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The Sad, Strange Tale of Judas Priest

RENO, NEVADA — By the rolling green banks of the Truckee River, under a nearly full moon, a tall, vaguely Hispanic-looking man with beautiful shoulder-length black hair, a foot-long beard, and a perfectly re­laxed body comes over to tell me that Satan is walking proud these days. He slips his small U.S. Army pack off one shoulder, introduces himself as Jacob, then says he just missed the midnight bus out of Reno.

“Satan’s walking proud through the cities,” he amends himself, taking a deep whiff of grass and river. “That’s why I’ll only work migrant, out in the country. I know the joy of the mountain cat’s full belly,” he says with a devout smile. “And I know the pain of the deer that’s in there.”

It’s my third night in Reno, and before turning in I’ve come down to the river that cuts right through downtown for some fresh air. I was hoping to spare myself the 24-hour passion plays of the casinos, but there’s no escaping it here: Heaven and Hell are married on every 01her street cor­ner in Reno. A block down, across from the Washoe County District Courthouse where I’ve been spending my days watching the Judas Priest “subliminals” trial, a store­front window advertises summer cut rates for “QUICKEST MARRIAGES IN RENO”; a block up, the Truckee glistens weirdly as it cross­es under the Virginia Street Bridge — from all the wedding rings thrown in after quick­ie divorces.

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And Jacob, though his voice is warm and clear as a bell, has blue-green eyes that flash from one extreme conviction to another with a scary rapidity. I’ve gotten used to people like him by now, picking me out, of a neon-lit crowd of thousands on Sierra Street to announce the Apocalypse to, or spilling out of the casinos at 2 a.m. on a 90-degree Saturday night and offering to mow my lawn for $3

“I’m just here,” I tell him, “to cover the Judas Priest trial,” then instantly regret having dropped that particular name.

“Three times,” Jacob says stonily, “thou shalt betray me before the cock crows.”

While I consider the wisdom of pointing out that his Biblical quote concerns Peter, not Judas, Jacob continues:

“Oh, I’ll go to the cities,” he admits. “Salt Lake, Sacramento, Vegas. But I tiptoe through town. Satan’s walking around.”

“No. that’s Mammon,” he says matter-of-factly, as though I’d misidentified a crow as a raven. “Robbing, cheating, beating people up in the middle of the night’s no good,” I hear him say from 10 paces behind me. It’ll come back to you, sooner than you think. Good and evil. Heaven and hell. Life and death. The mountain cat’s joy”— he’s beginning to shout now — “and the deer’s pain. Gain and loss! People who want something for nothing will lose their souls to Satan!”

Reno, depending on how your cards are flopping, might or might not be a town for Satan, but it is a town for losers. You see your first half-dozen before clearing the plane’s disembark ramp, grim old ladies in bright holiday dresses feeding the 25-cent slot machines at three-quarters a pull Downtown, the slots become progressive, with red six-figure jackpot numbers “progressing” digitally and fast into the hundreds of thousands of dollars everywhere you look; before you lose all sense of the value of the money in your pocket, its obvious these beautiful numbers aren’t spelling anything but the losses, one coin at a time, of hundreds of thousands of people.

This is a fleeting awareness though, if you harbor the slightest conviction that life owes you something. Within hours of land­ing in this former whistle-stop on the Union Pacific Railroad, this three-square-­mile block of concrete and neon plopped in the middle of the Sierra Nevada mountain­-desert range, you feel indignant, hopeful, and a little out of control every time you put a quarter in a pay phone.

By various estimates, 50 to 70 per cent of the people actually living in Reno and Sparks, the adjacent bedroom community, have moved here within the last 10 years. The migration pattern — families that failed elsewhere and have come to Nevada for a last chance — becomes clear quickly enough. To sit quietly for more than five minutes in a public place in Reno — be it a diner counter, casino lobby, or poolside at a $25-a-night motel — is to invite the person to your right or left to tell you his troubles. And, however dubious these confessions seem at first, the statistics are there to back them up: Nevadans — the last of the free thinkers — have among the five highest rates per capita of marriages, heart disease, cancer, AIDS, alcoholism, prostitution, cocaine use by adults, divorce, population growth, churches, legal handguns and rifles, incarceration, child abuse, teenage pregnan­cies, and successful suicides by white males ages 15 to 24.

Two “progressions” of that last statis­tic — Raymond Belknap, 18, by a sawed-off shotgun blast to the chin in a Sparks churchyard on December 23, 1985, and his best friend, Jay Vance, 20, who managed only to blow the bottom half of his face away (he spent three years enduring $400,000 of painful reconstructive surgery to his face before dying of a methadone overdose in 1988) — have led to the strang­est media circus (and what one Vegas book-maker called the “biggest crapshoot”) in Reno history: A multimillion-dollar prod­uct liability suit brought by three Reno law­yers against CBS Records and the band one recent critic called the “doyens of British heavy metal,” Judas Priest.

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Seven subliminal (audible only subcon­sciously) commands saying “Do it” were allegedly embedded on one song of Priest’s 1978 release, Stained Class — the album that was on Ray Belknap’s turntable the afternoon he and Jay formed their suicide pact. Coupled with four alleged “back-­masked lyrics” (audible only when playing the record in reverse) on three other songs— the exhortations “Try suicide,” “Suicide is in,” “Sing my evil spirit,” “Fuck the Lord, fuck [or suck] all of you” — the Do its, say the lawyers, created a compulsion that led to the “wrongful death” of Ray Belknap and to the “personal injury” of Jay Vance. The Vance family is asking for $5 million. The Belknaps for $1.2 million. “If you’re going to hurt someone,” jokes one of plaintiffs’ lawyers, “you’re bet­ter off killing them. It’s a lot cheaper.”

The suit was brought in 1986 after Jay, in a letter to Ray’s mother, Aunetta Roberson, wrote: “I believe that alcohol and heavy metal music such as Judas Priest led us to be mesmerized …” The lawyers initially cited the alleged suicidal content of the Stained Class songs “Heroes End” (“But you you have to die to be a hero./It’s a shame in life./You make it better dead.”) and “Beyond the Realms of Death” (“Keep your world of all its sin./It’s not fit for living in”). The suit seemed dead in the water, however, after the California Dis­trict Court of Appeal ruled that the lyrics of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Suicide Solution” — cited in a similar suicide/product liability suit — were protected by the First Amendment.

The Reno suit made its bizarre beeline into the unconscious a year and a half later, when six Sparks metalheads, hired by plain­tiffs’ lawyers to decipher the lyrics of the entire album, reported concurrent, identical nightmares of going on killing sprees with semiautomatic weapons in their neighbor­hood shopping malls. On the advice of Dr. Wilson Bryan Key, the grandmaster of the subliminal exposé (his books, Subliminal Seduction, Media Sexploitation, The Clam­-Plate Orgy, etc., have sold over 4 million copies), plaintiffs’ lawyers hired a self-taught audio engineer named Bill Nickloff (then marketing personalized subliminal self-help tapes through his firm, Secret Sounds. Inc.) to examine a CD of Stained Class. Using his original “backwards engineering” process — by which the audio signal of a piece of recorded music is decon­structed into its component 24 tracks on his Mac II home computer — Nickloff “dis­covered the smoking gun”: seven subliminal Do its in the first and second choruses of the song “Better By You, Better Than Me.”

Key, a 65-year-old Henry Miller look­alike with a MENSA belt buckle and a young wife he is able to put to sleep with a simple posthypnotic suggestion, lives out­side of Reno, off a highway running through surreal, sage-scented moonscape that yields some very exotic roadkill. As he is quick to point out, the issue of sublimin­als and the adverse effect of music is not entirely without precedent. The Billie Holi­day ballad “Gloomy Sunday” was banned from the radio in the early ’40s when several war widows killed themselves after lis­tening. And the foreman of a jury in Penn­sylvania cited subliminals as a mitigating factor in the 1989 guilty verdict for Steven Mignogna, a 19-year-old metalhead who murdered two 10-year-old kids after 12 hours of listening to AC/DC, Ozzy Os­bourne, Mötley Crüe, and Judas Priest. Mignogna, who was defended by the Bish­op of Sardinia (then in Pittsburgh for medi­cal reasons), was given two consecutive life sentences rather than the death penalty the prosecution had asked for.

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The Do its — uttered, said Nickloff, by a different voice than lead singer Rob Hal­ford’s — were allegedly punched into (or lay­ered beneath) the swirling chords of a Les­ley Guitar (a guitar played through a synthesized organ), a tom-tom beat and backward cymbal crash, and the prolonged exhalations of Halford’s falsetto rendition of the lyric, “Better by you, better than meee-uh! [Do it!]/You can tell ’em what I want it to beee-uhh [Do it!]/You can say what I can only seee-uhh [Do it!].” Nickloff also speculated that enhancements of the Do its had been spread across 11 of the 24 tracks by a second machine, perhaps a COMB filter. This he couldn’t prove, how­ever, simply by testing the CD.

Thus began a three-year hunt for the 24-track masters, not only of “Better By You” but of every other Judas Priest song, album, rehearsal, and live tape in CBS’s posses­sion. The song left a long paper trail, and discovery of the 24-track proved far easier than other Judas Priest masters (CBS said they still hadn’t located any others by the time trial began): The album’s only number not written by band members, it was added when CBS’s New York a&r men decided none of the album’s original eight songs had hit potential.

CBS located the tape in September of 1988: they delivered a safety copy to Nick­loff three months later — an “18-minute-like gap” that became plaintiffs’ second “smok­ing gun”: CBS, they alleged, had used the three months of studio time to cover up the embedded Do its. Nickloff asked for the original master, then refused to examine it when it arrived. The original tape’s zinc oxide, he said, had begun to flake (suspi­ciously so, he thought), and he wouldn’t accept responsibility for it.

A series of motions and court orders re­garding CBS’s cooperation in the search for other masters followed, leading to two years of immensely mistrustful exchanges be­tween plaintiffs and defense lawyers. It de­generated quickly into one of the most con­tentious suits since Bleak House‘s Jarndyce v. Jarndyce: public accusations of complic­ity and conspiracy; shouting matches at prehearing depositions (Nickloff’s in partic­ular): detectives (including a former Scot­land Yard man) digging into the silt of CBS corporate policy and procedure, and the Oedipal dramas of the plaintiffs’ families.

It culminated in a 14-day trial, starting July 16, that featured exquisite dramatiza­tions of humility, rage, and bathos; incredu­lity and condescension; Rob Halford’s a cappella singing from the witness stand; the repeated playing of his ee-uh! heavy breath­ings that made the court stenographer cover her face in embarrassment; the defense’s strident attacks on the existence of a Freud­ian unconscious; and a Manichaean court­room divided between the local born-agains and metalhead autograph hounds.

Courtroom melodrama isn’t something that bothers a man like Ken McKenna. A lik­able, unabashed media animal (“My phone hasn’t stopped ringing since 1986,” he boasts), he’s the man responsible for the suit’s enormous publicity. The inevitable epithets — “tort twister,” “slip-and-slide man,” and “ambulance chaser” — only bring a bemused, faintly proud smile to McKenna’s lips, and he’s not one to linger on the moral or emotional aspects of a case. Not until closing statement time, that is. Then you realize McKenna’s a pretty corny guy — fond of homespun similes and homi­lies (“I guess the lesson to be learned from all this,” etc.), and the words “gosh” and “heck.” When the subject of his work comes up, his pudgy, angelic face (at 38, he still looks like his high school yearbook photo) takes on a devilish grin.

“I was born to sue,” he says in his well­-appointed two-story office in downtown Reno. “I didn’t know who or why or where or what I was till I discovered contingency law.”

At 8 a.m., sprightly during the first of several interviews he’ll be giving this Satur­day morning, he looks like he’s just stepped onto a budget cruise liner: blue shorts, salmon Polo shirt, a big well-scrubbed smile on his face, and a solid gold Mickey Mouse watch on his wrist. Stacked next to his Catalogue of Expert Witnesses (“The expert business is big-time bizarre,” he tells me) are heaps of anti-heavy-metal pam­phlets. I leaf through one with an R. Crumb-like cartoon on the cover, Stairway to Hell: The Well-Planned Destruction of Teens, while McKenna faxes a client. A beautiful epigram from Boethius — “Music is a part of us, and either ennobles or de­grades our behavior” — prefaces a chapter on backmasked lyrics that focuses on the alleged backward content of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” (“It’s just a spring­-clean for the May Queen” = “I live for Sa­tan … He will give you six, six, six,” etc.). Italicized in the first paragraph of text is the premise that drives the ultra-right’s fas­cination with backmasking: “Induction into the Worldwide Church of Satan is predicat­ed in the ability to say the Lord’s Prayer backwards!

McKenna (who represents the Belknaps), Tim Post (the born-again Christian repre­senting the Vances), and Vivian Lynch (who represents the estate of Jay Vance) deny identification with the anti-metal fa­natics, but that Southern California-based fringe (which Frank Zappa calls the “Or­ange Curtain”) is very supportive of the suit. Two of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, Dr. Robert Demski, medical director of a San Antonio hospice for troubled adolescents, and Darlyne Pettinicchio, a Fullerton, Cali­fornia, probation officer, were recommend­ed by Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Re­source Center. Their testimony — Judas Priest’s music induces self-destructive be­havior by glorifying Satan — wasn’t allowed on record (Stained Class‘s lyric content was not at issue). Without Pettinicchio, howev­er, the metal link to the suicide probably wouldn’t have been made. It was through attendance at one of her seminars, or the reading of an anti-metal “police training manual” prepared by a disciple, that one of the detectives handling the shootings knew to advise Ray’s mother to hang on to the Stained Class LP on Ray’s turntable.

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“You can borrow that stuff if you wanna,” McKenna says, putting a heavy, distancing accent on the word stuff. Walk­ing me out to his porch after the interview, though, he can’t resist telling me that Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant did once purchase Aleister Crowley’s mansion. (McKenna isn’t far off: Jimmy Page, Zeppelin’s guitar­ist and a devotee of the Grand Old Man of English Satanism, did buy Crowley’s Boles­kine House, near Loch Ness, in the early 1970s.)

