A Brief History Of Masks In Heavy Music
Image has always been a pivotal aspect of heavy music. Dark, creepy sounds are captivating in themselves, sure, but they just don’t hit as hard when the performers are indistinguishable from Steve in accounts or Sue in human resources. Rock and metal artists have done much to make themselves larger than life over the years: growing hair out, donning studded denim and leather, tattooing every imaginable space, daubing bodies in blood red and death white…
Alice Cooper and KISS became different animals when they opened the make-up box. Hell, even the lo-fi outsiders of Norwegian black metal only truly transformed themselves from angry young men to heretical demons when they tapped into the corpsepaint.
There is a breed beyond, however. The willingness to pull on a solid mask is to completely sacrifice the human being within for your time onstage, in service of the symbol you become. That can be to add the ultimate mystique: an acknowledgement that questions are always more interesting than answers. It could be in service of a grand theatrical theme, transforming the players into characters in the outlandish story they want to tell. Hell, it might even be just because certain musicians value their anonymity, whether to stay out of the celebrity spotlight or to avoid the persecution that righteous music still invokes in certain corners of the world.
As COVID-19 necessitates that we all become (socially responsible) members of the masked fraternity, we reckoned it would be the perfect opportunity for a run-down of some of the most noteworthy mask-wearers in the history of heavy music. So have a little sympathy for these guys the next time you’re moaning about that patch of cloth over your mouth in the supermarket queue.
Shreveport avant-garde collective The Residents formed in 1969, but it wasn’t until 1979’s sixth LP Eskimo (they’re now close to 50 albums of original material) that they donned the outlandish eyeball masks for which they’re now renowned. Pre-empting even Chris Sievey’s legendary Frank Sidebottom aesthetic, however, their penchant for OTT headpieces and dedication to complete personal anonymity blazed the trail for almost every masked rocker that would follow. A variety of images have been deployed over the years – old men, skulls, werewolves – always in service of their challenging, conceptually complex sounds. Still, it’s those damned eyeballs that haunt our dreams…
Formed in Richmond, Virginia all the way back in 1984, the self-anointed Scumdogs Of The Universe were metal’s original pantomime caricatures. Building an elaborate sci-fi mythology that casts band members as brutal interplanetary warriors (Beefcake The Mighty, Balsac The Jaws Of Death etc), they perform in gleefully outrageous full-body outfits, layering on the simulated sex, violence and scatological humour, often in service of more thoughtful socio-political satire. That focus on character work has served their longevity, too, meaning that they could push on from even the passing of beloved frontman Dave Brockie (Oderus Urungus) in 2014, with Vulvatron’s brief stint adding a woman’s (bloody) touch before the subsequent evolution of Beefcake into the mighty Blothar.
Although many fans will forever associate Finnish freaks Lordi with their Eurovision-conquering 2006 performance of Hard Rock Hallelujah (the first heavy performance to achieve the feat), the Rovaniemi natives have been hamming it up in one form or another since 1992. Originally effectively a one-man project for vocalist and professional sculptor/costume designer Mr Lordi (Tomi Petteri Putaansuu), their first music video Inferno saw the mainman unmasked, with only the supporting players sporting monster make-up. The concept quickly grew from there, with Tomi re-imagining the project as a band of monsters like GWAR or his beloved KISS, and devoting as much time to honing incredibly detailed latex outfits as their brilliant pop-metal sound. Although they’ve had a revolving door membership (mummy-bandaged Guitarist Amen is the only other permanent member), players’ anonymity has been staunchly protected, with the constantly-evolving costumes – and broader Lordi mythos – remaining fans’ main focus.
Far more than a poor-man’s Slipknot, the masked aesthetic of Cleveland industrial metal experimentalists Mushroomhead was intended as an integral part of their original avant-garde ethos rather than a mere eye-catching gimmick. Indeed, formed in 1993, they also significantly pre-date their Iowan counterparts, and the supposed beef between the bands was the invention of bone-headed fans rather than any actual animosity. Comprised of musicians from various outfits in the city’s downtown Warehouse District, the use of masks, costumes and pseudonyms was also partly geared at differentiating this project from members’ other acts. The ever-evolving aesthetic (matching up to the industrial imagery of art rock/industrial influences like Mr. Bungle, Faith No More, Nine Inch Nails and KMFDM) remains a key part of their enduring cult package.
There’s nothing particularly elaborate about The Locust’s onstage get-up. Wearing uniforms comprising tight nylon bodysuits and matching fabric masks with insectoid eyes, they’ve always felt weirdly low maintenance. Emerging from San Diego’s flourishing hardcore punk scene in 1994, their sound was wiry and more abrasive than that of many of their contemporaries, encapsulating elements of grindcore, noise and powerviolence, punctuated by flashes of new wave weirdness. The minimalist look was a perfect match, paying tribute to the all-consuming creepy crawlies after whom the band are named, while also emphasising their alien oddness and faceless threat.
