Metal

H8

smith4

My Discharge piece from last year–in which I chronicle an iconic punk band’s disastrous experiment with hair metal–gets a second life as a supplement to the New Inquiry‘s latest issue, titled “H8.” I’m pleased there’s a new audience for the story, of course. The best part, though, is the new title the editors have bestowed on my piece: “Fuck You! Fuck You! Fuck You!

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More on Discharge

Reaction to my Discharge piece was spirited and generally positive. I particularly enjoyed this comment thread. A sample:

“One thing that article got wrong: Metal sucked then and it sucks now. Up yours metalheads!(except Lemmy)”

I love that.

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Rules of the Tribe: Hardcore Punks and Hair Metal in the 1980s

discharge

My latest feature is about punk and metal specifically, but it’s also about tribal loyalties–and what happens when you violate the rules of your tribe. In 1986, the iconic English hardcore band Discharge–inspirations for Metallica and Slayer, among many others–went glam metal. The band then embarked on one of the most disastrous tours in music history. My story for The Appendix, chock full of multimedia and other cool stuff, chronicles that tour.

The chant began less than two minutes into the first song. An undercurrent at first, just a few hecklers. But it got louder with repetition, each wave building on the last. Soon the chant threatened to drown out the band itself.

“Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!”

It was tough to take. But it was entirely in keeping with everything else about this disastrous tour. The angry crowd in Long Beach. The broken-down van in the Sonoran desert. Sixteen tickets sold in Portland. Now, onstage in San Francisco, the members of Discharge—the fastest, meanest, most uncompromising English hardcore punk band of the 1980s—must have wished they were somewhere, anywhere else.

The story isn’t available online yet, but I’ll post it when it is. For now, you can subscribe to The Appendix here.

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Housing a Movement

calnorthCalifornia Northern magazine runs my piece on squatting, punk rock, and the Occupy movement. I tell the story through an Oakland squatter and activist named Steve DeCaprio (he also plays in the black metal band Embers), in whom all of these threads converge. There’s just an excerpt posted online now, but I’m told the whole thing will be up there at some point.

“One night a little more than a decade ago, Steve DeCaprio pulled his bike up to an abandoned house in Ghost Town, a poor neighborhood in West Oakland dotted with vacant lots. He cut through the rusty lock on the chain-link fence with bolt cutters, then pried open a plywood sheet that stood where the front door once had. Then he replaced the locks with his own. This is how DeCaprio, a longtime East Bay squatter and veteran of the punk and metal scenes, “acquired” his home.

He already knew that the previous owner of the house had died in the early 1980s and that no one had come forward to claim it. The turn-of-the-century bungalow had sat empty for many years. The kitchen floor was burned out, and the back of the house hung off the foundation. An acacia tree in the back yard had grown into the roof, leaving the interior open to the elements. The top floor was piled with the carcasses of dead raccoons and other small animals. “They would climb the tree, jump down, and get stuck,” he says.

Later, DeCaprio and a crew of friends got to work making the place habitable. “At first, it was basically just urban camping,” he remembers. It took eight months of on-and-off work to fix the roof. He got the water flowing, bought storm doors and painted the exterior, planted cacti in the front yard, and yanked out another backyard tree that had begun to menace the house next door. He named it Noodle House, and he currently shares it with three people plus the occasional touring underground band.

DeCaprio, who turns forty in August, has tousled, graying hair and favors Carharts and black t-shirts bearing band logos. In a more mainstream context, he would be described as a “go-getter.” He plays guitar in a black-metal band named Embers, works as a member representative for the California League of Conservation Voters, and is pursuing a law degree through an independent study program (he expects to take the bar exam next year). And, of course, there’s the house. Right now, DeCaprio is working on a solar array to provide electricity. “There’s gonna be this moment when I turn on a light switch and it’ll be epic,” he says.

… “

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Victory

fb4c543b6489242586e2f24991cd0671e35f6ebd_wmeg_00001Today, on Huffington Post San Francisco, I’ve got a piece on the Bay Area’s underground metal scene. Besides being a good excuse to name-check a few of my favorite local bands (Acephalix, for instance), the piece is a paean to underground concerts of all sorts, from punk to metal to bluegrass to hip hop.

I have no idea how the guy managed to sleep through Acephalix, because it was really loud. The San Francisco death metal band emitted a growling, galloping roar, the stuff of bad dreams, and it enveloped the room. The pit, meanwhile, was going off, a hostile ballet of bodies pinging off one another in front of the stage.

But this dude? He was dead to the world, mouth hanging open, slumped against the back wall. Next to him sat an equally incongruous giant stuffed donkey.

It was a Sunday night in early summer, and we were at the Victory warehouse in the Oakland ghostlands, a few blocks from Uptown but worlds away from its hipster sheen.

There’s something special about an underground show. I grew up outside Detroit in the late 1980s, as the city went into freefall. Paradoxically, Detroit’s collapse was great for the scene: there was no shortage of empty places to play, and the police were too busy to care about permitting or zoning. At college in North Carolina a few years later, I went to the occasional backyard bluegrass show. At a house in the woods about 20 miles from town, Teva-ed types sipped moonshine as guys with banjos and mandolins played Ralph Stanley tunes. While working in South Africa a few years ago, I found myself at a hip hop show in a weedy lot in Soweto, the country’s largest black township. While a succession of aspiring MCs jumped around on a makeshift stage, people drank beer and smoked weed, flirting with one another. Guys showed off their tricked-out cars, a parade of spinning rims and superfluous DVD screens mounted to the seats.