I stop to look at a gruesome photograph of a twin-engine plane’s wreckage in a copse of pine trees, given pride of place in his front office. That devilish smile comes to McKenna’s face as he tells me, “That’s two million dollars you’re looking at.”

Vivian Lynch, unlike McKenna, is a “lawyer’s lawyer.” A middle-aged woman who speaks in perfectly constructed, declarative sentences, she has a sober, battered look on her face, and pretty, penetrating blue eyes that become a rapid flutter of mascara and sky-blue eyeshadow whenever she concentrates on a point of law. Holder of the highest bar exam scores ever in Michigan and Nevada, she’s known among the defense team as the dragon lady, and several of their expert witnesses tell me how unnerving it is to be cross-examined by her. On both state and national amicus curiae committees, much of her legal work for the last two decades has been the drafting of other attorneys’ motions for the Supreme Court in Carson City. Entering the suit at the beginning of defense’s constitutional challenges in 1987, she has defeated every motion to dismiss, quash, and relocate that Reno and New York counsel for CBS have come up with.

Unlike McKenna, Lynch has no taste for publicity; she once left the suit for months, she tells me, when she felt that his media hi-jinks (particularly an interview given to the Enquirer) had crossed over into the jury-prejudicial. She also seems entirely un­motivated by Mammon: A supporter of Tipper Gore, she’s “in this suit for my children,” two of whom were “extreme me­talheads.” Lynch’s only appearance in the local headlines came in the first week of trial, when she asked bassist Ian Hill and guitarist Ken Downing for autographs for her middle son. (“My son wasn’t talking to me,” she tells me.)

When she pulls up to her office for our interview, one side of her pickup’s flatbed is stacked with Diet Coke empties, and the passenger seat of the cab has a three-foot stack of legal paper. When a local Holy Roller, overhearing us discuss the suit in a restaurant a few hours later, comes over with his two young daughters to testify that the “owner of a major U.S. record company belongs to the Worldwide Church of Sa­tan,” and that “my best friend’s brother jumped off the high bridge in Santa Barba­ra because of that company’s music,” Lynch hears him out patiently, then gives her address so he can send along his compi­lation tape of backward lyrics.

“I think that man’s insane,” I say when he shepherds his daughters from the restaurant.

“I don’t,” says Lynch, draining her third iced tea. “I think he’s tripping. Didn’t you sec how dilated his pupils were?”

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Even if McKenna and Lynch can prove the existence of subliminals on “Better By You” to Judge Jerry Carr Whitehead (both sides have agreed to forgo a jury in the trial), they still have to show the sublimin­als were the “proximate cause” of the sui­cide pact. Defense has argued that Ray and Jay decided to kill themselves because they were miserable. CBS’s three-year investiga­tion into the allegedly violent home lives of the boys focused on the marital history of Ray Belknap’s mother, Aunetta Roberson (three husbands by the time Ray killed himself), the religious conflict in Jay Vance’s life (his mother is a born-again Christian), the alcoholic and allegedly abu­sive tendencies of both boys’ stepfathers, and the bleak work prospects and fantasy­-ridden lives of the pair once they’d dropped out of high school in the first weeks of their junior years. The circumstantial evidence is enormous.

By McKenna’s and Lynch’s own lights, however, the families of Ray and Jay were enviable. McKenna’s first case was his brother Pat’s Murder 1 appeal, for the ex­tremely brutal slaying of a fellow prisoner while awaiting sentence on a separate mul­tiple-murder conviction. And though he seems an extremely peaceable man (and is remarkably polite and gentle with hostile witnesses), he is able to provide the most dramatic moment of the trial: At the end of his closing statement (which he prefaces by placing a two-foot by three-foot blowup of Ray Belknap’s 10th-grade yearbook photo on a table facing the court), McKenna’s soliloquy of a father’s rationalizing thoughts after striking his son (“I didn’t mean to hit him that hard”; “he was pro­voking me”; “I barely touched him,” etc.) has the entire court’s heads bowed (includ­ing Judge Whitehead’s) for over a minute.

“Following the defense’s logic,” says Lynch. “I should have killed myself 10 times over.” The eldest of three abused children, she and two younger sisters were taken from her parents when she was two years old and institutionalized in a Long Island orphanage till their teens. After be­ing sexually abused by a relative, a 14-year-­old Lynch and her two sisters moved into a Detroit studio with a single Murphy bed, and she went to work to support them. She went through Wayne State Law School on scholarship, saving money by memorizing textbooks and selling them back before classes started. Her own marriage, an ex­tremely unhappy one, yielded three chil­dren; she divorced her husband in 1972, four years after she’d come home from a day of practicing international law in New York. turned on the evening news, and saw her house being fired upon by tanks with 9mm anti-personnel weapons during the Detroit riots. (Weeks later, back in Detroit, she was bayoneted in the back while four months pregnant.) Four of the seven chil­dren she’s raised came from troubled households in Reno.

“The histories of the Vance and Belknap families,” Lynch tells me without batting an eyelash, “are certainly no different in kind or degree than what you’ll find across America. I can tell you for sure they grew up like most of the kids you’ll find around here.”

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The billboards along South Virginia Street arc as likely to read “HAVE YOU BEEN ABUSED?” or “DIVORCE?” — followed by a seven-digit number — as to announce Dolly Parton at the Sands, or next Saturday’s fight card at Harrah’s. Otherwise, South Virginia is a typical five-mile burger strip leading out of town: small businesses, chain restaurants, mini-golf courses, teenage boys screeching their tires on Saturday night till they find a girl or a fight; and the occasion­al mammoth concrete structure, like the Reno-Sparks Convention Center, where Ray and Jay saw Judas Priest on its 1983 Screaming for Vengeance tour. It was a big tour for the band (the album was their first to hit platinum), and it meant a lot to the boys: Ray stole the six-foot tour poster­ — one fan described it as a mythic drawing of “sort of a tank with a bull’s face, horns, missiles, guns” — and taped it above his bed for a year.

When I go to meet Scott Schilingheyde, a high school friend of Ray’s, it’s in front of the enormous Peppermill Casino, all the way out of town on South Virginia. Scott, a striking 21-year-old kid with immaculately blow-dried shoulder-length blond hair, has driven from his mother’s house up in the Hidden Valley hills: he’s recently been pa­roled after two years in the Carson City penitentiary (for selling crank, a metham­phetamine), and he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s “back in town.” Scott isn’t exactly scrupulous in maintaining his low pro­file, however: I can hear the Megadeth tape blasting in his yellow Le Mans from a block away.

It’s sadly easy to forget Scott’s tender age once you meet him: he seems far more like some hardened and prospectless maquis­ — come down from a Philippine hill town to talk to a very foreign reporter — than any American teenager I’ve met. The only clues to his age are his gape-mouthed appreciation of a 40-pound striper in the Peppermill fish-tank, and a fit of uncontrollable gig­gling when I ask it it’s true Ray and Jay played cowboys-and-Indians with live ammo (“Yeah, that sounds like Ray”). When he speaks of guns, prison, child abuse, and suicide, Scott sounds like he’s talking last night’s ballgame: “Ray and Jay weren’t all-out crazy, out-and-out violent people,” he says. “They did pretty much normal, crazy shit. They had normal prob­lems — Ray more than most. We all talked about suicide, all the time, but it was just tough-guy talk, weapons talk. They did it.”

Scott stonewalls when I ask what prob­lems Ray had: “Ray shelved that shit the moment he got out of the house, and I wasn’t allowed in there. Only Jay was. Those two were as close as close can get. I remember one time, though, we went up to shoot my brother’s gun and Ray had to go get some clothes, ’cause he couldn’t go home. I think we ripped some beers on the way up.”

“Did you guys steal most of the things you had?”

“No, no,” Scott shakes his head emphati­cally. “I think we bought our own ciga­rettes.” He blows out a long thin plume of Marlboro smoke. “Mom bought the jeans and T-shirts. We never thought much about food.”

“Did they do a lot of drugs?”

“Everything that came their way,” Scott says automatically. “Anything they could afford. Mostly, they drank a lot of beer.”

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On the day of his autopsy, the day after Christmas, 1985, Ray, six foot two, weighed 141 pounds; the only substance in his stomach was a stick of chewing gum, and his alcohol/blood tested at 0.098 (0.100 constitutes intoxication in Nevada). He wore blue jeans with long sweats under­neath, a gray Miami Dolphins “Super Bowl ’85” T-shirt with vents cut out, and brown construction boots with white socks. His belt buckle was shaped like a cannabis leaf. He had one tattoo, a green RB on his upper right arm (unlike Jay, who had many on his arms and upper body), and 25 small lacer­ations on his fists, from playing knuckles with Jay (punching each other’s knuckles to see whose bled first). Ray’s stepbrother, Tom Roach, testified that their former stepfather, Jesse Roberson, would take Ray to the garage, lock the door, and whip him with his belt till Ray could get the door unlocked and scamper back to his room, but no indications of that or any other beating showed up on the autopsy.

“Growing up,” Scott tells me, “Ray didn’t really have friends. He didn’t like no one, and didn’t like himself. He really hat­ed his red hair.”

The first and only person Ray ever really took to was Jay, whom he met in seventh grade. Jay, who’d been left back twice, had BMOC status with his two extra years, and his immediate love for Ray was an unend­ing source of pride. Ray was never at ease with girls, unlike Jay, who’d often find two girls waiting at his door when he came home from work. A pretty redhead named Carol did fall madly in love with Ray in 10th grade, and he left home to live with her for a week, but he could always be counted on to ditch her to spend the night with Jay. Their parents were pleased when the boys finally showed a sign of domestic­ity: shortly after leaving high school, they bought pit bull pups together (both of which had to be put down by the parents after the shooting).

Jesse worked at a Sparks auto parts shop for $20 a day plus commissions. Aunetta has worked for the past five years as a 21 dealer in a Reno casino for $35 a night and tips. Ray, who was good with his hands (he made a shelf for targets he and Jay would take up into the hills with them), loved construction work. On his last application form, he wrote that he had worked on a building site in Truckee, California, begin­ning as a laborer at $5.50 an hour and ending, a month later, as a $10.75-an-hour framer, but there’s no reason to believe this is true. His last job, feeding paper reams into a cutter at a Sparks print shop, paid 10 cents above the minimum wage, because he worked from midnight to 8 a.m. Two weeks before he killed himself, he was fired for refusing to work overtime. He’d lost the job before that, in a used furniture store, when he stole $454 from his boss’s desk and used the money to go see his real father in Oklahoma.

He liked to think of himself as a karate master and was very fond of his weapons: a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun, a 12-gauge pump, a BB gun, and a two-foot-long hard-­rubber whipstick. (When Tom Roach was asked what the purpose of this whip-stick was, he answered, “It hurts when you get hit with it.”) Though Ray was terrible in school (in his two years at Reed High School he flunked all but two classes), he was by far the better pupil of the two. Both were good shots, and when not stalking Tom Roach with BB guns through the house (for liking “mellow” bands like Def Leppard and Night Ranger), they would often go up into the Sierras with their .22s to hunt quail, which Ray loved to eat spit­-roasted, or to a cave within the Sparks city limits, to nail bats to the wall with air-rifle shot. Two weeks before his suicide, police came to his house to investigate a report of “animal torture” — Ray had allegedly shot a neighborhood cat with a blowgun.

Other than the occasional trip to the mall, or a night of playing “terrorize the town” on South Virginia Street, Ray’s only regular activity was up in his room with Jay, “listening to Priest” and fantasizing about becoming a mercenary. They loved Priest, Jay said later, because they got pow­er from the music — amps was Jay’s word — ­and because their connection with Priest was “more intimate” than with bands like Iron Maiden, whose “Kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out sort of lyrics” left the two cold. If they had a credo to live by, he said, it was “Ride Hard. Die Fast.” In the hospital after the shootings, Jay used an index finger to draw the words Life sucks, when asked why they’d shot themselves.

Of the thousands of details that surface in the Judas Priest trial, two of the few that defense and plaintiffs don’t dispute is that Ray and Jay loved Judas Priest more than any other band (in deposition, Jay said he “would’ve done anything those guys asked me to do”), and that the two boys were inseparable. Several friends testify that when they met Jay after the shooting, the first thing he would ask was if they blamed him for Ray’s death. “I ran into Jay at a gas station one day,” Scott tells me. “But I didn’t know who he was till he started talking, ’cause he didn’t really have a face yet or anything. I couldn’t understand him either, ’cause his tongue was gone. I was angry at him, though. There’s nothin’ in this world so hard,” he says, clenching his fists, slowly, “that you gotta shoot yourself over it. Nothin’.”

“What’d you say to Jay at the gas sta­tion?”

“Nothin’. Just walked away. I never saw him again.”

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Growing up, Jay wanted to be a hunting or a fishing guide. Several early backpacking trips — in the desolation wilderness of northern Nevada, and on visits to a favor­ite uncle up in Oregon, along the Pacific Coast Trail — had a huge effect on him. He started doing gardening work in junior high school, and told his school psychiatrist he owned a few landscaping companies and had made investments in pieces of heavy equipment. As he began to realize he’d nev­er get through Reed High, his fantasy of enrolling in Lassen Gunsmith College up in Susanville evaporated; at the New Frontier drug program he lasted half of, trying to cure himself of a crank addiction six months before the shooting, he spoke indifferently of becoming either a mercenary or janitor. He studied typing and applied sci­ence after the shooting, and had plans to become either a physical therapist, or, once his tongue was rebuilt, a suicide hot-line operator.

