An Atheist Interview with Heaven’s Metal Editor Doug Van Pelt

For awhile now, I’ve been wanting to interview Doug Van Pelt, the editor of Heaven’s Metal Magazine (now simply called HM Magazine). I grew up reading DVP’s publication as a young Christian getting into the Christian music scene and, while I am now an atheist, I still have fond memories of reading news and reviews of my favorite bands. Heaven’s Metal was the premier magazine at the time for finding out about bands that were not covered in any other magazine due to being Christian. I’m even a subscriber now to the Heaven’s Metal Fanzine (read below on my confusion of which ‘zine is which). For some freethinkers, they may not want to have anything to do with Christian music. Freethunk is about exploring pop culture within religion and faith–and within freethinking. For me, while I will still debate the lyrics, there is undeniable talent in the genre and I’m still admittedly a fan of several bands I still listen to like Tourniquet and newer bands like Demon Hunter. Art is art and to me it is no different than enjoying the religiously themed paintings of Michelangelo–and also it is no worse than listening to devil metal bands like Dio (love the album Holy Diver) who used religious or mythological themes.

These bands do mean gospel business, I’m not denying  that. And there is a fine line between art and propaganda (a line I believe I’ve crossed myself) so atheists, freethinkers and other unbelievers may find some Christian metal bands are lyrically hard to swallow while others are poetic enough not to be a problem. I guess I’m saying to be careful not to deny yourself the opportunity to listen to some of the talent that is out there just because it is labeled as “white metal”. Plus, why not engage the lyrics? We should all look for challenges to our beliefs or even lack of beliefs, keeps the mind fresh.

FREETHUNK : Heaven’s Metal started when? What prompted it and was it intended to go as far as it did? I believe you were one of many early Christian Metal ‘zines in the eighties, but HM survived the fallout. Were you actually the first to do this?

DOUG VAN PELT: Heaven’s Metal Magazine started as a black and white photocopied fanzine of sorts back in June of 1985. The idea or vision for the publication was always to be a “full-fledged magazine” and sit alongside the newsstand shelf next to Rolling Stone, Metal Edge, Spin, etc. (by the way, Metal Edge, Spin and Alternative Press all started in 1985 as well). So, in light of the original vision for the magazine, yes it was intended to go as far as it did. I started with zero startup capital and only grew as I could afford to grow. Subscription revenue was the first little bit of money that came in that allowed the publication to expand.
Heaven’s Metal was the first exclusively “metal” zine in the Christian music world. Shortly after our start, maybe a year to two years later, several others popped up (White Throne, Pendragon, Gospel Metal, Take A Stand, to name a few). Not sure why Heaven’s Metal survived and those others did not. One guy at Frontline Records, a business guy named Kent Songer, told me years later that one of the reasons why they supported Heaven’s Metal with advertising and were impressed, yada yada, was that I had “a good business mind.” I wasn’t really that smart, but I guess enough common sense and a willingness to learn went a long way.
Two of the major moments for Heaven’s Metal back in the day were similar: In the spring of 1986 I got a package from Pure Metal Records, along with a letter from their leader, Gavin Morkel, who promised to advertise in Heaven’s Metal. Those first few issues afterwards (#5, 6 and so on) had ads that I designed for Pure Metal Records. In leiu of cash I took recorded product in exchange for the ads, which I sold through mail-order in the zine. The second moment was when Frontline Records (and their metal subsidiary, Intense Records) contacted me and said they were going to throw their advertising support behind one Christian metal publication and they chose Heaven’s Metal. Those were both two boosts in the arm.
One similar moment came when a national wholesaler with Tower Records contacted me after I’d sent him a sample. He said, “Out of all the goddamn Christian metal zines, we’re going to carry yours.” I was flattered at the choice and kind of chuckled at the irony of his language in the context of our business.

FREETHUNK: Since this interview will be read by atheists and other unbelievers who may not be familiar with Christian metal, when did that scene really start? Was anyone covering it or how did people get news about their favorite bands without the Internet?

