An interesting thought experiment is to question whether death metal – or metal itself, for that matter, but a subgenre suffices for this purpose – would’ve evolved the way it did if it lacked the name. Or, pondering from across the aisle, was death metal’s evolution set in stone once it was christened with its generic label? Sign versus signified, thunder following lightning; death metal as sound and technique versus death metal as philosophy on life and death. Who feeds whom and to what extent? Perhaps it’s a symbiotic relationship; an idea fuels the music and the music channels fresh fodder back into the idea in return, but what comes first?
I picture the letter ‘Q’ in my mind’s eye and then pronounce it in a manner which is phonetically consistent with some other letter in the alphabet, say ‘D’. I pull off this feat of mental gymnastics, but the one-to-one relationship between ‘Q’ and its expected pronunciation breaks down as soon as I divert from the norm. There is a dissonance I sense between sign i.e. the letter, and the signified or meaning or place in the proverbial alphabet soup that I’m trying to attribute to it; a dissonance impossible to reconcile if we hope to maintain the laws of language and communication.
I sense much the same dissonance when I add one unit of a particular type to another unit of the same type, and try extrapolating a result different than two eventual units. Now I’m a layman, unversed in the obscurities of mathematics, but it stands to reasonably solid universal reason that 1+1=2. Our mental faculties, unschooled though they may be in the finer aspects of math, allow of no other credible evaluation of this simple operation.
The difference between the two is that mathematical logic is internalized, abstracted, inferred, and for the most part independent of external influence, whereas the alphabet soup syndrome is a case of social conditioning in which our approximate blank slate minds are inscribed with the requisite correlations between image and meaning. The mind is a strict trafficman and erects a no-bullshit toll booth at just the right places; pre-wired or a priori concepts, and conditioned or a posteriori signals, occupy different lanes leading into this toll booth, but the mind ensures that which passes through the turnstile is in harmony with how we ought to perceive the wider world, for sanity to prevail and for human lives to be fruitful.
We begin to forcefully fret over death only when we see others around us die, and so from this view, the thought of death would seem like a conditioned response to our growing bank of experiences. But in other ways, death is as innate to us as the conception of 1+1=2; think about it, did you only start giving death its due when you saw others die? Sure, it played a big role in igniting that awareness, but it feels disingenuous to suggest that we carry no ingrained understanding of our eventual demise; even as a kid, every birthday informs us of our advancing age, every injury enhances the instinct of self-preservation, and with these the dawning realization that life cannot be an endless road.
If we consider death as an a priori, immanent, inseparable part of our mental make-up, and furthermore if we juxtapose Black Sabbath as the obvious starting point in metal’s journey, and Slayer‘s Hell Awaits as a thematically and musically justifiable enough touchstone in morbid, extreme metal, then is it tenable that this progression could’ve only followed the path that it did? Was Slayer‘s sheer sonic excess the only possible outcome of this fascination with death, a fascination that was set in motion by Black Sabbath and the musical techniques they created?
Meditating on death is by its very nature an anxious and melancholic affair. The music created through this meditation then can not be anything but severe in tone. Obviously, metal is not the only musical medium to express such thoughts, but we care for it more than others and so we try to decipher its ontological lineage. While playing techniques refined themselves, from the time of Black Sabbath‘s plodding classics through Judas Priest and Iron Maiden‘s period of stylistic crystallization, the idea of death itself was not confronted head on in the blunt manner of Slayer‘s celebratory lyric from Praise Of Death:
Stricken to live, hell on earth
Shackled and bound we lie
In praise of death, life’s a dream
We’re only living to die
Whether these words were penned before the songs or not is moot; there was violence to Slayer‘s music but also some dexterity, both couched in a riff writing style, full of clashing, musically dissonant phrases, that hadn’t been seen in metal till then – the Discharge-isms would only creep in on Reign In Blood – and which eerily simulated the chaos and eventual disintegration of life itself. Like said before, if death is indeed an innate part of our thinking process, then was the act of Slayer burrowing and clawing their way to their revolutionary musical idiom, consciously or not, an inevitable and inexorable part of that same thinking process?
I tend to think that it must have been, a combination of both pre-wired sensitivity and a conditioned response to what the band as intuitively rich young men saw around themselves. The latter conditioning was the blueprint inherited from elder bands on which Hell Awaits was built, but only in its faintest outlines; while not rid entirely of the influence of their heavy metal heritage, there are iconoclastic ways in which Hell Awaits differs from Show No Mercy, and this is evident right from the outset of the album. The build up to the title song emphatically registers a dark and magisterial presence, saying in no uncertain terms that here, finally, was the fork in the road that metal had always anticipated; no kitsch, no tongue in cheek any longer, things would be very different beyond this point, an almost clean severing from the sometimes vivacious, free spirited tone of older heavy metal. Here, finally, was a metal band that gave definitive voice, in all seriousness, to the other side of life.
The genesis of the term ‘death metal’ itself can be traced to various sources: to Mantas‘ Death By Metal demo (1984), to Possessed‘s Death Metal demo (1984), and amusingly, even to a four way split from the same year containing both Helloween and Running Wild (same split also contained a certain Hellhammer to even things out slightly). But once both sign (musical technique) and signified (death metal as worldview) were implanted by these bands, and interpreted by a suitable third party, all subsequent waves of death metal pursued this paradigm in a mutually reinforcing arrangement: as worldview solidified, musical intensity and innovation spiked, and vice versa.
However, this should cause no confusion over the order of precedence between these signs and their meaning. An idea always precedes its expression, their future interactions notwithstanding; death metal as a musical expression of death as idea and reality is no exception.