An Extremely Long Conversation About Extreme Metal With Albert Mudrain
There is horror cinema. And then there is splatter cinema.
There is drug use. And then there is drug addiction.
There is heavy metal. And then there is extreme metal.
In the parlance of our times, you’ve been living under a rock if you’ve been missing out on something. Well, in the case of extreme metal, it’s the people who have been living under the rock that actually haven’t been missing out: They’ve been in on the great big secrets: bands like At the Gates, Carcass and Botch. They’re well-versed in all the metal schisms – deathcore, grind and doom. And they take their metal veeery seriously.
Like an oblivious passerby stumbling into a black mass, many of those who listen exclusively to commercial heavy metal don’t know what to do make of extreme metal, at least not at first blush. It’s a highly specialized and technical field characterized by ear-immolating sounds, nonstop blast beats, ever-changing time sigs and imagery that’s blacker than the soul.
Beyond the obvious traits – the musicians and fans who are always pumping fresh blood into extreme metal – the cluster of offshoots also has its own rules, its own dress code in some cases, even its own language. As in, “If you don’t know the difference between ‘kvlt’ and ‘troo,’ you should be disemboweled … while getting a lobotomy … atop a bed of nails.”
Extreme metal – unofficially incepted by Death and Possessed in the early-to-mid-’80s – is today as fierce, widespread and influential and integral to the shape of heavy metal at large it has ever been. One could even argue – what with extreme-metal bands topping more and more festivals with each passing year – that what used to be a microscopic parasite has taken over the host.
With extreme metal charging full-bore into this new decade, it’s fortunate for all parties involved that someone has decided to take stock of the considerable legacy that has already been left by bands like Morbid Angel, Entombed and Cannibal Corpse.
That person would be Albert Mudrian, whose “Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces” – issued last summer – is a dense, highly literate schematic that thoroughly maps out the terrain. The compendium – which culls from the reputed magazine’s equally touted Hall of Fame series that focuses on landmark underground albums – also marks a milestone for the publication the 34-year-old Mudrian has fathered, in one form or another, for more than a dozen years.
Last summer, I caught up with Mudrian while he was ambling through eastern Pennsylvania, where he grew up. (Coincidentally, when I recently yakked with another author, hardcore-punk scribe Brian Peterson, he too was visiting his hometown.)
As anyone familiar with Decibel would expect, Mudrian was well-spoken, brainy and willing to talk for an extremely long time about extreme metal. Maybe he was still buzzing from the book release party – featuring Pig Destroyer and Brutal Truth – he had staged the week prior.
Whatever the case, here’s our lengthy chat’s gory crime report:
[Don’t miss the Bad Penny’s Extreme-Metal Word Search, which revolves around “Precious Metal.”]
How did you become a metal collector at such a young age in eastern Pennsylvania? Did you have any cool record stores out there, or were you more of a mail-order guy?
I was definitely a mail-order guy. There’s a fairly decent indie chain called the Gallery of Sound … you could get the general Earache releases, but if you went deeper than that, it was mail order. [Working for that chain] kind of directly led to my job with Red Flag Media [a Philadelphia independent magazine publisher], and then inadvertently to my launching Decibel. So I can’t say a cross word about it. It’s definitely a solid record chain, but it isn’t an amazing metal store like Vintage Vinyl or something like that.
So you launched Decibel through Gallery of Sound?
I worked for the record chain in the mid-’90s, and they did an in-store magazine, basically a bare-boned indie version of Tower’s Pulse: a general-audience magazine that covered a bunch of different styles of music. When I was in the warehouse, I would read it every month. And in the metal section, they were covering some heavier stuff, but the guy who was writing about it just kind of irked me. I didn’t think he was taking it quite as seriously as he should have, or he wasn’t super-knowledgable about the more underground stuff. I was a young underground metal elitist, so I took offense and basically told the guy who owned the record store, “I could do a better job than this.” And he said, “Well, all right, write some stuff and I’ll give it to the publisher of the magazine.” And he did, and I met the publisher, and he was all into the reviews I’d written – I think I got Cannibal Corpse or Dissection or something.
