Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis by Dean Swinford

Death Metal Epic I:
The Inverted Katabasis
by Dean Swinford
Atlatl Press, 160 pages, $10

death_metal_epic_i_the_inverted_katabasis-dean_swinfordThe intersection of death metal and fiction has so far remained fairly murky. Part of this is because writing fiction about death metal is hard and has a tiny audience, where writing fiction that mimics death metal is downright impossible and will send us all scurrying back to our Lovecraft and Poe.

However, Dr. Dean Swinford has given this one a shot with his book Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis. In occult circles, the term katabasis takes on a new meaning of a descent into hell or an occult world beneath this one. Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis describes an early 1990s death metaller dealing with the collapse of his technical melodic Tampa death metal band, and his rebirth first through an alternate musical avenue, and next through his induction into the extreme black metal underworld.

Working in a book store after the breakup of his girlfriend and the hiatus of his death metal band after a promising but ignored first album, David Fosberg is under siege from his record label which wants him to produce the second album now. The problem is that the modern world has eaten up the souls of his bandmates, who are now pursuing “normal” activities and have zero interest in death metal. He should grow up; death metal doesn’t make money, doesn’t get girls or make you famous. Or so they say. Instead, Fosberg pursues an unusual collaboration and applies the death metal spirit to a new form of music.

Swinford’s writing resembles a cross between a toned-down David Foster Wallace and Raymond Carver. The prose is simplified, with little time spent on set and setting, and the first-person perspective in which it is written allows the lead character to state intentions and escape dense exposition. This lets Swinford regulate the speed at which the novel progresses, and he uses this to skim over most of the boring parts. In the final third of the novel some confusion emerges because enough events have occurred that every interaction has many possibilities and the author is trying to show why some must become foreclosed. David Fosberg is a naturally likeable character who resembles many who can be observed in the death metal scene: a fundamentally normal person of above-average intelligence who is bored and frustrated by society, and mired in doubt and alienation.

Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis is structured around its eponymous descent, except that here the descent begins and then seems to be ending, setting the stage for more action before the book ends on a warlike and inspiring note. Liberal use is made of metal history, not just band names but famous historical metal sayings, tropes, common events or observations in the life of a metalhead, and other details that only a metalhead might know. These are presented in such a way that an outsider can read them and think them “quirky” perhaps but not think less of the book for it. The result is a book that reads well, moves quickly and introduces the art form of death metal through stories of its devotees.

Relying on both postmodern literary technique and a much older Gothic sense of dark storytelling, Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis shows metalheads and death metal in a light that may be understandable outside the genre. Within the genre, it evokes familiar history and ever-present struggles, forming less of a travelogue than an introspection as Fosberg attempts to fit his mind around the difficult task of being both alienated and having a place in the world. While it might not occur to me to take a fictional narrative of death metal down off a shelf, I was glad to read this one.

Bolivian metal band mixes native instruments, modern technique

Photo: New York Times.

One of the better developments during the past decade is that it’s now acceptable to talk about heavy metal in the mainstream press as something other than entertainment. It might even have, you know, artistic or cultural value and stuff.

A recent attempt looks at the heavy metal of Bolivia, which combines native instruments with modern underground metal technique:

The band members wore black. The lead singer screamed into his microphone and whipped his long, black hair around. The guitarists clawed at their instruments. The drummer pounded with fury. And then the panpipe player took his solo, and the fans packed into the mosh pit went into a frenzy…those songs, characterized by the use of the panpipe, known as the zampoña, and a wooden flute called a quena, have a special impact among fans.

The article makes the point that the hybrid style is more accepted among many of the people there, and that it directly references Incan cultural ideas including the ancient moral code that still lives on today in Bolivia.

Our question is: if it’s art, culture and morality there, why isn’t it art, culture and morality here?

Remember the first doom metal bonanza


bo·nan·za, noun
a source of great and sudden wealth or luck; a spectacular windfall: The play proved to be a bonanza for its lucky backers.

Does anyone remember Morgion? They had a reunion a few years ago, and it seemed to peak interest for a month and then vanish. That’s a far cry from how it was in the late 1990s when Morgion was considered the future of metal.

Morgion was atmospheric heavy metal styled doom metal, or basically Black Sabbathy stuff with a little death metal technique and a lot of keyboards. Death metal had just burnt out, and the labels needed something new to fire out the cannons. As a result, the first doom metal boom was born.

This boom died of course because the real public discovered black metal exactly five years past its point of relevance, and suddenly it was quite popular and everyone had to have a black metal band. But before that, the labels and magazines had been casting about for something to call the future. No one wants to admit the best days are behind, but for all things, the day comes when that is true.

Back to Morgion. What happened? They produced some albums, lost a band member to a tragic accident, toured a lot and were on the cover of every magazine. Following up years later on the trail Cathedral blazed, there was a brief period where melodic and atmospheric doom metal bands came out of the woodwork to inherit the spotlight. There was a great gold rush to get on the gravy train of the popular trend of the moment, as if illustrating the dangers warned of by black metal. Death metal bands slowed down and added keyboards and strings. It was an odd time, one where the indecision in the air smelled strong.

My point is this, and it’s stolen straight out of Plato: there’s two ways to approach life. The first is to figure out what the idea is that gives it meaning, and then put that into flesh. The other is to accept the flesh as the end goal, and then use ideas to justify the behavior of the flesh. The first doom metal boom was the latter. It wasn’t about expressing an idea, cultivating a soul or any of the good things music does (including bringing us face to face with our fears and making us want to win). It was about bucketloads of cash since no one had any upward ideas.

We’ve forgotten about this now, shoveled it straight into the memory hole. Think about it: there was a time when you couldn’t go anywhere in metal without hearing about Morgion. Now you never do, only a decade later. And other bands persist seemingly immortal. It seems the first (Platonic) approach leads to something greater than life itself, where the latter drags us down into the same morass that clutches pop, politics, late night TV and mass religion, and once it has us it will never let go.