By David Rowell
Sunday, August 9, 2009
On one level, at least, I was prepared.
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.
And then I played them "Helter Skelter," a Beatles tune so raucous it doesn't sound like the Beatles so much as the band that just beat the Beatles up. There are the wild, churning guitar lines, Paul McCartney's primal vocals, the chaotic chorus. After that, mellow fare such as "Something," "A Day in the Life" and "Across the Universe" mostly bored them. From then on, whenever I played my 8-year-old something new, if the first few seconds had the slightest suggestion of mid-tempo, he would shout from the back seat. "When is it going to get rocky?!"
Around this time, his 12-year-old brother became fascinated with Metallica, the once-underground metal band that went on to sell 100 million records and made thrash metal appealing to the masses. He had put a Metallica sticker on his notebook. It wasn't hard to see where this was heading. If he liked Metallica at 12, how heavy would the music have to be for him as a teenager? And how quickly would my younger son follow?
It wasn't that I begrudged them developing their own preferences -- another delight of parenting is seeing what moves them and what doesn't. But if they were going to end up listening to music much heavier than my own, I at least wanted to understand the appeal. And if I could do that, maybe we could keep music as a bond between us.
I entered into this experiment with my share of stereotypes about a group such as Pig Destroyer, but they fell away as soon as I met the band. Pig Destroyer lives a striking duality. It plays a blistering and scary music, but the members happen to be particularly friendly and gentle individuals. They are also quite successful, considering the band's part-time status. Pig Destroyer has sold nearly 100,000 albums, and it earns about $20,000 each year from merchandising, album sales and live appearances, which, when the band isn't playing a festival, are generally in front of crowds of 300 to 800. Though the band has, over its 12 years together, performed in such far-flung countries as Japan, Australia, Germany, Belgium, Mexico and the United Kingdom, it plays only a handful of shows a year because its members are fiercely protective of their lives outside the band. Hull, for example, is the devoted father of two small boys and a frequent volunteer at his older son's school. He had been working on his PhD in physics at Boston College before eventually abandoning it. Now he works for the Department of Defense, though that's all he can tell me for security reasons.
In a week, the band would be playing at the three-day Maryland Deathfest in Baltimore, America's biggest extreme metal festival. On the bill were more than 50 death metal and grindcore bands from all over the world, with names such as Venomous Concept, Cattle Decapitation, Napalm Death, Despise You, Kill the Client, Rotten Sound and Destroyer 666. About 2,500 concertgoers from all over the United States -- and more than a dozen other countries -- would be descending upon Charm City. Watching Pig Destroyer rehearse was a way to ease me into the fire, so to speak. The band members had wondered out loud how I was going to handle the festival. I had, too. Only Harrison planned on attending more than just the one day; three days of extreme metal, the others said, was too much even for them.
In the basement, they were about to run through the set they would play at Deathfest -- a half-hour's worth -- and Hull's wife, Lisa, was fleeing from rehearsal with their 6-year old son and toddler. She worried about what I was in for.
"I went to one show," she told me, "and I couldn't hear for two weeks."
Singer J.R. Hayes, 32, had brought his brother along; Josh Hayes does construction, and he was here to help Hull figure out how to convert the basement into a permanent studio/jam space. Hull had given him a decibel meter from Radio Shack, and as the band played, he wanted Josh to get readings from inside and outside.
As the band ripped into the first song, I had the sensation of standing under a bridge as it was being torn apart. And then Hayes came screaming over the demolition like a possessed foreman. At one point, I got up and went to the glass doors. I was sure I'd see someone looking out a window or pointing from an adjacent back yard in horror. Instead, the only person I saw was Josh, who was taking a reading from the upstairs patio. He waved. I waved back.
When they finished their last song, Josh took Hull through the trouble spots. The noise was seeping out the windows, he said, and the glass doors would probably need to be replaced with metal ones. Hull said he'd probably have to redo the ceiling.
But this was about what Hull expected. Now it was official. Pig Destroyer had a new home.