Something went very wrong in Jay’s life in the first and second grades. One school psychiatrist called him hyperactive, another diagnosed him for Attention Deficit Disor­der: he repeated both years. His mother refused to give him the nervous-system stimulant Ritalin. “Those kids on Ritalin,” she says, “were just zombies.” She agreed to see the district psychiatrist after Jay tied a belt around his head and began pulling his hair out one day in second grade, but when the man came to see the home envi­ronment she wouldn’t let him in. Driving home after being expelled from school in the third grade, Jay became incensed when his mother wouldn’t listen to his version of the argument that had led to his expulsion, and wrapped both hands around her neck. A few years later, he went after her with a hammer, and again with a pistol a few years after that.

From the age of 10 till he dropped out of high school in the first weeks of his junior year, Jay spent his school hours in the Spe­cial Ed Room, alongside Down’s syndrome kids, paraplegics, and the severely impaired (he remembered befriending one speechless boy who’d swallowed half a bottle of bleach). Though he tested low on every proficiency and IQ test (he had big prob­lems with hand-eye coordination), when you read the sharp, direct responses he gave in depositions, you realize Jay was a quick-­minded and intuitive, if ineducable, kid who never had a chance in school.

From the age of 15, when he discovered Judas Priest, Jay had a Priest album or song for every mood and period of his life: Unleashed in the East, when be needed to “get amped”; Hellbent for Leather, to party; Screaming for Vengeance when he left school and for nine months lived-in as a baby-sitter for an older woman. Both he and Ray loved the early album, Sin After Sin, with its cover: a black figure with no face. He said they listened to the songs “Epitaph” and “Dream Deceiver” when they needed to cry: “Saw a figure floating/Beneath the willow trees./Asked us if we were happy/We said we didn’t know/took us by the hands/and up we go!/We followed the dreamer deceiver.”

“Jay recited those lines like scripture,” says Phillis Vance, who agrees to see me once I swear I’m not from “one of those smut magazines like the Enquirer, or that Rolling Stone” (which ran an even-handed piece a week before the trial began). “Me and Tony [Jay’s adoptive father] would be watching TV out in the living room and he’d be listening to Judas Priest in his bed­room, so loud that even through his ear­phones we couldn’t hear the TV. And if I’d go in and tell him to turn it down, he’d point that finger at me, just like Rob Hal­ford, and scream. ‘ON YOUR KNEES, AND WOR­SHIP ME IF YOU PLEASE!’ After he was born-­again, in 1983, he sold all 13 of their albums to Recycled Records. He stopped doing drugs for a while too. Either you worship Jesus Christ, or you worship Judas Priest.”

Jay later said it was Priest’s music that turned him, temporarily, into a white su­premacist. In school, his guidance counselor once sent him to the infirmary to have his left forearm PhiSoHexed, when the swastikas and the words Judas Priest he’d drawn on with black magic marker had caused a serious infection.

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The 23rd of December, 1985, a freezing, overcast day, began for Ray with a family trip to the Happy Looker hair salon in the neighborhood shopping mall. His four-year­-old half-sister, Christie Lynn, was getting her first haircut: Ray went home to get a camera, and on the way back to the Happy Looker decided, after years of wearing his long hair back in a bandana, to have it cut into a manageable buzz.

Though he’d recently lost his first pay­check in three weeks over a few games of pool at Doc and Eddie’s Tavern, he seemed to be in a good mood: all but one install­ment of the $454 he’d stolen from his for­mer boss was still owed, but he’d had enough money to buy Christmas presents for everyone. Not one to stand on ceremo­ny, he’d opened the records he’d bought for Tom Roach and a few friends (including the hard-to-find Stained Class LP for Jay) and listened to them. And Jay had a plan to get Ray’s paycheck back from the local con­tractor he’d lost it to: “I was going to stomp on him in the back of his knee, and I would crunch his knee to the concrete and then karate chop him in the back of the neck, and he would pretty much be helpless, at that moment, because I know karate.”

The day had begun for Jay shortly after noon: in a deposition given under hypnosis two years later, he remembered that “I saw my death and looked around.” He cleared his eyes, had a piss, and took a glass of chocolate milk from the kitchen to the bathroom. He drank the milk slowly as he sat under a hot shower for 20 minutes, then put the glass on the toilet seat while he washed his newly buzzed-cut hair.

The shootings might never have hap­pened if Jay hadn’t missed his ride to the printing press that day. In his hypnotic deposition, he remembered finding a note his mother had left in the kitchen, saying she was over at her sister’s house and to call if he needed another ride; Jay, however, couldn’t find or remember his aunt’s num­ber. Perhaps he didn’t want to: Jay hated his 12-hour shifts, which left him so filthy it took up to three hours to scrub the print­-ink off his forearms.

Ray was baby-sitting Christie Lynn and a few of her friends all afternoon, but he had time to pick up Jay in his mother’s car, then stop back at the Happy Looker to get his hair recut to look more like Jay’s. They drove back to Richards Way together and, up in Ray’s room, put on The Best of Judas Priest and Unleashed in the East. After a spat over the two joints of scrub-bud they were smoking (Jay was angry Ray had “stoled the pot from a friend of mine,” which Ray denied), they got to work on their first six-pack of Bud.

They left the room an hour later, Ray to tell his sister and her friends he was going to bust their little heads if they didn’t stop running around and slamming doors, Jay to get some more beer from the fridge in the garage. He ran into Ray’s pregnant half-­sister, Rita Skulason, in the dining room, yelling at Ray to stop messing with the kids, scowling at Jay as he came into the room. Rita didn’t like Jay at all, but Jay didn’t care: He was feeling good, and had realized he had no desire to be a printer’s appren­tice any longer.

When they got back to the bedroom, Ray had a big smile on his face from a decision he’d come to: not to wait until the 25th to give Jay his present. Reaching behind his stereo for the Stained Class album, he put the record on the turntable and gave the jacket to Jay, saying, “Merry Christmas, brother.” As the opening lyric of “Exciter” played: “To find this day,/We’ll surely fall,” Ray and Jay stood up and hugged each other, then started dancing around the room.

They listened to both sides of the record two to four times (depending on which of Jay’s depositions you read) before going back out to the garage for more beer. Rita was still sitting at the dining room table. She said that Jay came over and fondled her breast, though Jay later denied that: “Rita wasn’t the kind of girl you could do that to. She’d bust you in the mouth.” Per­haps the two boys were already considering suicide: Jay asked Rita if she was going to name her baby after Ray if something hap­pened to him. “Not unless it’s a goddamn redhead,” she said.

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A few minutes after they returned to Ray’s room, Jay’s parents showed up at the front door to drive Jay to work, but they were too late. “I was rocking out,” Jay remembered. Though Phyllis tried to rea­son with him, asking, “How’re you going to buy your cigarettes if you don’t have any money?” she and Tony were out the Bel­knaps’ front door a minute later, Jay right behind them screaming, “LEAVE ME ALONE!”

It’s unclear how many more times they listened to Stained Class, and which song was on when Jay said to Ray, “Let’s see what’s next.” In depositions, Jay said it was the lyric, “Keep your world of all its sin,/It’s not fit for living in,” that led them both to understand what the message was: “The answer to this life is death.” Trying to comprehend what had happened to him in the year after the shootings, Jay went a half-­dozen times to see Susan Rusk, his former guidance counselor at Reed High; she re­members Jay mentioning that he and Ray had sat chanting “Do it, do it,” as they passed the album cover back and forth.

Ray, in any case, understood what Jay was telling him. “Yeah,” he growled, then offered his knuckles for Jay to punch. After rapping fists together, they were “psyched enough” to tear Ray’s room apart, smash­ing furniture and glass, including Ray’s prized full-length mirror. While Jay wedged a two-by-four under Ray’s door, Ray grabbed his favorite weapon, the sawed-off 12-gauge, opened his bedroom window, and crawled out.

By the time Jay had followed him out the window, Ray was already 20 feet down the alley behind his house, which led to the six­-foot wall of the Community First Church of God. Jay yelled at him to wait, and the two scaled the wall together. At 5:10 p.m. on the third shortest day of the year it was already pitch-black in the churchyard, and neither boy knew where they were. A neigh­borhood dog had begun to bark, and they were worried about the police coming. Nei­ther of them was old enough to be outdoors with a loaded gun.

Ray stepped onto a small, rickety carou­sel in the corner of the churchyard and loaded up with a single shell from his pocket. He looked terrified as he heard the gun cock. It was well below freezing, and both boys were wearing only jeans and T-shirts. In several depositions, Jay remembers say­ing, “Just hurry up” to Ray; Susan Rusk later testified that Jay told her Ray was going round and round on the carousel, chanting “Do it, do it,” and that what Jay finally said to Ray was, “Just do it.”

As the years went by, it was only in dreams that Jay could remember seeing his best friend kill himself, and inaccurately at that: In his dreams he remembered fire coming out of the back of Ray’s head after he shot himself; in his depositions, he testi­fied he had his back turned when it hap­pened. Two days after the shootings, how­ever, Jay told police he watched Ray sit down on the carousel and plant the gun on the ground between his feet. The coroner’s report located the entrance wound in the exact center of Ray’s chin, and Jay remem­bered that Ray’s voice was clipped when he said, “I sure fucked up my life,” because he had the gun’s barrel “so tight under his chin.” Jay watched in amazement as Ray reached for the trigger and pulled it. The buckshot imploded in Ray’s head, causing no exit wound, but spraying the carousel, the gun. and over three feet of ground with “an incredible amount of blood.”

Jay remembers “shaking real bad” as he grabbed the gun, uncocked it, and put the shell Ray had given him into the chamber. “I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I thought somebody was going to stop me.” He told police he only went through with his half of the pact because he was afraid of being accused of Ray’s murder. When he tried to put the gun in his mouth the blood on it made him gag, so he put it under his chin, then stood next to the carousel for a minute, perhaps two, thinking about “my mom, and people I cared about.” The gun felt greasy from the blood, and Jay’s hand-to-eye coordination failed him one last time as he pulled the trigger. The shot took off his chin and mouth and nose and missed his eyes and brain.

He remembered feeling weightless as he dropped to his knees, then face-first to the ground. After a long numbness, he felt a stinging sensation, as though someone had slapped him. “Then somebody,” he said, “turned me over on my back … and checked out my blood.” He remembers fighting with that person to get back onto his stomach. As he was placed into the ambulance and given an emergency trache­otomy. Jay had no idea he no longer had a mouth or a tongue, and couldn’t under­stand why the simple sentence, “I don’t want to die,” wouldn’t come out when he tried to say it to the paramedic.

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As you drive out from Reno to Sparks, the buffets broadcast from the hotel marquees get cheaper, the entertainers get older, and the hold-’em games go from $1-3-5 to $3-5-10. A suburban sprawl crawling up the side of a mountain. Sparks extends higher and seemingly at random with each year into the canyons and hillocks of the surrounding Sierras: endless streets of one-story houses with one willow tree on each lawn, a car or two in each driveway-and one four-wheel­-drive vehicle, RV, or big boat in every other drive. Most of the four-wheels have gun racks in the back.

Four doors down from Ray’s old house on Richards Way, I find the Community First Church of God. A 20-square-foot patch of grass surrounded by six feet of cinderblock (interrupted only by a chain fence on the east wall), it looks far more like a prison yard. Formerly a playground for Sunday school kids, it has a spooky, cloistered feel to it. The peeling, white­washed cross on the church roof is visible between two immense weeping willows hanging over a brace of swings; only one swing is still on its chain. Two feet from the sawed-off stump of a third willow is the small foot-pump carousel Ray was sitting on when he shot himself.

Among Jay’s endless nightmares after the shootings, many were filled with Old Chris­tian symbolism and stained glass. Though there’s no such glass visible from the yard, there are three cheap panels on the front of the church that are enough to give anyone nightmares. The last panel bears a striking resemblance to the Stained Class album cover (an android’s face being pierced by a bolt of something that leaves a red halo over the android’s head), which was put into evidence for its subliminal content.

Jay lay in the hospital for three months, getting daily injections of morphine and listening to the music playing over and over in his head. He got a friend of his to make a tape of Stained Class and played it for weeks, trying, he said, “to bury my grief for Ray. It’s real weird saying goodbye to someone.”

The extent of the reconstructive surgery was enormous. Doctors at the Stanford University hospital first took a piece of skin remaining from his forehead and graft­ed it onto the middle of his face, eventually to become a nose. The skin grew hair and needed to be shaved daily. After two years, surgeons began working on a pair of lips from skin taken from the smooth crease under the knee, and he was halfway toward his third and final chin when he died. A third of his tongue remained, but he’d lost his gag reflex, and would drool and swallow his tongue. He had only one tooth, and could eat only by using his thumb as a second incisor. When Jay went to watch McKenna and Lynch work on an unrelated trial, he was ejected from the courtroom for upsetting the jury; when McKenna’s young daughter first saw Jay, she fainted.

Because Jay wouldn’t be eligible for Tony’s insurance — to pay for what he called his “$400,000 face” — unless he lived at home, he stayed with his parents. Incred­ibly, Jay’s love life didn’t slow down: he turned down two offers of marriage, and a third girlfriend came to live with the Vances after she’d been booted out of her house on her 18th birthday. She bore a child of theirs a year before Jay died. (“I told the girl that I didn’t want them mon­keying around in the bedroom,” Phyllis Vance recalls. “Jay said I had forgotten to mention the garage, the front lawn, the backyard … “)

For three years, Jay was in almost con­stant agony: coupled with the initial trau­ma, surgeons had attached skin extenders to his face, pulling down on the single re­maining flap of forehead skin to re-form his face, which caused painful swelling. Jay survived numerous addictions to Percodan and Xanax, and often said that he hadn’t known what a “real drug addiction was like” when he checked into the New Frontier program for crank abuse in July of 1985. Just after the shooting, he’d begun injecting up to two grams of cocaine a day into his arm to ease the pain, but he’d been able to overcome that addiction by getting nerve-block injections (a one-and-a-half-­inch needle in the base of his neck).

