening habits, and we were dissecting how that history may or may not play into how we listen to music now. After all, we were saying, nothing else shapes us so much so quickly. Then, the dreaded question arrived: “So, what did you listen to in college?”
Depending on the audience, I’m either excited or terrified to answer this question, because my music listening in college revolved around heavy doses of metal. When most people hear I listened to metal, they think of P.O.D. or Avenged Sevenfold or maybe Korn. And while “Youth of the Nation” might still be my jam, those bands are metal-lite as far as college Brad was concerned. I dabbled in the dark, murky halls of real metal—bands with names like Death or Decapitated or Coldworld.
My foray into the metal world began in high school with a Christian band called Demon Hunter. They made heavy music salted with clean, melodic vocals, something that in the heyday of Jo-Jo (#neverforget) and Chingy struck me as wholly unique. Though, like most of my friends, I grimaced at the growled/screamed vocals, the music caught my attention, and eventually the screams became just another instrument.
From Demon Hunter I pressed on toward the endless subgenres of metal: metalcore, death metal, melodic death metal, black metal, djent, speed metal, thrash metal, hair metal, nu-metal, doom metal, grind, hardcore, post-hardcore, southern metal, sludge metal, power metal, progressive metal. Yes, those are all real. You name it, I listened. I sprinkled my Bon Iver with Between the Buried and Me, my Sigur Ros with Drudkh.
The question that often follows my disclosure: why?? I can’t answer that. Not with any well thought out, definitive thesis. I suppose there is something to be said for the value of catharsis in music listening, and listening to metal most deeply grabbed hold of that feeling for me. A sense of loss and release—something visceral. It felt good and right to drown in a gigantic riff and catch my breath on the other side. And too, there’s a physicality to metal that doesn’t show up in a lot of other music. It’s hard-hitting and, at times, relentless. You have to hold on tight. In college, I needed something, anything, to hold on to.
I’m not exactly proud of a lot of the metal I discovered. Some bands write lyrics filled with the kind of hate and vitriol that I renounce as a follower of Christ. Still, I don’t count it as a net loss. On too many occasions, in conversations with a co-worker or a stranger I’ve just met, my head-banging history has established common ground or earned me an avenue that wasn’t there before.
So how about Steven? How did he respond to my dark secret? He laughed at me and said, “I can’t believe you were a metalhead!” Me neither, Steven, me neither.