Throughout the pandemic and the year of 2020, it felt as if the world had plunged into a full-blown dumpster fire. COVID-19, police brutality, economic hardship, and more have all been affecting each of us in immediate ways. No doubt the mental strain has become extremely difficult for some to bear as outlets are taken away, and many people are dealing with deep mental health strains for the first time.
I want to start this piece with a reminder that it is okay to not be okay. If you need to take a few days or a few weeks off social media and away from the world, that’s perfectly okay. The internet will be here when you get back. Please take time to remember to eat, shower, drink water, and stretch if nothing else.
In thinking about the increased strain on mental health throughout this year, and in my own personal life, I turned towards my number one outlet: music. As I was going through my playlists, I began thinking about the bands or artists whose songs seem to resonate more than ever with their discussion and exploration of mental health and internal struggle.
In this writing series, I’m exploring bands and artists who I feel are some of the best in music when it comes to writing about and advocating for mental health. This first piece will cover Beartooth, a great force in the metal and rock communities.
I want to begin by iterating that my point of this article is not to paint Beartooth, or, by extension, their frontman Caleb Shomo as some patron saints of mental health advocacy, leading the charge with swords raised. In fact, in an interview with Consequence of Sound, Shomo shared that, while being a mental health advocate was never his intention, he’s happy to support the cause and help fight the good fight. I think the band is doing a tremendous job by being honest and open not only with themselves but with fans as well.
Beartooth is a band based out of Columbus, Ohio, started by Shomo in 2012. Shomo started the band after leaving his previous band, Attack! Attack!. While dealing with mental health issues, Shomo began writing about his struggles and decided to put this accumulation of songs into the world. In creating a lineup to share these songs, Shomo began with a goal of just one show to rock out and have a great time. One show to rule them all.
Though Cobo Hall was an extremely small venue, once Beartooth started playing, the crowd went nuts. To paraphrase Shomo, his wife, Fleur, and brother, Luke’s, retelling on their podcast, MyTop5Podcast:
“Sweat was dripping from the same walls people were climbing over. Ceiling fans were ripped down and it was an ocean of people everywhere one looked. It was a show where the band had no choice but to interact and be in the middle of the crowd on a tiny step-up stage. A great hardcore show.”
From there, Beartooth only grew. Releasing their first EP, Sick (2013), on RedBull Records, each song was raw and real, grappling with a vicious internal struggle. While songs like “I Have a Problem” discuss issues head-on, Shomo’s vocals are as jagged and piercing as the instruments throughout the album, highlighting the theme of a ferocious fight within one’s self. This fight may spill over into the external world, and in some cases it may be worsened by the strain the external world creates on the internal self.
Delving into the subject full force, the first full-length album from Beartooth, Disgusting (2014), continued with raw, hammering hit after hit about internal struggle, frustration at the world, and coming to terms with many dark subjects all while shoving a middle finger in its face. Yet, among all of these vicious thoughts, there is also a plea for help. (For the sake of my editors, and the radio station’s word count, I have decided to forgo further musical descriptions of the albums as I could last all day on that.)
Personally, I got into Beartooth around the time their second album, Aggressive (2016), was released, and that is what hooked me into the band for life. It was the first time I had heard someone discuss mental illness as an ongoing struggle instead of a finite issue with a finish line.
I’m not saying that’s the first time that opinion has ever been given, but it was the first time I personally had heard a band or an artist say it so explicitly in this music scene. It blew my mind. In the music video for “Sick of Me,” Shomo lays all of the feelings out. Hearing him speak these words floored me:
“Depression and anxiety isn’t something you just get away from. It’s not something you can run from; it’s something that’s inside you. Like to me, it’s just always in my brain, it’s always in there churning. I’ve struggled with eating disorders solely because of what other people think and a lot of that is from the anxiety that comes after the depressions just been hitting, hitting, hitting; then it really digs and then everything else comes out. Anxiety and depression is no joke. I think it’s more about fighting it and overcoming it than running away. You can’t run away from it; you have to deal with it and it’s choosing how to deal with it and this song is a big way to help. At least for me, music has been implanted in my body, I come from a musical background, for me it’s just always been my life. It’s been always the most important thing, what I’ve connected with, and what I do. When I go onstage everything goes away.”
