IS GOD DEAD? Metal dudes grapple the Almighty

GigCity Edmonton God is Dead Black SabbathThere doesn’t seem to be much middle ground when it comes to heavy metal and religion.

It’s either Trent Reznor in Nine Inch Nails snarling “Your God is dead and no one cares!” Or Megadeth’s openly Christian frontman Dave Mustaine refusing to share the stage with a band called Rotting Christ, or claiming that President Obama staged shootings so he could take away Americans’ guns. One extreme to another.

Despite the pockets of Christian conservatism seen in people like Mustaine and Alice Cooper, heavy metal has more examples on the dark side. Ozzy Osbourne calls himself “The Prince of Darkness.” But is he, really? Black Sabbath’s new single “God is Dead?” makes it sound like he’s on the fence vis-à-vis existence of the Almighty. Note the question mark in the title – but once the sludgy rocker kicks up a notch towards the end, you might forget it’s there in the wake of the repeated line: “God is dead! God is dead! God is dead! God is Dead!”

Et tu, Ozzy?

There are a couple of Edmonton stories worth exploring. It came up recently with the April 19 reunion concert of Disciples of Power, a death metal band that dates back to the mid-‘90s. Original lead singer Hart Bachmier wasn’t there. He had found God and renounced his former life. He felt so strongly about it that he placed a classified ad in Vue magazine in 2010, that read in part, “Sorry if I corrupted you with my evil music. Give glory to God and forgive me.”

According to his former bandmates, Bachmier gave his blessing for the reunion show, but then put another ad in the May 2 issue of Vue: “I, Hart Bachmier, founding member of Disciples of Power, rebuke and resist the formation of my old band without my consent. DOP will not get my blessing for this formation, but I will pray for them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.”

His former bandmates are said to be “dumbfounded.” Bachmier did not respond to requests for an interview.

Jesus coming pretty quick

Kelly Simpson then

Kelly Simpson then

There’s something oddly familiar about this. Edmonton musician Kelly Simpson used to be the singer in a post-punk band called The Loved One that was also active in the mid-‘90s. He cut a sinister figure: a large, bald-headed man draped in black rags and brandishing a goat skull staff as he sang about chaos, disorder, the devil and the imminent end of the world. He was into the occult and sang songs like “We’re All Going Straight to Hell” and “Godless Faceless Universe.”

The only way he could’ve made himself scarier was to find Jesus – and by God, he did it.

Simpson has been a hardcore Bible-thumper for at least 10 years. He preaches at a local church, volunteers at a homeless shelter called House of Refuge – where “if they’re not allowed to go anywhere else they come to us” – and works to make a living selling Christian-themed merchandise. He still writes music, and has since learned to play the acoustic guitar; he apologizes when he lets slip the word “fuck” and he claims he talks to Jesus almost every day. He says he’s in training to be an exorcist. Devout enough for you?

The circumstances of his dramatic conversion aren’t as important as the outcome, but Simpson had a series of unexpected visions that brought him to Jesus. The tale should be familiar to many born-again Christians. He happened to be reading a book at the time, came upon a chapter titled “The Christ Within” and had an epiphany.

“The punchline that I thought was interesting was the most powerful prayer in the universe is ‘Thy will be done.’ And I thought, pfft, obviously. And in the occult, we’re all ‘do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,’” Simpson says, quoting Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan.

Kelly Simpson now

Kelly Simpson now

No, it is not the same thing as “Thy will be done.”

Says Simpson, “Even on the best day, my highest will couldn’t possibly touch His lowest whim, and my fancy prayer, my salvation prayer, was, ‘You’re bigger than me, I’m smaller than You, go ahead, move on through.’ My life shattered after that. And then I kind of saw Him everywhere.”

Like a number of Christians, Simpson believes that Jesus is coming pretty quick and the world we know it will soon come to an end: “End times been coming since Christ was crucified,” he allows, “but now they really are.”

Is this really so different from any apocalyptic songs heard from so many allegedly anti-Christian heavy metal bands? Is Simpson simply replacing one cult with another? The key difference is, the singer says, “Back then we didn’t mean it.”

Strangely, the music of Disciples of Power was never that anti-religious. There were themes of environmental catastrophe and Nostradamus with the odd ice demon thrown in there – but it was pure fantasy. It’s theatre, which makes Hart Bachmier’s behaviour so bewildering.

But not really. You can take the question of “What the HELL happened to you, man?” more literally – operative word “hell.” Heavy metal is a passionate form of music: Visceral, primal, urgent, no place for weak emotions. Anger fuels a lot of it – no coincidence that one of the best metal bands of all time is called Rage Against the Machine. It is also a scene, like the entire music scene, that breeds drug abuse. A passionate, artistic, easily-angered individual susceptible to addiction or bad ideas could easily get in over his or her head and turn to God for comfort. In many cases where addiction is the problem, it’s either give your life to Jesus or die. It’s no coincidence people call it being “saved.”

One extreme to another

Calvin Fehr

Calvin Fehr

Turning now to the “dark” side, you’d have to be one crazy Bible-thumper to attack death metal singer Calvin Fehr while he was on stage with his band Dead Jesus. He’s a 220 pound pro wrestler who went by the name of Org666, sang like Cookie Monster from hell and mutilated himself with barbed wire and burning baseball bats while he performed. But there was someone crazy enough to take him on.

Fehr recalls, “We were playing Filthy McNasty’s about 10 years ago, and some guy grabbed me from behind just as I was tearing up the Bible, and started choking me out. I flipped him, smashed him into a railing and then my guitarist kicked him down the stairs. I heard later he was upset because I was ripping up the Bible.”

And why was Org666 ripping up the Bible?

Stupid question. “It was part of the show,” he says.

In short, like pro wrestling, it’s pure theatre. Even Ozzy knows that.

Not to scare anyone here or anything, but Kelly Simpson says he once had a dream about Dead Jesus. He was walking through a neighbourhood in Edmonton and came to a house where he saw a guy walking out wearing a Dead Jesus shirt, so he said to him in the dream, “Hey, tell so-and-so that Kelly Simpson said Jesus is real.”

Months later, according to Simpson, THE DREAM CAME TRUE.

Asked if he’s ever gotten himself checked out for a frontal lobe tumour, he laughs, “Would a tumour predict the future? That would be pretty frickin’ cool.” A similar thought came from the late Edmonton artist ManWoman after being asked the same question. He replied that what caused his visions wasn’t as important as the “divine” content therein.

Edmonton rock musician Sherry-Lee Wisor, who was raised hardcore end-times-Christian before rejecting it as a teen, has known Simpson for a long time. She says, “I see Kelly as being totally consistent with his world view in the sense that he’s always interpreted things in his own, totally unique way. It also helps that he’s, for the most part, very progressive in his ideology and has done totally devoted work with the disenfranchised in this town.”

Meanwhile, you won’t find an atheist as forthright and laid-back as Calvin Fehr, despite his demonic (former) persona in Dead Jesus. Asked his opinion on religion in general, he says simply, “It’s dumb.” Asked what he says to people who tell him they’re praying for him, he politely replies, “Thanks, have fun.”

May the God that may or may not exist have mercy on his soul.