I’m Listening to Death Metal #12: Demilich’s “Nespithe” and the Nature of Elitism
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 records themselves.
There is a magical window for me, not just for death metal but for music generally. I was 16 then, in the midst of a three-year period of something between profound psychic effulgence and caustic degradation. My home life, like that of many others, was not great. My parents were 1990s white-people rich, having worked up to low six-figure incomes each. The cost of this on the home was quiet and severe: to make that money, they worked long hours, commuting roughly an hour to and from work, with plenty of trips out of town to boot, functionally reducing family time to near zero. This left me largely in the care of my older brother, born three years to the day before me. We both were undiagnosed for a great many things in those days, from being on the autism spectrum to struggles with anxiety and bipolar disorder; on top of this, my brother was struggling with the strange PTSD of having been severely bullied by a neighbor when he was four or five years old, beaten to a pulp behind a shed within eyeshot of our home but unable to call for help.
The combination of factors left him paranoid, confused, heartbroken, and terrified, and it was into those young and unprepared hands that the care of me was thrust. It didn't help that our father was in the throes of alcoholism at the time, a trait that would one day cost him his life, and our mother, to compensate, only drove herself deeper into her work.
It was, like many dark homes, one made of two interlocking meshes, one of violence and one of love. There were moments of brightness and pleasure that I cannot deny, from vacations to family meals to the introduction of music and books into our young lives. If things were utterly unmarked by love and care, my feelings in retrospect now (as an adult in my 30s) would be much simpler: that of stark and perfect hate, a closed door, salted earth. But it is precisely those complicating factors -- that my parents wanted earnestly but failed to do the best, that the intense physical and psychological harm my brother inflicted upon me came from the soil of his own struggles, that I did not process or understand these things perfectly either -- that mark it with complexity, something I still chew over now as I look around at my life and the shape it's taken on.
Would I have fallen so deeply in love with extreme metal, with death metal, had these things not happened? This is an answerless question that leaves vague understanding; the pleasure and ecstasy of death metal for me is tremendously real, something not motivated by hate but by passion, something I perhaps would have felt under other circumstances. They are fascinating but unanswerable questions and likely prune the psychological roots of our actions and passions and interests too greatly.
I was 16 when my brother left home. It was like the removal of a great weight. Suddenly, my parents did not go to sleep afraid their child would end their lives in the night; I did not bristle at all hours anymore in the PTSD response of needing to potentially fight for my life at a moment's notice. The constant sourness that had pervaded the atmosphere of the home began to air itself out. But, of course, the removal of things that have long caused profound angst and pain are rarely so uncomplicated as to see an immediate repair -- where my brother once occupied, from which the miasma cleared, the wreckage became apparent as I contemplated how my parents had let this all happen when they were supposed to be the ones to protect me and protect the home… as I contemplated too how neighbors and the families of friends simply watched as things progressively worsened… as I contemplated too my father's only worsening alcoholism and infirmity which had sapped the family money and put financials on a razor's edge, replacing the prosperity of before.
I was boiling with anger and hurt and confusion, now alone, and stranded on an island amidst the hormonal seas of puberty, perhaps less equipped to parse those questions then than at any time in my life before.
It was in this period that I fell deeper in love with music, novels, writing, and video games as a response. I had researched these things in wild flurries before, but now with my brother gone, a computer moved to my own room, and a tremendous wall of anger to keep my parents out, there suddenly was no more barrier between me and a perpetual stream of information. I downloaded Soulseek, then relatively new, and was besotted with its chatroom feature that seemed perpetually staffed with geniuses of obscurity of any genre under the sun. It was in those hallowed halls that I began my most strident pushes into the annals of death metal history, first with the obvious groups like Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel before moving to deeper, more satisfying groups like Immolation and Cryptopsy and Incantation, then deeper still into demos and EPs and stray singles of groups that existed only for a year or two before breaking up.
It wasn't uncommon for me to find a download folder simply marked "Unsorted Death Metal Demos 1987-1992" or the like, nab them all, and listen through the lot with the TV on mute while watching obscure horror films or plowing through a video game. The room I set up for myself had poor air circulation, giving the entire atmosphere a thick, hot, and sludgy oppressive slickness that only added to the experience. This is perhaps why I gravitated so much more to death metal and the early industrial metal of groups like Godflesh and to sludge and doom and post-metal, especially over black metal; the atmosphere there was more conducive to contemplations of the putrid and rotting over the cold and arboreal.
