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Once More Into The Pit: The Artful Metal Of ‘Mayhem’

Rob Zombie's guitarist John 5 and bassist Piggy D. (Justin Bauer)

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The Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival (simply referred to as “Mayhem” in the proper circles) is a 26-city travelling dark circus of some of the world’s most intense and visceral heavy metal artists and their fans. For six years, the summer festival has rolled through towns big and small; from San Bernardino, Calif., to Nampa, Idaho, to Scranton, Penn., to last week, Mansfield, Mass.. Think thousands of fans with sweat-soaked black T-shirts, devil-horned fists, blood-colored tattoos, stud piercings and — despite a hellish heat wave — lots of leather, sprawled across waves of grain and gravel, beating their chests and testing the protective limits of their cerebrospinal fluid as they headbang to loud, loud music. All in your backyard.

Halfway through Mayhem’s 2013 tour, headliners like the Swedish melodic death metal band Amon Amarth, new American metalheads Five Finger Death Punch, and the infamous shock rocker/filmmaker Rob Zombie, have pulled in over 100,000 headbangers. Last Tuesday, I was one of thousands of New Englanders who poured in, ready to rage — or in my case, observe the rage from a safe distance.

When I was asked to write about Mayhem, the right answer would have been a quick and painless, “no.” I’m no single-minded genre-ist, but realistically speaking, I’m a casual headbanger at best. I own one black T-shirt. The only leather jacket I have is brown and, I’m told, referred to as “vegan” leather by hipster fashionistas. The closest I’ve come to a metal fest was attending a metal-themed wedding as the only groomsman who did not look like he stumbled off the set of a Viking war re-enactment.

Here at Mayhem, in the middle of this headbanger’s Christmas, it’s not hard to remember why I once found metal so impenetrable as an art form. Metal is — and always will be — interwoven with themes of extreme violence, God and Satanism, machismo and, at its core, a constant drive to appear meaner and more subversive than the band that came before you. Metal is not cursed with these themes; it celebrates them and, more to the point, it simply would not exist without them. From the witch-hunting classic rockers Black Sabbath, who flushed their harmonies with tritones (a harmonic pariah so dissonant that in early Western music theory it was regarded as “the devil’s tone”), to this year’s Mayhem king, headliner and Haverhill-born-and-bred, Robert Cummings, a.k.a. Rob Zombie.

As a metalhead-turned-horror-movie-maker, Zombie embodies the heart of metal — a genre that, unlike most music, is defined just as much by its visual media, physicality, on-and off-stage rhetoric, social psychology and strength of will, as by its sound. A vocalist/songwriter, Zombie is gritty, raw and has a voice you wouldn’t want to hear breathing on the other end of your telephone at 3 in the morning. His show is adorned with fake blood and flames and seizure-inducing projections of horror films dating back to Murnau’s 1922 “Nosferatu.”

Read that as pejorative if you must, but it’s not. There’s something deeply mesmerizing in this music and culture and what happens between the stage and the crowd that is impossible to capture without a genuine, personal, come-to-Satan experience. For most stuffy critics and conservative parents, diving into the mosh pit is asking way too much. As a result, heavy metal has long served as one of music’s most divisive forms. It has been hated, or worse, ignored by critics since the genre came into itself in the early seventies. Even through today, self-proclaimed music cognoscenti, worried guardians and the Gore family have largely been waiting for the metal world to die a quiet death.

And they almost got their wish. Just as metal peaked taking over the teenage world in the 1980s, 1991 came along with grunge and Kurt Cobain appearing on MTV’s “Headbanger’s Ball” in a big yellow dress. It was the mark of a serious shift in sound and coolness. Critics cheered, “We did it! Goodbye Twisted Sister! Goodbye Metallica!” Parents might not have been exactly happy with sons and daughters embracing ragged flannel and cursing capitalism, but at least their kids were no longer singing about Lucifer and practicing guttural death chants in the mirror.

At that moment, metal took a turn away from pop into what it is today: a very important, thoughtful, artful, and lifelong home for the terminal outsider.

