Super Subcultures

The High Priest of Heavy Metal

First he found God. Then he found death metal. But Father Robert Culat believes there’s no reason the two can’t co-exist.

The High Priest of Heavy Metal

Robert Culat’s journey into the dark world of metal music wasn’t unusual by most standards, though he came to the genre later than the typical rebellious teenager. Having converted to Catholicism at the age of 13, he spent his teenage years devoted to his faith, allowing no time for Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath. In 1993, when he was 25, Culat still had no idea what heavy metal was, until the serendipitous day that he encountered two young metalheads at the local high school.

As a freshly ordained Catholic priest, recently returned from his studies in Rome to serve the diocese in Avignon, France, Father Culat was charged with preaching to the young people and schools in the community.

“I was waiting at the beginning of the school year for young people to sign up for religion classes,” Culat says. Among the first to sign up were two young brothers who looked quite strange to Father Culat. “I was surprised,” Culat says, “the long hair, all in black, with the band T-shirts.” Most priests would have said a Hail Mary or two and avoided them. Culat wanted to know more.

Culat found out that one of the brothers was in a band called Cortège. His curiosity piqued, the priest sat in on the band’s next rehearsal in the family’s garage. “It was not very gentle metal,” Culat says, doing his impression of the guttural roar that immediately turns off most average citizens and clergy members from the music. Cortège was a death metal band, featuring frantic blast beats, abrasive guitars and indecipherable vocals, the most extreme of the extreme.

“That was the beginning,” Culat says.

At first, Father Culat treated the harsh music as an object of interest and study, which of course meant listening to it. “I was like a scientist in a laboratory,” Culat says. “I didn’t feel any attraction, I just wanted to know more about it.” In typical metalhead fashion, the fans in the community inundated him with recommendations. Cassettes and CDs began to pile up at Culat’s home next to his books on theology and philosophy. Gradually, he found himself listening to some of the albums not out of scientific curiosity but for recreational purposes.

Culat’s exposure to music until that point had been limited to the classical music his father had listened to at home, and he found himself gravitating toward “symphonic metal,” which features soaring operatic vocals instead of guttural shrieks. He felt an undeniable affinity for bands like Stratovarius, Sonata Arctica and Rhapsody, which combined the classic guitar-driven heavy metal sound with orchestral elements, pianos and harpsichords. Like most others, Culat’s path into metal music started at the more accessible end of the spectrum, before wading into the genre’s darker depths.

Father Culat stands in line for the Danish metal festival Copenhell Festival, 2011. (Photos courtesy Father Culat)

By 2000, Culat had moved through these “gateway bands” and begun experimenting with the really hard stuff. But how could he reconcile his role within the Catholic Church with his budding love for a genre of music infamous for being abrasive and edgy if not outright blasphemous? Father Culat sought out books on the subject from Christian perspectives not only to help him contextualize the music within his faith but also to understand the young metalheads with whose spiritual well-being he was charged.

“At the time, there were very few books,” Culat says. “The most famous at the time was written in the ’80s by a Canadian priest.” According to Culat, these books predictably and unilaterally condemned metal music, denouncing it as a path to perdition. “This was not in correspondence with my own experiences,” Culat says. “It was just the opposite. These young people were normal, sympathetic.”

Unsatisfied with what had been written thus far, Father Culat decided to write his own book. A curious scientist at heart, Culat would supplement his own personal thoughts and opinions with sociological data. After scouring classifieds in French underground metal zines, he mailed out 22 questions covering everything from basics like gender and age to deeper subjects like how they were introduced to metal and their views on religion. He received more than 500 responses from the metalheads of the country.

“To keep it scientific, I didn’t say I was a priest,” Culat says.

The surveys revealed that of the more than 500 French metalheads who responded, 15 percent of them were religious or spiritual in some way. This flew in the face of the prevailing stereotypes of metal music fans as godless hedonists or dramatic Satanists. Culat’s book took the raw data, combined with the priest’s personal experiences, and presented it in an unbiased, sociological context, allowing the data to speak for itself. Although written for Christians and other mainstream demographics, Culat’s book abandoned the sensational and alarmist notions that metal was destroying an otherwise decent society.

As Culat and a couple of metalhead friends with a passion for statistics compiled the information that would become Culat’s first book, the priest continued his work. In a little village near the town of Orange, the local church was preparing for the sacrament of confirmation, which requires a visit from the bishop.

“We had the classic church songs, but I wanted something for younger people,” Culat says with just a hint of laughter in his voice. So he sought out a young man named Victor who played guitar in a local metal band to bring some youthful vigor to the sacrament.

“He wasn’t coming to church on Sundays, so I decided to visit him,” Culat says, with a laugh that is equal parts joyful and mischievous. “I remember very clearly, it was a Friday evening and he was having a party with his friends. You can imagine a metal teenager party. It was a bit awkward.”