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Despite being placed on suicide watch in Washoe Medical Center (Jay got enormous­ly depressed every year around the holiday season), he died of a methadone overdose on Thanksgiving Day, 1988. Though it’s listed a suicide, it isn’t clear how he got enough of the drug to kill himself, and Vivian Lynch, who represents Jay’s child, is considering suing Washoe. Phyllis Vance is convinced it was malpractice: “Jay felt he had everything to live for. He used to say that he was literally reborn after the accident.”

Before he died, Jay put his mother in the hospital on two occasions — during seizures of cocaine toxicity and withdrawal agony: He split her lip the first time; the second time he fractured her nose. “But we were never closer than after the accident,” Phyl­lis Vance tells me over Diet Cokes in her backyard, where we’ve come because she won’t let me, or her husband Tony, smoke in the house. “Jay would wake up scream­ing in blind terror in the middle of the night, and I’d be right there beside him. His face was so swollen he couldn’t see any­thing except what he’d seen in his dream, the same one, night after night: Ray blow­ing the back of his head off. He’d see fire coming out of the back of his head, hear the thud of his body, and he knew Ray was dead.”

Tony, sitting beside her, lights a Marl­boro and nods his head. I ask if he’d like to respond to reports that Jay’s was a violent home. “I remember one time,” he answers with a flat, emotionless voice, “when Jay came back from California with his eyes all glassy. I told him, ‘Show me your eyes’ and he wouldn’t. So I went into his room to punish him. He said, ‘Daddy, I’m too old for you to be spanking me.’ So, I haul off and belt him, two or three times, with my fist. I don’t know if it did any good,” he says, “’cause I never did it again.”

Tony’s a quiet, broad-shouldered guy, a Blackfoot-Cherokee from Kentucky who never seems at ease, either in the court­room or in his backyard. During the suit, defense lawyers often raised the question of his alleged alcoholism and gambling, and cite an incident where Phyllis pulled a gun on him when he tried to go out gambling with his overtime pay, but Tony didn’t drink until the Oakland GM plant he drove a forklift for closed down in 1979, and he didn’t gamble much till they moved to Ne­vada. “That gun thing only happened,” Phyllis explains, “because Tony was used to gambling with his overtime. After the acci­dent, though, we needed the money for Jay.”

A short, enraged-seeming woman with a strident voice and piercing stare, after an hour of talking with her in her backyard I’m able to see her for what she is: a power­ful and very angry mother who, five years later, finally knows why her son shot him­self. “One thing I’ll never be able to get over,” she says, with a sweet, mystified look, “is that he did it in a churchyard, and without even knowing where he was. Piece by piece, though, you put it all together, and you can finally stop asking ‘Why? Why?’ It was the subliminals.

Though I try to concentrate on what Phyllis is telling me, my eye keeps wander­ing across her yard. But for a few tons of concrete Tony laid down for Jay’s pit-bull to run in, it looks exactly like the First Community’s churchyard: a 20-foot patch of grass bordered by a six-foot-high wall, the sawed-off stump of a willow tree, and two big weeping willows overhanging a brace with only one chain swing left.

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By the last week of the trial, the horde of kids protesting outside the courthouse has dwindled to a few aging stoners with goa­tees and Motorhead and Houses of the Holy T-shirts and one 90-pound girl wearing white pumps, a white bustier, and jeans with a copper zipper that goes from front to back. Their tinny cries of “Let the music live” are drowned by the right-to-life pamphleteering of a slack-jawed scarecrow of a man named Andy Anderson, who’s been running for lieutenant governor of Ne­vada for several decades. (“But I still haven’t found the right man to share the ticket with.”)

Of the 75 media people who’d come to Reno from seven different countries, all three networks, four cable channels, and most of the major newsweeklies and dailies in the country, only four rather cynical stringers for the wire services and local pa­pers, three local TV and radio people, and a documentary team from New York sur­vived the first week of the trial, which be­came extremely technical once opening statements were read. Three-quarters of the testimony given was from “expert witness­es” — psychologists, audiologists, and com­puter experts for the most part — several of whom seem to have confused their testimo­ny for Oscar acceptance speeches. “We had a suicide shrink here last week,” one string­er says, “who thanked everyone in the Yel­low Pages for his long career. He was so deadly the bailiff was talking about putting speed bumps by the exit.”

The 83-seat courtroom, no more than half-filled till the last day of trial, is notice­ably devoid of metalheads, whose atten­dance was successfully dissuaded by Judge Whitehead’s strict dress-code order after the second day of trial. Other than Phyllis Vance (who comes every day, accompanied by a visionary-looking young man dressed in impeccable linen), there are very few “magic” Christians here, born-again or oth­erwise: a 15-year-old strawberry blond, who sits behind me, telling her rosary; the man whose friend’s brother jumped off the San­ta Barbara bridge (with his daughters); and one very anxious elderly woman, wearing the same emerald pants and midnight blue shirt every day, who seems poised to rise and object to every question posed by de­fense’s lawyers. (On the last day of the trial, she finally stands to say, “Please stop this! I have 25 children I work with downtown and someone has to care for them. Some­one has to stop this.” As she was led out, she pleaded, “Your honor, please put me on the stand. I’m an electronics expert too.”)

The empty jury room, formerly needed to handle the overflow press, has been given over to defense’s entourage for recess breaks: band members, U.S. and U.K. man­agement people, a half-dozen independent producers and recording engineers, a few CBS corporate types, and two very jolly 275-pound security toughs from Tempe, Arizona, Rick and Nick, who have the de­fense team addressing each other with “Hey dude.”

After a first decade of opening shows for bands like AC-DC, UFO, and Ratt, Judas Priest has been on a roll since their 1980 release, British Steel, the album that establishcd them as a hardcore metal band. They’ve been accused of glomming — a la Spinal Tap — from the metal trends set by other groups: Kiss’s leather and two-tiered stage sets; the guitar pyrotechnics, dry-ice smoke, mythic-medieval themes, and on­stage monsters of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath; and even some “hell-oriented themes” here and there, when bands like Venom, Mercyful Fate, Scorpions, and Me­gadeth started hitting gold by reaching the various covens and Satanic wannabees across the country. But from the time Priest learned that heavy metal is show biz — and shed their ’70s kimonos and velvet robes for leather, studs, spurs, and choke collars; added smoke machines, whips, fire pits, flamethrowers. and a 15-foot robot that shot laser beams and lifted the two guitar­ists into the air during lead breaks; and began riding onstage on Harley-Davidson two-tone Low Riders — they have had their own sound and their own following.

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Skip Herman, promotions director and “morning mutant” DJ of Reno’s heavy metal FM station, made friends with the band in the early days of the trial, and has been hanging out with them near Lake Ta­hoe, where they’ve rented a suite of deluxe cottages. (Skip, who tells me, “This back­-masked stuff is all bull,” later invites me to his radio station to hear what are obviously unintentional reverse-direction lyrics on Diana Ross’s “Touch Me in the Morning”: “Death to all. He is the one. Satan is love.“) Over and above a mutual love for music, Skip shares Priest’s other guiding passion: golf. “They talk about the trial for the first two holes,” he says, “Then maybe a little music, girls, a lot of old times. Ian and Glenn talk about their kids. From there to the clubhouse, it’s nothing but setting up a good, steady tripod with your legs, and es­tablishing that perfect pendulum for your swing.”

“It’ll be another 10 years before I’ll even be able to spell ‘subliminals,'” Downing says as he signs autographs on the way into the courtroom. Halford and Tipton, howev­er, don’t see the joke. “It’s terribly wrong, y’know,” says Tipton, “for my family to have to turn on the tube, see this poor kid with his face blown off and have the finger pointing, ‘Judas Priest did this.’ I have a lot of work to do. but you can’t go ’round to court every day, sit down behind your law­yers. have the knife twisted in your gut for eight hours, then go home and pick up your guitar.”

“These people act like we drink a gallon of blood and hang upside down from cruci­fixes before we go onstage,” Rob Halford says. “We’re performers, have been for two decades. We do the show and we wear the costumes our audience expect us to.”

A polite, soft-spoken man with a slow, working-class Birmingham accent and bright, caricatural droopy eyes, Halford says the trial is “degrading and tedious,” but also admits it’s good publicity. “It’s been murder on my creativity as an artist, though. I can’t wait for this tour. I’m going to explode. You can’t fight back the way you should. because you’re in a court of law. Legal proceedings are so frustrating.”

The proceedings are also extremely class­ist — from plaintiffs’ evocations of CBS’s enormous capital resources (“and they still couldn’t find the master tapes”) to de­fense’s portrayal of the Vance/Belknap fam­ilies, the clipped King’s English spoken by half their witnesses, and the ridicule of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ credentials. Nickloff, for example, is often cited as “the marine biologist” — his major in college. The testimony given by Dr. Bruce Tannenbaum (Jay’s psychiatrist in his last two years) — that Jay wouldn’t have shot him­self without a subliminal command to Do it — is colored by several references to Tan­nenbaum’s dabblings in “jam essence” and “block flower” therapies, and his claim to be “the only white man ever to have en­dured the Native American’s fire-sweat ceremony.”

But there are even more unorthodox wit­nesses called, and by both sides of the bench: An advocate for subliminal self-help aids, who claims his tapes have been docu­mented to promote the regrowth of hair, enlarge breast size, cure homosexuality, and turn a local college’s worst football team in its history into a division contender; a To­ronto psychologist who recites the entire “Jabberwocky” section of Through the Looking Glass backward; and five friends of the deceased who contradict reams of evidence as to Ray’s and Jay’s whereabouts on December 23, 1985. One kid, whose testimony places Ray and Jay in his pickup a half-hour after the shooting, is asked by Judge Whitehead to show his glassy eyes “to the court” before he leaves the stand.

Whitehead, whose decision in the suit will set major precedent, is the last person in Reno I’d play cards with, for his eyes show absolutely nothing. An austere Mormon, with a quiet (almost inaudible) sense of his own dignity, he seems like a man who has grimly determined to catch more flies with honey than vinegar; whether he sustains or overrules an objection, his rul­ing is delivered with exactly the same measured deference, care, and consideration. His courtroom has a statewide reputation for running by the book and to the minute; entering each morning at precisely 8:45, he says. “Thank you, will you please be seated,” and clears his throat away from the microphone. But except for a question he’ll interject now and again, and the occasional wince when a witness refers to the ”back­-masked lyric” “F— the Lord” as “Fuck the Lord” (after 11 days of trial, he still listens to that section of tape with his face averted from the court), he sits impassively till 5 p.m., then whispers the day to a close without the slightest clue as to what he’s seen, heard, or thought.

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After Lynch files a Motion in Limine (asking to be awarded the decision outright, on 1he basis of CBS’s lack of cooperation in producing evidence) and a motion for sanctions (money), the first three days feature endless declarations of the impossibility of “punching” anything into a mixed-down two-track (or even 24-track) tape. Several witnesses cite CBS’s impossible task in locating the tapes (probably the first time in legal history an American arts corporation has argued for its lack of control of the matrix of production). Whole mornings and afternoons arc devoted to very unconvincing testimony as to the difficulty and scarcity of backward lyrics in the recording business, either phonetic reversals (lyrics forming a sensible fragment when played backward), or backward-recorded reversals (words recorded forward and added to the mix in reverse direction). After eight court-hours of such testimony (by men who engineered or produced such records as Electric Ladyland, four Zeppelin albums, The Wall, and lier Satanic Majesty’s Request), a 32-year-old engineer/producer named Andrew Jackson (called to testify because he served as assistant engineer on the “Better By You” recording session 13 years ago) is asked if he knows of any backmasked lyrics in the rock industry.

“Yes I do,” he says with a Cockney accent so thick he has Judge Whitehead straining to understand him. “I produced a band just last month had a song with the lyric. ‘And I need someone to lie on./And I need someone to rely on.’ Played in reverse that becomes ‘Here’s me/Here I am./ What we have lost./I am the messenger of love.'” (The singer memorized the backward phrase, with all its reversals and sibilants and plosives, sang it on one track, and that rack was used — backward — as a forward-running vocal overdub.)

“And do you know of any instances of backward-recorded lyrics in the rock industry he was asked by Judge Whitehead to show his glassy eyes “to the court” before he leaves the stand.

Whitehead, whose decision in the suit will set major precedent, is the last person in Reno I’d play cards with, for his eyes show absolutely nothing. An austere Mor­mon, with a quiet (almost inaudible) sense of his own dignity, he seems like a man who has grimly determined to catch more flies with honey than vinegar: whether he sustains or overrules an objection, his ruling is delivered with exactly the same measured deference, care, and consideration. His courtroom has a statewide reputation for running by the book and to the minute: entering each morning at precisely 8:45, he says. “Thank you, will you please he seated,” and clears his throat away from the microphone. But except for a question he’ll interject now and again, and the occasional wince when a witness refers to the “back-masked lyric” “F··· the Lord” as “Fuck the Lord” (after 11 days of trial, he still listens to that section of tape with his face averted from the court) he sits impassively till 5 p.m. then whispers the day to a close with­out the slightest clue as to what he’s seen, heard, or thought.

After Lynch files a Motion in Limine

“Yes, I do,” Jackson say with barely concealed pride. “A Pink Floyd song I worked on has the backward-recorded lyric: “Dear Punter. Congratulations. You have found the secret message. Please send an­swers to Pink Floyd, care of the Funny Farm, Chalford, St. Giles.’ ”

I get to hear two of the back masked lyrics and the alleged Do its on the antepenultimate day of the trial, when the court adjourns to a 24-track studio across town. Two of the stringers look harrowed as we enter a dark room that, through a two-inch plate-glass window, looks onto the console room the court is reconvening in. “We were in Carson City last month to report on a death-penalty execution,” one of them tells me. “It was set up just like this.”

From the four-foot UREI Studio Monitors in our room we hear the title cut’s first chorus, forward first:”Long ago, when man was king./This heart must beat, on stained class./Time must end before sixteen/So now he’s just a stained class thing … ” and then the reverse of the next line, “Faithless continuum into the abyss,” which is supposed to be “Sing my evil spirit.” Though it is a creepy sound, inhumanly high-pitched and extremely emphatic somehow, I can’t say I hear anything more than “S-s-eeg mahee-voh speeree.”

