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Into the Darkness

A journey into the dark, brutal and surprisingly friendly world of death metal.

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By David Rowell
Sunday, August 9, 2009

On one level, at least, I was prepared.

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I reached into my shirt pocket and pinched two foam earplugs into my ears, then, out of nervousness, twisted them further in, like screws. Seconds later, Scott Hull launched into a crushing riff on his seven-string guitar, and drummer Brian Harvey whaled a beat on his snare as rapid-fire and ear-splitting as a jackhammer. Singer J.R. Hayes waited outside smoking a cigarette.

We were in the basement of the 37-year-old Hull's immaculate, three-story Bethesda home that, today, was being christened as the new practice space for the band Pig Destroyer. After 11 years of playing in Harvey's parents' basement, in Herndon, the band had to relocate. (Harvey's parents wanted a home theater.) Hull was worried about the noise here -- not inside the basement, but how it was leaking out. Though he had warned neighbors that his band would be playing this Sunday afternoon, it was unlikely that any of them could fully imagine just how loud the music might be -- or what kind of music it was. This was no garage band, in which case a startled neighbor might quickly turn forgiving as the feel-good classic rock of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" or "Bad Moon Rising" wafted through an open window. Pig Destroyer plays what is arguably the most extreme form of heavy metal music -- grindcore -- which, Hull said, "almost by definition has to be rough." With the intensity of heavy metal shot through with the attitude of punk rock, the songs run, on average, less than two minutes; the guitar and drums are played at a relentless speed. Grindcore is all but indistinguishable from another genre, called death metal, though aficionados point out that death metal is more technically accomplished, where grindcore is looser, more raw. In both genres, the vocals are not sung but screamed, generally in a deep guttural growl (though in grindcore, there is room for more shrieking). "Cookie Monster vocals" is how they are commonly referred to, conjuring up the low, throaty pleas of the famed "Sesame Street" Muppet. But that barely gets at it. Instead, imagine a gym teacher who has returned from the fires of Hell, barking ferociously in your face, not ordering you to do more sit-ups or demanding to know why you're not dressed out, but instead shouting all the ways in which he is going to kill you. At least that's what it sounds like; with grindcore and death metal vocals, it's impossible to understand the words.

The volume coming through Hull's amp was overwhelming, numbing. I could feel the vibrations in my fingertips.

Hull and Harvey's jam came abruptly to an end. Even though I had earplugs on, I had the sensation of having been slapped on both sides of the head.

"It probably needs to be louder," Hull said.

Blake Harrison was standing just inches in front of the huge speaker. "Well, yeah," he said. "It's Pig Destroyer, dude." Harrison is an anomaly in the world of grindcore/death metal, in that he plays what is seen as a decidedly un-metal instrument: the electronic sampler, which produces pre-programmed, digital sound effects -- bits of spoken dialogue and static textures (with names such as "Lake of Fire" and "Psych Ward"). Harrison, who joined the band in 2006, presses a few large buttons per song; otherwise, he pumps his fist and sips beer or water as the rest of the band plays on. Most of the band's set featured songs Pig Destroyer had recorded before he joined, but Harrison said he had figured out some noises he could add. "I mean, part of that is just me not wanting to stand there and do nothing."

***

The adjective that is most often used to describe this music, in reviews, in online posts, is "brutal." (For example, on Pig Destroyer's site, fans urge the band to "keep it brutal.") I was spending time with the guys in Pig Destroyer to try to understand why anyone would want to listen to brutal music. The band understood that I was not only uninitiated, but baffled. And that was before I even considered the actual lyrical content and overall imagery of the band. On the cover of its 2001 release "Prowler in the Yard," a figure is hard at work sawing his limbs off. On 2007's "Phantom Limb," a woman holds a severed arm. (Did the band just not like arms?) Most of the songs were about anguish and death, heartbreak and retribution. Violent images abounded. I came across this summary: "The lyrics paint loathsome, frightening images of pitch-black, self-hatred and the frailty of the human experience." And this was a promotional statement from the band's own label!

So why did I care?

There were plenty of art forms and social rituals and sports and happenings all around me that I didn't have the barest clue about. Extreme metal music was as removed from my world as were international handball or the coins of Togo, and I had no intention of immersing myself in those fields, either. But this was different; this was personal.

I had been thinking about heavy music for a while. I've loved rock music since I was a kid -- what's now considered classic rock -- and my affection for it has only deepened as I have grown older. If music is important to you, one of the great joys of parenting is introducing it to your children. A lot of parents of my generation start with the Beatles because of the gorgeous, gentle melodies, and I was no exception. Both sons loved Beatles music. As they got a little older, I expanded the canon to some of my favorites: the Kinks, Rush, Queen, Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, and on and on. Some bands went over better than others, and my two sons didn't like everything equally, but for many years we could widely agree on many, many great songs. I loved rock; they loved rock.


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