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Dio is dead, it's 1,600 miles to the Whisky a Go-Go, and Saline County has never been a place that screams "METALLLLL!" But down in Bryant, there's a record store that's as close to a metal Mecca as Arkansas is probably ever going to see.
Situated in a strip mall next to a tattoo shop and the Goodwill, M.F. Metal Music (do we really have to explain what the "M.F." stands for?) is the dream of longtime, dedicated metal-head Jay Kohl. Featuring more than 2,200 different metal titles on CD and another 150 or so on vinyl, plus sharp-and-pointy jewelry, a great selection of albums by heavier local and regional bands, leather bracers and bracelets that Kohl makes himself, a giant shrine to KISS and a selection of T-shirts that would probably get you kicked right the hell out of your grandmother's birthday party, it's 18-year-old me's version of heaven on Earth, and probably pretty much the same for anyone whose wardrobe colors run toward the bruise palette.
A native of Nebraska, Kohl ran a martial arts studio in Milwaukee for 10 years before moving to Little Rock in 1993 to work at the headquarters of the American Taekwondo Association. In high school and college in the 1970s, he was always a little different when it came to music.
"I was always into different kinds of music than everybody else," he said. "I was the guy carrying around David Bowie's 'Space Oddity,' and Lou Reed's 'Transformer' while everybody else was listening to Top 40."
When his son and daughter started listening to Metallica in the late 1980s, he gave their records a spin and was instantly hooked. Now, at 58, he's a walking encyclopedia of metal, able to discern one of the myriad subgenres from another the way a wine snob can tell a 1955 Chateau Latour from a '61.
"Metal is an emotional music," he said. "A lot of people have different ideas about it. There are so many different genres of metal. If you need to get out some aggression, there's music for that. If you want to sit back and just have a fantasy about monsters and dragons and dragonslaying, there's music for that."
Always a haunter of record stores, Kohl began kicking around the idea of opening a brick and mortar shop around a decade ago, especially as big-box stores, the rise of the Internet and digital music began killing off the great used vinyl outlets of his youth.
"I didn't figure I was the only one who liked to walk into a shop, go through every single CD in the shop, and be able to talk to the guy behind the counter and say: 'Okay, I like Type O Negative, but I'm looking for something new. Can you guide me to a new band that I've never heard before?' " Kohl said. "You can't get that at Best Buy."
None of us are getting any younger, so in Oct. 2011, he left the ATA and opened his shop on Highway 5 in Bryant — where he lives with his wife — last June. At an age when many of his friends are thinking about retirement — not to mention a time in history where we're being told daily that the record store has been consigned to the dustbin of history — it's understandable that many of Kohl's friends thought he was nuts.
"I had a lot of friends asking me, 'Are you crazy?' " he said with a laugh. "People are predicting the end of the CDs and [saying] it's all going to be MP3s and that kind of thing. There were a couple major things that I thought about, number one being that vinyl is making a comeback. While compact discs and MP3s are convenient, the sound gets severely compressed — even more so on MP3s. There's a lot of people who know sound and like sound, and when they want to listen to music, they want the full gamut of the sound, not the digitalized version."
From the start, Kohl said he wanted to make M.F. Metal a hangout — the kind of place where someone can walk in looking for an album by one band and walk out loving another. There are comfortable couches in the back, and he's always ready to tap his incredibly detailed knowledge of the genre to help customers find a new band they might like.
"The biggest thing is people coming in and buying the older bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden," he said. "We've got that stuff here, because I believe in knowing the roots. We've got the Who and we've got Rush. But after they've been in a few times and kind of developed a rapport, I'm like, 'When are you going to come to this century?' "
While the store isn't quite profitable yet, Kohl said he has high hopes once M.F. Metal gets established. The metal scene in Central Arkansas is excellent, and he's now received the go-ahead from the city to hold concerts in the parking lot this summer. Too, as he points out, there has always been a sense of camaraderie between those whose musical tastes run on the shadowy side of the street.
"For more than 20 years, people have been saying hard rock and heavy metal is dead, and it's not," he said. "The key is, it's a brotherhood. Somebody who doesn't know me from Adam will walk in that door, take a look around, listen to what I've got playing, and now I'm a brother. He'll say: 'Nice to meet you, brother.' There's something to the fact that, just like it was with the old hard rock — the people who listened to The Who, the people who listened to Rush — they're a little bit of the outcast, a little bit of the ones who don't always fit in. There's a bond of commonality: 'Oh, you like metal?' "
M.F. Metal Music
5920 Hwy. 5 N., Bryant
Hours: Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
On Facebook at: www.facebook.com/M.F.MetalMusic