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I’m Listening To Death Metal #1: Opeth’s “My Arms, Your Hearse”

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I’ve spent the last seven years, off and on, attempting to put into words what precisely I see in death metal and why it means so much to me. This column is my latest and so far best attempt to enunciate the value of death metal to me, artistically, aesthetically, and emotionally. The following are a set of guided stories loosely centered on certain records and the various relations to them, both inside and outside myself and the record themselves.

All I wanted to be when I was growing up was a writer. Well, that’s not true; there was the phase where, like everyone, I wanted to be a paleontologist, the surreal majesty of dinosaurs and macroscale lifeforms stomping about the same Earth as me (only displaced in time) blew my little mind and sucked up every last bit of my imagination. Then, for a little while, I wanted to be an inventor, taking after the engineering-mindedness that seemed to so naturally run in my family. The thread of these desires seemed to be pulled taut by my overriding desire to tell stories, no matter their shape. The history buried below my feet, the inventions that danced in my head, alternate futures and alternate pasts, the inventions humanity made and the horrible things we did to ourselves with them, and the way that we seemed to sometimes be able to dig up stories that otherwise seemed lost forever — these all coalesced like celestial gas under the microgravity of a new universe, planting a star in me.

It is easy, when you are young, to think of any artistic inclination you have as a tiny newborn star, whether that winds up being true in the long run or not.

The first thing I wrote, technically, was a few sentences of fiction I jotted down at my mom’s office as a five-year-old, brought there in the summer before kindergarten. My mom still has the file saved somewhere; between the terrible spelling and confusing grammar was a tiny bit of realist fiction from the eyes of a five-year-old writing about the normalcy of family, the kind of story that’s only made endearing by knowing the writer. The only thing about it important in the grander scheme was this sparking sensation in me; when my mom came back to her office to see me half-standing on her office chair, eyes fixated on the screen, I apparently turned back to her, pointed at the screen with one chubby hand and said, “Mom, look! I’m a writer!”

I made comics as a kid, spending a lot of first grade jotting short stories on the borders around pictures my friend Ran would draw of fantastical creatures, hybrids of werewolves, dinosaurs and machines, and cool dudes with huge guns. Like any real person in the real world, my little mind wasn’t fed only by Saturday morning cartoons but by my semi-rural Virginia life, the long walks in the woods with my family (sometimes getting so bored I’d start to will images of elk with black metal antlers creeping through the tangled brush of the trees), country music images of trucks and dirt roads and puffy jackets, history books about everything from the founding fathers to ancient Rome, mythology and fantasy novels, science fiction films, the cheap 100-page chapter books of Scholastic book fairs running the gamut from school tales to weird horror about haunted dolls and evil slime and mummy curses, popular films and the 1980s pop music my babysitters played in the car, and on and on. I wasn’t unique in this regard; it’s hard to find someone who isn’t surrounded by this polyphony of psychic influence. The only thing that changes, really, is the voices we choose to listen to, which of these million roads we choose to gravitate toward.

I didn’t want to gravitate. I wanted it all.

This was my youthful hubris talking, of course, but it would show in my writing as I got older. I wanted to write searing, confessional, and architectural epic poetry, a little Plath and a little Blake and a little T.S. Eliot. I wanted to write science fiction novels hard and soft… and a bookstop pomo literary head-spinner… and a heartfelt slim MFA novel about the brutal contours and irreconcilable angles of adult life. I wanted to write nonfiction and fiction, criticism and theory, pulp, and cerebral shit. At no point did I want to specialize, and my early writing life was guided by this principle; my first publications were comedy, poetry, then a science fiction short story, in that order.

But where this has to do with death metal: why, of all genres, that one would sear itself into my heart and become the primal roar of my natural voice, the sound not of my exceptional joy and pain but of my common heart, and also would tie to the bad things that happened to me when I was young? Again, I am tragically not unique; trauma suffuses youth, and in those years we are often worst equipped to handle it, so those wounds wind up lasting the longest. This is especially deepened when the wounds come from the people we trust the most to protect us from harm and to show us love, complicated by the moments when they do love and do protect us. Most of the current political rhetoric about abuse is made simple by the fact that a stranger hurting us is unambiguous in terms of how we should respond; life as a child hurt by family that you love and trust and who, in turns, work to earn that love is more complicated.

