The Aesthetic Near Death Experience of Extreme Metal

Matthew P. Unger

Matthew P. Unger

This article will be concerned with characterizing extreme metal in its breadth and complicated historical paths. It is not my intention to present a comprehensive history of extreme metal and its various subgenres but to lay some groundwork for the different themes, sounds, and musical components that comprise the genre in order to relate these to broad social patterns and conceptions of casual relations.

I am interested in how music and sound contribute to, reflect, constrain, and produce symbolically social discourses of identity, difference, and transgression. In the first section of this article, I will describe the common technical characteristics and innovations that typically characterize the extreme metal sound. I will then talk briefly about its history, major figures, and bands, as well as controversies and major academic considerations.

According to Nancy Purcell (2003) and Keith Kahn-Harris (2007), extreme metal is a genre of transgression and extremes. Within the various genres of extreme metal, transgression exists not only in the lyrics, but also within the sonic, instrumental, musical, artistic, and performative material. Robert Walser and Keith Kahn-Harris maintain, that the high standards of musicality within the various subgenres of extreme metal allow the sonic material, timbre, tempo, and rhythm to contribute to a highly specialized symbolics of transgression significant for the extreme metal community.

These symbolics of transgression have gained widespread significance since they are what lead twentieth-century avant-garde composer and performer John Zorn to adopt an aggressive hardcore punk styling throughout his career and collaborate with heavy metal experimentalist singer, Michael Allan Patton, and drummer from Napalm Death, Mick Harris (Berendt and Günther Huesmann 2009; Watson 2004 ).

While the hardcore-influenced performances and experimental recordings by John Zorn have a sense of irony and the avant-garde to them, they still rely upon these transgressive symbolics.

People outside of the metal community generally recognize extreme metal by the gruff, low, aggressive, growled, and often indecipherable vocalizations. Within the metal community, however, the many variations of vocal performance constitute one important way of differentiating the various subgenres of extreme metal.

Typically, extreme metal vocals transgress ideas of melody, timbre, and technique traditionally valued as the hallmark of good singing. In consequence, extreme metal has developed very innovative forms of vocal performance either not found in other music or used in very novel manners.

The two major characterizations of extreme metal singing can be expressed in the difference between death metal and black metal.

Death metal vocals are often voiced by the “vestibular folds,” also known as false vocal chords. If you imagine that we have two sets of vocal chords, the kind that we use to normally talk and sing with — true vocal chords — which are more flexible and allows for smooth and clean sounds unless pushed and strained.

Surrounding these usual vocal chords are the false vocal chords that can be activated to produce sound but require effort and practice.

The vestibular folds are often used in different forms of throat singing, and especially in the kargyraa style of Mongolian traditional throat singing.

Extreme metal uses both sets of vocals chords, but to varying degrees, mixtures, and tensions to create different tonalities, overtones, and sounds.

These are less flexible since they act as protection for the true chords and when activated produce a very low, quiet sound that feels like they are vibrating further down in your larynx.

Death metal has been experimenting with this kind of vocalization since the late 1980s and has developed a varied use of false chord vocals. A paradigmatic example of this is Chris Barnes, the original singer for the band Cannibal Corpse that became popular and helped pioneer death metal in the early 1990s.

Chris Barnes’ voice is extremely low and has been characterized as “brutal” for its relative inhuman sound, visceral, guttural, and aggressive sound.

Black metal also produced a characteristic vocalization style that reflects the subgenres broader aesthetic traits — often a thin very strained and distorted use of the true vocal chords that is not quite screaming but is produced by exerting much pressure on the vocal chords. However, black metal has experimented with different vocalizations as well, which is exemplified by the singer, Attila Csihar who performed on Mayhem’s pivotal black metal album ‘Die Mysterium Satanis’ from 1992.

Attila Csihar, can be considered a virtuoso of extreme metal singing, blending the various forms of false and true vocal chord vocalizations, producing overtones, and harmonics similar to the “throat singing” of traditional Tuvin monks.

