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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Thoughts after reading Extremity Retained

As I read through Extremity Retained,the excellent collection of Death Metal interviews compiled, edited, and given context by my friend Jason Netherton, it brings back a lot of memories and thoughts on the Death Metal scene and my now two-plus decade long involvement in it (yup, feeling old here!). It's full of great reminiscences from many of my peers and as well as from guys I looked up to in the early days of Exhumed. I can't help but feel a bit reflective and look back on the changes and course of the genre in general. The thing that still strikes me the most was the transformation in the sound of the genre between '90 and '95. I thought I'd use my band's blog as a place to spout off a few ideas about how and why the genre went out of fashion in the mid 1990s, much like Thrash Metal did in 1991. I suppose these reflections would have fit in better with my (generously included) contributions in the book, but reading it as a whole kind of spurred me into thinking about all of this and writing this all out.

If you don't have this book yet, fucking buy it!!

I don't remember exactly who I was talking to, but I was looking back on my days as a rabid Death Metaller from '90-'94 or so, and I was saying that after around '94 I lost interest in the Death Metal scene and got heavily into Thrash Metal and Crossover from the '80s. They responded, with a healthy degree of good natured ribbing, that '93-'94 was when I “gave up on Death Metal.” That sentence kind of hit me like a glass of cold water in the face. I would say I've done many things in my life, but one thing I never felt that I did was “give up on Death Metal.” I felt like by '93 and '94 Death Metal had lost the vast majority of what made it interesting to me. The bands that intrigued me the most (Carcass, Entombed, Repulsion, Carnage, Terrorizer, Napalm Death, Death) had either moved on creatively to other styles of music or hadn't existed for a few years at that point (except for Autopsy, who were on the verge of splitting up by then). I felt like Death Metal had given up on me. With the rise to prominence of Cannibal Corpse, Morbid Angel (I suppose they had always been prominent), and Suffocation – who, by '95 represented the last high-speed bands standing (Obituary had become quasi-groove metal by the time World Demise hit and Napalm Death was dabbling heavily in industrial metal), the punk-infused, loose and nasty form of Death Metal was in short supply. Unleashed and Grave had both slowed their sounds down by the mid-90s, and even Slaughter of the Soul, one of my favorite albums of the period, owes more to Dark Angel than it does to the obscure Death Metal of the band's earlier period. Certainly record labels had given up on Death Metal – with the exception (mostly) of Relapse, but even they were well on their way to creating an aesthetic that would enable them to sign a band like Neurosis (which was sincere, as well as a savvy business move). Not the best time to be a Massacre and Necrovore fan.

So, this begs the question – what happened between '88 and '93 that contributed to the genre's downturn in popularity in the mid '90s and its subsequent stylistic permutations? How did “the end of music as we know it” become such an over-saturated sub-genre ready to be supplanted as the de rigueur underground Metal style? Like any question covering an international artistic movement, there are a lot of answers.

- Part I: The “real musicians”

One thing that I think is often ignored, that still grates me to this day is that around '91-'92, we saw the the introduction of “real musicians” into the Death Metal genre. In 1988, every guitar nerd with a flourescent Ibanez guitar with a handle in it was in a Thrash Metal band of some iteration or other - funk-thrash was gaining a lot of traction around '91. Seriously. That was a thing.

When I was growing up, these were very popular rock and metal guitars. Yeah, it's not all "glory days" this and "good old days" that, let me tell you.

Why were they playing Thrash? Because it had the virtue of being intense and affording musicians more room to show off their chops but was still comparatively mainstream and had a wide enough audience that you would be showing off your chops to someone. Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Antrhrax were selling records by the truck-load and even Coroner, Voivod and Kreator had videos on MTV. 

If you had cable TV and nothing to do on a Saturday night in 1989, you could see this. It was fucking awesome.

But, as with anything, the popularity of Thrash Metal faded with its novelty – what was innovative in 1983 was trite by 1989. When Thrash Metal died out in about '91 or so (the “Clash of the Titans” tour effectively capped the end of the Thrash Metal era) fans were divided. Of course, some people no longer cared about music and became accountants that listened to the radio, but those who continued as members of a “scene” or avid record-buyers / concert-goes tended to split in two directions. Firstly, many younger males moved on from Thrash to Death Metal as Roadrunner and Earache began to gobble up record store rack space previously occupied by Noise Records and Combat. Older males and females across the age-spectrum of thrash fandom however, moved toward grunge – the logical endpoint of crossover. Grunge provided the volume and bombast of mainstream metal with the simplification and lack of pretension of punk, and succeeded in becoming a watered-down, commercially appealing equivalent of both. While Death Metal absorbed the far smaller portion of recently displaced music fans, that influx of audience members was a massive growth spurt for the previously super-underground genre.

