The Last Metal Critic Pt. 2
Part 2: Exclusive
The bottled coffee they provide me with is decent, but I can’t help missing the pan coffee I used to make in the Far-Off. It was the opposite of this stuff—black as the Devil’s anus, the kind of drink you chew.
I kill my bottle on my way to mess. One week in, and I’ve already got a rhythm here at the Compound—wake, push-ups, coffee, food, write, food, write, food, drunk, sleep. It’s monotonous, but not terrible. All those ‘writes’ include listening to free records from all over the world. That I have to pound out 10,000 words a day about them doesn’t make receiving them any less pleasant. Besides, it’s an interesting lesson in who’s still left after the Great Suck. Or who’s still important, at least.
China has really established itself with this posi-occult black metal, which is funny given how long it took them to catch up to the rest of the scene pre-Suck. The remaining Scandinavian bands are deep in their introspective cave-folk; it’s barely metal at this point. The shit out of the Middle East is new and scary as Hell, and Australia is just banging out classic, catchy cock rock. The Nigerian death metal bands rule across the board; Nigeria easily has the highest rate of success of any country I’m currently covering.
America is relearning how to walk, sadly, but we’re figuring it out. As a country, we always revert to thrash. It’s the safe space for us as a people—that mix of edgy, listenable, and good-timey. The Suck was our first true disaster, and it hit us hard enough to knock us back to thrash and its variants, with only a few bands striving for the technicality and variety that we once had.
Mess is pretty abandoned; all the guards, soldiers, and administrators eat super early, so we in Entertainment miss the rush and get what’s left. My neighbor, Niko, the last pop critic, sits at a table with a broad bearded dude. She nods me over as I walk past, so I join them. Niko seems all right, albeit aloof in that pointedly ignorant pop fan kind of way. You know—deep thoughts are had, but never entirely expressed.
“Rhombus, this is Ethan,” she says. “He’s with Film upstairs. Major Comedy. Rhombus is our Metal guy.”
“Oh, nice,” says Ethan.
“Is there an Independent Comedy section?” I ask.
He nods. “All of Film is divided into Major and Independent.”
“I wonder why they don’t do that for music.”
“I think every band is trying to be Major,” he says. “Very rarely is someone making music with the hopes of remaining obscure.”
“I’m not sure about that,” I say.
“That’s fair,” he responds nodding. “But you’re Metal. You guys have funky rules.”
Back in my room, there’s a new pile of material waiting for me. The CDs, tapes, and records in my Relisten pile are neatly arranged, and my Total Shit pile has been taken away. When I check my e-mail, my Inbox is overflowing with promos. It’s going to be a long day.
As I listen through the top layer of material, I consider Ethan’s point. On the one hand, it’s an obvious simplification, and I bet even Niko knows that, though her cultural identity is definitely fame-obsessed on a larger scale than mine. But I’ve always imagined metal as above and beyond that, a genre that can only truly exist when fame and fortune are taken out of the picture. Maybe I’m wrong.
Midway through the pile, I find a cassette by a barbaricore band named Deeply Fucked. The dudes on the poorly-copied photo insert wear full wasteland regalia, nail-spikes and goggles and Mohawks. The lead-singer’s prosthetic hands might be fake. There are actually grains of sand in the cassette box.
Lucky to even be in my pile, aren’t you, I think. How’d you get here?
Ugh. How gross. Is that really me? Is Deeply Fucked just three people at the mercy of The Beast’s chosen metal critic? What if these guys were Shem and those dudes—would that be how I would treat them? They’d probably kick my ass. They’re better, truer than these dudes. Right?
Scheduling a transport is surprisingly easy on my flatscreewn. A guard walks me through a dozen hallways before we reach a steel staircase that takes us down into the parking complex of the Compound. There’s an armored SUV waiting for me.
“Hi, yeah, I’m going to a Settlement D07? It’s in the Far-Off.” The driver nods, and we’re moving.
Daylight wasn’t a problem a week ago, but today it’s killing me. Everything’s a sickly orange that hurts my eyes to look at. The skin of my arm burns where a shaft of light lands on it.
Watching the scenery pass, I imagine being outside. I remember the sizes of the fucking ticks I’ve had to pick from my body while living in the Far-Off. I once ate spaghetti and crickets. Now, sunlight hurts. Jesus, I’ve only suckled at the Beast for seven days, and already I’m an ultrasensitive bitch.
Two hours later, we crest a hill and the settlements spread out before us, their divisions vaguely visible amongst the splatter of ramshackle houses and barely-standing apartment buildings. As we approach the perimeter fences, my throat swells up with nerves. This is my first time back, and maybe it wouldn’t be smart for me to roll up to Shem’s house in a Beast SUV. I have the driver drop me at the gate, show my credentials to the guard, and re-enter life in the Far-Off.
Inside, people fill the streets and lean out of windows, hanging clothes, selling services, trying to get money from Beast visitors. Music blares from everywhere in a gush of mixed influences and mongrel subgenres. The SUV would’ve made no difference—everyone notices me immediately, because I’m the only person inside the perimeter who has had a real shower in the past year. Heads turn as people smell the detergent in my clothes and the deodorant I slathered on this morning. Trying to be decent, I make a big show of buying a bag of chicken bits from old woman sitting on a plastic drum, but it only makes me look like more of a dick. Somehow, I manage to reach D07 without getting shanked or spat on.
I can hear Wharf Rat practicing all the way down Shem’s block. When I get to his place, Adam’s girlfriend Tina is out front having a smoke. She smiles when she sees me, and smiles even wider when I take away her shitty by-the-crate cigarette and give her my pack of Sentries.
“Did they give you these when they nabbed you?” she asks.
