Perfect Sound Forever

HACKER METAL


by Brett Stevens
(April 2014)


Transport yourself back to the 1980ís. You are a teenager who lives in a suburb bulging outward from the freeway in a network of cul-de-sacs. You go to a local school where, if you wear all black or have pentagram jewelry, you will be sent home on suspicion of Satanism. Your parents both work long hours away in the city and there is little for you to do. Too young to drink, movies are expensive, too geeky to date.

It's Friday night. Too young for a girlfriend, not popular enough for a keg party with the football team, you tell your parents you are going to study and go into your room. They like that idea, since your teachers report that you're bright but uninterested in schoolwork. An underachiever they say, which is a bad thing when your entire country is mobilizing around high achievement (and high personal reward) as a way to beat back encroaching Communism.

You close the bedroom door and hit play on your tape deck. Metallica jets out of the speakers. You boot up your computer. Then you instruct your modem to call a number of a BBS -- that's "bulletin board system," for a computer that can store and retrieve public and private messages -- in New Jersey. The tiny speaker inside calls out the tones that make up digits in the phone system. Then, a pause while two computers sing to each other in weird high-pitched howls, then a crashing of static as the connection is made. A single line appears on your green monochrome screen.

To people in 2014, such a scenario seems unreal. We can buy whatever we want online. Record stores, where they still exist, stock a wide diversity of "niche" genres. There are hundreds of music magazines, and tens of thousands of music sites. We are drowning in information, not starving for it. But before this was commonplace, a cutting edge of innovative hackers forged a network of sites, conference calls and hidden caches of information. They then used this cobbled network to find information on music, including heavy metal.

Especially heavy metal.

"In the 80s, BBSes were the most important thing to the hacker world. They were where people met, talked, exchanged information," said legendary hacker Erik Bloodaxe, whose exploits with the hacker group Legion of Doom stirred many imaginations back in the day. "They were the central meeting places where you could find those people who actually cared about the same things you cared about."

Bloodaxe would know. In addition to being "the best hacker I ever met," according to Loyd Blankenship, the technologist and hacker who wrote "The Hacker's Manifesto" that was later quoted in the cyberpunk-slash-teen drama Hackers, Bloodaxe edited one of the first hacker publications, Phrack. Phrack -- named for a combination of the terms "phreak" and "hack" referring to phone and computer exploitation, respectively -- and is an expert at finding information. Especially hidden information, or data that is marginalized because it does not comport to society's view of itself.

"[Y]oung hackers tend to imagine themselves as renegades living outside the law, so the music associated with that at the time was certainly heavy metal," Bloodaxe added when queried about the heavy metal connection. While he personally lived on a steady diet of Queensryche, Metallica, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, he knew others had different tastes. And yet, there were still heavy metal connections.

"Most of the people in my peer group would be calling bulletin boards daily and were phone phreaks, so their long-distance calls were free. It was basically like being a regular on 4chan or Reddit, but thirty years ago. So we would talk about niche topics like metal that were very hard to find out about unless you, say, lived in a big city or college town and knew the right people/right places to go," said Grandmaster Ratte, a member of the Cult of the Dead Cow well-regarded in hacker circles. "Instead, you had access to people from all over the world, many of whom were very knowledgeable. I learned about tons of interesting subcultures via BBSs that I never would have known about until the Internet came along," he added.

"Most of this music was beyond the scope of mainstream media at the time. Even MTV wasn't playing metal (other than hair metal) until years later," opined the hacker known as Reflexive_Arc, who wrote some of the covert documentation that formed the mainstay of the hacker underground. "I remembering coming across lyrics mostly on places like Dark Side and Metal AE," he added, referring to two online systems of the type called "AEs" for the software they used, Ascii Express Professional by Southwestern Data Systems.