DOUG VAN PELT: The Christian metal scene, as one would guess, had its start in Christian rock. Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s there was a revival historians called “the Jesus Movement.” For lack of a better explanation, basically a bunch of hippies started getting saved and became Christians by large numbers all over the country. The West Coast was certainly a hotbed and possibly where the “spark” first lit.
Anyway, a lot of these hippies wanted to reach out and share this exciting experience and “truth” with their counter-culture friends. The most natural way to communicate to these friends was by using the music they were familiar with – rock and roll. The common ingredient behind rock & roll and metal is the electric guitar (generally speaking).
Larry Norman was a pioneer on the West Coast; his Only Visiting This Planet album cited as one of the best Christian rock albums of all time. It was his second, after Upon This Rock. Darrell Mansfield was playing lots of high school assemblies and churches up and down the West Coast (in Calvary Chapel churches–a non-denominational church that’s kind of like a “franchise” with many connected Calvary Chapels all over the world now). A popular soft-rock group called Love Song was pioneering, too. A group of “Jesus freaks” that travelled around the country in a bus eventually broke down, got stuck in Chicago and put out albums under the name Resurrection Band. They were probably the first to really turn it up and get rowdier or edgier with their music. It was blues-based hard rock, mixing the guy/girl vocal delivery of Jefferson Airplane with the bombastic chords of Led Zeppelin. Petra was their contemporary in this early “Jesus rock” scene that kept growing in the mid-to-late ’70s. Over in Sweden another group was making some noise that was a bit more edgy (think Thin Lizzy). They were called Jerusalem. They had about three albums out by 1983. Rick Cua, the bass player for The Outlaws for a time, became a believer and he released some melodic hard rock albums. This set the stage for the original Christian metal band, which most people acknowledge was Stryper. They released their debut EP, The Yellow and Black Attack in the summer of 1984. I was out in LA working at the Olympics that summer and had a chance to see them and also go to their record-release event at a Maranatha Village event (it was a large independent Christian bookstore**).

 

 

FREETHUNK: From what I understand, I was surprised to find out that HM ceased printing but then relaunched? Did you regret closing it down and then decided you missed it too much? I’m sure relaunching wasn’t easy in the face of just providing a website with all of the material for anyone to read. Why go with print again?

DOUG VAN PELT: This one is a bit off. We have yet to ever cease publishing in print. Heaven’s Metal started in 1985, changed to the shorter abbreviation of HM in 1995 and has kept on printing as HM (with a logo change in 2003). In 2004, though, I started printing a small, 24-page fanzine on the side, calling it “Heaven’s Metal Fanzine.” Prior to that, our coverage in HM of “old school” metal bands (Bride, Stryper, Guardian, etc) were allocated to a one-page regular feature, called “Heaven’s Metal.” Then on Labor Day weekend of 2004 I woke up at 2am with an 11-point outline in my head of bringing the name Heaven’s Metal back as a side publication. The idea was to make a purposefully limited fanzine style – all black & white, 24 pages at the most, try to get a limited amount of subscribers and advertisers that would keep it breaking even financially and with only a single ad in HM we had 600+ subscribers in only two months. I have to type out an email notice to 5 to 10 advertisers, who mostly say yes and the ad revenue equals the print bill and postage expenses and so we have a “sister publication” now called Heaven’s Metal Fanzine. Maybe the details on that are what caused the confusion. It’s understandable.

FREETHUNK: So generally speaking, what qualifies as Christian metal? I know there was a lot of heated debate early on when I was following the scene and it seems that some fans wanted to rule out bands like Trouble or Extreme because they swore. Trouble also was Catholic as I recall. Is there ecumenical metal?

