Death Metal Underground

Antiviral (2012)

January 30, 2014 –
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antiviral-screen_shot


Antiviral (2012)
Directed by Brandon Cronenberg
108 minutes

Death metal and horror films go hand in hand. Screaming victims, howling chainsaws, death and destruction, subjugation and helplessness, existential angst and nihilistic outcomes. But what about death metal and a film that crosses horror, suspense, sci-fi and disturbingly investigative psychological tension?

Brandon Cronenberg, the son of edge-of-insanity filmmaker David Cronenberg, directed Antiviral which hit the screens in 2012. Following in the family tradition, he peels back the layers of justification and shows us a metaphor for our psychology in this odd and disturbing modern time. Unlike his Dad, Brandon offers more of a sense of personality horror; this is abundantly character-driven in addition to being concept-driven.

In this tense film, which seems to be set in an alternative present, celebrity culture has reached a peak mania. People are so besotted with the celebrity experience that there is a lucrative trade in infections that have their origin in celebrities. A specialized industry contracts with celebs for their diseases, harvests those diseases and then reproduces them so that ordinary people can infect themselves and share an experience with the stars of the big screen.

The biggest of these stars is Hannah Geist, a starlet of comparable stature among the fawning life-dropout masses as Jennifer Lawrence back in our reality. She is worshiped by the herd and represents top-notch product for those who wish to sell diseases. Cronenberg emphasizes this with shots of people who act like slow-motion zombies, lost in an orgiastic reverie of union with celebrities, the focal point of social interest in the culture.

Brandon offers more contrast-based filmmaking than his father. Where the elder Cronenberg relishes the organic, the younger relishes the symbolic and the disturbingly out of place. He films in a kind of breathless patience that is moving full speed ahead to notice everything, which requires a manic (Adderall-like) focus on stillness and the smallest of events. He shows characters confronting their own limitations and fears, and as a result, has characters who do more than act out an experience. They grow, even if in dubious ways.

Much like the fiction of William Gibson, Antiviral is heavily metaphorical and reveals some unsettling truths about our rather mundane world through an exotic one. In doing so, Cronenberg creates an atmosphere of the surreal and disturbing that infiltrates all thoughts of comfort and stability and upends them with a view of the dark rotten core of own celebrity-crazed culture.

Album covers: Dan Seagrave

May 18, 2013 –

Dan Seagrave - Like an Everflowing Stream

I like to believe that every death metal fan has seen a Dan Seagrave cover at one time or another. The man has painted the covers of some of the most influential death metal albums out there – we’re talking Morbid Angel, Suffocation, Entombed, Pestilence, Dismember, Gorguts and Carnage among others. Some of those covers have undeniably somewhat added to the spirit of death metal mythology.

Seagrave is a self-taught Brit, initially inspired by the rural and urban surroundings of his native Ravenshead (near Nottingham). That the young artist’s paintings would fit the imagery of death metal music makes sense when considering how his early influences included John Martin, a Romantic painter keen on apocalyptic and chthonic scenery, and M. C. Escher, a graphic artist interested in labyrinthine visual paradoxes. Top it off with some Vincent van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci and early sci-fi films, like Alien, and the road to metal doesn’t seem entirely unlikely. Seagrave is nevertheless (and hardly surprising) more into architecture than other visual arts:

I like to see the layers of history in buildings, things like old signs or hand painted fading billboards – that kind of thing, and a little bit of seedy urban decay.

The typical Seagrave painting these days often seems to delve in a sea of thorns or a mess of jagged bark that’s come alive in some decrepit, chaotic universe. Some of his works are, by contrast, highly symmetrical pieces (think The Ultimate Incantation or Like an Ever-flowing Stream). In all his works, however, there’s a penetrating attention to detail. You can spend an awful lot of time discovering all the elements of the cover of, say, Effigy of the Forgotten.

Seagrave’s early paintings used gouache paint, which, while rather dull, is more tolerant of the meticulous. Whereas these early works are reminiscent of morbid still lifes, his more recent paintings – mostly painted with acrylics – experiment more with gnarly shapes, twisted movements and vertiginous perspectives.

Seagrave painted a lot of cover art from 1988 to 1994, more or less until the advent of computer graphics (and the death of a lot of underground metal). He prefers to work instinctively and hardly uses any reference material. He is, as he expresses it, “trying to convey”. Seagrave’s legacy should indeed remind us that real paintings pertain more to the authenticity of metal culture than any Photoshop production:

I did around 40 covers, computer graphics were cheaper alternatives, but I think paintings are far more interesting to look at. And people realize that computer art is as different to painting as photography, it’s simply another medium which is why things are beginning to level off again.

The art of Larry Carroll

May 7, 2013 –

Reign in Blood

Damn good albums need damn good album covers. Kerry King of Slayer once mentioned how the band’s music makes it sound as though the world is about to end, and artist Larry Carroll’s visual representations are not far off the mark. Carroll started collaborating with Slayer in 1986 and has painted four of their album covers so far. Some of those albums are among the best in metal, and so, I would argue, are the covers.

