Defying Death

What's a death-metal mogul to do when the world becomes as macabre as his music?

Poor Jizzy Pearl. On November 17, the night he played the Rock Nightclub in Maplewood with Eighties hairball icons Ratt, the L.A. vocalist must have surveyed his competition and rolled his eyes round and round. What's an overfellated heavy metal veteran to think of a pop sky now darkened by the antisocial likes of thug-rappers D-12 (at the Quest) or depressed nü metalheads Disturbed (at the Xcel Energy Center)? What happened to the salad days of meatheads? Who harshed the buzz?

Angst is back. And everything, as they say, has changed.

"Sick is a cool way of life": Don Decker (second from right) with Anal Blast
Diana Watters
"Sick is a cool way of life": Don Decker (second from right) with Anal Blast

Not death metal, though. The night that Ratt and Disturbed duke it out, a dozen or so "dark," "extreme," or "black" metal bands take turns pummeling a crowd of a few hundred enthusiasts at the Lab in St. Paul. To these ears, locals such as Demonicon, Malignant, Coherent Liquid Form, Ossuary Insane, Anal Blast, and others are recognizable mainly for three comic common denominators: menacing names, disorienting double-kick-drum speed, and vocals that sound like Cookie Monster being drowned in hamburger grease. Yet the subgenre's formal conservatism fits the mood: Where nü metal is about anxiety, death metal is about certainty. ("Taxes metal" would do if the term had more ring to it.)

The end is coming, these incomprehensible growlers seem to say, so we might as well laugh in its face. The music makes mortality a cartoon, just as it does female sexuality, the horror of violence, or anything else more powerful than a speeding guitar. Death metal is pro wrestling or gonzo porn ten years ago, its underground popularity just as phenomenal. And just as baffling to the self-styled hipoisie.

I'll admit I never saw any shows at the Inferno on 27th Avenue near East Lake Street, so named because its tiny, 2,000-square-foot space could hold up to 250 people (as it did for the Polish death-metal band Vader one night), all simmering at 120 degrees in the wintertime. And among the Inferno bands, only innovative guitar noisesmiths Martyr A.D., who inspire what looks like kickboxing in their pit, have caught my ear since the hole in the wall closed in July.

Still, if I would not stop for death metal, death metal gladly stopped for me: On the night that the aforementioned ten-hour Metal Massacre took place at the Lab, former Inferno proprietor Don Decker agreed to duck out for a brief interview upstairs in his cavernous practice space. A black-bearded, short-haired mountain of tattoos and pale bulk, Decker unlocked a door that led into a large, lived-in studio. One wall was graced with a painted upside-down crucifix. Another was scrawled with a devil's star and the words Anal Blast, the name of the band he founded six years ago in Des Moines with future members of Slipknot.

Everyone knows Decker in local metal circles: He booked the show below us, bounces at the Lab, runs the label Nightfall/Terrorizer Records, and opened a Nightfall CD store across the street from the Inferno (the store closed temporarily this summer, however, and he's currently scouting for a new location). He started a sister store in Chicago, and has organized underground hard rock festivals across the country, booking death metal since 1987 for Milwaukee's annual two-day Metalfest, which draws up to 6,000 fans a year.

In 1994, Decker was trying to establish a tour stop for underground metal in Des Moines when the engine in his car blew out. He decided to stay for a while, forming Anal Blast as a side project with Slipknot's future rhythm section, bassist Paul Grey and drummer Joey Jordison. Decker still "sings" for Anal Blast, and the year-old line-up sounds tight as a noose. But the vocalist, who turned 33 on September 11 ("Happy fucking birthday," he says), has no illusions about his shock-rock finding a Slipknot-sized audience.

"Let's say that this isn't just a genre of music to you, this is a way of life," he muses, petting the lilac Siamese he calls Spook Terrorizer. "This is the posters on your bedroom wall, this is the art that you paint when you're intoxicated, this is the shit that you permanently mark on your arm for the rest of your life. For us that are in this extreme stuff, if you serve more than three or four years doing this, it's not just a passing phase or trend. You become part of that thing."

The thing his revitalized grindcore band is part of seems to be occasionally violent, always anatomically reductionist fantasies about women's bodily functions--a shtick that would be as transgressive as a good poop joke in a nonsexist metalverse. In our dimension, however, I have qualms about Decker's live performance credo that "you just throw a chick at it, and you've doubled your interest." Tonight he'll employ an "onstage female entertainment coordinator" to violate herself before an 18-plus audience, a stunt Anal Blast has pulled off many times in the past. (A complaint posted on his Web page reads: "One thing [the new site] could use...is more pics of local metal sluts naked doing sick stuff.")

Decker's thoughts about music and sex probably took shape when he was four years old. He says a hippie handed him a copy of Deep Purple's double-live album Made in Japan to get rid of him while he and Mom got busy. "Hell fuckin' yeah I've got issues," the frontman says. "But I love women. I try to hang as close as possible to as many as I can."