DOUG VAN PELT:
The Christian metal scene is quite ecumenical–much more so than typical “church stuff.” There are four popular definitions that I’ve seen:
1) Each and every song (pretty much) mentions the message of Christianity: man was created by God, was born out of fellowship with God, God made peace with man through the blood sacrifice/death of Jesus. Belief is all that’s required to be forgiven and receive that peace. This message is told in some form or fashion on each song or the most songs on an album to be considered “Christian” (whether rock or metal, pop, etc).
2. The songs may not mention the story so explicitly like the above example, but the lyrics are formed by a Christian worldview. Like a CS Lewis novel, the basic tenets or structure of the story or “created world/universe” in which the story is being told has its foundations in a Judeo/Christian framework. Common topics might be hope and redemption. It might look at sin from a blunt and harsh angle, but there is some measure of redemption (or not, in some cases). This music, because it was created with a Christian worldview in mind, defines it as “Christian music.”
3. The lyrics of the music might not “tell the story” nor reflect a Christian worldview, but because the artists that write and create the music are Christian by faith, thus the music is “Christian.”
4. If the music is considered Christian by a large number of Christians or is “of interest” to Christians, then it is considered “Christian music.”
This last definition is probably the one I’ve used the most. This might seem contradictory and not “simple” and “clear” enough, but it seems to work, allowing for a broad definition of Christian rock and metal.
Your art (if you’re still doing comics) would be of some interest to Christians. Even a person that does not avow the tenets or creeds of Christianity could be seen by some as “either running towards God or away from him.” I’ve heard (read, actually) Bono quoting: “…there are only two types of music that interest me…” and he listed that definition or phrase (“…either running towards God or away from Him…”). I assume that some people might view such art (like your comics or the music and lyrics of David Bazan, for example) that show someone–especially a somewhat vulnerable artist like Bazan–that is on a journey. They may be far from the path at the moment, but stepping back from the perspective of time might be seen as a “wandering portion” of the journey. Even if it doesn’t have the promise or possibly the event of a so-called “happy ending” (of this or that person coming back to faith), it is still of great interest to a Christian.
I kind of applaud this kind of thinking, because it is just that–thinking. It is not so much a narrow-minded rejection of all things not clearly defined by their pet dogma.
Those involved in the “Christian music industry” (whether labels, retail and/or radio) usually have to use one of the top two or three definitions, because if they offend some of their audience or cliental due to using a broader definition than their audience/cliental uses, then it could have negative reactions of the financial nature. Their “support” might reject such a move and then “dry up” or slow down. Sometimes dealing with large crowds (no matter the context) a communicator or leader has to “water down” or “dumb down” the message due to the potential (and fear of) offending members of a diverse audience.

FREETHUNK: As a follow up to the previous question, while most bands I’m sure agree on salvation, are there theological differences much like different denominations/nondenominations? Is it possible that most bands in this genre agree on Biblical interpretation?

DOUG VAN PELT:
If you look far enough, you can certainly find groups that have probably separated themselves from others over doctrine, but I think by and large there is that “greater good” mentality that brings unity. Many bands see “Christian metal” as being the simple part of the message. The clear-cut and “black and white” stuff most believers can agree on. It’s the finer points of “non-essential” doctrines, like what day of the week to worship on, how or when women take leadership roles (if at all), speaking in tongues and other miracles in the modern age… These are the things that can divide folks, but Christian metal does a pretty good job of not fighting amongst its members.
The bands mostly get along real well. Part of that might be the “persecution” or “martyr” complex that is shared. There are minor degrees of being shunned, blacklisted or treated with a negative bias by the world, mainstream media and even non-believing friends, associates, etc. If a metal guitarist faces this kind of friction in his circle of activity, he might gravitate towards other believers who have faced and resisted the same sort of friction. This might help bring unity when others might end up in conflict over minor issues. That’s a possible theory, at least.

FREETHUNK: Has there been any concern or attention given to bands that now appear to have disbanded or lost members due to, frankly, rejecting their previous faith. Gary Lenaire of Tourniquet comes to mind or King’s X now seems to find the Christian labeling disagreeable with Doug Pinnick coming out of the closet as a gay man.