In the song “White Hot, Red Heat,” played next. I do hear something that sounds remarkable, like a dolphin saying “F-f-f-fuck the Lor … S-ss-suck-ck tolleyuse” When the lines, “Deliver us/ From all the fuss,” are played backward. Its existence is important to plaintiffs’ case, since they’ve argued that its backward appearance confirms the “message” of “White Hot, Red Heat.” Which desecrates the Lord’s Pray­er: “… Thy father’s son/Thy kingdom come/Electric ecstasy/Deliver us/from all the fuss …”

“Better By You. Better Than Me” is exactly the type of song Jay said he and Ray loved Judas Priest’s music for, “a steady, galloping rhythm … only changing for the chorus. [when] the beat would get more dramatic or more intensified.” After the screeching line. “Tell her what I’m like within/I can’t find the words, my mind dim,” comes the first chorus, with its pro­longed ee-eh, exhalation sounds. Though I don’t hear anything that sounds like Do it, there is an extra, syncopated beat falling just on the third beat of each measure, a discolike mesh of noise that has nothing to do with the musical/lyrical content of the song. It does sound — if not “punched in” — ­added on.

As the song moves into the second chorus with the lyrics,”Guess I’ll learn to tight and kill./Tell her not to wait until/They find my blood upon her windowsill,” the extra beat seem, to land with greater emphasis, more elaborated and groanlike with each ee-uh sound till, yes. I hear the words Do it — a, a kind of antiphonal chant — falling, with relative clarity, on the last rendition of “You can tell her what I want it to be.”

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The issue of backward masking seems resolved, forever, on the last day of testimony Halford, noticeably absent from court all morning, arrives late in the after­noon session with a large, black double­-deck, and a cassette. Put on the stand, he says that he’s spent the morning in the recording studio, spooling Stained Class backward would like to play what he’s found for the court. Ever the showman (Halford began as a theater apprentice in Birmingham and switched to metal when he realized he’d “stay in the limelight longer that way”), he asks if he can play the tape forward, sing the lyric once, play the “backmasked stuff,” then sing that.

Lynch objects furiously to the tape’s admission, and to Halford’s request to per­form for the court. Whitehead agrees there’s no need for Halford to sing again, then cracks his first smile of the suit. “I want to hear this though.”

“Some of these aren’t entirely grammatical.” Halford deadpans apologetically. “But I don’t think ‘Sing my evil spirit’ would”­

“Objection,” says Lynch.

“Sustained,” says Whitehead.

A blast of heavy bass and Glenn Tipton ‘s 32nd-note trill accompanies the fragment, “strategic force/they will not,” from “Invader.” Its reverse is the insane-sounding but entirely audible screech: “It’s so fishy, personally I’ll owe it.” When Halford plays, “They won’t take our love away,” from the same song, the backward, “Hey look, Ma, my chair’s broken,” has the courtroom howling. McKenna and Lynch are livid.

After a week of suspending my own dis­belief, I lose it completely when Halford plays his last discovery — the lines “Stand by for Exciter./Salvation is his task”­ — which come out backward with an emphat­ic and high-pitched, “I-I-I as-sked her for a peppermint-t-t/I-I-I asked for her to get one.”

The band is exultant after Halford’s perfor­mance. Up in their Reno counsel’s offices (on the 15th noor of the one bona fide office building I see in Reno), Downing and Ian Hill are talking of issuing a Greatest Hits album. Judas Priest: The Subliminal Years, their American manager is on the phone booking Tipton’s family on a morn­ing night to the Grand Canyon, and Hal­ford, giving an interview to the New York documentary team, lets his hair down: “I’ve never known such a lull in my sex­-life, y’now. I don’t think I’ve had an erec­tion since we’ve got here.”

I ride down with Ian Hill and Ken Down­ing to the bar in Harrah’s, where both they and their drink orders are well-known by the maitre d’. The two original members of the band (they dropped out of their second­ary school in Birmingham in the same year), and the only two members of the defense team that don’t seem compelled to shower plaintiffs’ every statement with scornful smiles, they watch the proceedings with a mixture of curiosity and incompre­hension till the late hours of afternoon, when they both look ready for a long nap, or a stiff drink. Over second Bloody Marys, I tell Downing I’ve noticed that his ears seem to prick up any time Ray’s or Jay’s name is mentioned in court. A 38-year-old man with a shoulder-length permanent and deeply receding hairline, he tells me that he’s been wanting to go to the churchyard the two shot themselves in.

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“I’ve got some strange feelings about those kids,” he says. “It’s not guilt, y’know, but I do feel haunted when I hear about their lives, ’cause they were the same as mine. I hated my parents, y’know, terribly. These kids just didn’t get to live long enough to put all that past them.”

“So you made up with your parents eventually?”

“Oh, I talk to my Mum all the time.”

“Is your father dead?”

“No. he’s alive. But I don’t talk to him. I don’t hate him anymore, though. I don’t feel that I ever really matured till I stopped carrying that anger around with me, and that wasn’t till a year or so ago. The music was the only real release, till then. I do feel angry, though, when they play all that back­ward surf music and talk about the harm our music did these kids, ’cause I think it was the best thing they had. I remember citing sophisticated stuff verbatim to my folks — like they say Ray and Jay did all the time — Hendrix lyrics like, and they’d look at me, like, Where’s all that coming from? My parents aren’t clever people, you know. They’re just people.”

Halford and Tipton, finished with their interview, come in with the security guys, Rick and Nick. Rick is opining on Neva­da’s other major court case — the libel suit brought by Las Vegas’s Stardust Hotel against the animal rights group, PETA — on our way into the adjoining three-star res­taurant. “Some guy slaps an orangutan in the face, and they’re asking for $800,000,000.”

I don’t remember much of that dinner, but I won’t forget the next morning’s hang­over soon. Between repeated calls for “one more bottle of this Chateau Neuf-de … POP!, Captain Bong,” to our suave Fili­pino headwaiter and leading a backward­sounding finger-chorus by everyone at the table on our Diamond Optic crystal wine-glasses. Halford, wfto sat at the head, regaled the table with recitations from his favorite Mafia movies. Rick and Nick or­dered the Chateaubriand for Two apiece, and I remember an argument starting when Nick told Rick he must have the plaintiff and defendant confused in the Vegas case. “It would have to have been the animal rights guy who slapped the orangutan.”

Ken, who sat to my left, ordered a second appetizer rather than an entree (he was worried about fitting into his stage clothes), and told me how much he hated secondary school. “I was all thumbs in Woodworking Shop. Metalworking, which is a biggie in Birmingham (Tipton worked for British Steel before joining the band), was even worse. The only thing I liked was Chess Club. where I got to beat up on the kids with perfectly pressed uniforms, and Cooking.”

“Why Cooking?”

“‘Cause you got to watch the girls bend over. I went to work as a cook after I left school, and loved it. I mean, how many people do you know, even at this age, who can bake an egg?”

Sometime between the third bottle of Moet and the warmed Grand Marnier, I remember a silver plate with an $800 check hitting the table. Happy Verdict, Captain Bong was written on the back.

On the long walk back to the lawyer’s office to get their dry cleaning, Ken and Ian looked thoughtful, and 1000 light years from home; riding up on the elevator, they both admitted they’d heard a couple of Do its in the recording studio on Tuesday.

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Judge Whitehead’s decision on both the suit and Vivian Lynch’s Motion in Limine and motion for sanctions was handed down two weeks after the end of the trial. An impressive document, it runs 68 pages, stopping en route to cite Sir Edward Coke’s 17th century interpretation of the Magna Carta and Thomas Payne’s and James Madison’s arguments for the right to trial.

After criticizing CBS’s actions in the dis­covery process, he awarded plaintiffs’ law­yers $40,000. Finding (I) that the 24-track of “Better By You” submitted by CBS was authentic and unaltered, he declared (2) that there were several Do its; (3) that they were subliminals; (4) but they were placed on the record unintentionally; (5) and that lack of intent establishes lack of liability under invasion of privacy theory; (6) that plaintiffs established a sufficient founda­tion for the effectiveness of subliminal stimuli, and that the decedents perceived these: (7) but that plaintiffs failed to prove these stimuli were sufficient to explain con­duct of this magnitude; and (following a lengthy disclaimer of any intent to demean the Vance and Belknap families) (8) that a number of other factors existed that explain their behavior.

Whitehead’s final findings concerned backmasked messages, which he rejected out of hand. Though he had “grave con­cerns” as to their possible use if perceived by the unconscious, he found no reason to believe they could be so perceived. And though he indicated his displeasure with heavy metal several times, he closed by thanking the members of Judas Priest for their courtesy during the trial. In Los Ange­les to film a video, Judas Priest has report­edly decided to call their upcoming tour “Subliminal Criminals.”

Vivian Lynch, reached for comment after the decision, felt Whitehead was wrong in construing this as an invasion of privacy case. “This is product liability. If somebody explodes in a Pinto, you don’t have to prove Ford intended that to happen.” She said she’ll be filing a motion for a new trial this week: “I feel Judge Whitehead’s find­ings were entirely correct. I’m appealing on his application of the law to his findings.”

She also expressed satisfaction with the trial: “We accomplished what we set out to: give congressional committees and state legislatures enough reason to take a solid look at what these subliminals are doing to our kids. And I’ve still got Jay’s daughter’s wrongful death suit to file against CBS. It’ll be the same thing all over again.”

McKenna was more succinct: “Hey man.” he tells me. “I’ll take the $40,000.” ❖

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The 5 Most Interesting Metal Albums of 2015, Unranked

There are those who say metal offers the broadest musical canvas for experimentation, and there are those who find it limiting. Both camps are correct. On one hand, extreme music can blow any barrier to creativity clean off its hinges. The rules are obliterated, if the artist wants them to be. On the other hand, the desire to be trendy within a specific sub-genre — doom, death, black, stoner, sludge, thrash, grindcore, etc. — or to bear the earmarks of one’s influences makes for an abundance of bands suffering from the disease of sameness. As a listener, you may be very content with this fact or very discontent, depending on your preferences.

This brief list is not a best-of-the-year compilation, so if your favorite metal album of 2015 isn’t here, or if your band’s album isn’t here, that doesn’t mean this critic doesn’t like it. This is about a handful of artists who endeavored to be completely unique this year—and succeeded.

Big|Brave's <i>Au De La</i>
Big|Brave’s Au De La


Big|Brave,
 Au De La

Big|Brave understand the drama of silence. On Au De La, songs appear to end midstream, interrupted by pauses, wherein artifacts of guitar and drum resonate and fade before the next blunt burst of notes. The Montreal group toys with the listening ear’s natural expectations of where a composition should go; what happens in the space of quiet becomes as essential as the moments full of sound. (Perhaps taking a cue from John Cage, they’ve been known to stop playing for indefinite stretches during performances to let the murmur of the audience take center stage.) With her vocals, Robin Wattie channels Kathleen Hanna, Björk, and bits of Patti Smith’s unfettered lyrical form to chilling effect. She’s also penned what may be the longest song title of 2015: “do.no.harm.do.no.wrong.Do.No.Harm.Do.No.Wrong.DO.NO.HARM.DO.NO.WRONG”

That crescendo of punctuation mirrors the dynamics of Au De La, a metal record that finds power in the extremities of whispers and roars.



Dimesland, Psychogenic Atrophy

Experimental metal — the kind with ever-shifting, irregular time signatures and virtuoso musicians — is not always the most euphonious. Sometimes it’s easier to revere it for sheer difficulty than it is to actually enjoy it. Dimesland’s first full-length, however, offers a welcome exception to this pattern with unpredictable tunes that land in fun grooves before ruthlessly jerking the listener in the next direction. Tastefully-applied atmospheric synths layer spooky textures to match the Kubrickian cover art. Although accessibility is never the point with this sort of music, it’s also never a bad thing when the avant-garde becomes more listenable. Sadly, Psychogenic Atrophy is a triumph shrouded in tragedy, as 44-year-old guitarist Drew Cook passed away at his Oakland home in May, six months before the record’s physical* release, leaving his brother Nolan as the band’s sole remaining guitarist. The future of Dimesland is uncertain, but this album stands as a sterling testament to what they accomplished during their early existence.

*Although Psychogenic Atrophy was released digitally in December 2014, the CD did not become available until November 2015.

Jane Getter Premonition's <i>On</i>
Jane Getter Premonition’s On


Jane Getter Premonition, On

Leaning toward the prog rock end of the spectrum, this is the least traditionally metal album on this list, yet it bears mentioning for several reasons. For starters, the chops of the musicians are extraordinary. Jane Getter is the all-too-rare female jazz/rock guitarist at the helm and the author of all the songs. Under her lead are bassist Bryan Beller (of Dethklok and the Aristocrats), drummer Chad Wackerman (former percussionist for Frank Zappa), and keyboardist Adam Holzman (who played with Miles freakin’ Davis). Testament’s Alex Skolnick contributes additional guitar to three tunes. Flautist and saxophonist Theo Travis, known for his collaborations with Robert Fripp of King Crimson, appears on two tracks, and Corey Glover of Living Colour sings vocals on three. So, there’s that. If still you question the metal-ness of On, listen to “Train Main,” and witness Getter and Skolnick going toe to toe as guitar solo sparring partners. It’s a joy to hear a woman hold her own against one of the most adept shredders in the biz. If that’s not metal, what the heck is?