It is through this experience that I encountered the archetypal "metal elitist." It's a commonly-enough cited figure: the person who will hop in your mentions or in the comments section to correct small typos or question your credibility for liking one record over another. They make up a toxic element of heavy metal fandom, themselves largely cishet white men, but are hardly solely possessed by heavy metal; they exist in droves in the world of prog rock, of comic books, of the sciences and math, in the world of music schools, art schools, higher-learning art programs, the business world, the worlds of punk and politics, on and on and on. There are a great deal of very obvious toxic elements within those patterns of behavior, ones predicated on locking people out of spaces, cordoning them off, keeping them private. It is tempting to close the conversation there, but to do so would be to be woefully and deliberately incomplete.
Broad proclamations about the complex psychologies of that kind of behavior would be insulting and shallow. I won't pretend to have a vast compendium of understanding regarding the impulse, but I can at least understand a vector of it. Because in that moment of my life when I was 16, experiencing the three years before college as a collapsing black hole of psyche and experience, art was my escape. Sometimes saying that sounds like art is meant to paper over the cruelties of reality, and certainly to some extent that was true, but that wasn't art's sole function for me. The other component of escape, though, is a sense of progression, that one day you can walk through the door, close it behind you, and find yourself in a new and different place. In that place of wounds for me -- that's what the lingering notion of college was, and then the psychiatric ward, on and on through the twisting hallways of adulthood.
We are not necessarily prepared for the realization that such a construct involves an endless procession of doors with no safe havens, hurled sideways through time as we age unto death while chaos hurtles around, but that lingering sentiment still remains: anything but this. Art is an important element of that -- it allows us to conceive of alternate worlds, to rotate them and prickle them with fine details, to pockmark their surfaces with the individuating desires and passions that we beg the universe to rain down on the contours of our lives like warm rain or soft snow. This function doesn't cease in childhood, either: though in some manners the function of wisdom increases as we age, we slowly seem to lose the ability to conceive of wildly different lives, as though something within us calcifies and resigns itself to the permanency of its situation.
As an adult man, I reckon with this quite frequently. In certain ways, I have acquired precisely the life I have always wanted. I write every day, for better or for worse, rain or shine; I transmute my experiences and my thoughts into language and people seem to find some value in this. New questions arise, though: should I have wanted this, could I have dreamed a better dream? The world outside my window suffers, first from fascism and second from a pandemic which lingers in unknown vastness and severity but threatens, by some estimates, over one million dead. Are words enough in this space?
What use is art?
If great paintings and novels could not stop or even slow Hitler, what use are they here and now? But these are questions I am not vain enough to believe I can answer. The calcification has already begun to take place; my life has a certain shape and, to maintain livability, I must continue that shape, whether with regret or rejoicing. But it causes the mind to turn back to those moments which in retrospect seemed to be crucibles of potentiality, when occultism still spoke to me as a vibrant and very real lived spiritualism that thrust me toward permanent becoming over the mere and dead having-been. I have to remind myself (darkly) that, in those moments of trauma and confusion in adolescence and youth, whether in my teens or in my 20s, I felt that same paralytic combination of absolute Sartrean freedom and constricting, choking constraint. The corridors of life felt at once narrowed to a worm-like crawl through unidirectional infinite darkness, suffocated by my suicidality and struggles with substance usage and unprocessed trauma, as much as things felt infinitely wide and infinitely free, like if I were only brave enough, strong enough to take the hit square in the stomach from whatever the ramifications of my actions would be, that I could somehow get free.
It is as someone who experiences these things, bears the weight of how the decisions of my hands shaped the pathways of my life, and witnesses how my resolute lack of bravery and resistance to change delivered me a life where I live now only 50 miles from where I grew up (despite swearing I would flee to the distant coast thousands of miles away to escape the horrors of my childhood and youth) that I can at least understand a level of defensiveness around the things that were once are maybe still symbols of that escape. These pieces of art, be they genres or the bodies of work of specific artists, become archons: charged symbols through which we can carry out the rite in darkness and cloak and dagger and bell and draw forth full clear images of the lives we were not brave enough to choose or, perhaps, were forbidden to us by forces beyond our power.