DOUG VAN PELT:
Sure. I came across this recently as I was writing and editing the cover story of our latest issue (Apr/May/June), which chronicles the history of the band Haste The Day, who just called it quits at the end of March. A few years ago they had a member change his take on faith. They basically kicked him out of the band and caught some flak for it from outsiders (and probably insiders, too), who thought the decision/action was too harsh. Even now they don’t say with certainty that it was 100% the right decision. They have, though, much to the credit of their genuine friendship with the guy, reconciled and maintain a fairly tight friendship with the guy.
It’s sad for some to see fellow Christian metal musicians walk away from the faith that they still hold. And you’ll see a wide range of reaction from fans and whatnot – especially on internet message boards, etc.
This brings up an interesting subject: the nature of message board posts are often thoughtless, reactionary, raw and quite rude, judgmental and harsh. I think there is a certain personality type that even reads and writes on message boards. And the anonymity and “instant expression” factors make it simpler for people to just vent without thinking of the long-term or personal ramifications such posts can create. We’ve given attention to it from time to time. Sometimes it is shocking, because a Christian metal musician becoming an atheist is such an extreme swing, at least in the minds of some.

FREETHUNK SIDENOTE: I have to agree on the message boards observation being a victim of multiple comments that I don’t think would be said to my face. Reactionary is the correct word here because usually the comments have so many misspellings and no reasonable argument you have to wonder if the person is sober. “Good” critical comments are hard to come by and most artists I think value them if they’re thoughtful even when the criticism hurts.

FREETHUNK: The reverse is true too though. Who are the band members who have gone from secular metal to Christian metal that you’re aware of? While I don’t want to label everyone, I know certain musicians have made some clear distinctions and lifestyle changes.

DOUG VAN PELT:
Kirk Martin is the latest that I’ve come across. I’m told his video interview from the 700Club posted online has had more hits/views than any other interview they’ve posted. I guess he was part of the Florida death metal scene back in the early ’90s. I can’t remember the name of his band, but that’s his name. I bet a google search will turn up more info. (http://www.cbn.com/700club/features/amazing/kirk_martin091508.aspx )
Brian “Head” Welchmade a dramatic and surprise announcement when he came of faith. Even the bassist from Korn, Fieldy, recently converted to Christianity. Both have written books about their stories.

FREETHUNK: One of the flaws I now feel was present in the coverage of Christian metal is that a lot of stuff seemed to be swept under the rug. I remember dismissing much of it as idle gossip but later on, as I read on the net, many of the concerns were valid. One example is Stryper’s Tim Gaines drinking. Has the Christian media ever found a balance because it seems to me that not reporting these concerns may do as much damage as exposing them. “White Metal” wants to present an image but behind that image at times there is no difference between that and secular metal? This actually isn’t so much a criticism by nonChristians as it is by fellow Christians (Jesus-is-Savior.com, as an extreme example to make the point)?

DOUG VAN PELT:
That’s a good point and I don’t feel like my point completely counters it, but I do believe that followers of Christ are called to a higher standard than the simple “expose and magnify” approach to sin, problems, etc.
Here’s my take: I don’t think Jesus espoused ignoring sin or “sweeping it under the rug,” but He also didn’t advocate public exposure as His priority. Take for example His teaching on “What to do if a brother offends you…” He handed out a 3-step approach. First, go to the brother one-on-one. If you win him over by that simple, behind-closed-doors approach, then that’s great. If that doesn’t work, bring a friend and make it a two-on-one confrontation (again, behind closed doors). If this doesn’t work, then bring this guy before the whole church and “turn him over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh.” To me this shows a priority. God doesn’t wink at sin or sweep it under the carpet, so to speak, but His priority involves keeping the person’s dignity intact. His first step isn’t “BLAM! Exposed sin for all to see.” I guess you could say God has class.
There’s another story that reinforces this. When Noah was back on dry ground, he soon got drunk and passed out naked in his tent. I guess it was his youngest son that saw this and ran to tell his two older brothers. They came to the tent and walked in backwards, covering their naked, passed-out dad. When Noah woke up, he commended his older sons and kinda spoke negatively towards the actions of the younger one. It once again shows a value in keeping a person’s dignity – even in the context of “moral failure.” And, of course, the Bible teaches about God forgiving sin, covering sin and in that sense it is not swept under the rug, but swept into the “sea of forgetfulness.”
Seeing open moral failure or contradictory behavior, like a Christian metal musician being addicted or given to too much wine, etc, and ignoring it is a weak response and that certainly doesn’t help anybody. Stepping up and confronting someone (in private is best, of course) can be seen as mean, but it’s really nice and shows a long-term concern and love for that person. In that sense, you make a fantastic point. Certain problems going “unchecked” lead to more problems. It’s usually not just the perpetrator that gets hurt, but many others also.