Ascii Express, in addition to having a normal terminal program like those used to access all online systems, also possessed an "unattended mode" which allowed the user to turn his own computer into a BBS-like system, with one crucial difference: when you called the system, it asked only for a generic password, shared among all users. The resulting lack of accountability and ease of engagement created a kind of anarchy zone which represented the cutting edge of information transit in the underground. Like an underground black market, AEs created a febrile brew of subversion and shadowy activity. Most of this was expressed through the newspapers-slash-scientific-journals of the hacker underground, text files.

Jason Scott runs the internet's archive of such files at textfiles.com. This site stores and indexes what were perhaps the most sought-after downloads on BBSs, sometimes called "t-files" or "g-philes" (the "ph," as in "phreak," cues the astute listener to the fact that this information is somehow ph-one related). Hackers wrote everything in these files: instruction manuals, coding tips, security exploits, even diaries of their own arrests. Tiny by today's standards, these short files were packed with information in a no-frills style. A file writer looking at one of today's blogs might wonder why most of the words are extraneous.

Although he does not remember much heavy metal activity during the BBS days, Scott pointed toward a section of his site dedicated to old music files. There, a covert history of music journalism is on display. Files range from lyrics files with custom ASCII logos to reprinted articles from obscure magazines and finally, writing about metal from a lonely and alienated teenager's point of view:

The lyrics are often portrayed as the root of the evil in heavy metal. One might call it is the root of all evil is in the music that the children listen to. The lyrics themselves do not imply anything such as Satan worshiping or suicide. More times than not, the lyrics sing about the cold harsh reality that befalls us all in this world. Destruction, corruption, and many things pertaining to the real-time life of people are what cause these rumors of heavy metal. Megadeth for example sing about the destruction of the planet and the corruption and manipulation of a personís mind. Why would ďnormalĒ people listen to the horrors of real-life, when they can live in a fantasy world created by Debbie Gibson?
This point of view veers close to the hacker ethic itself. Society is insane, and pretentious. It hides the power of computers in order to keep that power in the hands of the "good" people, who may just be protecting the jobs that they barely (apparently, since their security is so bad) know how to do. Most of the voters just want to zoom off to a happy lala-land and forget about all of it. That is what empowers the pretentious manipulators. Thus, the only thing that's left is a kind of principled anarchy: those who can use the power, should use it, but they should find a better way than the squabbling over money, power and politics that is the hallmark of our modern society.
You bet your ass we're all alike... we've been spoon-fed baby food at school when we hungered for steak... the bits of meat that you did let slip through were pre-chewed and tasteless. We've been dominated by sadists, or ignored by the apathetic. The few that had something to teach found us willing pupils, but those few are like drops of water in the desert. This is our world now... the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud. We make use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt-cheap if it wasn't run by profiteering gluttons, and you call us criminals. We explore... and you call us criminals....Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for.
Bloodaxe found a similarity between the spirit of the music and the restless, anarchistic outlook of the hacker. "I think there was just a natural cultural overlap as 'outliers' (like young computer hackers) went about finding ways to fit in with new people and make new friends. In my case, mix typical hormonal teenage rage against parents, teachers, (or any authority), rules and laws perceived as arbitrary and stupid, groups like the PMRC saying 'this is bad,' etc, so once someone handed me a copy of Metallica's Ride the Lightning, it just sounded right to me in ways that nothing else at the time did," he said.

"To me that was one of the most interesting aspects of the music at the time - a source of inspiration for writing philes. I liked to picture someone in a dark room, in front of a black screen with 80 columns of green text, an intense song blasting in the background as the soundtrack for a phile on how to blow up the world. Within hours the phile snakes its way from AE to AE. Have phun but don't get caught... words to live by," Reflexive_Arc added.

Grandmaster Ratte of the Cult of the Dead Cow (CDC) agrees. The Metal AE, he notes, was the flagship site for a text-file group known as the Neon Knights. "[I]t was the best place to find their material. It was amazing stuff- way over-the-top high school-stoner-metalhead stories with black magic and sex and drugs and the whole deal, but with computer-geek teenagers as protagonists! I'd never seen anything like it. The imagery was so strong; I avidly read every bit of it," he said.

