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Sounds Of Death

by Rod Williams

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#6, 1995

Sunny Brisbane -- One day in 1989: I'm visiting the home of Chris Doolan, editor of the now dead and buried horror fanzine Autopsy. We've just finished laughing through some Z-grade slasher video, and now he's getting ready to spin some vinyl from his extensive metal collection, most of which I've never sampled.

"Check this out," he says, handing me an album sleeve. The band is called, outrageously enough, Death. Looking closely at their logo, I can see a spider and its web decorating the 'D', a large scythe passing through the angular 'A', an inverted cross for a 'T' (doubling as a flaming, satanic torch) and a corpse's head hovers above the 'H'. Blood drips from the intense lettering.

The cover painting illustrates the title track of the album: 'Leprosy'. A hooded man festooned with hideous sores and contusions glares at you with his one good eye from the foreground. Behind him are other victims of this disease -- his pals in plague -- standing in the dirt around their pitiful huts.

While I'm examining a large blister on the main sufferer's right arm, my ears are blasted with a series of three loud, jagged chords from the stereo; the distorted guitars are tuned-down, it seems, to the very Gates of Hell themselves. The next few bars feature a slow riff that allows the instruments to split off into their own spaces, revealing the true heaviness of the mix.

These opening bars are followed by one of the main riffs, a grinding and utterly joyless melody that makes you think of lime-covered bodies in the mass graves of Nazi Germany, or of the piles of burnt and melted carcasses that were once the citizens of Bophal, India. At the same time a voice that would make Vlad the Impaler piss himself in his tomb, growls like one of the Tormented Dead. Beneath this cacophony lurks a merciless rhythm section led by thunderous double-bass drums beating a 16th note tattoo.

The horror (yes, that's what I felt -- 100% proof horror) was complete when I read along with the lyrics:

Bodies deformed way beyond belief
Cast out from their concerned society
Flesh contorting day after day
Freak of the dark world is what the people say...
I forget what I said after recovering from the initial shock of the above onslaught, probably something puerile like "Fucken hell... Jesus!", but I remember feeling my flesh crawl, and the sudden desire to flee to the sunshine outside for some fresh air.

The main point of that little story was the discovery of another, totally unexpected, avenue for horror through music. To me it was a revelation, and to this day Death's Leprosy (1988) album remains an all-time favourite of mine.

Lets take a closer look at what bastard offspring of horror the metal scene has spawned, and how this distant splattery cousin relates to the other, more familiar family members.

Horror Music

Metal is certainly not the only style of music to contain overtones of death and destruction. The classical music of Wagner certainly has a downbeat edge, and several punk bands like The Misfits and The Cramps have written extremely violent and hokey, B-grade schlock lyrics respectively. In contrast, Rap gives the lowdown on the horrors of urban life in stark black and white.

Early Industrial bands like SPK and Throbbing Gristle once presented putrid autopsy slide shows along with their live performances, and later-day bands like Skinny Puppy and Frontline Assembly have included samples from films such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, The Exorcist and Falling Down. A brilliant new band from Canada called Numb have created (or programmed) several tracks based around the terrors of servitude and conformity, all set to computerised music as abrasive as any Metal-Zone distortion pedal can summon, and we all know about Trent Reznor's inner hells thanks to the latest Nine Inch Nails release The Downward Spiral (1993). Gothic rock and, at a much more basic level, modern rock, have also utilised elements of horror and/or the supernatural in song themes.

However none of these styles have embraced the clammy, putrefying corpse of horror so fully and enthusiastically as metal has.

A Brief History Of Metal

Here's what happened: In the late sixties and early seventies, rock and roll bands were reacting to the anarchic youth movement, and guitar-based bands like Led Zeppelin ignored the rock song's verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure. Experimentation led to a new feel for rock: Thin Lizzy were using double-bass drums back when Metallia's drummer Lars Ulric was still burning ants with magnifying glasses. Then Black Sabbath arrived and ushered in a new style of music that harnessed all the rawness and power of their predecessors, without the obnoxious flower-pot image; they were the first true heavy metal band.

