A legendary tome central to extreme metal underground lore, Choosing Death is a 2004 account of “The Improbable History of Death Metal & Grindcore”. Fast forward twelve years and enough sub-genres and micro-genres have emerged in its evolving landscape to warrant a revised and expanded edition of this text. To celebrate, we have Choosing Death Fest.
As Choosing Death was written by Albert Mudrian, editor in chief at Decibel Magazine, it stands well to reason that this event would be thrown by the magazine in its home city of Philadelphia. Before any band takes any stage, the nerdier element of this crowd, which includes this reporter, attends a “Grimposium” of workshops and discussion panels.
The first is a creative writing workshop by JR Hayes of Pig Destroyer, whose way with words is consistently lauded as showcasing what writing in extreme metal is capable of achieving.
We’re then treated to a death metal vocal workshop by Leila Abdul-Rauf of Vastum, who walks us through a 101-level introduction to growling effectively and safely, before bringing up a volunteer totally new to the process and unleashing the sounds of her inner fury.
What follows is a panel discussion on the art of death metal featuring Dan Seagrave, an artist who hand-painted the covers for such immortal releases as Alters of Madness and Effigy of the Forgotten, as well as a younger artist who designed the layout for the first Maryland Deathfest booklet.
Wrapping up the chit-chat is another panel on the economics of underground music featuring Neil of Krieg, Megan of Couch Slut, two of the guys from Misery Index, and a battle-jacketed business professor from Franklin & Marshall University. Among the topics discussed are the way music streaming effects artists and freedom of speech as it applies to nazis, sexists, etc. within these genres. Interesting points are made throughout, and Neil, who did most of the talking, has an effortlessly entertaining personality.
The Grimposium concludes with a documentary on Chuck Schuldiner of pioneering band Death, but by this point I need to grab some lunch and am not really in the mood to sit down for a movie…sorry.
Outside of the venue, all feathers (including mine) are ruffled by the last-minute cancellation of headliners Dying Fetus. The line-up remains ridiculous, sure, but those cats are the masters of brutality. How do we move forward, and what shall stand in their place? A good amount of people, particularly those who came clad in Dying Fetus merch, drop their tickets and run, but I heard some rumors bouncing around and have to see which one makes its way into reality.
Things start slow, very slow, with the one-two punch of Taphos Nomos and Derketa, both of whom take a very earthy approach to death-doom and wield riff-tastic glory as their swords. After Taphos Nomos sets us up in their introduction to our demise, Derketa, the first female death metal act, knocks us down by opening that cavern deeper and hitting us slower, lower, and heavier.
The curation of which bands play when shows remarkable foresight in gradually raising the level of intensity. Case in point, next up is Philly’s rising death metal star, Horrendous, whose last album was named the best of 2015 by Decibel itself. I saw them open for Skinless late last year and, even between now and then, they’ve hit a new level of competence. Later on, when I run into some of them at the bar, they credit this new found proficiency to their new bassist, who uses maybe a dozen different tones, few of which are typical to death metal. He keeps his playing complex and very hypnotic, drawing the listener deeper in to the nightmare realm of Horrendous, in which, yes, there is triumph, but it too comes tinged with a dark sadness.
Shaking things up with a much more pulverizing, abrasive sound, next up is Noisem. These wunderkinds of grind have skyrocketed to the upper echelon of grindcore in just two full-lengths, and some of their members aren’t even old enough to drink. Totally captivating, this is my fourth time seeing them and not only do they consistently get better, but my ears learn how to get past that wall of noise and hook into the buried treasure of the riffs that lie beneath. The mosh pit is brought from zero to sixty with this, the evening’s first violent act.
Now, after so many younger acts who worship the old (Derketa notwithstanding), we’re finally ready for an actually old-school band. Deceased has been doing their thing since 1984 with a lot more nuance than one might expect of, well, a band named Deceased, particularly one made up of enormous dudes who sound as scary as they look. What I mean by that is, among all that aural slaughter, some really captivating and other-worldly guitar leads can be found, breaking up the assault in such a way that each blow is felt.
Armed with one of the most breathtaking drummers known to mankind, Adam Jarvis, Misery Index and their particular brand of death-grind are just what we need. Caught up in the overwhelming wave of emotions at play, it begins to baffle me how, while we listen to albums like these to cathartically induce negative emotions, seeing this performed live is nothing short of bliss. I get equally baffled at how Mark Kloeppel and Jason Netherton can play so furiously – or, hell, even at all, – while delivering such muscular growls straight from the crypt. All of us who mosh become more feral still, pausing occasionally to catch a leaping body from overhead.
The time is nigh. In the absence of Fetus, it falls upon NAILS to really throw a show-stopping performance, and goddamn do they deliver. Remembering back to when I first heard their debut “full-length” (it’s less than 14 minutes), Unsilent Death, and mentally screamed “YES!” within the first two seconds, I have a feeling they’ll be just the band for the job.
