Extremity Retained: Notes From the Death Metal Underground by Jason Netherton

July 7, 2014 –

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Jason Netherton (Dying Fetus, Misery Index) created his history of death metal called Extremity Retained: Notes From the Death Metal Underground by letting members of the community tell their stories. This book compiles interviews with death metal bands, artists, writers and label owners. It organizes these into five topic areas which makes it easier to find specifics in the book, and by grouping like stories together breaks up the repetition that massed interviews normally have. The result provides a good background in the history and experience of the rise of the death metal genre.

Netherton’s use of topic areas allows band statements to be taken as a whole on the theme and to expand upon it without becoming repetition of similar questions and answers that un-edited interviews tend toward. Some may be put off by the lack of narrative tying these together, but the upside of that situation is that there is little extraneous text outside of what the actors in this scene said themselves. The only weak spot may be that since the highlight is clearly the old school bands, the inclusion of newer bands becomes extraneous when compared with the old.

The following and others contributed to the content of hte book: Luc Lemay (Gorguts), Alex Webster (Cannibal Corpse), King Fowley (Deceased), Stephan Gebidi (Thanatos, Hail of Bullets), Dan Swanö (Edge of Sanity), Doug Cerrito (Suffocation), John McEntee (Incantation, Funerus), Marc Grewe (Morgoth), Ola Lindgren (Grave), Kam Lee (ex-Massacre, ex-Death), Tomas Lindberg (At the Gates, Lock Up), Robert Vigna and Ross Dolan (Immolation), Esa Linden (Demigod), Dan Seagrave (Artist), Rick Rozz (ex-Death, Massacre), Steve Asheim (Deicide), Jim Morris (Morrisound Studios), Terry Butler (Obituary, Massacre, ex-Death), Mitch Harris (Napalm Death, Righteous Pigs), Robin Mazen (Derketa, Demonomacy), Ed Warby (Gorefest, Hail of Bullets), Andres Padilla (Underground Never Dies! book), Donald Tardy (Obituary), Paul Speckmann (Master, Abomination), Phil Fasciana (Malevolent Creation), Tony Laureno (ex-Nile, ex-Angelcorpse), Alan Averill (Primordial, Twilight of the Gods), Alex Okendo (Masacre), and Lee Harrison (Monstrosity).

The topic division of the book begin with the origins of death metal and then branch out to its diversification, and then areas of experience such as recording and touring. The final section addresses the future of metal. The material of most interest to me personally was at the front of the book where the old school bands talked about what inspired them and how the scene came together. It was like witnessing a revolution secondhand. In these sections, the most compelling accounts come from the people who are longest in the game as they are explaining the literal genesis of the process. Within each section, individual speakers identified by band write lengthy revelations to which the editors have added helpful captions. The result makes it easy to read or skim for information. Many of this book’s most ardent readers will find themselves doing a lot of skimming because the information here works as an excellent concordance to many of the other books on death metal or metal history and can reinforce or amplify what you find there.

We were all very much into underground music. Early on we were into Venom, Angel Witch and Motorhead, and later it evolved into bands like Hellhammer, Celtic Frost and Slayer. We wanted to play like them, and that is pretty much why we picked up the instruments in the first place.

With Massacre we were calling the music death metal pretty much from the beginning. We liked a lot of thrash, but to us a lot of it was just a bit too happy and the rhythms were a bit “too dancey.” Of course there were darker thrash albums like Bonded by Blood from Exodus, but even by the first demos we were calling it death metal. I mean, it’s not death metal as you know it today, but those demos were certainly founding releases in the death metal genre in terms of style. Of course, there are no blast beats or anything, but it was a combination of dark rhythms, the dark lyrics, and rough vocals that separated it from thrash. The term death metal had started getting kicked around with Hellhammer/Celtic Frost. We also knew of the Possessed demos, and it was in that tradition that we were referring to ourselves as death metal.

Some of the statements by later bands or bands that are not really death metal seemed like revisionist history but that is to be expected, since every band has to self-promote and include itself in whatever it can. This book utterly shines in the lengthy statements by founders of the genre that explain how it came to be, the thought process at the time and some of the experiences bands underwent. Be ready for blood, vomit and death in the touring section, and prepare yourself for some gnarly old school history in the other parts. By the rules of information itself, it is impossible to craft a metal history that pleases everyone. Extremity Retained: Notes From the Death Metal Underground takes the approach that Glorious Times did and amplifies it by getting longer statements and not relying on pictures, and it adds its unique and vital voice to the canon of books on the history of death metal.