I started writing for him on a monthly basis, covering the heavier, more underground stuff. We became friends, and about six months later, he needed some help with the magazine, because it was growing. He was also doing versions for other mid-size chains across the country at that time. So he was basically replicating the content for a couple different magazines. … He asked me if I wanted a job – I was 22 or 21 and still a senior in college, and I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was like, “This sounds great, OK.” Thirteen years later, I’m still at the company.
Were you a fan of metal exclusively?
I was definitely into other things too. … I would write all the metal stuff but put together the rest of the general-audience magazine. … I got to interview some fairly mainstream acts, like Radiohead and Marilyn Manson and Moby, when I was running that. The whole experience of being an editor and putting a magazine together, I think it partially prepared me for what I ended up doing with Decibel. But it was great because we would have someone like Green Day on the cover, and I’d do this three-page Neurosis story inside or something like that. It was a great vehicle for me to kind of permeate the mainstream and start corrupting young minds at an early age.
So you actually have caught up with Neurosis at some point, then? I read in the introduction that you had tried to approach them for a Hall of Fame feature, but it didn’t work out.
Yeah, I’ve interviewed Neurosis a number of times, and I’m proud to say that I’m friends with Scott Kelly. We’re in a fantasy football league together, and he kicks my ass every year. They’re good guys and obviously a great band, but they just don’t want to do a Hall of Fame. No matter how many times I get down on my knees, I don’t think it’s going to happen, unfortunately.
Do you feel like you’ve cultivated relationships with artists like Neurosis because of the stature of Decibel, because of your own knowledge base or your ability to befriend artists generally?
It’s hard to say. … I’m only 34, but I guess I’ve kind of been around a long time within this scene. So there’s a lot of people who knew me before Decibel started.
Another thing is just the way you approach it. Dealing with the underground-metal community is a lot different than dealing with pop stars. Everybody’s very approachable – well, most everybody is very approachable. If you’re talking with somebody for a while, inevitably you’re going to end up talking about things other than metal and find that you have other interests.
You alluded to the fact that you were an elitist metal fan when you were younger. Do you find that a lot of underground-metal bands have a good sense of humor, not just generally, but specifically when it comes to their music and performance?
There are some, definitely. Others, not so much. You really need to take the person on a case-by-case basis, really. There are some people who are just generally very serious, bordering on pretentious. Honestly, you can find different factions within certain bands: There are some people who are really chill and down to earth and have fun with things, and then there’s another half of the band that’s serious business. But I think that generally you find that most of the people involved in this stuff, they’re self-aware enough.
If you’ve been an underground metal band for a long time, and you’ve lived on the road forever, and you’ve slept on a million floors and not made a whole lot of money, you kind of get a sense of where you really are. And I don’t think most of these people are delusional about their bands and about where they fit into the whole [music] universe, really. They’re doing what they want to do. I think at the end of the day, they’re very serious about the music itself – they take the craft of it very, very seriously – but as far as everybody being very serious dudes all the time, that’s definitely not the case.
That makes sense. After all, the underground is a response to the mainstream. Especially in terms of what was happening in music in the late ’70s/early ’80s, when bands were putting so much emphasis on their image … it adds up that underground bands wouldn’t take their image so seriously.
Yeah, but by the same token, think about the early ’90s Norwegian black-metal scene. Obviously the music was of some importance too, but it primarily seemed like that was a very image-conscious, image-driven scene.
Ironically – take Darkthrone, who are in “Precious Metal” with the Transilvanian Hunger record – those guys, man, if I had interviewed those guys in ’94, when the record came out, that interview would’ve gone nothing like it does in the book. [Said interview is a “bonus” Hall of Fame that hasn’t appeared in Decibel.] ‘Cause they’re just different people: It’s 15 years later, and I hate to say it, but they’re kind of adults now.
I know it’s not directly related to your question, but it triggered that idea of this music being a response to the overblown rock image of, like you said, the ’70s, and I think in a lot of cases, even the glam-metal scene of the ’80s, a lot of this was a direct response to that too. So definitely more down-to-earth people coming out of that.
Speaking of being down-to-earth and black metal, why do you think it is that genre still has fully to entrench itself in the US?
Honestly, it’s touring. Mayhem have a problem touring here … their last tour here had a lot of hiccups. Emperor don’t really exist anymore, but I think they only did one or two US tours at the most. It’s hard for a lot of those bands that aren’t regular touring bands to get over here.
