A new issue of the legendary Isten fanzine is being published later this year by Svart Records. Those foresighted enough to have purchased the Isten Fanzine: Don’t Break the Ghost compilation book will know how big of a deal this is. Isten was one of the most legendary death and black zines along with Metalion’s Slayer.
Many of you know Frank Stöver from his days editing the classic death metal fanzine Voices from the Darkside, but many more have come to know him through his website of the same time. Having read his material for years, this writer jumped on the chance to ask him a few questions about what he does and how he keeps putting out high-quality material after all these years…
What do you look for in a metal band that makes them appealing to you? How important is imagery, packaging and production?
First and foremost it’s of course the music that I will have to enjoy, but to me that sometimes goes hand in hand with the band’s imagery or packaging as well. I often experience that bands that are really dedicated to what they’re doing come up with a better visual side as well, because they really know how they would like to present themselves. But a band with a shitty xeroxed cover and a poor looking logo can of course also be killer musically.
Since I’ve been involved in the tape-trading era myself I’m still used to poor sounding rehearsal- and live-tapes, so production definitely isn’t that important in the first place to discover great bands. Just remember the early Mantas/Death recordings… But then again killer songs could be even more killer with a fitting and crushing production of course, as long as the production really fits the band.
When you prepare to interview a band, how do you prepare? How much of this is research? How much of it is listening to their demos/albums?
Since I only interview bands that I personally really like it’s almost exclusively research. I do read a lot of reviews and other interviews, check out their discography, member changes etc. I ask questions that I personally would like to get answers for and hope that the readers find that of interest as well.
In one of your past interviews, you mention a zine as being “narrowminded” in a positive way. Is it important to be narrow-minded? Or is that a term for being open-minded and then making your mind up? Does death metal risk infiltration by imitators, poseurs, fakers, etc.?
Good question… I wouldn’t say it’s important, it’s just a matter of your personal tastes. Even though I’m musically totally open-minded, I still prefer zines that stick to certain styles exclusively. Otherwise I could also pick up one of the colored major magazines that are being sold at shops and supermarkets every month. Same with music itself. I have a lot of respect for bands that try to break boundaries by mixing new elements into established styles.
But when I’m in the mood for some brutal Death Metal, I don’t wanna hear that combined with clean vocals, a funky bass or whatever. Considering the fact that there’s constantly so much new music out, it also makes it a bit easier to select releases / bands for a zine. You gotta draw a line somewhere, otherwise you would have to feature 4251166898089090 and more releases every month.
You were manager for Kreator and Destruction back in the day. Why do you think Germany led the world in their kind of speed/death hybrid, but was less participatory in death metal as a complete genre?
Well, I just helped out Kreator a little bit with merchandise and fan club activities, I never managed them… But to answer your actual question: I can only guess. Maybe it’s because all the younger bands in Germany at the time simply looked up to the bands that had already become bigger (Destruction, Sodom, Kreator, etc.) and felt musically inspired by them. And since all of them are rooted in thrash metal, it probably resulted in a pretty healthy thrash scene. If Morgoth would’ve been one of our first extreme bands in those days maybe everything would’ve developed in a different direction, who knows…
Why do you think 1980s bands were so varied, and bands now sound more similar? Is the “market” flooded? How can metal recover from this? Or is it just harder to come up with something new, because everything has “been done”? Or is style less important, and content what drives uniqueness in bands?
I think you pretty much answered this yourself already. The number of bands simply exploded over the years, and almost everything has already been done in one way or another, so there’s not much room left anymore for fresh, unique bands that still deliver brutal music.
Back in the day everything was still fresh and new, so whenever a new band appeared on the scene, it still sounded a little different to the already more established names. I think something like that is almost impossible nowadays. I hardly find enough time to listen to all the new releases I receive every week, so I’m glad that I don’t have to write music in a band that tries to make it.
Why did you switch from print to internet-only distribution of your writings? Are you able to reach the same audience? Did you gain more readers? What are the advantages from print that you miss, and what does online do better?
That’s an easy one: lack of time and money were the main reasons not to continue on with the printed version of the zine. The advantages are obvious: you can easily update a site on a daily base if you like, while a printed zine always takes a lot of time until it’s finished and distributed. It’s easier, because you don’t have to do layouts, ship the finished magazines, deal with printing companies and the postal service and as a result you also safe a lot of money, which you usually spend on postage and printing.