The danger of obscurity bias

April 20, 2014 –

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Obscurity bias arises from our desire to discover hidden essential influences in the past. In metal, it is the search not only for concealed gems but for lost ancestors of our favorite music.

This thinking is a variation on our perpetual quest for more alternatives. We look at what’s there and think we want something better. This ignores the basic rule of life that usually what’s wrong is a lack of quality, not need for another alternative.

When we look back for historical alternatives, we are seeking to avoid the obvious historical truth: there are few ancestors because few necessary steps lie between 1969, when Black Sabbath recorded the first proto-metal record, and today.

Metal, punk and prog evolved in the 1968-1969 period in parallel, and since then have been trying to find a hybrid equilibrium that preserves the heavy worldview of metal, the intensity of punk and the complexity of prog without falling into the bluster, one-dimensionality and incomprehensibility that are the downfall of each respectively. With underground metal, arguably the last genres with any intelligence in metal, we ended up with metal riffing, punk strumming speed, and progressive rock song structures with underground metal, and that worked pretty well.

What happened after the initial invention was a hiccup. The music industry invented proto-glam by trying to make Deep Purple/Led Zeppelin bands “heavy” enough for the new Black Sabbath audience. What happened was that they made rock-metal, and while it was popular, it didn’t satisfy the core audience. After the hiccup metal retaliated with NWOBHM, most importantly Motorhead, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. The next generation combined those to make speed metal; the generation after that mixed in the punk that arose after Motorhead, hardcore punk, which was far more extreme and less musically related to rock music than anything which had come before.

In 1982, Discharge released Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing. The following year, all hell broke loose. Metallica unleashed their first album, starting speed metal. Slayer took off on a separate tangent. While both these bands were partially inspired by Venom, it was more in an aesthetic sense than a musical one, because if you remove the rough playing and bad production, Venom is basically Motley Crue. Slayer in particular took more from the punk side of things and made chromatic riffs and elaborate internal song structures where Metallica followed more of the rock format harmonically and used fairly standard song structures, except for their prog-influenced instrumentals.

Thus by 1985 we had Slayer, Hellhammer, Sepultura, Bathory and Sodom making proto-underground metal; by 1986, Morbid Angel had formalized the style. If anything, the Death and Deicide assault of the next two years brought death metal back toward the speed metal — Metallica, Exodus, Prong, Nuclear Assault, Overkill, Testament, Megadeth, Anthrax — of the previous five years. Death metal took on a life of its own when it escaped that with releases like the first Incantation, Massacre, Morpheus Descends, Massacra, Carnage and Pestilence releases with the turn of the decade. These brought metal back to its Slayer-Hellhammer-Bathory nexus, with tremolo strumming and labyrinthine song structures, and away from the more speed metal song structures of Death and Deicide. Black metal grew out of the melodic death metal bands who started structuring their songs using melodies, not riffs alone, and thus needed less of a drum-dominated approach. That brought them closer to the original punk sound, but kept the metal method of making riffs.

So what’s with the search for missing ancestors?

Black Sabbath creating proto-metal in 1969 was no accident. The band sought to find a new sound. They also realized the hippie movement was in the process of grossly selling itself out, having gone from a form of protest to a lifestyle of dissolution through mental obesity. It was time to kick over that false figurehead and do something new. Coming from a prog-tinged background, they invented something that sounded a lot like progressive rock, if it weren’t addicted to a dark and foreboding approach.

The message of Black Sabbath more than anything else was that truth is staring us in the face. People make a lot of noise to cover everything in flowers, sex and brotherhood, but really underneath it all a darker reality threatens. Most people are crazy. Most ideas form mass delusion of the herd. And these people have nuclear weapons, and control of economies, and other methods of taking these screwups to an exponential level. Every teen rock ‘n’ roll band sings about how the world is crazy, in part because it is crazy. Punk bands expanded upon this with an outlook of total nihilism at first, and later a kind of comfortable anarchism combined with genteel progressivism. These outlooks helped drive the evolution of genres to express a sound that was more rootless (punk) and more apocalyptic (metal) as time went on. This made it clear to each generation what the next would sound like.