The way you make it in America – any kind of band: metal, pop, country, punk, whatever – is touring. You gotta get out there, and it’s such a huge, huge country. You can drive one end of Norway to the other within five hours. In America, that’s maybe a state. So I think it’s an overwhelming thing for a lot of people, and they don’t necessarily want to fully invest themselves in it.
It’s good in some bizarre ways, because it preserves the mystique of this stuff. ‘Cause when I was discovering those underground black-metal bands in the early ’90s, when I imagined them, they were out walking in the words in Norway. You couldn’t even get close to Ihsahn from Emperor – he wasn’t even a real person in some ways. I guess somebody like Varg Vikernes is probably a better example of those larger-than-life, almost caricatures-of-themselves creatures.
Definitely [with] black metal, the mystique is a little more preserved than, say, some of the other US bands, or even some of the bigger European death-metal bands, like Amon Amarth. I don’t know how many US tours they’ve done, but it seems like they’ve been here every year for the past decade.
I was just going to bring up them, as well as Behemoth and Arch Enemy. They seem to hit the States all the time.
Yup. And you know, they’re good, that’s great – all three of them are excellent live bands. But you don’t think about them in the hushed tones that you would about Emperor or Darkthrone or even a Mayhem. When they come here, it’s more of an event, you know what I mean?
Yeah. So what about younger bands having that same mystique these days? With DIY nowadays, it seems bands are taking marketing into account even when they’re developing their music.
Oh yeah, it’s definitely harder to preserve that mystique. The fact that I can trade e-mails now with members of Darkthrone, that’s a million miles away from what my impressions of that band were in 1992 or something.
It’s very difficult to preserve any sort of mystique, if that’s what a band is going for this days, because even the most evil, super-underground über-cult band has a MySpace account. And they need to, because it’s a great way for them to get their music to people. [But] the fact that you can MySpace these “evil dudes” kind of takes some of the fun out of it.
Getting beyond mystique, can you talk about one or two interviews in the book that best exemplify you or your writers showing a side of a band that no one had really seen prior to that interview?
I think that comes across best with some of the bands that are in the book that people might not have been familiar with in the first place. Because we do have some bigger bands in there [Slayer and Black Sabbath being the chief examples -ed.].
What eventually became [Repulsion’s] Horrified was an 18-track demo that they shopped around and nobody had any interest in at all. And now that record is kind of looked at this historical document for grindcore, ground zero in a lot of ways. And when you take it back in its original context, you think, “Nobody even wanted to put this out.” It’s things like that that are maybe a little bit more interesting and revealing than just the demystifying anecdotes.
You have these general intra-band dramas – like the Monster Magnet one in particular is intriguing. I had no idea that those guys disliked each other that much, even when they were making that record [Dopes to Infinity].
But in terms of these great big revelations, I think they’re all over the book, really. Even the making of the Heaven and Hell album by Black Sabbath, how unsure of things they were after Ozzy let. I guess in retrospect, you would think that any band is gonna have doubts replacing a frontman, especially after they’ve been successful for more than a decade.
And I think that’s also another neat red line running through the book: I don’t think anybody, when they were done recording their album, were like, “Yeah, this is classic right here.” Obviously they were proud of themselves or they wouldn’t have released it, but I don’t think any band had the sense of the cultural impact of the albums until years later, and in some cases, up until the point that we contacted them to do these interviews.
Talking about the cultural importance of these records, when the Beatles would put out a new album, all eyes across the world were on them. But with these underground bands – especially because a lot of the albums you focus on were made early in their careers – they hadn’t really established any fanbase yet, right? So how would they have had that cultural impact right away?
There was definitely an impact within the super-underground. Like, the tape-trading networks, they were all anxiously awaiting the first Morbid Angel full-length because they had had so many demos and rehearsal records and bootlegs for five or six years leading up to that. Those people were psyched. But that’s a very, very small segment of the population. Like you said, it’s not like people anticipating even the new Metallica record or something like that.
I was talking recently with Job for a Cowboy and Suicide Silence – who, thanks at least in part to Hot Topic, have really big followings. And Mayhem, probably the biggest metal tour now, is loaded with extreme bands: Cannibal Corpse, Job for a Cowboy. What do you think the underground’s reaction would’ve been back then to these current bands and their success?
