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Death Metal: A Documentary DVD

Review by Mike Korn

The mangy mutt of the rock world, death metal is usually considered horrid even by hardcore punk rockers. Heaven help those into mainstream music after getting a dose of Krisiun or Dying Fetus! The question that usually comes from the uninitiated is: is it music or is it garbage?

Well, here is a DVD that attempts to unravel the mystery. It features death metallers describing in their own words their beliefs and understanding concerning this most brutal of musical genres. There is no linking narration or interviewer's questions to get in the way. This is death metal in the raw, and many would say that is the way it should be.

Speaking of "raw", this documentary is the product of one Bill Zebub, the mastermind behind the cult fanzine "Grimoire of Exalted Deeds". This strange zine features massive doses of asinine humor as Bill grills members of the underground music scene using Shakespearean language full of "thees" and "thous". You have to read it to fully appreciate the approach. Bill also recently produced the horrendous bargain basement comedy "Dirtbags".

This documentary is as cheap as it gets. Lighting and direction are sub-par in just about every scene, and it certainly looks like the bulk was done with a camcorder. Sound is equally poor, and during interviews with the participants, you can often hear people loudly talking in the background. But we are not really judging this as an aesthetic exercise. Rather, we have to ask, is the content worth checking out?

Well, I would have liked to see some interviews with the TRUE creators of death metal. I'm talking about bands like Morbid Angel, Entombed, Obituary and Carcass. But those giants were beyond the reach of Mr. Zebub. However, he does assemble a pretty impressive list of luminaries to shoot the breeze on mayhem and madness. They include Frank from Suffocation, Ross and Bob from Immolation, Danny Lilker from Brutal Truth (misspelled as Brutal Ruth on the graphics), Roger from Mortician, Johan from Amon Amarth, and more.

It's interesting to hear Lilker's take on death metal. A former member of Anthrax and Nuclear Assault, he's been in on its development since Day One so he knows whereof he speaks. Recalling the days when glam metallers criticized thrash and death metal, Lilker brings up the response, still valid today: "we'll play one of your songs and you play one of ours and we'll see who comes out ahead".

Death metal is defended as a form of pushing the artistic envelope. Ross and Bob from Immolation point out the tremendous physical demands of playing in such a band, and I can vouch for that point of view. Death metal drummers are Olympic level athletes capable of incredible stamina and endurance. This also applies to lyrics. SOMEONE has to address the subjects of death, anger and pain in music. The mainstream sure as hell is not going to do it. To some extent, rap and punk tackle it, but not to the over-the-top level of death metal.

Differing points of view come up as far as Internet downloading goes. Mortician's Roger, one of the more articulate speakers on the documentary, seems unperturbed by it and gives a rational defense. If extreme death metallers are out for money instead of just getting their music heard, they would be better off going into boy band pop. Nobody in death metal is going to be a millionaire. Even the most successful bands, such as Morbid Angel, are just barely able to live off the music alone.

Most of the speakers come across as well-spoken and passionate. A major exception is Pete Steele from Type O Negative - the phoniest man in rock music, in my opinion. This smarmy goof has no reason to be on a documentary about death metal as he has never really been a part of it, despite playing in a shoddy Venom rip-off band, a jump-on-the-bandwagon hardcore band and now a trendy Goth band. His sarcasm is mildly amusing in spots, but one feels the urge to reach into the screen and slap him. He must be a buddy of Bill Zebub's (he also appears in "Dirtbags") because his presence here is otherwise a mystery.

In addition to the interviews themselves, there are some videos from lesser-known death metal bands. Again, one would have wished for an original Carcass video, instead of a cheap one from their clones, Haemorrhage. Deranged is a Swedish band that is seldom seen in the U.S. so their video is a welcome inclusion and actually quite inventive for its low budget. However, those who are easily offended are warned to pass over the Necrophagia video...a black-and-white nasty featuring lesbian nun sex, Satanism and extreme gore done in the cheapest and crudest form possible. Hilarious and harrowing at the same time, it's not really the best example of death metal.

At the end of the day, despite many shortcomings, "Death Metal: A Documentary" gives the practitioners and fans of this art a way to express themselves. Most of the time, they are dismissed in the most journalistically irresponsible fashion. No matter what one thinks of the music, after seeing this documentary, one is sure that death metallers are some of the most passionate and inventive people in the music scene.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2004 Year Book Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.
 
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