A few weeks earlier, I met Hull for the first time to get a tutorial. He pulled up in his driveway in his black SUV with his 6-year-old, Preston. Hull looks like any other suburban dad, save for the skull tattoo on his leg and the kaleidoscope of tattoos on one arm.
Hull grew up a military brat, the son of an Air Force officer. His parents divorced when he was 10, and though he was mostly raised by his mother and step-father, it was his father who was the musical influence. He bought Scott his first guitar at age 7 and shared his Beatles records with him, which Scott loved. Later, he took Scott to his first rock concerts -- AC/DC, but also metal acts such as Judas Priest and Iron Maiden.
Around the time Hull was in middle school, he was listening to hard-hitting underground punk and metal bands. He liked the rush the music gave him. But he started getting into trouble. He grew his hair long and skipped class frequently, experimented with pot and alcohol. His teachers knew that he was smart, but he wasn't applying himself, so his family sent him to a boarding school in New York. There, Hull got focused. He joined a band with the headmaster's son. By the time he was enrolled at Lynchburg College in Virginia, he was "a complete nerd. I was just really interested in learning about how stuff worked."
After Lynchburg, where he played in a couple of bands that covered classic and contemporary rock, he was working on his PhD in physics, at Boston College. While in Boston, he joined a metal band with a name that can't be printed here, and recorded a CD with them, but he stayed for only a couple of months. "I couldn't take off and do all the touring that they wanted to do," he said. But that wasn't the only problem. He began to realize: "'Hmmm, I'm the only one with a credit card. I'm the only one with the ability to rent a car. I'm the only one with any sort of education.' A lot of things were starting to come into focus. And I thought, 'I'm not sure I want to follow this path...This is fun, but I'm eventually going to want to have a family. I eventually want to be comfortable. I want to have a future.' "
He got tired of life as a teaching assistant making $12,000 a year, he said, relocated to Washington and started up his career. He was working at Lockheed Martin in the IT department, which, he said, put to use his skills as an analytical thinker, when Pig Destroyer started up in 1997. From the beginning, Hull saw the band as something on the side to a fuller life. His main interest was writing and recording, rather than performing on the road.
For Hull, the pleasures of both making and listening to death metal/grindcore come down to "the sheer aggression about it," he explained. "It sort of titillates that part of you that likes to go on roller coasters. That's all it is. It appeals to your desire to have your adrenaline gland squeezed a little bit."
In 1998, Pig Destroyer recorded its first album, "Explosions in Ward 6," which was released by Reservoir Records. Among extreme metal fans, the album was a sensation, due in large part to Hull's pummeling guitar work and Hayes's poetic lyrics.
The future that Hull had envisioned for himself years earlier became further realized when he met Lisa Scappa through an online dating service that same year. They were married eight months later.
"People, when they first see him, they're kind of intimidated because of the tattoos," Lisa, an executive recruiter, told me. "But then as soon as they talk to him, they realize that he's probably the nicer of the two of us."
Hull enjoys the careful balance he has set for himself. "I like being in my own house, and I like having my family around. On the road it's like: 'Where are we going to find ourselves tonight? Oh, no hotel? Okay, we'll just get back on the road. Who's going to drive?' It's just an endless array of problems you have to solve."
When Pig Destroyer does play a show, the preference is for weekends, which lets Hull save as much vacation time as he can for his family.
"Ultimately, this is not a career," Hull said of Pig Destroyer. "Bands typically fall apart after a while. And then your ability to want to continue to do this sort of wanes, and then all of a sudden you're stuck in a position where you've professionally chosen to do this for your livelihood, and all of a sudden you have to do this, and it's a job. That's why we choose to keep a lot of the pressure off. That's why we don't tour so much. All of that just tears people apart."
Some days later, I drove to Baltimore to meet Blake Harrison, who lives in a red-brick rowhouse in the Hamden neighborhood. He shares the place with three roommates, one of whom, Aaron Kirkpatrick, is Pig Destroyer's lone roadie. Harrison wanted to talk outside on the porch, since it was noisy inside. As Kirkpatrick and I sat on an old, weathered couch, I noticed an impressive number of empty beer cans had been corralled in one corner.