I think they’d be stupefied. Especially if you took it back to the late ’80s. If you presented something like Job for a Cowboy, it would just go over like a lead balloon. Nobody would have any interest in that. Still, [while] they sell a fair amount of records, and they’re on one of the bigger metal indies [Metal Blade] … when you look at the grand scheme of things … they’re not on a major label.
It’s not like it was in the early ’90s, when you had a band like Morbid Angel who were a totally uncompromising death-metal band who managed to put out two albums on a major label [1993’s Covenant and 1995’s Domination, both issued in conjunction with the Warner Bros.-owned Giant Records]. I mean, that’s unheard of – and they actually sold well. It’s one thing for them to get to the starting gate and kind of dupe a major label into putting out one of their records. But then the fact that it does well and they get to do a follow-up? That was a crazy, crazy time. And I know that there are heavier bands signed to major labels now, like Mastodon and Lamb of God, but man, in terms of pure extremity, those bands aren’t even close to what Morbid Angel was doing back in the early ’90s.
Are major labels even a metric anymore, though? The paradigm has shifted so much.
You’re right, you can’t hold up a major label in 1993 to what a major label is in 2009. And I think that’s even stronger credit to what a band like Morbid Angel accomplished back then.
I’m also thinking of Billboard charts; you see tons of metal on there now, a lot of Century Media and Metal Blade titles. How do you chalk up CD sales still doing so well in the metal world versus many other genres?
I can say confidently that metal fans are the most loyal and passionate out of any genre of music that I’ve come across. They’re still psyched to go out and buy the record the day it comes out. They want to hold the CD. … They want physical, corporeal products that they can hold and have and collect. Do some searches for some old metal vinyl on eBay, and it’ll blow your mind when you see how much that stuff is going for. [Case in point: A first-run pressing of Dissection’s Storm of the Light’s Bane was up for $150 today. -ed.]
So what is it about metal that tends to attract the most loyal fans?
I don’t know. I mean, obviously, the artwork is in often cases intricate: I think of the old Ed Repka paintings for the thrash albums of the ’80s and then the Dan Seagrave paintings of the death-metal albums of the ’90s. There was always this kind of larger-than-life presentation, and I don’t know if you’re going to get that with, like, a Pearl Jam record.
But what makes metal fans so rabid? Is it an emotional or attitudinal thing? They seem to develop a different type of bond with their music than fans of other genres do.
Yeah, I would say that there is, because honestly, even when we talk about all the records these bands are selling, metal is still inherently an outsiders’ type of music. Growing up, I definitely was seeking solace with a lot of these bands. And, like you said, you develop maybe more of an emotional attachment to these types of bands and these styles of music more than, like, a Gin Blossoms record or something. Unless there was a pivotal moment in your life that was connected to the Gin Blossoms, and I’m sure that could happen to some sad human being.
Going back to the book, I noticed that the last three artists that you feature – Botch, Converge and the Dillinger Escape Plan – are all kinda similar: They were all hardcore bands that became metal bands. Was that intentional?
I can see how they kind of get lumped together stylistically, but I think, musically, they’re just worlds apart. They just happen to be dudes playing heavy music with short hair.
The truth is, I think that’s almost more indicative of what was happening during the early ’90s. That was the scene, that kind of metallic hardcore/metalcore crossover, at that time, with bands like Converge and Coalesce and Botch and Dillinger and Cave In (who we did a Hall of Fame on but aren’t in the book, for their first record, Until Your Heart Stops). At that time, that was the most exciting thing happening in extreme music. And I wanted to make sure that stuff was represented too, because if you flip through the book and you look at the early ’90s section, you’re going to see a lot of death metal – Entombed and Morbid Angel and Carcass – because that was the most exciting thing happening at that time.
Yeah, and when you pan out and look at the 25 selections in chronological order, it does give you a sense of how extreme music has evolved over the years. What about the Gothenberg scene in Sweden? Are those bands just too poppy?
