Dead Norwegians,
Israeli Disco Grind,
and Satan's Penis:

The Pulp Reality of the Metal Underground
Descent by Ian Christe

"Some imagine for some weird reason that Death Metal is something normal and available for everyone," Morbid/Mayhem vocalist "Dead" told an interviewer prior to his 1991 suicide. "If you go into an ordinary school, you will surely see half of them wearing Morbid Angel, Autopsy, and Entombed shirts, and once again I will vomit! Death Black Metal is something all ordinary mortals should fear, not make into a trend!"

Metal is one of the most inhuman art forms ever invented, a cross between classical music and pure sadism. It's also a lot like a carnival, full of larger than life characters and illusions. The strict moral code evolves constantly, embracing blue jeans one year and wild costumes the next; always exalting something, whether silly, fascistic, optimistic, escapist, or childlike, but always played to the hilt.

Death metal was ignored in infancy and mocked in adolescence. Now the headstrong scene is branching out into computers, noise, opera, crime, and the avant garde, twisting the story of the underground into a tale of obsessive innovation, reaction, and counter-reaction.

Anatomy of the Metal People

"The speed/death metal influence among the [Native Americans] is absolutely striking," writes an observer from Arizona. "There are unique, interesting reservation-only 'scenes' each with their own quirky fixations due to their isolation. Gila River Indians love Cannibal Corpse above everything else, Pimas dig Sepultura. They have their own bands that isolate their little niches further out on the branches of the metal tree. The elders are regularly sitting in the store bemoaning how the kids are forsaking tradition for that godawful noise. And then there's the every-so-often livestock mutilation mini-controversy."

Rockers the world over are going out of control, and they need a soundtrack. The New York Times Magazine reported on Cuban metalheads who chose to inject themselves with AIDS and waste away in state asylums rather than cut their hair and be drafted to Castro's army. American teens from Nevada to New Jersey are continually attracted to the romanticism of the suicide pact. In Norway, musicians themselves have torched at least thirteen of the country's oldest churches and killed two of their peers.

"People don't realize," says Bill Yurkiewicz, co-founder of metal indie Relapse Records. "They're so caught up in the mainstream and what everyone else is talking about, they don't even know that all this stuff exists out there."

Alternative rock is the mainstream's toy, becoming more ridiculous and embarrassing every year as bands like Bad Religion, Smashing Pumpkins, and Nine Inch Nails struggle to protest that they're different than Huey Lewis and the News or REO Speedwagon.

Meanwhile, Slayer's latest album -- depicting a fan slicing their name into his arm with a razor blade -- debuts at number one in Billboard. Metal likes attention, but it won't abide compromise.

The extreme metal underground has a peculiar propensity to surface under extreme conditions: Native American reservations and American inner cities, South Pacific Islands, Eastern Europe, and South America. Big acts like Napalm Death and Deicide often tour music-starved Buenos Aires, Tel Aviv, Poland, South Africa, Brazil, and the former Soviet Union, serenading the most violent points on the planet with the music of strife.

Cold Hands, Black Hearts

While all sufficiently hideous and bizarre in their own right, early '80s death metal from Brazil's Sepultura, Sweden's Bathory, Germany's Sodom, and Switzerland's Hellhammer (Celtic Frost) could be characterized as poorly-executed tributes to Venom. Traditional heavy metal acts earned a following with constant touring and pompous anthems, but Venom blasted singalong Satanic noise that embraced obscurity as a worthy end. During one pyro-laden London gig, the clumsy antiheros nearly blew up their frontman, Cronos. Ultimately the band became fetishized musical contraband for bedroom rockers the world over. A recent Venom tribute CD has Therion, Afflicted, Deceased, and Immolation canonizing their music -- Bathory and Celtic Frost tributes have also been announced.

The devil has big muscles, lots of money and power, and no friends, so he makes a great dancing partner for the disaffected. Every time it seems the metal scene has kicked its jones for Old Nick, back spins the crypto-Satanic cycle with pentagrams and upsidedown crosses. Now, inspired by the inventive music and horrific real-life escapades of Norwegian Black Metal, young boys and girls are again busting out capes and swords, dabbing on white greasepaint, and inking in horrid black frowns on their faces.

"I think a lot of them are more experimental than most other extreme metal bands," says Kevin Sharp, screamer of Brutal Truth, who has also collaborated with John Zorn and the Boredoms. "It's the same thing as when punk and hardcore came out, they used to wear the arm bands or whatever for total shock value, just to say 'I'm a total shithead asshole.'"

