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Society views heavy metal as a symbol

February 22, 2014 –

the_girl_with_the_dragon_tattoo

If you’ve suffered through even a few years of big media, you’re probably aware how it functions through symbols. Where literature might describe something, big media trots out a handy symbol that might be described uncharitably as a cliche. Drinking = troubled. Strip bar = edgy. Slow dance = love. Motorcycle = rebel.

This follows the primitive superstition of simple people interpreting religion. When something is bad, put a demon on it. When it’s good, it gets angel wings. The world falls into rigid categories based not on what people do, but what category they belong to as assigned by the cult. This type of cult religion is most commonly seen in mass entertainment, corporate culture, fanboyism, politics and sometimes, even religion itself.

Metal is a useful marketing tool for big media. It enables them to label something as rebellious, “edgy” and dark without it actually being a threat. The albums are available in any store or Amazon. It’s not like joining the Thugees or Cosa Nostra. Like the motorcycle, it’s a cheap way to describe a character without having to actually think about it. And that character will be as much of a cliche as everything else in mass media because it’s designed for the lowest common denominator.

Expanding upon this, Michael Robbins notes how this is true in print as well in “Heavy metal music finds a place in fiction”:

Black metal’s most familiar tropes are Satanism and painting your face to look like a clown. I mean a corpse. But every black metal fan I’ve ever met is, like me, friendly to animals and disinclined to perform human sacrifice. It would’ve been more interesting if Nevill had played against stereotype and made the evil children big Pet Shop Boys fans. As tiresome as Bret Easton Ellis is, at least Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” listens to Huey Lewis and Genesis.

This is how metal often functions in genre fiction: a lazy signifier of a character’s darkness, alienation and instability. In Elizabeth Hand’s “Available Dark” (2012), a girl describes someone obsessed with serial killers: “He’s creepy. He was into death metal, then black metal. Mayhem and Vidar and Darkthrone, bands like that.” Note the progression: death metal, a gateway drug, is less evil than black metal, but it still indicates that something’s not quite right: Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander listens to death metal. This is one reason it’s funny when two characters in Thomas Pynchon’s “Bleeding Edge” meet cute by learning that they share a love of “Norwegian Black Metal artists such as Burzum and Mayhem.” (Burzum is the musical project of Varg Vikernes, who also played bass in Mayhem until he murdered the guitarist.)

These examples show us the place metal has taken in the culture of mainstream society.

It is a certain kind of riskiness, a certain darkness, and a certain commitment to alienation. People who bond over liking black metal are people who have receded from society at large and are trying to go their own way. But with that truth, there is also the realization that metal forms a handy symbol, like the word “edgy” once did, for what the mainstream considers safe alienation.

It is alienated, true, but the fans aren’t the ones burning churches and murdering people. They are just spectators. It is for this reason that the music industry keeps trying to create “safe” versions of this music, so that people can feel like symbolic rebels but never venture beyond the safety of being obedient little cogs.

Death metal as art in the media

June 26, 2013 –

ramon_cazares-abolishment_of_fleshAs metal continues to grow in popularity, outsiders to the genre find it more appealing. They see it as an unknown region, or an exotic culture, and in comparison their lives seem drab. What is it that makes hordes of people headbang to violent and abrasive music?

This was the question the Amarillo Globe News posed to death metal band Abolishment of Flesh and it received an answer it might not have been expecting.

The band painted a picture of death metal different from what is commonly presented in the media:

“There are a lot of different things going on at the same time,” [guitarist] Cazares said. “It’s very comparable to classical music.”

“We have a lot of weird time signatures and different changes like classical music does,” bass player Chuy Camacho said. “There can be three different things going on in the music at the same time.”

In other words, rather than the circular key-centric two-part composition of rock and pop music, death metal uses chromatic scales to develop an internal dialogue and motif evolution through pattern as opposed to harmony alone, such that notes are relevant more to previous notes and riff shapes than they are to a sense of key or rhythm.

In death metal, notes stream forth in multiple tones and directions, creating a tapestry of sound, similar in goal of a symphony: each part is musically literate on its own, yet when put together creates something that transcends each individual instrument.

When musing on why death metal is not popularly regarded as an art form, the band speculated that the genre has been overtaken by bands that have confused aesthetics with actual content:

“We don’t get taken seriously because other bands make a joke out of it — try to get as perverted and as gory as they can,” Camacho said.

Not content with being a sideshow, the band decided to forge ahead and create music with quality control. Playing old-school style death metal with melodic interludes; the band creates a style of music that appeals to both veteran fans of the genre and newcomers that may discover older classics through discovery of the techniques presented.

And the reason the band plays this type of music?

To Cazares, death metal “talks more about what’s real or what’s going on in life.”

Thus the essence of Death metal described: piercing the veil of deception and beholding reality.

New York Times on “the best voices in heavy metal”

March 30, 2013 –

demilich-live-finland

In the 1990s, mainstream media pretty much ignored heavy metal except to report on the hair bands. The fear of radicals of an unknown quantity scared them away. Then, gradually, media began to find some things in metal they could identify with. And so it became part of the news cycle, with NPR reporting on folk-metal bands and even double-breasted suit The Wall Street Journal getting into the game.

