An old interview, rediscovered, that apparently never made it to publication, so needs to find a home here.
In brief, what are the musical and philosophical origins of death metal?
Death metal was born of heavy metal, hardcore punk and progressive rock. It fused these origins into a new vision which has a surprising amount of influence from the distant past, and this influences death metal both musically and philosophically.
From punk rock, it took the musical anarchism that allowed it to cast aside key and harmony in order to make music out of riffs alone and the interplay between them, much as in free jazz or some avant-garde classical. From progressive rock, it inherited its song structures which are unique to the content of each song, like the form of a poem fits its expression. From heavy metal, it inherited the use of power chords to make long-phrase riffs like those that appear in horror movie soundtracks. Caught up in the progressive rock influence is bleedover from ambient music and synthpop like Vangelis, Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. Together these influences created a new musical language in which complex versions of punk riffs were used to make songs with a narrative composition, or one in which riffs comment on one another, constantly expanding context in order to tell a story, much like a book or epic poem.
The result is music that enwraps itself in paradox. It uses keyless chromatic riffs and power chords that do not belong to a major/minor key, but writes songs with initial intervals that mimic a minor key, and puts riffs together in complex songs reminiscent of progressive rock. Its vocals are gruff guttural bursts that are incomprehensible to the average citizen, but its lyrics are (often, not always) thoughtful and use Latinate language to analyze history. Ensconced in heavy distortion, it uses the sustain achieved with that distortion to make melodic song composition sound more like violins than guitars; by driving its drums to new levels of extremity, it reduces them to a background timekeeping function and re-orients the song around the change in guitar riffs as the primary voice of each composition.
Philosophically, death metal took from punk the spirit of being an outsider to modern society, and from metal it took the idea of being “heavy,” or talking about all the stuff that people want to deny when thinking in a social context, which is how most people process authority, economics, power, and status. From progressive rock it inherited a sense of epic concept-based thinking and a historical, mystical or esoteric viewpoint, not art based on repeated form or social approval. As part of that progressive rock influence, it captured a sense of the “cosmic music” found in the German esoteric ambient bands. Death metal combined these three into a form of outsider art that looks at society from outside socialization and using the long-term, epic historical view.
This outlook descended from Black Sabbath who styled their band after horror movie music. They used power chords to emulate the longer melodic phrases of that type of music. Sabbath did not want to see life on the surface, where people can talk about social ideas like love, equality, happiness and peace. They wanted to see the underlying mechanism and the basis of power, the strength of history and biology, the vast forces like nature and war, and the things that make us helpless like death, disease, insanity and the might of opposition. Sabbath, like nascent punk before it, was a rebellion against the Utopian dreams of an era that chose to be positive and confident, but in doing so, went into denial about its own weaknesses and some of the basic aspects of the human condition.
Thematically, all of metal mirrors a horror movie: it shows humanity some new force which technology and society (which is a social entity) cannot address, and only the lone outsiders can think outside the box and come up with a solution, which they then apply independently of the social rules by which we live day-to-day. Think of your typical horror film. Ordinary people are stumbling through life, not particularly motivated. Some force arises which they cannot explain, and their first challenge is that _no one else believes them_. They have to get over the fear of social rejection in order to say what they see, and to take action while others stragnate. Then social means of dealing with the problem fail, as does technology, which requires them to invent a new way of tackling the problem. Death metal portrays society as this kind of mental fog which prevents action against actual but socially unrecognized threats.
The philosophical stance of death metal is a pragmatic realism with a long-term focus. Both of those ingredients are essential, since without the long-term focus pragmatism becomes appeasement to whatever trends is blowing through and makes itself convenient. It eschews the karmic drama of the individual that obsesses all rock and pop music. Instead, it focuses on the cause->effect relationships of history and other big and somewhat terrifying concepts. It’s about the results of our actions and the different choices we can make. This is more like human knowledge from the distant past, when civilization was new to us, and our goal was to achieve civilization, not “game the system” and live off what established civilization provides.
For these reasons, I refer to death metal as nihilistic. Most philosophies teach us that there is some “inherent” good and bad in life, usually to control us. Nihilism says there is no inherent value, purpose or communication. All is a choice. We can choose to murder all the intellectuals, or choose some other option. At first this seems like moral relativism, until you realize that the second part of moral relativism — “every choice is equally valid, and all must be accepted” — is not present.
Nihilism does not accept or reject anything. It simply says that all actions are choices and by making those choices, we command the results of our actions. Even something as simple as throwing a cigarette butt on the ground constitutes our approval of the inevitable results. In the case of society, we are acclimated by socialization to think in terms of good/bad. However, that causes us to react to those categories, instead of being realistic and thinking only of the results of our actions.
