President George W. Bush is remembered for his response to the 9/11 attacks as much as his penchant for painting. During two terms in power, talk of terrorism and warfare dominated the national agenda, up until the subprime mortgage crisis threw the fortunes of millions into jeopardy. It should come as no surprise that the art which emerged in the US during this time, particularly from the economically troubled Midwest, often interpolated themes of strife and violence, as much in critical reaction to current events as in defense of civil liberties. This was, after all, the early Patriot Act era. Minority voices and dissenting opinions experienced a chilling effect going up against an administration that denied the existence of man-made climate change (looking back, that almost feels trivial).
By 2005, 68 out of 100 Americans were connected to the internet, with the subsequent advances in communications technology making it far easier for musicians to connect with each other, with fans, labels, distributors, and so on. Myspace, from early on, showed great potential as such a platform, allowing bands or solo acts to share photos, songs, and other digital media content around the globe. The so-called “Myspace Bands” included tens of thousands of independent artists who collaborated and formed connections through the web of linked profiles, allowing for a continuous exchange of ideas. This earned artists exposure from curious parties who arrived at their page, and benefited fans via free streaming. While some mock this period because of the controversial nature of the better known of these bands, it was revolutionary nonetheless.
The nature of file-sharing was also changing. Observing the collapse of Napster, those who knew better than to use Limewire were becoming proficient with Bittorrent, and Blogspot sites dedicated to sharing music were everywhere. For no style of music was this more true than heavy metal; the intrepid pirate had their pick of subgenre-specific outlets providing an index of albums, each post often containing the album art, tracklist, and perhaps a brief synopsis, along with a download link. There were many recognizable players in the file hosting arena. RapidShare had come online in 2002, joined in 2005 by 4shared and Megaupload, with MediaFire arriving the following year. This scene peaked around 2008-2009, before government agencies and internet service providers began cracking down. The best of these blogs are remembered, their loss lamented. What you’re likely to find today just isn’t the same.
At the intersection of all of this is the mid-2000’s brutal death metal scene. It was a renaissance for the art form; new releases on Willowtip and Relapse were sought after affairs, and in-depth coverage could be found in the pages of Metal Maniacs, alongside advertisements for Sevared Records. Independent artists were buzzing online, their demos and EPs being passed around so rapidly that legions of fans soon formed even for provincial acts that only ever released two cassette tapes. Brutal Assault, Wacken, and especially Maryland Deathfest, became expositions for bands at the forefronts of their respective divisions to show off their innovations. The metal community grew without bound, a decentralized network of artists and listeners who found each other in the darkness.
Encyclopedia Metallum is an important piece of the picture. Sourced by users and active since 2002, it currently details 114,887 bands, with more added each day. Many people are surprised that so many metal acts exist; truth is, there are even more groups that don’t quite meet the criteria for inclusion on the site, and yet others who have simply not been “discovered” yet. Indexing information about a band’s releases, along with links to websites and social media accounts, makes this directory monumentally useful. As with any seemingly-exhaustive database, there is considerable interest in that which is omitted. One could muse at length about all the artists who came and went during the digital age without having made a mark on the world, leaving behind only dead links and inactive profiles…
It’s disheartening that when you do a Google image search for “brutal death metal,” the results page suggests incorporating the term “meme.” All jokes hinge on ignorance, and the general population’s understanding of death metal, let alone one of its derivative forms, is pretty low. The highest-charting death metal album of all time is Dethalbum III, a big budget venture for a fictional band from an animated television show. Unsurprisingly, most of the best-charting death metal is of the melodic variety; Amon Amarth‘s last two albums each peaked at #19 on the Billboard 200, and Devildriver’s Winter Kills hit #32. Like other forms of music, the most accessible variants often attract the largest audiences. Brutal death metal, meanwhile, is engineered to weed out novitiates and dilettantes. Even Cannibal Corpse, arguably the best known purveyor of the style, have been controversial for decades, despite making an appearance in Ace Venture: Pet Detective (Jim Carrey is a fan). By and large, brutal death metal is poorly understood and easily written off.
To be sure, there are many reasons why sensible people would not be interested in brutal death metal. The vocals, often described with terms like “growl,” “shriek,” and “gurgle,” are harsh and inarticulate. The guitar work makes use of slams and chugging riffs, while the drumming, when handled by a human, is pummeling. The imagery is exceedingly violent, often of a sexual nature, and is routinely misogynistic. As Jill Mikkelson put it in a thoughtful piece for Noisey, “violent misogyny is no longer shocking or provocative. It’s the status quo, and bands choosing this lyrical approach are simply reinforcing it.” To show an interest in brutal death metal is almost tantamount to endorsing rape culture.