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Our avant-garde metal scene

bestofmetalThe Bay Area has always been a metal hotbed, spawning the likes of Metallica, with its knifepoint riffs and galloping tempos, and Sleep, masters of the sludgy, bong-fueled stomp. (I caught one of Sleep’s reunion shows last week, by the way. Whoa.) These days, we might be better known for our avant-garde metal bands, united less by any particular sound than by a willingness to experiment. San Francisco magazine’s “Best of” issue this month runs a piece of mine on this burgeoning scene. I could have mentioned a ton of bands but chose to go with Ludicra, Grayceon, and Giant Squid. Check it out–and check the bands out when they play.

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The Walled City

In the latest issue of San Francisco magazine, I review the new album by Kowloon Walled City, the city’s best new metal band. These guys combine the aggression of Black Flag (sans Henry Rollins’ petulant moaning) with the sludgy grandeur of the Melvins, producing the aural equivalent of a primal scream. Check it out.

A band’s name is usually a clear indicator of its sound. (Really, could Cannibal Corpse play anything but metal?) This holds true for Kowloon Walled City, though you might not realize it at first. The San Francisco metal band takes its name from a famously dangerous Hong Kong neighborhood run by killers, drug dealers, and pimps–a sort of hell, in other words–and the group sounds satisfyingly like its name. Banging out a symphony of down-tuned guitars and turned-up amps, KWC harks back to similarly heavy forebears, like the Melvins, Helmet, and Oakland legends Neurosis. The band’s brutal debut EP last year earned it a spot at the gene­rally metal averse Noise Pop Festival, and its first long-player only improves on the formula. The opening track, “Annandale,” sets the tone, with front man Scott Evans’ sandpapery croak slicing through the barrage of low-end riffs and hammer-fall drumming. A keen sense of dynamics keeps things interesting all the way through: “Paper Houses” swings like an undertaker on his way to the boneyard, and the cathartic closer, “More Like the Shit Factory,” features a chiming guitar that could almost be called pretty. But the idyll doesn’t last long–these guys have a name to live up to, after all.

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Nine things about last night’s Slayer show at Shoreline

1. Fittingly, the band came on just as the sun was going down.

2. The pit on the lawn was huge, and in the golden light it looked like a Tibetan mandala. A really violent mandala.

3. Frontman Tom Araya was exceedingly polite throughout the set, repeatedly thanking us for coming out then dipping into a growl to introduce the next song.

4. Guitarist Kerry King sported an incredibly long beard that was braided into a knot stretching down to his solar plexus. With the lighting just so, the effect was that of a desert monk, maybe. Purity of the faith.

5. The other guitarist, Jeff Hanneman, played a guitar sporting a Heineken graphic. We wondered how much money that brings in. (On a related note, Slayer hockey jerseys were on sale for $90.)

6. Shoreline, with its bright, Disneyish colors and Pirates of the Caribbeanesque wooden footbridges, is a weird (though not unpleasant) place to see a metal show.

7. There was an old guy on the lawn in front of us wearing a shirt that read, “Everything louder than everything else.” There were a lot of kids wandering around carrying branded shopping bags full of the swag they had bought.

8. It was tough not to be reminded all over again exactly how influential Slayer is. Every other band in the world has stolen at least a little something from them.

9. When their set finished, it seemed like the entire amphitheatre rushed for the parking lot. Marilyn Manson might have been the de facto headliner last night, but this was a Slayer crowd.

(Update: I added one more thing after the post went up.)

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Metal lyrics just like Basho used to write ‘em

I don’t know about you, but heavy metal always gets me thinking. Things like, “Damn, this is some deep stuff–I had never considered the possibility of  a sword coming up through the toilet. But now I’m scared.

There’s a problem, though. In our harried, time-challenged world, who’s got the time to really soak up the nuances of each and every song on their iPod? If only it were possible, I thought, to condense these profundities into a simpler form, giving them a platform at once more concise and, perhaps, a shade more delicate.

Then it dawned on me: the haiku, the short poetic form that originated in Japan and frequently muses on the changing seasons, might just be the ticket. With that in mind, I bring you Heavy Metal Haikus, a blog cataloging some of my favorite lyrics along with their pithier, haiku-ish offspring. There are a few posts up already; I’ll add more as the mood strikes, so please check back often.

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Sabbath redux

It’s perhaps fitting that as Halloween approaches, the sounds of metal are in the air. On Monday, I saw Oaktown heroes High on Fire (aka the heaviest band on God’s green earth, as I described them in a piece earlier this year), who opened for Opeth, a proggy Swedish metal band that I could take or leave. (To paraphrase a friend: I want my metal to take its cues from Motorhead, not Yes). As always, High on Fire killed it, but they only played for an hour or so. Tonight, the Sword, an Austin, Texas, doom rock act, headlines at Slim’s. These guys hew to the old Black Sabbath playbook–sludgy riffs, a surprisingly swinging rhythm section, and a singer with an (ahem) untraditional voice–and it works. The lyrics, though, are the icing on the cake. A fantasy world of wizards, frost giants, and “fire lances of the ancient hyperzephyrians,” the words are delivered with the utmost seriousness, with the deadpan of a high-stakes poker player. As a palate cleanser, here’s the Sword’s live version of the old ZZ Top burner, “Nasty Dogs and Funky Kings.”

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