The Sound & the Fury : the Rebirth of Heavy Metal

A Conversation with IDK

Brutal.  Fast.  Full Fisted Fury.  Hard rock and heavy metal music are certainly not for everyone.  With loud, distorted, shrieking guitars, often layers of them, pounding drums, and screaming, often times operatic, vocals, it is easy to see why there is not a place for these bands on “popular” music stations.  Many would go from Katy Perry to Matchbox Twenty and even to softer Ozzy Ozbourne or Metallica, on their office-mix music station, but as soon as Iron Maiden, Pantera, or I Don’t Konform came on, they would flip the station.

In his article The Slow Death of Heavy Metal for Observer Music, Bryan Reesman starts off blaming the overall decline of heavy music on “Top 40 charts, radio airplay, and music award broadcasts that have been dominated by anemic pop music and hipster rock.  In the same article, Reesman also quotes “Guitar icon Slash told Radio Nova in Sweden this summer that he felt “even heavy metal bands are trying to be Top 40.”  Why wouldn’t they?  It is all that is being played.  It is all that is being listened to.  Top 40 radio is a self fulfilling prophecy; you just have to be one of the lucky few.

Thus… the focus becomes being a better player of the game… not a better player of music.

But heavy music has a place, it has a ravenous following, and it persists… although it is never fully embraced by society.   In fact, one could argue that many of the stereotypes dealing with metal music have permeated social consciousness more than the music itself.  In other words, there are plenty of people who know metal cliches who have never listened to metal.  Perhaps, there are levels of metal that the common observer has no inclination even exist.  Furthermore, perhaps, the persistence of heavy metal music has much more to do with our social climate than whether or not it has a beat and you can dance to it.

As with most of my other writings, I am not going to spend a lot of time defining my topic.  There are a billion internet sites out there to try to offer you A Brief History of Metal or A Rock Music Timeline: that is not the purpose of this particular series.  This music is raw.  It is visceral.  It is assaultingly intense.  In many ways it is pure, electrified anger… but where does it comes from?  What part of the human experience craves that kind of sustenance?  Trying to understand that part of the human psyche, that type of person, is the purpose of this particular series.

I have seen the faces from the beautiful people when I am walking past at work, right before we open, and some harsh tyraid is flooding from my pocket jukebox.  I have seen their lip curls and ‘just-so-traumatized-eye-rolls as they ‘like wonder how anybody can like listen to that screaming‘.  Every time, I think of the exact same poem:

“And I have known the eyes already, known them all—

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,

Then how should I begin To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

And how should I presume?”

_T.S. Eliot “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

{Irony is these ladies have never talked to me… they have no idea that this metal head taught poetry… nor would they think to ask… he listens to screamo music.}  This is the major difference between the world of rock and the world of everything else…. I am not going to worry about how I should presume.  I am not going to change.  I am not going to budge.  You budge.  I’m pissed off, and it is time to resist.

 

My point here is not to shame the beautiful people into listening to better music.  My point is that even the beautiful people should pause to understand the cultural phenomenon that is taking place in music.  All music.  Music is the language of our emotions… and it is the language of what can still be said on semi-literal stages.  As I discussed with Ivan Denis in our conversation All That I Ever Wanted, the real is gone from our world.  In everything.  Autotune takes care of vocal imperfections.  Airbrushes and Photoshop take care of visual imperfections.  Reality shows are scripted and rehearsed.  Hired social media experts make sure to give your digital image a deep cleaning every day… for a living. Bots flood Facebook making vetting necessary just to figure out who real people are.  But… corporations are people…. and…

you see?

Our world is so out of whack it is rolling with backspin, but everybody is too plugged in to their own small universes to notice it, or,if they do, they certainly don’t talk about it.  And even when you boil it all into perfect satire…. and serve it straight up… they laugh, move on, and do nothing.

(Disclaimer… South Park is completely Rated R… Good Satire usually is.)

 

But I digress…. yes… music…. the language of emotions.  What happens when our emotions are all forced, or fake, or disingenuous?  What happens when the public persona of what everybody is supposed to be is more important than our human capacity to handle what has happened in our lives?

We create a society that has mind altering substances marketed to its people at exuberant prices almost continually.  We become a society where we somehow justify the draconian nature of our laws based on an Us vs. Them philosophy that things will never happen to us.  We all move along like little ants doing our daily routines, and then…, we wake up. Thirty years have gone by, and we wonder where our lives have gone.

In many ways Reality as a character and metal music are expressing the same frustration.

“Considering that many of the genre’s godfathers, who still inspire younger bands and dominate European festivals, will likely retire in a few years, where do things go from here? Will we see heavy bands on the superstar level of Metallica and Iron Maiden ever again? Will that classic sound become a nostalgic relic relegated to oldies bins? – Reesman”

The music we flood into our popular lives conveys this question.  There is no raw edge.  There is no gutsy, live, one take, mistakes are golden… There is computer insured perfection.  There is a pop tune, a hook, and a program to all of it.  Musical acts that are following the rules get radio play, and others… do not.  They pipe the same handful of songs at us, repeat them so much you have them memorized even though you hate them, and spoon feed the predetermined hits… right to you.  This is true in all genres.