I resonated deeply with what he was saying, and it changed my life. Without getting too much into the weeds, I have struggled with mental trauma from various abuse and heavy amounts of loss from a young age, and in recent years with a serious eating disorder. For most of my life it has felt like a cyclical process of short term highs and long term lows. With my eating disorder, and possible ADHD, which I’m currently undergoing testing for, it has felt like a never ending anxious nightmare as the disorder is related to other hereditary health issues I deal with. Hearing Shomo say this and knowing he had gone, and is still going, through similar struggles gave me hope. Though our experiences were, and continue to be different, it’s extremely powerful to see someone there still fighting and knowing that it’s possible to make it. It’s possible and worth it to fight like hell.
All of these issues have led to very dark times and thoughts I still deal with every single day. However, I feel more inspired and ready to fight than I ever have before, and it’s thanks majorly in part to the power I see in Beartooth and their work.
There’s a fundamental element that makes Beartooth’s music different from the stereotypical emo “poor misunderstood me” whining that a critic may conflate with the genre. Yes, there’s a massive element of anger and personal responsibility in Beartooth’s music, but it’s an anger with knowing that things could be better if the artist, listener, and world kept fighting. There’s a strong hopefulness to their albums in the midst of the passion.
Shomo, in an interview with Alt Press, has said that, when it comes to songwriting, the element of honesty is the most important thing, which is easy to tell by listening to Beartooth’s work. These songs, dealing with some of the darkest moments and feelings people can have, pull no punches in their approach to the struggles which often accompany mental health issues. It is not romanticized. It is gritty. It is real. And it is a relief. For me personally, hearing those same thoughts and experiences expressed by another person in such detail and care was crucial.
While these songs began as, and still are, a therapeutic outlet, they also serve a greater purpose when performed live: showing people they are not alone.
During the tour for the release of their third album Disease (2018), a friend of the band and another giant in the metal scene, Kyle Pavone of We Came as Romans, passed away. It was shortly after this that Shomo began to speak on stage about mental health, depression, and seeking help. While it started as a spur-of-the-moment decision on stage in Michigan, a drum tech, who spoke with Shomo afterward, encouraged him to keep doing it. Staying true to their spontaneity, the speeches varied every night but centered around the same topics. At their show on October 5, 2018, in Silver Springs, Maryland, my first Beartooth show, I remember the crowd around me being moved and some people (myself included) in tears.
Shomo has said in interviews that the speech itself isn’t what’s hard, but rather it’s trying to get the point across that he’s not just addressing a crowd; he’s addressing every single person in the audience as an individual. I think he did just that. The energy at Beartooth shows in my few experiences has always been different from any other band’s show. Like their albums, there’s the high energy craziness of a punk show, while acknowledging that life and circumstances suck sometimes, but there’s a lot of hope rather than only wallowing. Beartooth does a great paradoxical job of both providing and not providing an escape, which carries over from their albums to their shows.
Concerts often serve as a way of escapism for some people, and that is no different at a Beartooth show. The band heavily interacts with the crowd and creates amazing, action-packed energy. They translate the same passion and talent from their songs directly to the stage in a way that feels fresh every time. It is easy to get lost in their music and to forget about the world for a while. However, I would argue that, in a sense, their music calls for a direct confrontation to escapism. By addressing these issues head-on, speaking about them, and sharing their experience, people are able to face them. From this confrontation, listeners are able to find hope. Beartooth’s music strikes a delicate balance, but one that seems to be only growing in its deserved popularity and appreciation.
I have no doubt that Beartooth will continue, as Shomo says, “fighting the good fight,” even if they didn’t start out or see themselves as advocates. With their upcoming album focused on the feelings brought out by the craziness of last year, in particular the pandemic, I’m sure they will. They show that sometimes unintended consequences can be a very good thing. With their talent, honesty, and willingness to share, they can only go further.