Harrison, 33, dropped out of Towson State University in 1996 and taught himself drafting. He now works as a drafter and designer for an audio engineering company that does large-scale sound-system installations. Harrison looked just a few years removed from a fraternity; he was clean-cut but jittery and talked quickly as Kirkpatrick sat cross-legged and remarkably still. We were discussing the various subgenres of metal when Harrison told me that he had a side band. He and a friend put it together, each playing bass and guitar and using a drum machine. Then he told me about the third member.
"We use a parrot for a singer," Harrison said. He took a puff on his cigarette, and I waited, sure I had misunderstood. "It's a death metal band called Hatebeak." The parrot -- a Congo African Grey named Eyeball -- mostly just squawks. But then, that was why he was in the band.
Harrison had hung out with the guys in Pig Destroyer long before they made him an official member. He had been their roadie and eventually managed the band's affairs. For Harrison, playing a sampler was ideal. "It's kind of drunk-proof," he said. "I drink a lot." He said that at his first performance with the band at Deathfest, he drank what he figured was a case of beer before they went onstage. "I mean, it was bad. I don't remember it. And I'm glad I don't."
Inside the apartment, which I could see was decorated with posters of heavy metal bands such as Biohazard and Motorhead, another roommate and a friend had cranked up Def Leppard, and the occasional empty beer can pelted against the screen door.
I explained to Harrison and Kirkpatrick that I was trying to understand why anyone would want to listen to music characterized chiefly by its brutality and bleakness. At first Kirkpatrick was stumped. "I don't know -- you just do," he said. But he kept thinking, and eventually he said: "I'm sure a lot of people into extreme music probably have a kind of similar experience of being an outcast, so to speak. And then as an outcast, you see what the popular kids are listening to, and what's being played on the radio, and you kind of go as far away from that as you possibly can."
We all considered that for a moment, as another beer can hit the screen door.
Pig Destroyer's Brian Harvey, 32, knows a few things about parrots himself. He and his girlfriend of 11 years, Amanda Curtis, have two Nanday Conure parrots that fly around their comfortable townhouse in Sterling. In fact, when Blake Harrison mentioned his plans for recording with a parrot a couple of years ago, Harvey was hopeful his would get the call. "Blake was like, 'Can they scream?'" he said. "I'm like, 'Yeah, they can scream.'" But for reasons still unclear to Harvey, Harrison went with another bird.
Like Hull, Harvey grew up as a military brat. There wasn't a lot of music played in the house and no siblings to pass along their discoveries. But when a childhood friend played him Metallica for the first time, he was mesmerized. He was still a little unsure why. "I've been trying to pinpoint it, and it's hard," he said. "I was a little hyper. Maybe that had something to do with it."
Eventually, Harvey persuaded his parents to buy him a drum kit, and he set up in the basement and taught himself rock beats by playing to tapes of heavy metal bands. He got better, but drums weren't yet a burning passion. Another influence, however, might have helped pave the way for a love of death metal. "Horror movies, and blood and guts, and all of that," he said. "My parents kind of exposed me -- they let me watch 'Friday the 13th' and 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' when I was a little baby. A lot of people might not agree with that, but I loved it. I would sit there on the couch and be enthralled." The action was exciting, he said. It gave him the same adrenaline rush he would later get from the music. "Not that I necessarily, you know, advocate killing people."
After high school, Harvey, who now pays the bills as a surveyor and by taking construction jobs on the side, tried his hand at Northern Virginia Community College, but his heart wasn't in it. He quit school and took on odd jobs -- telemarketing and stocking shelves at the local grocery store. A colleague at the grocery store named Rich Johnson invited him over to listen to metal music that was even more hard-core than Metallica: Napalm Death. "I loved it right off the bat," Harvey said. "I sort of laughed the first time I heard the really guttural vocals. I was hearing insane drumming. As a drummer it blew me away." Johnson was a guitarist, and he wanted Harvey to start up a band with him -- but he wanted Harvey to pick up the bass, because he wasn't sure Harvey was up to the ultrafast drumbeats that death metal requires. They'd rely on a drum machine for that.