Most masked rock bands are out to unsettle: fixated on avant-garde or horror movie imagery. Not The Aquabats. Storming out of Huntington Beach, CA the same year as The Locust were emerging 90 miles down the road, the pop-punk/ska collective – also sporting matching masks and uniforms – were very much the other side of the coin. Claiming, with tongues solidly in cheeks, to be a gang of crime-fighting superheroes, their music and theatrical stageshows often revolve around action scenes, comedic stunt-work and face-offs with masked villains. Their faintly ridiculous Lone Ranger-esque face pieces brilliantly set off their blue-clad look. They’ve actually gone on record to say that the aesthetic was informed by a shared love of Ohioan post-punks Devo. We’re betting no-one else on this list would own up to that.
Fusing elements of death and black metal with dark ambient and other experimental music into a frankly terrifying whole, Brisbane heavyweights Portal were always going to need an intense image to match up. In 1994, a full four years before Sunn O))) would emerge from Seattle, they would pioneer the hooded onstage look. Inspired by the silent horror films of the 1920s, they would insist on pseudonyms like Horror Illogicum and Phantom Conspicuous while sporting floor-length executioner suits with narrow eye-slits and nooses hung around their necks. Frontman The Curator took it a step further, with a range of outlandish headpieces, from huge wizards’ hats to miniature confessional booths. Genuinely nightmarish.
Portal’s Aussie contemporaries The Berzerker were kicking off around the same time. First churning their savage industrial death metal mix out of Melbourne in 1995, their self-styled cybergrind assault demanded something a little more lurid. Originally identifying only as The Vocalist, The Guitarist, The Bassist and The Drummer, the quartet donned weird headpieces that seemed to resemble werebeasts or disastrously mutated wildlife. Viewed in the dim light of their stage show, it was deeply unnerving shit. Dismayed by the ubiquity of Slipknot comparisons around the turn of the millennium, though, they appeared unmasked on seminal 2004 DVD The Principles And Practices Of The Berzerker and have performed that way ever since. Having lost little of their threat, they’re still well worth checking out, with their much-anticipated sixth LP reportedly due later this year.
It was fate, perhaps, that Slipknot’s first ever show was scheduled for Halloween night 1995. Although their specific aesthetic had not been cemented at that point, percussionist and artistic mastermind Shawn Crahan came across a clown mask and decided that it would be an interesting choice to wear onstage. The concept developed from there, and by 1997 it had expanded to a whole philosophy of anonymity where no one player would be divisible from the whole, all focus would be on their music and members would be known by their numbers (0−8) rather than by real names. Coupled with the uber-abrasive, unsettling sound with which they exploded onto the scene, it captured the imaginations of fans all over the world, emphasising their intoxicating sense of danger and unpredictability to the extent that legendary K! photographer and ’Knot collaborator Paul Harries was sometimes asked by fans whether there were any faces beneath the masks at all. Two decades of tragedy, tumult, numerous public appearances and side-projects have lessened that original mystique somewhat, but there’s no real doubt: Slipknot without their masks simply wouldn’t be Slipknot.
Dealing in lurid death-thrash and claiming to be mutants from the land of Creepsylvania, there were obvious comparisons to GWAR when Ghoul first emerged from Oakland, CA back in 2001. They’ve got a grittier, down’n’dirty identity all of their own, mind. Going by the stage names Cremator, Fermentor, Digestor and Dissector, the main band sport iconic burlap sack masks indebted to classic horror movies like The Town That Dreaded Sundown and Friday The 13th Part 2. Having fleshed out a mythos featuring numerous other characters – from ancient ogres to futuristic storm-troopers – there’ll also frequently be “visitors” crashing the stage to disrupt songs as brilliantly unhinged as Off With Their Heads and Shred The Dead. Rumoured participation from members of Impaled, Dystopia, Wolves In The Throne Room, Exhumed, Phobia, Morbid Angel, Asunder and Morbosidad only deepens the intrigue.
Rolling out of Los Angeles in 2005, rap-rock collective Hollywood Undead are another group who stand apart from the regular creeps and weirdos of the metal mask-wearing world. Although cynics have teased that their elaborate face pieces (crafted, in later years, by Hollywood make-up specialist Jerry Constantine) were to hide the identity of the artists behind some of the most offensive tracks in modern popular music, the band explained their true relevance in an interview with K! last year. “It wasn’t an anonymity thing,” explained George ‘Johnny 3 Tears’ Ragan. “It was a way to work graffiti into the band. We used to tag down on the LA river. We wore those masks so we wouldn’t get caught on camera.” As the years progressed, though, they ran out of room to create, and recent releases have seen them retired altogether. “I don’t think people loved our band because we wore masks,” George reasons, “but I do think people hated our band because we wore masks.”
