Twisted Metal

The audience is surging into the auditorium of Gorbunova Palace of Culture in uproarious, sporadically violent anticipation of the night's star attraction: the heavy-duty, punk-metal Moscow group Metal Corrosion.

A cross between the sounds of Megadeth and the sentiments of "Mein Kampf," the band laces its trash metal with a particularly noxious strain of rabid, guitar-propelled, three-chord Russian nationalism. It is not the music, however, but the outlandish stage show that has transformed the band into a local legend. In the best traditions of the cult metal movie "Spinal Tap," the show features gyrating, naked young women, head-banging Hitler look-alikes and -- in the ultimate heavy-rock clich? -- dwarfs.

And this is what fans have come to see. One pimply kid by the stage was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the glaring, mustachioed face of the Fuhrer. Another, with what appears to be a swastika etched onto his scalp, is fruitlessly lunging at the women. But it is only when the band launches into the scarifying opening chords of "Kill the Sunerev" that the full corrosive potential of the act is unleashed: The hall explodes into a mass of clenched, prehensile faces and writhing, leather-bound bodies. "When the brutish faces come down from the mountains," growls vocalist Borov, making it clear that "Sunerev" is Moscow slang for anyone Ingush, Chechen or dark-skinned, "Russian guns should shoot them."

After decades of pariah status and repression at the hands of the Soviet culture machine, heavy metal has now emerged to become a fixture on Russia's youth culture landscape. On every street corner, in every major city, it occupies its own dingy, cacophonous corner of kiosk music selections.

The styles and fashions associated with metal -- black leather biker jackets, long sweeping locks and skull-encrusted jewelry -- have percolated through every level of youth society. And the music itself, though enjoyed mostly by a core of faithful fans, has influenced other contemporary genres: grunge, industrial, punk and plain old rock. "Unconsciously, about half of the young people in Russia like heavy metal," says Alexander Novikov, press representative of Metalagen records, "though not everybody goes to the concerts or buys all the latest records."

There's a big difference, however, between the tastes of occasional metalheads and the dark, forbidding scene created by die-hard fans and bands. A visit to any one of the favored metal haunts reveals unparalleled depths of extremity. St. Petersburg's Castle Rock, located behind the Moskovsky train station, is the center of the city's metal scene. A hard-core, metal mecca, it takes the form of a hunching, seething little shack decorated like a Transylvanian public convenience with painted turrets, skulls and swooping two-dimensional bats.

Outside, the visitor will discover a permanent lounging contingent of washed-out, peroxide-blonde girls and sneering boys, all dressed in jackets bearing the embossed logos of groups such as Internal Bleeding, Adolf Castle and Mangled Torsos.

Inside, Castle Rock customers are greeted by a fetid haze of smoke and sound as well as by a black, chrome-studded mass of teenage bodies hunching over a collection of pirate cassettes ranging from early Russian groups such as Aria, Metal Corrosion and Black Obelisk to the current generational crop: Melissa, Panzer Division (formerly Hitler), Sieged Mind, Necrocannibal, Hellraiser, Front, Koma, Painful Memories and the triumphantly morose St. Petersburg "doom-metal" band Great Sorrow.

To a greater or lesser degree, most of these bands reside on the fringes of metallic taste. Only the adolescent connoisseur will be able to distinguish between the varying degrees of abrasive, pounding, guitar- generated fury and the sclerotic vocals, sounding somewhere between a belch and an outboard motor.

However, it is only in concert that the true, twisted nature of Russian metal begins to shine. At the Metal Corrosion gig in the Gorbunova Palace of Culture, during a song entitled, "Ritual Burning of the Corpses," figures dressed as Ku Klux Klan members bore a coffin onstage while the naked young women gyrated and simulated sexual acts with guitars and mike stands. Throughout the song, a dwarf danced around the stage wearing Bermuda shorts and a gas mask. Later on, at one egregiously awful point of the evening, the dwarf performed oral sex on one of the dancers while the crowd egged him on with a chant of "Hobbit, hobbit, hobbit ..."