Years of having the shit beaten out of you in private, wearing long sleeves to school to hide both the marks of your own self-harm as much as the marks of what your family did to you, and the confusion about why your parents wouldn’t step in to stop it — these all wind up contorting the shape of mind.

I’m not sure how I would have coped if I had not found and subsequently gravitated toward heavy metal, sinking deeper and deeper into it until, at last, in that euphoric moment, I discovered the unholy rapture of death metal: that cavernous and wicked thing that seemed just as much an extension of Jimi Hendrix and Van Halen’s acrobatic and liquid fire guitar rock freakouts as it was exploitation horror schlock and a bit of the fake-deep cerebral science fiction I loved. I now know enough people as an adult who went through things like I did (some worse than what I dealt with) who found other paths of comprehending the wounds they were given, that I also now know I would have found something. But I do not live in those worlds, and neither do you; here, in this column, we will live in the world where I found death metal.

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A brief telling of my love of death metal would go like this:

Upon joining the military, a distant cousin gave my brother his collection of heavy metal records. They were stored in a green plastic shopping basket our cousin had swiped from a convenience store as a delinquent teen. This was the same cousin who showed us Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel via Beavis and Butthead; scaring the living shit out of me as a two- and three-year-old. This was the early 1990s, and death metal still had a mystique: it was rising from the underground but still largely lived in that subterranean world. For a kid, even one raised in a house inundated with music, something like a death metal show was a mysterious and forbidden thing, taking place in hidden invitation-only venues that appeared to outsiders like a normal building or home or basement. (There is a comparison here, in the sense of invitation being a requisite element to attendance, to vampirism, creatures that are forbidden entry to homes unless they are expressly invited; except here, the afflicted are inverted, where it is the vampire that must invite you into its home.) Within this basket was, among other bands: Ratt, Quiet Riot, Slayer, Megadeth, and Metallica.

Metallica was my inroad to metal proper, the copy of Ride the Lightning I fished out of that basket searing my spirit and seizing me up, even as a young Christian boy who had not yet lost his faith and had a mental breakdown and a suicide attempt and grappled with abuse and alcohol and substance, like so many in the metal and punk world have dealt with. There was this lingering sense of danger, the same eldritch body-terror that is exuded from horror and the overactive shadows of childhood bedrooms; as an adult fan of extreme music beyond the boundaries of metal, much of my life has been spent pursuing this sensation to whatever end it might take me. But I can still recall seeing the video for Morbid Angel’s “Where the Slime Live” in that Florida house — a Super Nintendo with a new copy of Mortal Kombat sitting a few feet to our side — with distorted faces and demonic howling and the quivering features of Trey Azagthoth through filters as he played his Satanic paean of a guitar solo, and I remember feeling a terror that compelled me wordlessly until once more I arrived at its shores.

These certain foundational metal records and bands (ones that were hammered home to me as being perhaps closer to Guns ‘n Roses and Led Zeppelin in their relation to the rock canon) later made certain heavier grunge records by Alice in Chains and Soundgarden integrate more easily in my young mind as they were popular, and from them the first inclinations of nü-metal were made approachable and digestible. It was Slipknot that was my last bastion as a boy before I was sucked fully into death metal, a hellish bone vortex that would take until high school to fully consume me. But there is no death metal without thrash, and no thrash without the great tree of heavy rock that preceded it, and it was this steady progression through the limbs of that great tree that allowed me to reach for death metal without the terror that struck me so keenly when I was so young.

