Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Long Hundred 016/100: Death Is Just The Beginning III which I discovered that even the underground has an underground.

[This is part of a series of posts dedicated to 100 albums I feel lucky to have heard. The full list and a more detailed explanation of the series can be found here.]

Compilations are redundant these days: streaming services like Youtube and Spotify give you access to the entire history of recorded music, and shuffle songs by default - making every streaming experience the equivalent of listening to a new comp. [That also answers a question I used to mull: What has taken the place of mixtapes? Well, any device with an internet connection, for starters.]

But before the internet, compilations were essential to finding new bands - so much so that Eighties releases like Metal Massacre and Scandinavian Metal Attack were responsible for launching the careers of Metallica and Bathory, respectively. Compilations didn't have quite the same cachet by the time I was a teenager with purchasing power - to some extent, they had been superseded by film soundtracks (the best of which, such as The Crow OST, perfectly captured the Nineties zeitgeist and introduced bands like Helmet and The Jesus and Mary Chain to millions of teenagers around the world). You used to have to pay as much for a compilation as a regular album; as a sign of their declining relevance, by the time I was in college I was getting them free with every mail order.

Death Is Just The Beginning was the annual comp put out by Nuclear Blast Records - the German label who (along with Century Media) scooped up every great death metal band not already on Earache and Roadrunner. Even in the early days of my fandom, the hierarchy was easily determined: Roadrunner had Sepultura, Obituary, and Death; Earache had Napalm Death, Morbid Angel and Entombed; Nuclear Blast had Pungent Stench, Mortification, and Exit 13.

But staying closer underground gave Nuclear Blast an inside track to future movers and shakers. Songs from Dissection and The Abyss showed that by the time they were putting together DIJTB III, Nuclear Blast had taken note of black metal's growing popularity (even if they were outpaced by even smaller labels in terms of signing the genre's biggest bands). DIJTB III also featured an unreleased track from a little known Swedish band called Meshuggah - whose palm-muted poly-rhythms the label (perhaps predictably) attempted to conflate with Pantera. Soon after, Meshuggah released their breakthrough album Destroy Erase Improve, which elevated them beyond such comparisons (though their role in creating djent is perhaps equally damning to underground fans now as being considered "groove metal" was then).

Thanks to my buddies Knut Nord (who actually bought the CD and lent it to me) and Jon Ellis (who recorded it to cassette for me - I didn't have a working tape deck in high school), I got to listen to this comp every day on my walk to and from school. And it made me realize that metal's underground was even deeper and wide-reaching than I had suspected. [As an aside, Jon's stereo had a quirk which made everything he taped for me sound faster and more distorted - always a good thing for a teenage hesher.]

As with every compilation, DIJTB III is a mixed bag, quality-wise. Most of the bands never went beyond being second-tier acts. A few quickly became big deals, and their influence became obvious and immediate. And some were simply laughable, even by the standards of the day. In truth, it was too much for my sixteen year old self to absorb at once -  to this day, I only have the vaguest recollection of Incantation's contribution, probably because the bands they were surrounded with were so much more memorable.

It's interesting that the bands who made the biggest impression on me were arguably, the least important: My favourite bands on the comp were Benediction, Kataklysm, and Incubus (obviously not the nu-metal band, but the Brazilian/Louisiana death/thrashers who provided guest vocals on Sepultura's "Stronger Than Hate"). In my defense, the tracks culled from those three bands - "The Grotesque", "Eternal I Reach Infinity" and "The Battle of Armageddon", respectively - are the best they ever came up with; leading to an interesting paradox of compilations, where judging a band by one song alone leads to a skewed perspective of their quality.

As a Nineties hesher weened on Heartwork and Wolverine Blues, I have a soft spot for the eras of Gorefest and Amorphis represented on DIJTB III. In hindsight, those tracks make it clear that the genre as a whole was changing drastically; the vast majority of bands decided to experiment with different sounds, as did the labels themselves. And, as unpopular an opinion as it may be these days, I argue that it was to the benefit of the genre as a whole.

When I was a high schooler who had just started exploring the underground, DIJTB III made it seem like death metal was a genre with unlimited creative potential, and not just limited to bands playing as fast as they could. It's for that reason I became a die hard fan, and why I push back so hard at the notion that "true" means hewing the most reductive and conservative interpretation of what "death metal" is. But things go in cycles, and as the bloom goes off the rose on the old school revival (and, more importantly, as its adherents grow up/age out), the genre looks like it's open to the kind of variety that Nuclear Blast represented in 1995. I remain hopeful that a new generation of death dealers will return the genre back to the scope and potential that DIJTB III promised me back in 1995.

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Dan Swanö