Extreme metal is generally low, powerful, intense, often virtuosic, and technically demanding music played at high volume levels and fast tempos. The major instruments that bands employ in much of extreme metal are, unsurprisingly, guitars, bass, and drums, but depending on the subgenre, bands may use many other instruments and arrangements. For instance, second wave black metal began using keyboards in the early 1990s to help increase a foreboding atmosphere and feelings of darkness and despair (Patterson 2013 ).

Black metal became popular in Norway in the late 1980s and early 1990s with its almost ascetic, cold productions, thin, grating distorted guitars playing tremolo style harmonic chords, and driving drums and rhythm.

European symphonic metal, such as Swedish band Therion, often uses classically trained opera singers, orchestral instrument sections, and keyboards. Because of this diversity, extreme metal also has a varied use of harmony and melody, from complete obfuscation of overt melody in exchange for chaos, dissonance, and aggression, to emotionally evocative and powerful melodic and progressive music.

For instance, Ian Christe, metal journalist and the author sums up the influence of the Swedish brand of extreme metal bands: “Stockholm bands Entombed and Dismember, followed by Gothenburg acts In Flames and At the Gates, administered a regional Swedish sound that poured melody atop grotesque imagery” (Ian Christe 2004, 251). This quote evokes a very significant aspect of extreme metal in both its sonic diversity but also in relation to place and geography.

Diversity is not merely signified between the different subgenres, but place and space also play a huge factor in musical production. As metal scholars have emphasized, extreme metal is at once international and local.

This will be emphasized later in the chapter but reflects one of the main queries of this project — what is it about extreme metal that allows such a great diversity of sounds, musical elements, themes, symbols, ideas and ideologies to be cast under the umbrella of this genre?

Other sub-genres emphasize a particular instrument out of the primary rock instruments. For example, most extreme metal genres emphasize frenetic, double-kick drumming, intermixed with rapidly changing and compound time signatures, rhythms, and tempos that to the casual listener may sound chaotic, but to the aficionado are technical or “brutal.”

”Blast beats,” prevalent throughout extreme metal but especially within technical death metal or brutal death metal and grindcore, consists of extremely fast, articulated, 16th and 32nd notes. The death metal triple time drumming is different from the standard double time of thrash or speed metal.

Similarly, the musicians usually detune their guitars and basses lower than standard guitar tunings or use 7 or 8 string guitars. For instance, Australian band Portal use extended range guitars to accent the low, sludgy, dark and abstract quality of their sound, as does the guitarist, Ihsahn, for the Norwegian band Emperor.

Trey Azagthoth for Morbid Angel has been credited for introducing 7 string guitarists into extreme metal on their 1993 album, ‘Covenant’, particularly in ‘God of Emptiness,’ to produce very low, slow tempo death metal.

Musicians process their instruments, and sometimes their voices, heavily with a thick and grating distortion that contributes to a harmonically dense, powerful, guttural, and aggressive sound. The level of virtuosity depends on the sub-genre. For instance, Cryptopsy, the influential technical death metal band from Montreal with important albums such as ‘Blasphemy Made Flesh’ (1994), ‘None So Vile’ (1996), and ‘Whisper Supremacy’ (1998), uses fast, virtuosic guitar riffs and solos of varying tempos and time signature changes with prevalent drumming and frequent blast beats.

Their recent albums — while more experimental and less groundbreaking than their previous albums — still exhibit chaotic and dissonant chordal, harmonic, and rhythmic structures, with prominent, virtuosic drumming with scene legend, Flo Mounier. Early Carcass, the progenitors of grindcore and goregrind from Britain were less technically demanding but very heavy, with a groove-oriented sound and a focus on clinically medical grotesque lyrics.

Doom metal, influenced by Black Sabbath and Pentagram of the 1970s and bands such as Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride, emphasizes a very low, detuned, heavy and thick sound with much slower passages in order to increase a heavy, ominous, and foreboding atmosphere.