Right, Adam was there when the Beast picked me up. “Gave me a job, too.”
She shakes her head. “You of all people.”
When I open the basement door, the pain in my ears is comforting. Down the rickety stairs, over the broken one, I find Wharf Rat blasting through “Groped Livers” with all their might. Adam and Shem are bent at their waists, bobbing along, while Billy had his head back, neck taught and teeth grit as he batters the drums. Without meaning to, I grab onto the banister and begin wildly banging my head. Billy’s finally the one to catch me in the corner of his eye and stop playing. The other two follow, perplexed until they see me.
“Jesus, dude!” laughs Shem, shrugging off his guitar. His bright face glistens with sweat. “What happened? A lot of us thought you were dead!”
“Adam said you were,” says Billy, running his fingers along his handlebar mustache.
“No, I didn’t, that’s not what I said,” says Adam.
“Nah, I’m fine,” I say. “Been busy, though.”
“Are you eating those chicken bits they sell at the gates?” asks Billy. “Dude, you’re going to shit poison later. You know that.”
“What’d the Beast do to you?” asks Adam, folding those scrawny arms. “Did they take your blood? Are you doing a lot of nude blindfolded catering for their weirdo parties?”
“They gave me a job,” I say. “They’re doing music journalism again. I’m the metal critic.”
Silence. Adam and Billy have their mouths open. Shem scowls at the floor.
“Holy shit, man, that’s crazy,” mumbles Adam. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks.” Oh, this sucks. Every second I stand here now, this place feels less like my home and more like somewhere I escaped. My clean clothes seems to glow against the dirt literally streaked on the guys’ arms and pants. My hand immediately goes to my pocket, starts rubbing my lighter. “So, I was listening to this barbaricore tape today, and it got me thinking—”
“Whose tape?” asks Shem.
“It’s not important.”
They all chortle. “Fuck that singer,” says Billy. “Fake prosthetics.”
“Anyway, it got me thinking, why cover these randoms and not showcase my friends?” I say. “So I thought we should do a thing. Like, an interview, or a big stream of some new material.”
“Fuck no,” says Billy. My heart soars. Good ol’ Billy, never surrendering.
“For…this would be for the Beast?” asks Shem.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Fuck no,” says Billy.
“We’d need to talk about this as a band,” says Adam.
“No, no, no,” says Billy, waving his drumsticks. “No way, dude. We are not giving the Beast a goddamn thing. Sorry, Rhombus, no dice.”
“You’ve made your opinion clear, Billy,” says Shem. “But hear me out, okay?”
Shem’s fair tone kills me. This wasn’t supposed to go this way. I wanted what Billy’s giving me—a loud, solid denial. We’d never work with the Beast, and you’re a sell-out, they’d say, and I’d be all, I figured, let’s hang, and then they’d play “For All Time” and we’d have beers. That was the whole point—prove to myself that not everyone feels lucky to be chosen by the Beast. But suddenly, here are Shem and Adam, two dudes whose music I have literally begged for in the past, talking Billy into negotiations with me.
I need to get out of here.
“Well, look, it’s just a thought,” I tell them, retreating swiftly from the band drama unquestionably on its way. My foot hooks on the broken stair and I nearly fall. “I’ll come by next week, same time? Let me know then!”
“Wait,” says Shem.
“It’s cool, bros,” I say. Jesus. Bros? Rhombus, you fucking silverfish, bail immediately. “Later.” Quickly, I’m back up the stairs and out the door, barely glancing at Tina as I march into the street, hoping to flee the offer I’ve just made my old friends.
Shem jogs out of his house, waving me down. He holds out the latest Wharf Rat—just a CD-R with ‘Working Title: Ammophage’—as well as a new Pact-Bound Familiar cassette. After a moment of staring at them, relishing the bad taste in my mouth, I take both and stuff them in my pockets.
“Thanks for giving us this opportunity,” says Shem. He claps me on the shoulder.
On the transport ride back, I stare at the music Shem handed me and wonder if I should maybe just commit suicide. Maybe metal is bullshit, and we’re all just looking for the big break that will make us some money and get us out of our terrible lives. All the passion and creativity in the world don’t mean a goddamn thing—it’s about hustling to be the first in line when the assholes are handing out golden shackles.
Back at the Compound, I put on the Deeply Fucked tape, already planning to give it a good review in my head. At least these creepy wasteland-dwelling barbarians aren’t dancing for the Beast. At least they’re real.
But you know what? Those guys blow. The whole album’s a mess, with a lot of noisy breakdowns and rhythm-less barking used to cover up what shitty, derivative barbaricore nonsense they play. And when I put on the new Wharf Rat, it fucking slays. It’s fast and grimy and emotional and it’s exactly the kind of music I want to be writing about. Shem and those guys are obviously putting their all into this, crafting a powerful, muscular sound that’s somehow simultaneously totally bleak and pessimistic and full of hope and positivity. Every song makes me pump my fist and yell out loud in my little luxury cell.
The Wharf Rat record goes in the Relisten box as I blast out a quick review telling the world that Deeply Fucked can go and get just that. No doubt we’ll get a lot of fan response about true metal and barbarian philosophy and how I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about, but those people are all fashion whores. You can give as few fucks as you want, but the guys with true talent are the ones who will do what it takes to get their music heard by the world. I’ll take the better band with the more transparent aspirations every time if they’re this good.
I crack a cold Überlebender, turn my flatscreen to a low UV setting—not the searing toxic light of the outside world, just enough to keep me from killing myself—and begin crafting my Wharf Rat piece. It’ll take a while, and I’ll be up late finishing my other new acquisitions, but hey, it’ll be worth it to get the word out.