Defenders see therapy and humor, and profit, in death-metal music

December 12, 1991|By Brenda Herrmann | Brenda Herrmann,Chicago Tribune

Death, Cannibal Corpse, Deicide, Sepultura, Obituary, Entombed, Napalm Death.

These aren't the titles of B-grade horror films. The names belong to the bands that reign in one of the fastest-growing music genres, death metal.

The music is every bit as ominous as the band names -- all guitars, bass and drums, churned out so fast that sound waves can barely keep up. The vocals are straight out of "The Exorcist," low, growling voices that make the throat sore just listening.

And the lyrics are written to fit the vocals. On the album "Butchered at Birth," Cannibal Corpse sings, "Guts are strewn from the children, splintered bones poke through the skin, gratification through castration, roasting parts for consumption." And that's one of the milder images.

The look of the death-metal band is also far from the MTV-ready beauty of, say, Jon Bon Jovi. For example, Deicide bassist Glen Benton, 24, has a large inverted cross burned into his forehead. During live shows, Deicide members wear suits of spiked armor and hurl cat entrails at audience members, who toss them back hoping to hook them on the spikes.

All this prompts a few questions: Who could like this music? Who creates it and why? Does it encourage violence, as some protesters believe; or, as some fans and promoters claim, is it just good, dirty fun?

The answers are hard to pin down. As with other controversial art forms (for that matter, is death metal an art form?), there are both fans and critics of death metal.

The format was officially titled in 1983 by the Tampa band Death, which took thrash music (very harsh, very fast heavy metal made for violent moshing/slam-dancing or stage diving) and hard-core punk and twisted it into fast, hard capsules about manners of death. The gorier the lyrics, the better the band's reputation.

Record labels -- most notably Century Media, Combat/Earache, Metal Blade/Death Records and RoadRacer/RC -- pump out one gory album after another. There's also a new bimonthly magazine, Metal Maniacs, devoted to death metal and the larger thrash genre.

And although most of those in the business agree that death metal will never be "the next big thing," they do understand just how profitable and popular it has become.

"Death metal only makes up about 45 percent of our label, but it's the most successful," says Monte Conner, 27, director of artists and relations at RoadRacer Records in New York.

Eric Cullmann, 26, of Philadelphia, is a fan of bands like Obituary, Death and Nocturnus. "I like everything about death metal," he explains. "I like the aggression. I like the words."

Cullmann says the lyrics about dismemberment and cannibalism are "funny, tongue-in-cheek." He adds: "They're not serious. If the people who wrote those songs really did all that, they'd be in jail."

Deena Weinstein, a professor of sociology at De Paul University -- and a death-metal fan -- says the music is like therapy, especially for teen-agers.

"Teens in particular think about death and suicide, but this society keeps it hidden," she says. "Death metal takes the worries that you have and shows you people in those situations. It makes you feel better about your own worries."

Bands like Sepultura have written about corruption and hypocrisy of leaders, and Dark Angel has lyrics that scream out against child molestation.

"It's about the issues of the world," explains Paul Speckmann, 27, of Chicago, founder of Master, one of the world's original death-metal bands. "It's about life, death, politics, personal experience. The world is violent and angry, and death metal is a way to express yourself."

Notes RoadRacer's Conner: "Deicide is the most over-the-top band in the world. If something [tragic] did happen [with a fan], it would scare me and make me reconsider."

Until there is proof otherwise, however, Conner sees listening to Deicide as a harmless way for kids to blow off steam.

Record producer and death metal guru Scott Burns, 28, sees nothing truly evil in the genre. "It's just another form of rock 'n' roll," he says.

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