As a result, in 2013 it’s not surprising to see a mainstream newspaper covering metal, and including some of the more extreme varieties in its article. The New York Times ArtsBeat asks “Who are the best voices in heavy metal?” and comes up with a reasonable list, considering that they’re picking from four decades of metal and no conceivable list will satisfy any single metalhead or group of metalheads:

1. Ronnie James Dio (Black Sabbath, Dio)
2. Rob Halford (Judas Priest)
3. Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden)
4. Eric Adams (Manowar)
5. Geoff Tate (Queensrÿche)
6. King Diamond (Mercyful Fate, King Diamond)
7. Tom Araya (Slayer)
8. John Bush (Armored Saint/Anthrax)
9. James Hetfield (Metallica)
10. Max Cavalera (Sepultura, Soulfly)

Slayer made it in, as did Sepultura. How did that happen? It could be that, as with most things mass media, this data was culled from a series of press releases or advertising partners. It’s unfortunate that this is too often the situation, even at world-renowned major papers. Equally possible is that this is what an informal survey of the metalheads in the office produced. Either way, it’s good to see this list, and it probably deserves a list of its own.

As our domain name indicates (“deathmetal.org”), we are primarily a death metal site. This means that we treat all influences on death metal, whether heavy metal or progressive rock or even Kraftwerk, as part of our world, but not really the focus. Our focus is death metal and the genres it spawned, starting with the unholy trinity of Slayer, Bathory and Hellhammer back in 1983, following what Discharge unleashed the previous year. So we thought we’d do our own list of the best voices in death metal and associated genres:

1. Matti Kärki – Carnage
2. Antti Boman – Demilich
3. Nocturno Culto – Darkthrone
4. Abbath Doom Occulta – Immortal
5. Varg Vikernes – Burzum
6. Tomas Lindberg – At the Gates
7. Nuclear Holocausto Vengeance – Beherit
8. Frank Mullen – Suffocation
9. Glen Benton - Deicide
10. Tom G. Warrior – Celtic Frost/Hellhammer

This wasn’t an easy list. There are so many vocalists who perfected the death metal growl, or adopted it as their own style, that it’s hard to assess who should go on a list of only ten items. Yet each of the vocalists above contributed to a certain use of the vocal rasp or guttural howl, and thus they all deserve a place on this list, even if we’d like to add a few more (for example, Esa Linden of Demigod or John Tardy from Obituary).

We’d like to think the NYT will read this article, drop everything, and start rockin’ out to Morbid Tales, but that’s probably a bit much to expect. We hope someday they learn to enjoy this vibrant metal subgenre and appreciate it for the unique skills it requires, and the talents it has brought forth from these musicians.

Photo Credit: Kingsnake Club.

Women in metal

November 11, 2011 –

Some issues crop up again and again because they are unresolved.

Others crop up because they are stupid, and therefore attract idiots, who want to make drama out of them.

Each year, Revolver publishes a collection of features focused on female bands and band members (and often more inexplicable choices, like tattoo artists or actresses) replete with lots of big pictures splashed across its pages. Ostensibly, the goal is to provide exposure to the women of metal, and celebrate them for their talent and brains as well as their beauty—think Miss America’s “scholarship” competitions with less world peace and more devil horns. But the ladies’ musical backgrounds and achievements often play second fiddle to their luminous cheekbones or dangerous curves.

It usually ends up as Revolver’s highest grossing and most popular issue of the year. That doesn’t mean everyone likes it. Critics—I’m among them—ask why it is that the magazine sees the need to put together a “special edition” once every 12 months, instead of choosing to allocate equal coverage to start with. Revolver seldom gives in-depth coverage to female musicians or bands during the rest of the year; the women are almost always relegated to the now-regular “Hottest Chicks in Metal” one-page feature that graces each issue. The insistence upon segregation, separation, and sexuality has plenty of feminists baying for blood. – The Atlantic

Some women in metal want to have it both ways: they want to be a big deal for being women, and they want to pretend that we should just treat them like one of the boys. Neither is possible. It is impossible to notice the differences between people, including gender. Also, since we are biology, much of our agenda in life is to find attractive mates and if possible, reproduce with them.

“Women in Metal” as a thread or post has now occurred 75,000 times on the internet. Every single time it becomes this: women complaining about not being seen for who they are, while men post pin-ups of women in metal and ogle them like streetwalkers.

I have a suggestion for both groups: men, instead of trying to be all “gender neutral” by noticing women in metal “who are exceptional because not only are they in metal, but they’re women too” (you hear this line or variants of it a lot), stop pretending. Notice women for what they are and unleash your inner beast. You are here to drool. You could do it politely and maturely — well, that’s a bigger topic and out of reach for most, since metal attracts social retards along with the interesting people.

Women, try this: stop being two-faced about your gender. Either make it on your own merits, without the “and she’s a woman too” tag, or be comfortable being cheesecake and realize that it’s part of the rock ‘n’ roll culture. Rock likes easy sex because it’s growing up music for pimply teenagers. Face those facts. But stop trying to milk the woman angle when convenient, and then becoming “outraged” that someone would notice, after you’ve been whoring yourself out for years.

And to the writers at The Atlantic: I miss the old days of your publication, when you insisted that writers have both college degrees and functioning brains.