Although lyrics generally vary between the different subgenres, certain recurrent themes exist. For instance, black metal bands such as Mayhem, Emperor, and Gorgoroth from Norway are characterized by darkness, evil, satanic, or occult motifs that the writers evoke to challenge the traditional Christian beliefs of the country.

In addition, the Florida and South Carolina death metal scene, with bands such as Cannibal Corpse, Morbid Angel, and Nile, typically use gore and horror as well as mythological and anti-Christian themes. Other genres such as goregrind with European bands such as Carcass, General Surgery, Regurgitate, and Necrony, and American bands, The Meat Shits, Lividity, and Waco Jesus, evoke medical terminology and the defilement of the human body for disturbingly comedic reasons.

A prevalent lyrical motif throughout all extreme metal genres is the critique of religion and anti-religious or anti-Christian themes (Purcell 2003).

The seeds of extreme metal music lay in early forms of metal and hard rock. The interest in the occult and Satanism came from very popular bands in the 1960s and the 1970s, including The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Ozzy Osbourne.

Rock musicians often used a musical interval and motif called the tritone, or augmented fourth, for its unsettling, foreboding, and dissonant qualities. However, being labelled in the eighteenth-century as diabolus in musica which music theorists prohibited from use in Middle Ages and Renaissance music for its non-consonant qualities also helped promote its use in horror movies and heavy metal.

Early Jazz music, heavy metal, second-wave black metal uses this chord and interval frequently. Classical music uses the tritone frequently (it has also been associated with Richard Wagner’s opera ‘Tristane and Isolde’) in order to create tension in the music.

Extreme metal tends to use the tritone in conjunction with and as a part of diminished scale structures, typically to undermine the sense of any determined scale and melody, destabilize the listener, and add an exotic flavour to songs.

The significance of its knowledge for a lot of early metal has to do with its association before the Baroque period as a prohibited musical harmony; it is, therefore, is both sonically and discursively transgressive.

To me, this is significant in the sense that music, and by extension sound and noise, has always reflected normative structures of our world-view connected to symbols, ideas, and mores of the time.

Several authors attribute the origins of extreme metal, and specifically black metal, to the early 1980s European metal bands, Venom, Bathory, and Hellhammer. American bands, such as Possessed and Slayer, exhibited similar thrash metal traits (such as early Metallica and Megadeth), but they were more gruff and technical, heavier and faster, with raspier, rougher vocals.

The novel aspect of these inaugural bands was in the content of their lyrics and their stage personalities, which also reflected something extreme.

Overt satanic and mythological, and even Norse and Viking themes in Bathory’s music became common defining aspects of the different subgenres that developed through the metal scene.

Possessed, an American band from the early 1980s, set death metal apart from thrash with low, grunting vocals and false chord vocals. The first death metal album is generally considered to be either Possessed’s demo called ‘Death Metal’, or Charles Michael Schuldiner’s band, Death, and their album ‘Scream Bloody Gore’ released in 1987.

Both albums were very significant for this budding genre because they were faster and more technical compared to earlier incarnations of metal.

Charles Michael Schuldiner also had a distinct voice that introduced a more guttural growl to the genre. The music was more virtuosic and dark with minor keys in tonality.

By 1989, several labels had formed around death metal and had signed several extreme metal bands. For instance, Earache Records out of England and Combat Records from the United States began promoting and distributing Napalm Death’s material in 1985.

The big labels, Sony and Columbia, jumped into death metal in the early 1990s, changing the scene dramatically. The most influential bands of the death metal scene — most of whom still perform and record — are Obituary, Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse, and Deicide from the so-called Florida scene.

The British band Napalm Death, which produced the defining album for grindcore ‘Scum,’ exercised enormous influence on extreme metal in Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Napalm Death and grindcore bands in general wrote and performed extremely fast, short songs that were less technically proficient than the American death metal bands at the time.