Which brings us back to our Funk-Thrashing, Guitar-Center frequenting friends I mentioned earlier, eager for an intense form of music to show off their diligently practiced chops. They were a different breed than the original generation of Death Metal musicians, who never got into the genre with traditional ideas of musical development as instrumentalists, simply because Death Metal was beyond underground, and borderline unacceptable in the mid-80s. People that wanted to pursue "musicality" just weren't into Death Metal. When Death, Massacre, Xecutioner, Morbid Angel, Master, Autopsy, Carcass and Napalm Death were honing their craft, “real musicians” were just beginning to admit that Metallica wasn't a bunch of racket – but the sounds cranked out by the aforementioned bands? That was pure noise, bad comedy. Every Death or Black Metal band from the early 80s (Sodom, Kreator, Possessed, Bathory, Sacrifice, Possessed, et al) moved as quickly towards Thrash Metal as their musical prowess would allow. However, by '91-'92, these legions of Guitar for the Practicing Musician readers were joining, or worse, forming, Death Metal bands. By 1993, Headbanger's Ball (at least in America) was on its way out. But videos from Carcass, Morbid Angel, Death, and Napalm Death were part of its last gasp. So the genre was as close to mass-exposed as it would ever be in the states. The result was very similar to what happened to Thrash Metal around '87 or '88 – there was a glut of extremely competent, utterly uninspiring bands releasing EP's and albums cluttering up the scene. The terrible paradox was that the records were performed more competently than ever, but with very little identity and real passion for the genre.
I can't say Nocturnus wasn't original, but I can say they did not have cool hair.
Certainly many of the members of the innovative Death Metal bands mentioned above grew to become excellent musicians in their own right – but the distinction here is that Death Metal was the primary drive, not showing off their chops. As the '90s wore on, the speed and “extremity” of Death Metal increasingly attracted “musician” types who were out to prove that they were the fastest or most technical - which were substituted for intensity and individuality, spawning legions of extremely skilled and marginally listenable tech-death bands. The musically reckless, punk-infused side of Death Metal was waning by '93, so I retreated to pastures that more closely reflected my personal flavor of choice: raw 80s Metal - be it Death, Thrash, Crossover or just plain Heavy Metal, I spent the second half of the '90s obsessing over records like Incubus' Serpent Temptation, Razor's Violent Restitution, and Money Talks by Cryptic Slaughter. As much as I wasn't much of a black metal fan (although there were a considerable number of those records I liked at the time) I essentially sympathized with the Black Metal scene's attitude toward what Death Metal had become by the mid-'90s – safe, sterile, over-produced and over-saturated.

The classic "Anti-Scott Burns" graphic from Mayhem's Deathcrush EP. Even the catalog number of the release hates Earache Records.
Interestingly enough, the same bands that helped to push the genre's musical athleticism to new heights were also responsible for spawning it's most knuckle-dragger-friendly cliches. Suffocation balanced incredibly nimble, nuanced guitar-work with the simplest, heaviest riffing the genre had see with Effigy of the Forgotten, not only contributing to the technical prowess of the genre as a whole, but also providing the seeds for what would become “Slam” - probably the most rhythmically simplistic form of Death Metal out there, which seems to be incomprehensibly, yet intrinsically linked to the subject matter of pot-smoking and pornography. Cannibal Corpse arrived as a musical force with Tomb of the Mutilated, but simultaneously dragged the genre's obsession with gore and violence into a brand of petulant misogyny that only got more embarrassing with their next album, The Bleeding. Luckily, the band has eschewed that sort of cheap sensationalism as time has progressed and focused on horror and gore without overtly sexist themes after the departure of original vocalist Chris Barnes.

Although this song is admittedly very fucking badass.