“The mass of mediocrity that becomes the common denominator in large society is no place to find art… it is only a place to find regurgitated sameness.”  – me

Anything pushing limits, breaking boundaries, or basically doing anything important… is pushed to the fringes.

So you have to dig.

And when you do… you find I Don’t Konform…. in a Hogaan…. on the Navajo Nation.

 

Once again returning to The Slow Death of Heavy Metal: “Today rock is so deep underground that it’s becoming credible again.  The critical mass is there. The economic and political environment provides you with plenty of reasons to be angry again.  In the meantime, we are looking at a self-induced apocalypse, maybe World War 3, maybe the total collapse of the planet’s ecology. So it may be time again for somebody to say fuck all this, and heavy metal might be just the genre to give you those new voices of rebellion.”

Kyle Felter, lead singer, lead guitar, and frontman of I Don’t Konform rolled the dice like a seasoned Vegas pro, when he “sent out a demo album to Flemming Rasmussen, the Grammy Award-winning producer” of Metallica’s …And Justice For All, Master of Puppets, and Ride the Lightning.  He thought that his band just might have the answer:

Will that classic sound become a nostalgic relic relegated to oldies bins?”

“Hell No!”

Several months later found Rasmussen visiting Window Rock, Arizona and rehearsing with I Don’t Konform “inside a hot hogaan before recording their debut album at his iconic Sweet Silence Studio in Denmark. As Rasmussen states, after hearing their demo:

“a specific technical element wasn’t what stood out for me but the raw emotion and the thematic rage running through their music stood out as something refreshing and unique.”

 – Rez Metal Documentary Website

Raw Emotion.  Thematic Rage.  Dig.  This is where my official interview with I Don’t Konform really began.  This is the place my curiosity had taken me.  “I do to a lot of concerts,” I began, and then re-emphasized, “A lot of concerts.  One thing is fairly certain, you do not see a high percentage of Native Americans at many shows, but if it is Iron Maiden (whom I had just seen at the end of June in Phoenix), there is a striking difference.  Native people were everywhere at that show!”  Kyle and Brett, who spent most of our interview pacing, smiling, and plucking out bass guitar riffs out of the air with practiced fingers, laughed.  “It is obvious that Native folks like metal, so, talk to me about your fan base.  Why is metal music such a language of the Rez?”

 

Kyle:  It is really just cultural trauma.  People thinking about it, living it.  It gets passed down, it almost becomes subconscious.  It’s also empathized – the image of metal music is one of outcasts, the misplaced, the malcontents.  Gutsy kids playing instruments in bedrooms, garages, or in our case hogaans, raging out against the whole world.

Ghost Writer:  But isn’t this true of rap and inner city culture as well?  Bands like N.W.A. or Public Enemy raging against a reality that they sought first, to expose, and second, to topple.  Talk about a music that is trying to get a sense of social angst, but you don’t see the same resonance in Native communities with rap as you do with metal.  It’s not like you don’t hear rap on the reservation, but it is not as pervasive as one might think.  What is pervasive is metal.  Why is that?”

Kyle:  “I think it is instruments more than anything.  I teach guitar for community outreach events on the Rez, and yeah, it is the instruments.  Natives love music and love strings.  We love drums.  The beat boxes and drum machines and electronic sampling of a lot of rap does not resonate the same way.”

The cultural trauma that Kyle mentions is the focus of The International Documentary Association’s forthcoming film, Rez Metal, directed and produced by Ashkan Soltani.  “I Don’t Konform is part of a thriving heavy metal scene on reservations where metal has been one of the most popular types of music. In our feature-length documentary, REZ METAL, while following I Don’t Konform’s fairy tale journey from performing on poverty-stricken reservations to recording their debut album with one of the music industry’s most influential producers;

“we will also tell the larger story of the heavy metal scene on Navajo reservations where many youths have grown disaffected as a result of endemic inequality, teen suicides, and high incarceration rate.”

“By exploring individual musicians, fans, and their perspectives on music and modern life, this documentary will capture the universality of their experience and illustrate the many ways in which heavy metal music engages the disenfranchised in constructive anger to effect positive changes in their communities.”

 

According to poll information included with the 2015 United States Census, the top four most metal cities in the country are Cleveland, Portland, and Pittsburg.  Obviously a town like Window Rock or Kayenta is not going to even show up as a blip on the radar, but the similarities one sees in “metal friendly” areas are striking.  If you come from middle america and you are a pissed off working man, you probably liked Meryl Haggard.  If you come from the cities, beneath the steam of factories, where the reality and the fantasy of the American Dream are constantly  juxtaposed in your mind… you probably liked Metallica.

Ghost Writer:  “So you would agree that there is a sense of Marxism about metal music.  This idea of a pissed off bourgeoisie raising up in rebellion against a fat and over satiated proletariat?”

Kyle:  Absolutely.  Metal hast to have an angry pissed off core.  It has to have something to shout at.