Additionally, and uniquely, Napalm Death’s lyrics “were notable for their sociopolitical content and critical commentary” (Purcell 2003, 21). Apart from themes of apocalypse and dystopia, extreme metal is largely devoid of overt political statements. Yet, the subgenres that Napalm Death helped to establish, such as American based grindcore, death grind, and death metal with bands such as Assück, Dying Fetus, and Misery Index, still retain their political critique.

Justin Karl Michael Broadrick was an early original member of Napalm Death, but later left to form several other influential projects, most notably Godflesh, which experimented with several sub-genres of extreme metal such as industrial, gothic, and doom. Justin Karl Michael Broadrick captured what could be considered the aesthetic précis of extreme metal in an interview: “[T]here is a real beauty to brutality. Even the most graphic violence can be beautiful if it’s presented in an artistic way.” The word “brutal” is used regularly in extreme and death metal (Guitar World 1995).

In a different interview, Justin Karl Michael Broadrick used another important descriptor within the extreme and death metal community: “I often ask myself how I can make things more sick sounding. Sickness is really a big part of our sound” (Guitar 1999).

These terms, sick and brutal, have a colloquial meaning that refers to the manner in which the music corresponds to the ideals of the community, which includes the emotional, atmospheric, and sonic import, as well as to the transgressive nature of the music.

Bill Steer replaced Justin Karl Michael Broadrick on the second half of Napalm Death’s pivotal ‘Scum’ album and later helped to establish the British band Carcass, which inaugurated the goregrind subgenre of extreme metal by emphasizing elaborate medical terminology and less technical guitar work and less clean production than their American contemporaries.

Carcass’ albums traversed many extreme metal genres, moving from a primitive grindcore on their early album ‘Reek of Putrefaction’ (1988) to a more intricate and better-produced death metal on later albums ‘Symphonies of Sickness’ (1989) and ‘Necroticism — Descanting the Insalubrious’ (1991).

Carcass finally moved to a melodic death metal in their ‘Heartwork’ (1993) album. As a prominent and pioneering band brought to wide attention and appeal through BBC host John Robert Parker Ravenscroft, Carcass exhibited a strong influence on a number of metal scenes, from grindcore and goregrind to the Swedish melodic extreme metal scene (Purcell 2003, 22).

A recent album by Napalm Death, ‘Smear Campaign’ (2006) uses various elements from different subgenres of extreme metal, from death metal to Swedish melodic death and from early grindcore to the Norwegian black metal of the 1980s.

In particular, on the song ‘In Deference,’ a distinctive female vocalist talks over a rhythmically driving guitar riff and is spoken by lead singer for the melodic death metal band, The Gathering.

This motif appears to references early black metal band and one of the first extreme metal bands, Celtic Frost, from the song, ‘Return to the Eve,’ on their first album, ‘Morbid Tales’ (1984).

This homage to Celtic Frost is significant since it acknowledges the founders of this genre. The homage also references the many different styles Celtic Frost evoked in their long career, exhibiting influences on thrash, doom, symphonic, and even industrial metal.

This homage may signify that the transgression and dissolution of the boundaries that Celtic Frost initially helped to establish for the genre is in fact what constitutes the foundation of extreme metal.

The fan and magazine reviews of the latest Napalm Death album are positive but also mixed because of the crossover elements that some people in the metal community see as very particular to their specific genre of choice.

This narrative of Napalm Death may be used to reference the beginning of the history of black metal, which intersects with death metal but differentiates itself on many grounds.

In particular, the death metal stage aesthetic is typically one of jeans, black t-shirts, and sneakers, in contrast to the stage personas of other metal genres, such as the elaborate gender-bending fashions of glam metal or the pyrotechnical stage shows of the major thrash metal bands.

Death metal performers gave the impression that they were more or less just like their fans, apart from the goregrind bands Carcass, General Surgery, and Bloodbath, who dressed in surgical uniforms or draped themselves in fake blood.

Black metal bands aspired to be the visual expression of the content of their lyrics and ideological dispositions; hence, they donned corpse paint, leather, spikes, and bullet belts for stage shows to create a dark, ominous, evil atmosphere.