The number of readers has exploded ever since we went online. Our last issue (# 10) was printed in 1,000 copies; with our website we have approximately 2,000 – 2,500 visitors each day nowadays. But of course I miss the print era. I just love the cut and paste type old school layouts… and reading stuff where ever I like is probably the biggest plus (reading in front of a monitor screen is really annoying).
Is it hard to get volunteers to work with? Is apathy a problem in the metal community?
Never really had any problems in that department at all. But maybe it’s that easy because Voices From The Darkside is already an established name that people are aware of and respect. So, whoever I work with (or have worked with in the past) is first of all a fan of the music and the zine. I guess that makes it a lot easier.
How did fanzines help shape the metal underground? Did this change from your days in Horror Infernal to when you started Voices from the Darkside in 1993? Do you think fanzines played a role in shaping what people liked, and made some bands into “favorites”? If so, was this good or bad?
Without fanzines there probably would be no underground, at least not in the way we know it. I don’t think it changed in any way. Fanzines have been around for ages and I received some of them already back when I started out in the early 80s. I personally found out about a lot of amazing bands through fanzines, flyers and tape-trading.
I suppose without this great network, I probably wouldn’t have discovered a lot of the bands this early. A good example is Metallica. I got a live show from 1982 on tape very early on, even before I got to hear their demos and that made me follow them right from the start, which was really exciting.
Should underground metal stay underground? Is this even possible?
No, I don’t think so. If a band is honest in what they do and they don’t sell out or change in order to reach a bigger audience, they deserve to get noticed by bigger crowds for sure. Of course it’s always a bitter feeling for the fans of day one to see that all of a sudden people like “their” bands, who probably don’t know anything about them, their roots or anything. But that doesn’t mean the newer fans are less dedicated. Some of them often turn into total diehards as well, they just discovered the band later.
The German scene is fascinating to me. From thousands of kilometers away, it looks as if German fans are fans first of heavy metal as a whole, not specialized into death metal, black metal, etc. Does this have some benefits? What about downsides?
Yeah, Germany is really a cool place for metal and all its sub-genres. The scene is very healthy with lots of venues, bands, magazines, etc. That’s probably also one of the reasons why big festivals such as Wacken work out so well. Metal fans are often more open-minded than one might think. They don’t have a problem with having their Terrorizer record next to a Thin Lizzy record in their collection (at least I don’t have). I don’t think that has a downside to it at all.
I wrote about how hacking was a parallel community to underground metal found similarities between the two. Do you think the metal underground had a lot in common with other undergrounds? What made it “underground,” in the first place? Was it only lack of commercial acceptance, or also of social acceptance?
I often compare the metal underground with the early punk movement (before both scenes got commercialized by the industry). This whole DIY mentality with self-organized shows, flyers, cut and paste fanzines etc. most certainly had a big influence on the origin of the metal underground. Also this “fuck off” mentality and trying to rebel against parents, employers or the mainstream is pretty similar. But all this probably makes it scenes on their own. To me being underground means that you’re different to the mainstream in certain aspects and you most certainly have that in various other sub-genres as well.
It seems to me that with the rise of the internet, we have information overload. Meaning that there are too many bands, sites, labels, radio/podcasts, etc. to possibly keep track of. Do you think that zines and some websites can be helpful in reducing this overload? Is that a positive goal? Can websites achieve the same effect that zines did?
I totally agree… and to be perfectly honest with you: I really hate this overkill! I’m sick and tired of receiving a shitload of download links for new albums every fuckin’ day. I mean, who’s supposed to listen to all this, not to mention who shall buy all the records? Today there’s probably more labels than we had bands in the 80s and each one of them releases as many records as possible. From old poor sounding rehearsal tapes, to compilations, split releases, re-releases, EPs, live albums, full lengths etc.
The industry always mentions that record sales are going down, but at the same time they are releasing more albums than ever before. Websites such as ours can indeed be helpful by being more selective in what they review and feature in general. And that leads us back to the “narrow-minded” question: if we would be less narrow-minded, Voices From The Darkside would quickly turn into a fulltime job for sure. But luckily most people still care about quality. So, no matter what it is: a record, a band, a label or even a website — if it’s of poor quality people will sooner or later search for something better. Since our website is already online for almost 15 years by now with a steady growing number of visitors, I suppose we’re doing something right.
You have mentioned in several past interviews that you do not collect rare discs, but are interested in having the complete recordings. Do you think the “collector’s mentality” was good for metal? Why do you avoid it, or is this just a practical/personal decision?