I’ve since learned that my recollection of these events is not fully true. The basket, for example, was stolen by my brother, not the cousin; my memories of those videos and events were confirmed by my older brother to have occurred with several cousins and family friends across several states; and it turned out a lot of the CDs I was pinching as a kid were just the ones my brother got from his older friends or had purchased with his allowance. But reality has little bearing on memory and imagination, acting more as the germinal seed, especially in the years of early childhood, rather than the true ground. And it is this phantasmal irreal false memory I have that resonated in me when, as a teenager, I edged into the deeper ends of the nü-metal that took up so much space on the radio waves and time on music television, discovering Mr. Bungle, then Opeth, and from there the wider field of the fullness of death metal.

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The first death metal album I ever loved was My Arms, Your Hearse by Opeth. It was not the first death metal moment I loved, and it did not contain the first death metal track I loved either. But those brief interpositions of myself with death metal via certain breakdowns of Slayer and Slipknot or the primal fear of encountering Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel in passing did not have the same power to me, at least not then, as my first experiences with Opeth.

I was an avid web user from a young age; neither I nor any of my friends had broadband, but the ability to sneak off and log on to the family computer and poke around on dial-up was something that immediately enamored anyone that came into contact with it. I was in the sixth grade when my childhood best friend found the forum (which shall go unnamed) that became our Internet home until our sophomore year in college. Among the shitposting and trolling (and at times malformation that the often brutal and explicitly racist and queerphobic environment of underground forums at that time), it was also a music subforum; being young music nerds as we were, we were both drawn to peruse its threads and paw through the suggestions. My childhood friend was an only child, but I had an older brother, and he had older friends, and to top it all off, my older cousins and my parents had gifted us a number of records. We were already well-versed as a friend group in groups like Nirvana, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Tool, Incubus, Deftones, Jimi Hendrix and more; we had lived as children through the grunge and alternative rock boom of the 1990s into the post-grunge, hard rock, and nü-metal boom of the early 2000s. But we were 11, and when you are 11 and online and anonymous you know everything and wish to be peerless. So we asked them to hit us with the rawest shit they had on hand.

What came next was a crash course in punk, the alt-rock records we missed in the 1990s, post-punk, and all the other things kids get into when left alone for too long. I wasn’t allowed to have a peer-to-peer program on my computer after my brother and my father tanked the family machine through a combined pornographic nuclear assault, blaming it on Napster which I had downloaded to get these new songs at a wild rate of a song every six hours. But my friend had a computer in his bedroom all to himself, and so we were able to dive in more fully there. We liked the punk and the experimental music we were being exposed to. But there was something alchemical when, by random luck, someone posted a thread discussing Opeth’s masterpiece Still Life. This was 2000, and the record was still fresh on everyone’s minds. So fresh it was, it turned out, that we couldn’t find any tracks from it. So, we downloaded “Demon of the Fall” from My Arms, Your Hearse instead.

There must be something about that period of youth, the ages of 11 to 15, that prime us to be musically adventurous in a way that we lose as we get older. My friends then and I wanted, of course, to be liked by everyone, but within that complicated youthful desire of acceptance was some latent understanding that we accepted each other uncompromisingly, all going through our own multiform childhood traumas together in a chosen family. And, in that space, tormented by familial abuse and support structures that simply seemed not to care, we all for various reasons found our primary succor in art, be it film or video games or music. Being boys of a certain age, we didn’t allow pain out save for in certain ways. We couldn’t cry easily in front of each other, not yet, not even over the things we told each other were happening to us, but we could hurt each other physically, and we could hurt each other psychologically. For me then, metal, the more extreme the better, was a form of psychic self-laceration to pair with the physical pain I had inflicted on me by my family and the physical pain I would inflict on myself.

I laid down on his floor as he pressed play. Åkerfeldt and company roared over me. I fell in love.

