Death metal and horror are closely related. In the past I have explored concepts such as the grotesque and extremity and their relationship to the genre. This time I want to unpack horror in death metal. Before proceeding, however, it is worthwhile to define, to clarify just what I mean by death metal and horror.
Death metal, simply defined, is one of the genre offshoots of heavy metal known as extreme metal. Extreme metal includes but is not limited to: black metal, grindcore, sludge and certain types of doom and ambient metal. There are many sub genres of death metal including old-school, Swedish, technical, melodic and brutal. Furthermore there are more distant, third generation relations such as deathcore which occupy a contested space within the genre (more on this below).
The defining musicological elements of death metal are: fast tempos, disorienting time changes, low tunings, chromaticism and what are known as guttural (low, grunted, shrieked, shouted) vocals. While these elements may be similarly found in other genres within metal what makes death metal distinct as a genre is its conceptual focus on violence, horror and the grotesque.
Death metal represents an extreme expression of the nihilism integral to punk and later thrash. When these genres failed to produce legitimate shock value, death metal went for the conceptual jugular. In a world of constant shocking visual news via first broadcast television and later the infinite repetition of the internet there is very little that disturbs the modern citizen for more than enough time it takes to change the channel. Death metal ramps up the abject to absurd levels taking horror to extremes. It creates a sonic and conceptual hurricane of the grotesque and invites the listener to take part.
In my opinion death metal has long ago exceeded its capacity to shock. Infinite repetition, duration, appropriation and imitation have lessened its impact. Furthermore, its innovators continue to age and either leave the “scene” or stay on, continuing to compose and perform with varying levels of success. However, newer groups, especially those within the subgenre known as technical death metal have found new ways of expanding on musical complexity by combining it with conceptual complexity.
Groups such as Obscura, Decrepit Birth and the Faceless take a speculative, science fiction based approach finding horror in the unknown infinity of space and physics. Gorguts famously plumbed the depths of the psyche, laying bare the total and utter despair of depression to a cacophony of dissonance and non-standard noise. Spawn of Possession encapsulate whole horror tropes within single compositions exploring themes such as occult apocalypse, maniacal murderers and child abuse.
To say that death metal is without nuance or subtlety belies the understandable ignorance of a novice listener. That said, the number of albums featuring covers and songs about violating, molesting and abusing women tend to outnumber the more intelligent articulations by a significant factor. The same can said though of hip hop and if we were to take a cheeky leap, the horror of most contemporary pop music and its insistence on status quo is as equally disturbing.
To me there are two primary definitions of horror: emotional and the genre as it exists within the creative arts. Better and more complete definitions exist all over the internet, so I will instead focus on a personal interpretation. Etymologically, the experience of horror is dread, veneration and religious awe. Over time it comes to be associated with fear generally as well as a bodily trembling. Horror is an emotion of which we have little to no control. It seizes and releases us on its whim. Horror even while sharing similar properties to shock is far more extreme in both intensity and duration. Shock requires exposition, demonstration. Horror meanwhile can be communicated through implication, indefinitely. Let me demonstrate via personal experience.
As a child I felt the constant horror of my father’s mental illness. While certain actions of his were shocking in the sense that they seemed instantaneous and irrational (tying his left hand behind his back because it was “evil”, torching his car, destroying all the furniture in the family home with one hand) it was the lingering threat of his illness that carried the most weight for me long after his institutionalization and so-called rehabilitation. For years I was afraid, to the point of dread and trembling that he would suddenly appear on a street corner or at the front door late at night for an encore. As a young adult I continued to feel this horror as it mutated into a general feeling of disease and low level fear whenever in public. It was not until many years later, living in Japan away from that whole context that I realized I had lived with his horror for such a long time.
Perhaps this experience was what drew me to horror as a genre in the first place, a sort of organic, internal homeopathic “treat like with like”. Horror had a resonance for me, it was one of the few modes of artistic expression where I saw myself accurately reflected. As I watched and read the accounts of others in horror, being horrified and horrifying I slowly started to build the emotional and psychological strategies required for decoupling the continued daily horror in my life.