The scary fact is that we can navigate metal based on a few nodal points. First, Black Sabbath, King Crimson and Iggy and the Stooges; next, after the proto-glam years, the NWOBHM triad of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Motorhead plus the punk music that simultaneously wracked the UK (Discharge, Amebix, The Exploited) and US (Cro-Mags, Black Flag). Death metal would have arisen from these alone, but Venom accelerated the process aesthetically, although took a step back musically toward the bad old days of proto-glam. It was natural that death metal bands would experiment more with melody, and so black metal was an obvious outgrowth of this.

All of that leads me to today’s topic: Terminal Death, whose 1985 demo and other recordings have been released as Terminal Death by Shadow Kingdom Records. Their press release states:

TERMINAL DEATH: One of the first DEATH METAL bands 1985!!!!!

When you talk about the earliest Death Metal bands, we think of SEPULTURA, DEATH, POSSESSED (all stemming from VENOM) right off the top, but there were a few ripping bands that quickly fell into obscurity and TERMINAL DEATH is one of those bands. This is not just an obscure band; they could have been a HUGE Death Metal band if they were signed to the right label back then. They certainly had all of the talent the aforementioned bands did. Their 1985 Demo tape screams with energy and intensity! This is a re-mastered collection of their complete and very short-lived career. The CD booklet is massive with a very in-depth and lengthy interview done by Laurent from Snakepit Magazine. There aren’t that many Death Metal bands can come close to how amazing these songs were. This collection is another snapshot of that amazing early Slayer-esque Death Metal. Co-founder Shaun Glass, whom also co-found SINDROME later joined the more well known classic Death Metal band BROKEN HOPE in the early 1990’s. Shadow Kingdom Records teamed up with Hells Headbangers Records to release this lost gem as a Double LP. If you’re into vinyl, keep your eyes peeled for it will be a glorified presentation.

Let’s look at this historically. By 1985, the big three of death metal — Slayer, Hellhammer and Bathory — had already recorded. Then we listen to Terminal Death. For the most part, this is simplified speed metal at a punk pace, more in common with early Sacrifice than the death metal to follow. Not only that, but Deathstrike had already beat it to the punk/metal hybrid of that era. OK, so what? I don’t consider that important, other than that it somewhat contradicts the marketing. Let’s look at the music. It’s not terrible, but it’s also not very inspired. Lots of chromatic riffs, drums kind of struggle to keep up, and heavy repetition with standard song form. There’s a reason this band took a back seat to the other influences on the rising death metal movement. It’s not bad, but it’s not great.

The DLP doesn’t look bad, but it’s unnecessary. It’s basically the 1985 demo plus three unreleased songs and several other versions of the demo songs. It might make more sense, since the album is appealing to people who want early proto-death metal, to release the 1985 demo with the three unreleased songs for a CD that presents this band at its best. Hopefully SK will do that in the future. But the question for metalheads now is why to buy this. Its historical significance is not really that great, and the music is not exceptional either. With that in mind, I’d say Terminal Death is something we can bypass.

Defending metal before the internet

February 13, 2014 –

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The Internet grew out of 1960s DARPA projects and has been with us a long time. Most of us however only began to explore it after September 1993 when AOL began mailing out all those free disks that allowed anyone (and they meant, Satan help us, literally anyone) to get on the internet. After that, the Internet became public property.

But before those times, in the days of the late 1970s through early 1990s, the BBS was king. Someone would set up a home computer on a second phone line, install and configure (or hand-code) some software, and then send out the word to others friends on their own BBSs. People traded files and wrote messages to one another, both private (email) and public (forums).

During the later days of that phenomenon, a user named Starmaster opted to defend heavy metal against accusations laid against it in a text-file known as Heavy Metal: The Untold Truth, translated here from the raw text file:

Intro:

They say it is devil music. They say it is Satanic. They also mention it being the source of many teen-age suicides. Why, do you ask? Well, this file is hopefully going to bring that point to light. Finally, just when you thought everyone was against you, you have found the truth in Heavy Metal: The Untold Truth.

