I grew up in a musical vacuum, mostly limited to traditional piano lessons and whatever albums my parents listened to. Some other bits of music trickled in over the radio or from movies and TV—Christmas music, children's songs—but the selection was pretty small by any standard.
I didn't have older siblings to help act as gateways into larger musical realms, and my parents wouldn't allow cable television, which meant no MTV. I was happy enough with my piano lessons and what little else made its way onto my radar that I never felt the need to go actively search for music.
It wasn't until high school that my wider musical and cultural education really began. My ears, my eyes, and my mind were opened to a soul expanding menagerie of sounds, sights, and ideas. I had a friend, Brian, who was considered a trouble maker and class clown. I thought he was very funny, a bit scary, and definitely provocative. One day he came bounding into class with a glint in his eye, and a wide, wicked grin.
He was clutching a wrinkled and greasy medium-sized brown paper bag, stained from his trembling palms. The way he was holding it (like a closely guarded secret) made me guess its contents were something illicit—pornography or fireworks, I figured. After class, he crept up to me, carefully scanning the area to make sure we weren't being surveilled. He unfurled the top of the bag.
"Look," he said, under his breath, delicately pulling out five CDs. "It's called death metal..."
He held a stack of jewel cases, and stared at them in reverie, like they were (un)holy, like a priest holding the eucharist.
The plastic cases looked extremely used, almost as though they'd been circulating around the whole school and had only gotten to me after a long odyssey, frosted over with scratches. Somehow it seemed like this special genre of music had intentionally escaped us, and now, almost mystically, was reaching over from the other side to initiate us.
The five albums in that bag, I still remember very clearly: Mental Funeral by the band Autopsy; Butchered at Birth by Cannibal Corpse; World Demise and Cause of Death by Obituary, and Harmony Corruption by Napalm Death (not as gory, but still intriguing). These CDs, I still have them. Though I've listened to them so much they're barely playable now. I've since bought many duplicate copies.
I remember racing home after school. I didn't know what to expect, but I had carefully studied the sticky booklets of each album and began to get delightfully nervous. I wasn't sure I was ready for this experience. This was definitely out of my age range—I was 15. What the hell was this stuff? Before I'd even had a chance to press play it had already made a deep impression on me.
Once home, I put World Demise in my humble stereo and turned it up. From the second the first drum fill and vocals kicked in to start the album, I was floored. It was one of those rare experiences where you realize you've been looking for this unquantifiable and unknowable thing, and weren't even aware it was missing from your life until you're suddenly face to face with it—like meeting your soulmate or having an orgasm for the first time. I was immediately and completely enthralled. I realized I had crossed a line and that I would never be able to return to life as it was before.
Obituary in particular blew my mind. The drumming style and especially the vocals were totally unlike anything I'd ever heard. The singer, John Tardy, had a voice I didn't think was possible. It was as though he was crying or being tortured, but in a beautiful way. His vocal cords sounded like they connected all the way to the pit of his stomach, where he was able to unearth a deep, emotional anguish. It was as though he had absorbed all the world's pain, suffering, and misery, and had run them like an electrical current through his own body and into my soul. All of humanity's despair seemed to be contained within his lungs and released through his mouth. But rather than make me feel sad or depressed, it made me feel good. It made me feel amazing.
It feels like it was designed specifically to summon up an explosive physical and emotional electricity that overtakes me in a gleeful way.
This was something I'd heard in other music, but only in small spurts—the screeching wail of James Brown, the frantic drum solo before a song's big finale. Usually, with other bands or artists, they would build up to a moment of intensity, like the crest of a wave, and it would hit hard, but be short-lived, fleeting. But it became clear to me as I listened to these death metal CDs, that this entire genre was based on extending that explosive feeling for an entire song, an entire album, an entire career—not just a quick crescendo or a peak that served to counter the bulk of more subdued music. In death metal, that high mark was starting point. It used the furthest extreme of other rock music genres as its base line, its foundation, and pushed forward from there. It's specifically designed to exceed excess. I was spinning in ecstasy.
Much to my amazement, I've not become tired of death metal at all. Its hold over me has only grown stronger over the years. This music is now in my DNA. I've listened to some the albums I discovered in that paper bag so often that now I can sing every note and air drum every part by heart. This isn't a boast about my musical acuity, this is a testament to the music's compelling and memorable power.
Death metal gives me a source of reliable raw energy. It feels like it was designed specifically to summon up an explosive physical and emotional electricity that overtakes me in a gleeful way. It has this strange sublimating effect.
If I'm in a horrible mood and I put on this angry music, it makes me happy. It's like two negatives cancel each other out or giving Ritalin to someone with ADD. Engaging with this explosive violent music makes me feel peaceful and focused.
I don't play death metal. How could I ever dream of competing with the existing masters of metallic malevolence? Instead, I just bow down and thank these unique individuals for devoting such care to their craft and for bringing so much unhinged joy into existence. This death gives me life.
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