 

The Gentle Storm's <i>The Diary</i>
The Gentle Storm’s The Diary

The Gentle Storm, The Diary 

The Gentle Storm is the name of Dutch collaborative duo Arjen Lucassen and Anneke van Giersbergen. Composer, producer, multi-instrumentalist, and semi-recluse Lucassen is recognized for masterminding grand-scale concept albums with dozens of musicians under the project title Ayeron. Singer van Giersbergen, formerly of alt-prog band the Gathering, has worked with Lucassen before, but this is the first time they share top billing as a pair. Like all of Lucassen’s records, The Diary makes the word “epic” seem too tiny and trite. The 17th-century love story is given two contrasting arrangements: The “Gentle” side of the album showcases the delicacy of van Giersbergen’s voice against an acoustic folk backdrop, while the “Storm” side unfurls all the symphonic metal fury expected of a Lucassen masterpiece. The latter artist almost never performs live, so the fact that he and van Giersbergen have done limited acoustic gigs in Europe supporting this project is an unusual thing indeed. In a year that saw folk metal gaining popularity, the Gentle Storm set the gold standard of what that sub-genre can achieve.

 

Sigh's <i>Graveward</i>
Sigh’s Graveward


Sigh, Graveward

You’d be forgiven if, upon first listening, your response to this record was simply, “What?” Hailing from Japan, Sigh have been recording since the Nineties under the auspices of black metal, thanks to the early support of Euronymous (the late guitarist of Norway’s Mayhem), who signed them to his label for their full-length debut in ’93. Fast forward a couple decades to their tenth LP, and it’s evident that this group prevails nowhere near the droning realms of black metal (and, truthfully, never have). Their goal seems to have been to throw every conceivable sound available into these fifty minutes of mania. It zigzags from bestial thrash riffs beneath saxophone accents to piano and organ solos to orchestral punches to watery choirs pitched high like a cassette speeding out of control. The best way to characterize it — without any hyperbole intended — is ridiculous. Consummately ridiculous. Love it or hate it, there is absolutely nothing else like this record.

Honorable mentions:
Royal Thunder, Crooked Doors
Baroness, Purple
Der Weg Einer Freiheit , Stellar (for the superhuman technique of drummer Tobias Schuler)

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John Dyer Baizley on Baroness’ ‘Purple’ and the Trauma Behind It: ‘I’ll Be Suffering From It for the Rest of My Life’

Three years have passed since the near-fatal bus crash in England that fractured Baroness — physically, emotionally, and psychologically. On that day in 2012, three of the four band members were seriously injured, two of which — drummer Allen Blickle and bassist Matt Maggioni — have since left the group. Guitarist and vocalist John Dyer Baizley suffered a broken leg and shattered left arm, crushed so severely that he almost lost the limb. Today brings the release of Purple, the first new Baroness album after that event that curtailed the tour supporting their previous record, Yellow & Green (2012). The band’s performances on Sunday at Rough Trade NYC and Saint Vitus are sure to be marked by a feeling of triumph, for the band and fans alike.

Not surprisingly, the album was heavily influenced by the crash and the aftermath. “It is the lyrics,” says Baizley, concisely. “In a nutshell, it is the lyrics.”

[pullquote]’Considering the entire time period was spent after that crash…it was, I would say for me, the primary motivating factor behind the record.'[/pullquote]

That’s not to say that drawing on his own life for song content is atypical. “When we write albums, from a lyrical standpoint, I write about the time period in which the album was written,” he says, “and considering the entire time period was spent after that crash…it was, I would say for me, the primary motivating factor behind the record.” Although the two new band members (Nick Jost and Sebastian Thomas) joined after the ordeal, and guitarist Pete Adams (an Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient) walked away with less critical surface wounds, the impact on the group is permanent. “It doesn’t define us as a whole, but it’s a big story. It was a big event, and I’ll be suffering from it for the rest of my life.”

For Baizley, crafting the album was a way of processing both the damage and the recovery. “I think in order to go through anything cathartic, you have to relive those moments, and I felt like the more repressive I was with that particular subject and all of the fallout from that, the less capable I would be as a functioning member of society,” he observes. Writing an album may be therapeutic, but performing the songs on it night after night, reliving those memories, is a potentially re-traumatizing factor that he had to consider. “We’re just starting to play these songs now, but I’m going to have to sing them hundreds and probably thousands of times,” he says, “so I had to keep that in mind while I was writing.”

The fact that Baizley can play the guitar at all after the surgery that saved his arm seems miraculous. He reveals that, had the doctors chosen to operate on the inside of his arm rather than on the outside, his ability to play music would have been lost. As it is, he can’t lift things with his left arm and has trouble opening jars, but he retains the mobility to fret the guitar. (Fortunately, he’s right-handed, allowing him to continue painting the gorgeous artwork that adorns Baroness’s album covers, including Purple.)

“I’ve been told by many specialists since then that I got incredibly lucky,” he says.

Even so, he now faces the obstacle of perpetual pain management, another experience that became integral to the album. “I have a very persistent, very acute, very powerful residual pain that’s completely a result of the surgery and all the hardware that’s in my arm,” he explains. “Treating pain on that level puts me in a spot that I hoped I would never be in again, which is using pharmaceuticals in order to cope. And I’m not comfortable with that, but at the same time as I’m uncomfortable with it, I also have spent years contending with the fact that there’s really no better option, and I’ve tried everything at this point.” Again, songwriting became his outlet for dealing with mixed emotions.

He goes on: “The confusion, frustration, pain that I feel about that [treatment] I can put down on paper in words that aren’t that specific because I think that, especially within the realm of recorded music, one of the most common — if not the singular most universal — theme that defies geography, time, place, social status, language, everything, is that we all suffer in common. It’s not whether or not you receive an injury of some sort — physical, mental, spiritual, psychological — it’s the way that you process that, the way that you are able to work through it. Or, you get stuck and entrenched inside of it. I don’t think that’s particular to me at all. I think that’s something that everybody that I’ve ever met in my entire life has dealt with in one way or another.”

Creating or experiencing art as a medium for enduring life’s difficulties is, of course, a timeless human vocation. In taking inspiration from pain, Baroness have fashioned an album that, in advance of its release, has been embraced by the most widespread, glowing praises of their career, perhaps because, in addition to the innovation in the music, there is something vulnerable in the message. Says Baizley, “The record’s not about the accident. It’s about what happens when you suffer something like that.”

Baroness will stop by Rough Trade NYC for a signing and performance before their sold-out show at St. Vitus on December 20. Catch them at Rough Trade, or scour the secondary market for tickets to their later set.

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The Sword Dish Out Road Wisdom: Drink Hotel Coffee, Order Your Synth on eBay

“I hope you have your marijuana screen up,” says the band manager as he opens the door to the greenroom at Webster Hall. Inside, three-fourths of the Sword — John D. Cronise, Bryan Richie, and Kyle Shutt — huddle around a guy counting out piles of cash. (It wasn’t a drug deal.) Onstage, Santiago “Jimmy” Vela III sound-checks his drums, sending shockwaves of thunder through the empty venue three hours before the show.

“Do you want some Coke or ginger ale?” Richie asks. “We have hummus. With little cherry tomatoes.” The band’s rider, he says, just asks for hummus “with stuff.” They’re not particular about the accompaniments.

[pullquote]’That particular genre and those particular fans are a little bit less open to change and variation. Once they hear one thing, they kind of want that thing over and over again.'[/pullquote]

The band is mid-tour, on concert date 34 of 50, promoting the release of High Country, the fifth album of their twelve-year existence. The record is decidedly lighter than the classic heavy metal sound that defined their early career and, predictably, has garnered mixed reactions from metal purists.

“People would hate it either way — or some people would,” says Cronise — guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter-in-chief. “To me it’s really not a weird thing for a band to put out a different-sounding album. I think it has to do with where we started, in the particular kind of genre that we started in. That particular genre and those particular fans are a little bit less open to change and variation. Once they hear one thing, they kind of want that thing over and over again. I think if we had started in any other place, with any other kind of music, and had just changed things up, it wouldn’t really be as remarkable.”

Bass and keys player Richie chimes in: “It’s bizarre, because if you come to a show, or if you have seen the Sword before, there’s really no departure sonically when we play a new song versus an old song. Dynamically, there are some differences, but we’re the same exact band playing the exact same instruments.”

This is true save for the Sequential Circuits Six-Trak synth he purchased off of eBay and had hand-delivered by the seller this afternoon. It’s the same model of synth that appears on the album and will debut alongside Richie’s foot-operated pedal keyboard at Webster Hall to replicate the spaced-out textures achieved in the studio.

The energy in the room feels a bit slack, probably owing to life on the road. The Sword seem to pride themselves on the balance of moderately comfortable yet economical commuting they’ve established over the years. They travel in a van with a trailer, not a tour bus, and stay in budget hotels. After more than a decade of this routine, they’ve become connoisseurs of the free hotel breakfast.

“I’m all about that free Raisin Bran and shitty coffee in the morning,” says Richie, “like, the more the better. Why Starbucks when I’ve got Best Western? Sometimes it’s like the rustiest of rust water.”

“I hate when they have shitty other shit,” says Cronise, “like the tiny little Styrofoam cups with the shitty little lid and the tiny white sugar packets and powdered creamer. When they have just the crap accessories…then you can tell the coffee’s almost always going to be terrible.”

Naturally, they’d rather be at home than on tour. Home now means different places for each of them. Though they first came together in Austin, only Vela (the newest member of the group) lives there now. Disenchanted with the rapid development of the Texas capital, Cronise moved three years ago to Asheville, North Carolina, and guitarist Shutt is relocating to Brooklyn with his fiancée in January. Richie resides in Taylor, Texas, an up-and-coming community about forty miles north of Austin.

The crowd at Webster Hall for the Sword, December 1, 2015

“If we could just come play a show and hang out and then go home, that’d be great,” says Shutt about being on tour. “Shit was fun ten years ago.”

“The eating habits are absolute bullshit,” offers Richie. “The eating choices are absolute bullshit.” So much for that hummus.

“If you have addiction problems or something…you’re fuckin’ in trouble just because it’s like free booze all day,” says Shutt.

“Yeah, exactly,” agrees Richie, who says he’s a lightweight. “It’s like the first thing they offer you. ‘Oh, you’re a band? Here, how ’bout some beer?’ We have to tell people, ‘Hey, we’d like the coffee first. Can we get the coffee first? The beer can come whenever.’ ”

[pullquote]’We’ll take a little discomfort for a little comfort when we’re home.'[/pullquote]

“Then the coffee shows up at 8 p.m.,” Shutt concludes.

All complaints aside, the band recognize how lucky they are to make a living exclusively from music, which has been the case for about two years now. They attribute some of this to their knack for keeping road expenses to a minimum.

“I’ve seen bands that go on these big tours and then go home, and all the dudes work at clubs and bars in their off time because they spend all their money on tour because they had a huge bus and all this shit,” Cronise observes. “You can do it in ways that aren’t going to make you have to do that if you can bring in a little more [on tour].”

“We’ll take a little discomfort for a little comfort when we’re home,” says Richie. “That’s the way I always look at it. It’s like I’ll deal with this bullshit to relax and stretch out at home and be cool and not have to jump back into doing something immediately.” He jokes, “And we’re available for consulting at a very high hourly rate if any bands want to. We’ll gladly have a band intervention with them for — what do you think?” He turns to Cronise. “About $250 an hour? $500 an hour? I don’t know. We can split it.”

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Nick Didkovsky’s Residency Mounts Elite Music and Obscure Alice Cooper Cuts

For thirty years and counting, guitarist and composer Nick Didkovsky has been a fixture of New York’s downtown experimental music milieu. He’s most recognized for the mind-bending metal/jazz compositions of the octet Doctor Nerve, which he founded in 1983. But his body of work spans contemporary chamber music (DITHER Guitar Quartet; Bang on a Can), grindcore (Vomit Fist), and free-form improv — to say nothing of co-authoring a computer language (JMSL) and mentoring college students. His ambitious residency at the Stone, which takes place November 3–8, offers twelve unique performances with a bill of over three dozen musicians.

At the behest of venue curator John Zorn, Didkovsky has incorporated four premieres into the week. “[Zorn] was subtly encouraging me not to just make it a retrospective, but to produce new work,” says Didkovsky, “so I think I took that to heart and made it a very challenging week for me.” He laughs at the understatement. “It’s been a tremendous amount of work, but I hope very rewarding in the final analysis of it.”

The connective thread through the week’s diverse assortment of musical styles seems to be that all of the pieces demand as much from the musicians as the composer does of himself. This is typical, as most music by Didkovsky is very, very difficult to play. Such has been the experience of Kathleen Supové, a Juilliard-trained pianist and longtime collaborator of Didkovsky’s, who is premiering his piece A Musical Sacrifice with guitarist James Moore at the Stone. “For a composer,” she says, “there’s probably always a quandary like, ‘How do you get people to do your music?’ Do you make it really easy so that it’s very doable by people? Or do you make it as hard as you want it to be, and then it becomes a point of pride for the performers? I’ve seen that happen with the music of Elliott Carter, for example, or György Ligeti…. They have a devoted group of people who will do anything to be able to play it, and I think [Didkovsky] is in that school.”

Musicians (and listeners) who approach Didkovsky’s work find that part of the challenge derives from his mastery of unpredictability. Bassist and guitarist Samuel Smith (of Artificial Brain) has joined Didkovsky on the metal project Hässliche Luftmasken and for the abstract, semi-improvisational Petromyzontiformes, both of which have sets at the Stone. “Whatever your expectations are for the structure of a song or even where a riff is going to end up, he has an awareness of the expectation and interrupts that or takes it somewhere completely different,” Smith says of Didkovsky. “It’s never what you expect.” Smith’s participation in this residency will mark the first time he’s ever played with a horn section: He, Didkovsky, and Kevin Hufnagel (Dysrhythmia) will partner with the Guidonian Hand Trombone Quartet on November 4.

