America's HM magazine has been a key publication in the growth of the Christian hard music underground. Tony Cummings spoke to HM's editor Doug Van Pelt.
Hard music is the phrase used to describe rock radical. An umbrella phrase, it covers numerous sub-genres of rock music, from heavy metal to punk and takes in hardcore, goth, rapcore, industrial and EMO. Christian hard music has grown and grown in the US. Today bands like Embodyment, Bride, Squad Five-O, POD (Payable On Death), Tourniquet and hundreds more are demonstrating that you don't need to be the darlings of Nashville or purveyors of soft pop for Christian radio. The abrasive, on-the-edge sounds of Christian hard music have in America developed their own marketing infrastructure, probably none more influential than HM magazine. The editor of HM, Doug Van Pelt, was quizzed by Cross Rhythms about hard music's origins, its current state and where it might be heading in the future.
Tony: What year would you say Christian heavy metal really
began and who were the pioneers in those early years?
Doug: "1984 would be a good year to start. Stryper released its debut ep - 'The Yellow And Black Attack' - in the summer. Saint and Messiah Prophet released independent releases that year. This was preceded by Jerusalem's hard rock release - 'Warrior' - in 1983; and Rick Cua, fresh from his stint with the Outlaws, released a couple early hard rock releases. The Resurrection Band had released a handful of hard rock albums, as had the Daniel Band. The next year saw the formation of Barren Cross and Bloodgood, as well as the debut (June '85) of Heaven's Metal Magazine. 1986 saw the debut releases from Barren Cross and Bloodgood, as well as follow-up albums from Saint, Messiah Prophet and 'Rise Up' from the Daniel Band."
Tony: The Christian heavy metal scene suddenly seemed to die
away and in its place a more diverse hard music scene emerged. Is that
a fair assessment?
Doug: "I'd say the hard music scene was developed before metal died out. Metal was essentially assassinated by Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', which catapulted heavy metal's fall from prominence. Prior to this, though, the metal scene had been undergoing an evolution or hybridisation process. Many artists were mixing forms of rap, funk, industrial and other genres with the hard music sounds of metal. Bands like Jet Circus, XL and DBD, and Circle Of Dust are good examples of this. The whole metal scene was changing and evolving when Nirvana's hit single dominated the airwaves. Punk was crowned king and the hair bands were laughed out of town. Beavis And Butthead helped, too, by making Metallica cool and Winger uncool. This helped usher out the glam, glitz, poofy hair bands, while the heavy and hard bands just kept right along. Metal did not die, it just went underground. There were no longer many bands left whom record companies would splash in front of everyone. In essence, the record companies told the public that metal wasn't cool any more. The Christian record companies were the quickest, I think, to run from metal and jump on the alternative bandwagon. It didn't seem as dangerous to them, they thought, to cover bands with acoustic guitars, maybe. They didn't really rush out and sign any dangerous punk bands, but they ran from metal fast. Metal, or hard music, has been around since the late, late '60s, with bands like The Who. Cream, Hendrix. Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Grand Funk cranking their guitars up louder and louder. The electric guitar has since been the staple of rock music that 15-year-old boys are into. A member of Metallica was supposedly quoted as saying, "Every day in America a guy turns 15-year-old" This was in response to a question about Metallica's consistent popularity. This kind of music is ever evolving and ever popular. Kids like it loud and heavy. They just want it to be cool, too; and the definition of cool has to change every once in a while to fit the new crop of kids."
Tony: How important have been magazines like HM in the
development of Christian hard music?
Doug: "I can't really comment on my own magazine's importance. I think having a magazine that covers a specific style will serve that style by offering artists of that genre a platform or communication tool to get the word out about their art. It becomes a gathering place or a resource for people to find out what's going on in this genre. In that sense, a magazine covering a genre certainly serves the genre."
Tony: Can you give me a potted history of HM? What was your
finance/circulation of issue 1? How did you survive? Etc,
Doug: "Not sure about your definition of "potted," so I'll stick to the other two questions. I started Heaven's Metal Magazine in 1985 with no budget. The vision from the beginning was to be a full-blown magazine, but I started it out as a newsletter format with xeroxed or copied pages. I printed 75 copies of the first issue (on the first run), which cost me a whopping $17. I only grew as I could afford to grow. I knew that eventually the pages would be slick and colour, but I wasn't going to go there until I could pay for it. It was that simple, really. The magazine must have met a need out there, because it really took off almost right away. After one or two issues I had 300 subscribers, then it climbed to 1000, then a few thousand. Today we have about 5,000 subscribers and another 10,000 copies or so go to retailers or wholesale distributors or newsstands. I did not do the magazine full-time until October of 1989. I was working at a Christian bookstore from '87 to the spring of '89. I was fired from that job, incidentally, because I stood up for the British artist Caroline Bonnet. This wasn't the only reason, but it brought the issue of the store manager and my philosophies, which were opposed to each other. There was an issue of whether we should have carried her '89 Word release in our store. I knew that other artists I really enjoyed a lot, like The Choir and Jeff Johnson, would be in jeopardy if Caroline Bonnet's album was returned to Word. Anyway, losing that job started me working on Heaven's Metal part time. I worked as a substitute teacher and as temporary office help part time and received a small part time salary from the magazine. This was from March to October. Then, in October, I was able to give myself a salary of $400 a month, which I could live off at the time as a single guy in a small apartment that ran $210 a month."
