Thursday, August 19, 2010

Death Angel

On Thanksgiving of 1989, my cousin Eddie and I were hiding in a bedroom from our giant extended family's loving but overwhelming gathering. We were 14-year-old burgeoning metalheads with black clothes, long hair, and a bleak outlook on the world. We could only be pleasant in short bursts, and our bursts for the day were over.

"Listen to this," he said.

Things move slowly in Oklahoma, and we were too young to keep up even then, so Death Angel's album (which was on cassette tape for us) The Ultra-Violence had just now reached him. And that Thanksgiving, it reached me as well. We sat there on the bed, and I loved each song more than the one before it.

We were already Metallica and Slayer fans, so of course we liked the style of Death Angel, but there was something else. They were a little more melodic, perhaps. Mark Osegueda's voice was more beautiful. And there was something good-natured and positive about them, even when they were singing about violent or scary topics. Normally, we wouldn't like that, but Death Angel did it in a way that made us believe they could possibly be right.

And of course, like many bands at the time, they sang about the unity of the metal community. At that time, it did feel unified. Yes, we spoke with disdain of "false metal" and "poseurs" and all that, but ultimately, we took care of each other and believed we were part of something monstrous and mysterious that could pull us through anything. For many of us, it was in our nature to find life shallow and disappointing, but this music reminded us that there was more to it than we could touch or see. So when I was sitting in Pre-Algebra, and people were passing notes about whose boyfriend was seen with whose girlfriend, and the Oklahoma sky was coming in the windows annoyingly blue and cheerful, and the teacher was talking about something I didn't understand and didn't care about, I would write metal lyrics in the margins of my notebook and tell myself this would not always be my life.

Metallica, Slayer, Testament and Megadeth were big bands. They were all larger than life to me -- Big, strong men who made music that helped thousands of people survive. The music was big too, and commanding, and far away, like God. Death Angel's music was powerful, but it was also more personal somehow. When I needed to feel like I was enough to be part of the whole thing, it was Death Angel who reassured me.

I've been trying to write that last sentence for awhile now. It's still not quite what I mean. But I'm going to just skip ahead.

Fast forward (like I used to do to hurry up and get to "Voracious Souls") about 20 years. At the beginning of this summer, I had a conversation in which I lamented never having seen Slayer. So I went on the internet to see if they would be anywhere near me any time soon. (They would be but alas, I could not go.) Along the side of the website there was a list of other bands who were on tour. Death Angel was on that list. I thought, "Hmm...I love Death Angel. I'll have to see where they're playing."

An hour away. Later that night.

I have responsibilities. I’d stayed up late the night before with a friend kept awake by a broken heart. The next morning, I had to take my father to the doctor an hour away. And drive him home. But this is the age of Facebook. I posted a status update lamenting the fact that I shouldn’t go see Death Angel and questioning whether I should just go anyway. Lo and behold, seconds later came responses from metal friends new and old reminding me that this is what we DO.

So without thinking it over too much, I called my niece and nephew – young metalheads both – and told them to put on their black clothes because we were going to see Death Angel. They did not need to be asked twice.

The Marquee is a small, dark club – just right for metal, I think. We got there early enough to support most of the local bands who opened, and all of them were good. If this wasn’t so long already, I’d tell you about them, but surely you are getting impatient already.

So, as I said before, Death Angel was never that famous, and they are less famous now. But those of us who love them are diehards. We were there with our children – in my case, my sisters-in-law’s children – talking over what songs they might play, how long we’d been listening to them, what we were like when we’d first heard them, who we liked now (Acrassicauda seemed to be the consensus band in that crowd)…It was good to be with family.

And then Death Angel came out.

We were standing right at the edge of the low stage, in the middle. Mark Osegueda was right there, looking even more beautiful than he did when I was 15 and, yes, still wearing a very similar outfit to the one I had on, even though I hadn’t been keeping up all these years. They had a new bassist and a new drummer, both of them excellent. They played every song I love. They reached down and shook our hands in between songs. They ran here and there, and their long hair flew wildly, as did all of ours, in time to the music. I’d almost forgotten how disorienting headbanging is when you begin it, and the trance-like state it becomes after a few songs. But sometimes I had to stop, so I could look at Death Angel and realize we were in the same room at last.

It was my niece’s first metal concert ever. A few songs into the show, the new (young, gorgeous) bassist reached down and handed her his pick. She was the first person for whom this happened that night. She’s at an age when gorgeous guys doing anything is exciting, so it was a big deal made even bigger by the fact that the swirling people, the dark room, the loud music were new to her. I saw all this happen, and I will always remember her blue eyes widening, and the surprise of her smile, and her Gryffindor-colored hair standing out in the crowd. They were that to me: Metal, and guys, and something that relieved the pain of growing up, and it was incredible to see them be that for her too.

Every song was powerful and big and just right. Death Angel succumbed to the overproduction of their time, so some of their later albums were not rough enough for me. Live, the edges were broken off jagged, and all the songs were violently beautiful.

Toward the end of the night, they played a song I love, “Seemingly Endless Time,” and during the second chorus, Mark knelt down into the crowd, right by me, with the microphone the distance between us, so all our voices mixed together. We were so close I could feel the warmth of his skin. His dreadlocks brushed against my face. I closed my eyes. I turned away for a second, because this was too much…but metal is too much. That’s the point. So I opened my eyes again, and sang with him, and he smiled at me…or maybe I imagine he did. Maybe he was just smiling because he wrote that song, because he was making metal, because Death Angel was playing, and even when you’re in it yourself, that’s exciting.

Then when he stood up, he reached for my hand, and stepped back on a monitor, and didn’t let go as he leaned back off of it…didn’t let go until I did, at the last minute, when gravity forced me to.

It’s what they’ve done for me all these years: Not let go until I did. And when I did let go, they didn’t stop. They kept on, and just when I needed them again, they were there. That is Death Angel, in my life.

They are releasing a new album this fall. They played some songs from it. It’s going to be good. I’ll buy it, and when I haven’t gotten enough sleep, when I have too many things to do, when I am worried, I will listen to it and think of being 15, feeling like I couldn’t make it, then being 35 and realizing I did. This music never deserts us, even if we wander away from it. We come back, bedraggled, and it kills the fatted calf. We reach out for it, and it reaches back. It pulls us through.

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