I suppose you’ve been wondering about this recent death metal obsession of mine.
I have too.
For most people in my social and intellectual strata (a.k.a. “my friends”), death metal – like all heavy metal – is the province of burnouts, dropouts, jerkoffs and ne’er-do-wells. To that Motley Crue I would add semi-delusional, pretentious dorks of a particular stripe that made them lifelong outcasts from most cliques; disillusioned punk rockers who realized it’s OK to know how to play your instrument; seemingly every Swede and Finn; and Jim Carrey*. Which of these categories I fall in, you can figure out on your own. But I freely admit to being a former Dungeons & Dragons addict who uses words like “meta” and “meme” a lot, if that helps.
Oh, and I’m not Swedish or Finnish.
What really brought me into the death metal fold was a jones for extremity. In college I embraced punk rock and industrial metal as outlets for aggression. If it’s possible to vent aggression passively (I swear there’s a term for that), listening to loud, fast music has to be one of the best available methods. But I quickly discovered that punk was a little too happy-go-lucky, a little too feel good, for me. I don’t know why that is. Everything but the hardest hardcore strikes me as driving-around-fast-in-the-summer music. The Pistols sing about how they are anarchy and the abortion horror stories of “Bodies,” and it makes me smile. Can’t help it. On the other side, I got tired of industrial metal when I realized the whole genre boiled down to Ministry and Godflesh, and which of those two all the other bands decide to imitate. (The ratio is 65% Godflesh, 35% Ministry… surprising, right? I guess Godflesh is a bit easier.)
Like a lot of punk enthusiasts before me, I found grindcore. If you didn’t already know, grindcore is an extension of punk, not metal. The early grind bands (Napalm Death, Repulsion) were following in the footsteps of pure punk outfits like Siege and Discharge. It was sped-up hardcore with lunatic werewolf vocals. And if that sounds like it would also lose its novelty value quickly… it does. You can only hear so many 2 or 10 or 26-second songs with inaudible guitar and blasting drums and a guy going “grroooAAAARRRR REEEEEEEE!” before you realize your copies of “From Enslavement to Obliteration” and the first Terrorizer album are the beginning and end of the genre, artistically speaking. With all due respect to Pig Destroyer, I’ve lost my love for grind.
And that is where death metal steps in – both historically and artistically. Death metal was both an evolution of thrash and a response in the metal community to grindcore. They absorbed the faster tempos and shorter songs and immediately it became …And Blastbeats For All. But like metal always does, they brought a lot more to the table. Solos, for one. Melody and harmony and complex song structures, for another. Lyrics about the cosmos and the fragility of life and nihilism and meaninglessness.
Oh, and Satan and skinning girls alive. Thank you, Dismember.
Obviously I don’t take this stuff very seriously. I kind of feel bad for the people that do. This is the major obstacle that prevents me from liking black metal, at all. The whole genre is predicated on the idea that it’s soooo dark and sooooo evil… hail the dark lord and all that shit. They wear black-and-white “The Crow” makeup. And they call it corpsepaint (really). They rasp away like Gollum with a sore throat and play ten minute epic songs with bad keyboard patches meant to sound like soaring trumpets, which soar over a wall of guitar that gives the impression that a $90 Peavey practice amp constituted the entire session budget. Yeah, black metal’s particular brand of pretentious, laughable fury is not for me.
Death metal’s different. I’m sure there are a lot of the musicians and fans that are dead serious about it, so to speak, but it doesn’t seem like you HAVE to be. That’s the difference. I enjoy it, in part, the same way I enjoy horror movies. When the blood is flying and the girls are screaming and running around in their panties, the good times are a-rollin’. “Re-animator” and Obituary are on the same playing field in my mind. Possessed is pretty much the musical version of “The Exorcist.” (Not least because they open “Seven Churches” with a reworking of “Tubular Bells.”)
And the other part is the unmitigated aggression. What grindcore got right was all that hammering-away-madly. They actually accomplished their goal in that music, which is a real rarity in any art: it was indeed the last word on aural extremity. At least as can be created by four guys with regular instruments. Death metal trades in a bit of that aggression for tightness, cohesion, and structure. And in the ultimate ironic twist, this makes the music come off as MORE aggressive. I’m not sure how that works, but playing a little slower and more on rhythm, and mixing the guitars higher so you can actually hear them, and using some modes and scales instead of complete atonality, produces a darker and heavier effect. The best death metal (meaning: The Chasm, Entombed, Pentacle, Grave, and some others) is the stuff that really makes me feel like I’m spilling blood in the end times. If punk has become my summer music, death metal is my late autumn into the cold black of winter. Or to strip away the ridiculousness of these metaphors, it’s the music I want to be listening to when I finally go apeshit and start throwing rocks at my neighbor’s dog that WILL NOT STOP BARKING, EVER.
Hail the power of death, Diane.
* Apparently he is a big death metal and grindcore fan, and was the guy responsible for Cannibal Corpse showing up in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.” See the very readable book “Choosing Death” for details.