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Something that strikes you when listening to My Arms, Your Hearse, especially if you are familiar with death metal, is that it is much more harrowed and sorrowful than your typical death metal record. For the first two records, Opeth was much more black metal than they were death metal, leaning much more heavily on the haunted atmospheres that were common to black metal of the post-second wave boom. These were the years of Cradle of Filth’s first few records, before they (briefly) became a laughing stock, and they were but one of several groups that presaged the shift in black metal at large from the frostbitten tremolo riffs of the Norwegian bands that started black metal as we know it today and ushered it toward a doomy melodicism. Opeth’s grasp of the evocative power of those kinds of minor-key Iron Maiden-isms that black metal was incorporating at the time, elegiac threnodies to the departed dead and their haunting spirits, came quickly; it was on My Arms, Your Hearse, though, that they finally started applying those thoughts in a manner that began them on the road to being one of the Great Bands of Heavy Metal.

Opeth’s career prior to My Arms, Your Hearse was a strange one. If you disregard their proto-history prior to the solidification of the lineup that would write and record their debut Orchid, you get a band that, like so many others of the early 1990s, actually fled from death metal toward black metal. Death metal in that era was beginning its tilt toward the technical, solidifying itself from the demo-tape hiss and primitive guitarisms that originally came from over-eager and under-practiced would-be thrash bands accidentally stumbling onto something much heavier and more wicked sounding. But this came with a cost: for many listeners, it was this primitiveness that compelled them and not the vision of heavy metal grandeur that so many death metal bands had. Chuck Schuldiner, after all, was raised on the same heavy metal heroics as the members of Metallica and Megadeth, and so to him a tilt toward more controlled and technically ambitious material indebted to groups like Iron Maiden and Fates Warning was natural. But, to the young audience built around those early death metal records, this was not the sound of their heads. They were choosing death metal instead of those cleaner metal styles and bands.

And so, black metal was born as a deliberate return to the punkier roots of death metal, a hard reset to the growth of the genre back to its earliest days. But by the time Orchid was being written, those first bands were already moving on. The major early lineups of Mayhem were dissolved and two of its members were dead; Emperor were making moves toward the progressive, as were Enslaved; Darkthrone were in the middle of their slum years before their reinvention as a trad metal/crust punk hybrid group. So Orchid represented, in 1995, a young group emerging into uncertain space within heavy metal. For a moment, it felt like black metal had failed and the Schuldiner-spearheaded push for death metal to become more technically oriented seemed to be winning. Orchid split the difference, being largely built on the mournful folk and black metal melodies with the occasional meaty death metal riff sprinkled throughout.

Opeth took a hit on Morningrise. They shot higher, certainly, but the songs on Orchid had spent years gestating where the songs on Morningrise were all composed and recorded within a year. It shows: while there are brilliant moments sprinkled through the record, it was too enamored with their early songwriting paradigm of blending black metal, death metal, and folk within the broader structures of progressive rock that they hadn’t yet mastered. Moment to moment, Morningrise is a mightier record than Orchid, but song to song, it is comparably weaker.

Following the release of Morningrise, the group’s first bassist and drummer to record with them would leave, being replaced (after much searching) with Martin Lopez and Martin Mendez. The forced time off did them good, giving more time for compositions to gestate and be honed. The lineups first recording together was a cover of “Remember Tomorrow” for an Iron Maiden compilation, followed shortly by a cover of “Circle of the Tyrant” for a Celtic Frost compilation. These two compositions seemed not only to gel the group but to refocus their compositional direction, leaving an album that had no songs over ten minutes where every song on the previous record exceeded that mark. The Celtic Frost cover also signalled a sea change in the tenor of their riffs; Åkerfeldt seemed, once he had the sound under his hand, to remember his turns guesting with both Katatonia on Brave Murder Day and Edge of Sanity on the death metal masterpiece Crimson, recognizing his startling acumen at death metal largely devoid of the grandiloquent theatrical black metal trappings Opeth’s songs had been shackled with, and recorded the musically leanest record of the group up until that point.