While it might be assumed that heavy metal is pretty much the same the world over, Russia seems to have twisted and mutilated the stereotypes until they have reached grotesque proportions. Beside the aberrations of the current Russian scene, Western metal groups such as Metallica, Guns n' Roses, Motorhead and Def Leppard come across as little more than timid, tin-plated kittens. Russian metal is characterized by wild extremes, guitar-blitzkrieg onslaughts and growling vocals that elsewhere occupy only the acne-ridden, anti-social fringes.

This is the land of metal superlatives -- of turbo-charged "trash" metal; of mind-crunching "industrial" metal; of brutal, unforgiving "death" metal; of morose, soul-wrenching "doom" metal. And, of course, there's that old, bat-chewing favorite -- "black" metal -- with all its unsavory, and in the case of Russia, all-too-real undercurrents of racism, Nazism, bigotry, paganism and satanism.

According to St. Petersburg lore, the much-coveted title of First Russian Metal Band is bestowed on the mythical band Rossiani, which was founded all the way back in 1969.

Listening now, the group sounds rather quaint, like a jazz-blues combo flavored with essence of Manfred Mann's Earth Band. At their roughest and readiest, Rossiani are about as heavy as Suzi Quatro.

Muscovites, on the other hand, tend to begin the metal narrative much later, in 1985, with the formation of the Moscow band Aria. This was, indisputably, a metal outfit, pumping out solid, chunky, guitar-driven music. They were at the vanguard of what became known as the first generation of Russian metal bands, which also included Black Obelisk and Metal Corrosion. Even though perestroika had nominally begun by this time, bands experienced widespread harassment. They were still forced to circulate their music on bootleg tapes, which, after subsequent re-recordings could be up to 80 percent degenerative noise. Concerts, too, were routinely interrupted. "At our first gig," says Spider of Metal Corrosion, "the KGB arrived with machine guns, threw our possessions out onto the street and locked us all up for two days."

Partial liberalization also brought a deluge of official press criticism, dredging up all the familiar complaints. "This music," said one Itar-Tass critic, "will never be more than just the scratching of a guitar and an inducement to parents to vomit up their food."

A favorite tactic of the Soviet press was to cite the opinions of the outraged masses. "I am very worried as a mother and as a woman," said a concerned citizen in another report, "that our girls are taking the risk of never being able to find a fianc?. What kind of boyfriends will metalists make? My daughter likes discotheques but returns from these places in tears. Imagine, boys go there to scream, to shout along with the music, to beat each other."

By the time the second generation of metal bands -- Koma, Painful Memories, Great Sorrow et al. -- arrived in 1992, this situation had improved somewhat. But heavy metal remains marginalized in Russia with none of the media support it enjoys in the West. Luxuries such as MTV's Headbangers Ball and professional magazines such as Metal Hammer are absent in Russia. Instead, there are just a few badly printed, amateurish 'zines and a couple of television shows.

The fans now survive not on commercial structures but on sheer passion for the music. "It goes to your soul," says Valeria, 19, who was perched on the rusty railings outside Castle Rock with a group of other she-metalists. "I find that only certain types of classical music have the same effect."

The distinctly masculine flavor of the metal genre doesn't worry her. "Certainly, more boys listen to this music than girls," she says, "but girls like to go along to concerts, perhaps because they like the style of hairy, messy boys who follow metal. As for the fashion, I simply like the color black. It's comfortable and it's beautiful. A lot of girls like to wear flouncy dresses and heavy makeup and look like dolls. But for me, their kind of fashion is very unattractive."

Igor, 26, one of the Castle Rock employees, can't remember when he started listening to heavy metal. "At first, my parents accused me of being a hooligan or a Western spy," he says, "but they have got used to it. All my friends listen to heavy metal. There is great friendship and camaraderie among us all."