FREETHUNK: In the beginning of the scene, I know it was hard for bands to make a living with their music fulltime. The band Mad at the World working as postal employees comes to mind. Has that changed? Are there more opportunities for Christian Metal bands due to POD, Demon Hunter, Creed and so forth?

DOUG VAN PELT:
I think there is. It’s not easy street, so to say, but there are more bands doing it. I think these young musicians starve and live off of almost nothing, but they are on the road, in a van and playing pretty consistently. You’ve got to hand it to them.
While there is a bit of a romantic side to the road life, it is not glamorous. This helps create another layer of camaraderie between Christian metal musicians and between musicians in general. It’s hard and the musicians find a common struggle as a unifying force. So, the money still isn’t there, but the opportunity to get out and do it full-time is. Not sure how or if a lot of these guys pay rent back home. If they do, they probably have multiple roommates, I’m guessing, to keep that going.
And the success of bands making it big, particularly the ones you mentioned and others (like As I Lay Dying, Underoath) make it easier for Christian metal bands to do what they do. Another factor that doesn’t get noticed enough is how Christian metal has its own circuit. There’s certain venues around the country that’ll book these bands. Usually, by the time a band like POD gets signed, they’ve been able to hone their craft in an underground circuit (kinda like how a minor league ballplayer gets valuable experience in the farm leagues, which helps him once/if he makes it to the major leagues…)

DVP in his office –Notice that real men know how to use duct tape

FREETHUNK: If you read the Wikipedia on Christian Metal, you would think that Christian Metal has overtaken secular metal. Do you think that’s the case? I mean Kerry King of Slayer is complaining…

DOUG VAN PELT:
Christian metal has made a huge impact on metal in general (secular, the world). Bands like Zao and As I Lay Dying have taken a no-excuses approach to making music (I can’t truly speak for their attitude, I’m just speculating) and have just let their music/art do the talking for them. It is excellent and it has been ground-breaking. If you looked, you could probably find bands that would cite Zao as an influence. Their style of aggressive “metalcore” has been slightly pioneering and just darn impressive. Then bands like Underoath and The Devil Wears Prada just take off and the last ten years has seen a lot of Chrsitian metal bands just do what they do and get recognized for it. It’s probably not been this great Christian conspiracy or thought-out plan. It’s just happened as one artist/band after another has simply “taken their art to the marketplace of ideas” and let their art/music stand or fall based upon its artistic merit alone (and not some pious “because it’s ministry we like it” kind of attitude. That sort of attitude is too close to propaganda and not nearly enough leaning on art alone …. and it squelches true creativity, because it takes away the motivation to create. It’s like a star player staying in the minor leagues because he like standing out from the crowd (instead of moving up to the next level and competing with “the big boys” where the talent level is greater. I think many Christian metal bands have done that and they’re popular – not just with Christian kids, but fans of music, period.

I haven’t seen the Kerry King complaint you reference, but I would guess he’s kinda joking around. Some people might feel like Christians making metal is “invading their territory” or something like that, but if people are embracing that art, it’s saying something and it’s probably because it’s good musically. Non-believers, by and large, would not accept or sing the praises of a Christian metal band because of the message … if the music sucked. At least that makes sense to me.

It is like a dream and a prayer come true, though. CS Lewis is credited with saying something like, “The world doesn’t need more Christian books. It needs more books on science, on medicine, on math, on this and that … written by Christians. If believers can excel at their craft it offers a tiny bit of credence to their message or belief system. Not an overwhelming “oh i have to believe now” sort of way, but a subtle and respectable influence on the culture around it.

FREETHUNK: Do you think Christian Metal, throughout its history, overall has promoted the message of Christ or is simply preaching to the choir? One could make the accusation that it is a product for a chosen demographic if we were to be cynical. Steve Rowe of Mortification seems to suggest the primary role of the genre is not to evangelize but confirm the spirituality of existing believers (preach to the choir)?

