The Theory of Metal Relativity

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The conclusion of the final West Texas Death Fest leaves me with many questions. Jess and Ramon Cazares — the driving force behind The Fest — will relocate soon, and that not only means that this particular show will be no more but also raises the less comfortable question about the sustainability of metal in our area. The WTDF exists because of their devotion and toil. Losing them may mean losing local metal. I’m not writing about this problem here, but the foreboding it causes provides some context for the story I do want to tell.

The Fest experience this year offered the expected benefits: seeing friends and former students, talking to people from different places, and experiencing a kaleidoscope of death metal subgenres. Internally, I like The Fest because I can behave in a more extreme way than I usually do. As a native analyst, the major draw for me is the wealth of musical data, and I spend much of my time standing back and watching, taking pictures, comparing styles, ranking bands. That said, I’m also an extreme personality making my way in a buttoned-up, even urbane, profession where my initial responses to almost everything must be tabled. At The Fest, I can bang my head right off my shoulders and no one cares; in fact, a stranger next to me does exactly that same thing: absorbs the musical energy, processes it through his or her heart, and gives it back through unbridled physical response. The two processes sustain and create each other, like a heavy metal version of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Extreme metal draws — and draws from — extreme mentalities.

Photo by Martin Jacobsen.

Photo by Martin Jacobsen.

Numerous fulfilling moments arose from this Fest. I communed with some people from my home state, talked with musicians, and lost myself in Abolishment of Flesh’s “The Suffering” — that headbanging moment I noted above (and many thanks to the wild redhead next to me, whoever you are, for that moment of anonymous unity headbanging offers). Plainview tech-death band Astringency, who performed immediately before the band that created the moment I’m chronicling, contributed to this experience. They seem to have always gone everywhere together, and their ladies accompany them (some bands brought their parents and kids), so when they are playing, the entire front row knows what’s coming. There is an explosion of headbanging that’s so perfectly timed that it’s a bit of a shock. Many of their fellow townspeople have studied with me at the university, and all of them seem to be musicians. I have surmised that Plainview, TX, seems to produce multi-instrumentalists like other Texas towns produce football teams. Anyway, I was alive after the Astringency set, which was largely new material, humbled and inspired by their astonishing vision and talent. I could have stopped there and been satisfied with The Fest.

But, enough context. The moment has come to attempt a description of the moment that came from the next band’s set. Fields of Elysium, a progressive technical death metal band from Santa Fe, NM, followed Astringency (with whom they had recently toured). I’d seen them a couple of times already. The last time I saw them, they said they wanted to “try a new one; we’ll see how it goes.” It amazed me that they would risk that. They have CDs and a core of fans. They could have just played a show. But they took that extra step.

This time, they said everything was new. I had been listening to them all week before the show. I was expecting to hear some of that music. This announcement reminded me of the risk they had taken the last time I’d seen them. It seemed admirable to me that they would bring their creative process to us like that. I was already so alive from the Astringency set that I just settled in and set the sensors on full.

And perhaps it was this unprepared but receptive state of mind that allowed me to see the magic. They did not play a different version of the same thing. It was better. And they were better. They were better players than the year before, and the year before they had left the audience slack-jawed and enlightened. They were playing their instruments in ways that didn’t even make sense to me. The compositions were different, more intricate, more enlivened. All of the band members focused intently on their playing-no acting, just music. While I was watching one of the guitarists sweep-picking, almost like playing a harp, for some reason, everything suddenly felt funny. I looked behind me and discovered why.

The magic had spread. A spell had settled over the crowd and quelled any moshing or headbanging. Fields of Elysium focused on their instruments, and we focused on them. It was still and silent, two of the last responses you might think a band at an extreme metal fest may elicit.

Then it hit me. Maybe it’s one of the few places such a moment could exist. Maybe a local fest with a community ethos was the just the place for it to happen — a collection of musically-aware extremists. Fields of Elysium brought us something different. They trusted us with their work. This wasn’t about what they’d done. It wasn’t about what they were doing at that moment. It was about what they do. They were out on the edge of possibility, of discovery. They were seeking the next note, the next phrase, the next level. They were seeking the nexus to another awareness that only music can open.

Photo by Martin Jacobsen.

Photo by Martin Jacobsen.

And they let us watch.

And at that moment, we were no longer fans: we had become witnesses.

And then witness transmogrified into wisdom.

At that moment, we were able to perceive not just the creative process but its goal: the discovery of beauty, which is forever the essence of music, and which for that moment, made even forever a tangible element. It may have been only a minute or two on the clock, but the experience existed as a microcosmic eternity.