Nevertheless, Victor graciously invited the local priest to have a seat on the couch and handed him a beer. Culat told Victor that he had heard of the young man’s band and asked the shocked teenager if he would be interested in playing something at the sacrament. It took some time for Victor to overcome his surprise at having the local priest crash his party, but after Culat impressed them all with his metal credentials, Victor graciously accepted the gig.

During the offertory at the church’s sacrament, Victor, dressed in his Sunday best, plugged in his electric guitar and played a section from the Metallica ballad “Nothing Else Matters.” After the ceremony was over, Father Culat approached the visiting bishop and asked what he thought of Victor’s contribution to the proceedings. The bishop, a man in his 70s, held his hand to his heart and told Culat, “It was very beautiful.”

“That’s the only time I had a piece of metal music, even just a ballad, in the mass,” Culat says.

In 2007, a student at a bookshop in Lille, a small French city just 10 kilometers from the border with Belgium, stumbled across Culat’s L’âge du Metal, whose cover showed Mikael Åkerfeldt, the Swedish metal guitarist and singer behind the legendary band Opeth, his growling face obscured by his long hair and a microphone. He bought the book, thinking it was an ordinary music biography, and only later discovered it was written by a priest.

The boy, whose name Culat kept private, was a budding metalhead whose increasing devotion to long hair, loud music and black T-shirts had driven a wedge between himself and his conservative mother. Returning home on a school break, the young man thrust the book into his mother’s face and proclaimed victory.

“Look, look!” Culat says, excitedly recreating the moment. “It’s a book about metal! Written by a priest!”

Father Culat’s book cover, its artwork created by a renowned metal artist.

The mother read the book before the son got a chance to, and soon after she called Culat to thank him for helping her better understand her son. She invited him to visit their home, where he talked religion with the mother and discussed the latest releases from Opeth and Katatonia with the son.

The questionnaire that had formed the basis for Father Culat’s first book was meant to be anonymous, to protect the identities of the participants but also to avoid skewing the results by revealing it was being conducted by a Catholic priest. Of the more than 500 responses Culat received, one had a name and address etched on the back of the envelope. Curious as ever, Culat contacted the young man and set up a meeting.

“His name was Guillaume,” Culat says, describing the boy as the sort of person that everyone who likes metal seems to know: introverted, lanky, porcelain pale with long black hair. “All he did was sit inside and listen to black metal.”

Created largely in Britain by bands like Venom and Discharge as the next logical step in extremity from thrash and death metal, black metal is most famous for the spate of murders, suicides and church burnings that occurred within the scene in Scandinavia in the early ’90s. It is a genre defined by blasphemy, and Guillaume was devoted to it. To say he was surprised upon meeting Father Robert Culat, decked out in his priestly attire and collar, would qualify as an understatement.

Father Culat and musician Olivier Pinard, member of the bands Cattle Decapitation and Cryptopsy, 2018.

“Typically, for many metalheads, I was the first priest they ever met. For them it’s as if I were to meet the devil,” Culat says with a wide smile. “He was cold as ice. We drove in the car to his place and didn’t speak the entire time. It was a very black metal attitude.”

After a couple of hours of discussing music and theology, Guillaume warmed up to the priest, and they began to hang out regularly, often enough that Culat could see that Guillaume was a troubled soul.

“He was very lonely,” Culat recalls, “locked in his room alone with his music and nothing more.”

He invited Guillaume to a Benedictine monastery, where Guillaume politely endured a day of chanting and lighting candles without seeming to draw anything from the ritual. So Culat found something else to interest him.

“Do you want to meet an exorcist?” Culat asked. Guillaume said yes.

It was more than a curiosity. Culat was genuinely disturbed by the “most Satanic, most blasphemous” messages in Guillaume’s favorite music, and he wanted to assure himself that the boy was not a victim of demonic possession. At the monastery, there was an old monk ordained as an exorcist who met with Guillaume and told him there was, “nothing special” about the boy.

“It was a relief,” says Culat. “I was very happy that the exorcist said he didn’t see something wrong.”

Father Culat at a metal bar with fellow metalheads, 2018.

The day he spent with Guillaume at the monastery, Culat believes, is proof of the most fundamental part of his message about metal fans.

“They are not enemies of the church,” he says. Even those who like the most blasphemous music, “are able to spend an entire day in the monastery following prayers and being very respectful.”

Less than three years later, Guillaume died by suicide. Perhaps predictably, some who knew him insisted that his death was due to his taste in music.

“Obviously it’s not so simple,” says Culat, his voice breaking. “I knew him. When I search to explain his suicide, to understand, I know it was psychological.”

Metalheads have, since the genre’s inception, had to contend with ideas that their mental health is compromised by their extreme tastes. Culat insists that’s not true.

“I have heard from fans that have the opposite interpretation,” he says. “If they couldn’t listen to metal, they would have committed suicide. The music helps them face the difficulties in their lives.”