I think this “collector’s mentality” opened a lot of doors for the just mentioned release overkill. Many metal fans tend to buy their favorite records in every fuckin’ re-release format there is. If a label re-releases a record with only one single bonus track or a different packaging some diehards most certainly will spend their hard earned money on it again, no matter how often they already have it in their collection. I don’t like that, but somehow I’m infected by that as well.
If I like a band, I try to get their entire material in one way or another. But I don’t keep a record in various formats then. I replace the older version with the newer expanded edition. That’s equally stupid (if not more), but at least I don’t have to spend a shitload of many for rare first press releases, hahaha.
What are your plans for the future with Voices from the Darkside? Do you have any other projects brewing? Ever think of writing a book (of new text, not compilation of the older zines)? If people like your work, how should they stay updated on what you do?
The website already keeps me extremely busy since I take care of all the daily updates myself. Every single review and interview that ends up on the site is being formatted, proof-read etc. by yours truly. And I also compile all the news, tour dates and so on. All that takes a lot of time every single day, so no – I don’t have any other projects in the pipeline at the moment, I’m afraid. All I can offer at the moment can be found at www.voicesfromthedarkside.de. Thanks a lot Brett, for this highly interesting interview and your support! All the best!
Codex Obscurum arose in the 2010s to revive the utility and flavor of metal zines from the 1980s, but doing so in an internet age, chose to focus on selectivity over attempting to compete with the flood of raw (and mostly wrong) information. Now this zine is on its eighth issue and has featured most of the classic and new bands of stature which are active in the underground.
The eighth issue promises to have many new delights for the metal reader. According to the zine, this issue features:
- The art of NecroMogarip
- Blood Red Throne
- The 3rd Attempt
- Impenitent Thief
- …and many more…
You can order your copy — they are now shipping — at the following location for $3 plus shipping:
Codex Obscurum graces these pages frequently as one of few print zines who uphold the idea of the underground: a focus on music, not popularity, and insight into the motivations and mentation of those who pursue the unholy music of death. Issue Five from this promising zine takes its power to new heights.
Over the preceding issues, Codex Obscurum refined its approach to layout, personality and content and now appears in a fully mature form. Layouts are readable and densely packed with information, interviews dig into the thoughts and emotions of those who are active in the underground, and content selection shows a strong preference for the ancient spirits of obscure music as well as an inclination to pick from current music the few bright lights who understand it in spirit as well as mechanics.
Layout for example shows great evolution. High-contrast pages of black on white or its inverse use sparse but intense images to anchor smoothly-flowing, tightly-packed text. The result proves readable for those in a computer age who wish for a professional layout in a print magazine, and allows the content to pop out at the reader without interference or confusing background. The resulting more efficient use of these pages allows the staff to cram in more interviews, notably more reviews, and features that show a concise but outspoken style.
Issue Five begins with a stream of interviews including most notably Brutal Truth, Krieg and At the Gates. These show the seasoned journalist at work, avoiding most of the standard background questions of mechanics and instead querying the musicians in detail about their compositional and stylistic choices. That approach elicits answers which deepen the connection between band and reader by escaping the surface world of rock and looking at metal as a series of choices united by a shared identity and way of looking at the world.
The At the Gates interview reveals the workings of of legendary band as the questioner probes into the branches of its career and the resulting changes in the music. Focusing also on the upcoming At the Gates album At War With Reality the interviewer knits past and future through the words of the band. A candid Brutal Truth exploration follows with bassist Dan Lilker talking about his approach to music and his history with the second-wave grindcore act, after which a cerebral Krieg interview digs into the questions that metal finds troubling. Witness this exchange:
Where do you see the place of black metal in the greater context of the development of musical styles in human culture?
I don’t see it as culturally important to humanity as a whole, only some countries it’s made a direct effect on their history and even then in the grand scheme of this shit circus it’s about as important as that one time you jerked off that one day that you don’t quite remember but you know that you did. It was engaging for those few minutes but then you finished and went on with your life. That’s how I see it in the big picture. But seeing that we’re Americans and American society places incredible emphasis on solipsism, then for the individual it’s touched it could be the greatest cultural movement of his/her life and for however long that individual is alive it’s the one thing they carry that had the greatest significance possible.
A welcome change comes in the form of the reviews which pack the ending pages of this zine. These take a longer form and look more in-depth at the music and use less rhetoric and judgment than before, which makes them more informative. In this issue, an editorial of a true metal nature follows the reviews and brings up a number of significant points for any thinking metalhead to ponder. This type of fully-developed personality shows the strength of this zine in its second year and fifth issue and promises even greater heights for its future.