Tony: An A&R man at Word recently said he thought heavy
metal could make a comeback. Do you agree?
Doug: "I bet this A&R guy was Bubba Smith, wasn't it? He's been going to some festivals this summer. I think they're looking for some hot and relevant bands. Anyway, I don't think metal ever died, per say. Like I said before, hard music evolved and put on new threads, as it were. It got a new haircut. The image bands, or bands that relied on their hair, Spandex and clothes more than their music found themselves out of fashion. That part of metal, hopefully, won't come back. The good music, however, has to be performed with skill and they have to have good songs. Another reason why the scene died a bit was the creativity dried up a bit. The creative minds were shifting gears into another cross genre sound. I think the '80s' metal sounds might come back in a bigger way with some hot-selling bands, but I think the hard music with authentic performance will outsell the postured and processed music any day. That's why a band like Metallica and Pantera will continue to sell millions while alternative is supposedly ruling the scene - it's music that has credibility. The kids know it. They can sense something being forced on them and they can sense something fake."
Tony: The fall of Roger Martinez, of Vengeance Rising, into
apostasy raises some difficult questions. Do you think hard music
musicians are more inclined to satanic attack than musicians in other
Doug: "It does raise some difficult questions. It will question many doctrines. Do I think hard music musicians are more inclined to satanic attack than other genres? No way. Entertainers, period, face some temptations and come into contact with some weird people that other vocations won't, but styles within entertainment genres aren't any more or less evil or prone to evil than others. There's sleaze in every musical genre. Sometimes the more street-level or sexy music scenes will be more apparent at first glance, but there's sleaze in every genre of music."
Tony: Here's a quote from Larry Norman: "I think that the
Christian artists who are trying hard to imitate the avant-garde and
the secularism of regular commercial music are doing probably the
worst job. Instead of listening to God and listening to the Holy
Spirit and trying to create something original, their desire to be
cool and to be eccentric is very immature and a waste of time for the
audience too. But there's a lot of hurt kids that like to think that
they're avant-garde. They turn on to this kind of music and you can
sell 1,500 or 2,000 copies of some really weird music that you call
Christian. But those kids that are interested in it, it doesn't feed
them very much; and maybe later, a couple of years later, they've
grown so far beyond it that they can't believe they ever liked those
bands." Isn't that a description of quite a bit of the music in the
Christian hard music underground?
Doug: "Hmm. I think it can be an accurate assessment of some musical trends, but not all of them. It certainly is easier to copy something than to come up with something original. God surely inspires us to create and be original. It's sad to see people not be creative. Certainly artists need to be pushed to create what God has put inside them and to reach out beyond themselves as well. Subtle rebukes like Larry Norman's are necessary, but they need not be so harsh to the naive artist. We can't be too hard on someone else's art that is not being offered up to the general marketplace to be criticized. In other words, it's a very valid criticism, but it's not the end-all authoritative word on what kinds of art can or cannot be mimicked. Does this make sense?"
Tony: What's the current circulation of HM?
Doug: "Just about 5,000 subscribers (world-wide) and another 10,000 copies sold on newsstands (both Christian and mainstream)."
Tony: What radio exposure does hard music get in the
Doug: "There are about 80 radio shows that report to either the Pure Rock Report or the CCM Update. They have, at a minimum, two to three hours per week that they play this music. In one sense, having your song chart in the top 10 of these charts means that most of these 80 or so stations are playing your song once per week. In the big picture, this is not too significant. This is in the Christian marketplace. In the secular radio scene, there is at least one classic rock station (Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Who, Van Halen) in every city, and usually at least one alternative/modern rock station (Bush, Soundgarden, Radiohead), so I'd say it gets a lot of radio exposure."
Tony: The music seems to be divided between bands with a
"ministry" perspective, particularly evangelism, whose lyrics are
overt statements of faith, and those who are into exploring lyrical
creativity and feel restricted by a utilitarian attitude to music. Is
that a fair observation?
Doug: "Fair enough. I think one aspect of Christian music that gets overlooked is the pastoral value of this music. Too often we look at only the fruit or lack thereof in terms of evangelism. The pastoral value of Christian music is great. It can help many a teenage or young listener through many a hard time. This is very valuable. "Another problem I see with Christian music is a result of some of its biggest success stories. Look at the ministry model of Resurrection Band or Petra. The ministry models of each of these bands is great. Their ministry model is practical and fruit bearing. The problem arises, however, when we take that model and try to apply it to every other band. That is wrong and shortsighted and narrow. We often do this. The other model is so successful that it's easy to assume 'this must be THE way to do music as a believer!' There are several other models to use and there is certainly room under the reign of Christ for several different musical expressions.
Tony: Where is Christian hard music going in the
Doug: "To my house! EMO is still going to be big. A lot of the hardcore bands got bored and either went EMO or college/indie rock. This genre will still grow. Industrial is still experimenting and growing, especially when every once in awhile an artist finds a creative and heavy way of making music. The whole gothic scene and doomy music scene is going to keep growing and getting bigger. Hard music is just huge!!!"