Not only that, but the site offered a more practical side. "[I]n the early days before thinking about copyright infringement, we'd type up lyrics and upload them to the metal-themed BBSes. It was a common practice, because a lot of kids were trading tapes and didn't have access to album covers to read," he said. He added, "In the '80ís and '90ís, I'd say most [hackers listened to metal], at least in my circles." Both the Cult of the Dead Cow and the Neon Knights released metal-related files, including Danzig, Metallica, Dirty Rotten Imbeciles and Suicidal Tendencies lyrics. Even further, hackers from each group adopted metal-inspired names. New Braunfels, TX band Necrovore are generally credited with being instrumental to the rise of the death metal sound, releasing their demo "Divus De Mortuus" in 1987. The following year, CDC released text files from a hacker calling himself Necrovore. That suggests more than a surface knowledge of metal, since the term Necrovore did not exist prior to the band Necrovore, who were named by Kurt Brecht of the Dirty Rotten Imbeciles. This type of in-depth connection typifies the writing and nomenclature within CDC and Neon Knights files, and the entire milieu surrounding The Metal AE.

The Mentor, the author of the Hacker's Manifesto (above) who also wrote Role Playing Games (RPGs) that were a favorite of hackers and dabbled in unconventional political and social views, did not see so much of the metal side of the equation, but he did tap into that adventuresome spirit. "The bbs 'Metal Shop Private' had a metalhead or two running it, as I remember. That's all that comes to mind," he said. But he did see an overlap between the Dungeons & Dragon style games that hackers play and the music of thunder and violence. "I think the overlap with fantasy and metal is mostly based around iconography - swords, axes, metal armor, etc," he said.

Simple Nomad, who remains as familiar with the metal community as he was in the 1980ís, sees a similar mental organization between the two activities. "Both are about an underground person bending the rules, in some cases fairly severely from what society says is normal or acceptable behavior. Thing is there is large push for conformity in numbers even while rejecting societal standards," he said.

Some hackers observed that the socially marginalized nature of both activities grouped them in with other socially-unacceptable ideas. "We also amassed a great collection of had a great selection of anarchist/satanist/magik/drug literature - forbidden stuff in general. Also a lot of hacking/phreaking stuff from the likes of 2600, etc.," said a hacker who went by the handle mightypeniz.

Ratte adds his own study of the similarity between the two cultures. "I'd say they do have a similar spirit, but it's more nuanced. A lot of hacking is about solving tough problems, mostly by yourself, requiring intense effort and isolation. The metal that resonates the most with me has a similar vibe, where you feel the visceral impact of a difficult problem and the struggle to triumph over it. Eventually leading to victory or failure. The mindset of a hacker is inundated with this cycle day-after-day, so I think both hacking and metal are a natural fit," he said.

Was the heavy metal connection there? A large number of the files, nicknames/handles that hackers used, and some board names were clearly inspired by metal. Certain boards, such as The Metal AE and Metal Shop Private, were dedicated at least in part to heavy metal music. Hacker groups such as Neon Knights (a title borrowed from a Black Sabbath song) and the Cult of the Dead Cow wrote about heavy metal in their own documents. And many people did, as Grandmaster Ratte related, rely on textfiles to help them share tapes and discover new bands. But as other hackers have mentioned, the metal connection was more than preference -- it was spirit. Namely, a desire to be outside the rules and to have power, not control. As Erik Bloodaxe said, "I don't think anyone was hacking anything purposely [while] listening to Debbie Gibson."

Today a kid can blow onto the Internet with her phone and connect to thousands of sites with information about music. She can enter the band name and album name into Google and buy it just about anywhere, even from huge sellers like Wal-Mart and Amazon. It's just another purchase. There's no attitude to it, nothing worth struggling for, no challenge. It's just another product like any other, a lifestyle choice, a particular niche market. But perhaps something in the human soul hungers for a setting where it might not be so easy, and music might involve a sacrifice and a covert underground world that only the select few enter.

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