To the uninformed observer, Imperial Triumphant could look like just another of the recent spate of black metal outfits adding gold-plated bells and whistles to the old craggily frostbitten framework. Hailing from New York City, however, and having been kicking around in one form or another since 2005 (though they recently told K! the band we know now only really started in 2012), their rich imagery is a direct tribute to the Art Deco opulence of those remnants from the roaring twenties that still glitter through their hometown. It’s a potent match, too, for a musical blend that drops dollops of golden-age jazz and traditional avant-garde into their extreme metal blend – and their overarching conceptual package. There’s more to find out the deeper you dig, too, with each mask abstractly representing the personality of its wearer…
When Ghost emerged from Linköping, Sweden with their strange blend of occult imagery and classic rock sound in the second half of the ’00s, their masks served a dual purpose. On one hand, it was all in service of the inverted clerical concept, with mainman Tobias Forge playing the role of demonic anti-pope Papa Emeritus, while his instrumentalists were the ‘nameless ghouls’ enacting his infernal vision. On the other, the anonymity afforded to Tobias meant that the band was able to establish itself without the baggage of his previous outfits like glam-rockers Crashdïet or death metallers Repugnant, and that he was able to chop and change players as required without sacrificing the integrity of the band’s singular image. The 2017 lawsuit, where several of the ghouls claimed part-ownership of the music, might’ve ruined the illusion somewhat, but Tobias’ pivot to the more subtly-masked Cardinal Copia persona for 2018 LP Prequelle was a stroke of genius, further emphasising the high-camp vision while convincing a legion of new fans to join the congregation.
The Infernal Sea
The UK might be the birthplace of – and an enduring breeding ground for – heavy music, but its masked representation has been somewhat scant. Emerging in 2010, East Anglian black metallers The Infernal Sea put a delightfully singular slant on the idea. Fascinated by the Black Death that swept across Europe from the mid-14th century, their music – particularly 2015’s masterful second LP The Great Mortality – is a reckoning on the pestilence, the potential for depravity and the misguidedness of church teachings during the time. Brilliantly, their guitarists perform wearing crow-like plague doctor masks (the long beaks of which were filled with aromatic ‘protections’ during the middle-ages) while their vocalist wears a cloth face-covering emblazoned with the band’s own creepy sigil. Atmospheric mastery.
Cult Of Fire
Although black metal has traditionally revolved around anti-Christian or Satanic imagery, Czech outfit Cult Of Fire have far broader horizons. Material from shortly after their 2010 formation was fixated on the ‘orthodox satanism’ popular in the Central European scene, but as of 2014’s second LP मृत्यु का तापसी अनुध्यान (Hindi for “Ascetic Meditation Of Death”), they moved into Eastern theology, seeing the terrifying potential of the Hindu goddess Kali: a deity capable of great enlightenment and terrible wrath. Their stage show is a twisted ritual, generally featuring everything from looming scythes and sacrificial altars to religious icons and walls of candles, while onstage garb is a dark delight, having evolved from priestly smocks to spiky cult robes with faces cryptically blacked-out.
Founded in Moscow, Russia back in 2011, feminist protest punk-rockers and performance artists Pussy Riot are a group whose masks are more functional than fashionable. Staging unauthorised guerrilla performances in public places, they provocatively highlighted Russian domestic opposition to Vladimir Putin and religious complicity, as well as causes as worthy as LGBT+ discrimination and women’s rights – all in the face of a hostile homeland. Their poppy, carefree music is a perfect foil to those heavy themes, but having been imprisoned following a performance inside Moscow’s Cathedral Of Christ The Saviour on February 21, 2012, their knitted Day-Glo balaclavas are as much about protecting their identities as making a statement these days.
Having grown up in the rural village of Simuny outside Białystok, Poland, Batushka frontman Bartłomiej “Bart” Krysiuk was the product of a religio-cultural melting pot that encapsulated elements of Orthodoxy, Western European Christianity, Judaism and Islam (represented by scions of Tatars). His band is a tantalisingly ambiguous representation/bastardisation of that culture, full of the bells, smells and droning chants of church service – along with jarring blasts of black metal. Their onstage show resembles a full-on religious service, with the players fully kitted out in quasi-clerical garb. A very public falling out with founding guitarist Krzysztof Drabikowski and his formation of another band with the same name might’ve distracted in recent times, but the undiluted Batushka live show remains one of the most captivating in modern metal.
London alt.metallers Sleep Token materialised from the aether at some point in 2016 with the imperceptibility of characters who’d emerged from some subconscious nether-realm. It’s fitting. They’re presented as an anonymous collective of musicians united in their servitude to an ancient deity known only as Sleep, who appeared to bandleader Vessel in a dream. Their live show is a uniquely disorienting proposition. With sounds veering from crunching tech-metal to quavering alt.pop and that monochrome, masked aesthetic that initially invokes the danger of black metal but increasingly recalls the softer mystique of Spirited Away’s No-Face, there’s delicious dissonance. Thanks to their fast rise and Vessel’s vertiginous vocal work, fan theories have run riot, suggesting that these might be metal aliases for pop-acts as renowned as Bastille or Sam Smith. That intrigue and their ever-increasing cult is a poignant reminder that music and mystery will always be more powerful forces than the face behind the mask.
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