I have to admit, I was pretty depressed upon finishing Choosing Death. This definitive argument-ender is so complete in its coverage of the origins of the art form that has resonated most powerfully throughout my life that there was seemingly little left to explore within the genre after completing the read. Pathetic as it may sound, I’ve had more than a few discussions with friends on such topics as who played the first blast beat, who had the first legitimate death growl, and who could rightfully be considered the first real death metal band. Now, alas, there is no more wonder in the world—nothing left uncertain, no myths and legends of arms coming disengaged from their sockets and rocketing across the stage during the initial test phases of that mighty leveler of drum patterns, the blast beat.
Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal & Grindcore is about as good, accurate and comprehensive a tribute as any long-term fan of the genre could hope to find; now all that remains is to hit the eBay and reissue circuits in search of those long-lost time-capsule demos that started it all in the mid ‘80s Mudrian treats the development of grindcore both chronologically and by location, beginning in the dingy clubs of West Midlands, England of ‘81/’82 where a trio of friends, inspired by the movie Apocalypse Now, settled on the name Napalm Death for their first band. From there, the path of destruction jumps back and forth across the Atlantic—from the equally blue collar tracts of Boston, Mass and Flint, Michigan, down to the sweltering death metal hotbed of Tampa, Florida; and back again to Sweden, whose own unique scene was at its incipient stage. The story of grindcore is unavoidably the story of one label and one band, those being of course, Earache Records and its founder Digby Pearson—who had the good taste and fortune to be at ground zero when these bands exploded—and its flagship band Napalm Death. At least half the book is dedicated to the rise, fall and resurrection(s) of these two institutions and not without due cause—because between the pair, they held the direct or indirect connections to virtually every single band in the scene worldwide.
Just so MRR readers don’t get a mistaken impression—this book is as much about the grind as it as the metal, and it may serve as some surprise just how intrinsically tied its origins are to punk and hardcore. Napalm Death’s earliest influences are sited as Crass, Discharge and Siege (as well as Celtic Frost). Classic show flyers depict Napalm regularly sharing bills with the likes of Disorder, Amebix, Antisect, Subhumans and Chaos UK, plus it was actually Crass who released Napalm Death’s first recorded song on the Crass Records Bullshit Detector #3 double LP, way back in 1982. The book even includes several reprints from Maximum Rocknroll itself, of articles on seminal Boston punks Siege from 1983 and Napalm Death, in which they rather unintuitively cite The Ex as “the only band we remotely like.” And the tales of friendships and rivalries between such early British fastcore bands as Heresy, Extreme Noise Terror, Concrete Sox and Napalm are endearing in their evocation of an extremely tight-knit and like-minded community seeking only to out do each other within the confines of this new and exciting form of expression.
The only detraction to Choosing Death, and it’s a minor one at worst, is the occasionally dry writing style, which is primarily resultant from Mudrian’s steadfast objectivity throughout. Perhaps all too ware of the tendency in the extreme metal press to hyperbolic superlatives every time a new land-speed record is broken, Mudrian over-compensates a bit by almost never interjecting his own personal taste or opinion. This is of a course a fundamentally good, well-disciplined trait, but in this case, the obvious familiarity and expertise the author possesses on the subject matter would certainly warrant a few transgressions of biased insight. As it stands though, his history is unblemished and the chapters fly by at a speed comparable to the bands they describe. This is another “positive” complaint—I could have easily stood another hundred pages added to the book’s all-too-slim-girth. Mudrian still manages to cover an impressive range of subjects including the pitfalls of major label marriage, the broad world-wide network of the tape-trading underground, the exhausting ego-tripping of grindcore’s most visible (and audible) progenitor Mick Harris and even such tangential arcana as the actually chronic physical damage incurred by some musicians from such extreme playing. Such episodes as Cannibal Corpse’s meeting with Jim Carrey on the set of Ace Ventura and ‘Til Tuesday singer Aimee Mann selling Siege drummer Robert Williams a Meatmen 7” are worth the cover price alone, but they also had me wishing for more personal anecdotes. One of my favorite sections was the concluding "Life After Death" chapter, a where-are-they-now in which we learn that Mick Harris is currently a music technician at a Technical College and John Tardy, inimitable vocalist for Obituary, is now a network administrator. Exposés such as these and the Morbid Angel car wash in Charlotte, NC are simply priceless—juxtaposing their demonic musical personas with their quotidian day jobs to show the face of inhuman music.
Every major player in the scene is interviewed. Harris, Pearson, Nick Bullen, Justin Broadrick, Scott Carlson, Glen Benton, David Vincent, Nicke Andersson, Robert Williams—plus the introduction is provided by John Peel, the BBC radio 1 DJ credited with giving the likes of Carcass and Napalm Death their first national (and international) exposure. And then there are the photos—Mudrian must have talked every single person he interviewed into giving him a shoebox full of early (and often embarrassingly immature) photos. Seeing bands pictured in their earliest incarnations—Entombed as Nihilist, Death as Mantas, Repulsion as Genocide—it’s striking to realize just how young the members were upon their inception, averaging just fourteen or fifteen years old. It should be obvious by now, but this is an absolute must-have, must-read for anyone even remotely interested in extreme music. At no point in the all-too-brief 285 pages do you find yourself thinking that Mudrian’s interest in the genre those aligned with so adamantly defend is anything less than one-hundred percent genuine. Right at the point when you find yourself thinking that he’ll overlook some crucial band elemental to the development of the scene, he’ll throw in a reference to Ripping Corpse or Fear of God, and you’ll know that Mudrian is simply one of us, writing out of sheer love of the genre and an interest in seeing it properly chronicled. Most importantly though, this is the perfect introduction to the world of grind for the uninitiated – hopefully serving as no small inspiration to seek out and hear these magnificently otherworldly sounds for yourself.— Elliot Lang