DOUG VAN PELT:
My repeating quote on this which feels “original” to me is that the greatest gift Christian rock and metal is to the body of Christ is pastoral, not evangelism. If you remember what those high school years are like … For many people a song or two at the right time really helped some of us get through some hard times. Christian rock and metal, with its encouraging “sermons put to music” pastoral themes really help the believer stay encouraged, energized and filled with hope. So yeah, preaching to the choir (which has a negative and “waste of time” connotation ) is actually a very positive and blessed thing.

FREETHUNK: How do you separate sacred music from popular music? Or do you? Should metal music be played in church? Especially considering the heavier styles have less to do with worship than with dark lyrics about the apocalypse, social issues and a retaliation against Satan and/or Hell.

DOUG VAN PELT:
Depends on the makeup of the congregation. If they’re into hip-hop and country or just lots of old people that don’t like rock or metal, then no. It wouldn’t fly.
Metal is often spectator music and not sing-along participatory like good worship music should be so it doesn’t always cater to that congregational use too well. But that can be remedied with a good chorus hook, ya know?
Secular means non-sacred so the intent and the theme are qualities to look at in making the sacred/secular tag. To the even half mature person it shouldn’t matter. If you are an atheist or a Christian that wants to hold on to the belief / conclusions and conviction of truth/doctrine you have no problem listening to a Christian metal or conversely atheistic metal message and not feel all beat down and suddenly abandon your belief system. That’s ridiculous. We all have brains and can realize “oh, I don’t agree with that sentiment” and not be “hurt” by it. Regular repeated listening of a large frequency might be a different story. All things in moderation is a good helpful motto.

FREETHUNK: You recently did an issue on the “100 Best Christian Metal Albums.” Which notable bands have kept their act together all this time and why do you think that is? It seems rare for any band to stay together past 2 albums.

DOUG VAN PELT: Stryper has and done an impressive job in their genre. Project 86 not bad. Switchfoot has had a nice long career too. The Choir have managed to keep it together. It takes a good business mind to have longevity There are others.

FREETHUNK: If you were to list a primer for the nonChristian to have an introduction to Christian Metal as a whole can you name at least 5 albums (more if you want) they should start with? I’m not necessarily referring to “best-of” but also if you as a Christian wanted to say something to an atheist through a selection of albums?

DOUG VAN PELT:

This is a great question. Thanks for asking it!
Vengeance Rising – “Human Sacrifice”
A classic

The Crucified – “Pillars of Humanity”
This is more a reference to the greatness of the band more so than the album. “Mindbender” is a must-hear.

Extol – “Burial”
Ditto on the band over the album tho.

Barren Cross – “Atomic Arena”
A credible power metal album

Slechtvalk –  “At the Dawn of War”
Another ditto on band over album.

For Today – “Breaker”
A great recent release to include.

Stryper – “To Hell With the Devil”
Too good of an early classic to not include.

Believer – “Sanity Obscure”
Great technical metal.

FREETHUNK: What is your favorite secular band-I know you must have one (and it can’t be semi-Christian like U2)? Is there a black metal band you would love to listen to if only they would convert and change their lyrics?

DOUG VAN PELT: Two of my favorite bands are HIM and Type O Negative, both of which have fairly “blasphemous” lyrics, save for the “Dead Again” album by Type O.

FREETHUNK: Lastly, thank you for taking time to answer our questions for the Freethunk site. Is there site information you want to provide or any other information that interested readers can find out more about what you and your staff do?

DOUG VAN PELT: Thank YOU for the honor and for having the open mind to interview a Christian metal mag. The website HMmag.com has all the resources anyone could want to find out what HM does and is.

The original logo I remember growing up

And then I do have to add my own primer for freethinkers interested in learning more about Christian metal, but mine is based more on talent as well as an intro to some of the forerunners of the more successful bands on the scene today. I’m almost in agreement with Doug and would recommend listening to the following bands: Tourniquet, Believer, Vengeance Rising, Barren Cross and The Crucified. For a newer band, I have to admit I’m still hooked on Demon Hunter. I’m planning to go through some of the lyrics of these bands in the coming months if not sooner. If you feel overwhelmed by too much Christian metal you can always pop in some Bad Religion or even Disturbed.