Sonically and musically, black metal differs from death metal. While black metal also employs distorted guitars, voices, and other instruments, played at a very fast pace, the sonic characteristics, atmospheres, modes, and scales differ as does the musical production and level of technical playing.

Musically, the focus is on chromatic, dissonant, and diminished scalar structures, quite often employing the tritone interval. Tremolo strumming and pendulum strumming played over minor and diminished chords are important to create a dense sonic texture and dark atmosphere. Guitar solos are rare, and some bands even use drum machines. Often, only one member in the band plays all the instruments.

Some bands will not perform live both because of the logistics of a single member band playing live, but also to increase a particular mysterious, individualistic, obscure, and esoteric aesthetic.

Amongst the instruments mentioned earlier, black metal may also incorporate the use of keyboards, classically trained singers, orchestras, organ, and choirs. Vocals are slightly different as well; they are mostly screamed at high pitch, layered with effects to create atmosphere, intensity, and depth.

Lyrically, black metal bands have much in common with each other. They gained from early satanic metal a fascination with evil, occult, and satanic imagery, but since the proliferation of genres affected black metal, other influences such as Norse mythology, fantasy themes, nature, and environmental themes have entered into the genre through foundational bands such as the prolific work of Bathory.

This diversification of themes further differentiated generic boundaries, to include subgenres such as Viking metal, folk black metal, and many others. The most prominent lyrical themes for black metal are explicitly anti-Christian and anti-humanist.

The early to mid-1990s brought about the second wave of black metal with such bands as Immortal, Burzum, Emperor, Mayhem, Darkthrone and Satyricon. Death metal’s loss of popularity, due partly to the commercialization and stagnation of the genre in the mid-1990s, was black metal’s gain.

In Norway, Sweden, and Finland, a rash of church burnings, murders, high profile suicides, and violent crimes were associated with black metal and became the subject of documentary films and a book called ‘The Lords of Chaos’ (Moynihan and Søderlind 2003 ).

A major media event was the suicide of Mayhem’s singer, ironically named “Dead,” and the subsequent spectacle of his brain matter and skull. Apparently, when band member Øystein Aarseth found Dead, dead, he made necklaces with bits of his skull and took a picture of the scene that was to become a limited run of one of their album covers (Moynihan and Søderlind 2003; Patterson, 2013).

The most prominent of these crimes were a series of arsons, including several by Varg Vikernes of the one-man band Burzum, which burned down over fifty ancient churches. A notorious member of the black metal community, Varg Vikernes was released after serving a twenty-five-year jail term for the murder of member of the band, Mayhem, “Dollarsnymous” (Moynihan and Søderlind 2003).

While modern black metal is relatively free from these sorts of violent happenings, there has been some controversy surrounding the band, Gorgoroth, previously led by the singer with the pseudonym, Gaahl (real name: Kristian Eivind Espedal).

The controversy originated when a concert in Poland shown on national Polish television shocked the conservative Catholic nation. Gorgoroth supposedly performed a “Black Mass” on a stage replete with bloodied sheep skulls and two naked individuals hanging from crosses (Gorgoroth 2004).

Kristian Eivind Espedal’s and Gorgoroth’s black metal ideology reflects the second wave of black metal, where musicians used extreme satanic symbolism in order to critique humanist and Christian ideologies and to evoke the corruption of a strong Norse history through a complacent and middle-class Christianity (Christe 2004, 260–290).

Often Satan is a restitutionist symbol of a return to a prior state, one that is purer and more authentic (Moynihan and Søderlind 2003). In particular, Kristian Eivind Espedal from Gorgoroth stated in an interview for heavy metal documentary film ‘Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey’ that Satan represented “freedom” for him and that “we have to remove every trace that Christianity and the Semitic roots have to offer this world” (Sam Dunn, 2005).

Yet, apart from exceptional cases such as some these bands within the Norwegian black metal community, it becomes clear throughout the film that evil motifs are not necessarily genuine expressions of belief in Satan, but rather, are expressive of transgression and the evocation of an individualistic ideology.

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