We should certainly decry the actions of the elitist types who seem to perpetually snipe at women and people of color and queer folk within the communities of metal, but there is an impulse behind their corrupted actions, that of a broken and child-like sort of passion for art that is important to all of us, something I think is at least understandable even if what it grows into is not.
This ties strongly into an innate sort of magic that heavy metal possesses. When I was in that Soulseek chatroom discussing my growing love of bands like Cynic, Atheist, Death, and Pestilence, getting recommended everything from Grave to Cryptopsy to Dismember and more, I felt like I was falling through a portal to another world. This was in the early 2000s, and access to heavy metal was, though greater than it had been in the decade prior, still a pale shadow of what we have now. There were metal magazines, sure, but that required your local stores carrying them. There were independent record shops, but this was in the era where those were beginning to die off, choked out of business by the growing big-box business model of places like Best Buy and Borders which could stock substantially more product at once even if the selection was substantially less curated. This meant that, functionally, the only way to learn about heavy metal broadly was the stray late-night music video blocks which would, if you were lucky, play one or two truly obscure metal figures outside of mainstays like Ozzy Osbourne and Alice in Chains.
The other major pathway was having older cousins and siblings and friends who were into the stuff, something I was thankful to have had. Even sites like Metal Archives, a heavenly trove of information on the genre, were only useful if you knew they existed and knew their URL in the years before Google's hegemony in the search engine world. I remember spending inordinate amounts of time in the single heavy metal record section in my entire hometown, situated on two racks in the local FYE in the mall. It was there that I first heard everyone from Dream Theater to Nightrage to Behemoth. Internet radio stations helped; it was on one of those that I had discovered black metal in general and groups like Emperor and Limbonic Art more specifically. Likewise, metal channels on the upper end of cable programming were a bit of a help, but tended at that time to focus on the more extreme end of metalcore rather than the most absolutely out-there shit like !T.O.O.H.! or the various collected works of Dan Swano.
This is part of what makes my discovery of Opeth at such a young age so serendipitous. Discovering a small and obscure BBS forum that once was dedicated to hacking and distributing downloadable copies of the Anarchist's Cookbook had developed into a general interest forum, one where I began honing the craft of writing on the writing subforum and exploring music on the related subforums for that topic. The happenstance of discovering that site looking for wild, psychedelic videos to freak out my friends put me in contact with an Opeth fan stoked that Blackwater Park was about to be released, a story I relayed in the very first chapter of this overarching story. That discovery would prompt me to fall in love, to dig deeper, to discover the more technical and avant-garde and fusion-oriented side of the genre, which would push me in those Soulseek forums to be thrust toward the more brutal and atonal and dissonant wings.
One user looked at my collection, spying the old demos of Cynic and Atheist in my folder. He and I chatted a bit in direct messages, where I mentioned I had preordered the upcoming re-release of Focus, an album that neither he, I, nor anyone else even loosely connected to death metal thought would receive a proper re-release, let alone a full three remastered tracks. He mentioned hearing that Atheist's body of work was about to receive a similar treatment, news which made him ecstatic. We chatted about the Roadrunner re-releases of early Gorguts, King Diamond, Pestilence, and others which had two full-lengths for the price of one in a double-disc set. There was a clear common interest and pool of knowledge.
Then, he asked me if I'd heard Demilich. The answer was no; next thing I knew, paragraphs were appearing one after another in short order.
I could recount now, perhaps, the history of Demilich, their roots in the Finnish extreme metal scene, the multi-year process that saw them releasing four increasingly technical and abstract demos before their sole full-length, the masterpiece Nespithe. This would be interesting, perhaps, from a purely factual standpoint, and were the point of this exercise solely to lionize the group and the record then it would be fitting. But what mattered to me then (and what matters to me now) is not Demilich as four real people with real histories in and around the scene. Instead, what mattered was the psychic impossibility of what I was hearing -- where Cynic was like a psychedelic water painting mixed with the poetry of Rumi, and Atheist was like a hippie turning into a werewolf, and Gorguts was like the cerebralism of Borges calibrated for death metal, Demilich felt sheerly and purely impossible, like a primal glimpse at the Lovecraftian vastnesses depicted by artists like Zdzislaw Beksinski.
