Death Metal Scavenger Hunt

Where did death metal come from? Death the band (“Death” metal) and their Death By Metal demo or Possessed and their Death Metal (straight to the point) demo is an eternal debate among headbangers up there with good old, “Who would win in a fight?” bar discussions or comparing sports legends across time and space. Maybe death metal came from somewhere else? I could easily see Rolling Stone or something calling Metallica’s Fight Fire with Fire death metal. The Simpson’s said Judas Priest were death metal in an episode that made a joke about just how popular death metal is in Sweden (There are two Swedish Death Metal Encyclopedias organized by city and year and an extremely comprehensive bathroom reading book about it). So where did death metal come from?

Google Books says Newsweek called Metallica and Megadeth death metal in 1987. I don’t believe that. There’s nothing with “death metal” as a reference in Google Books that predates 1986. The two demos predate it. There’s nothing in Google Scholar either.

A quick search on google for Celtic Frost and death metal on a hunch led me to this forum thread:

Tom G. Fischer (“Tom Warrior”), the guitarist and frontman of Hellhamemr and Celtic Frost stated that the term “death metal” comes from photocopied fanzines and he still owns a few of them from the early 80s, well before the members of Death and Possessed had even begun to play hyper aggressive music.

The Enclosure of Knowledge and Medieval Guilds

The “enclosure of knowledge” by copyright and the extreme lengths taken by those who hold the rights to newspapers and academic journals through the legal system to enforce their rights for their own monetary benefit reminds of late medieval guild systems. Individual subscriptions to each journal are so expensive, costing thousands of dollars per year. Journals in the hard sciences can cost up to fifty thousand dollars, about the average yearly income of an individual in an industrialized society. Access to these and the online databases containing them are therefore only accessible mainly to large universities and corporations. This in effect isolates the public, the common man on the street away from direct sources of knowledge.

The average person is steered away from the direct data and researchers’ own published conclusions. Instead, he or she is forced to rely on others interpretations and commentary there of. This economically forces an intermediate lens on the public, preventing them from forming their own conceptions about the world from the direct perceptions of others. The worldviews of those with economic access to knowledge are forced upon the public.

Such use of Copyright law is just another method of control. It is on a scale beyond rent seeking due to the cost of access but on a scale that resembles feudalism more than consumer capitalism. Legal access to the knowledge is economically impossible for most people to earn in their own lifetimes on their own. Those who store it, the large database providers charging ridiculous amounts of money, are basically acting like a medieval guild system: “Yes you can know what we know if you’re born into it or pay us to apprentice. Otherwise good luck being an illiterate dirt farming.”

The strict legal enforcement thereof resembles the guild system ever more so and is in some way even more restrictive. Just as in 1200, you couldn’t legally make and sell a chair in a medieval town without joining or being approved by the appropriate guild, today you can’t sell or distribute copies of a copyright work without the permission of the rights holders as they all want to make money from it. They won’t let you join except for a heft initial investment as they want to control access to the knowledge and skills for their own, ingroup benefit.

Grin Singing

Louis Armstrong and his band covering “Dinah” in 1933 reminded me of Slayer. Armstrong and Slayer bassist/vocalist Tom Araya both loosely “sang” while wearing big grins on their faces. Neither actually sang; rather they said the lyrics to they rhythm of the song. This is the most common method of unsung vocals in metal and hip-hop but is rarely seen in jazz. This is one way of integrating vocals into the song without having them become the melodic line of the music, that is the actual music of the music.

Both Louis Armstrong and Tom Araya dropped words from lyrics written by others to emphasize certain words and phrases of their own choosing. This allowed them themselves control how others’ words were said where the performer otherwise have been constrained to what was written if he said them straight; Louis Armstrong by having to perform the racism inherent in a minstrel style song such as “Dinah” and Tom Araya playing bass in a metal band, which is in no way as potentially demeaning as a black man performing a minstrel song onstage for a white audience, is still constraining as the bassist in metal mostly just plays the chords of the guitars much as the vocalist sings the riffs. This allows intense creative expression for the vocals to accentuate the music rather than distract from it.

For Armstrong, this accentuation is empowering. It enabled him as a black performer to take a sort of cultural ownership of a song written for a racist medium. Dinah’s minstrel show past is completely overshadowed in the public eye by Armstrong’s version. A random person off the street would not even be aware Armstrong is parodying the minstrel show format and stripping the song of its racist caricatures by choosing not to say certain lyrics. Dinah sounds like just another jazz or swing song. This choice takes the song away from the minstrel appeal of its white writers and back towards general entertainment, wiping away one tiny dehumanization by in effect by overshadowing the covers of the song performed straight.

Internet Democratization of Music and Metal

Professor O’Malley mentioning that the democratization of music through digital audio workstation software and free but mostly illegal distribution on the internet has led to a massive democratization of the music industry. Apple’s Garage Band software that comes for free with every Macintosh computer Apple sells lets people create any form or genre of music using chopped up samples from others. This effectively lets individuals mix and match to create mostly artistically worthless music such as electronic dance music (EDM) with 80s arena rock vocals singing meaningless phrases, swinging percussion, and a surf rock guitar.

This troubles me as it lets people chop up the aesthetics of other musical genres to apply them as meaningless novelty to others; chopping up samples of modal jazz and arranging them into a verse-chorus-verse singalong with meaningless words and a rock guitar solo doesn’t mean that whoever dragged and dropped the samples into place in Garage Band has actually created modal jazz; it’s just a song composed of individual aesthetic or musical snippets of one type of music arranged into another type of music. Since the sample pop song (Does it truly count as a song if the words are meaningless or there is no real overall vocal melody?) doesn’t meet the requirements to be the music the samples it was taken from, it inherently cannot be that type of music no matter how much it the superifical aesthetics or individual musical elements resemble it.

I’ve notice this phenomenon in heavy metal but it seems to have begun prior to even digital production becoming commonplace. Whenever a new metal sub-genre was created, within five to ten years newer bands came out who claimed to be playing the older, usually more musically complex type of metal but were really just copying small musical elements and the production aesthetics without actually arranging it into the same form of music. Sometimes even the original artist “sells out” and claims as such either through sheer laziness or desire for commercial success, the best example being Metallica in the 90s.

You can see this evident from the get go. Black Sabbath was the first heavy metal band in the early 70s. For a few years, they were the only group playing their own type of music that was musically distinct from everyone else. Other bands like the local Pentagram from the Washington, DC area came around who made music composed of similar power chord based riffs but their riffs were mostly melodically static and repeated unchanged over the course of the song until all the lyrics were said and it was time to play the solo. Exactly like a standard rock band and unlike Black Sabbath. Eighties bands like Def Leppard and Poison claimed to be heavy metal bands but everyone with half a brain can tell “Pour Some Sugar on Me” isn’t the same type of music as “Paranoid.” The music in Def Leppard and Poison is all vocal while Black Sabbath is guitar based and Ozzy Osbourne tries to sing through his nose but truly is just imitating the guitar rhythm.

This superficial copying is also readily apparent in the extreme sub-genres of metal that share almost uniform production aesthetics: Cookie Monster and awful solid state amps for death metal with the Nazgul and massive treble distortion from awful solid state practice amps for black metal. Each of these had distinct song structures and general riffing styles that comprised the music that differed from say Metallica’s triplet riffing or Iron Maiden’s gallops. The lo-fi aestetocs makes death and black metal the easiest to superficially copy the aesthetics of to pretend to be, even though the pretenders (the posers?) most of the time do not actually believe they are pretending. Does this make them delusional?

The internet means that anyone can hear this music that was previously only distributed through independent labels or underground physical copying and pretend to play it without truly understanding what it is was actually being played. Usually some random guy (They’re almost all guys. I can’t think of who didn’t play bass in a major metal band off the top of my head.) gets a high gain guitar tone and shrieks or growls to pretend to be one or the other. Maybe he learned to play a riff or two from guitar tabs found through Google. These riffs will typically just be repeated ad nauseam for five minutes over sampled percussion until the musician himself gets bored of playing them. The “musician” making it cannot grasp the earlier music he wants to actually play. He has not fully internalized it and how it actually works as a musical piece even though he’s selling it on iTunes or Bandcamp as death or black metal. The music he made is of course as far from Death and Mayhem as the Garage Band projects are from whatever they were haphazardly “composed” from samples of.

This phenomenon also applies to modern, professional releases on major labels too. Every contemporary Nuclear Blast Records release sounds like every other Nuclear Blast release no matter what Nuclear Blast is selling. Slayer will do something from “Angel of Death” or “Raining Blood” for ten seconds in the middle of the album, Carcass will do their Carcass gore shtick, and Blind Guardian will sing about Lord of the Rings but if you put their music into a DAW and copy and pasted it around, you could probably make one group into another. Good luck trying that with their original records, Show No Mercy and Reek of Putrefaction. These bands are almost a minstrel show of themselves now.

Grendel’s Lobsterhood

The concept of the boundary transgressing animals is somewhat ridiculous to explain what animals and things humans find bizarre. Venus fly traps are flowers that eat bugs like a lizard. Lobsters are large arthropods that walk along the ocean floor. Pangolins have armor like a dinosaur. Platypuses are semi-aquatic mammals with beaks that lay eggs like a duck. I agree that all of these animals make humans feel weird as they are not easily classified or categorized in the broad general categories.

Monsters occupy different categories. Classic monsters from movie and literature occupy the space between life and death, human and animal, man and machine. Zombies, vampires, cyborgs, and of course beings that are supernatural and human. Giants in the bible are the sons of fallen angels and human women.

Grendel from Beowulf is a great example. He is the son of a scaly, female lizard monster and Cain, who murdered his brother Abel and was exiled from civilization by God. Cain’s clan, at least in the imagined Denmark of Beowulf, is an entire race of humanoid monsters. Grendel has fur and his mother has scales, putting them apart from the relatively hairless apes that are people. Grendel’s mother lives beyond human civilization in an untouched swamp that sucks up and drowns all men who enter (except the superhuman Beowulf).

Grendel, who is more human lives in the border lands of human civilization. He is neither man or beast, wanders about the moors, and raids the walled-off, civilized world at night for food. He eats both livestock, like people, but also eats people, cannibalism which is taboo in most human cultures. Grendel is half-human thus this might make him a demi-cannibal? Does Grendel himself howl as he himself knows he is violating this taboo? This argument of Grendel being an existential outcast reminds of John Gardner’s Grendel novel. Grendel works as Grendel himself is a boundary transgressing animal. He is feared by men like men were apprehensive about eating lobsters, giant ocean floor bugs, until lobsters became a luxury good to conspicuously consume.

From Divided Worlds to Divided Selves

The concept of the divided self is an interesting one. That concept being that people divide self-perception into the conceptions that there are multiple versions of themselves: the involatile inner being that is the true self untethered by the demands of work and then a external, volatile one that is materially imperfect and must perform the various unpleasantries necessary for human survival. The idea is that this is what let’s us function as citizens in a democratic society where everyone shares in sovereignty. There is a certain unalienable part of you that belongs only to you that cannot be taken away no matter how dehumanizing your occupation or circumstances are. That garbageman in public might drive a truck in a dirt-covered jumpsuit but in private he might be shred on guitar, organize horror film conventions, or help feed the orphans on the weekend. These are all totally separate from his occupation in waste management which covers him in filth everyday. The occupation in which the garbageman is seen by his customers performing in public is different from his true, private inner-self, which could be anything. He might be an inner-garbageman and dream of more efficient ways of dumping cans while

This divided self allowed every individual to be sovereign in a republic or democracy. There is a part of them equal to everyone else that cannot be taken away no matter how low a rung they occupied. A garbageman covered in filth therefore has an inner aspect of himself that cannot be reduced by the trash he picks up. An individual spirit that cannot be tarnished or taken away. More lucrative or prestigious occupations would also have this inner, private undiminished self that gives them the same undiminished, slight, and equal share of sovereignty.