Taking inspiration from Bathory and local legend Mayhem, Norwegian bands are combining cackling speed noise with the haunting chords of medieval and early music melodies. Scandinavian side projects like Arcturus (Emperor, Mayhem, Ulver) and Storm (Darkthrone) are tossing out the speed factor altogether, reviving traditional folk music and singing balefully in their native tongues.

In interview after interview, artists are professing their affinity for solitude and contemplation in nature. "Usually, we do walk to the Mighty Isle of Men during the later hours," Ovl. Svithjod of In the Woods told Petrified zine. "We lit a fire, put on some spiritual music/soundtracks and talk/reflect on later happenings in life. It is indeed like balm for our souls."

Though Immortal's Battles in the North depicts two angry clown warriors posed in the snow, Enslaved's Frost tosses aside excess for a simple photo of a flowing fjord. Fellow Norwegians Emperor and Mortiis evoke an ambitiously sorrowful synthesis of lost kingdom folk music and ruthless black metal. Count Grishnackh, a convicted murderer, professes the goal of his techno-influenced Burzum is "to stimulate the fantasy of mortals."

Further confusing the distinction between fantasy and reality, bands from Germany, Sweden, Japan, and Poland now boast of church burning and graveyard desecrations, too. Americans seem eager to join in the unholy fun. There are many who would like to see intense music move beyond such sensational antics, but the idea of an open war on religion is not considered unappealing.

"Let's put it this way: I'm an atheist, but I have a lot of contempt for Christianity," says Brutal Truth bassist Dan Lilker, a lanky New Yorker whose main societal goal is the legalization of hemp. "They've had a stranglehold on ethics and values for 2000 years. I think it's cool that someone is really spitting in the face of that."

Satanville, Florida

The ante for evil has been upped for black metal's dopey and macho older brother death metal. Promoted by word of mouth among maniacal fans worldwide, purely underground bands like Death, Morbid Angel, Sadus, and Necrophagia sold tens of thousands of self-produced demo tapes in the 1980's. Now a million-selling musical genre, death metal is facing stylistic bankruptcy and market overkill.

"Death metal is definitely not dead," says Matt Jacobson, Yurkiewicz's partner at Relapse. "A lot of death metal labels popped up when the music started to get really popular. They weren't run by people who were truly into the music, they just wanted to make money. We can see now that a lot of those companies are going out of business are suffering. Things are still thriving and growing at outrageous rates for us, and I think it's because we had our hearts in it from the beginning."

The beginning would be 1985, when singer/guitarist "Evil" Chuck Schuldiner led the group Death to create exaggeratedly evil and naive hardcore metal in his basement. His home state Florida subsequently earned a reputation for the music through Obituary, Deicide, Death bullpen band Massacre, and North Carolina emigres Morbid Angel. Altogether they are the meat and potatoes of American death metal, remarkable for adapting intense sounds to a formidable level of musicianship and theatrical flair.

Satanists Deicide and Morbid Angel twist classic ideas of musicality to show their heathen nature, only to see Christian bands like Mortification and Living Sacrifice apply the same ferocious detuned pounding as an affirmation of faith. Furthermore, on their debut for the Equal Vision label, the Hare Krishna followers in 108 apply the same positive monkish zeal to death metal that others have long practiced on the hardcore punk scene.

A longer-standing reaction to the glut of guttural vocals and belching guitar riffs is doom metal, a paradigm in search of the slowest, most emotionally-compelling melancholy sounds. Heavily in debt to Black Sabbath and Tony Iommi's plastic fingers, doom's plaintive dirges are best demonstrated by the Obsessed, Candlemass, early Pentagram, and St. Vitus, a misfit sludge outfit first discovered by Black Flag.

Mechanized Death

"I'll listen to a death metal CD just to see what other bands are doing, but usually I don't keep it," states guitarist Dino Cazares of Fear Factory. "It's something that I've already heard and already conquered, and it's kind of old to me already."

Hailing from the heads-down thrash of East L.A.'s mainly Hispanic backyard party scene, Fear Factory are an example of progress. Their precise new album of robotic death metal, Demanufacture, relies heavily on computers for sequencing, mixing, and sonic tricks. With the help of labelmates Front Line Assembly, they created industrial and techno remixes of their own material for a 1993 Ep.

"When we released Fear is the Mindkiller we were taking a big chance," says Cazares, a Goth fan who also admits the influences of soundtrack music, English club music, and Devo and Gary Numan. "People were surprised, but we got a really good reaction. That's when I realized that most of our fans are open-minded, and willing to see what we're going to do next. I think metal has taken a whole turnaround, and that will continue."