And perhaps only a group of extremists possess the ability to be still and silent when stillness and silence constitute the right approach. It’s metal relativity: channeling the atmosphere created by the music, processing it through awareness, and giving it back as the reverent attention the “finite infinity” Fields of Elysium created at that moment required.

The end of the West Texas Death Fest may be inevitable, and no doubt many people will say “That’s life.” While some moments in our lives — such as the diminution of metal in our region—may be tragic, other moments — such as the one described here, are magic.

I hope we do not lose the magic moments.

Photo by Carly Carthel.

Photo by Carly Carthel.

The importance of experiencing local metal

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Fields of Elysium.

Some time ago, Jon Wild relayed a local news write-up about Amarillo-based death metal band Abolishment of Flesh. I am a part of Death Metal Underground, and I live in Amarillo. I’ve gotten to know these folks, and I thought I’d offer a follow up. I can say without reservation that they are as great as the best of people one finds anywhere. Since moving here 14 years ago, I’ve found I had trouble finding a niche. The ostensibly Christian veneer of this region fades rather quickly when it becomes known that one does not practice some variety (or in my case, no variety) of faith. That sense of alienation grows when one prefers Pentagram CDs to Pentacostal services. So outside the people I knew from work, I really didn’t associate much with the local population. As metalhead and loner from way back, this arrangement suited me just fine. Solitude trumps solicitousness any day, and twice on Sunday.

Then, as Brett Stevens reported earlier this year, a long-time dream came true for me. I offered a college course in heavy metal. As a result of this class and the monumentally fantastic people in it, I started to become acquainted with the local metal scene. A couple of my students were in metal bands, and a couple of others were involved in the campus radio metal show, The Rocket. So when a trivia question about death metal arose on The Rocket, I called in and won tickets to the West Texas Death Fest (WTDF). And as the cliché goes, it changed my life.

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Abolishment of Flesh.

When I walked into the show, I saw ink, piercings, gothic scripts, black t-shirts. I learned rather quickly that the black t-shirts covered hearts of gold. A former student was taking tickets. Two students met me there. The promoters of WTDF, who had offered the trivia question, were waiting for me. They knew who I was, and I was welcomed with a hug. Facebook friendships formed. I learned that they were also a local metal band called Abolishment of Flesh, which is supremely ironic because instead of abolishing flesh, they live to sustain the good fortunes of everyone they know. In any event, I got to know Jess (promoter) and Ramon (guitarist/ vocalist) Cazares over the next few months. I think of them as the hearts of local metal. Hearts, plural. I went to see Abolishment of Flesh and kept tabs on their national Brutal Alliance tour, in which they partnered with New Mexico neighbors Fields of Elysium. Par for the course, the bands shared everything along the way. It was part tour (death metal overground, I like to call it), part family vacation. I also became an avid follower of local metalcore band Sixgun Serenade — the rhythm section of which comprises two former students of mine — who are at work on an album to follow up 2013’s The Avenue of the Giants. I’ve gotten to know their families. In much the same way a “church home” may sustain some people; I found my niche in the local metal community. These are my people.

A few weeks ago, The Rocket again hosted Abolishment of Flesh in the studio as guests to talk about their forthcoming CD Creation to Extinction. On that day, I wore the band’s t-shirt to all my classes and changed my profile picture on Facebook to reflect that. I made my cover picture a picture on the band and me taken after a show. Of course all the people involved altered or posted to their pages. It was an event. Encouraged by this activity, I tossed out the notion of a campus metalfest. People came out of the metalwork. More Facebook friendships were forged, more family adopted (and probably more shows to see, more t-shirts to wear). All for an idea.

I’ll be heading out to see Abolishment of Flesh on December 14 as they inaugurate their new CD (and celebrate drummer Robert Ginn’s birthday, because it’s a family thing). Sixgun Serenade will play a benefit in January. West Texas Death Fest is slated for April. I believe we are fortunate to have a metal venue, numerous metal bands, an annual metal festival, a couple of metal radio shows, and a university metal course. We’re pretty active for being smaller city distant from metropolises and centered in a region that by all accounts is not particularly comfortable with metal.

So, in the end, together, we have the mettle to sustain our metal. We smelt the ore daily through friendship and family. It’s not about death metal. It’s about life metal. It’s about living metal and living, metal.

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Sixgun Serenade (with author Martin Jacobsen).

Abolishment of Flesh:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8BH6MM6EEss

Fields of Elysium:

Sixgun Serenade: