What I Owe to Metal
By Baz Gar.Funk’el:
My first article for Flapper Press, "Corporate Slave by Day, Hard Rocking ************ by Night," acted as an introduction of sorts. My second article, "The Land of K-pop / A Metal Wasteland," was me lashing out at the sad state of (musical) affairs here in Korea, which I balanced out with my third article, "The Roots of K-pop—When it was actually pretty darn good," where I introduced Seo Taiji, who represents a positive, diverse, and creative aspect of Korean music. Yet, throughout my writings so far, the overriding premise has been my love for Metal. And I’m quite certain that my affinity for Metal would still be there even if my main musical pursuits as an artist and performer did not involve the genre.
Those who are into Metal would get that. Those of you who aren't into, or even hate, this particular style of music—believe me, I used to be in the latter category myself. I used to be a kid who would switch the channel in disgust whenever Pantera's “Mouth for War” or “This Love” would flow out of the radio. Now with my main band CRUX, I am annually participating in the tribute show for Dimebag Darrell, the late, great guitarist of Pantera. This is despite CRUX being more of a Power/Progressive Metal band—meaning, we don't actually fall into the aggressive and extreme Groove Metal category that Pantera pioneered. Such has become my appreciation towards not only Pantera as a band but Metal in general.
So what happened to me?
I'm sure every Metal-convert has his or her own story about what turned them to the “dark side.” I ended up joining the fray at a relatively late age. I wasn't so rebellious in my youth, nor was I a huge fan of the anti-establishment/anti-Christian portrayal of some bands. If evil-looking mascots like “Eddie” for Iron Maiden or “Vic Rattlehead” for Megadeth were meant to woo fans or potential metalheads, they sure didn’t work for me. Neither were we exposed to Rock/Metal concerts here, which are usually where many a conversion takes place. As far as I could tell, I seemed to like the sound of electric guitars, but the relentless beat blasts and scorching vocals were too much for these tender ears to handle.
My mind had been catered to the likes of Simon & Garfunkel, Whitney and Mariah, or Boys II Men. When I went aggressive, it was along the lines of MC Hammer, C+C Music Factory, and 2 unlimited. Even when Rock finally entered my life, most of it came in the relatively accessible realm of Extreme, Guns N' Roses, Def Leppard, etc. (even Skid Row was still a bit too heavy for me). All of this took place for me around the time Nirvana had came out with Nevermind. So no wonder the likes of Pantera would bring a frown to my face. But in the end, it was Pantera that ended up changing my perspective of myself forever.
In 1994, I was in the third year of high school, which is the epitome of hell for any student here in Korea. I remember one of my teachers mentioning that Korea had received a (dis)honorable mention on the TV show Ripley's Believe it or Not, in which they stated something along the lines of, "In this Northeast Asian country, students need to study dozens of subjects and stay in school for up to 16 hours a day, getting only a couple of hours of sleep per night, just to get into a better university; and that applies to everyone—Believe it or Not." Yes, that was our life, and I was no exception. Which school you got into would determine the level of career you got to pursue, your social status . . . the whole "rest of your life." To a lesser degree, the same rules still apply today. Needless to say, the pressure on that final entrance examination is immense.
With the test only a few weeks away, I tuned in to a year-end countdown on some radio show. They were counting down the top guitarists as voted by the listeners. Number three was someone (at that time) called Diamond Darrell, and the DJ introduced him as the guitarist for Pantera. I was thinking to myself, Oh, those guys who produce some form of noise I cannot for the life of me call music. I guess I'm going to have to change the channel again. Then, this beautiful, clean guitar arpeggio starts flowing out of the speakers. Instead of the typical guttural growls, vocalist Philip Anselmo was singing! Softly! With heartfelt emotion.
"How? What? Who?" I gasped. The DJ must have mucked up and played someone else’s music! But once the powerful chorus kicked in, it was undoubtedly the band that I (from then on) "used to" hate. And after that final high-pitched scream at the end of “Cemetery Gates,” I was hooked. The next day, I ran out to the record store, and after much contemplation, grabbed myself a copy of the Vulgar Display of Cowboys cassette (this was the Korean version that mashed up Cowboys from Hell and Vulgar Display of Power into one compilation due to censorship. I mentioned this album, along with Korea's dark past of censorship, in my first article). When the opening guitar riff to the first track "Cowboys from Hell" spilled out of my little tape deck, I felt all the pressures from preparing for the entrance exams temporarily dissipate. Within a day, Pantera would make a second metamorphosis from the band I used to hate to a band I will forever love.
From a musical perspective, I still can’t say they are among my favorite bands, but their influence on my life is undeniable. The influence lay not in how I ended up loving their music, but in experiencing that very transition within myself. Never again would I “define” myself as liking or disliking . . . whatever it may be. Who would have thought the kid who used to turn the radio off would end up listening to Extreme Metal, let alone incorporate it into my own arsenal of vocal onslaughts?
This experience affected a variety of other areas in my life. A significant example would be how I’ve come to enjoy every kind of cuisine that comes my way. As a child, I used to not like my food at all. Dairy products were at the top of my hate-list. Macaroni and cheese? Forget about it. Korean traditional food? Too spicy. And anything else was too this or too that. How that has changed! Trying new foods has become one of the biggest enjoyments of my life. More often than not, my travel route in foreign countries are set by which restaurants I want to visit. Eccentric food takes up a huge chunk of enjoyment in my life. It is a fulfillment that I cannot imagine living without, and I thank to Metal for getting me to this point.
If this example reflects an introspective transition Metal brought about within me, I must also acknowledge how Metal helped rid me of preconceptions towards others. Once again, back in my third year of high school, having gone through the “Pantera experience,” I was now a lot more open to aggressive music. Z-rock Top 50 was now a regular station I tuned in to. One fateful day, I dozed off while studying with Z-rock blasting through my earphones. I awoke to some insane pummeling wall of sound. The effect was so shocking that I fell into sleep paralysis; I could not move or remove my earphones. (Sleep paralysis in ancient Korea used to be attributed to ghosts, whereas in Western culture it is sometimes said that sleep paralysis may account for people who had been abducted by aliens). The DJ, in his energetic yet deep voice, introduced the track as “Hammer Smashed Face” by Death Metal giants Cannibal Corpse. Instead of realizing that I still had a long way to go fine tuning my Metal gauge, I jumped to the conclusion that these guys must be nuts! No one in their right minds could possibly want to go through the trouble of producing such atrocious noise.
A few months went by, and I was now in university. I got to know a senior who was in the school band as well as his own. While he had long hair and looked scary as hell, he was funny and had the sweetest of hearts. I had the fortune to attend one of his shows, and his band went on to play that very same Death Metal track that had shocked me into paralysis. And no nut was he; I already knew this, so for the first time, I was able to absorb the music without any preconceptions. This open-mindedness expanded into letting me separate the artist from the art, and more importantly, to rid myself of any preconceptions towards any individual or group I now come across. Regardless of whether this new attitude benefited me in some form or another, I can confidently say this is one of the areas where Metal molded me into a better person.
I hadn’t had the chance to see that senior, a certain Mr. Kwak Inho, since graduating from university in 1999. I knew he continues to play bass and growl in the Death Metal band Memnock, which released their first album, Command Hallucination (nominated for Best Heavy Metal Album of the Year at the 16th Korean Music Awards) recently. Just this past weekend, my band CRUX shared the stage with Memnock at the “Full Metal Korea 2018” event, and I was finally able to tell Inho of his positive influence on me, one that has lasted throughout my lifetime.
Finally, as is probably a common trait among its fans, Metal gave me confidence in myself. I’d spent a few years of my childhood in the United States. I was around six by the time I returned to Korea. The first five years of elementary school were fun. My classmates embraced my eccentricity as something interesting and respected me for it. Things changed when I moved to the more affluent part of Seoul. These kids interpreted the difference in my cultural background as weirdness, and I was crucified for it. I was an extrovert by nature, but I found myself becoming much more reserved as the years went by. It was Metal that told me, “It’s ok to be ‘underground.’ It’s ok not to fit in. It’s the spirit and integrity that matters.” This cultural discrepancy continues through my adult life as I pursue my career in one of the most “Korean” entities that exists, and I continue to suffer, as I laid out in my first article. I may come across as living my life zombified 24/7 in the eyes of some, but Metal pulls me through. Writing music pulls me through. The stage pulls me through. It’s almost therapeutic.
Just as I was putting the final touches on this article, I came across a meme on Facebook. The question was, “Why are there so many skulls in Metal?” Of course the first and foremost reason would be to invoke the image of fear and death that tend to go with such sonic aggression. This interpretation is directly connected to the “confidence” aspect of Metal I just mentioned. However, the meme itself went on to perfectly embody the rest of what I owe to Metal, as it states: “Because it’s not possible to tell if a skull is: man or woman, hetero or homosexual, black or white, fat or thin, rich or poor, good or evil, religious or atheist. The skull reminds us that we’re all the same.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.