Carroll says he usually makes a collage out of drawings and photographs. This was before Photoshop was born, hence Carroll used a good ol’ Xerox machine to multiply, resize or otherwise manipulate the individual pieces. The coffins in Seasons in the Abyss are a good example.

At the time of painting the Reign in Blood cover, Carroll was doing political illustrations for various newspapers, and had not done album covers before. Producer Rick Rubin contacted Carroll, who was left with more or less free reins, building upon “a rough idea of something about a goat’s head”. Once finished, however, it turned out that his unique style was not an obvious choice for Slayer. But once the mother of one of the band members commented that the painting looked “disgusting”, any doubts seem to have melted away (in a living inferno).

And sure enough: there is something nauseating about Carroll’s Slayer covers, as though they were depicting the sickest aspects of society of the 1980s. Not only could modern life come back to us in dreams as collages of twisted, disproportionate human shapes with pope hats and erect penises (cf. RiB), but the netherworldly use of colour in Carroll’s paintings was one of a kind. Black and red are the classic colours of blood/fire/death – Carroll’s black strokes are high-contrast burns reminiscent of coal or oil – but to this Carroll added revolting tints of green, brown and yellow, a fitting backdrop to the fires of mental hell.

But rather than depress us, Carroll’s paintings are majestic. Carroll shows that he, like Slayer, is fascinated by death, and, like some fallen Lucifer, makes a stroll south of heaven an enticing exploration of potential.

Deathchain video premiere

May 2, 2013 –

Deathchain, a Finnish band that shares members with Demilich, Winterwolf and Jess and The Ancient Ones, recently released a video for their song “Seven Asakku Shadows” taken from their latest album, Ritual Death Metal.

The video is a slow motion celebration of flowing metal haircuts, complete with a guy pouring milk on his head and Antti Boman providing backing vocals in a robe and Cthulhu mask.

Ritual Death Metal is out now on Svart Records.

Necropsy’s demos re-released

April 27, 2013 –

necropsyCentury Media Records will release all demos of Finnish death metallers Necropsy on June 3rd in a compilation containing three CDs, all songs remastered from the original tapes. CMR promote it thus:

The result is mindblowing: Without ever destroying the analog charm of the old tapes, all songs sound fresh, just like they have been recorded just a few years ago.

Tomb Of The Forgotten – The Complete Demo Recordings will start anno 1989 and end in 1993, a time period in which the band, frankly, only recorded demos, with the exception of an EP and a split with Demigod in 1992. The band’s first full-length, Bloodwork, arrived as late as in 2011, after a 17 year long hiatus.

Veterans Thanatos return with a CMR deal

April 24, 2013 –

Thanatos 2012The “first ever death metal band from the Netherlands”, Thanatos, have recently signed a deal with Century Media Records. The record company initially only expected to re-release some of the legends’ back catalogue, but Thanatos’ sixth album will now see the light on CMR:

When Stephan and Paul visited the CM headquarters in Dortmund in autumn last year, they told us about their plans to record a new album which they’d like to release in 2014 [...]. Of course we wanted them to release it on Century Media.

Stephan Gebédi, vocalist/guitarist of the band, who recorded their first demo back in 1984, said they intend to record

an absolute death/thrash metal monster to coincide with our 30th anniversary in 2014! We come from an era when there was no strict boundaries between thrash and death metal which resulted in masterpieces like DARK ANGEL’s “Darkness Descends” and POSSESSED’s “Seven Churches” and it’s our mission to transport the legacy of those albums to 2014 and beyond…

Album covers: In the Nightside Eclipse

April 11, 2013 –

emperor-in_the_nightside_eclipse

Inspired by Bosch, Dürer and Caspar David Friedrich, Kristian “Necrolord” Wåhlin has painted album covers for shiploads of underground bands since the early 90s (Therion and Dissection among others), but his most important and most striking contribution is probably the cover of Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse (1994).

altdorfer-battle_of_issusSome of its style and composition takes me back to Albrecht Altdorfer’s anachronistic oil painting The Battle of Alexander at Issus (1529), but true to the bleak genre of black metal the cover of ItNE is practically monochrome, which is rather typical of Wåhlin’s paintings at large (as seen in his paintings for Sacramentum’s Far Away From the Sun and Dark Funeral’s The Secrets of the Black Arts).

