Demon Hunter Live in Seattle
My neck hurts when I turn my head. My arms are sporting an interesting array of blossoming bruises. At least this time I didn't end up with a bootprint in my forehead. Was I bull riding? Got in bar fight? Fell off a bike? No. I just spent an hour in the mosh pit at a Demon Hunter concert at El Corazon. For those of you who don't know, Demon Hunter is a local Heavy Metal band that has built up an enormous national and international following over its 8-year life. This band is of particular interest to me for two reasons. First, I love their music. I've been a metal head since I was 13. But more important to this article is their spiritual message.
Demon Hunter was started by the brothers Clark, a duo that had been doing the band thing since their early youth. Their dad was a Christian pastor, and they carried on the faith through the lyrics of their songs. Unlike some "Christian bands" (I'll come back to this term in a sec) most of the Clark's lyrics were not overt Come-To-Jesus! messages, but dealt with a range of subjects, even dipping into absurd humor. (Specifically in their Noise-core band Training For Utopia.) Demon Hunter is their most focused project to date, and the culmination of their musical, lyrical and visual skills. The Clark brothers are also award winning graphic designers, and it shows well in packaging and promotion of Demon Hunter. That's what grabbed me initially back in 2003. I was browsing through a Christian bookstore CD section flipping past the outdated logos and pathetic wanna-be-cool bands posing like the really-cool bands do. A nostalgic urge prompted me to examine an old D.C. Talk album when a startling CD that had been hiding behind it caught my eye. It wasn't startling because I'd never seen anything like it. It was simply so out of place in the hallowed, perfume-laden emporium filled with Precious Moments knick knacks and Purpose Driven everythings. Yet there it was, glowering out at me, against a blood red background: a stark black bifurcated demon head with a bullet hole through it.
For the uninitiated, let me try to explain this juxtaposition of imagery like a demon head in the antiseptic environment of a Christian book store. It highlights a tension that has been developing in American Evangelical Christianity since at least the sixties. The competing forces here are a cultural conservatism versus a broader culture-conforming impulse that comes from a desire to reach out to the secular world with the gospel. (mixed with a desire to not be lame.) I grew up in a denomination called the Assemblies of God that has its roots in the early 20th century Pentecostal revival, sometimes referred to as the Third Great Awakening. One of the defining characteristics of this movement was a shunning of "worldly" things like dancing, smoking, drinking, and going to the movies. Ironically, the churches spawned during this time ended up in the 60's being on the forefront of exploiting popular cultural artforms such as rock music and film as mediums for preaching the gospel. My parents were on the cutting edge of this movement, being Jesus People: a sort of Hippie-substitute group for Christians. The Jesus People was the first example I know of where a thoroughly countercultural group was infiltrated by Christians, its themes co-opted and reconstructed as a vehicle for Christian ideas. And each generation of American Christians have been doing it ever since.
Fast forward to the 1990 when I first started cutting my teeth on hard music. Being a good conservative Christian youth group kid I ONLY listened to metal you could buy in a Christian book store. Since I've never had particularly good taste when it comes to music this arrangement suited me fine. I could rock out to the latest popular sounds as interpreted by a knock-off "Christian" group. There was a band called Whitecross that sounded exactly like Ratt, Believer and Deliverance that sounded kind of like Slayer, Mortification that sounded pretty close to Morbid Angel. Now I had no idea at the time that any of those secular bands even existed, just the general idea that all the secular metal out there was satanic and listening to them would probably make you do drugs or commit suicide.
This explains the uneasy truce between conservative evangelism and long-haired rock missionaries that I adored. They kept kids like me in the fold, even if the shepherds weren't particularly enthusiastic by the bait that kept us there. The dueling ideals of closing off the evil outside world and a desire to go out into it have been a major theme within Christendom since the beginning. The Christian metal project is just the latest in the perennial quest to change the culture by adapting, reinterpreting, and reconstructing the forms, fashions, and artifacts of the day. It's the reason Europeans still celebrate December 25 even though the date has nothing to do with the birth of Christ. Back in the day the newly Christianized Roman government simply took a popular holiday and slapped a gospel sticker on it. This process involves an interesting balance between keeping what makes the thing popular, and infusing or converting the message to be Jesus-friendly.
