"Seek not the good in external things. Seek it in thyself." - Epictetus

Metal found me – and took me on an unusual path

I’ve been a metalhead for 20 years now, and whenever I ask others how they discovered the genre, I usually hear one of two stories: Either they grew up with the music, or they discovered it later in life, but regardless, they mostly heard the classics first. A delineation of the pioneers and the greats probably isn’t necessary, but for any non-metalheads reading this, I’m talking about bands like Black Sabbath, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Pantera, Judas Priest, Slayer, Dio, and Motorhead. With most people I’ve talked to, their metal discovery and subsequent journey seemed to follow a similar pattern.

My path was a bit different. I can say that I first discovered metal, in the technical sense, at the age of 13. At the time, I was living in New Jersey and using a big, chunky Dell computer that ran an ancient operating system called Windows Me (short for ‘Millennium Edition’). I was using dial-up internet, Ask Jeeves was my search engine of choice, and I spent my time learning basic HTML code and waiting hours to download a single episode of Dragon Ball Z. I started frequenting a now-defunct website called TV Tome, where I would follow various anime shows, and I made a few online friends. That led me to transition with them to a series of do-it-yourself forums collectively called ProBoards. (I checked and, at the time of writing, it still exists!)

I made one friend on these forums in particular who was very much into nu metal. I didn’t know what on earth he was talking about at the time, so he told me to think of it as “very hard rock.” He would often talk about bands like Linkin Park, Deftones, and Adema, and lament the fact that no one else shared his interest. I was later introduced to another forum-goer who was absolutely fanatical about Iron Maiden. At the time, my interests lay in anime, manga, and fantasy novels, and I neither knew nor cared what these people were talking about. The following year, that would change.

By the time I was 14, I had moved elsewhere in New Jersey – northward, back to my hometown. There I made my first close friend. We got along very well, bonding over our shared interest in comic books and artwork. Eventually, he started name-dropping Slipknot and Mudvayne. “What?” I asked, utterly confused and only vaguely interested. “Yeah,” he said. “They’re bands. It’s nu metal.” “Ah.” I remembered that term from my online friend, but he had never mentioned those particular bands. The subject would not arise again until a few weeks later, when I met my friend’s older brother. I don’t exactly remember now whether it was the friend or the brother who put the headphones over my ears, but they said, “Here. It’s Slipknot. Listen to this.”

Because it came as an absolute culture shock to me at the time, I can’t remember exactly which song it was that I heard, but I’m ninety-nine percent sure it was “Eyeless,” off their self-titled album. Suffice it to say I was blown away. I had never heard anything that sounded remotely like that. I was struck by how loud and wild it sounded to me, it had a rhythm that I immediately latched onto – at a time when I could barely comprehend what rhythm was (I didn’t spend my childhood listening to much music by choice) – and I was also a little bit uncertain. It wasn’t that I disliked it (quite the opposite), it was that it was so new to me and my mind was reeling, trying to process what I was experiencing. He also played a Mudvayne song for me right afterward, but I don’t remember anything about it. I think I was still so focused on the Slipknot song, trying to figure out what the hell that was.

Days later, another close friend of mine – may he rest in peace – was beginning his own journey. “Oh, you’ve never heard System of a Down before?” he asked eagerly. I’ll never forget that day. Together we went to a pizza place/internet café, and for the first time ever I discovered this thing called Limewire. Also, I used one of the webcams there to take my first-ever “selfie” (I still hate that word), and put it up on my new MySpace page. Before long, my friend’s little AAA battery-powered Coby mp3 player had songs on it from System of a Down, Slipknot, Linkin Park, and a few other artists (I think there was an Otep song on there, and something by Kittie as well). I listened to several songs by multiple artists that day, and it was at that point that I decided – I was a fan of Slipknot and Linkin Park.

You may think that, so far, this is not too unusual of a path for someone discovering metal in the early 2000s. Of course nu metal would be the first thing I hear, it was dominating back then. Just give it time, the path soon takes a weird turn. Anyway, at this point, I knew what I wanted (more metal!) and how to get it – at the local library, of all places. I started borrowing CDs from there – amongst my first picks were Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory and Meteora, Slipknot’s self-titled and Vol. 3 (which I think had just come out at the time), and a couple metalcore jams – though I didn’t know it at the time; namely, Shadows Fall’s The War Within and Killswitch Engage’s The End of Heartache. (Note: At this point I had already heard Killswitch on MySpace – remember those little music players on people’s profiles?) I also picked up Headbangers Ball Vol. 2, a compilation album.

I was spinning these albums day and night, and when I wasn’t doing that, I was listening to a metal radio station I had just found – 89.5 WSOU, a college radio station broadcast from Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. It had a bit of a weak signal, but it was worth it to hear “Dragula” by Rob Zombie and “The Beautiful People” by Marilyn Manson for the very first time. I was officially engrossed in metal at this point, and though I couldn’t yet discern genre differences, my taste was mostly dominated by nu metal and metalcore. Before long, that would change.