The band was called Enemy Soil, and Harvey stayed with it for a couple of years. Eventually, he did switch to drums, after learning what is known as the blast beat, a hypersonic combination of bass, snare and cymbal or hi-hat. It's grueling work, and Harvey said there have been times when he's been so exhausted by a Pig Destroyer show that he collapsed to the ground immediately afterward.
"When you're playing that fast for that long, it takes a toll," he said. "And I'm getting a little older." He didn't believe he was too old to be playing this music, but since the tour in Australia, in 2008, he had experienced pain in his fingers, and he wondered how much harder playing drums this fast would become in the years ahead.
Harvey walked over to his electronic drum set, which dominated the living room and whose various programmed sounds he could hear by putting on headphones. Real drums, he said, would be too disruptive to his neighbors. He then demonstrated the blast beat. The drums were turned off, but between his feet flying on the double-bass pedals and riding the rubber cymbal and snare, it sounded like the entire town was banging on the door. When he finished, a hush fell over the room. Then, in the corner, a ruffle of feathers briefly rattled the cage.
Outside the modest Sterling ranch house that J.R. Hayes, 32, rents with two other roommates, two menacing gargoyles stand watch. Hayes grew up just a few blocks from here, where his mother played her beloved country artists -- George Jones and Conway Twitty -- while his dad put on albums by Cream, the Animals and Jimi Hendrix.
In person, Hayes looks more hillbilly than hell-raiser -- well-fed, with a scruffy beard and a shaggy haircut. He spent a couple of miserable years at George Mason University before dropping out, but he was starting to tap into the writer inside him. In college, he was introduced to the poet Charles Baudelaire, and then later, at Hull's urging, delved into beat writers such as Charles Bukowski and William S. Burroughs and their angry alienation. The discovery was a revelation. "Finally, I was reading something like, 'I can relate to this. This speaks to me,' " he said. "Most of the stuff that I had read before that made me never want to read again."
Back in the mid-'90s, at the local Tower Records, Hayes ran into his friend Rich Johnson, who was looking for a new vocalist for Enemy Soil. Hayes knew he wasn't a singer, but then, when he showed up at Harvey's parents' basement, singing was not what anyone wanted to hear. For the next 10 minutes the three of them played, and Hayes let loose. Harvey and Johnson then met on the other side of the basement and talked it over. Hayes was in.
Hayes met Scott Hull when Enemy Soil came to Boston to have Hull engineer a few tracks for the band. Later, after Hayes left Enemy Soil and Hull relocated to Washington, the two were ready to create their own band. After their first drummer didn't work out, they called Harvey, who also had moved on from Enemy Soil. And they made the decision to go without a bass player, an unorthodox lineup for any heavy metal band that has always left some fans scratching their heads. But the threesome had a chemistry that felt right. And, anyway, Hull played his guitar through a bass-heavy amp, which gave their sound plenty of low-end heft.
Hayes writes all the lyrics, and in metal magazines and album reviews, and particularly among fans, he is revered for his startling literary sketches. The imagery deals with all kinds of emotional and physical pain. On "Lesser Animal," he writes, "Got no use for psychiatry/I can talk to the voices in my head for free/Mood swings like an axe/Into those around me."
On the single-stanza "Murder Blossom," it's the foretelling of violence -- and resignation to it -- that is so chilling: "Dyed red hair, a forest green dress and a pair of kitchen knives/It was the last time I ever saw a rose."
Hayes said he was simply following a well-trod path. "Go back to Shakespeare," he said. "Are you going to find a bigger blood bath than 'Macbeth' or 'Hamlet'? Violence is a part of art." It's also part of a long-running fascination in popular music, whether it's Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" ("I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die") or Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe" or the chart-topping rapper Eminem and his track "Kim," which lays out a sadistic fantasy about killing his ex-wife (he didn't even bother to change her name).
Hayes likes contrasting dark images with beautiful ones. "I learned that from Charles Beaudelaire," he said. "He could write a whole poem about a dead body, and it's just the most beautiful poem you've ever read, you know? And it's not even necessarily the imagery as much as the words that he chooses or the emotion that he puts into it."