Nah, we tried to do Hall of Fames on Dark Tranquillity’s The Gallery, In Flames’ The Jester Race, and for one reason or another, we couldn’t get them done. Somebody wasn’t talking or somebody was AWOL or something like that. We’ve definitely tried to do those in the past, and the truth of the matter is, I think having [At the Gates’] Slaughter of the Soul in there sort of covers all that.
Another one which I think would’ve been fantastic is the first Dissection record [1993’s The Somberlain], but for obvious reasons, we can’t do a Dissection Hall of Fame.
If I had actually completed an In Flames or a Dark Tranquillity one, I don’t know if we would’ve run it. Even that first Opeth record [1995’s Orchid] had obviously not a traditional Gothenberg sound, but it definitely had enough melody for a death-metal record in the mid-’90s that it definitely went on to shape things.
Tell me about the decision-making process, about how the inductees are chosen. Is it mostly by you? And were the 25 chosen for this book your picks, or was it a group decision?
Ultimately, I have the final say in what gets inducted into the Hall of Fame and what doesn’t, and I think there are a lot of obvious no-brainers in there, like Reign in Blood and Slaughter of the Soul and [Celtic Frost’s] Morbid Tales. But with some of the more not-so-obvious choices, I definitely listen to a regular rotation of our contributors who do the Hall of Fames, writers like Kevin Stewart-Panko and Chris Dick and Scott Koerber. We trade e-mails, bounce ideas off each other. And I have other friends that are in the industry … some of my metal elders who I trust. You just kind of have to go with your gut in a lot of cases, with what gets into the Hall of Fame in the magazine.
In terms of the book, it certainly wasn’t a scientific process either. But I was more cognizant of trying to hit the right balance of things. I wanted it to be a collection of albums that I thought included a few of those no-brainers, a collection that had some of those great, great, kind of dramatic stories – like the Monster Magnet one – and in a larger sense, something that represented all the different types of genres that extreme music has produced. I didn’t want to have too many death-metal bands or thrash bands or doom bands or hardcore bands. I think [the book] does a good job of reflecting that.
I would agree with you. In the book, you mention some albums that other contributers wished made the cut but didn’t. I don’t think I saw any that you wished had made it but didn’t.
There’s definitely records that I love probably more than anybody on the rest of the staff, but could I get away with justifying them as Hall of Fame records? Probably not. An example would be the second Believer album, Sanity Obscured. It came out in 1990 on Roadrunner. I love this record; I’ve been listening to [it] for almost 20 years. But would there be a consensus strong enough to induct it into the Hall of Fame? Probably not. So you just have to kind of sit on it, and then, maybe after we’ve done 100 of these, I can just be like, “Whatever, I’m just going to do it.” [He laughs.]
There’s definitely some other records that we’re going to induct that we haven’t already that honestly should be there first. We’re working on Megadeth Rust in Peace right now, we’re working on the first Deicide record [1990’s Deicide], we’re working on an Accept Hall of Fame, on Restless and Wild. These are records that we should get to before we start really arguing over whether or not Believer belongs in there.
Roots – and that’s a Hall of Fame that I did early, early on in the magazine – that’s definitely not my favorite Sepultura record. Arise is my favorite record, and I just felt at the time that Roots was probably a better story and maybe more deserving in terms of its impact. But in retrospect, I wish I could’ve just been asking them all questions about Arise. I adored that record, and it’s still my favorite Sepultura record to this day.
So the idea is that you’re not going to be hitting up a band twice, right?
That’s the idea. But, you know, talk to me 200 Hall of Fames from now, and we’ll see if that’s still the case.
Get your hands on “Precious Metal” right here.
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This entry was posted on 01/02/2010 at 12:07 pm and is filed under Features, Interviews, What You Readin' For? with tags Accept, Amon Amarth, Arch Enemy, At the Gates, Behemoth, Black Sabbath, Botch, Brutal Truth, Carcass, Converge, Dark Tranquillity, Darkthrone, Deicide, Dissection, Emperor, Entombed, In Flames, Job for a Cowboy, Lamb of God, Mastodon, Mayhem, Megadeth, Metallica, Monster Magnet, Morbid Angel, Neurosis, Nile, Opeth, Ozzy Osbourne, Pig Destroyer, Radiohead, Repulsion, Scott Kelly, Slayer, Suicide Silence, the Beatles, the Dillinger Escape Plan. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.