November 2004

Black metal got a good going over, so to speak, a few years ago in the landmark expose Lords of Chaos, a book that spent as much time exploring the criminal underbelly of the Scandinavian scene of the early ‘90s as it did the music itself - given that the two became so unfortunately intertwined.

Now death metal is getting its due not only with a brand new book on the subject, but a DVD, which take you into the dark recesses of the death metal scene and lay out the history and ethos of the music and the underground like no one has done before.

Feral House Books, which published Chaos, has just issued Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal & Grindcore, an enormously informative examination of the birth, rise, fall and rebirth of extreme music by veteran metal scribe Albert Mudrian. Nowhere near as sensational or lurid as Chaos—given that there are no spectacular suicides or stabbing deaths to speak of: real ones, anyway, involving scenesters—Choosing Death mirrors Ian Christie’s fantastic Sound of the Beast from last year in just sticking to the facts and letting the music and musicians do that talking.

Choosing Death goes back to the very roots of the music when the ominous hardcore The Exploited or Discharge and the miscreant thrash of Celtic Frost and Destruction, etc., began to get twisted into something even more extreme by bands like Siege, Repulsion and Heresy. It methodically traces the emergence of the grindcore scene in England, championed, eventually, by Napalm Death; the rise of death metal in Florida via Obituary, Massacre, Morbid Angel and, of course, Death; and the Swedish scene led by Entombed.

Impeccably researched and bristling with first-hand accounts from early scene makers like Napalm members Nick Bullen, Mick Harris, Justin Broadrick and Bill Steer; Americans Kam Lee (Massacre, Death), Trey Azagthoth and David Vincent (Morbid Angel), Glen Benton (Deicide) and the Obituary posse; and Digby Pearson and Jim Welch of pioneering English label Earache; the book is exacting in its detail, yet manages to capture the genuine excitement of an era when anything was possible and extremity knew no boundaries.

I still remember being struck dumb by the five cassettes that made up Earache’s first American mailing in late 1990 - Morbid Angel’s Altars of Madness, Napalm Death’s Harmony Corruption, Carcass’ Symphonies of Sickness, Godflesh’s Streetcleaner and Entombed’s Left Hand Path. It was literally a life-changing moment.

Of course it would all come crashing down in the mid-90s in a glut of shitty bands, musical stagnation and major label intrusion, all of which are outlined with brutal frankness by Mudrian and key players like Pearson, Carcass’ Jeff Walker and Napalm Death’s especially outspoken frontman Barney Greenway, who all suffered as a result of Earache’s ill-fated partnership with Columbia.

But Mudrian offers hope for the future, concluding things on up note by highlighting some of extreme music’s newest, brightest hopes - from Arch Enemy and Opeth to Nile, Hate Eternal and Zyklon, along with fringe artists like Pig Destroyer and Agoraphobic Nosebleed—and quoting Greenway, who’s “Fuck it, let’s just keep on doing it” philosophy captures the essence of what keeps the music going.

The book will have a companion CD compilation, Choosing Death: The Original Soundtrack, to be issued by Relapse Records this month. It features 20 tracks from the pioneers of the death metal and grindcore genres, including several tracks exclusive to the compilation—never-before-heard songs from Nihilist (pre-Entombed), Suffocation and Pig Destroyer—as well as classic tracks from Morbid Angel, Carcass, Cannibal Corpse.

For the novice or the nostalgic, this should be considered an essential purchase. \