People prior to the enlightenment had no concept of this. People were embodied by who they where and which rung they occupied in society. Everything about them was drawn from this. John the smith was a smith as his father was a smith and he would not have been considered to as have the same sort of soul as say a lord or a king. What is interesting is this conception of a unified self is more in line with their perception of the hear and now of the material world. People were what they were as that is what they were then and there.

The pre-Modern mind used that perception to conceive an entire weltanschauung from it where the spiritual world manifested itself in the material, then and there, beyond the creation myths and supernatural forces ordering the natural forces that pre-modern people could perceive but not understand. Things happened to people, people were who they were, and the world was as they were due to the divine spirit world beyond the perception of humanity. This spiritual world was perfect while the material one was flawed and filthy. Even a “self” could not be perfect as it was manifested from the idea of what it was, the logos, that was created by God (or the Gods) and manifested down the great chain of creation into a flawed person. A blacksmith could never be perfect and neither could a king but a king is obviously more moral and better than the blacksmith as the spirit world made him a king in the material one.

Post-Enlightenment modernity abandons this. Such platonic universlas were disproven with Aristotelian logic in the High Middle Ages and Renaissance. This may have provided the roots of actual universal sovereignty of the people as everything was no longer ordained by God. A king or rich man still held a a higher place in human society and had an easier life than a blacksmith or a garbageman. Some are more prosperous than others due to birth, personality, or fortune. The concept that people have another person inside of them who they are externally gets around this issue. Coincidentally with the mass change in forms of governance from absolute monarchies to republics and parliamentary constitutional monarchies, humanity in effect went from a mass conception, unfounded in perception of the material world, of a divided reality to another equally unfounded in the physical perception of divided personhood.

The Loudness War

The so-called “Loudness War” is a seemingly never-ending race to the bottom to dull music into uniformity and conformity for an inattentive audience listening on lowest common denominator, low-fidelity devices such as phones and cars. Nothing has any dynamics or emphasize in modern popular music. The instruments, if they are even real people playing real instruments and not just pre-recorded samples, have no dynamics or feel; they sound as if they were being played by robots operating an automated assembly line. Vocals no longer soar, shriek, and scream. They are reduced to a uniform lull.

Compression in modern, digitally produced music seems to have long ceased been used to to enhance the listener’s reality while opening up new avenues of artistic expression. Prior to digital audio workstations becoming commonplace in studios, compression was used not only to control the volume of instruments and voices by reducing the overall level of the signal but also to create new forms of “hyper-reality” that went beyond the natural world of real instruments. It allowed a sort of supernatural reality to be perceivable by listeners similar to special effects and specific camera angles in film. Crooning, the ridiculously fat back beats of the 60s, John Bonham’s otherworld heavy drum tons on Led Zeppelin’s cover of “When the Levee Breaks”, and the impossibly fast, clear, and intricate drumming of early death metal were all only achievable with the heavy but judicious use of compression in the studio.

Making the musically supernatural, that is what would normally be unplayable or inaudible, perceivable to the audience is no longer the goal necessitating the use of compression. Rather the modern popular music industry wants to make uniform products that will not call attention to themselves.Take for example a snare drum, one of the loudest pieces in a drum kit. Snare drums no longer pop or cut through the other instruments; they are merely another tinny noise in the background. If they were call attention to themselves, they would defeat the point of the loudness war: to be “competitive” with other popular music. A loud snare hit draws attention to itself; it forces the listener to pay attention to something not glorified elevator music. Placing an older or “underground” track without heavy compression in a random playlist of modern pop music on an iPhone or Spotify, makes the contemporary pop obvious for the timid, bland mass-manufactured, and disposable product it truly is.