- Codex Obscurum – Issue Five $3 + shipping
The third edition of contemporary old school print zine Codex Obscurum brings vast improvements to this already-promising zine. Under the guidance of editor Kevin Ord, Codex Obscurum has improved its readability, positioned its content for an in-depth view of the metal scene, become more consistent about its most important sections and added experimental content that expands what we think of metal zines.
The first thing a reader will notice is that readability is improved. This refers to the visual appearance of the text and how easy it is on our eyes. Since the 1980s, computer and printer technology for the average person have improved (all of this cool stuff was available then, you just couldn’t afford it). As a result, backgrounds and gradients are more likely to be used, as are complex fonts. The problem with that is that when the result is put out through a Xerox-like format, these fancy things can blur together or create contrast differences that apply torque to human optic nerves. This time around, the Codex Obscurum guys dialed back the fonts and went for more computer-y fonts on lighter backgrounds. Their best format remains the one they used for the Summoning, Disma and Nocturnal Deathstrike Records interviews, which is a white page with a border of hand-drawn art. Of course, this is the most expensive to create because it requires a human artist, but I wish the whole zine could be this way. It’s a killer look that is both like the old school and takes advantage of newer layout abilities. I also don’t mind if the whole zine is in Times New Roman and a good sans-serif font. That being said, however, readability is massively improved here and layouts mentioned above are positively gorgeous. It reminds me of the best of the 1980s zines that always seemed like little art books.
In terms of content, Codex Obscurum was never a slouch. Previous issues included high profile acts like Incantation, Skepticism, Morpheus Descends and Rozz Williams. Issue #3 has chats with Saint Vitus, Mortuary Drape, Disma and Summoning among others, raising the Codex Obscurum profile even further. The zine has also stabilized its organization so that the vital content is present and in the roughly expected proportions. There are more record reviews and a solid block of interviews framed by show reports and features. In particular, having a big block of record reviews at the end is useful for the person who picks up a zine to figure out “what’s happening” in the metal world and might have a few minutes to scan for something fun to buy at the end of a long work-week. This “feels” more solid as a zine since the relevant content keeps coming and there’s no filler, with firm boundaries between sections such that none of them seem to be second-class citizens. In addition, Codex Obscurum has added experimental content in the form of stories and reflections. While some of this was indicated in the past, such as the surreal and passionate tribute to Slayer‘s Jeff Hanneman from the second issue, here there’s a crossover more like a bleed-in from a literary zine or chapbook. The result helps the end of the zine not trail off, but offer solid content of variegated types consistently throughout.
The result of all of the above is that the third issue of Codex Obscurum shows this zine picking up where the past left off, and going further. Not only that but it does so with high quality and in a way that gives this zine its own personality and brand. I’m looking forward to seeing more from Codex Obscurum as it races forward into the future …of the past.
“Underground Never Dies!” chronicles the underground metal explosion of the mid-1980s through early 1990s when a decentralized volunteer force created a parallel music industry for music that had no commercial appeal, but a fervent sense of truth and opposition to some aspects of post-modern civilization.
With over 500 pages of interviews, photos, excerpts from period fanzines and artwork, “Underground Never Dies!” addresses the complex interweaving of bands, fans, zines, promoters, artists and labels that fostered the underground metal movement and allowed it to expand with maximum flexibility.
Written by Grinder Magazine Editor Andrés Padilla, the book includes fanzines from around the world as well as an extensive selection of underground flyers, so it will be not only a narrative of the history of underground metal, but also a massive and interesting menu of diverse viewpoints for devotees of underground metal genres such as death metal, black metal, grindcore and doom metal.
Doomentia Press will publish and distribute “Underground Never Dies!” which will include a compilation 12″ LP featuring historically important bands exhumed from the 80s, such as Slaughter Lord (Australia), Mutilated (France), Incubus (Florida, USA), Poison (Germany), Exmortis (USA), Fatal (USA), Armoros (Canada), Mental Decay (Denmark), Funeral Nation (USA) and Insanity (USA) among others. Presented in gatefold format, and limited to the first 500 copies of the book, the LP will be followed by CD and tape versions of the same material with added bonus tracks.
Cover art by Mark Riddick accompanies introductions by Ian Christe (Bazillion Points), Chris Reifert (Autopsy), Erik Danielsson (Watain) and Alan Moses (Glorious Times). This celebration of the underground will attempt to make sense of the fertile but chaotic years of its origins.