Jon Schaffer’s Dark Saga

The Iced Earth / Children Of Bodom / Evergrey tour hit downtown Houston on a balmy Saturday May 8th, 2004 at the cramped metal box of a venue known then as the Engine Room. They pulled what the Atlanta Falcons jersey wearing doorman said was the largest crowd to ever turn up for a show there, estimating close to 800 people in a line that stretched down for so many blocks that the HPD took notice and had to get people to stop standing in the middle of the street. It was as intense a show I’ve ever been to, with an ultra packed, sweat drenched, and energized crowd that surged forward when Bodom came on and somehow crushed further together when Iced Earth took the stage. It stands in my memory as being a top five concert experience, with incredible mosh pits, crowd surfing, and massive group singalongs and thrashy headbanging.

What made a great show even better was that hours earlier, I had arrived early to the venue to catch the bands loading in for soundcheck, and got asked by a hungover Alexi Laiho to walk him to the nearest convenience store a mile away so he could buy cigarettes. When we got back and he went in for soundcheck, Iced Earth’s Jon Schaffer and Tim Owens stepped out of their bus, and I got to meet them both, with Schaffer signing my copy of The Dark Saga, a seminal album for me as a metal fan. I shook his hand, and me and the other fan who had the same early bird idea as me chatted with him about the recent Iron Maiden album Dance of Death, and what rare old songs we all wished Steve and company would add to their setlist. The whole interaction only lasted for a few minutes, but it’s been part of a nice memory for me, one that stands out among many from what seems like a lifetime of going to metal shows.

I’ve been a fan of Iced Earth since I stumbled upon a copy of the aforementioned The Dark Saga album and bought it solely due to it’s cover art back in 1997. I soon tracked down Burnt Offerings, Night Of The Stormrider, and Something Wicked This Way Comes and was entrenched, a massive fan. Seeing them in 2004 was only the first time I would see the band live, catching them on numerous occasions afterwards. Being a nerdy metal fan, I’d read interviews with Schaffer to keep up on happenings with the band, and like other fans, it wasn’t hard to notice Schaffer’s libertarian streak coming to the forefront every so often when he spoke on the record —- nevermind their noticeable impact on his lyrics throughout the band’s albums. I think like many other Iced Earth fans, I took his views with a grain of salt, even though they differed from most of my own. Living in a liberal district in conservative Texas, surrounded by opposing political viewpoints in nearly every walk of life even among family and friends, you get used to dealing with that dichotomy and it ceased being surprising a long time ago.

And I was used to that already, one of my favorite albums being Guns N’ Roses Appetite For Destruction, even though it was at times a paean to terrible misogyny. As a teenager who had learned about black metal from that infamous issue of Kerrang magazine, I had naively bought Burzum’s Filosofem, because the grizzly saga behind the album was something I was fascinated by —- and I listened to and enjoyed that album long before Varg’s racial beliefs became common knowledge. Questionable and/or provocative lyrics and imagery come with the territory in metal and hard rock, there’s no avoiding it, but as was the case with Burzum, sometimes they are a prelude to something terrible. For all of Jon Schaffer’s libertarian, 1776-worship in his lyrics, they were just words, and his interviews were just less poetic words, long-winded answers to questions asked and sometimes unasked. I don’t think any of his fans, even those who shared his beliefs, could have predicted that he would end up where he ended up on Wednesday, January 6th at the Capitol building riot that left five people dead including one police officer.

For all of Schaffer’s indulging of his personal politics in interviews, up until Wednesday, it was just that, opinions put forth in print or on YouTube video interviews. Whatever your feelings on those, he was allowed his views and the freedom to express them. As a fan, I had learned to live with that, Schaffer had his view of the world and that was that, I could still be a fan of the music and enjoy the records I grew up with, and even look forward to new albums. I’m not going to pretend to know what Schaffer’s purpose was when he decided to follow the hordes of rioters into the Capitol building on Wednesday. But when he decided to follow suit and entered the building with them, being caught mid-angry shout in the photograph above, he was a willing participant in one of the most shameful acts in the nation’s history. I don’t need to go into why the Capitol riots were awful, you should already know why —- but what I will get into is that Schaffer was marching side by side with people who committed murder, had the intent to commit murder, were engaging in domestic terrorism with explosive devices, and were committing seditious conspiracy via their actions.

As shocking and saddening it is that Schaffer was among those maniacs rioting inside the Capitol building, I’m particularly aggrieved that he was there side by side with neo-nazis and white supremacists. When I was trying to process all my thoughts about this on Wednesday evening, I found myself just remembering all the Iced Earth shows I’d been to here in Houston, where most of the metal fans who attend are like me, brown-skinned to some degree, ie not white. Attendees at metal shows here involve every race and nationality you can think of, which makes sense considering Houston is still the most diverse city in the nation. That was reflected in the giddy crowds at those Iced Earth shows, in the lines at the merch tables, and in the clusters of fans near the tour bus after the show hoping for a few minutes to get a pic or have something signed.