In the nineties the Christian metal scene was almost completely inhabited by artists who had to justify the style of their music which was unquestionably aggressive, angry and dark, to a Christian subculture that was ready to crucify them with one hand, while urging them on with the other. Every organization has its factions, and in this case an uneasy truce was bought with this argument: "The medium doesn't matter. All that matters is the message." This idea worked for the majority of skittish parents of metalheads who figured the whole genre was a fad anyway. I started a metal band in the early nineties called Dead Pharisees with that exact mantra. The point of the band was two-fold. In no particular order: Firstly, to rock. Secondly, to preach. The artform of metal, if it can be called that, has three components: the sound, the look, and the lyrics. We Christian metal bands did everything we could to look and sound gritty, dark and angry. But the lyrics were always some form of Christian message or propaganda. We were like sheep in wolves clothing.
Naturally, Christian metal musicians were drawn towards the darker themes of Christianity. Hell, struggles with sin, the wrath of God, Christ's crucifixion, the end of the world and such were all common subject matter. And I still believe that metal is a perfect musical medium for exploring these issues.
The entire "Christian" rock industry is predicated on the idea that there is this obvious line which divides the secular from the sacred. A black and white ordering in which an artifact or artist is either good or evil.
The nineties was a defining time in the debate over where that imaginary line was in CCM. (Contemporary Christian Music) Was it a musical artist's statement of faith? Was it the number of times the word Jesus is mentioned in the lyrics? What about artists who became popular in the secular market? Did that sully them, and lure them into worldly ways? What about artists who had biblical themes but cussed?
Now that I don't see the world in black and white I find the whole debate ridiculous, and I'm happy to report that the scene seems to have evolved past those days as well. Now we have explicitly "Christian" bands like As I Lay Dying and P.O.D. with major mainstream success, and a slew of bands in a kinda-sorta Christian category like Chevelle, Evanescence, Underoath and Zao all of which have their roots in the Christian metal scene but have sense abandoned any sort of missionary thrust and just make great music and sing about human themes rather than narrowly Christian ones. Demon Hunter is somewhere in the middle of this continuum. Ryan sticks to spiritual themes for the most part but does so poetically and tastefully. One thing Demon Hunter has done is really break down the wall between the secular and sacred. The Clark's design studios Asterik and Invisible Creature has produced artwork for a lot bands with explicitly anti-Christian lyrics and attitudes. And they tour with bands that have no religious affiliation. But the Christian kids love 'em! Then again, so do a lot of non-Christians. But they don't do anything to hide or downplay their Christian ethos, they are simply out there in the world, doing what they do. And I think that's great.
I took my 13-year-old son to their show last night. It was his first real rock show and he was appropriately awed. We made quite the couple as sort of barely age-appropriate bookends. (My son looks young for his age and I'm 34) One thing I've noticed about Demon Hunter shows is the energy of the crowds are always higher than any other. It seems like every person is singing (or growling or screaming) along. It's like an out-of-control evangelist revival worship session, complete with arms flailing and bodies hitting the floor. The heat, the stench of the mass of sweating bodies jumping up and down, and the energy of the whirling moshers slamming into everyone makes for a dizzying experience. I've always loved the kinetic, visceral and very physical fun of the mosh pit: getting anointed in sweat and snot and blood. And occasionally puke. Everyone gets hurt but no one cares. There is a uniting zeitgeist and brotherhood. When someone falls there are always a dozen hands pulling them up immediately. The unity in passion creates a sort of buzz that is very much akin to spiritual experiences. And it's nice when the subject matter is spiritually relevant.
I think the driving theme that Demon Hunter explores is the continual process of rooting out the evil that lurks in all of us. Call it sin, weakness, or symbolize it with a demon, we all struggle with our dual impulses. This wrestling can be animalistic at times and putting a face on it can help us know where to aim. I hope Demon Hunter keeps going strong, motivating people to fight the good fight. And I hope we continue to see the breakdown of that ridiculous wall between the holy and the profane that keeps our minds seeing black and white in a very colorful world.