Like the others, Hayes doesn't think about trying to make the band a more full-time pursuit. "One of the reasons Pig Destroyer has been around as long as we have is because we're not around each other long enough to get tired of each other." So when the band does convene, he said, it is always special. "So much of life is just not fun. So the band is what we live for."
But being the singer in Pig Destroyer has not come without hardships. Once, while headbanging during a rehearsal, Hayes bashed his head on one of Harvey's cymbals. He lifted his hair and showed me the scar. Another time, while in England, he jumped into the crowd from the stage, and no one caught him. He spent that night in the emergency room.
Unlike Hull and Harrison, Hayes doesn't have the security of a salary. In November, he was laid off from his job as a surveyor, and he took construction jobs where he could get them. In March, he picked up night shifts driving an ice-resurfacing machine over the two rinks at the Ashburn Ice House. "I've never been in a position where I wasn't living paycheck to paycheck or I wasn't worried about paying bills or how I was I going to eat next Tuesday," he said. But despite financial struggles, he was grateful not to have to depend on playing more shows. "If I go out on the road for six or seven days, I've had enough," he said. "I want to come home, and I want a little solitude. And I want to sleep in my own bed."
At Deathfest, the crowd of black T-shirts was so unbroken by color that watching it move about was like observing a giant, roiling tar pit. The attendees were overwhelmingly white and young, and the males' long hair, beards, leather vests and spiked belts wouldn't have looked out of place at an 8th-century village plundering. Many of the women presented themselves as metal babes -- long, blue-black straight hair parted down the middle, Morticia-style; ripped or ultra-short dresses; fishnet stockings.
Metal heads like to let their T-shirts make a statement, and there were plenty of them to read at the festival. "The Time to Kill is Now," read one. Another depicted the lovable stuffed tiger Hobbes mauling his best friend, Calvin, into a bloody pulp. And this one: "I'm already visualizing gaff tape over your mouth." I, on the other hand, as a journalist, was wearing a white dress shirt and a navy tie.
I stepped into the club Sonar in downtown Baltimore with trepidation. Ceiling, columns, curtains -- all black. As the volunteer crew shuffled around in front of the club, I checked out the venue like a prisoner having a tour of his torture chamber.
Outside, vendors were busy getting their merchandise ready to sell -- CDs, T-shirts -- as fans lined around the block to get in. Tristin Campbell had come from San Francisco just to give out CDs he had made by himself, as a one-man death metal band. When I asked him what the appeal of this music was, he said, "It's like, why do people want to jump out of a plane?"
At the Relapse Records booth, Bob Lugowe was busy getting ready for a long, productive day of sales. He described his job as director of advertising and promotions at Relapse -- his first job since graduating from Northeastern University a few months earlier -- as a dream job. He was wearing a T-shirt that had a picture of the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, notorious for eating body parts of his victims. Underneath his image it said, "... let's do lunch."
Lugowe said there was a danger in reading too much into all the dark images and violent references that surround death metal. "I just like seeing people's reactions," he said. "It's funny. It's totally tongue in cheek. I mean, I'm fascinated with serial killers." To prove his point, he rolled up his sleeve to show me a tattoo of the masked marauder, Michael Myers, from the "Halloween" movies.
Logowe's partner in the booth, Eli Shaika, had been listening. "There's a lot of anger, too, man, from people who have been ostracized in high school. They just want to lash out, you know? This is a cathartic kind of thing to a wear T-shirt like that."
On the other hand, Lugowe added, "Like, I was the homecoming king in my high school."
It was time for the first band, Hero Destroyed, from Pittsburgh, to begin. I braced myself and walked inside, but a couple of songs in, I could relax. This was like listening to Van Halen compared with the music of Pig Destroyer. I could even pick out some of the words here and there. But after 20 minutes, Hero Destroyed was done, and the next band, Triac, shattered my newfound confidence completely. The diminutive singer shrieked a blood-curdling yawp, like a classic horror movie scream broken down into its own musical language. The room was filling up, and the response from the crowd was enthusiastic, until the singer, in between songs, stymied everyone by asking, "Does anybody have any questions?" No one did.
