At the Crossroads of Metal + Christianity, Demon Hunter Found Success
It’s unmistakable when you’re a Demon Hunter fan: the stylized demon skull with a hole in its head. It’s been portrayed in some form or another on the cover of every Demon Hunter album; it's the band’s own Eddie or Vic Rattlehead. Accordingly, it’s also a popular tattoo choice for diehards, an instantly recognizable brand among metalheads. And its connections to religion are inherent.
Christianity in hard rock and metal is nothing new. But Demon Hunter exist in a somewhat unique place among those entities. The mainstay Christian metal band continue to be a commanding presence in heavy music overall, and their success—a particular kind of success in the music industry—owes a great deal to both sides of the aisle. For Demon Hunter, the ideological middle ground between heavy metal and Christianity has reaped the biggest reward.
"There is a line that I walk that is kind of between worlds,” lead vocalist Ryan Clark recently told Loudwire. He could very well be comparing his music career to his day job as a graphic designer, but he's actually referring to his band’s longevity in places that often draw steep boundaries between metal and Contemporary Christian, a distinction Clark has helped blur for nearly 20 years. Ten albums under his belt to date, the singer and songwriter who holds a Christian worldview admitted he wants the band to appeal to both camps.
“Christianity has never been cool,” Clark dryly laid out. “When I was growing up, Christian music was just a big parody. It was all just derivative and corny. Then hardcore bands like Living Sacrifice, Focused, Overcome and even early Mortification came along, and they helped me understand that it was cool. And I want Demon Hunter to have an element of that for people who are like-minded. But on the other hand, I also want it to be something bigger than that, that's not just preaching to the choir. Something that can resonate with everyone.”
You can hear that resolve on the band’s recent albums, War and Peace, a pair of complementary efforts issued simultaneously in March that each exhibit a different side of the Seattle-based outfit: one heavy and rocking, a metal machine at full force; the other softer and more melodic, the comparably underdeveloped side of Demon Hunter. The dual efforts appeared well received by both fans and reviewers, and the frontman chalked up the triumph to the group’s longterm goals.
“It's always been our plan to showcase the styles we kind of bounce between,” Clark explained. “The average Demon Hunter record is somewhere in the 80 percent heavy, 20 percent melodic range. So we wanted to give ourselves the ability to fully explore both of those styles, as if we were a band that didn't do the other at all. It was definitely more of an exploration for us, but we also didn't want it to just feel like an acoustic record and a heavy record. We wanted to explore it all.”
Those excursions checked off, the band’s staying power is self-evident. They formed in 2000 from the ashes of Training for Utopia, an underground but influential metalcore act that folded once Clark and his brother (guitarist Don, who left Demon Hunter on good terms in 2009) realized a more mature style of music could have a wider appeal. A self-titled debut emerged on Solid State Records two years later.
The imprint was (and still is) a part of Tooth & Nail Records, a Christian rock label, who serviced the album to Christian bookstores. At these niche chains—most of which have since been displaced by digital retailers—copies of the record quickly received a “big old black sticker” obscuring the bulk of the album cover, Clark recalled. It was there to conceal the slayed demon skull.
“It was our little version of a Parental Advisory sticker, which everyone knows makes it cooler,” the musician joked of the slapdash content warning. But almost two decades later, Demon Hunter’s music and message remain defiantly the same. They’re also still true to their religious beliefs, and that steadfastness provides a cornerstone for the band’s institution. But don’t assume Clark harbors the far-right leanings that seem to typify today’s Evangelicals.
"Modern Western Christianity is kind of this bastardized version of something that's more about morality than it is about a belief system,” the singer said before summarizing his own beliefs. “I subscribe to the fact that there is a Christ, and creation, and some of the hard-and-fast tenets of Christianity. But I don't subscribe to a lot of the sociopolitical stuff that comes along with it. That stuff has really very little to do with the heart of it."
Consequently, Clark has been able to thrive at the intersection of faith and music. The road where Christian acts get burned out by CCM and find themselves longing for mainstream acceptance is a well-worn path. Crossovers become expertly engineered, haters stand at the ready to cry foul. Demon Hunter have comfortably existed in the gap between both pikes for a substantial span. It’s not lost on the bandleader that he’s so suited for traversing that barrier.
“A lot of bands get tired of being told that they need to do this, or they can't do that,” Clark said of those feeling suppressed in Christian music. “It gets tiresome to try and navigate those waters and feel like you're still being artistic and staying true to yourself. I have to sit back and compartmentalize that, and look at it for what it is, as opposed to other artists who may just want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I've been very realistic about that, and I think that's helped us survive not only being a band, but has helped up stay the same way we’ve always been."
Maybe it’s that kind of allegiance that keeps the group’s career at a high. Because if there’s one area where Clark and his bandmates may appear a bit behind the times, it’s in their own music tastes—the tunes they put on once band practice is over.
“None of us really majorly have our finger on the pulse of what's happening today in heavy metal,” Clark revealed with a chuckle. “Most of our influences are coming from stuff in the '90s and maybe early aughts. But I think that's also helped us stay a little bit ahead of the curve. We avoid any of those fleeting, trend-hopping issues.”
Just like a Demon Hunter tattoo can’t conveniently be removed, the band have permanently marked their place in metal, regardless of their religious drive and passing music fads. But that faith-based tenacity may be part of what’s kept them there for so long anyway.