The extant scholarly literature on the subject highlights these themes of gender inequality. Indeed, public perception of metal music in general is highly polarized, and the accompanying assumptions and equivocations make a dialogue difficult. Many people simply care neither for nor about metal music, and those who are open to it and can capably form evidence-backed opinions are often set in their thinking. Brutal death metal, alongside goregrind and related derivatives, occupies an uncomfortable niche in society, appealing to the prurient interests of individuals who at best are complicit in the perpetuation of violent, misogynistic rhetoric, and at worst are gleeful participants in the oppression and subjugation of women.
One might speculate that creating this type of music provides an outlet to channel one’s violent and illegal interests in a constitutionally protected manner. While this could be a tempting explanation for apologists, the data seems to paint a different picture. The American Psychological Association has confirmed that playing violent video games leads to increased aggression, and a study by Gretchen Cundiff has linked the consumption of hip-hop music with misogynous thought. Sarah Kitteringham’s thesis on the topic of the treatment of women in extreme metal brings home this idea with precision, making it clear that brutal death metal is not just catharsis. I remember a band called Fucked With A Chainsaw that released a couple of demos in 2007 and 2009 before the leader of the group was arrested and summarily incarcerated. I recall being told by a connected party that he had been convicted of assaulting his girlfriend; whether true or not, this story shows how indelibly brutal death metal is connected with violence towards women.
Being a fan of brutal death metal is almost unconscionable, and raises further questions about the extent to which musicians and their listeners endorse and internalize the messages conveyed in the music. As with the allegory of the cave, perhaps these individuals are simply in the dark, only knowing that which is before them, unaware of the tangible consequences of promoting misogyny. This explanation is inadequate because it paints them as innocent, and it’s hard to picture a modern society in which adults have not been taught the value of respect, in which such a pervasive rape culture exists that these expressions are accepted and tolerated. Or, perhaps, it might not be that hard to imagine: Donald Trump was elected President of the United States.
Brutal death metal has a lot of maturing to do, but so does the populace of a country that elects a leader so flagrantly against progressive values and ideals. Without delving too deeply into political matters, it could be construed that some of the concepts espoused by brutal death metal bands are simply an extreme variant of the ideas already prevalent in society. The proliferation of this music would logically peak at times of discord and unrest. The last major boom in the extreme metal world came, as noted earlier, during the presidency of George W. Bush; we already see this trend repeating today under Trump.
How does one celebrate the heyday of an artistic movement which condones violence? Carefully, it would seem. Looking back on those years, and the pivotal bands that define them, it’s important to separate the reality from any rosy memories of mosh pits and share blogs.
Plerosis was a one-man band from Madison which made use of a drum machine rather than live drumming, the brainchild of Neil Ruppert, vocalist and bass player for Dyscrasia. I was in eighth grade when the Gurgle Gag Punishment demo popped up in the feed of some website. The band logo stood out to me from the poorly designed album cover, a xeroxed mess of novice MS Paint production. My knowledge then of brutal death metal was shallow; I liked Impaled but still hadn’t delved deep into the subgenre. When I listened to Gurgle Gag Punishment for the first time, I couldn’t comprehend it. I wasn’t even sure it qualified as music.
Over time, with increased exposure, I developed an interest in brutal death metal, both for its extreme content (a perverse fascination for my teenage self) and the ease with which such music could be acquired. It was probably through Myspace that I got word of the next Plerosis tape, Gore As Plerosis. By email, I set up the transaction, mailed some cash to an address in Wisconsin, and a couple weeks later, I got my tape and a few stickers in the mail. One of those stickers still adorns my electric guitar.
Plerosis had a tiny following, and I wanted to be their biggest fan. In 2009, when the split with Intracranial Butchery was released, I made sure to get a copy; by the time Pulverizing Gore Machine came out, Neil and I regularly corresponded by email. It was stunning how easily I had managed to initially get in touch with him, and his (relatively) cheery and friendly disposition seemed starkly in contrast to the hostile music and imagery. He put a face to the human side of brutal death metal. We’re still Facebook friends today.
One day, whilst perusing the internet, I came across the Myspace page for a band called Epiploenterocele Pusliquid Wormchunk. The name alone necessitated acquiring what seemed to be their only release, the Leakage Promo. I sent a message through Myspace asking where to find the music, and was told to contact the other member of the band. That individual turned out to be Bobby Maggard.