Who cares if our actions are “good,” and our intent is “good,” if the result is something we would consider not-good? Nihilism separates us from the false reality filter of the consensual hallucination of socialization, and forces us instead to look at the raw pragmatism of the situation. What result do we desire? What action will achieve that? Nihilism is a complete re-orientation of our thought from the social to the natural. Death metal leads us into nihilism through war, conflict, death, insanity, disease and horror.
What distinguishes death metal from other forms of metal? From other countercultural scenes?
Metal has a long history which begins with its slow emergence from rock music. Its earlist influences were heavy progressive rock like King Crimson and Jethro Tull, horror movie soundtracks which descend from the modernist style of classical pioneered by Richard Wagner and Anton Bruckner, nascent punk like Iggy and the Stooges, and heavy noodly guitar rock like Cream and Led Zeppelin.
Most of the stages of metal stayed within comfortable rock lines. Verse-chorus songs, emphasis on key and harmony, discernible vocal lines. Taking the lead of hardcore punk bands like Discharge, the Exploited and Amebix, death metal threw that all away. It is the least individualistic genre ever created, in that each instrument serves the song and does not show off on its own. Drums are there to punctuate the guitar lines, and vocals are a rhythmic support. There are no rock stars. There is only this monolithic noise machine creating a disturbing wall of sound. Like all metal, it aims to find beauty in darkness and signal in noise. No other genre attempts to do this.
It may be misleading to classify death metal as counter-cultural because in the conventional sense, counter-culture refers to the revolutionary progressive mindset that swept the West in the 1960s. Metal has some of that, but an even stronger counter-revolutionary mindset. The revolution is based on individuals thinking that their view of reality is the most important; death metal denies the individual, and seeks instead a view of history as a coordinated motion of people. This makes it incompatible with pure counter-culturalism. However, if you look at the 1990s, it was the time when the revolutionaries of the 1960s hit their 50s and became The Establishment, so death metal is a revolution against their values just as much as they rebelled against the values of their parents.
Like most countercultural scenes, death metal is an outsider genre. Its members do not seek approval of mainstream society. However, they take outsiderness further than other genres. They are not as extreme as the hardcore punks, who lived in squats and ate out of dumpsters and ignored all music theory, because metalheads tend to be suburban and like comfortable, normal lives. They are in fact quite nerdly and well-adapted. However, they are extreme in that they go to great lengths to keep society and its memes out of their heads. They deny mass media, avoid socialization, take a deliberately hostile attitude toward peace and happiness type philosophies, and in general are unwilling to put socially-adopted “correct” views into their own lives. In fact, there’s an outright hostility toward society and toward anything for which there is a popular consensus. If it’s popular, it’s probably dumb and destructive. This is different from the hipster view, which is that what’s popular is too played to use for socialization power. Death metal is against the socialization, and that’s what makes it such an isolated and alienating culture.
What are the general philosophical concerns of death metal? How does it communicate these through music and aesthetics?
Metal is the discovery of beauty in darkness and clarity in distortion. One great paradox of death metal is its labyrinthine riff construction. It likes to fit together riffs as free-form phrases, like in free jazz, but in narrative constructions like in classical music. The result is that a baffling array of complexity slowly reveals itself as a deliberate composition, with each successive riff expanding on the context of the previous, much as a written story or poem might have. That’s underneath the surface. On the surface, the intense distortion and the distorted vocals serve to make it both mechanical and organic. It sounds like machine noise, but once you “listen past” that front, what emerges is a lot of organic sounds and compositions that fit together in organic, unsystematic ways.
There seems to be one philosophical concern of death metal, and that is realism. Its goal is to see reality from a long-term viewpoint, the “epic” outlook that shows us in our context in history and evolution. Its nihilism is part of this; it tries to remove the pretense of our time, which is based in the idea that the human individual is important and its thoughts, feelings, judgments and desires constitute a reality of their own. Instead, death metal shows us that we are products of a greater reality, and that most of our thoughts are reflections of our particular age, and that there are eternal and timeless values and processes that are so much bigger than us that we cannot visualize them in our minds.
“Only Death is Real” was one of the mantras of death metal, and it shows the viewpoint of this philosophy: all of our “inherent” social notions and sensations in our mind are just that, transient and personal. Reality is all that matters. This mirrors the horror movie experience, as shown in the movie from which Black Sabbath derived its name: there are many human pretenses, but there is only one reality, and eventually, only one solution to whatever horror is terrorizing its victims. Reality wins over human social illusions and individualistic karmic drama.
What role does community play in the continuance of death metal culture?
Death metal communicates a complex philosophy that is about as alienated from the post-French Revolution West as possible. As a result, it requires a strong community to help new members understand what these ideas are about, and to do that in a way that cannot be co-opted by any political scene and thus made into fixed ideas which unlike abstractions are not flexible and do not survive the test of time. Community teaches the details of the death metal philosophy, but more importantly, helps younger members to mature without being indoctrinated in social thinking.
