Conceiving Death Metal While Confronting the Human Animal

Catherine Hoad
Catherine Hoad

In 1995, Chuck Schuldiner, an animal-lover with a habit of wearing a shirt decorated with kittens during interviews, lamented that he had never really intended to create the genre known as Death Metal (in Morton, 2010).

As the founder of the hugely influential band Death, Schuldiner, often referred to as the “Father of Death Metal”, noted that he simply wanted his music to reflect reality (in Petrakis, Zafirakis and Zafirakis, 1998).

Authenticity, for Chuck, was crucial — “Reality is far more brutal than any demon… If there’s evil, it’s people” (Headbanger’s Ball, 1991).

That same year, Bob Dole accused death metal bands of “undermining the national character” by producing “nightmares of depravity” that “[slashed] the social fabric of the nation” and “[threatened] our children” (Dole in Weinraub, 1995:1).

Certainly, for many who encounter it, death metal provokes little aside from incomprehension, disgust and ridicule. Since its earliest years, it has been a target for mockery — even as a fan of the genre, I frequently find myself describing death metal as “the one with the Cookie Monster vocals” — and for condemnation.

For an outsider, it is loud, brutish and indecipherable, an assault on civility.

Death metal has become synonymous with gruesome violence to the extent where, as Malik notes, soldiers in the War on Terror, when met with the horrifically disfigured corpses of Iraqi soldiers and civilians, frequently utter the call “Fucking straight death metal”(2006:109).

However, while death metal is frequently condemned for its misanthropic and nihilistic themes, I suggest that it is those same themes that open up the possibilities of rethinking the passive nature of corporeality and the horror of the transgressive body.

Death metal, I contend, pushes for the rupture of the mind/body dualism, and instead projects an experience of the self as body.

The genre’s approach to “human” bodies is both restrictive and liberatory — as this article explores, it affirms the forms of power that would subjugate sexualised and racialised “Others” while simultaneously eschewing social constructions of gender and race.

The abjection of death metal is certainly a “hatred that smiles”(Kristeva, 1982:4) – a cheerfully malevolent reminder that the “human” is not quite the transcendent position we often believe it to be.

In seeking to destabilise an anthropocentric view of human “specialness”, death metal reminds us that as humans, we find our most visible — and visceral — expressions of power in enacting procedures of bodily violence and death.

Furthermore, death metal raises some intriguing and complex questions concerning precisely which bodies are admitted to this category of “human”, a position problematised by the dehumanising functions of colonialism.

In all, the horror of death metal (much like the horror of the abject) forces us to confront our own physicality and mortality — the experience of which is traumatic, yet potentially liberating.

I argue, then, that death metal encourages us to envision ourselves as “beings towards death”, the ultimate reality with which we are all faced.

In as much as it craves flesh, blood and bone, death metal seeks to make the abject the subject, turning the body inside out, making the invisible visible, and forcing us to confront our physicality and the threats posed to our bodily boundaries.

The musical style known as “Death metal” did not begin life as a readily distinct subgenre, but rather developed from the gradual mutation of existing forms of heavy metal music.

Emerging primarily from earlier forms of thrash metal in the early 1980s before gaining popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, death metal has steadily grown into a recognisable genre in its own right, in turn spawning a multitude of subgenres.

Though it is typically characterised by blast beats, distorted guitars, tremolo picking and deep, growling vocals — arguably the key point of reference of the genre — death metal has expanded and diversified significantly since its early origins with bands such as Death, Possessed, Morbid Angel, Carcass and Obituary.

What is of specific interest, however, is the manner in which death metal approaches the human body, as a site to be both celebrated and traumatised, liberated and conquered.

Death metal’s fascination with violence and horror, I would argue, is at least partly born from a desire for transgression. Many fans and musicians, as Kahn-Harris has noted, express a desire to operate on the “edge”, ostensibly separate from “civilised”, mainstream society (2007:2).

The intention to shock is undeniably present within death metal, a genre that, much like heavy metal as a whole, finds distinction in scandalous transgression (Walser, 1993:162).

One must note that the horrific gore and violence endemic to death metal is embedded within a much broader history of depictions of horror and madness (Walser, 1993:160).

I argue, however, that it is precisely that recognition of the traumatised body as transgressive that allows death metal to offer ways of approaching the abject body, and indeed the rethinking of such bodies as “Other“.

Death metal is undeniably an unabashedly violent genre. Themes of rape, cannibalism, torture and mutilation are commonplace, as texts from the genre demonstrate.

For Kahn- Harris, this obsession with violence may be attributed to a fascination with the human body that all people share to some degree, a fascination that mixes desire and disgust (2007:43).

This “desire” is key to exploring death metal’s relationship with the abject — the desire to explore the “unknown” and forbidden, a desire to lose oneself in violence, and a desire to “know” death.

As Zillman (in Goldstein, 1999:275) has noted, there does seem to be a connection between how acquainted one is with their own mortality and how much they crave images of death and violence via the media.

