There’s “metal,” and then there’s METAL, but however ya define the genre it’s always been largely a straight, white man’s game. Homophobia has long been rampant in the metal community, despite the irony presented by a parade of glam-rockers masquerading as “metal” saturating the MTV airwaves in the ‘80s. Bands like Poison and Motley Crüe, in their often cartoonish and brazenly misogynistic appropriation of styles pioneered by the glam-rock bands of the ‘70s and theatrical rockers like Freddie Mercury, caked on more make-up and depleted a higher percentage of the ozone layer than even their omnipresent groupies, and yet were still somehow supposed to be macho. Sebastian Bach of Skid Row (a band that purported to be metal) memorably sported a t-shirt at a 1991 show that read, at the very height of the epidemic in America, “AIDS Kills Fags Dead.” The list of examples of homophobia in metal (and faux-metal) is long and depressing.
But now it’s 2014, and barriers are breaking everywhere you look. Hardly a day goes by that a judge doesn’t strike down an amendment banning marriage equality as unconstitutional, or yet another celebrity comes out of the closet. But those barriers don’t break easily, and change is a long time coming, especially in communities not known for embracing diverse sexuality. Take the NFL, for example. Speculation about how organizations and teammates would handle an openly gay professional football player has abounded for years, but it became reality barely a week ago when Michael Sam, a first-team All-American defensive end at the University of Missouri, was drafted by the St. Louis Rams. When Sam kissed his boyfriend in a moment of celebratory glee upon hearing the announcement, it was captured live on national television and caused a massive tizzy that is still reverberating. Sports giant ESPN broadcast the kiss over and over again like it was the winning touchdown pass at the Super Bowl, and conservative commentators went ape-shit berserk over it. Barriers are breaking, sure, but this new reality of equality and increasing openness is taking longer to sink in with some than with others.
The same is true in heavy metal. Rob Halford of Judas Priest caused a stir when he came out as a gay man all the way back in 1998 — and immediately a huge cry of “DUH!” erupted, as it suddenly became clear that he was open all the time right before our eyes in his band’s flamboyant videos festooned with S&M imagery, leather and spikes. Judas Priest popularized leather in heavy metal fashion, leather has been an important part of gay subculture since the ‘40s, and yet somehow most people didn’t make the connection until what was obviously right under our noses was pointed out by the man himself. In retrospect it seems somewhat obvious, but the idea of a gay heavy metal front-man just didn’t register. And to a large degree, it still doesn’t.
After all, Halford coming out as gay didn’t exactly unleash a torrent of closeted homosexuals following his lead. Heavy metal remained — and mostly, still remains — a musical genre dominated by straight white males, and many bands adopt an uber-macho persona – although, as with anything else, there are exceptions. Of course there are gay metal fans and musicians, but the list of openly LGBT metal musicians is sparse. Norwegian black metal icon Gaahl, most notably a member of Gorgoroth, came out in 2008. Otep vocalist Otep Shamaya is openly lesbian. There’s King’s X bassist Doug Pinnick, and Faith No More keyboardist Roddy Bottum. Life of Agony vocalist Mina (formerly Keith) Caputo announced she is transgender in 2011. There’s Torche vocalist/guitarist Steve Brooks, vocalist Jason Rivera of Gaythiest, bassist Brian Cook of Russian Circles, and perhaps a handful more. A short list.
We can now add to it, as last week two members of the Los Angeles-based progressive-metal trio Cynic – – vocalist/guitarist Paul Masvidal and drummer Sean Reinert — publicly acknowledged their homosexuality in a brief interview with the LA Times. Cynic may not be a household name like Metallica, but in the world of metal they are widely known and admired. They’ve been around in various forms since the late ‘80s, although they did take a long hiatus in the mid-90s before reforming in 2006.