I thought about Schaffer’s partnership with Hansi Kursch in Demons & Wizards. Hansi was born in Germany in 1966, just 21 years after the fall of the Nazi regime at the end of World War II, his parents having had to grow up in the shadow of that terrible reality that their parents’ generation had allowed to happen. Hansi, a veritable teddy bear of a human being, is one of the nicest people in metal, and has been a friend of Schaffer since they met in 1992 on tour together. I wondered what he was thinking, about what he would want to say to Schaffer directly or if he’d be too shocked to say anything. I also thought about my MSRcast co-host Cary, who is Jewish, who has attended Iced Earth shows as well. Neo-nazis’ beliefs include vehemently denying the Holocaust, which is not only incredibly hurtful to Jewish people and German citizens, but should enrage the rest of us. Schaffer may not share the views of neo-nazis himself (Iced Earth after all, have played in Israel before), and I’ve never heard him give voice to those sentiments, but when you walk side by side with white supremacists and neo-nazis for a purpose, you are tacitly supporting their views regardless of whether or not you share them.

And I look at that image of Schaffer above, with his face caught in this contortion of rage, and I wonder: Jon, what the hell do YOU have to be so angry about? Here you are, a white guy in America, who’s never had to deal with the indignities of racism. Your family has never been hatefully stared at in a McDonalds along the interstate in Mississippi when you were a kid. You’ve never had the notion to regret your skin color because it would have made a situation, or just life in general a little easier. More than that, you’re living many a metal musician’s dream, making a living from your music and playing on big stages like Wacken. You get to tour the world in a metal band and receive adulation from adoring crowds on nearly every continent, getting to experience things that most of us will never be able to stuck in our 9-5 existence. Yeah you’ve worked hard for that opportunity, but this global audience is what allows you to enjoy that enriched life. So again, what the hell are you so angry about?

Schaffer will never read this of course, and really I suppose I’m writing this more for my own benefit than anyone else’s, it being the only way I can process my feelings about this whole thing. It’s an understatement to say that I’m incredibly disappointed, but that’s as applicable a term as I can find for describing being shoutingly angry one moment and utterly sad the next. Iced Earth is likely finished, being that Schaffer owns the name and is the central figure in the band, and will be persona non grata going forward (and you know, that minor detail of him possibly facing prison time for his actions). More relevant to me however is just having to deal with this as a fan… or former fan… or however I’m going to describe myself relative to this band’s music. Because even though it will likely be a long, long time before I can stomach listening to Iced Earth’s music again, I know how it goes: I won’t be able to unlike the stuff I’ve already enjoyed.

Maybe some people have that ability, but I clearly don’t. I’m listening to pop music while writing this, but if I hit pause and concentrate, I can think of my favorite passage in “Travel In Stygian”, or the ending sequence to “A Question Of Heaven”, or the thrashy aggressive moments in “The Coming Curse” and even in their fleetingly remembered state, I still love them. They’re part of the fabric of my experience as a metal fan, broadly speaking, but now there will always be a taint on those songs and albums in the form of my mind immediately going to the despicable actions of Schaffer at the Capitol. I’ll have to learn to live with that, and really the only thing I can do going forward is refuse to financially support any of Schaffer’s musical ambitions, if he is allowed to have any after this. I can’t see myself hypothetically reviewing any future Iced Earth albums either (but again, I don’t think that will be a problem). Two days before the Capitol building incident, the metal world came together to collectively mourn the news of Alexi Laiho’s passing in December. I was already saddened from that, and still trying to process it. To think I had met both of those guys within an hour of each other that day in 2004, and now, it feels like I’m mourning the loss of both.

7 Comments

  1. Frank
    January 11, 2021

    I truly feel where you are coming from with this, and share many of your sentiments. Best I can say to offer a slightly varied perspective in regards to the music is this. My experience with Iced Earth has been a formidable part of my musical development as a guitarist, band leader, and overall musician. Their music is actually part of my warm up routine, and has made me a much better guitarist for it. However for me it goes deeper. I have many significant memories associated with their songs. Iced Earth has “guided me through hard times” as I’m sure it has for the countless fans over the years. I can’t undo that, and I really don’t want to allow myself to do so either. Whatever your view on Jon may be, those songs aren’t just his. He may have wrote them and shared them with us, but now they are ours.
    I do not condone anything that happened on 1/6/21, but I would like to know a little more about the details of his involvement. Not that it will end up making a difference, but I’d like to know more.

    Reply
    1. TheMetalPigeon
      January 11, 2021

      “those songs aren’t just his. He may have wrote them and shared them with us, but now they are ours.”

