What makes a metal head? Are they created in a secret government lab and cloned by the hundreds every year, just like the guests on Maury? Are they finicky punk rockers who outgrow preschool chord progressions and grouchy, simple-minded political stances? Or do they represent the next stage of evolution, a breed of surly post-human whose preference for dissonant sound and colorless attire signals clairvoyant knowledge of a post-apocalyptic Earth?
We did an informal poll and learned that 25 percent of the self-identified metal heads "got into Sabbath" or "learned about Metallica" from a cool parent or older sibling and then branched out into other bands on their own. As for the rest? According to an unlicensed psychologist we drink with on Thursdays, the process follows a similar pattern to other life stages such as young adulthood and midlife. We outline the Five Stages of Metal Fandom below.
It begins innocuously. An unsuspecting person hears a metal song from the speakers of a van that stinks of pepperoni or on the soundtrack to a video game where you shoot prostitutes in the throat. They have heard this music before, but reacted with distaste, swatting the air as if metal was a flurry of hornets. For some reason, today is different. Metal sounds fresh, dynamic, and agreeable.
This awakening is similar to that of an adolescent who realizes the sensations of his wet dreams can be recreated in waking life with a little elbow grease and a bitching tube site. Like a freshly-minted masturbator, the sudden metal fan suffers a pervasive sense of naughtiness and mild shame. Web browser caches are purged hourly of the addresses for Decibel and Terrorizer magazines, while the sight of a longhaired ruffian sporting a King Diamond T-shirt causes simultaneous panic and titillation. The new fan wanders in a daze, plagued with questions that pierce the core of his personality:
"Do I really like this music? Am I actually one of those people? Will someone take a picture of me rocking out and turn it into an Internet meme that amuses losers all over the world?"
The next phase of metal allegiance finds the nascent fan promoting the music with the same tactless urgency of an upstart Scientologist or an Inland Empire mortgage broker ca. 2006. The fan, who once correctly regarded humanity as an irksome blob of bad drivers and halitosis carriers, now sees every last person as a potential convert to the metal lifestyle. Like an oddball Baptist college freshman who tries to "save" the hedonistic frat guys in his algebra class, the metal evangelist has a surplus of well-meaning sincerity but a grievous deficit of people-reading skills. How else to explain conversations like this one, which is happening right now at a family reunion in Anaheim?
Grandma: "I heard KISS on the radio during my drive over here. Their Detroit song. I still love it after all these years."
Tyler: "That's cool, but put on my headphones. This band's called Immortal and they wear make-up, too. You need to hear the real shit, grandma."
The metal fan in the Anger phase can longer stomach the ongoing existence of music that has guitars in frilly standard tuning and lacks blast beats or at least a drummer who hits the snare with a little animosity. In Anger, we see shadings of the stereotype of the ponytailed, scowling and hyper-critical metal geek so frequently ridiculed by unfunny self-published bloggers. This is also the phase where the fan selects a sub-genre to obsess over and internalizes the larger metal community's values. In other words, it's tattoo time! Meanwhile, exasperated friends and relatives urge the fan to give music a break and to "apply themselves" academically or "find a niche" professionally. Until either occurs, you can expect to hear comments like this from someone in the Anger phase:
"How the hell can people listen to Rihanna when Opeth has a new record out?"
"Why does anyone pay 90 bucks to watch some dork play with his Mac Book when Goatwhore is touring almost every year?"
"What kind of an idiot flies all the way to Chicago for Lollapalooza when there's an amazing grindcore scene only 20 minutes away?"
Good questions, all of them. Just…tone it down a notch, friend.
Seclusion is the phase wherein the fan abandons efforts to enthuse or chastise others into metal appreciation and accepts that not everyone shares his tastes. Public displays of corpse paint diminish, clothing becomes less confrontational (albeit a preference for black and charcoal remains), and friends of the metal enthusiast no longer hear this prefix: "If you're into [band], there's a [metal band] from [random location] that you would totally love!"
Secluded metal fans, like members of an obscure religious order, publicly make their interest known through subtle accessory cues, such as goat head pendants nestled within stringy chest hair or pinkie rings adorned with the leering face of Eddie from Iron Maiden. They seek like-minded company at shows or on the metal forums of Reddit, where they excoriate writers like our very own Alex Distefano for unthinkable critical transgressions such as anointing a Cannibal Corpse record the Best of 2014 rather than the latest by At the Gates. Or Pallbearer. Or Vader. And so on.
Wizened and occasionally morose, the fan in Seclusion still feels the thrill of discovering a new band or great record, but no longer a sense that everyone else will someday share this joy. A reckoning has occurred, but all hope is far from lost, as the next phase will show.
The Integration stage finds the dilettante and half-committed fan becoming a proper Metal Head. Theirs is a personality molded from the best qualities of the four preceding stages: the joy of the Discovery, the passion of Evangelism, the exacting standards of Anger, and the wisdom of Seclusion. A cursory discussion of attire will yield little information, as Integration is about the soul rather than the skin. It's like Scott Baio said in that 1985 Afterschool Special about gay guys: a metal head "can take many appearances…they can look like anyone. They can be your neighbor, your colleague, your friend."
The integrated Metal Head is the middle school lunch lady who swaps blackened doom mixtapes with the custodian; the urban planner who longs to convert a vacant lot into a club rather than one more stupid day care center; the listless attorney who rolls down her sleeves to conceal her Venom tattoo as she approaches the bench; and of course, the sketchy 17 year-old who stays out all night at a show and has to sleep, yet again, in the dewy chill of his mom's front yard. While these Metal Heads may be locked out of the house in both literal and metaphorical terms, they are always welcome in our home (so long as they smoke outside).