One of the most common attractions is the potency of the music in comparison with the anodyne nature of other contemporary forms. "I cannot find any other music in this world that attracts me like this," boom Sasha,18, and his friend, Alexei, 19, almost in unison. "The rest is just rubbish and squeaking. Other music just doesn't exist. Metal expresses everything that you want. It is honest and doesn't hold back. For each question it has an answer."

Backstage at the Metal Attack Festival at St. Petersburg's Polygon Club, the members of Great Sorrow are brushing their hair. It's a laborious and intricate hairdressing ritual that precedes every gig, a procedure far more important than the mere tuning of guitars or learning of lyrics. They have been at it for a good 10 minutes, like a gaggle of teenage girls, straightening their copious, sheeny locks, teasing out those problematic knots.

"Do you use hairspray?" I ask.

There is a collective snort of derision.

"Carbolic soap only," barks lead guitarist Andre.

The band, one of the best-known St. Petersburg doom-metal outfits, is now riding the crest of a wave of popularity created by its album "Dreams, Solitude ... Silence," which made it into the Russian metal Top Ten. The band plays a slower, more somber brand of heavy metal. But it is capable, nonetheless, of chewing off the eardrums of the unguarded listener.

"People complain that Russian metal is somehow dangerous," says Andre, slipping into a natty pair of black vinyl trousers, "but it is nothing compared to Russian pop music. That stuff could really corrupt the young."

Nothing ever produced in the world of metal, Andre feels, could equal the current crop of kitschy pop stars that dominate Russia's abysmal mainstream charts -- pudgy Alvin Stardust look-alike Filippe Kirkorov and the egregious Take That clones Na-Na. "The people who are singing this rubbish are calling themselves artists. But they are not artists. They are just artifacts, like this table," the surface of which he raps with venomous enthusiasm. "Alyona Apina is like a table, Filippe Kirkorov is like a wardrobe and Na-Na is like a toilet."

Metal Corrosion's central HQ is located in a former Pioneer's club on the outskirts of Moscow and is decorated with posters of arachnids with their legs twisted into a swastika-like arrangement and portraits of presidential candidate Vladimir Bryntsalov. "Our group expresses the interests of the different strata of society," Spider insists. "It is difficult for a dwarf to have sex with tall women for free. But during our concert, they can make their dream a reality."

Spider -- who feels that Hitler's achievements were "an exemplary, significant example of the triumph of the human will" -- holds the curious belief that if the government had just heeded his song "Kill the Sunerev," it could have avoided the bloody Chechen conflict. "We wrote it back in 1991," he says, "when the Chechens had just begun to steal our weapons. If the government had done something then, everything would have turned out fine." Russia's ethnic minority groups, Spider feels, "need a strong hand. They should view themselves as guests in our country, not as the landlords."

Metal Corrosion isn't the only sector of the metal fraternity with spine-chilling views. The inside sleeve of Ukrainian paganist black-metal group Nocturnal Mortom's latest album proclaims: "This message is addressed to all people who really believe that Christianity has to be destroyed. We want to see the sky colored red by purifying fire. Millions of stupid idiots are swallowing the maggots of the crucified "Hippie.'"

Lead guitarist and vocalist Varggoth, who is credited on the album with "screams/witchcraft/atmospheric noise and ancient pagan poetry," explains why his group espouses paganism: "This is the land of ancient gods and the ancient culture. Ours was the first and original religion of Russia and the Slovenian lands, and we want to return to it."

The Moscow band Mor, whose name translates as "death" in old Russian, claims its members are practicing satanists and under constant surveillance by the FSB security forces. "The music is only secondary for us," says front man Kostya Leshchi, whose surname means "satyr" in Russian. "What we are really interested in is disseminating satanist ideas. We distribute literature and have our own magazine called Black Fire. The tactic is very successful, and our sect is growing rapidly."