We, the listeners of heavy metal, have been called many a thing. Metalheads, headbangers, pieces of scum. But, why do people continually call us that? Is it because we are a minority among other listeners of music? Is it because they think we deserve it, because we refuse to listen to “their” music? Whatever the reason, for two decades now, people are still believing that everyone who listens to heavy metal is Satanic or something along that line. Have psychologists proven that striking a chord on a guitar with distortion causes the mind to turn into an uncontrollable atmosphere of evil thoughts? I think not, and the reason many think they way they do is because of the lyrics to the songs.

The lyrics are often portrayed as the root of the evil in heavy metal. One might call it is the root of all evil is in the music that the children listen to. The lyrics themselves do not imply anything such as Satan worshiping or suicide. More times than not, the lyrics sing about the cold harsh reality that befalls us all in this world. Destruction, corruption, and many things pertaining to the real-time life of people are what cause these rumors of heavy metal. Megadeth for example sing about the destruction of the planet and the corruption and manipulation of a person’s mind. Why would “normal” people listen to the horrors of real-life, when they can live in a fantasy world created by Debbie Gibson?

The harsh reality portrayed in Metallica’s tape And Justice for All is another example of the manipulation and corruption of a politician’s mind. The lyrics often speak of revolution also, such as in Queenryche’s tape Operation: Mindcrime. They imply, “Why should we have to live in a world ruled by those who can afford it, when we could be living in a much better place?” If you have read any of Metallica’s, Megadeth’s or Queensryche’s lyrics, you’ll know where I am coming from.

Another coincidence that is often blamed on heavy metal is suicide. Think about it this way. When real-time life hits you through a song, and you’re not prepared for it, you might just say fuck it, and go off the deep end. People need to be more prepared to face reality when they turn on Megadeth or Nuclear Assault.

The music itself is often and crunching to the mind. One might call it noise, but to those of us who understand it as music, it often resembles the lyrics in many ways. A good example of this is in And Justice for All. When listening to this tape, the music often prepares the listener for a cold and harsh representation of life. Such as in “One,” the intro with the helicopter puts the listener in Vietnam. The music then turns from a sad, painful melody into a hard, cold, highly distorted melody that depicts the character’s hatred toward life. This is a remarkable example of what the music part of the songs is all about. It is to set the mood. Want to live in fantasy? Go listen to Milli Vanilli. Set to take a first class ticket tour through real life? Listen to Metallica.

Slower music sets a nice pace for the slower, less knowledgeable minds. One might call a headbanger “dumb,” but nine times out of ten, the guy will survive the onslaught of political mindgames better than the smartest “normal” person would. It is much harder for a “headbanger” to be brainwashed by politicians because of the music he or she has listened to for years.

If you are a metalhead, read carefully the last few paragraphs. It is the true reason heavy metal, acid rock or whatever you call it, came around. To make people aware and to keep people from being brainwashed into mindless cyborgs that revolve around one who can afford the company. Believe me when I tell you that heavy metal is not all the noise that it seems to be; it is much more than that. It is a way of life to many.

From: Starmaster… To keep those who want to be knowledgeable full of knowledge. And to keep the pricks, pricking.

While this piece may have been written by a non-professional and inexperienced writer, he or she makes some good points. Let’s look at some of the highlights:

  • The lyrics sing about the cold harsh reality that befalls us all in this world. This is not protest music, where people complain, or idealistic music, where they sing about what might be. It is descriptive music that portrays the world in a way people cannot see through the fog of consumerism, politics and socialization.
  • The lyrics ask, “Why should we live in a world ruled by commerce, when we could be living in a much better place?” This paraphrase cuts to the core of the underground metal argument: as soon as money shows up, our priorities shift from reality to money and bad results come of that.
  • [The music] often resembles the lyrics. He makes a good point here. Metal’s harsh riffs are often shaped into song by the lyrics, and the two work together. It is as if the music is a delivery system for the lyrics, like ancient Greek theatre where music and drama were used to convey essentially philosophical messages.
  • [A headbanger] will survive the onslaught of political mindgames better than the smartest “normal” person would. This is the actual theme of the piece: politicians/money preach obliviousness and most people choose that path because they’re afraid. Metal is for those who want to go beyond and result the false world created by politics, money and popularity.
  • And to keep the pricks, pricking. This one is up for grabs. If you have a plausible interpretation, post it in the comments.

