'Choosing Death' Author on Death Metal's History and Misperceptions: It's Not 'Satan-Worshipping, Homicidal Maniacs'

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Morbid Angel photographed in 1989.

Death metal and grindcore never had a mainstream profile like glam metal did in the ’80s. Their growth was more dependent than other metal styles on tape-trading and fan ’zines, and they flourished because hard rock fans sought a more extreme form of expression than punk and thrash offered. But that lack of media attention didn’t inhibit them from eventually seeping into the far corners of the world and turning bands like Cannibal CorpseCarcass, Death and Napalm Death into heroes of an often misunderstood but much-adored brand of music that often incorporates near-incoherent vocals, furious speed, a cacophony of sound and imagery that can range from comical to offensive.

Albert Mudrian, longtime editor-in-chief of Decibel magazine, explored the birth of these underground movements in his 2004 book Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal & Grindcore, which is considered essential reading for metalheads. In light of its 10th anniversary, he gave the already impressive tome a 100-page update with new interviews and cover art by revered visual artist Dan Seagrave, who has designed album covers for such acts as Suffocation, Entombed, Morbid Angel and Gorguts. Mudrian discussed the current state of the death-metal scene with Billboard.

 

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Would you say death metal is still a form of underground music?

I don’t know what’s underground anymore because of the Internet. I feel like everything is above ground. To me, it’s like something is underground if you’re recording it and you pass it along to your friends and only three people get to hear it. Half these records have international barcodes on them; I don’t know how underground that is…

I think there is a line between underground and not mainstream, and I feel like it kind of occupies that territory. When I first started getting into this stuff when I was a kid in the early ’90s, and you would try to explain to somebody what death metal was or you’d play them a death metal record, they would laugh at you. Whereas today, somebody that’s exposed to death metal, they’re just like, “OK, I know what that is. That’s not my thing, I’m not into it, but I know what it is.”

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Choosing Death noted that the attraction when death metal and grindcore were spawned was people wanted something more extreme than what was available in metal at the time. Is that still the main draw?

I think there’s an element of that still, but I think after all these years and the fact that it’s now recognized as its own thing, the shock value isn’t there as much. I think a lot of people are desensitized to how over the top and ridiculous this stuff can be. I also think, realistically speaking, it’s hard to push this stuff to make it any more extreme. There’s only so fast you can play, there’s only so deep you can growl, there’s only so crazy your lyrics can be before it just turns into a blur. There’s bands that are still experimenting with sounds that are still incorporating other styles and subgenres of music and developing new paths to take this stuff.

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How has the involvement of women with the scene evolved since it formed?

I think it will always be a lot of guys. But there is a huge cultural shift in terms of the amount of women that are involved as fans, involved on managerial levels, label levels, bands, than there was when I was growing up. The only women or girls you would ever see at death metal shows, the girlfriends were getting dragged along that night, and it is not like that now. I don’t want to say it’s one for one, but it is way closer. I deal with tons of women on a daily basis in terms of how I have to go about to get the magazine together, whether it’s people in publicity or in production or in ad sales or distribution or whatever it is. I don’t really think about it that much anymore because it’s not an anomaly now, so in that sense I think it’s been a leveling of the playing field. I’m sure it’s going to continue to move into that direction until people don’t even notice it anymore.

What would you say are the most misunderstood things about death metal?

Probably that it’s full of a bunch of humorless, Satan-worshipping, homicidal maniacs. It’s really people who are just like anybody else. They just have a lot more black T-shirts than you.