In his new book Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal & Grindcore (Feral House), metal journalist (and editor in chief of the excellent Philadelphia-based metal magazine Decibel) Albert Mudrian gives an in-depth play-by-play of the origins, record label battles, rise, fall, and return of a genre that would come to be known as the final frontier of loud guitar rock. “Death metal and grindcore are responsible for basically all that you see going on in extreme music today in one facet or another,” says Mudrian. Unless you’ve been submerged in your Bright Eyes and Wilco CDs, you’ve probably noticed the huge metal renaissance of late. To get a hit, or rekindle the flame you once knew, Entombed, one of death metal’s biggest guns, play B.B. King’s February 7, followed by a reunited Morbid Angel (also at B.B.’s) later this month.
photo: Frank White/Earache Records
“Death metal and grindcore are an amalgamation of hardcore and thrash metal,” says Mudrian. “The first time I heard Napalm Death, I just couldn’t get my head around it at all. . . . Why would anybody want to listen to this? But you kind of go back to it out of curiosity. Your first impression is, Jesus Christ, what is going on here?” Like a car wreck or ultra-gory horror cinema (death metal’s true muse), this stuff can be hard to look at. But looking away can be even harder. The jaw-dropping, downright cartoon- like gymnastics of the hyper-speed playing and ridiculously over-the-top violent and Satanic lyrics assure that. Mudrian’s book is an almost endearing tale of angsty, disenchanted teenagers and young adults, the polemical art form their anger spawned, subcultural networking, and music fanaticism.
photo: Courtesy of Earache Records
“Just as U.S. hardcore and punk depended on a circuit of squat venues to bring their heroes to their audience,” says Nick Terry (former editor of Terrorizer, the British extreme-music glossy that pretty clearly served as Decibel‘s model) in Choosing Death‘s foreword, “death metal depended on tape trading, letter writing, and mutual acquaintanceship.” The international scene of the mid to late ’80s was a tightly knit, inbred family, where sounds were cross-pollinated throughout the U.S., U.K., Japan, and Brazil. As Mudrian reports, this specialized kinship made the scene unique among music undergrounds.
U.S. bands like Possessed, Morbid Angel, Death, and Repulsion baptized their insanely technical riffs on guitars tuned down so low that the strings flapped on the neck, which were augmented by roaring, inhuman pitch-shifted vocals, bringing “death metal” to, uh well, life. Meanwhile, kids across the Atlantic—particularly frequent John Peel favorites Napalm Death, Extreme Noise Terror, and Carcass—were saddling doom metal riffs with the crusty attitude and chainsaw-ripping ferociousness of hardcore punk, forcing the drums to speed up into so-called blast-beats and christening the resulting chaos grindcore.
Interestingly, unlike in hip-hop or black metal (death metal’s ugly Norwegian stepchild of face-painted, in-scene murdering, church-burning Satanists), the grinders in the bands never murdered each other, and their lyrics apparently never inspired any copycat killing by fans. “Extreme music is a different kind of culture,” explains Mudrian. “Hip-hop culture is often rooted in an environment where violence is a way of life, whereas metal—let’s be honest—is mostly a suburban white-boy thing; violence was never their reality. Besides what these guys were singing about, I think most of these guys were just everyday Joes.” And in fact, most of the dudes in the book come off as amiable, suburban nerds raised on a steady diet of Slayer and 20-sided dice; perhaps this explains why so many traded in their axes for IT work? But not all were so normal: In the early ’90s, Deicide’s Glen Benton (and his permanently burned upside-down-cross forehead) and Morbid Angel’s Trey Azagthoth (guitar-shredding, self-mutilating worm eater) were something of the eviler-than-thou scene’s mascots.
photo:Courtesy of Earache Records
Relapse Records has released an excellent companion soundtrack curated by Mudrian, who also wrote the liner notes and obtained band quotes for every track. “As a fan first and foremost, this music had a huge impact on me as a teenager and I felt it really never got its due, no one else was writing a book about it,” says Mudrian, who grew up in Pennsylvania and worked as an editor for Philly-based Red Flag Media before devoting his career to chronicling extreme music—even though “this death metal and grindcore stuff,” he freely admits, “is obviously not for everyone.”