It also helps select bands that uphold this ideal and are also artistically interesting, thus avoiding the assimilation process by which rock bands dress themselves up in the appearance of a genre and infiltrate, which makes the genre become more like mainstream rock with genre “flavoring.” That eventually destroys the genre. Metal has been resisting assimilation for generations, but the post-death metal years were hard on it as a surge of indie/alt-rock fans came looking for metal that they could understand and feel matched their values. As a result, the underground now is even more underground than it was in the past, although it is surrounded by imitators and parasites.
What factors set the modern, internet born-and-bred metalhead apart from the insiders and tape-traders of the original scene? How did your place in that scene affect your own views of the music itself?
I’m going to commit a bit of heresy here and say that the internet isn’t a huge influence at all. If anything, it’s easier to find bands and recordings; it’s definitely easier to find information. However, most of that information has been subverted by the usual social forces, popularity and money. Blogs are all paid by Google AdSense or other advertising now, and they rely on reporting on what everyone else is reporting on in order to be “relevant” enough to get enough readers to make money. As a result, all the blogs are re-cycling the press releases from labels and mainstream media stories, and readers read it for the spin or the convenience, and this means that there is an official agenda that cannot be escaped. The real bad guy here are the majority of the readers. If something doesn’t fit the pattern they recognize, they ignore it. Thus all of metal journalism is in lock-step in reporting the same things in because they are popular and profitable.
As a result, most metal fans discard most information on the internet because they’ve learned that it is for the most part worthless. Instead they tend to prefer to get their information from acknowledge sources of wisdom in their local metal communities. Metal is a weird genre for marketers because (1) if you get a copy of a CD in the right person’s hands, suddenly 400 more people in that local area want it, and (2) when metal fans find music they like, they’re more likely to not only buy the CD, but buy up the discography of the band. Thus the internet hasn’t really changed much. Metal is still a sneaker network. In the past it was because you couldn’t find any information; now, it’s because we’re all drowning in information and most of it is worse than bad — it’s corrupt. It is bought and paid for, like product placement in movies or press releases turned into mainstream media stories for a little ready cash.
The original death metal scene was both not unique, and timeless. It’s not unique because at any time, those who understand the spirit of the original death metal can resume making it. This interview provides a reasonable road map for the intelligent metalhead. It’s timeless because the values that death metal express, long-term pragmatic realism and nihilism, have been discovered by thoughtful human beings throughout history. There is no mystery to it. Yes, Generation X was heavily inculcated in this worldview because they were the children of hippies who realized how the “peace and love” of their parents translated into neglect in the real world, and they’d just survived the Cold War years of constant fear of a nuclear apocalypse (you’ve seen “WarGames,” right?), but other than that, they’re discovering things that the ancient Greeks and Indians knew, or even Romantic poets in Europe knew a few centuries before. These values are always with us and always will be. It’s just that most people in any age want to look at the short-term and social, and so they go into denial of all the things that death metal endorses.
What’s happened in the last ten years is that metal has been assimilated by rock. The metal we have now is basically the same post-hardcore stuff that Fugazi and Rites of Spring were doing, but with metal riffs. One of the biggest changes has been the politics of it. Metal became socially acceptable once it started bleating the standard progressive-Utopian fare ( http://www.nbcnews.com/id/14288309/site/todayshow/ns/today-entertainment/t/heavy-metal-becoming-increasingly-political/#.UUR5yDd_OWs and http://www.peoplesworld.org/heavy-metal-s-progressive-journey/ ). It also became socially acceptable when it stopped making crazy narrative songs, and went (mostly) verse-chorus with conventional musical elements in it. This is the same thing that happened with post-hardcore bands because they wanted to appeal to a broader audience, so figured they’d “bridge the gap” between indie rock or alternative rock and hardcore music. The result is that the simpler thing, which is the rock music, assimilates the previously wild and free thing and makes it into a flavor of rock music, thus crushing its independent voice. All must join the hive-mind, at least to experience great profit.
What moral considerations, if any, enter into the creation of quality death metal?
As a nihilistic genre, death metal is concerned with results of our actions. There is a strongly implied responsibility there. For example, the average person dumping toxic waste in a river is concerned with two things: (a) will I get caught, and what will the consequences of that be? and (b) what will my friends, neighbors and co-workers think of me for doing this? A nihilist is more concerned with what will happen after you dump toxic waste in a river.
That’s not limited to people consequences. The newts, beavers and fish will get cancer, too, or die horrible toxic deaths. In the same way, music and its message induce a kind of responsibility. What are the consequences of singing songs that encourage stupidity? More stupidity. A nihilist then asks, why would you want to induce stupidity? and on down the line until we get to root causes. Nihilism forces us to assess our intent.