- Part II: The labels

Of course, the host of mediocre, uninspired and uninspiring musicians playing Death Metal were far from the only culprits in the demise of the genre's brief commercial peak. Equally culpable (possibly more so) are record labels, with Roadrunner and Earache being the most egregious offenders. Labels, like any other business, were in a race to produce the most predictable return on their investment – a business practice that quickly leads to artistic stagnation. Roadrunner seemed eager to give all of the Death Metal projects to (the admittedly great) engineer / producer Scott Burns, who faced with decreasing recording artist talent, increasing workload, and decreasing budgets, spawned the “Morrisound Sound,” which while it was a good sound (probably because it was a good sound), was subsequently beaten into the ground. Between Dan Seagrave's ubiquitous artwork and Scott Burns' increasingly homogenous production, Death Metal albums were beginning to sound and look frightfully predictable. Your Monstrosity became not too unlike your Resurrection which wasn't that different from your Brutality. The problem with these albums isn't that they're awful – in fact they're actually pretty decent, and these records honestly sound better today than they did 20 years ago - simply because not every new album that you hear sounds like this anymore. The problem is that these bands simply aren't remarkable. None of them will ever have a Slowly We Rot or a Symphonies of Sickness in their catalogs. And in all fairness, I don't know that my band ever will either. I can live with that, but just saying... And if my band had gotten signed in 1991, we would have JUMPED at the chance to record at Morrisound and have Dan Seagrave cover art. Which is one of the many reasons we weren't ready to be signed in 1991. Also, we sounded like crap. 


Like I said... Pretty much crap. 



Exhibits A, B, and C. Not exactly sure what's going on in any of these ambiguously spooky album covers or how they relate to the album titles at all. And 20 years later, I still can't quite muster up the energy to care.

By 1991, even a marginally savvy record-buyer like myself (age 15/16) could tell that if it was a Death Metal album on Roadrunner, it would have the same production, the same artwork and it would be reliably decent. A genre can't grow and can't remain relevant on “reliably decent.” Thrash Metal lasted nearly 10 years because every year you would get a significant, “future classic” sort of record, Show No Mercy to The Legacy to ...And Justice For All to Beneath The Remains (and those are just a few of only the “commercially successful” thrash classics). Sure, there are tons of clunkers from tons of bands in the Thrash genre, but many of the best Death Metal bands with the most to say only made two or three albums in the genre before abandoning it for something less aesthetically constrictive. Heartwork is more closely aligned with Kreator or Megadeth than with Extreme Noise Terror or S.O.B. Wolverine Blues is I guess, sort of Death Metal? I dunno...

Still on the fence about this album 20 years later.

Equally as damaging was that by '95-'96, Nuclear Blast, Century Media, and Roadrunner had dropped most of their Death Metal bands. As soon as the genre's comparative popularity waned, most of the bands found themselves unsigned very quickly. Roadrunner even dropped Immolation for fuck's sake, so it wasn't just mediocre 2nd and 3rd generation bands getting the axe. Just as Death Metal had gotten musically complacent, the sensationalism of Black Metal came along and grabbed headlines with tales of arson and murder and a different (let's be honest - predominantly way shittier) sound. Soon treble-knob loving Scandinavians made Death Metal obsolete and the '90s iteration of Black Metal became the "extreme metal" of choice of the (truly awful) mid to late '90s, giving fat / really skinny dudes from Orange County a reason to either wear capes and buy drinking horns. That really sucked. 

Everybody had THAT friend in 1996.
- Part III: The inherent limitations of the Death Metal genre

Which brings us to the third, and probably most fatal problem preventing Death Metal from having any breakthrough or sustainable commercial success or aesthetic longevity (as a creative and innovative medium). When your goal is to put out the most extreme, horrifying and over-the-top record and you succeed (even if only in your eyes), there's no place to artistically go from there. You can either a) broaden your style, b) repeat yourself or c) simply quit, like Repulsion did. When you begin at the musical end of the line, with no melody, the fastest tempos your musicianship will allow and the most evil, frightening riffs you can compose, anything else you do is going to be either a slight variation on a theme or a watering down of your sound.

The best example of quitting while you're ahead in the history of rock and roll.
For this reason, to me, Death Metal represents the ultimate endpoint of the entire genre of Rock Music. We have to be realistic and concede that Rock and Roll is a 20th century phenomenon. Lemmy is in his late 60s, and most of the genre's originators are either dead or old enough to be great-grandparents. Current successful rock bands do little more than parrot genre cliches and Death Metal is no different. Taking Heavy Metal and punk to their logical endpoints of gratuitous volume, speed, and power, the genre effectively killed underground metal as a marketable commodity in the United States for decade or more. Certainly its intensity resonated on a larger scale and paved the way for bands like Slipknot and Deftones to bring heavier (still extremely shitty if we're being honest) sounds to larger audiences later on in the 90s, but that's hardly a mark of success. But realistically, Death Metal was never designed to be listenable or sonically acceptable. In fact, it's just the opposite. Not that it isn't musical or doesn't require talent (even though it really doesn't sometimes), but it's supposed to be abrasive, unlistenable and horrifying. It's fucking Death Metal after all.

