I don’t normally write posts about the history of metal genres, but considering I’m going for a “White Metal” theme this week, I thought it appropriate. While researching this article today, I’ve actually learnt a lot about this strange underground scene of Christian Metal. As I said in yesterday’s post, I’ve tended to ignore most Christian Metal music because what little I’ve heard has mostly been crap, but a couple of these bands sound really interesting and I’ll be checking them out.
Christian metal isn’t really a genre, because no specific musical characteristics define it, apart from “lyrics about Jesus”, which I don’t consider a fitting factor to determine a genre, and more than “lyrics about Vikings” should qualify a band as “Viking Metal”. Christian metal lyrics vary between generalized topics of loss, pain, regret and anger, to songs telling stories about the life of Jesus, to full on “repent or die” kinda stuff.
Christian metal began all the way back in the 1970s, and rose from the Jesus Movement – a loose collection of hippies who’d converted to Christianity. These hippies, calling themselves “Jesus People” mainly flocked to Southern California where they produced some music (called, not surprisingly, “Jesus Music”) influenced by their previous hippy leanings. As the hippy movement gave way to progressive and psychedelic rock (and with them, heavy metal) in the 1970s, so too did these Jesus People, and their music.
In 1978, the “Jesus Movement” group Resurrection Band released Awaiting Your Reply, an album heavily influenced by Led Zeppelin. In this same year, Swedish band Jerusalam’s first album Volume 1 hit the streets. The Christian music stores couldn’t believe that heavy music like this could sell so well, with Awaiting Your Reply hitting number 6 on the Gospel album sales charts. (I bet you didn’t even know there was a gospel album sales chart. See the things I can teach you!) Before you could say “amen”, a whole horde of these groups appeared on the scene.
The 1980s saw four notable Christian metal bands emerge: Stryper, Leviticus, Saint and Messiah Prophet. Leviticus’ early releases were typical Swedish glam metal, Saint’s heavier sound and bombastic vocals lend comparisons to Judas Priest. Saint differentiated themselves with negative lyrical themes – focusing on the more “metal” aspects of Christian mythology – the apocalypse, hell and evil.
But the heroes of Christian Metal in the 80s had to be Stryper. The orange-county glam-metal act embraced full-on glam metal stage shows while throwing bibles to their audience. They were the first group to reach platinum sales as a Christian act and to self-identify as Christian Metal. Stryper soon become popular with secular audiences as well, paving the way for more Christian metal.
Another term for Christian Metal also came out of the 80s, coined mainly as a reaction to the emerging black metal scene. “White Metal” was first applied to the Chicago doom metal band Trouble, whose first two releases Psalm 9 and The Skull feature heavy Christian lyrics. Metal Blade Records, a secular label, used the term “White Metal” as a marketing term to differentiate their Christian metal bands from the satanic bands on their list, and the term gained popularity and is stull used today. Trouble have tried to distance themselves from the term and the Christian metal scene, by saying their earlier Christian albums were more an exploration of singer Eric Wagner’s interest in Christianity and an expression of his Catholic upbringing, rather than any overt desire to become part of the Christian “scene”.
With the rising popularity of White Metal came the inevitable criticism, but this time, it came from both sides. While many metalheads thought the concept of Christiam Metal stomped on everything metal was supposed to stand for, many churches and ministries also denounced the movement. Tele-evangelist Jimmy Swaggart’s 1987 book “Religious Rock n’ Roll – a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?” denouncing the use of heavy music to spread the gospel. Others criticized the groups for riding on the popularity of musical styles pioneered by secular bands. Kris Klingesmith of Banabas said “If you want to know what Christian music will be doing tomorrow, all you need to do is see what the secular guys are doing today”.
Now we moved to the 1990s, where Kurt Cobain and grunge dug glam metal it’s well-deserved, deep, and hopefully eternal grave. Metal moved underground, and the music became harder, darker and more brutal. Christian metal followed suit. The first dabblers in extreme Christian death metal – Incubus and Living Sacrifice – produced some mediocre stuff. But it was Australian Christian death metal group Mortification with their 1992 release from a mainstream metal label (Germany’s Nuclear Blast), titled Scrolls of the Megalith that showed just how extreme Christian music could be.
Scrolls of the Megalith remains a classic death metal album, essential listening for any metalhead, God-faring or otherwise. It’s one of my favorite death releases of all time, and shot Mortification into the unusual position of being one of the few Christian metal bands loved by the extreme secular music scene. They’ve produced a steady stream of material over the last 20 years, although nothing comparable to their first three releases. Critics blame their lackluster efforts on the personal struggles of vocalist Steve Rowe. A critic wrote
“The weakest link of current Mortification are the lyrics. They are just somewhat naive and cheesy. On the old albums sinners screamed in pain in the fiery pits of hell, Satan was slaughtered; the rhetorics fit the spirit of the brutal music better. Apparently the fatherhood and going through the disease has calmed Rowe down too much, although on the early records the previous members Jayson Sherlock and Mick Carlisle wrote a lot of the lyrics.”