"Metal, industrial and noise are so interconnected now," agrees Yurkiewicz of Relapse. "Death metal can only go so far in being brutal, and the Japanese noise bands just reduce them to nothing in the first five seconds. People always want to take musical extremity one step further. The early Carcass fans are into Masonna. It's just all going to become one huge scene, I think."

The first English grindcore bands Napalm Death, Extreme Noise Terror, and Satanic Malfunctions declared the last discernable word in the struggle for ultimate speed and power. Subsequent suburban American metal musicians were led to compose hyperspeed musical patchworks dealing with mental disorders and blood and guts parody. New York noise trio Intense Mutilation sang and waved golf clubs while performing in underwear, ski masks, and garbage bags. On the West Coast, Wehrmacht flailed like Iron Maiden at 78rpm, mocking metal garb in their "beer gear," bullet belts and spiked arm bands made from empty aluminum cans.

Undefinable groups like Old Lady Drivers, Spazztic Blurr, Mr. Bungle and Satan's Bake Sale preceded both the Boredoms and John Zorn's grind jazz tributes Naked City and Pain Killer. "Brutal Truth play so good in Osaka," says Yamatsuka Eye of the Boredoms. "I cry."

The legacy of lunacy persists in the digeridoo parts in Brutal Truth's blur of giant sound, the Zorn-produced psychedelic spazz of Old, and People's melding of noisecore spasms with Miami Sound Machine-esque disco breaks. Voivod futuristic parables of terrorism, state religion, and mind control, led a whole host of bands to the clanging industrial thrash influence of Ministry, Skinny Puppy and Big Black; best-known are Candiru, Dead World, Godflesh, and Meathook Seed.

On the other hand, the frenzied organic poison of C.O.C. and the psychotic dirges of Black Flag planted punkin' seeds that bore much fouler fare. The loosely-structure hate dirges of 13, Eyehategod, Grief, and Buzzov'en are an gnarled viscous tug of piercing anti-commercial venomousness. These bands frolic in raw darkness, creating music so negative that it becomes affirming in its sense of purpose.

Death Metal Goes Pop?

Historically, Metal bands haven't had much boogie beneath their military surplus belts, but progressively more European bands sound like Thin Lizzy or Jethro Tull with horrid distorted vocals and a rumbling double bass kick drum. In most cases, evolution is not a synonym for sell-out. The results simply prove that death metal in combination with any other musical influence can only beget more death metal.

The well-established, Sony-affiliated, Carcass and Entombed translate the blood and gristle of death metal into more rock-oriented monster music. Central European bands Tiamat and Samael are taking the high road, turning out tasteful death metal in neo-baroque suites. Executing poignant arrangements with operatic poise, Tiamat achieve a loftiness equal to the Bad Seeds or Einsturzende Neubaten.

Austria's unpredictable Pungent Stench are a perverse clottage of sex, gristle and ZZ Top, outfitted in hardcore bondage imagery. On their Dirty Rhymes and Psychotronic Beats Ep, the band pissed off purists with a hard techno remix of the hit "Blood, Pus, and Gastric Juice." Entombed followers Dismember have evolved into a groovy hybrid of death metal and grunge, and Pyogenesis are doing the same with melodic indie rock. Meanwhile, Therion are regressing the metal influence of AmRep bands like the Unsane and the Cows, plugging into numbing guitar riffs with deathly vocals and underlying blast beats.

And while Goth remains mostly a cult phenom in 1995, fast-rising English bands like My Dying Bride, Anathema, and to a lesser extent Cathedral are donning foofy white shirts and melting hearts with romantic visions of death. Awash in Goth trappings, but supported by a solid minor key death metal firmament, these groups are echoing the need shown by Emperor and In the Woods for music with both power and poetry.

Underground metal is reaching a golden age where paganism is mixing with technology, radicalism is discovering tradition, and ideas can turn into reality. The circus is in full swing, and each growth spurt pushes the music further into mind-altering hyper-reality, misanthropy, and artistic sophistication.

Unlike its hipper ancestor punk rock, metal does not dry up and blow away as each generation reaches maturity. The entire experience, gleefully absurd to observers, is all-encompassing for those who make metal their life. Few things have any meaning in this confusing modern world, but metal offers a heartfelt belief system so overstated that it's ridiculous. It all boils down to one increasingly popular sentiment, simple enough to scrawl on the top of a junior high schooler's desk: Metal Rules!