Illustration by Ralph Damman.
We drove 60 hours to see the show.
It was the middle of winter, early 2013. Somehow, seven of us had managed to save enough money, book a few days off work and convinced ourselves it was a perfectly sensible idea to drive a borrowed, decrepit van from Calgary to Detroit and back again to see the legendary Christian metalcore band Underoath play one of their last gigs.
Along the way, we blew two tires, somehow fucked up the van's starter, were instructed by a random gas station attendant who generously gifted us his jumper cables at 3AM not to turn off our engine until we got home due to the starter problem, got sick from watery Wisconsin beer, threw the case of beer down a snowbank in frustration at the second tire blowing and had to keep the van running for three straight hours while we waited at the border because our friend was arrested by the RCMP for an outstanding transit ticket.
Obviously, the trip was entirely worth it.
Watching Underoath and two other favourite bands perform in the packed hall—featuring an elegant domed roof and massive stage flanked by two actual suits of armour—was a quasi-religious experience for me which served as effective closure to a very long obsession with the genre and culture.
Christian metalcore had been my life for years. I've since abandoned the religion for agnosticism, and the genre for trap and techno. But I still possess a sincere fondness for Christian metalcore—as do many of my old friends—and I wanted to put some thought into what we were actually doing for all those years and why it has such resonance.
Hitting up the local Christian record store—which has since been converted into a sizable strip club—was a highlight of the week, resulting in me building up a collection of literally hundreds of albums by the likes of August Burns Red, Norma Jean, As I Lay Dying, Demon Hunter, Oh Sleeper and Haste the Day (as well as less metal-oriented but equally as devout bands such as Project 86, Thrice, P.O.D. and Pillar).
I collected the posters, the documentaries, the shirts, the signed set lists. The band Becoming the Archetype once crashed at my friend's place while on tour but I didn't introduce myself to them as I was too intimidated—the result of spending far too many hours listening to their then-impressive tracks on MySpace.
For about a year, I was seriously planning to get an Underoath lyric tattooed on my forearm with each of the two-dozen words to be handwritten by a different friend in order to help me to stay "accountable" and resist the temptation of looking at internet pornography; whenever I felt the urge, I would blast that particular seven-minute song in my parents' basement, praying for reprieve from the Devil. It often worked.
It's really rather tough to overstate the role of Christian metalcore in the life of a socially and sexually anxious white Evangelical male teen growing up on the Prairies.
The genre is clearly linked with a fairly toxic form of white masculinity: for instance, the lead singer of a favourite band, Pillar, was a soldier in the US Reserves and often wrote songs with names like "Frontline" (the username of my Nexopia profile was an embarrassing reference to a different song by that band).
But there's also an undeniable bit of repressed sexualities and homoeroticisms at play.
Think the moshing, the climax of the breakdown, the camaraderie of the pit. Entering the washroom with a bloodied nose after getting hit with an errant elbow at an August Burns Red show was a bit of a rite of passage, cleaning up the mess alongside other sweaty bodies, often without shirts. Same with hopping into the circle pit at a Haste the Day performance at Edmonton's weak iteration of Warped Tour.
Somewhat ironically, that sense of ritual and community helped fulfil a fair few of the higher-order needs promised via the same religion that birthed such bands.
The history of Christian metal is deeply defined by that particular tension.
I recently chatted with two professors and experts on the genre: Marcus Marr of Finland's Abo Akademi University and Eileen Luhr of California State University, Long Beach. Both pointed out the same trend: Christian metal bands of the 1980s—Stryper, Whitecross and Stryken, the latter of which once tried to crash a 1987 Motley Crue show by arriving with a 14-foot cross—were explicitly religious, pairing their glam-heavy sets with altar calls and tracts.
Luhr says that many bands wrote songs about abstinence, abortion and gay rights. The idea was that Paul the Apostle and Jesus himself went to the "farthest reaches" in order to evangelize to heathens. So why not to metal fans?
It never really worked. As Marr put it: "It was too much for the Christians and simply too Christian for the metalheads." Secular metal fans could tell it was merely a proselytizing exercise. Over time, the overtness of the faith displayed by Christian bands largely diminished, following the path of other "crossover" artists like Amy Grant and King's X.
But that didn't mean it wasn't still a central component of the project; while altar calls and concert-ending "God bless" still happened at occasional shows, it was often much more about deciphering cryptic lyrics and music videos that served as subtle nods to the piety of each band.