In death metal, there is a morality of rejecting socialization and social values. Thus if they preach religion, we hail Satan and explore the occult and esoteric beliefs. If they demand that every human life is sacred, every human viewpoint is equal and valid, and that we should tolerate what others think even if it’s stupid, we rebel against that. We are in many ways the vanguard of social change because we are the only voices that are critical of the social equation that if an individual likes it, and/or it becomes popular, it should be approved of and followed like a trend so we can each profit off of it.
To the true metalhead, the most important moral value is telling the truth. This is done in the recognition that society hates truth, because truth is complex and not Boolean (good/bad), and that as a result, society prefers simple lies to truth. Metal is a way of making the truth interesting and adventurous by setting the groundwork for appreciating truth, so that instead of seeing the world through the insane filter of karmic drama and group socialization, people start to see the world beyond the consensual hallucination that most people claim is “reality.”
Considering the widespread distaste for the genre, what are some factors of the music you see as redeeming, not just for the committed metaller, but for the uninitiated? If no such appeal exists, is death metal a necessarily elitist form of music and culture?
The opposite of elitism is populism. Populism means that something is good if it is popular. It is a branch of utilitarianism, which is the idea that whatever is best for the greatest number of people is right. However, what’s “best” is usually assessed by what people _think_ is best, and thus you end up with a popularity contest. This is the root of democracy and consumerism as well.
Populism is inherently pluralistic, which means there are no right answers and contradictory ideas co-exist so long as there are people who find them palatable, like products they want to purchase. Any artistic genre is necessarily elitist because it rejects this “anything goes” philosophy and instead develops a value system. In fact, any value system clashes with pluralism, except pluralism itself of course. Value systems are about finding the right way to think and act and then using that to improve our lot in life. Pluralism is about no standards whatsoever.
I find this death metal elitism redeeming because populism is the great disease of our age, and it manifests in many forms such as consumerism, democracy, individualism, narcissism, trends, memes, fads, crazes, groupthink and mass hive-mind activity. It is helpful for people who are maturing because it shows them that they do not have to go along with the herd or accept its assumptions. There is a world beyond humanity, and what other people think as a way of determining who gets promoted, who gets the “A” at school, and who gets voted as Very Important Person while the rest of us are presumed to be nobodies. In addition, death metal emphasizes realism, puts a focus on nature and/or the supernatural as more powerful than technology and social groups, and shows the individual a way to both preserve individuality and work as part of a group without ego. All of these are good things.
In addition, death metal conveys some musical ideas which are worth noting. First, music theory is a means to an end; if it helps us, great; if not, toss it and free-form create from riffs and ideas. Next, the concept that there can be beauty in noise and form in chaos. Building on that, death metal suggests that we can add more complexity and beauty to our lives by creating unique song structures that fit the content of each song, like the form of a poem fits its topic, and we don’t have to trap ourselves in the verse-chorus repetition that resembles so many modern actions, including commuting and making small talk in order to get laid. These apply to the uninitiated as a well as the lifers.
What bands do you consider representative of death metal’s full potential?
There are quite a few, and if I try to be comprehensive, I will inevitably leave someone out so instead I’ll focus on a few high points. From the classic era, the first albums from Carnage, Morbid Angel, Suffocation, Deicide, Asphyx, Demigod, Malevolent Creation, Incantation, At the Gates, Therion, Dismember, Unleashed, Demilich, Amorphis, Immolation, Atheist, Celtic Frost, Bathory, Sepultura, Possessed, Master, Slayer, Massacra, Vader, Nocturnus and Obituary are essential. For contemporary death metal, I follow local bands like Imprecation, War Master, Blaspherian, Morbus 666 and Birth A.D. There’s some good material out there now, but very little of it reaches the heights of the innovators, and it’s isolated and usually ignored by the crowd, who don’t want good music — they want the music they make to be the center of attention, and music they can socialize to, but often will pass by the really good stuff.
Finally, what death metal-literate resources are out there for people — again, both fanatics and pedestrians — looking for more information about the genre’s history and finer points?
There are some great books. Although it’s about black metal, Lords of Chaos by Michael Moynihan is a great resource, as is Ian Christe’s Sounds of the Beast. I just finished reading Natalie Purcell’s book on death metal and can recommend that as well. Now going into self-promotion mode: The Heavy Metal FAQ hosted on deathmetal.org is a great resource, as are the somewhat more personalitied reviews and articles on that site. It’s also useful to check in with copies of the older print zines from the era, and remaining old schooler sites like Metal Curse, BNR metal and Voices From the Darkside. Avoid Wikipedia and other “we wish our opinion was important” web sites.