That's one of the many reasons I have a difficult time listening to the “Death Metal” of the late '90s and beyond. Much of it is simply treading water on innovative ideas that had long since been thoroughly explored by more inspired practitioners (my band's records probably fall into that category) - or it's played by capable, well-meaning, but ultimately boring musicians who have confused “intensity” and “brutality” with the number of beats per minute in their drummer can quietly double-stroke his kick drums at or how many riffs they can cram into one “song.” Or, even worse, it's played by capable and well-meaning musicians who think that Death Metal would sound better if only it were blended with Jazz/Fusion or polyrhythms or dubstep or video-game sound effects or whatever the fuck kind of stuff musician types like to play. 

As far as younger musicians, they have always been competitively minded. Today, we live in a world that, via widely available technology, is more and more quantified and quantifiable. The competitive approach to playing at higher and higher beats-per-minute, does follow a specific type of logic (if a dreadful lack of imagination). In the 21st century, everything has become calculable – from how many people click on the links in your press release and how many fans your band has, to the music itself. Also, everything has become edited - from photo shoots to movies that are more CGI than film, to auto-tune to quantized bass-drum tracks on "death metal" albums. Younger people see the world in more quantified terms, and view and create art with these standards in mind - and rightfully so. They are a new generation that has never experienced life without the internet and cell phones, and they are the youth and should be making youth music. But the way they play “Death Metal” bears little resemblance to albums I grew up with like Consuming Impulse or War Master. Furthermore, is Death Metal or any kind of Rock and Roll really "youth music" at this point? After all, Seven Churches came out in 1985 - almost thirty years ago at this point. 

Please don't tell me this is "thrash" - it's literally called "Death Metal." How much clearer can it be?? So yeah - roto-toms are Death Metal as fuck.

I'm not saying that's bad, but I'm saying that it misses out on something intrinsic to the genre as I know it. That's why a band like Nunslaughter or Asphyx will always be more Death Metal than a band with tons of super-fast blast beats or the “lowest” vocals. The quantifying of everything reduces art to something measurable and cheapens the expression. Of course, younger people won't see it that way, because they've grown up with a different set of aesthetic values than I have, and that's okay. I'm not saying that there's only one “true” way of Death Metal for everyone, but I know that there is for me. And I'm fine with that.

However... if there was only one "true" way of Death Metal, this would definitely be it.

- Part IV: “Classic Rock Syndrome”

Which brings me to my last point. If someone had told me when I was sixteen I would be pushing forty and still playing in Exhumed and that Morbid Angel and Carcass would still be touring playing “Chapel of Ghouls” and “Corporeal Jigsore Quandary” every night, I would have laughed them out of the room. Because really, how long is any kind of rock and roll movement supposed to last? The majority of the punk movement sputtered out within five years, Thrash Metal went from a regional curiosity in San Francisco, Germany and Los Angeles to a global phenomenon and then to a virtually dead style within eight years or so. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal went from about '77-'82. The superstars of the sixties rock world (Hendrix, The Beatles, The Doors) became permanently enshrined precisely because they didn't last.
No reunion tours currently in the works, at least according to Bandsintown. Sorry - too soon?
And yet here we have Death Metal bands whose creative peaks are long since behind them trotting out the hits night after night on the tour circuit. Like all bastard sons, Death Metal killed its father (or at least gave it the old college try) – mainstream rock and metal – and then proceeded to take on his most repugnant attributes – greatest hits tours, creative water-treading and, worst of all, artists giving the people precisely what they want - whether it's reunions, creatively stagnant but reliably consistent albums, or just more Altars of Madness shirts.
I can't wait for the reissue with "40 Years of Madness" on the back.

Ultimately it's bittersweet. Because, besides playing this music, first and foremost, I'm a fan of the genre and I enjoy reunion tours and Altars of Madness t-shirts. Being an optimist, I have to find it encouraging that all of the hellish racket captured on demo tapes, LPs, 7 inches and CDs in the 80s and 90s has created something that's still with us today. We live in a capitalist, commercial society, and those avenues ultimately become the litmus test for an artistic statement's viability. If there's a market for it, it's still around. And surprisingly enough, there is still a market for Death Metal, though not as booming or on the upswing as it was 22 years ago. But it couldn't be any other way.