The band Jig-Ai from the Czech Republic, raised the bar for challenging vocals. Bounding around shirtless onstage, the bassist/vocalist emitted distorted, high-pitched bleats. It was the sound used in movies by aliens disguised as humans to signal to their kind that they've been found out. Were they going to explode? Were we?
Afterward, I stepped into the blinding hot sunlight, wobbly and a little dazed. I picked out one of the few spots of shade in sight, and an emergency medical technician gave me a double take. "No offense," she said, "but you definitely look out of place."
That afternoon, I talked to a woman from California who wore an upside-down cross around her neck -- which is generally seen as a shout-out to Satan. She was most excited about seeing the band Mayhem, which would be playing on an outdoor stage. Mayhem played yet another subcategory of heavy metal called black metal. Along with a steady stream of other black metal bands, Mayhem hails from Norway; as Garry Sharpe-Young writes in "Metal: The Definitive Guide," "Not since the Viking longboats set out from the fjords has Norwegian culture imposed itself so harshly on the world." Black metal is known, among other things, for its vehemently anti-Christian lyrics and imagery.
Even by extreme metal standards, Mayhem has a grisly back story. The band's vocalist, Per Yngve Ohlin, who went by the name Dead, killed himself in 1991, shooting himself in the head with a shotgun. His suicide note was brief: "Excuse all the blood." Founding guitarist Oystein Aarseth, who went by Euronymous, discovered the body and, the rumor has always been, before police arrived, gathered up pieces of Dead's brain to put into a stew. Two years later, a fellow black metal musician who briefly filled in on bass murdered Euronymous with a knife. Mayhem may have been the only group at the festival whose name undersold the band.
The woman with the upside-down cross let me in on a secret: Mayhem was going to come onstage from a womb! "I read it on the Internet," she said. "This is their first big tour here, and it's like a rebirth." For a band also known for destroying Bibles onstage and performing with pigs' heads impaled on stakes, this sort of entrance seemed modest.
Sadly, when Mayhem took the stage that evening, there was no womb. Not even any pig heads lining the stage. (This didn't surprise Scott Hull. He told me that when Pig Destroyer briefly toured Japan with Mayhem last year, the band's singer, Attila Csihar, was complaining about the price of pigs' heads.)
As I stood in the crowd listening to Mayhem, scribbling notes, one towering young fan, in a leather vest and thick, scraggly sideburns, sized me up with some disgust. "Like, what -- what is your deal?" he demanded. "Are you a narc?"
When Mayhem finished, the crowd moaned in approval. As Csihar exited the stage, he growled, "See you in Hell."
Lots of rock bands dabbled in heaviness in the '60s: The Kinks' "You Really Got Me," in 1964, with its frenzied, buzzing solo, was arguably the heaviest rock guitar had ever sounded. On the lyrical side, there was the Doors' spooky Oedipal opus "The End." Then Led Zeppelin came stomping through the gates in 1969 with its first album and the anguished rocker "Dazed and Confused." But Black Sabbath, based in Birmingham, England, and fronted by a young singer who christened himself Ozzy Osbourne, set out to own the darkness completely. With the release of its self-titled first album in 1970, it created a kind of rock music intended to play like a soundtrack to horror films.
By the 1980s, bands such as Metallica and Slayer produced a new signature sound by playing faster and more intensely. Thrash metal, as it was called, featured lyrics and imagery -- some of it overtly Satanic -- pushed to new extremes. In 1985, the San Francisco-based band Possessed released what is generally acknowledged as the first record to have the traditional growling vocals of death metal. As Albert Mudrian, the author of "Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal and Grindcore," writes, the band's singer, Jeff Becerra, was preparing to record the vocals, and the guitarist said, " 'Just go rrrooaarr!' So I pretty much yelled my guts out." The last song on their first album was called "Death Metal," and the new sound and moniker paved the way for what was to come.