[pullquote]’To have one guy come from Sweden because his mind is so blown that we’re doing this, that means the world to me.'[/pullquote]

The most unpredictable of the residency’s performances is sure to be the $100 Guitar Project on November 6. Eleven guitarists will have a few minutes each to improvise with the inexpensive ax, which inspired a two-disc album in 2013, having been passed from player to notable player — some 65 in all — who devised and recorded short pieces with it. “A lot of these people have never performed solo,” says Didkovsky, “and a few have confessed to me that they’re kind of nervous about it, which is really cool. I don’t associate nervousness with these people.” One slightly apprehensive participant is Colin Marston (of Krallice, Gorguts, and Behold…the Arctopus). “I’m trying to feel comfortable about it,” Marston admits. “I’ve never done a solo improvised show before, unless you count being a teenager and going to the train station and playing guitar.” Marston studied composition under Didkovsky as an undergrad at New York University and says of his former professor, “He was really cool, because that was my only experience doing any kind of creative education…that was actually fostering creativity rather than teaching me a technical skill.”

By all accounts, Didkovsky has a knack for shepherding talent. “He’s really good at finding the qualities in people and musicians that he likes and wants to emphasize,” says Smith. A prime example of his respect for young artists is Vomit Fist, the corpse-paint-sporting trio (playing November 7) that features his teenage son, Leo, on drums and Leo’s friend Malcolm Hoyt as vocalist. Far from taking credit for his son’s precocious skill, the elder Didkovsky says he has Leo to thank for pushing him in new directions as a composer when creating the band’s hyper-aggressive bursts of song.

A highlight of the residency for Didkovsky is the only set with cover tunes: a live play-through of the first Alice Cooper record, Pretties for You, on November 8. He and five brave Alice superfans are attempting to replicate, note for note, the polarizing 1969 debut. To accomplish this, he’s sought input from two of the original Alice Cooper band members, Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith. “I probably have the most vetted version of Pretties for You lyrics anywhere on the planet right now,” Didkovsky says.

The record issues its own set of demands. “The album was so avant-garde,” recalls Dunaway, “and back in the Sixties in Los Angeles, this was too far out there for even Hollyweird.” Inscrutable lyrics and intricate tempo changes that the group “felt” rather than counted augment the eccentricity. “I can’t even imagine someone else coming in and trying to learn them,” says drummer Smith. “They’re pretty crazy.” He and Dunaway both say they feel flattered by Didkovsky’s dedication to the project and are likely to attend the show. “It’s such an honor to think that all of these years later, all of these musicians would put that much work, time, and effort into performing this,” Dunaway says.

The admiration flows both ways. “It’s just a masterpiece of surrealism,” Didkovsky says of Pretties for You. For him, the chance to perform the record in front of the musicians who made it is a dream come true — and the same could be said of the audience members eager to hear this obscure music live. One fan is even flying in from Sweden. “That’s the power of being on the total freakin’ fringe of the bell curve, as far as popularity is concerned,” Didkovsky says. “To have one guy come from Sweden because his mind is so blown that we’re doing this, that means the world to me. If he were the only guy in the audience, that would be good enough.”

Nick Didkovsky’s residency at the Stone kicks off on November 3. For ticket information, a full schedule and more, click here

Correction: The piece performed by Kathleen Supové will be “She Is Carried By Light,” not “A Musical Sacrifice.”

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Martyrdoom Draws the World’s Fiercest Metalheads to Brooklyn

Martyrdoom — a sprawling, multi-venue heavy-metal bacchanal that will darken Brooklyn doorsteps for a third year running — will span an unholy five consecutive nights this time around, and that’s not even counting multiple pre-shows and after-parties at the Acheron and Lucky 13. Imagine a satanic SXSW descending upon the borough November 6–10, bringing with it plenty of spikes, blood, and blast beats. Headliners including Necrophobic, Revenge, Mgla, Mortuary Drape, and Bombers will join more obscure talent such as Bell Witch, Malthusian, the Howling Wind, and Phobocosm, plus local slayers Black Anvil and Vorde. It’s become a yearly ritual for diehard fans of black metal, death metal, and extreme metal in general to trek out to Brooklyn for Martyrdoom — it’s like a smaller, more niche Maryland Deathfest, or a much, much meaner Roadburn.

The man behind it, Vinny Bochicchio, doesn’t do it all alone, enjoying support from other members of Signature Riff, the promotions company he spearheads, as well as from festival sponsors Metal Kingdom and — Martyrdoom’s main venue ­— Saint Vitus Bar. Traditionally, the community pitches in, too, as each year sees various musicians, fans, and allies come through in a pinch with a spare drum or van ride. But when darkness falls and the stage lights come on, the vision behind it is all Vinny’s.

He’s highly selective about the bands he books; at this point, he’s got the right to be. The Signature Riff logo — and Bochicchio himself — are familiar sights at extreme metal shows throughout the Tri-State area, whether presenting an event, socializing at a gig, or flyering for the next. When it comes to determining the Martyrdoom lineup each year, there’s no magic formula or industry dealings at play. As Bochicchio tells us, “Each fest takes on a life of its own based mostly on who’s available during a specific time frame.” Like any festival booker, he’s all too familiar with last-minute cancellations and visa snafus, but has reliably made up for any disappointments with the kinds of lineup that most metalheads would only expect to see in more metal-friendly Europe.

In recent years, Bochicchio has also tried his hand at booking tours, and has forged alliances with promoters across the country in order to facilitate shows for the bands he brings over. One of Martyrdoom’s most impressive feats is its repeat ability to fly in obscure cult acts from across the country and all over the world on a fraction of a larger, more mainstream festival’s budget. One of the most hotly anticipated headliners, black-metal luminaries Mgla, hail from Krakow, Poland; on Sunday and Monday, Brooklyn will be treated to a rare North American performance from Italian occult-horror fiends Mortuary Drape, who will be flying in, candelabra and all, from Alessandria, as well as from their countrymen Demonomancy. In fact, the vast majority of the bands playing this year come from at least a few hundred miles away, like Colorado occult icons Nightbringer or Massachusetts underground heavyweights Sangus, not to mention a strong Canadian presence courtesy of Revenge, Phobocosm, and Paroxsihzem.

It’s a massive effort — the logistics of which Bochicchio cites as the worst part of the planning process — but one that’s had a huge impact on the festival’s quality and reputation. Bochicchio prides himself on bringing bands over for exclusive performances, and this year’s event is no exception. He even managed to secure entry for Blood Tsunami and Studfaust, two Norwegian bands who share a notorious drummer, Bård “Faust” Eithun. Eithun was released from prison in 2003 following a murder conviction, and he’s never played live on American soil. Martyrdoom, in fact, is flying in almost a dozen bands, from Poland, Ireland, Sweden, Canada, Italy, and Norway, some of whom — like Ireland’s buzzy death metal upstarts Malthusian, for example — will be making their North American debuts along with Eithun. One of the festival’s more atmospheric bands, Sabbath Assembly, will also welcome a special guest: Kayo Dot’s Ron Varod will join them onstage at Saint Vitus as a second guitarist.

[pullquote]Martyrdoom takes its name from a classic Dead Congregation tune.[/pullquote]

Revenge, a Canadian black/death metal band with a rabid fan base and reputation for punishing live onslaughts, have promised to play new material from their forthcoming album — and if that weren’t enough, they’re also playing twice. That’s one of the reasons Martyrdoom lasts so long: Most of the bigger or more exotic bands are asked to play more than once, either at the main venue or at after-shows. For concertgoers, this can create a series of agonizing decisions, especially as the festival stretches into the workweek: While you’ll have multiple opportunities to catch Revenge (and Mgla, and Mortuary Drape), not so with Bombers — a rollicking, whiskey-soaked Motörhead tribute fronted by ex-Immortal frontman Abbath — who are coming all the way from Norway to play a solitary Tuesday-night set. As Friday headliners Necrophobic warned on Facebook, “It’s rare that we come to these areas of the world, so you better not miss any of these shows. We are ready to burn the stage and celebrate the goat together with you!”

In any case, one could never accuse Martyrdoom of skimping — rather, it offers an embarrassment of riches from which to choose, and Bochicchio’s accustomed to seeing some of the same faces up front at every show. The festival has grown exponentially since its first incarnation in 2012, a one-day affair that took over Public Assembly and introduced the neighborhood to Greece’s Dead Congregation, as well as Grave Miasma and Cruciamentum, from the U.K., and America’s own Father Befouled. In fact, without the latter, it might not have happened at all. The festival came into being by chance: As Bochicchio tells us, “Martyrdoom evolved from a Father Befouled/Encoffination one-off show. It just so happened that several bands we were speaking with at the same time all expressed interest in playing with Father Befouled. I’ve never seen that many bands respect a specific band as much, before or since, which says a lot about them! Once we had this grouping of bands together, we needed a catchy name, and ‘Martyrdoom’ is the title of a classic tune from Dead Congregation.”

Given the international bent of the lineup, it’s hardly surprising that a high percentage of Martyrdoom attendees — estimated at around 60 percent — come from out of town. “What makes NYC the perfect city to host [Martyrdoom] is that the city itself creates excitement, which means it’s a lot easier recruiting both bands and fans for the event. Aside from the bands and music, the city itself is able to draw,” Bochicchio explains. For years, “Brooklyn metal” meant hipsters; it meant Liturgy, and skinny jeans, and overpriced beer, and insincerity. There will always be those who scoff at the borough and turn their noses up at the vibrant, vicious underground metal and punk scenes bubbling away down in Bushwick or (God forbid) Williamsburg. But now, thanks to Martyrdoom, New York City is known as a place where the faithful may congregate and worship the darkest, most evil strains of bastardized heavy metal imaginable — and yeah, grab a decent slice of ‘za while they do it.

For Bochicchio, all the hassle and stress is more than worth it. As he says, “The best part is surrounding ourselves with several hundred like-minded individuals who thirst for the 1 percent of bands chosen each year.” Knowing him, he’s already started planning Martyrdoom 2017. After all, there’s no rest for the wicked.

Martyrdoom will rock you November 6–11. For ticket information, lineup, schedule, and more, click here.

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Korn’s 20th Anniversary Tour Turns Irving Plaza Into One Big Mosh Pit

In 1994 Korn released their debut album. Last night, the Left Coast five-piece celebrated their self-titled LP’s 20th anniversary alongside avid fans with a much anticipated performance at Irving Plaza. The venue was packed with lifelong listeners , most who bore the headliner’s name across the front or backs of their t-shirts. Generations of Korn fans waited patiently as Victory Records’ Islander kicked things off with fittingly heavy riffs reminiscent of post-hardcore’s heydays. It was clear during their set that their time on stage was in a way somehow sacred, that they too harbored the same anticipation as their audience for Korn’s imminent performance. The silence that followed the impassioned applause brought on by their departure was quickly filled by classic nu metal anthems like Slipknot’s “Sic,” which incited an impromptu sing-along. Soon after, Suicide Silence took the stage. Within an instant, the deathcore outfit got the crowd moving, causing a small yet energetic mosh pit to form in the middle of the main floor. As if it were still ‘94, fans thrashed, kicked, and crashed into each other, many doing so with smiles plastered across their faces as Suicide Silence headbanged and punched the air. By the end of their set, Suicide Silence had successfully prepped the crowd for Korn, leaving their audience breathless from enjoyably brutal cuts like “Fuck Everything” from 2011’s Black Crown. Before exiting the stage, lead singer Hernan “Eddie” Hermida sincerely thanked the more than grateful crowd as applause erupted in waves.

As show-goers waited for the much anticipated headliner of the night, Korn’s Brian “Head” Welch and his band mates prepped for their set backstage. While making a pre-performance sandwich,  the co-founding member and guitarist of Korn reflected on the band’s debut. “The energy of the songs [and] playing them live hasn’t really changed for me,” he tells the Voice. “I love the energy of how they make me feel. I love the breakdowns; I love the dynamics; like getting real soft and then —” He screams. “That stuff hasn’t changed. I think that when I listen to the record I feel a little bit dark, a little bit of a depression, but playing live is different.”

Welch’s connection to the album has remained a constant over the decades, although his connection to his fans has in many ways evolved due to his conversion to Christianity. “My main focus now is the people…I realize that everyone is at a different path, so I can’t make them want to start a relationship with Jesus, but it’s not about me,” he reflects. “Before it was like, ‘Oh, i want to make money, I want to be on TV, I want to be on the radio.’ And now it’s about sharing life.”

Korn onstage at Irving Plaza, October 5, 2015

Whether “sharing life” through his music or one-on-one with fans, it is clear that Welch, much like his band mates, is still at his prime. As Korn’s set began, Irving Plaza seemed to shake with the reverberations of cheers and screams, with many members of the audience proclaiming, “This is epic!” Performing before a backdrop reminiscent of their music video for “Freak On A Leash,” the band’s mere presence sparked subsequent minutes of joyous applause. Beginning with “Blind,” Korn’s performance felt timeless, each song rounding out with a visceral weight and audible precision, proving to any skeptics that nu metal is an art form in its own right. As “Blind” led to latter tracks like “Need To” and the undeniably infectious “Clown,” the energy brewing between frontman Jonathan Davis and his fellow bandmates was tangible. The crowd seemed to hang on every movement of the set, their shouts and cheers rising in volume as Davis played the intro to “Divine” on bagpipes and rising again during the chorus of “Shoots and Ladders.” As countless generations of Korn fans moshed, thrashed, and threw their arms in the air, the band seamlessly played through one of the Nineties most memorable albums with an unwavering level of energy and finesse.

Jonathan Davis of Korn at Irving Plaza, October 5, 2015

As if their performance of their debut was not enough, Korn returned to the stage after a momentary absence for a four song encore, which included the angst-filled, chathartic “Falling Away From Me.” As Davis sang into his microphone and gripped his Giger stand, Korn’s audience seemed to be in a state of sheer exhilaration, which only intensified during the band’s final song, “Freak On A Leash,” a suitable end to an unforgettable performance.

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Metal Allegiance: What Happens When ‘Three Famous Musicians and a Nobody’ Get in a Room?

It sounds like the setup for a punchline: “What would happen if three famous musicians and a nobody got in a room?” asks Mark Menghi.

In this instance, the answer is Metal Allegiance. What started as a live supergroup for cover songs has grown into an album of original material helmed by said high-profile rockers. It drops on September 18, and is made up of contributions from 25 metal artists, many of whom are appearing Thursday night at the record release show at the Best Buy Theater.