The hyper-patriotic Decker views death metal's obsession with obscenity as a test case for the American ideal. Indeed, death metal is built to offend the offendable--"religious figures, the church, the part of the establishment that would censor your ability to be free," says the singer. "The most beautiful thing about this country is that I can stand on the fuckin' sidewalk and scream 'cunt!' at people all I want and I have the legal right to do it. What are they going to pop me for? Noise ordinance violation at 6:00 in the afternoon? I love it."

Decker isn't impressed with the more recent, serious turn of mainstream metal--the slow descent into a post-Reznor/post-Cobain/post-Columbine cult of teen victimhood. The sea change might be described as the difference between Slade singing "Mamma Weer All Crazee Now" in 1973 and Disturbed screaming, "No, Mommy, don't hit me!" today. Good old adolescent fixations have been replaced by adolescent "concerns," as hedonism and "Thank you, Conan" guitar worship give way to womb nostalgia and child-abuse testimony.

"It's supposed to be dumb," Decker says of the music, flipping open a laptop to check for e-mail but ignoring his ringing cell. "You're not supposed to be educating people. You're supposed to be feeling the aggression, the anger, and let that negative tension out." To this end--and confirming my suspicions of death metal as a whole--Decker claims he makes up his lyrics every time he sings them. (Though he always returns to a certain, um, theme, suggested by such titles as "Tampon Tea Bag," "Puss Blood Pentagram," and "Crimson Smell.")

Decker's tests of tolerance might need to be toned down in the current cultural climate, though he probably views them as no less revolutionary than tearing off a burqa or restoring music to Radio Afghanistan. One gambit, in particular, would now seem impossible: "We can't do this any more, obviously, but when we would go out of town and play shows, we would get on the plane, and as soon as we taxi out to the runway, when the jets build up to take off, we'd be like, 'Yeah, we're gonna crash! We're all gonna fuckin' die!' We'll traumatize the whole fucking airplane..."

At the very moment he relates this story, we hear a knock on the door. The visitor is a pale woman in black eyeliner with a stud in her lip. Her name's Holly. "I guess if you're busy, I can talk to you later if you want," she says to Decker. "I just wanted to know how you want this to go down. Like, should I go onstage right away?"

Decker switches into professional mode. "I was figuring you should probably come out during 'CSW, Cum-Shitting Whore,'" he replies. "I wanted to actually stop and let the crowd hear you fuck the mic again, for that submarine diving noise that we got last time."

He turns to me. "When she screwed the mic last time, it fuckin' actually fed back. I guess the human body's like large radio antenna."

"Yeah, this time I think I'm going to lay back and put my knees on either side of my head," Holly says. They work out the logistics of keeping the act slightly hidden--and clean--to avoid getting the club in trouble.

"So no bodily fluids?" she asks.

"No piss, no shit," he says. "I'll be down in, like, ten minutes. You can get friendly with the mic."

He turns back to me. "Now, what were we talking about?"

I tell him I have no idea.

He laughs. "Sick is a cool way of life. There are a lot of people out in the world that like to take life to the extremes. But we're all basically really harmless people--except for my drummer. And me a few years ago."

Downstairs at the Lab, the Anal Blast spectacle plays out much as you'd expect. The two guitarists windmill their long hair as Holly writhes and Decker sneers, "Graaaalsjdgdaslkahfgllsqowuxkjmlughh!" into the mic. A few female fans look on from the floor and smile, lightly moshing now and again, but shying away when the male-ruled pit gets judo-level brutal.

With a few notable exceptions--bassist Tara Lee Anderson of Martyr A.D., for example--death metal is a boys' club onstage. Yet the female presence in the scene is growing, despite inevitable incidents of lunkheadism. Consider, for example, this admission by Mike Byrne, a witty, bespectacled Anal Blast fan who also plays guitar in Malignant. "If I didn't have long hair," he admits, "I'd never get laid."

After the set, Byrne and I leave the concert room for the bar, and he points out a friend bending over the pool table to sink one in the corner pocket. "See that girl?" he says. "She's with me. And she's getting increasingly fucked with tonight. She just takes it." He shakes his head. "Sometimes a mob mentality takes over."

(When the woman passes, the two exchange mouse-voiced greetings. A friend within earshot laughs: "That's not very death metal of you.")

Over in the bar's under-21 section, a pair of female high school students scoff when I ask if the atmosphere at death metal shows gets too humid with testosterone. "We take it as a joke," says one, who identifies herself as Mz. Eat'in. "Some people come and they get upset, but that's the point: They want to offend you." Her friend, Rainbo, suggests that it takes a smart sense of humor to appreciate the music--more than, say, to just be trendy and show up for the club's far more populous hip-hop nights.

And you can see their point: The predominant disposition of death metal--disdain--may be a necessary gag reflex for teenagers in the age of sensationalized tragedies, when the heroism of Flight 93 passenger Jeremy Glick knocking death in the teeth can be almost instantly reduced to the mendacity of a Stone Phillips interview with the widow. Death metal's satanic streak is little more than a mockery of the fake piety these kids can't stand.

We're all gonna die. Metalheads just want to scream on the way down.

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