In February, Cynic released the ambitious Kindly Bent to Free Us, a darkly beautiful album of ferocious guitar riffs, dreamy acoustic passages, and dazzling musicianship. It’s epic in scope; the tracks are generally long and brooding, and they frequently change tempo and direction with the razor-sharp precision of an automatic weapon. Masvidal’s melancholy vocals are often layered in exquisite harmony. There are no air-raid siren theatrics a ‘la Bruce Dickinson (not that there’s anything wrong with that… Iron Maiden rocks!!), nor are there guttural growls that sound like someone is in the process of being disemboweled. Masvidal’s voice is rather gentle and there are delicate acoustic sections that burst open with searing guitar riffs and thunderous drums and bass before mellowing back out again. Think of it as a bit of a mix between Tool’s Ænima and Opeth’s Damnation, with hints of stoner-rock bands like Kyuss and metal pioneers Black Sabbath, or perhaps Pink Floyd’s Animals meets Metallica’s And Justice for All. This ain’t Poison, and there are no power-ballads with swooning choruses made for a vast sea of gently-waving cigarette lighters. This is music of staggering complexity and depth, layers of sound to get lost and drift around in (and yeah, Kindly Bent to Free Us is a great stoner album for sure). It’s a hypnotic nightmarescape that draws you a little deeper into the murky, emotional swirl of guitars and melody with each listen.
But the question is… is Cynic now a “gay metal band”? There is nothing stereotypically “gay” (or “straight,” for that matter) about them. Does every musician, football player or public figure that comes out of the closet now have an obligation to be a crusader for gay rights? Certain artists have been associated with being openly gay and writing extensively about gay issues, most notably pop bands like Erasure and Pet Shop Boys. But metal is a different canvas. Perhaps we are slowly entering the phase where artists aren’t defined by their sexuality. The music is what should be front and center, and if a gay artist wants to reflect in his lyrics some aspect of dealing with rejection, living in fear and being closeted, then so be it. Cynic isn’t a gay band, though, or a straight one. They are a METAL band.
In the LA Times piece, Masvidal predicted, “There’s definitely going to be a reaction,” and he was right. Shortly after he and Reinert opened up publicly about their sexuality, a guitar manufacturer took to his Facebook page to openly disparage Masvidal. He was promptly excoriated by metal musicians like Scar Symmetry guitarist Per Nelsson, bassist Adam Getgood of local Bethesda-based Periphery, Intervals’ guitarist Aaron Marshall, and metal guitarist Keith Merrow.
And while there is little question homophobia exists and will continue to exist in the metal community (and elsewhere), there are other signs of progress. Former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash, Scott Ian of Anthrax, and Paul Stanley of glam-metal pioneers Kiss have been photographed in ads for the NOH8 campaign. Greg Puciato, vocalist for the respected New Jersey-based metal band Dillinger Escape Plan, wrote on his website in response to a fan’s question about homophobia in heavy metal: “I really think masculinity insecurity issues are the problem, and listening to testosterone-charged music and putting on a tough-guy front enables the people with those issues to live in a sort of constructed ‘man suit,’ helping them to feel more adequate in their gender/sex role confusion… Combine that with lack of education and culture, two things that we have a massive problem with in the U.S., and there you have it… It grosses me out. I think the younger generations are obviously progressing, everything progresses with time, but it’s annoying to wait for the world around you to play catch-up when you’re already on that level. Understanding of homosexuality is one of the largest humanist issues of our time… It’s frustrating that the United States leans so much on Christianity politically, a religion that teaches at its fundamental core complete intolerance toward homosexuality. Every time a candidate endorses Christianity or uses it as a tool to get votes of Bible-Belt states, he’s saying ‘go fuck yourselves’ to all of the gay population.”
Cynic’s drummer Sean Reinert said it best in the LA Times piece: “Gay people are everywhere, doing every job, playing every kind of music and we always have been. It’s taken me years to finally be brave enough to say, ‘If you have a problem with that, then throw out our records. That’s your problem, not mine.’”
Barriers continue to fall in a thousand little ways every day. Cynic just wedged open another crack, and delivered a killer new album along the way. Cynic will launch the “True Hallucination Tour – 2014” in July, and their new album Kindly Bent to Free Us is now available digitally, on CD or vinyl.