To this day I’m not sure which came first, but I heard Satyricon’s “Fuel for Hatred” and Cradle of Filth’s “Gilded Cunt,” both around the same time. The former, from Headbangers Ball Vol. 2, and the latter, downloaded from a little place called Limewire. The very next song I heard was “Medusa and Hemlock,” also by Cradle. Then I heard something by Dimmu Borgir. Several weeks later, I had learned that these bands and songs were examples of “extreme metal,” and at the time, I thought it was all something called “black metal” (even though, apart from Satyricon, I had not discovered true black metal quite yet). This led to me finding black metal’s gutteral, gore-obsessed neighbor, death metal. Cannibal Corpse. Dying Fetus. Deicide. Holy shit!

My mind was exploding with dopamine on a daily basis as I delved more deeply into the most brutal, extreme sounding metal I could get my hands on. Before long, a friend bought me my first physical metal albums at an FYE in a local mall. I remember exactly what I grabbed: Nymphetamine and Thornography by Cradle. The Scars of Redemption by Deicide. Dechristianize by Vital Remains. Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia and Godless Savage Garden by Dimmu Borgir. And another compilation album called Headbangers Ball: The Revenge. You’d best believe I was blasting it in this (non-metalhead) friend’s car, driving him crazy.

You see, this is where my path took a more unique turn. I had gone from entry-level nu metal and popular metalcore right into starter pack ‘extreme metal’ and Satanic death metal. Not one to sit back and be satisfied with just a few new artists, it was only a matter of a week or two afterward that I finally sank my teeth into genuine black metal. Immortal, Emperor, Mayhem, Bathory, and even a few lesser-known artists like Urgehal and Melechesh. Around this time I bought my second band shirt ever – Dark Funeral (the first had been Linkin Park, one year prior).

But here’s the thing: I skipped right over all the classics. By this time, I had heard a couple of Pantera songs (I remember “Psycho Holiday” was my first from them). I had heard a few Metallica songs. I probably heard a Black Sabbath or Iron Maiden song already without even knowing it at the time. But I had not, by choice, delved into the old greats, simply because I thought it was “old” and “less extreme” than this other, seemingly more awesome thing that I had discovered. Typical teenage way of thinking. And I had not yet become a metal connoisseur; I simply wanted whatever I thought was the most extreme and brutal and punishing.

Whenever I thought I had hit a boundary, I wanted to break it and go even further. I spotted other metalheads wearing Dark Funeral and Emperor shirts, so I decided to delve into the underground of the underground, and picked up a shirt for the black metal band Typhus; on the back it read, “Fuck Your God.” I loved that it got such a rise out of people; at this point I was living to be extreme, to incite and to provoke. I didn’t yet have the mature understandings of both music and my religion (Satanism) that I would gain when I transitioned into my 20s. All I knew was that this all felt like a giant middle finger to Christianity, to the status quo, and to the nowhere-dead-end town I felt trapped in, and I loved the feelings all that evoked within me.

I wouldn’t actually sit down and properly listen to classic heavy metal until my mid-20s, once I had calmed down a bit and begun truly appreciating metal – black metal included – for the music itself, rather than try and use music to give myself some sense of identity or feeling of rebellion. I had put my adolescence behind me and become a mature, more sophisticated lover of metal. So I continued to explore all the black metal I could find – a friend of mine was amazed at the time by the sheer amount of the genre I had in my iTunes library; I introduced him to Xasthur and Anaal Nathrakh, amongst so many, many others. But I was also sitting down and exploring, with attentive enthusiasm, albums from Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Slayer, and Pantera.

When I had turned 20, I moved to Chicago to live with a roommate. Prior to this, I was living in a very uncomfortable situation, having just gotten out of a homeless shelter and now living in a studio apartment with my mother; it was basically a converted motel room with no windows and a cockroach infestation. I was more than happy to leave those horrible living conditions behind, and I finally had my own room – my own private space to decorate with band posters, something I had missed out on during my teenage years. More importantly, I had my own time and space to explore music to my heart’s content, and I really did explore. I started using Last.fm, I checked out Metal Archives for the very first time, and I discovered bands that would grow to become absolute favorites (Agalloch and Lacuna Coil, amongst others).

I may not have had the path that so many of my fellow metalheads seemed to have taken – with ‘extreme metal’ being the very last thing they were exposed to, after all the other subgenres; in some cases, they never discovered or delved into black or death metal at all. For me, I’m glad that my journey played out the way that it did. I can be a bit stubborn or overly cautious when it comes to trying new things, and I don’t know that I would have felt the urge to listen to black metal if I had not discovered it unintentionally at a younger age, and if it had not left such an enormous impression upon me.

These days I listen to just about everything. Sure, there are some genres and artists that I simply cannot get into (I will never be a fan of Ghost, Rammstein, or Korn, and I do not apologize for it). But I listen to everything from black metal to sludge metal to folk metal to deathcore. I sometimes listen to classical music. Hell, I’ll even listen to the occasional pop punk or rap. Since 2019, I’ve run a reaction channel on YouTube, and being introduced to so much more music (in metal and beyond), it has certainly helped stoke the fire that was first ignited at the impressionable age of 14. Since then, I haven’t looked back.

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