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Tomb raider Albert Mudrian unearths the buried past of rock’s spookiest subgenre in the death metal oral history Choosing Death.

By Joe Gross

You’ve heard a million radio DJs declare that their station is the home of rock, but where does extreme metal live? According to Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal & Grindcore (Feral House), a no-tombstone-unturned oral history of the misunderstood genres, it could reside in Birmingham, England, where ‘80s pioneers Napalm Death took Discharge’s anarchic hardcore and set it on liquefy. Or might it dwell in Tampa, Florida where Morbid Angel discovered their sound in a mixture of gross-out horror movies, squiggly guitar solos, and a near-fanatical devotion to Slayer. Or does it live in… Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania?

“This is where metal vacations,” says Choosing Death author Albert Mudrian, 29, who also just happens to have grown up in the bucolic town, where he became fatally fixated on the music in his teens. “Nobody ever made it like this before—this fast, this heavy, this crazy.” His book is filled with firsthand accounts from the scene’s definitive personalities, from Morbid Angel founder Trey Azagthoth, an admirer of Sumerian culture (and Tony Robbins) whose pre-show rituals included digging up live worms to eat on stage, to Deicide’s Glenn Benton, whose performances featured the destruction of mannequins filled with pigs’ guts. Though the two camps held opposing values—grindcore was dedicated to blindingly fast performance, no matter how sloppy; death metal favored precision and musicianship—they began drawing artistic inspiration from each other in the mid-‘90s. But their fierce competition for the attention of major record labels, says Mudrian, brought their golden age to an end. “These bands were a tight-knit group, and then suddenly there was a complete lack of camaraderie,” he explains. “And audiences couldn’t sit through a bill of five or six bands that all sounded the same.”

Relapse Records offers a Choosing Death companion CD (sold separately) with 20 tracks from the bands chronicled in the book. It’s intended as an introduction to the genre that’s now yielding such acts as Nasum and Killswitch Engage, but also as a tribute to a generation of headbangers who couldn’t go on banging their heads forever. “Most of these guys,” says Mudrian, “ended up in the IT industry.”