Even expectations this high are obliterated. I couldn’t believe it, but, yeah, they’re even more pissed off in person. Combining the best elements of punk, hardcore, and extreme metal is nothing terribly new, and neither is aiming to be the most hard, violent, and destructive band, but succeeding at both of these endeavors is. Vocalist/guitarist Todd Jones, who looks as though he’d have no problem beating you into unrecognizability, brings to his stage banter some real positivity and words of encouragement, particularly, “When you say you wanna go for something, all your parents and teachers are gonna tell you ‘Yeah, well you’ve gotta do this, and you’ve gotta do that’, almost as if they’re discouraging you. What they don’t say is ‘You’re smart. You’re talented. Go for it.’”
With all sorts of karate-boy hardcore kids, slam-dancers, stage-divers, and every other variety of thrasher abound, it was one of the most diverse and violent pits I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in. Holding all that together is the crushing tightness of this three-piece who sound as loud and heavy as a three thousand-piece. At one point, John Baizely of Baroness steps on stage to shred along, which, given what these two bands sound like, is a hell of a surprise. I look forward to seeing Nails religiously whenever they play in town.
So now for the big reveal: what have the fine minds at Decibel pulled together in the stead of Dying Fetus? A Sepultura cover set featuring some of the Misery Index guys! Considering that everyone in the room loves Sepultura, it’s a pretty sweet call. Richard Johnson of Agoraphobic Nosebleed plays guitar and bellows backing vocals on a few tracks before he’s switched out with John Baizely. Tyler of Noisem comes out on vocals to give two songs his all before Vincent Matthews of Criminal Element comes out to do the same. Sepultura served as a gateway into extreme music for me as a young lad listening to the radio past midnight, so these are songs that hold a special place in my heart, and serve as a pretty sweet note to end the night on.
Bruised and sore, I run into Albert Mudrian, the man whose book and magazine made the evening possible and ask for a few words on the occasion. He takes a few minutes out of running around overseeing packing up to answer some questions.
Care to tell us what went down with Dying Fetus and the Sepultura cover set?
Albert Mudrian: It’s pretty simple. John Gallagher from Dying Fetus contracted a pretty vicious stomach virus last night, and I got some information from the band earlier this morning that they didn’t think he could get in a car and make it here because he was just a mess, vomiting for 12 straight hours. We gave it some time; they obviously really wanted to play. When it was kind of clear that it would’ve been a real mess to get them here, my friend Mark from Misery Index told me about Clenched Fist, which is the Sepultura cover band that they had. It was John Jarvis, who was here doing merch for Misery Index. Adam Jarvis, the drummer, was here, and obviously Mark was here. So, basically, they had another guy from Baltimore who’s in the band. They just gave him a call and said “Hey, can you drive up?” and he could. Obviously it was – who else is around? We’ll do some fun stuff. A bunch of people jumped in like Richard from Drugs of Faith and Agoraphobic Nosebleed played guitar, John Baizely from Baroness jumped in and played a song. The Noisem kids did some fun stuff too. Everybody pitched in. Nails played a longer set.
Given the intensity at which they play, that was mighty kind of ‘em.
Albert Mudrian: Yes! Nails was on in a rare way this evening. I don’t know if another real band should have followed them anyway at that point.
Do you think that one-off festivals get better performances out of bands?
Albert Mudrian: I don’t necessarily think so. I think that really it’s a case by case thing, especially with something like this, where – I don’t wanna say there’s a concept behind it, but – I guess there is a slight concept behind it, something to unify the bands a little bit more with this, I guess. The fact that Nails’ performance was great, I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that Todd was just into the whole idea of playing this, and to him it wasn’t just a show; it was something he was really excited about. So I do think that came through. I could tell the bands had fun, I know the Misery Index guys had fun.
Did any other bands come to mind as to who you might call?
Albert Mudrian: Not really. I figure if we’re gonna do something, it should be something that people wouldn’t ever really see again. To me it’s more interesting for the three or four hundred people who stuck around to say “Hey, remember that time Dying Fetus cancelled but this happened?” To me, that’s way cooler than a death metal band cancelled and then another death metal band played it instead.
What compelled you to add more to the book?
Albert Mudrian: A lot of time had passed. Twelve years passed, or something like that, so obviously a lot of stuff happened in this music and I felt like it was important to document what had happened because there were so many reunions, so many new bands, new styles popping up, and then there was stuff that I don’t cover in the original version, part of the history, stuff like the 1990 U.S. tour of Death, Carcass, and Pestilence, thing like that. It’s like “Oh, I know these stories,” but they didn’t make it into the first version and it’s like, “Why can’t they – if I’m gonna re-do something – why can’t I just”, y’know.
What of the past twelve years is covered?
Albert Mudrian: There’s a whole chapter on the Dutch scene, whole chapter on the Finnish scene, and obviously the reunion bug that bit so many bands.
Grab Your Copy of “Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal & Grindcore”.
More interviews, reviews, photos in June 2016 Vandala Magazine