So with Christian bands invading the death metal scene, what did other holy musicians make of the rising threat of satanic Scandinavian black metal? Enter “unblack metal”, the most embarrassingly silly genre name since “shoegaze”.
Unblack metal incorporates all the musical elements of black metal – the shrieking vocals, fast tempo, tremolo picking, abysmal production and blastbeats – with lyrics depicting Christianity in a positive and over evangelical light.
The two earliest and most influential unblack metal bands were Horde (Aus) and Antestor (Nor). Antestor used to be a christian death metal band called Crush Evil. Mayhem’s Euronymous was so enraged by their very existence, he conceived a plan to force them to disband, thrawted only by the insertion of a sharp knife into her person 23 times by fellow bandmate Varg Vikernes.
When Nuclear Blast released Horde’s debut, Hellig Usvart, they probably should have predicted the shitstorm that followed. The label received death threats, demanding the release of the musician’s names. Horder was, in fact, the work of one “Annonymous”, none other than ex-Mortification drummer, Jayson Sherlock. In the 1990s, black metal wasn’t just a musical genre, but a set of idealogical beliefs borne of a desire to eradicate Christianity from the world and restore ancient pagan beliefs. So yeah, you could see why Sherlock’s lyrics about embracing Christianity might seem like a bit of an insult. A Norwegian daily newspaper described the phenomena as “an abrupt satire of the Norwegian black metal movement”, which I bet made Varg and Eury and that lot right pissed off.
While directly utilising the musical stylings of black metal, neither Horde nor Antestor wanted to be known as “black metal”, with all its satanic association. Horde used the term “holy unblack metal” (a pun on Darkthrone’s “Unholy Black Metal”) while Antestor preferred “Sorrow Metal”.Whatever you called it, critics in the music press and throughout the church universally rubbished it. A british black metal documentary asked it’s interviewees for their thoughts. Martin Walkyier of Sabbat said ‘Christian black metal?’ What do they do? Do they build churches? Do they repair them?” And then he laughs heartily.
Nowadays, black metal is less about idealology than it is about a specific style, and many Christian’s feel OK called their bands “black metal”. Even old school BM musicians like Sigurd of Satyricon say “black metal doesn’t necessarily have to be all satanic, as long as it’s dark.” You’re going to hear my opinion about unblack metal when I write up some reviews tomorrow.
With all this Christian metal going around, and mainstream metal labels and tame Christian labels not all that interested, several Christian metal labels – such as Pure Metal, Intense Records and Pakaderm – opened their doors, as well as Christian metal magazines like Heaven’s Metal Magazine, Christian radio stations, Christian metal festivals and even, get this, a Christian metal church.
That’s right. Because Christian metalheads had long hair and didn’t fit in with regular church, a Californian pastor by the name of Bob Beeman set up Sanctuary International, a worldwide church with branches throughout the US and Europe. Stryper’s Michael Sweet led the first worship in this church of heavy metal. Sanctuary brought together many musicians – forming bands like Deliverance, Vengeance and Mortal. They organized the first Christian metal festival – Metal Madi Gras – in Los Angeles in 1987, and also the annual “BobFest” festival. Most of the parishes closed in the late 1990s. feeling mainstream Christianity had become more accepting of their metal legions, and now Sanctuary International focuses on teaching people about Christianity through metal, and running a metal radio station.
In Finland, where metal is more mainstream than anywhere else in the world, the former Lutheran state church holds regular Metal Masses attended by thousands of devotees. Christian metal slogans like “Turn or Burn” and “Faster for the Master” bedazzle t-shirts and bumper stickers, the once popular WWJD stickers thrown away in disgust.
But wait, it gets even crazier! In 2005, thewas released. That’s right – the bible, in Swedish, with a “metal” cover, old English font, and lots of interviews with metal musicians on what Christianity and scripture mean to them. In 2007 the Metal Bible was released in Dutch and the website reports an English version is on it’s way.
Call me crazy, but I think all this is mad cool. If you’re gonna be Christian, at least make it awesome. The Metal Bible? Only a tr00 Christian metalhead would have thought of that. Seriously, makes me smile.
Nowadays, the exploding influence of Christian music worldwide (don’t deny it – you know it’s true) has given rise to popular mainstream “metal” bands (term applied loosly), like Underoath, As I Lay Dying, Haste the Day, The Devil Wears Prada (yes, they’re a band), August Burns Red and P.O.D.
And there you have it – Christian metal, in all of its unrivalled strangeness. Thoughts? Opinions? Interesting anecdotes? I’d love to hear them.
Buy Christian Metal Online
Christian Metal Albums
Mortification – Scrolls of the Megalith
Antestor – Under the Sign of the Black Mark
Horde – Hellig Unsvart
Narnia – Long Live the King
Resurrection Band – Awaiting Your Reply
Jerusalem – Warrior
Saint – Warriors of the Sun
Stryper – To Hell with the Devil
Messiah Prophet – Master of the Metal
Bloodgood – Detonation
Theocracy – Mirror of Souls
Venia – Victory by Surrender
Eden – Fan the Flame