The death metal scene was underground, which helped keep it from attracting greater controversy than it might have. The small labels releasing the music -- such as the England-based Earache Records -- weren't even trying to get these albums into traditional record chains. Most of the music's coverage was through word of mouth, an underground network of tape trading and shoddy-looking fanzines made by devoted teenagers.
One of those teenagers was Matt Jacobson, in Colorado, who started his own label, Relapse Records, in 1990, and brought out his first release a month after his 18th birthday.
"The first couple of years, it was all hot dogs and macaroni and cheese," he said. "But then we started actually to generate a pretty good amount of income because our overhead was so low." He soon relocated Relapse to rural Pennsylvania and signed a lot of U.S. bands. Jacobson was happy if a band could sell 5,000 or 10,000 copies, and often part of those sales were based on the label alone.
Jacobson, who signed Pig Destroyer in 2000, said that each of the band's albums had outsold the previous one. Pig Destroyer got its biggest boost when Mudrian put it on the cover of his Decibel magazine, which has tried to position itself as the Rolling Stone of extreme metal, and declared "Phantom Limb" to be the best extreme music album of the year. "For as extreme and as brutal and as uncompromising as they are, they really write some catchy, memorable songs," he said.
Not long after Deathfest, the band would be playing Hellfest in France, with travel and accommodations covered and a fee of a few thousand dollars. The festival featured megastars such as Motley Crue, Marilyn Manson, and a band that included two original members of Black Sabbath and now went by the name Heaven and Hell. Up to 60,000 people were expected to attend.
Jacobson is hopeful about what's ahead for Pig Destroyer, but he doesn't forget that, ultimately, heavy metal remains an outsider's music -- and likely always will. "Metal, metalheads really have a bad name," he said. "I think that people are really just afraid of what they don't understand."
Metal is not pretty in the early morning.
On Day Two of the festival, the parking lot smelled of urine and beer and vomit, and suddenly the name Deathfest felt truer than ever. The gates wouldn't open for a couple of hours, and some of the concertgoers had slept on the few patches of grass outside the chain-link fence, the bright sunlight slowly forcing their eyes open. Others, such as Jason Keyser, had started their day by drinking beer.
Keyser, 26, is in a band called Skinless, but at Deathfest he was just a fan, and he was philosophical about the life that being in a death metal band afforded him. The band had traveled to Portugal, Denmark, Austria, Ireland, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany and New Zealand, among other places -- and he pointed out that someone paid for the plane tickets every time. Skinless is on the road more often than it's not, he said, but when it wasn't, he picked up a job to put a little more money in his pocket. This was how it was for all the death metal bands he knew. You could make money, but making a living was too much of a stretch. He also had an original take on the appeal of death metal vocals. He liked not being able to understand any of the lyrics.
"I don't want to hear somebody's stories," he said. This was particularly striking, considering that he was the band's singer and chief lyric-writer.
Inside Sonar, Ryan Taylor, 27, tried to finish his breakfast while dealing with the latest production details. Taylor co-founded Deathfest with Evan Harting, 24. The two best friends were unabashed metal heads at Parkville High School in Baltimore County and worked together in a restaurant after graduation. They were on their way back from a death metal festival in Ohio in 2002 when it occurred to Taylor that the two of them could put together something better. A year later, with no experience and no industry contacts, they managed to put on the first Deathfest. It has been growing every year since.
Stepping out and watching the bands and the nearly 2,500 attendees was like "a year of work unfolding right in front of my eyes," Taylor said of the festival's first day.
Taylor has been a fan of heavy metal since he was 12, and though it was unclear to him how much bigger this kind of extreme music could get, he wasn't worried about it ever fading away. "Metal music -- it's like once you start, you can't stop."
Eventually, bands took the stage; bands came off. The music didn't sound much different to me than it had the previous day, but it never stopped being jarring when, after screaming his lungs out in a demonic growl, the singer would say, in a neighborly, does-your-lawn-need-cutting kind of voice: "We're selling T-shirts and CDs over here if you're interested. Check it out."
The guys from Pig destroyer turned up in the afternoon. They listened to a couple of bands, then stepped into the club to get ready for their set. The backstage area grew more crowded in anticipation. Onstage, the band Birdflesh, from Sweden, was finishing out its set. It introduced a song called "The Flying Penis."