It’s strange describing My Arms, Your Hearse as a lean record devoid of grandiloquent theatricality, of course, given that it’s also the groups first concept record. More, the lyrics of the songs read more like stage directions and exposition than proper lyrics, a litany to a dream primary songwriter Mikael Akerfeldt wrote down immediately upon waking, and, to top it all off, the last word of each song is the title of the song to follow. The liner notes even include unsung lyrics for the instrumentals, some of which contain pivotal information that, without, renders the very story of the concept album into indecipherable gothic gibberish.

As an 11-year old in the year 2000 who was already pretentious and into science fiction and the fantasy book series I convinced myself were leaps above my reading level, this macabre gothic horror ghost tale concept was absolutely my shit. And, in a less effacing way of putting it, this greater sense of cohesion between the tracks is not only what propelled the members of the forum to goad me and my friend to download the rest of the tracks and not merely listen to “Demon of the Fall” out of sequence, but also added a greater aesthetic cohesion to the whole enterprise. After all, an unspoken component of what makes metal so compelling is its keen aestheticism, matching band name and record name and cover art so as to create a singular unbroken experience. This was one of the greatest triumphs of rock and punk and prog over some of the pop records of the 1960s and 1970s, the album-oriented singular experience that guided the listener to something beyond a three-minute reprieve. This was, to a young Langdon, the metal equivalent of The Dark Side of the Moon. It was absolutely pivotal that I download all of the tracks and listen to them in track order in a single sitting, album art and album notes and lyrics in front of us, to take in the record like a film rather than a disconnected set of episodes.

My Arms, Your Hearse was a transcendental moment for me, one filled with the same alchemical lightning as hearing “Eleanor Rigby” or “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” or “Kashmir” or “Master of Puppets” for the first time. Looking back at it, it’s not the top of the list for me in terms of that initial golden period of Opeth, but it is certainly both historically the beginning of that masterful run that went up to Watershed as well as my first proper introduction to death metal. In retrospect, I can thank it as well for being an eye-opening example not just of the primal hoary power of death metal, but also its imaginative and evocative limits. Opeth’s signature blend of folk and black metal in their otherwise prog rock/death metal hybrid touched on so many sounds I had heard before, from the dented and demented psychedelia of early Pink Floyd to gothic moody soundscapes that you’d traditionally only find in, say, either the expansive black metal records that followed the initial second-wave storm or the creepy prog-folk of Comus (I’m required to say the lyrics of their song “Drip Drip” were the inspiration for the title of My Arms, Your Hearse as it is an unspoken rule in any discussion of the record).

If it wasn’t for having that dual sense of both the power and possibility of death metal in hand that came with this record, I doubt I would have dived in as deeply as I did (and have) over the course of my life. As I said before, I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and I want in my heart of hearts to tell every story all at once. I’ve learned as an adult that there are simply some stories that are not mine to tell and that it’s my job to point people toward the people and instances of their best or truest tellings, but there are many, many stories I can tell.

The notion of an absolute limit in art is nonsensical; limits exist and, to loosely quote Deleuze, those rigidities and flexibilities of the space of art are organically created and destroyed, arising via circumstance of history and psychology and all sorts of other real but difficult-to-name variables. But the notion that death metal should be limited to merely the skull-shattering hyperthrash of Cannibal Corpse was never one that appealed to me. There is an ecosystem of art within the hellish bathysphere of death metal, and the most brutal and inhumane forms are but one type of fauna that lives within it.

Opeth became a natural bridge for me to the perfect discographies of groups like Atheist, Death, and Cynic, a natural bridge to the psychotic melting-head doomy death metal of mid-period Morbid Angel, a natural bridge to the psychedelic metal masterpieces of contemporary groups like Morbus Chron and Tribulation. I have a lot of death metal that has meant a lot to me over the years, that has soundtracked moments of pain and desire, lust and confusion, wrath and healing for me. And while I have proto-history here stemming back to a green shopping basket filled with heavy metal CDs inherited from a cousin in Florida, the proper first chapter for me is laying on the floor of my best friend’s bedroom, computer speakers at max, listening to Opeth and having my tiny mind blown wide open.

— Langdon Hickman

Langdon Hickman is listening to death metal. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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