- Epilog: Is music that big of a deal anymore anyway?

I'm going to end this on a question... Certainly in the 80s and early 90s there were large portions of teenagers that identified specifically as a social group based around music preferences - metal, goth, punk, rap, whatever. Whether that's the case now, I have no idea. And if it is the case, does the music mean as much to the audience when they get it for free from the comfort of their own computer desk? Or directly to their cell phone? To me – from an old curmudgeon's point of view – it's difficult to see how a musical movement can be as personal or mean as much to a teenager today when they haven't invested nearly as much time, effort and money into finding and purchasing the music. Or maybe it will mean a lot, but will it mean a lot for twenty years? They'll never have to ride their bike an extra five miles because the record store down the street doesn't stock Napalm Death. They'll never need to make mix-tapes in real time (they're lucky – that shit is tedious). I don't want to get into the whole “younger people have shorter attention spans” bullshit, because every generation says that and I heard it about Atari 2600 and music videos, so fuck that – but without the effort of spending your hard-earned money on music, having to actually turn up to gigs to see bands, needing to memorize information about bands or hold onto zines and mags, is it really as personal? I hope so, but the experience is so different today from what I grew up with that I really don't know.
I'm pretty sure these chicks were feeling it!
The entire attitude toward music in our society has shifted. It was always seen as financially tenuous and a bad risk, but now it's degraded to something that's nice, but ultimately valueless. It's something people give away for free. It's something that is so easy to steal, it's not even a crime to steal it. I've illegally downloaded stuff too, so I'm not putting myself above anyone here. I just think that the way technology has evolved, pop music (which includes rock, metal, punk, R&B, hip-hop, oldies, country, and anything else you might hear on FM radio) has become a disposable, public-domain type commodity. That change may open up a host of new business opportunities for music to someone far more creative and foresighted than myself, but as it stands now, it has created a culture that severely devalues music. Even streaming services like Pandora and Spotify are struggling from what I've read.

All of that said, one of the greatest things about being a “genre” fan and musician (it's the same in film, books, television, probably other arts as well) is that people who are really into the genre are lifers. Go to any Star Trek convention or ask a nerd about the Serenity TV show and you will see a tremendous outpouring of passion. People into metal – the more underground the truer this holds – have that same kind of Trekkie-level excitement about stuff like the Thyabhorrent Death Rides At Dawn 7” EP. They live for this shit and are the reason that Death Metal has never completely gone away. 

Pretty much the same thing.

This is a pretty good EP though.
The fact that Thrash got pretty damn popular in the 80s (I used to guilt my mom into buying me the magazine Thrash Metal at the grocery store for fuck's sake) meant that it's fade from the spotlight in the US was more pronounced - finding an American High Schooler into Exodus in 1996 was a virtually impossible task. Death Metal's comparative share of the lime-light was much smaller, so it didn't vanish the same degree that Thrash's did during the nineties. Instead, it mutated in different ways, many of which I may not have been too personally excited about, but at least it was kept alive. And ultimately, wouldn't it sound weird if the Death Metal of 2002 sounded just like the Death Metal of 1992, which sounded just like the Death Metal 2012? A genre can't stagnate and survive.

All those retro-thrash kids with puffy white high-tops nailed the color scheme, anyway.
And now, with our nostalgia-obsessed and (re)cyclical pop-culture, things have come full-circle. The summer Metal tour circuit looks more and more like 1992 – Obituary, Carcass, Morbid Angel and many more (including Exodus, Slayer, Megadeth, Kreator and their influences like Venom, Angel Witch, and Motorhead as well as a host of 2nd and 3rd generation bands influenced by any of the aforementioned) are on tour and playing to great turnouts. It may actually be the best time to be a metal fan in the history of the genre – the originators are still playing, and bands from every generation and style are active and touring. You can see NWOBHM, Thrash, Death Metal, Black Metal, and Grindcore at the same festival. With all of that happening, I can't see how any metal fan isn't excited in 2014. Especially with 40+ years of history and sub-genres to explore right at their fingertips. If I could have gotten the Thy Kingdom Come demo just by typing some shit into a computer when I was a kid, I would have literally shit my pants with glee. I just hope that in twenty years, the kids of today will still be as passionate about whatever shit they're listening to today as I still am about World Without God by Convulse.

Never, ever gets old.