Death metal, then, goes some way to satisfy this appetite for violence through blurring the interior and exterior of the human body.

Given this, this article will examine how death metal confronts the body in three key ways — through positing the human as animal, instinctual and inherently violent, secondly, through presenting the abject body as a subject to be mastered, and lastly, through offering alternative ways of thinking about the boundaries of the human body.

These three themes both interact and clash with one another. They do not meld fluidly, but rather, I would argue, are united by the manner in which they confront the reality of the human body.

Death metal, through its celebration of violence, gore and horror, reminds us that we are always vulnerable to forces that threaten our physical boundaries.

Half the challenge of death metal, I contend, is deconstructing the “shock” of the gore and instead examining the manner in which the genre navigates the position of “human”.

Death metal’s goal of toppling human “specialness” needs to be located within a broader history of attempts to define what it is to be “human”. It is crucial, then, to note that any examination of what constitutes “the human” largely begins with what the human is not, which more often than not leads to a delineation between the human and the animal (this distinction becomes fragmented in problematic ways when the question of human “value” is raised, as this article will go on to discuss).

Martin Heidegger famously declared that “The human body is something essentially other than an animal organism” (Heidegger in Calarco and Atterton, 2004:19).

There develops, then, a crucial gap between the “human” and the “animal”, which Agamben identifies as the animal caesura — the cessation of a fluid human/animal.

For Agamben, then, the meaning of “life” is ultimately constructed not through definition, but rather articulation and division (2004:13).

Bichat’s distinction between “relational” (external) life, and “organic” life (in Agamben, 2004:14) is important here as a means of navigating a mind/body dualism. Similarly, Bichat’s proposal — that it is as if two “animals” live together in every higher organism, but do not coincide (in Agamben, 2004:14), is a significant one.

For Agamben, this “split between the functions of vegetative life and the functions of relational life” (2004:14) has been incredibly important in modern conceptions of “life” and the human essence, which is founded on the possibility of dividing and articulating Bichat’s two animals.

Within death metal, however, one is able to witness the eschewal of such divisive narratives, and instead, observe the deliberate brutalisation of the human subject through the construction of a human body that is essentially animal.

Where Heidegger presents the animal as captivated by its instincts (in Calarco and Atterton. 2004:24), death metal rejects human “comportment” as a myth, and suggests that the human is ultimately animal. Within this, death metal does not force a revaluation of the animal itself; but rather deliberately panders to a representation of the animal as savage, instinctual and violent.

I argue, though, that by positioning humans as instinctual creatures, death metal goes some way, however liminal, to effect a rupture in the human/animal caesura.

Death metal rejects visions of human civility — I would contend that this is at least in part due to the Cold War context in which heavy metal itself emerged, where military conflict and its bloody aftermath, though largely external to the superpowers of the Soviet Union and United States, was made increasingly visual through television (at least for a Western audience).

As such, whereas Heidegger pressed for a hierarchy that gives precedence to the “civilised” human, as opposed to the “instinctual” animal, death metal deliberately confronts notions of human superiority and instead pushes for a vision of the human as essentially violent.

A common theme within death metal is the inherent, “animalistic” violence of the human being, a notion reflected in songs such as Gomory’s ‘Humanity is Animal’ (‘Destruction & Misery’, 2004, Mors Principium Est’s ‘The Animal Within’ (‘Termination = Liberation’, 2007) or Six Feet Under’s ‘Animal Instinct’ (‘Warpath’, 1997).

Similarly, the liberatory possibilities of animality are a recurring theme within death metal, and offer an interesting opportunity to examine the flip side of Heidegger’s belief in man’s capacity for comportment. The “animal” state, for the band Nile, is an authentic and emancipatory experience.

The suggestion of “our carnal nature” within ‘Worship the Animal’ is a significant one for mapping the manner in which death metal forces us, as human animals, to confront the physicality of our existence.

In presenting the human as the animal, death metal seeks to challenge the human/animal caesura that Zimmerman has suggested is necessary for the continuation of the “godlike security” (1993:240) of the human position.

Death metal, arguably, makes a concerted effort to present the animal as inherently instinctual precisely so that it is able to destabilise the privilege that Heidegger grants to the human.

Similarly, this “carnal nature” allows for a break from the restraints of “comportment”, and is, within death metal, transcendental, unbounded, and, crucially, authentic. Thus, while Heidegger suggests that the animal cannot experience “death as death” (in Calarco and Atterton, 2004:18, my emphasis) and therefore “can only come to an end” (in Calarco and Atterton, 2004:18), death metal, on some level, questions whether humans experience death in the same way.

For Kahn-Harris, transgression involves the embrace of carnality, allowing humans to lose themselves in the totality and infinity of death (2007:29).

Within death metal, then, the human is able to experience sovereignty over their being, escaping every day utilitarian experiences by embracing the “natural” animal state.

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