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Face-melting fury

I will be posting pieces from Chronicles of Chaos here, along with accompanying music. Enjoy, and remember, there is always an underground.


Warning: This piece was written

under pressure and extreme noise terror.

If wielded correctly, you can melt someone’s face with an axe. It’s no secret. It doesn’t need to be forged from the Ark of the Covenant either. It happens all the time, every day, and people love it.

Since Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil down in the Mississippi Delta shortly before War World II, people have been in the face-melting business. Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, along with a long list of blues elder statesmen, laid the foundation by making their respective axes moan and wail with the help of electricity. Audiences responded in kind, as they helplessly became faceless fans of the tones such axemen could invoke.

Then Jimi Hendrix started fornicating with his Fender Stratocaster axe in public, before setting it on fire in an aural on-stage orgy at Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967. Hendrix’s craze came after The Who’s Pete Townshend smashed his axe into a stack of Marshall amps. It lives on as one of the most infamous face-melting incidents in history.

Jimmy Page had a double-necked Gibson SG axe, and sometimes he’d use a violin bow to tickle the strings. Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman seemingly tortured their down-tuned axes in creating their desired effect — solos comprised of hellish squeals reigning over chugging, chainsaw leads. Clearly, there is more than one way to be an axe murderer. If you’re still skeptical, watch any of the “The Slumber Party Massacre” movies, which feature much more than just face-melting mayhem.

Having your face melted feels great, especially during live shows. Your jaw goes slack. Your eyes widen. You forget to breathe properly. Your heartbeat quickens. Sometimes a guttural “Yeah!” is accompanied by throwing up the horns. In my case, the white man’s overbite and headbanging typically follow. There’s something about a shredding guitar that tickles that primordial itch for satisfying vibrations. Solos. Triplets. The Devil’s Tritone. Give it all to me.

While cooped up in my basement dwelling, frantically pushing out papers and riding out the cresting wave of a global pandemic, I’ve become more acquainted with my own axes, though I don’t consider myself an axe murderer quite yet. Oh, sweet serenaders, how I’ve neglected you. My Ibanez acoustic accompanied me during my move West, so I’ve always plucked away on that, but I recently received my electric axe and amp.

It’s kind of like riding a bike, though my adult brain, in memorizing more practical bits of info like proper personal finance practices, has forgotten some hard-earned guitar knowledge. Relearning the solos of Queen, Metallica and The Scorpions are on my quarantine to-do list. But I can barely read guitar tabs now, let alone sheet music, so I’ll have to rely on my ears. I grabbed “100 Classic Blues Guitar Licks” and Slayer tab books to help.

The good people of Telluride Music Company are currently looking over an old DigiTech death metal pedal that makes my blues-oriented setup of a 1998 Fender Stratocaster and Hughes & Kettner amp sound like razorblades in a blender. Oh, am I ever craving that killer crunch. There’s a certain level of emotion that accompanies plugging in and thrashing through Slayer’s “Raining Blood.”

When I first heard the now-legendary intro sometime during my adolescent years, particularly when those galloping triplets came pummeling through the speakers, my face slid down my skull and into my lap. This isn’t good, I thought. It’s just not right.

Growing up Catholic in a conservative corner of western Pennsylvania, Slayer scared me into believing that music had the insidious power to possess listeners in all the wrong ways, but little did I know that such a possession was exactly what I craved. I couldn’t get enough.

Slayer is no longer with us. The band retired in 2018, shortly after the death of founding guitarist Jeff Hanneman. I managed to see three shows during the farewell tour, including one at Fiddler’s Green in Denver.

A group of friends and I found a spot at the top of the lawn area. We partied through the sets of Napalm Death, Anthrax, Testament and Lamb of God. When Slayer finally took the stage, with Exodus axeman Gary Holt playing in place of Hanneman, the party stopped, and the sold-out crowd collectively focused its gaze on the stage. They blasted through a set filled with classics like “War Ensemble,” “Dead Skin Mask” and “Angel of Death.”

But when the guitars went silent and the sound of thunder broke the quiet, the crowd roared. In the distance, a real-life storm brewed behind the outdoor show. Dark clouds flashed with lightning as Slayer performed “Raining Blood” in front of the oncoming natural disaster, but the band didn’t care. If anything, they seemed to be daring the gods to do something. Frontman and bassist Tom Araya screamed:

“Raining blood

From a lacerated sky

Bleeding its horror

Creating my structure

Now I shall reign in blood”

The lightning crept closer with every strike. The audience awaited its impending death. I fully expected the clouds to vomit blood onto us. We’d become a mass of skull-faced maniacs reveling in the end of everything. My friends and I high-fived in shouting, “Hell yeah!” in disbelief of the unrivaled scene. The song ended, the clouds burst, and no one was the same. The thunderstorm’s rains drenched us during the closing act of the pagan baptism ritual, but instead of invoking the Apocalypse, everyone walked to their cars and drove off into the soggy night.

Simply put, Slayer is the soundtrack of the underworld. It’s kind of their thing. If the elevator goes south after I expire, I fully expect to hear “Raining Blood” on my way down.

After all the 2020 festivals and concerts I planned to attend were canceled, I started pondering about melting my own face — a practice that could have serious repercussions, least among them being permanent disfigurement. Down in my dungeon I seethe. I play until my fingers are raw and my forearm cramps. My face distorts but doesn’t melt. I pore over the pages of tabs in efforts to bend certain notes the right way. My right hand is more coordinated than my left. As Lemmy, an all-time face-melter on bass, once said, the left hand makes the shapes, the right hand brings them to life. Abstract analogies don’t really help, but they’re soothing.

Whether it’s music videos, documentaries or concerts, I always look at the guitar players’ hands. In the recently released ZZ Top documentary “That Little Ol’ Band from Texas,” seeing Billy Gibbons play up close is a revelation. He’s so smooth and confident. It’s like he’s out there buttering bread.

Similar to writing, it’s all about repetition, including listening to as much music as possible. I need music playing in the background while I write, so I treat the process like I’m studying for a double major. Subconsciously, the guitar tones and notes settle into some part of my brain only to resurface when I’m diddling away. Wait a minute that sounds like Amon Amarth. Cue “Guardians of Asgaard.” Well, hell, that’s it. Then it’s time to experiment a little, changing up the rhythm and twisting it to sound fundamentally different than the original version. There’s satisfaction in this, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to the results I’m looking for.

Without writing a half-baked thesis, this whole face-melting phenomenon is a bit of a conundrum. I’m starting to think it’s better when someone else takes their axe to your ears. Maybe it’s that sense of mystery that loosens the skin around the eyes and cheeks. How did they do that? What tuning are they using? Is that a pedal or some other ungodly effect? Wait for it!

My axes rest in the corner of my living room (I never put them in their cases). I pick them up whenever I'm pacing around wondering what to work on next. Throughout the process of writing this piece, which was undertaken during an uninterrupted stretch of insanity, I picked up my Strat at least a dozen times to blast off a quick tune. A Black Sabbath riff here, and a Mayhem dirge there, even a White Zombie-Slayer-Metallica medley. Motorhead’s “Overkill” and Razor’s “Executioner’s Song” blared while I played. It’s sensory overload for sure, but I embrace such auditory chaos. Then it’s back to creating this drivel. There are deadlines to hit and papers to publish. Face-melting isn’t productive, but it is a nice release.

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