At the time, I had a band of my own operating in the gorenoise arena. I had become accustomed to contacting other bands and labels directly through Myspace, as well as by email, and I had also downloaded Windows Live Messenger, it being a preferred mode of communication for many. From our first exchanges, it was clear Bobby was adamant about making music and had a deep passion for his craft. He is also one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
Bobby runs the label Regurgitated Stoma Stew Productions, and has been involved with some of the most exciting bands in the underground death/gore scene for over a decade. His impressive resume includes supplying vocals for The Corpse In The Crawlspace and Kryptophilia, and fronting countless projects like Bundled Bowels, Infernal Goat Vomit, Proctitis, Bradymenorrhoea, Anal Sex Terror, Cuntpump, Vomitatiehaematomaphilia, Infester (not the famous one), and of course, Urinary Tract Infection From Severe Pus Clots. His Discogs page boasts 86 releases, while his label has logged an impressive 446.
Once more, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the person behind all this depraved, sadistic music was a genuinely friendly fellow. Bobby lent his wisdom to me on a number of subjects; using a phaser pedal and guitar station to create “hydroflux” vocals, protocol for music trades overseas, tips for home recording. He put out releases from my band on his label, and was happy to send me and my bandmate boxes of his new releases. I’ve still got dozens of CDs and cassettes he made, each one a painstaking exercise in DIY. He will never get the credit he deserves; Bobby Maggard is an unsung hero.
When I think about the brutal death metal from the mid-2000’s that really stuck with me, the actual list isn’t too long. Animals Killing People is one such band that left a mark, at least partially due to their extremist PETA subject matter. The band made a stand on animal rights with their 2004 EP Human Hunting Season, suggesting that man’s place in the world is not at the buffet table, but on the buffet table. The followup full-length Kentucky Fried Killing is arguably their magnum opus, championing vegetarianism as well total annihilation of the human race. The combination of violent themes with otherwise progressive ideals is interesting; other bands could take note of this.
Another one-man brutal death metal project from Wisconsin, Putrid Pile has garnered acclaim ever since the 2003 album Collection of Butchery. The band’s longevity is a testament to Shaun LaCanne’s inspiration and devotion. The Pleasure in Suffering and House of Dementia are both classic albums, but I feel guilty revisiting them, rife as they are with violent sexual content. As a teenager, I could write off my interest as curiosity, or even irony. These days, much though I still appreciate the music, the packaging is a lot harder to swallow.
For years, the Myspace page for Gutted with Broken Glass has announced “NEW SONGS SOON!!!!” But, as noted in their Last.fm bio, the band hasn’t officially released anything since 2007’s Beaten To A Bloody Pulp. I was first alerted to this band’s existence by a scathing review in the pages of Metal Maniacs, and had to hear it for myself. The music is a bizarre derivative of deathcore, goregrind, and brutal death metal, wholly unsuitable for public listening, and certainly appealing to only a small crowd of fervent metalheads. Still, the band will always be remembered for incorporating imagery from My Little Pony, long before Friendship is Magic and the subsequent Brony craze laid waste to the internet.
In the wings of a downtown arts center, I waited to perform the final routine for my ninth grade dance class. Through my headphones, I listened to Vulvectomy’s Putrescent Clitoral Fermentation, not sure what to make of it. A review of the album describes the music as “mouth-breathing, glue-huffing retard slam for complete idiots.” I was a precocious young lad, ostensibly listening to this music out of intellectual curiosity. Though I knew better than to agree with the ideas advanced by this music, I was still fascinated by it.
People often talk about “growing out” of metal, as if it was a pair of children’s shoes. The argument is that metal music should only appeal to young people, unlearned of the ways of the world, and that enjoying metal is just a phase, a stage one passes through before being able to like “adult” music. To anyone with a background in musicology or anthropology, this is absurd, and only reflects trite mainstream societal values. I think it best to remember that taste in music is ultimately subjective, but the way a person is influenced by that music has profound consequences.
The faults and flaws in brutal death metal are human, as are those who create it, distribute it, procure it, and ingest it. This does not exist in a vacuum, but in the context of fractured societies that provide citizens with uneven access to resources. By promoting better education, critical thinking skills, inclusion, and conversation, society would be able to function better and art wouldn’t have to seem so abstract. A young listener of metal could balance their consumption of that music with writings from Slavenka Drakulić and Mercedes Laura Aguiar, for example. Even simply asking someone of another gender what they think could be illuminating.
I am not writing this in defense of brutal death metal, but as an attempt to come to terms with my mixed feelings on the subject. The things we believe shape the realities in which we live, and our personal freedom of thought allows for many varied intersections of beliefs. Brutal death metal in the mid-2000’s made for a community paralleled in modern times only by Indonesia, which has adopted the style as its de facto national genre. A lot can be said for the way that this scene brought people together and inspired the creation of so much art, but one cannot overlook the fundamentally unacceptable ideas contained within.