Culturally, metal may be hard and blackened on the outside, but the inside is warm and gooey. All too often, we cast metalheads as an insular community, and it is, but only in the way that it is hard to throw oneself into it, especially as one grows older and more cynical. The metal critic Jon Wiederhorn once told me that most metal fans get into it when they are in their teens, and every REDMF attendee I spoke with seemed to confirm that notion. “Other music is music, this is a lifestyle,” said Joe, 22, a bouncer from Braintree who took off work to come to Mayhem. “You don’t just listen to metal; you live metal, you breathe metal, you dress metal.”

But outside the circle, a lifestyle with a fronted persona of wrath and bloody body paint seems almost silly. As a lost teenager, though, it can seem really cool. It is, in its purest form, letting your hair down. Way, way down and devoid of all of that teenage awkwardness that comes with trying to ask someone to dance with you to the latest sexed-up Kanye track. Sure, you do grow up, but the remarkable thing about metal is that you do not grow out of it. At least not from what I could tell from the massive range of Mayhem-goers. Ages 0 to 70. And that’s a conservative estimate.

So why is metal so lifelong?

Five Finger Death Punch at Mayhem. (Justin Bauer)

Five Finger Death Punch at Mayhem. (Justin Bauer)

Remember finding out Santa didn’t exist? Man, what a bummer. But you don’t stop celebrating Christmas because it has an aesthetic and a comfort that reaches far beyond the skepticism of age. The same thing happens when you find out that Rob Zombie is actually an ethical vegetarian who likely does not hide bodies in his basement. For a metalhead growing older, he’s still awesome.

Stephanie Kerry, a 26-year-old part-time living statue from Providence, R.I., told me she’s been listening to metal since she was about 13. The music is a metaphor for its fans, she said, “a lot of people just hear the screaming and say it’s kids’ stuff and there’s no talent.” She’s right. The music is often far from juvenile and the lifelong metalheads here understand music at a higher level than your average pop/alt/country/indie/hip-hop fan. All around me are conversations of solos and key changes and timbral dynamics. The only thing comparable is attending a Beethoven concert (the difference being, no one is going to talk to you).

But Stephanie, a self-described loner, said there’s something else — “an outsider’s pull.” It’s a community for loners to meet other loners and be un-loners together. “The people you meet here, you’re usually lifelong friends with,” said Tommy, a face-painted 25-year-old irrigation contractor from Mansfield who said he’d been listening to metal since he was 5 years old. “I don’t come here with anybody,” he added, “because I probably [already] know 300 people.”

Making friends seems like a hard thing to do when everyone around you is moshing. They seem angry. They look angry. “We all get our aggression out in the pit,” Joe told me.

“But look in the paper, there’s never any arrests,” Tommy said, adding, “If someone falls down, you pick the person up, it’s not like we’re killing each other.”

With that vote of confidence, I took the leap into the pit. Into its sweaty mist and sea of pumping fists.

I have to admit, before I came to Mayhem, I had a deep-seeded fear that maybe the next Columbine kid would be out here, nerding out and moshing to some gruesome lyrics, but that’s a totally false notion. And being in Mayhem confirms that.

Yes, the themes are often grotesque and certainly abrasive, but those themes are not celebrated as a way of catalyzing violence; rather, it’s a way of anesthetizing pain. Everyone here is coming to get away from something. Whether it be a dead-end job or a bully-ridden high school. They’re here to have a friend in metal. A fist-pumping, guitar-ripping, power-pushing friend.

So the next time you see a metal fest rolling through town, grab a ticket. They’re usually pretty cheap. It’s something you’ll never forget and, I promise, you’ll come back home with all of your limbs intact, and maybe a few friends, too.

Dean Russell is a producer and assistant director for WBUR and NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook.

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  • Sean Little

    This is the truth about metal heads. I will never forget a Corrosion of Conformity concert where I lost my glasses in the Mosh Pit. After much screaming the entire pit stopped and helped me look for my glasses, promptly handing them off to my friend for safe keeping I entered once more into the pit. I may wear a button down shirt and work in corporate America but I will always be a Metal Head

    • Jesse Ryan Pearson

      Too funny not to reply. I wear a button down and work in corporate America too. I’m also an old school metal head as well. Hell, I’m sitting at work right now. Hahaha! Going to see Hatebreed in October!