For what it was, a single text file uploaded onto a BBS somewhere in 1990s America, this document covers a wide range of topics and has a fairly depth-seeking thesis. Perhaps metal was stronger when more people thought like this.

Why Hellhammer’s Satanic Rites is possibly the most important metal record ever made

July 4, 2013 –

hellhammer-satanic_ritesMost people place the birth of black and death metal somewhere between Venom’s first album Welcome to Hell (1981) and Bathory’s third full-length Under the Sign of the Black Mark (1987). The exact moment of divergence from ancestors depends on the speaker’s level of metal puritanism and their favorite albums are from that era, and can sometimes seem a trivial dichotomy. Moot though it may be, my pick for the first discernible piece of death/black metal music is also, more importantly, the moment at which metal realizes it can be more than just warmed-over rock music.

Tom Warrior and co will forever be canonised in the metal pantheon for the early Hellhammer and Celtic Frost releases, which collectively shaped the sound of metal in a way that is only really matched by Slayer (who were probably influenced by Hellhammer in their change of sound between Show no Mercy and Haunting the Chapel). The first couple of Hellhammer demos however were only really third rate crust punk/Venom rip off played by three young guys who didn’t really know what they were doing. With the third demo and the introduction of Martin Ain to the writing team though, Hellhammer began introducing ideas that weren’t immediately noticed or appreciated by the rest of the world, prompting the band to less than twelve months later reconstitute itself as Celtic Frost and spend most of the next three decades trying to bury the Hellhammer name and the material associated with it.

Many of the tracks on Satanic Rites are in much the same vein as the first two demos, although better played and with greater surety about the morbid chromatic rock riffs. However, with “Buried and Forgotten,” and to a slightly lesser extent “Triumph of Death,” there is a real ‘eureka’ moment. Verse-chorus-verse, single groove writing gives way to longer structures that piece together like musical jigsaw puzzles, reminiscent of the best moments of Black Sabbath made more twisted and involving. The grimmer, more elemental, less blues-rocky riffs of Hellhammer also hint at emergent melodic shapes, whose detail unfurls piecemeal over the course of the track.

“Buried and Forgotten” for a little over two and half minutes builds one riff atop another towards an emotional plateau, each one referencing some element (however small) of the one that preceded it. The rest of the track then recombines and repeats all the material amassed over the course of the opening part, changing the order of and implied relationship between riffs. All except one slightly dodgy contrasting riff towards the end (which stands out by a mile), is built out of the same basic pool of ideas, and so each can be moved about and fit back together again as they are and create a neat, logical song structure.

This streamlined song-writing mentality also filters down quite brilliantly into the track “Messiah,” which is probably the most well-known, heavily covered Hellhammer song, and a borderline genius exercise in metal song-writing fundamentalism. Effectively the entire song is crafted out of one interval (the space between two notes, denoting their relationship to each other): a minor 2nd (or semitone), the smallest interval in regular Western music. Everything from the ponderous two-note verse riff, to the creeping chorus motif of four descending consecutive semitones, to the brief bridge section made up of the same rumbling low E that drives the verse and a major 7th above that (which, deceptively, is just an inversion of a minor 2nd, and so basically the same note relationship as nearly everything that has come before it in the song).

All of a sudden the focus shifted from form (and the resulting dramatic arc it creates) as something that comes from solely juxtaposing contrasting elements, to something that can grow out of only a tiny number of ideas, and through clever variation and development can became something much more journey-like. This makes this music unlike rock, jazz and more recent false-metal, and more like a Beethoven symphony or a Bach fugue. Needless to say, I’m not suggesting for a moment that Hellhammer is equal to the work of Bach. What I am saying however is that both classical music and the more inspired moments of this demo proceed from a similar sort of underlying sense of elegance in developing things methodically out of smaller details into bigger, consistent ideas.