While the punk movement stole most of the lime light in the seventies, the underground heavy metal scene was gathering momentum, especially in Britain with bands like Diamond Head, Judas Priest, and the ever popular Sabbath. On the crest of what was dubbed the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, the first 'metal' bands, as opposed to 'heavy metal' bands sprang up in the early eighties: Venom, Metallica, Motorhead, Exodus, Iron Maiden, Discharge and Slayer.

The distinguishing feature of these new bands was their speed. Instead of having the usual rock feel of One two three four, they sounded more like one two three four, or sometimes onetwothreefour!! The faster rhythms and riffs written by these musicians probably caused the demise of the 'heavy' part of heavy metal, and also produced a new label: thrash, or thrash metal, a term that survives to this day.

So far so good. But from here on the metal 'time line' becomes a bit wobbly... and what follows is merely my own interpretation of historic events.

After flourishing for a couple of years, thrash metal was ready to clone itself and mutate into a darker, more disturbing entity. Slayer, a thrash band from Los Angeles, was already producing violent, anti-christian and generally offensive (but fun) records such as Show No Mercy (1984) and Hell Awaits (1985). In 1986 they released their landmark album Reign In Blood, a brilliant example of thrash metal featuring savage tunes like 'Angel of Death', about Josef Mengele; 'Piece by Piece', about gory serial murder and 'Altar of Sacrifice', one of their best satanic dirges.

While it's true that other bands produced similar platters -- of far less quality -- I feel that Slayer's hugely influential Reign In Blood was solely responsible for the next inevitable leap in extremity.

The Birth Of Death

After the metal world had recovered from Reign In Blood, new bands began to emerge that made Slayer sound like Thin Lizzy in comparison.

One of the first and most popular of these was Chuck Shuldiner's band Death. This foursome from Florida had been around for a few years before they released Scream Bloody Gore in 1987, and I can't help but conclude that the popularity of Slayer at the time helped to get an album like Scream into the record shops. Another band, Possessed, also appeared at around the same time.

As you've probably guessed, Death's songs were all based around death (pre and post-mortem), in all its gore-lorious forms. For some reason, Death's brand of extreme, horror based thrash metal, typified by the tuned-down guitars and Chuck's guttural vocals, struck a chord with the metal scene. The album sold well, despite being laden with dubious lyrics that dwelled on butchery and misogyny.

Okay, press pause for a moment.

Here's a crucial point: why had Death's style of metal, soon to be known as 'death metal', become popular? Why were kids spending good pocket money on albums that should be turning their hair white, and what possible enjoyment could be gained from listening to a guy who sounded liked he was being hacked to death during a tracheotomy, while guitars 'From Beyond' chugged out abhorrent chord progressions that could even drive exercise freak Richard Simmons to suicide?

I'll answer that with another question (and if you allow me to digress for a moment) -- Why do we (the fans) watch horror films and read horror fiction? Because we do. Some people like it, and some don't. I can't agree with the intellectual rationalisations for why people like horror, or why they should like it. You've heard them before: it mirrors society, it shows us our inner selves, it's a dress rehearsal for death, it reinforces normality, it lets the animal out of its cage, etc. These reasons are fine for explaining where horror comes from, or what it does. But as to why some of us like it, the only answer I can think of is that horror, terror, fear, death and violence is just profoundly interesting to some of us.

Coming back to the death metal phenomenon, it's clear that a large segment of the metal crowd had heard and enjoyed Reign In Blood. Slayer's follow up album South Of Heaven (1988) failed to capture the same aggression, and left the fans hunting for another level of brutality. Here you've got a large fan base who either liked horror already, or were just getting into it. Enter Death, Possessed and the death metal genre which to me is, taking into account the album sleeve imagery and lyrical content, simply horror music. It's not a brand of music Wagner would approve of perhaps, and the albums are never going to justify a new Bram Stoker Award category, but it's horrific nevertheless, and much of it's got more horror DNA than many so-called horror movies and novels.

As this new scene grew, with more bands, bigger sales and a profile that eventually crushed the much more sedate and commercial thrash scene (dominated by Metallica and their contemporaries), death metal became a fully blown phenomenon. The dedicated fans weren't just 'into' it, they fucking lived it. Countless garage bands manned by an army of long haired, pimply teenagers decked-out in those infamous black t-shirts tried to imitate their idols. Countless gigs and concerts were staged. Countless fanzines emerged, and countless albums, tapes and CDs were purchased.