He pauses for a moment before cheerfully adding, "Sometimes I think that there are few Christian missionaries who could do better."

Why exactly Russian heavy metal has gravitated toward the radical fringes is a hotly debated topic among pundits. The genre was delivered at unnatural speed, cramming into a decade what the rest`of the headbanging world could only manage in three. It bears all the hallmarks of this chaotic, accelerated, unnatural development: technical backwardness, brash pomposity and unparalleled levels of energy and aggression.

Also, the financial marginalization of metal in the record industry has resulted in a corresponding musical swing to ugly extremes. "You see how we live," Andre of Great Sorrow tells me during a visit to his rank, grimy communal flat in downtown St. Petersburg. "There is no need to ask if we are making money."

For its last album, which had a circulation of 5,000, Great Sorrow received 100 tapes by way of payment. With financial incentives such as this, there is absolutely no reason for groups to cultivate the middle ground.

But the primary reason for the current state of Russian heavy metal is the anarchic nature of the country itself. "Russia is a very wild country," says Alexander Novikov, the publicity representative for Metalagen. "And in the provinces, people are more aggressive and brutal. In somewhere like Kolyma, people will be extreme because they are so isolated."

While the main focus of metal music in the West is entertainment, heavy metal exists in Russia primarily as a means for young people to express their dissatisfaction with their lives, to give vent to their rage and hatred for the anomie that is endemic throughout the new Russia. "In this huge country that is called Russia, we have a very unstable situation in general," says Alexander Schlar, who runs a heavy metal radio program. "So, young people are trying to express this with the help of music. They are not doing this for fun or enjoyment. They are very aggressive and revolutionary. And the result of this is the younger bands reflect this. The have some kind of energy. They have the dark negative energy of their environment."

Finally, the burning question of quality raises its ugly, judgmental head in the debate on the current heavy-rock situation. Pounding trash or death metal is, in general, much easier to play than more mainstream forms. Some say Russian metal may have succumbed to the gravitational pull of the extreme because of a lack of available talent. "To make music like Guns n' Roses," says Dimitrii Yuravlov, presenter of the heavy-metal television show "Stairway to Heaven," "you have to be able to play like Slash [the band's lead guitarist]."

In general, very few of the current crop of Russian metal bands come even close. While some of the earlier bands were surprisingly decent -- Rossiani, for all its bantam status among the heavy sluggers of the genre, was technically proficient and created a few memorable songs, and the now-defunct St. Petersburg band First Aid was sharp and driving -- most of the latest groups are mechanically derivative of Western models, and many are downright woeful.

Even bands such as Great Sorrow, whose music has a certain inexorable, feral charm, fall down in one important area: grammar. "Monotonous knock of a balance," the members sing in "The Moan in Time" -- which, like all of their oeuvre, is accompanied by rudimentary English lyrics -- "does not disturb a sleeping imagination, but with every step it cuts down a distance to copper explosion."

Not that the fans seem to mind or even notice beneath the primordial grunting of lead singer Alexey Skavronsky, the grinding guitar chords and the raw power of the band's live show. As Great Sorrow stepped onstage at the Metal Attack Festival, the roar of approval was deafening, and the mood in the crowd frighteningly tangible. Young fans performed pristine, terrifying swan dives toward the cold, unyielding concrete floor only to spring up again unscathed to repeat the procedure. As the first song exploded through the sound system, adolescent tresses began to swirl around the auditorium. Hair hurtled forward in a great tidal wave against the stage.

Afterward, the band seemed satisfied with the result. "There is no point in talking about this kind of music, or even about its quality," says Andre, stripping out of his vinyl jeans after the gig and tying up his mane into a bun arrangement until the next show. "Metal is as easy as screaming for the young people who follow us. It has nothing to do with a message or politics or anything like that. Heavy metal is just like an exhalation of breath. It is pure, spontaneous energy."