That fateful room where the album gestated was in the Poconos, at the home of drummer Mike Portnoy, known for his work with Dream Theater and the Winery Dogs. It was December of 2014. Guitarist Alex Skolnick (Testament) and bassist Dave Ellefson (Megadeth) were the other two famous musicians present. The “nobody” was Menghi, both a bass player and a music industry professional who’s worked on the business side for fifteen years. Although everyone had played together in an all-star jam on the Motörhead’s Motörboat cruise that fall, they’d never collaborated on songwriting. They were creative strangers, working without a record label or a producer, and no one knew how the experiment would turn out.

[pullquote]Alex Skolnick on writing Metal Allegiance: ‘It was like the genie was out of the bottle.'[/pullquote]

“When I went out to do the writing session, I didn’t book a return ticket,” says Ellefson. “I thought if we all get in a room, and we hate each other, and we can’t stand the music we write, I’ll probably be home tomorrow. But if we get in the room, and there’s just a lot of love, and it’s all flowing naturally — which is exactly what happened — then I don’t want to lock myself in and have an ending to the party.”

For a week, the group began each day by drinking coffee, discussing their favorite albums, and improvising. “It felt like a sleepaway camp,” says Skolnick. He remembers the initial plan was to include some covers, “but then the writing just wouldn’t stop,” he says. “It was like the genie was out of the bottle.”

The four core members lacked a singer, yet vocal melodies and lyrics sprang forth organically during the process. “The guys kept asking me, ‘When is your flight home?’ ” says Ellefson, “and I said, ‘I don’t know. I didn’t book one. We’re truly on a destination to nowhere.’ ” Thus, the sixth song on the album came to be called “Destination Nowhere.” “The vocal ideas were coming even as we were playing the music that first time around, at Portnoy’s,” says Skolnick, who wrote lyrics and recorded guide vocal tracks for several songs but jokes, “I would never hire myself” as a singer. The exception to the process proved to be “Dying Song,” now a single with a music video; for this, the group gave vocalist Philip H. Anselmo (Down, Pantera) free rein, sending him only an instrumental track. “We didn’t know what he was going to come back with,” Skolnick says, “and when he sent it back, we flipped out.”

Some guest artists opted to record their parts in person, with Skolnick and Menghi serving as directors at Sabella Studios on Long Island. Mark Osegueda (Death Angel), Randy Blythe (Lamb of God), and Gary Holt (Exodus, Slayer) were among them. “We were calling up friends, basically,” Menghi says, explaining the pitch. “We don’t have a lot of money. We’re doing this all ourselves, and at this point, there’s no label. We could pay you a few bucks and call it a day. They all agreed to it.” The four key songwriters self-financed the operation until Nuclear Blast picked up the album for its release.

[pullquote]Menghi’s goal, he says, is to bring the metal community together and to show that different styles can coalesce.[/pullquote]

Menghi has been masterminding the Metal Allegiance project, in various live incarnations, since 2011. His goal, he says, is to bring the metal community together and to show that different styles of metal can coalesce. “It’s a unity. It’s a brotherhood/sisterhood,” he explains. Ellefson weighs in: “Rather than being some drunken, late-night all-star jam, because it’s under the auspice of Metal Allegiance, it actually has some structure and an identity to it….It isn’t just ‘Here’s another bunch of famous guys, half-cocked, blazing through some standards.’ ”

How the new songs translate live will be revealed at their debut Thursday night. Joined by at least eight of the artists on the album as well as some special guests, the four songwriters will perform their original creations for the first time in front of an audience. “As metal music, sometimes the true litmus test is how it responds in the actual live setting,” says Ellefson. Fortunately, the recipe seems foolproof. As he puts it: “It’s by metal fans, for metal fans.”

Metal Allegiance takes over the Best Buy Theater on September 17. For ticket information, click here. UPDATED: There will be a second show at Saint Vitus Bar in Brooklyn on September 18. For ticket information on the second show, click here.

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What’s the Deal With the Fast-Food-Themed Black Sabbath Cover Band Playing Brooklyn This Weekend?

Just when it seemed like every corner of the musical universe had been fully explored, every style mash-up mashed, every genre wire crossed, someone comes along and starts a fast-food-themed Black Sabbath cover band. The band in question is Mac Sabbath, an L.A. group whose members — Ronald Osbourne, Slayer McCheese, Grimalice, and the Catburglar — dress in costumes that are eerily similar to the mascots of a certain burger franchise. Their songs take Sabbath classics and replace lyrics about war and the occult with lines about how mass-produced meals are poisoning the human race. Witness “Frying Pan,” Mac’s reconfiguration of Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” in which Osbourne sings, “I once burned your meal/My old job was cooking veal/Now it’s a culinary crime/All our future is pink slime.” Their shows are equally surreal and chaotic, with red-eyed, demonic-looking clown statues, inflatable cheeseburgers, and oversized prop ketchup and mustard bottles. The blazing primary colors and infernal special effects make the whole thing feel like Hieronymus Bosch’s My Little Pony.

If figuring out what Mac Sabbath is can be a brain-bender, figuring out who they are is damn near impossible. Their backstory is an absurdist tangle, involving time-travel from the Seventies through wormholes in the time-space continuum, secret shows in the basement of a certain chain restaurant, and nefarious conspiracies involving genetically engineered food. Making it even more complicated, the band doesn’t give interviews — instead, they speak through their manager, Mike Odd, who is himself a member of the theatrical hard rock band Rosemary’s Billygoat (which has led to speculation that Osbourne is actually Odd in disguise). In fact, listening to Odd talk, it’s hard to tell where reality ends and fabrication begins.

“I got an anonymous phone call to go meet someone,” Odd explains. “I went down to this fast-food franchise in the San Fernando Valley, and in walks this abomination — skull-faced clown, makeup dripping, wearing a red-and-yellow-fringed, dragging-the-ground-dirty outfit. And he just kind of enveloped me in this booth and informed me that my new calling is to manage this thing called Mac Sabbath. The next thing I knew, I was in another fast-food franchise, in the basement, watching this secret show by these Monsanto Mutants, churning out Sabbath songs and screaming about government control in food and how we’re being poisoned by this Orwellian tyrannical government.” Where, exactly, the band came from is even cloudier. The official backstory has them time-traveling through decades to warn us of poison burgers, and that’s the story Odd is sticking to. It becomes clear over the course of our call that the best thing to do when speaking about Mac Sabbath is to put reality on pause and let the weirdness commence. “The way Ronald describes it, he comes from this place in time and space that’s like an enchanted forest, where you can eat cheeseburgers off of trees,” Odd matter-of-factly explains. “But really, when you boil it down, I think the point to be made is that maybe the Seventies is the last time that food was really food. Nineteen eighty-four kind of came and went, and Monsanto gained government control, and now we’re all being force-fed poison.”

The evil of fast food is something Mac Sabbath obsesses over. In their songs, mass-produced meals are essentially a modern-day Soylent Green, which has the effect of making their Happy Meal Horror Show shtick strangely educational — a side effect that isn’t lost on Odd.

“One of the first things I set up was a show at Micheltorena Elementary School in Silver Lake,” he explains. Unlike much of what he’s said, this piece of information actually checks out. “At one point, a woman comes up to me and says, ‘Are you the one who put this together? I’m the principal of the school.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry!’ But she thought it was amazing. After that, I had a talk with Ronald and said, ‘We should do a thing where we tour and play the clubs for the drunks at night and then the next morning do the local elementary school. Even though this is an over-the-top, scary, menacing, wicked heavy metal show, it’s still kid-friendly.’ ” Odd gets more and more worked up, giggling gleefully as he speaks. “I mean, we can do a special set that has lessons for the kids on health food. We can get Michelle Obama involved. At this point, the sky’s the limit.”

Slayer McCheese of Mac Sabbath
Slayer McCheese of Mac Sabbath

He’s not kidding. The band has already made inroads on the festival circuit, winning new fans at the U.K.’s Download Festival and playing Outside Lands just minutes before Elton John headlined the main stage.

“Golden Gate Park is like playing in the forest — which is awesome for Mac Sabbath, because there are all these creepy trees, and it’s this kind of psychedelic environment,” he explains. “So at one point, I see this guy grab one of the giant inflatable burgers [the band throws into the audience] and hold it over his head, and then just run into the forest with it. And Ronald goes, ‘Stop that man!’ Everybody just laughed hysterically, and we never saw the cheeseburger again. I kept expecting to see it bopping around in the front during Elton John’s set.”

And while Mac Sabbath has to tread lightly for fear of reprisal from a certain fast-food giant, they’ve received a strong show of support from their other inspiration — Black Sabbath. “The second or third show that I organized was at a festival — the Zombie Walk Festival in Long Beach,” Odd says. “I recorded it and put a video up on YouTube with the lyrics, and on January 1, New Year’s Day, Black Sabbath posted it on Facebook and on Twitter. Now it has three-quarters of a million hits. So it’s really thanks to Black Sabbath, in so many senses, that this is successful.”

According to Osbourne, the band’s rivals are many — in concert, he rants about bands like KFC/DC, Cinnabon Jovi, and Burger King Diamond jacking their routine, despite the fact that none of those bands seem to actually exist. But midway through their third tour, the merchants of Beelzebub and Bacon Double Cheeseburgers only seem to be gaining momentum. “More than anything, I think that people can’t even believe it exists,” Odd laughs. “People who go to see them don’t know what hit them. They love it. I think the only thing that can stop us now would be running out of Black Sabbath songs.”

Mac Sabbath play the Knitting Factory September 12. For ticket information, click here.

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Scorpions’ Rudolf Schenker Reflects on 50 Years of Rock

In 2010, German rock band the Scorpions released what was supposed to be their final album and embarked on a farewell tour. Five years and three “farewell” tours later, they’re ready to rock the Barclays Center (like a hurricane) on September 12 as they celebrate 50 years as a band and the release of one more “final” album, Return to Forever.

Founding guitarist Rudolf Schenker, now 67, insists the band truly has been trying to call it quits, but the public won’t let them. “We took this serious,” he says of the prior farewells, “because we didn’t want to go onstage too old, or with half-power. But what we found out, when the farewell tour ends, [was that] we have lots of fans…and the majority of these fans are between 16 and 28. [A] brand-new generation. Also, we found out on this tour how much the people like our music and what it means to them that we play and that we’re still around.”

Speaking from his studio in Hannover, having just returned from judging a fireworks competition in Berlin, Schenker betrays a high-wattage enthusiasm that outshines his heavy accent. “We want to leave, but nobody let us go,” he explains. “So that’s a good thing. That’s a good situation.”

According to his memoir-cum–self-help book, Rock Your Life, Schenker decided at age fifteen that he wanted to be a writer. (“Ich möchte Schriftsteller werden,” he told his mother.) His mom pointed out the impracticality of this, given that his father was an engineer, a “man of logic.” Ironically, within two years, young Schenker had refocused his sights on a profession of equal if not greater improbability — rock music — and, in 1965, started the Scorpions.

“I was not a fan of German music, Schlager music. Terrible,” he recalls over the phone. “When I heard [for] the first time Elvis and Little Richard, I said, ‘This is my music.’ It was not the time for me to start playing guitar because I didn’t like to be alone onstage, but when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came, they inspired me. I said to myself, ‘Yes. That’s what I want to do: four or five friends traveling around the world and playing music to all the people.’ ”

In the mid-Sixties, half of Germany lived under Soviet rule, but the whole country lived in the shadow of World War II. By 1982, when Schenker had already penned some of the Scorpions’ most enduring hits, he resolved to play in Russia someday. “You know from the history, the Germans in the end of the Second World War were going into Russia,” he says, explaining his desire to change the Russians’ perception of his country. “Here’s a new generation growing up from Germany. They’re not coming with tanks and making war. They’re coming with guitars and bringing love and peace.” As self-appointed cultural ambassadors, the group became the first German band to perform in the Soviet Union, doing so in 1988. The following year, the Berlin Wall came down, and the Scorpions commemorated the event in their 1990 song “Wind of Change,” described by Schenker as “the soundtrack of the most peaceful revolution on earth.”

There’s some kind of rock ‘n’ roll poetry in this elevation of a simple song to a more universal message. Here’s a band whose album covers have depicted a man pulling bubblegum off a woman’s breast (Lovedrive) and the ass-view of a guy in jeans with a kneeling woman (and a doberman) gazing up at him imploringly (Animal Magnetism). It’s not profound stuff. But then there’s the haunting “Still Loving You,” a perfect power ballad if there ever was one. There’s the legacy of two former guitarists who’ve passed through the Scorpions’ ranks — Uli Jon Roth (a legend in his own right) and Michael Schenker (of UFO, and Rudolf’s younger brother) — whose contributions added extra musical heft to the records on which they appeared. There’s the fact of over 75 million albums sold worldwide and tours touching every continent save two (and they may yet make it to Australia, says Schenker). And then there’s the footage of the Wall coming down, set to a whistled melody. Somewhere along the line, this group, who write lyrics in their second language, became bigger than just a rock band. They’ve become a symbol of international goodwill.

“We always were trying to build bridges between a generation,” Schenker says, “between countries and different parts of the world, different philosophies. And we always tried to really be ambassadors, to show the people music is something very important, and it can bring people together.”

The sentiment is decidedly more hippie than hair metal. (The Scorpions sometimes get unduly lumped into the latter category because of the decade in which they peaked, but they never wore enough makeup or had hair big enough to warrant it.) While other stadium-rock groups fizzled in the Nineties during the rise of grunge and alternative, Schenker says the Scorpions never had to fight those trends, because they had cultivated such a massive fan base in Russia and Asia. The bridges they’d built kept their career alive.

And so, half a century past the genesis of the band, a world of fans will not let them stop making music. For now, that suits Rudolf Schenker just fine. In his words: “We want to play everywhere where electricity is.”

The Scorpions play the Barclays Center September 12. For ticket information, click here.