Imagine... all these people, listening to and being influenced by horror music. I know. I was one of them. Here it was, a brand new horror medium, or at least one that never existed on such a large scale so quickly (as at 1995 the scene is not even ten years old).

So, what exactly is death metal, and how much serious analysis can it bare, compared to its older siblings? Funny you should ask...

Death Defined

Typical death metal has four basic ingredients that set it apart from normal metal. They are:
1) Raw, growled vocals.
2) Negative lyrics.
3) Tuned-down guitars (to D, C or E)
4) Evil sounding chord progressions.
5) An 'horrific' name and band logo.
Point one, the vocal style, is the most specific departure from normal metal, which utilises rough but intelligible vocals and sometimes proper singing. Not surprisingly, 99% of death metal releases contain lyric sheets, and it's weird to discover that when one reads along with the song, the vocals suddenly become discernible. Once the singer's technique and accent is decoded a couple of times (many bands originate from non-English speaking countries) the lyric sheet can be left alone. Annoyingly for some bands, such as Cannibal Corpse, this is impossible because of the near lack of pronunciation ('Gawf-da de-suppa da-paaaggh!' might mean 'Give the, disciples, the plague!').

The actual lyrical content ranges from subtle musings of the inner soul, to all-out mindless splatter and satanic raves delivered with incredible conviction and venom. Regardless of the band's leanings, the subject matter is always negative, or reflects negative aspects of the world or the mind.

The gore bands, of which there are actually very few dedicated examples (eg. Cannibal Corpse, Goreguts, Dismember), are the most obvious (and artless) purveyors of horror imagery. Members of these bands are extremely enthusiastic about horror movies, serial killers and anything twisted or sexually perverse. Their albums, take for example Cannibal Corpse's Tomb Of The Mutilated (1992), feature graphic cover paintings designed to offend the casual browser (these bands are also very mindful of censorship the moral minorities) and an unrelenting stream of gutter-horror lyrics, stuff that only Shaun Huston would ever print as fiction. Have a look at this verse from 'Entrails Ripped from a Virgin's Cunt', the seventh track on the delightful Tomb Of The Mutilated:

Virgins are my victims
Their tight interiors I explore
Sharpened utensils of torture
Now inserted inside of her
Sex organs extracted for eating
On her liver I am gnawing
Forbidden lust for guts
Ripped from her cunt
The author of this sick poetry, Chris Barnes, admits to liking all aspects of extreme horror (naturally) but never says he takes it seriously. It's just fun, and one glance at this verse tells you it isn't the work of Kathy Koja or Steve Rasnic Tem. Is it horror? Of course it is, in a demented, over-the-top way. A more meaningful query would be: Is it horrific? No, not really. On Steve King's Fear-O-Meter (from Danse Macabre) it definitely registers down at the colon level, that is, not quite shit, but bloody close! I don't see how people could be terrified or even horrified by these lyrics, but revolted, yes. Although that's not to say they aren't entertaining, heh heh heh.

Entombed, Sweden's premier death metal export, take a more studied and meticulous approach to their deathly subject matter. On their album Clandestine (1992) -- compare that title to Cannibal Corpse's opus -- they explore conformity ('Living Dead'), descents into personal armaggedons ('Sinner's Bleed', 'Evilyn') and sophisticated tales of demonic uprisings ('Chaos Breed'). A neat example from 'Living Dead':

I gaze into your eyes
Two wells of extinguished life
Mental winter living lie
You're searching the long lost and long to die
Illuminate your inner shadows the darkness kept from light
You walk one way but your head's on backwards
And end up being what you fight
Again, it's not Shakespeare, but the intelligence behind these lines is fairly evident, and the complex allegories hidden within lyrics such as these can be difficult to unearth; the ultimate meanings are often left open to personal interpretation -- certainly an honourable achievement considering this is bonehead metal we're talking about.