The version of “Triumph of Death” on this demo is inferior to the one on Apocalyptic Raids (which has, surely, one of the greatest metal vocal performances anywhere, ever) and as far as Celtic Frost/Hellhamer goes my favourite work is probably To Mega Therion. Still, it’s hard to understate just how important this demo and the ideas it set in motion are to all of the metal that has followed it. Underground metal not only became scarier, heavier and less po-faced after Hellhammer, but from this demo (and the Celtic Frost/Hellhammer works that followed it) metal inherited a paradigm that enabled the construction of more complex, distinctive songs and would come to define underground metal.

A generation passes on, and the world wakes up to metal

May 25, 2013 –

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Kids of the 1980s were flatfooted out of luck when it came to heavy metal. The newspapers of the time all condemned it as leading kids to Satan, drug abuse, and promiscuous sex. Politicians mentioned it as a sign of the moral decay of our society, and the general view was that metalheads were dirty, stupid, incompetent and probably sociopathic.

But then, much as the 1960s were 20 years behind that time, 20 years and change passed…. and suddenly the kids of the 1980s were the good workers, family people, responsible adults, etc. of the 2010s. Time warps forward and catches up with itself, and suddenly the past is not so misunderstood. It is in fact a platform on which we stand to look at the light of the future.

Some of this involved sad events. The early death of Jeff Hanneman spurred a lot of soul-searching on the part of metalheads. When the wise elders you’ve always counted on to be there for you, and to figure out the hard stuff, are suddenly gone, you realize you’re the elder now. There’s nothing between you and the cold horizon of the cutting edge. Many people recalculated lives in the blue light of early morning, hiding out in bathrooms and attics where they felt for a few moments the world would not discover them.

Unspeakable things have happened however. For starters, the Wall Street Journal discovers death metal history:

Mixing Black Sabbath’s sludge with the guttural roar of Motorhead and adding the jackhammer speed of thrash kings Slayer, death metal bubbled up the 1980s via the decidedly nonmainstream metal underground tape-trading scene. The style then splintered into so many subgenres—black metal, doom metal, stoner rock, grindcore, post-metal—only a metallectual could keep track of them.

Those of us who have labored for years at describing metal find this gratifying; the world is not only awakening to metal, but taking its origins seriously. This is generally seen as a sign of trying to figure out its significance and place within society, which is far different from the “pushing back” of the past. We’re getting the same treatment The Beatles did, just thirty years later and in a lower-key mode.

Along that vein, a new book called Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal has just been released, and this podcast interviews the writers and metal musicians to peer into metal history. These are nascent efforts, and “definitive” may be premature, but like previous metal books they are a good start toward where we’d like the study of metal to be.

While this is happening, a celebration of the life of Jeff Hanneman, guitarist for Slayer, drew thousands into Hollywood to hear a retrospective of Hanneman’s life and probably, destroy the theater.

But that was always the point. Slayer wanted to point out that society was based on lies, and our falsehood and pretense made us oblivious to the real and important things going on around us every day. This in fact has always been the message of metal, from Black Sabbath waking up the hippies to Motorhead shocking the world with excess. While this sounds like a mission of destruction, it is in fact a mission of belief in life, and enough love for life’s importance to care about telling the truth.

This fits in with our world’s acceptance of Hessianism. Putting our heads in the sand and chanting kumbaya has failed. Putting our heads down and earning money and hoping we can buy our way out of the decay has failed. Reality is still with us, and it’s bigger than society. In fact, if you know the cliche, “Think outside of the box” — society, or the social process itself, is the box and metal is what sets it aflame and casts us out into the cold and terrifying but thrilling night, full of potential and hidden wonders.

Perhaps the most stunning moment of the ceremony:

The only truly quiet moment came when a letten sent by Hanneman’s wife, Kathryn, was read to the crowd. It was both a love letter to her husband, and a lifelong thank-you card to the Slayer devoted, who made Hanneman’s life what it was. “May you continue to reign in heaven,” she wrote.

For all of its darkness, metal is a vision of light. It is clarity, freedom from lies, but even more, an ability to see the possibility of life before we cover it with our fears of being insufficient, inequal, victimized or just coming up short. Metal is bravery, the kind of bravery that comes of worship of life itself. I hope she’s right, and there is a metal heaven, because it won’t be the static place of the storybooks. It will be a land of constant adventure, of ever-greater quests and challenges, and it will be a place where stout hearts reign for eternity.