Afterward, Pig Destroyer hustled to set up its gear onstage as fans looked on. Hull was hitting the stray chord, making sure he liked the sound coming through the huge bass amp he was borrowing from an earlier band. Hayes paced around the stage, the lights went down, and one of Harrison's lengthy samples began to play. It was, oddly enough, Larry King reading from Henry Miller's classic "Tropic of Cancer" ("... I will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty corpse.") The crowd waited quietly, ready for release. Then Hull dug into the menacing riffs of "Scarlet Hourglass," dropping almost to his knees as Hayes put the mike to his mouth and screamed the first lines.
The band chewed off songs from the list and spit them back into the crowd. Hayes, wearing an expression of pure anguish, paced around the stage like a man torn between destroying everything around him and destroying himself. It was the same set they had run through at Hull's house a week earlier, but the difference was like a careful test run around the block vs. jamming your foot to the gas on the open highway. Hull's and Harvey's speed was stunning, but it wasn't just musical athleticism. There were grooves within the bedlam, and I was catching them now. Most everyone around me was bobbing his or her head up and down -- headbanging -- but my head just went side to side, in awe.
After 25 minutes, the crowd had been hammered into a kind of exhausted bliss. I sat closer to the stage than anyone, but I was outside of it all. It wasn't my music, and no one needed it to be. Still, even I could appreciate what had transpired.
Pig Destroyer came out of the building while Napalm Death was playing on the outside stage. As death metal/grindcore goes, this was royalty in the house. Napalm Death had pioneered grindcore music more than 20 years ago back in Birmingham, England, with its debut album "Scum." Every member of Pig Destroyer had remembered encountering Napalm Death's music for the first time and being riveted. When Blake Harrison saw the group on MTV, he told me, "it changed my [expletive] life." Now here they were -- most of the original members having moved on long ago, true -- but this lineup was attacking the music with remarkable energy. The longtime singer, Mark "Barney" Greenway, was pogo-ing on stage with energetic exuberance that surpassed what any singer had been able to muster since the festival had started.
Besides being innovators, Napalm Death had the distinction of producing what may be the shortest song in recording history -- .75 of a second, according to the Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music. The song is called "You Suffer," and considering its length, the fact that it has any lyrics at all was a marvel. "You suffer, but why?" it goes, all grounded into one mordant yelp. As the sky darkened, the band played the song, which came through like a sonic door slam. It didn't slip past the crowd, though, which threw up its arms in salute.
Hayes, his girlfriend, Rachel Barksdale, and Harvey's girlfriend, Amanda, and I climbed to the parking ramp rooftop to watch the rest of Napalm Death's set. A mosh pit had formed maybe 20 feet from the center of the stage. Young men pushed and knocked each other into an almost perfect circular path, their arms and legs flailing. From up high, it looked like a whirlpool. Amazingly, no one fell down, and the circle kept swirling, sometimes widening and picking up people who otherwise meant to stay out of it. But they couldn't escape the pull and were swept in, too. It seemed to have little relationship to what was happening onstage, but I was struck by what trust you had to have to be in that mosh pit. Though no one was throwing an actual punch, it was extremely physical, and it would have been easy for someone to have stopped and pushed back, which could have led to trouble.
Watching from above, it wasn't impossible to think that my two boys would, many years from now, be down there, moshing in the heavy riffs. Even after what everyone had told me about the appeal of this music, I wouldn't understand it completely. But then, no one listened to rock music in the hopes that his father would understand. My father never paid any attention to the music I listened to, and it never once occurred to me that he should. Or that I would want him to. For now, the love of a lot of the same great rock songs was something my sons and I still shared, as Hull and his father had. This might not last a lot longer, but there are memories linked by rock music that I -- and they -- will always have.
In the swirl below, the crowd stayed on its feet, moving, colliding, and the circle kept flowing, contracting and expanding, as the band tore into each song with abandon. Howling, snarling, but in no way suffering.
David Rowell is an editor for the Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.