After all, screamed and growled vocals allow singers to get away with saying some pretty ridiculous stuff, such as August Burns Red's "Truth be told, they'll get what they were promised / Crawling away, burning with regret, to the deepest, darkest depths of Hell." Knowing such lyrics allowed for multiple layers of kinship with fellow fans: not only was one a devoted enough follower of the band to be able to yell the memorized lyrics at shows, but was also a devout enough follower of the Christ in order to not have to crawl away burning with regret to the deepest darkest depths of hell.
Shannon Low—lead singer of the Missouri-based once-Christian metalcore band The Order of Elijah—said in an interview with VICE that religious metal bands often write music that's "centred towards the believer."
"You are trying to keep that demographic in mind at all times," he says. "You lose so much of your own artistic freedom because you're trying to pander to a certain demographic and you know that if you show any sign of being a human in there, then they're going to consider that not textbook Christian and you're not a 'real' Christian band."
In May 2016, Low posted a lengthy "testimony" on the band's Facebook that detailed his process of ditching his faith, a process which included divorce and alcoholism and reading Richard Dawkins (aka the Unholy Trinity).
The band's page is now loaded with endorsements of Bernie Sanders, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Charles Darwin memes. He says the band has had a clear "transition in fans" since that original post, and that they've "attracted a lot more of the secular community and pushed away a lot of the fundamentalists."
Evangelical fans such as my former self often demand strict adherence to the religion, even if it's just via cryptic lyrics and the occasional shout-out to Jesus in interviews. I likely would have shied away from bands like The Order of Elijah following the kind of reversal that Low posted about.
It wasn't even so much that a band had to be necessarily explicit about their faith. It was far more about ingroup mentality.
Knowing a band's faith meant that I could count on certain bands to chat with fellow believers about, or where to turn to when I needed music to listen to fight the constant temptation to look at porn, or simply to establish an incredibly nerdy expertise about.
Low says he's met many fans who can tell him about every underground Christian metal band out there "but not a single Slipknot song to save their life" (that was definitely me). He adds that such religious bands rarely allow themselves to openly channel anger or grief or any relatively normal emotion that people experience and which more aggressive music can ostensibly help serve as catharsis to.
That includes the complex process of leaving Christianity. In 2013, Tim Lambesis—lead singer of the extremely influential As I Lay Dying—was convicted of hiring a hitman to kill his estranged wife and admitted that he'd faked being a Christian for years to maximize their fanbase.
At the time, he stated that "I would say maybe one in 10 Christian bands we toured with were actually Christian bands."
That's of course not to suggest that suppressing one's religion results in one attempting to kill one's spouse. But there's perhaps something to be said about the way in which the genre traps musicians—and by implication, fans—into buying into a certain set of collective narratives.
The often challenging story and obligations associated with evangelical Christianity can become a lot more digestible when your hyper-masculine role models presumably believe it, even if they don't always loudly announce it anymore.
But the inverse is also very much true, and freeing.
Underoath's lead singer was rumoured to have been dealing with addiction issues with years; Low notes that most Christians in metalcore bands that he knows of drink and smoke.
Although not at all in the metal genre, indie Christian heavyweights like Derek Webb of Caedmon's Call and David Bazan of Pedro the Lion publicly wrestled with their faith, with the latter getting ejected from a Christian music festival he was playing in 2005 for being sloshed and carting a milk jug of vodka around (this now sounds positively excellent.)
Seeing such heroes "fall" was tragic for me at the time. Eventually, such evolutions became a symbol for me of personal weaknesses and public questioning as qualities to be embraced rather than quarantined.
In the process, I started listening to non-Christian metal bands that I'd never considered before due to their lack of religious qualities: Between the Buried and Me, Parkway Drive, Lamb of God. Hearing the rage in Dillinger Escape Plan's Greg Puciato screaming "save us from the nonexistent / teaching that suffering is love / suffering is not love" meant a great fucking deal to a kid who literally starved himself for consecutive days in a show of fasting for the Lord.
It's why the trip to Detroit meant so much to me at the time: it was a means of acknowledging the conclusion of a personal era for both myself and the band.
Underoath commissioned an artist to design a unique T-shirt for each of their final tour stops. The one they released for the Detroit show featured a hazy mountain range, black and greys on a fading yellow. It was meaningless for the local context, seeming a lake or car might have been more appropriate.
But it well represented my circumstances at the time: driving back towards the Rockies, uncertain of my own faith or future, ears ringing from three hours of music, still a bit sick from that watery Wisconsin beer.
That shirt's still in my closet. Sometimes, I still think about getting that tattoo as a memento to the pilgrimage.
Follow James on Twitter.