      I do agree with that perspective, and I think that’s sort of what I was touching on briefly when I mentioned not being able to unlike some of those albums/songs. And yeah I can easily see how that’s magnified when those songs have taken on a deeper emotional significance to someone personally. It’s such a complex issue, all you can do is process it the best way you can. I too am curious to know more about Jon’s involvement, actually kind of surprised no arrest has been made public yet.

      Reply
  2. Eric Gmutza
    January 11, 2021

    This was a great read. I’ve been struggling to make sense of all this myself, and I’ve never been a huge Iced Earth fan (Demons & Wizards, though). As someone who’s libertarian-leaning myself, it’s disgusting to see people I used to respect (there just aren’t that many liberty-minded voices in metal) participating in something like this, not to mention the respect I’m rapidly losing for the many who are currently defending/excusing those actions. Hopefully we all find our way to sanity before things get much worse 🙁

    Reply
    1. TheMetalPigeon
      January 11, 2021

      Yeah agreed on the last sentiment. As far as Jon being libertarian, I’ve actually known many rational, reasonable libertarians personally, and it’s always been interesting to hear their perspective on political/social situations. I’d almost venture to say Jon and others like him who’d entertain such extremes distorts what libertarianism could be/is. Yeah it’s the end of Demons and Wizards looks like, I can’t see Hansi agreeing to another album even if Schaffer is free in the future. If it did happen though I guess I wouldn’t hold it against Hansi, friendships can run deep…. but I just don’t see it in the cards. Glad I saw them in August last year and got to hear Fiddler on the Green live in happier times.

      Reply
  3. AMG
    January 11, 2021

    Yeah, man, this really puts the finger on something important. I had a run-in with him back when Barlow was still in the band. I loved them and they played with Megadeth and it was fun to talk to them at first, but 9/11 had happened and I don’t remember the details but I left never really able to enjoy Iced Earth like I did previously. It makes me sad, because dude produced some metal I genuinely loved throughout the years, but knowing that he was there just turns my stomach. Worse yet, he was there based on lies. He’s so snowed in to this world view that’s being fed to him by the media he’s consuming, that he’s not even basing his actions on facts about the world that are generally accepted. He was there to storm the Capitol based on a Big Lie.

    Reply
    1. TheMetalPigeon
      January 11, 2021

      Yeah, I was mentioning to another metal loving friend of mine today that I’m having trouble making the connection on how Jon, a libertarian who disliked both political parties all of a sudden ended up sporting a Trump patch at a protest the vote rally in November. Voting for Trump wasn’t disqualifying in my book, I know many people who did, but going along with this nonsense about voter fraud, stolen elections, etc is just unreal. I would love to one day hear from Schaffer himself about what he hoped to gain or achieve by being at the Capitol building that day. Doubtful that we’ll get an explanation though.

      Reply
  4. PatriotNOTAPatriot.
    January 12, 2021

    Schaffer, plain and simple, believes our country is being hijacked by socialists and radical groups. Plain and simple. He’s a constitutionalist; IE he believes in the way this country was founded on constitutional beliefs. I’m not condoning what he did, however if you look at the history of this country, it was founded on violent revolution. Trust me, we didn’t sit down to tea with the British to discuss our independence; we fought bloody hard and viciously. That’s what Jon thinks it’s going to take to remove the hypocrisy and greedy agenda of those who REALLY rule this country. The politicians are NOT for US, and you can tell that by how the republicans AND democrats are really just two sides of the same coin. I mean, come on, like $600 is really going to help a family in need; $600 won’t even cover HALF of most people’s mortgages. People get into politics for a number of reasons; some truly want to help society, the other half knows that under S.E.C. laws, most senators and congressmen cannot be tried for “insider trading” and more than half make their millions through the stock market getting “insider tips” to companies on the move or decline. Those politicians that “get caught” are usually exonerated by their fellow buddies in Washington. It’s how the game is played…

    Five people dead in the capitol. Nothing to brag or be proud of, to be sure… But if you look at America’s history with their sedition from the British, you will notice it wasn’t all glorious warfare. Some down and dirty tactics were employed, because hey! It’s war. Not playtime in the sandbox. If you’re going to risk your life, and the lives of others in your company, you do what it takes to WIN THE DAMN WAR. The Vietnamese knew that with their tactics in Vietnam; sending kids with explosives into the enemy camps, laying spiked pit traps and what not. WE knew that with how we fought the British, with hide and seek salvos aimed at reducing numbers far superior to ours. And even the Vikings knew that, by trapping opposing armies into small confining spaces and utilizing their best berserkers to inflict massive damage…

    I would still like to know WHY he stormed in there… After all, trespassing is still a law we should regard. I don’t know if all he did was just storm the gates so to speak and start yelling or something else…

    Reply

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