But now, post-personal-horror, what keeps me affixed on the genre? Is it familiarity, nostalgia? As I have said elsewhere one of the key attributes of horror as a mode of artistic expression is that it is able to go to abject corporeal and moral extremity without apology. Total destruction, annihilation is permitted and to me this kind of active breaking down of concepts is a valuable intellectual and emotional exercise. In this way it is not unlike S&M, it is a consensual excursion into extremity and intensity not normally sanctioned in typical social contexts. We all feel intensely about certain things, for some people it is their preferences in whatever field they operate (friends, behaviours, foods, animals), some people achieve this intensity through courtship, sex and friendship as well as bullying, animosity and anger. Whatever the case, as I have written elsewhere, extremity and intensity are integral aspects of human existence and to me horror offers a productive space for the exploration of extremity from fear to liberation.
Death metal has long played with horror. Its obsession with nihilism and the abject means it shares many of the same tropes. Artwork frequently makes use of sexualized, dismembered corpses evoking both mass media representations of serial killers and the existing repertoire of horror. Lyrics read like movie scripts and are horrifyingly descriptive at times disgusting and offensive. Early death metal was especially successful in conveying a horror aesthetic due to the limited distribution of hard core horror and its relative lack of availability. Its locrian melodies, reverb and blast beats evoked horrors that we all knew of but had never experienced. Vocalists sounded like demons, beasts, people possessed.
However, over time access to legendary horror texts and the ability to create video and mass distribute it have significantly dulled the implied imaginary horror of death metal. Furthermore, infinite repetition and imitation have seen once original and terrifying ideas reduced to genre tropes readily available for re-assembly. One expression of this is the genre offshoot known as deathcore. Taking the low tunings and vocal techniques of death metal and utilizing typical horror imagery combined with the emotional intensity and musical simplicity of hardcore, deathcore willingly decontextualises and appropriates the aforementioned tropes. Marketed toward a younger audience the capacity of death metal to horrify is further disrupted.
By and large, death metal no longer has the same gut level capacity to horrify. But this is where the technical death metallers mentioned above begin to assert their authority and start exploring horror in more literary, intellectual ways, drawing on the traditions of horror as a rich and complex genre with a function greater than simply shock. Musically, however, is it possible for death metal to horrify anymore? I believe so. Possibility is found in the 2009-10 resurgence of old school death metal (sometimes known as “wind tunnel death metal”) in the vein of Teitanblood, Vulvark and Nocturnal Blood. These bands rearticulated the horror and terror of death metal’s earliest incarnation in a way that was more personally and psychologically risky and less fashionable combined with a less defined production aesthetic. The overabundance of reverb, buzzy guitars and rumbling drums make it sound like some sort of undead horror creature killing mercilessly in the next room. Then there is Portal.
Perhaps the greatest single encapsulation of horror and death metal aesthetics I have experienced is Portal’s Seepia. By taking production and compositional techniques to lateral extremes, this Australian death metal band is able to open a portal of horror. Rhythmic and melodic phrases twist and double back on themselves, emerge from and disappear into a sonic maelstrom. From beginning to end the whole experience is disorienting, bewildering and disturbing. And strangely, fascinating. There are few opportunities for us to consensually enter into horror-scapes without denouement, happy endings or plot twists. However, the unblinking relentlessness of Portal is quite different to that found in voyeuristic animal cruelty documentaries, snuff flicks and security camera footage. What makes Portal’s music such a perfect articulation of horror is that it relies on the imagination and interpretive capacity of the listener, there are few traditional hooks or melodic anchors for orientation.
Visually, conceptually and sonically death metal and horror have a tight interrelationship. I contend that the capacity for death metal as defined along traditional musicological-genre lines to horrify as significantly diminished as a result of the information explosion provided by the internet. However, I also argue that death metal has the full capacity to horrify in the original etymological sense of awe by combining musical complexity with speculative fiction style conceptual sophistication. This type of horror is about unraveling the artificial stasis of everyday perception and causes awe through unsettling preconceptions around identity and the physical universe. Finally, it is also my argument that death metal as practiced only by a minority such as Portal retains the capacity to be musicologically horrifying even as the genre as a whole becomes increasingly sanitized. Death metal has yet to give up the ghost and I am sure that even when it does it will likely fuck the ghost with a knife (or be fucked with a ghost knife).