Wåhlin nevertheless manages to capture much of the grandeur sought by Emperor in those days. He allows us to delve in a detailed landscape of rugged forests, cold mountains and an army of monsters seemingly popping out of the ground in a setting of strange angles and charmingly inconsistent perspectives. High above, emanating from a crack in the clouds, Death sweeps his scythe across the sky, resonating the lofty keyboard phrases in the music of this album. The whole scene is awash in the light of the moon, gazing at us like a gate to eternity (try to outstare it during the finale of Inno a Satana …). The incorporation of Death seems to have been a way of providing a sense of iconic continuation, referring back to Emperor’s début EP which depicted a section of Gustave Doré’s engraving Death on a Pale Horse (Revelation). (The use of old engravings – especially those of Doré – seems a favourite means of visual expression in the universe of Emperor.)

kupka_resistanceI always assumed that the otherworldly castle and the winding path leading to it were reminiscent of that of a certain bloodsucking count. This is probably no coincidence: have a look at the lyrics of the song Beyond the Great Vast Forest. Not only does it refer to Werner Herzog’s film Nosferatu (1979); parts of the story of the over-the-top film Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) – which was immensely popular around the time of ItNE’s inception – had also found its way into the lyrics, and the solitary structure of that film’s castle and its inspiration, František Kupka’s The Black Idol (1903), somewhat parallels the idea of the castle on display here.

Ultimately, the cover of In the Nightside Eclipse confirms the nature of its music as slightly cheesy yet chillingly sincere, a satisfying visual representation of one of the best albums of the genre.

Album covers: Transilvanian Hunger

April 10, 2013 –

[AllCDCovers]_darkthrone_transilvanian_hunger_1994_retail_cd-front

With the arrival of A Blaze in the Northern Sky, Darkthrone presented a new musical evil with the help of a new visual evil. The first four of Darkthrone’s black metal albums depicted a sole band member in a state of aggression, triumph and/or despair, in black-and-white photos stripped of all decoration, reflecting the intentionally unaesthetic music of the band.

live_in_leipzigThis minimalist approach culminated both visually and musically with Transilvanian Hunger, showing a photocopied, grainy picture of Fenriz dehumanized beyond recognition, holding a candelabrum and presumably screaming his lungs out in the night. Some of its appeal lies in its ambiguity; feelings of futility, anger and power are intermixed, widening its significance.

Although Darkthrone’s visual idea was immediately inspired by Mayhem’s Live in Leipzig, its monochromatic, Xeroxed quality also has an eerie resemblance to Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4 from twenty years earlier and its anguished enigmatic quality to Edvard Munch’s The Scream even further back in history. The parallel is not entirely farfetched: it echoes the troubled mind of Fenriz himself, who reportedly loves art that comes from “the exhaustion of easy life”. To black metal fans the Transilvanian Hunger cover is presumably the one archetypical image of what “necro” signifies, much like The Scream is still very much considered the face of existential anguish.

Various_Artists_-_Peaceville_Vol._4The “necro” imagery, however, may have been unintentional: In Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces, Fenriz asserts that mere photocopies from the TH photo session were the only thing he could find at the time to send to Peaceville Records, implying that the same picture could have been reproduced in a more polished fashion. But it doesn’t seem entirely unlikely that the use of a photocopy was inspired by Peaceville’s 1992 compilation album, Peaceville Volume 4, spoofing both cover art and title of the famous Black Sabbath album mentioned above and containing one of Darkthrone’s pre-TH songs, implying that the use was deliberate after all. (Rabid speculation is any fan’s right, right?)

In any case, the cover of Transilvanian Hunger effectively summarized its music by a single iconic image and was later emulated by hordes of lesser bands and is to this day worn on t-shirts by serious music lovers and the occasional hipster alike.

‘Pytten’ on the original black metal idea

March 18, 2013 –

Erik ‘Pytten’ HundvinIn an interview with Norwegian news site The Foreigner, legendary black metal producer Erik ‘Pytten’ Hundvin — whose greatest effort lies in producing classics by Burzum, Emperor, Enslaved, Gorgoroth, Immortal and Mayhem — answers questions about the whys and wherefores of the genre.

These kids just wanted to challenge the established ways of society. They wanted to revive the Old Norse culture and bring in the culture and customs of the Vikings back into society.

To Hundvin it seems the core idea was never any sort of superficial Satanism. Hundvin’s music partner Davide Bertolini agrees:

These guys believed in their music and their beliefs, which they put down as lyrics. If you hear them, you instantly feel nature in its strongest of elements.

Both believe, however, that black metal has softened over the years, with bands commercializing their sound, replacing spirit with exotic instruments.

Likewise, producer Martin Kvam notes how bands all over the world have started to emulate the original sound, but that “bands like Burzum, Mayhem and [Darkthrone] are no longer to be seen in Norway”.

Final album of Rigor Mortis released this summer

February 28, 2013 –

scacciaMike Scaccia and his mates in Rigor Mortis finished recording a full album before Scaccia passed away on December 22 last year. The day before, Scaccia and engineer Kerry Crafton did some initial work on mixing the album entitled Slaves to the Grave which will be the last from the band.

Of its quality Crafton says:

This record is amazing. Mike, Bruce Corbitt, Harden Harrison and Casey Orr all performed brilliantly in the recording and I believe they all did the best work of their lives. […] The depth and breadth of the material is really awesome.

While it’s difficult for the rest of us to estimate how well Rigor Mortis as a band hold up musically these days (the band’s last full-length was released more than two decades ago), Scaccia’s legacy has more than sentimental value.

Slaves to the Grave will be released sometime during summer 2013.