Ghost Writer:  What is the most difficult part about being a band… on the reservation?

Kyle:  Motivation.  It is like you are fighting an uphill fight just to prove your band is not just a hobby.  Even after you have gone and recorded in Denmark!  It is hard to get the People to take it seriously.  That might also be that it is like a super extrovert kind of thing to do, to get up on stage and play metal music, but most Navajos are pretty introverted.  So in some ways it feels like you are always working against the rules, or against peoples’ natures.

This point that he alludes to here is quite important.  I can remember as a teacher being so frustrated with certain students.  And no, not just the Native students, although they certainly fit this scenario.  It was like with certain kids, no matter how smart they were, you simply could not get them to exercise any effort at all in their own betterment.  This is a symptom of severely depressed economies or trauma.

And so you stay.  You stay on the reservation.  You stay on the mountain.  You stay working in the coal mines.  You keep doing what you have always done, and eventually you feel…. all the time…. every day… in your core…. Why would you think you were really meant for anything else?  And so you stay.  And nothing changes.  And depression sets in.

Ghost Writer:  So recording in Denmark, $1,000 / day for recording fees, and the final product is a 38 minute long, 8 song CD.  {In all fairness Ride the Lightning is 48 minutes, but also only eight tracks and would also fall into this category as well.}  In a world of iTunes sales, Spotify, and streaming services, you went old school, from production to business angle.  Thoughts?  Regrets?

Kyle:  First of all, analog recording is the way to go, and having that rawness in recording was very important to us.  Having things too perfect, is sucky.  Besides, how many times in your life can you say you had this chance or this opportunity?

In the end, could I Don’t Konform have made a similar album, right here in Arizona, at half the cost and been able to sell the album for less money?  Yes.  Most certainly that would happen.  Additionally, in a world where most albums don’t sell at all, individual songs do, and usually for about a dollar, being able to make the album seem like a deal over the cost of buying individual songs is important.  Whereas, with IDK’s album, they sell it for fifteen dollars.

So immediately one is left wondering if buying the name of Flemming Rassmussen was worth the cost.

Reesman writes in The Slow Death of Heavy Metal that “People listen to music differently now. They don’t have time to sit down and put the record on and give it 30 minutes or whatever. It’s three minutes here, three minutes there, and go text and check Instagram like I do.”

But then I think about dreams.  I think about learning the real lessons of rock n roll.  I think about freedom, and I think about living a life without the fear of failure.

 

I think about dreaming big even though the world is huge and I am just a small dude…. and Yes, you go to Denmark and record your record with one of the living legends of thrash metal.  You do it because you are alive.  You do it because you can sleep when you are dead.  You do it because tomorrow might never happen.  You embrace living.  You embrace raw emotion.  You stop running from that which is not living.

You do it because you are from a hogaan on the Navajo Nation, and sometimes, people need to see a dream be real in order to find dreams of their own.

Ghost Writer:  So what is next for IDK?

Kyle:  Africa.

Ghost Writer:  What!?  {to which Brett starts laughing again.}

 

Kyle: Africa and Russia.  There are some festivals over there we have been invited to go to.  Festivals that promote cultural exchange and diversity. They don’t pay… but we don’t have to pay either… and why the hell not?

Exactly.  Why the hell not!  Carpe diem IDK.  That is Rock n Roll!

However, not only is Kyle having a great time with his band, many in the metal community agree with him.  There are fans.  Metal is thriving.  If America has become to decadent for reality…. well… there are other places in the world where Reality is still alive and well.

Dani Filth, frontman for Cradle of Filth, told the Observer:  “We’re not in the upper echelon, but in the scope of things we’re one of the biggest extreme metal bands, but we’re finding it increasingly harder to get out there and make a living. You notice the difference. These days it’s not the same as it was. Maybe in 10 years time it will start getting bigger again. People are looking for answers. There are still the fans.  If touring is where the money is at, then we need to expand into Russia, China, and Eastern Europe, which are starting to embrace metal.”

“It’s the bands with the strongest hunger that tend to make their mark, and these days one has to have a more than healthy appetite for the grind of touring to break through,” Reesman writes towards the conclusion of The Slow Death of Heavy Metal.

 

These three guys from the Navajo Nation might just be the ones for the task.   They along with the youthful next generation of heavy metal coming from the nations in the world that still know what the sting of Reality feels like.  There are still the disenfranchised.  There are still the rebellions.  There are still the people that are just so tired and fed up with the bullshit, that they have nothing but devil horns in the air, a cold beer, and rock n roll music.

If America has forgotten that… irony of ironies… the music will go to where the fans are.

But as Ressman ends his article, and with which I heartily concur,

“But then perhaps the voice of rebellion is needed where it is called for; it sounds like America desperately needs it once again.”

You can next see IDK in Tempe at The Tempe Tavern, where I Don’t Konform will be closing out a birthday bash show on Friday July 28th !

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Keep the Greasy Side Down My Friends.

 

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About Ghost Writer 25 Articles

Arizona Enthusiast. Writer. Rider. Dreamer.

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