A third lyrical topic, satanism, cannot escape without a mention. The most recent boom within death metal has been the rise in popularity of 'black metal', with lyrics dwelling on the summons of demons, unholy deities, satan, lucifer et al. An early exponent of this sub-genre is an American band called Deicide, perhaps the most aggressively satanic band of them all, and are notable for playing at furious speeds. Their lead singer and bassist, Glen Benton, has an inverted cross branded into his forehead (taking his cue from Charlie Manson) and loves to appear on Christian talk-back radio shows. Here's a sample of this man's vision from a lovely ditty entitled 'Crucifixation':

Levitating act of death,
         messenger of Satan's mass
Blinded by the crucifix,
         sacrilegious impalement
Kill the chosen, righteous son,
         claim the cross inverted one
Everlasting hell damnation,
         from the lord, crucifixation
Yeah, amen. Personal tastes of the metal aficionado dictate whether they consider this type of material entertaining or not (many of them do). It's worth mentioning the existance of several so-called death metal band whose lyrics are Christian. Australia's Mortification, hail-Mary-ing from Melbourne, are one of the best examples of this paradox. They play undiluted death metal music, but the lyrics slyly carry positive pro-christian messages, all delivered with those gravel-pit vocals. It's an unusual approach, although when sampled without the lyric sheet (more often than not), they sound the same as any other death band.

Yet no matter how intense the lyrics are (negative or positive), horror's alter ego Humour creeps in and threatens to undermine all those carefully chosen profanities. Personally speaking, I find the satanic and splatter lyrics amusing in their excesses, and can't help but imagine the writers suppressing a chuckle while scribbling down the next rhyming obscenity. It's all good fun... just like a Romero flick or a Joe Lansdale short story.

If anything, the gravest, most disturbing notions these bands have to communicate are those concerning the deterioration of society, injustice and political corruption, and the mental struggle required to deal with it all. If death metal could ever claim a piece of crown horror territory, recognisable as true blue horror, the real McCoy, this would be it. The meat market stuff only scratches the surface, and the satanic stuff is just plain silly, but the dudes who've got their thinking caps on and their eyes open, have many damning things to say about humankind. Less frequently, fantasy based lyrics can also stimulate the horror glands if it's written really well, and if the music is suitably grotesque and technically adept.

In recent times, the death metal scene has been regurgitating itself, with original, innovative albums being as rare as original, innovative horror films. I suppose it was inevitable; formulaic genres have a habit of repeating themselves into extinction, and the fewer variables there are, the faster the slide. The eventual death of death metal will be an oddly poetic moment, though. Perhaps one of the last remaining bands will write a tune about it... the Final Death Metal Song: mourning the passing of its own diminishing verses.

Maybe the best death metal is no where near as artfully allegorical as Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness say, or as meticulous as Red Dragon or The Shining, but the music carries whatever message is being relayed in a media that literally cannot be duplicated in print or film. When these musicians are at the top of their form, the combined package can deliver a lethal headshot --

Right between the ears.

Thirty Recommended Death Albums

  • Slayer, Reign In Blood (1986)
  • Possessed, The Seven Churches (1987)
  • Death, Leprosy (1988)
  • Cannibal Corpse, Eaten Back To Life (1989)
  • Pestilence, Consuming Impulse (1989)
  • Terrorizer, World Downfall (1989)
  • Carcass, Symphonies Of Sickness (1990)
  • Deicide, Deicide (1990)
  • Entombed, Left Hand Path (1990)
  • Morbid Angel, Altars Of Madness (1990)
  • Slayer, Seasons In The Abyss (1990)
  • Cannibal Corpse, Butchered At Birth (1991)
  • Napalm Death, Harmony Corruption (1991)
  • Obituary, Cause Of Death (1991)
  • Brutal Truth, Extreme Conditions Demand Extreme Responses (1992)
  • Cannibal Corpse, Tomb Of The Mutilated (1992)
  • Death, Human (1992)
  • Deicide, Legion (1992)
  • Dismember, Like An Everflowing Stream (1992)
  • Entombed, Clandestine (1992)
  • Morbid Angel, Blessed Are The Sick (1992)
  • Paradise Lost, Gothic (1992)
  • Pungent Stench, Been Caught Buttering (1992)
  • Anathema, Serenades (1993)
  • Benediction, Transcend The Rubicon (1993)
  • Impaled Nazarene, Urga Karma (1993)
  • Monstrosity, Imperial Doom (1993)
  • Mortification, Scrolls Of The Megilloth (1993)
  • Fear Factory, Soul Of A New Machine (1993)
  • Cradle of Filth, The Principal Of Evil Made Flesh (1994)
  • Obituary, World Demise (1994)

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