It wasn't just the incredibly deep croak -- like a massive frog emerging from the sulfur-reeking pits of hell -- that obviously played a great part. The compositions felt like they were on the verge of falling apart, taking the atonal abstractions of Slayer and pushing them even further than Gorguts had gone. No longer did this feel like developments of the avant-garde classical worlds of Bartok and Penderecki, Demilich felt like something else entirely, something from hell, emerging from deep down below, a wraith of vomit and skin crawling up from worlds of stone.
What mattered just as much as the incredibly opaque sound was the feeling like I had discovered something. Obviously, on a factual level, this wasn't the case; I couldn't have been recommended the group if they weren't in good standing among death metal fans and, little did I know, but the group had just prior bought a webspace for the first time in their career and placed downloads of the entire record for free legally, which acted as a thunderous nuclear explosion of awareness of the group's work for people in my age bracket and degree of being terminally online. These mechanics were entirely (thankfully) obscured to me, leaving only the magical thrust of discovery, not unlike the night I crept down from my grandparent's guest bedroom on a visit, turned on MTV-2 just past midnight and caught the premiere of the "March of the Fire Ants" video by Mastodon, an event that would radically alter the course of my life.
I was sitting there in that terminally hot room, my body smouldering with raw hate, as I began for the first time in my life to expel some of the noxious fumes that had permeated me from years and years of abuse, beginning at last not just to reckon my own hurt as imperfectly and crudely as an unguided pubescent boy might, but also to explore my own interests for the first time free of the shackles of both my parents and my brother. Death metal was something that was mine, far too extreme even for my brother who had terrified our parents with grunge and thrash metal and Tool and the like. Progressive music and avant-garde music were another wing that I owned in near exclusivity among my family; my parents enjoyed the major figures like Yes and Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull, but once things got into the obscure and demanding Eastern European avant-rock sorts, they were out.
Demilich felt like the perfect union of Samla Mammas Manna and Immolation, of Alamaailman Vasarat and Incantation, something that was impossibly mine.
A glance at the song titles and lyrics confirmed what my heart was telling me. I would scrawl "When the Sun Drank the Weight of Water" on every creative writing portfolio I had to turn in, rendering its name in the Roger Dean-designed fonts for Yes laid over a drawing of the Kabbalist Tree of Life itself laid over a depiction of Yggdrasil (I've more or less always been the same person I am now). "The Sixteenth Six-Tooth Son of Fourteenth Four-Regional Dimensions (Still Unnamed)" is an undeniably perfect tongue-chewing mind-bender of a title, something that feels like it emerged from the cerebralist post-Lovecraftian or post-Wittgensteinian meditations on scale, epistemology, and hermeneutics but was then exposed to the psychedelia of Philip K. Dick before beginning to experience transcendent rot and decay.
My reaction to the formless words was the same as the first time I encountered the thick philosophy and theology texts my father kept absent-mindedly next to Alice in Wonderland and The House at Pooh Corner, being first dazzled as my brain futility attempted to conjure some kind of coherent meaning from the dense snarls of language before collapsing into pure imaginative capacity. The difference with Demilich was that I didn't necessarily want to know in the real sense. I didn't want to read interviews or lyrics sheets; I didn't want to see people parse the lines and musical ideas to find concrete relations.
For once in my life, the idea of knowledge seemed anathema to the enterprise, like it would rob the music of some profound mystery it was imbued with. I was no longer Christian, so the notion of music being unholy was of little importance to me. This was something else, music and art as a portal. The pureness of the inscrutability seemed to bely a greater order and reason I simply didn't understand, and that was more important than any real matter behind it.
My first blush with Unquestionable Presence by Atheist and Focus by Cynic had almost felt that way. The fact that I tend to prefer Spheres by Pestilence over Consuming Impulse felt like another small degree of personal ownership. But with Demilich, it became something else: no one else I knew in real life had ever heard them or even anything like them. I suddenly had found something leagues beyond the heaviest and most abstract music any of us had ever heard before, despite our increasing dives into obscure progressive rock and psychedelic music. The group, their music, their imagery, their way with language, suddenly became alloyed to me, vastly altered my approach to writing fiction and poetry. It was like an alien virus I had unearthed from some stray vessel, an ancient alien plucked from the deep stones. That I would later find even more wild death metal in groups like Portal and the like as well as more restrained and resolute takes on the some of the same musical ideas in groups like Immolation and Incantation mattered very little; Demilich was, irrationally or not, me.
From this sense of pure dissolution of art into self and self into art, one that only happened because of Demilich's relative obscurity, I can at least understand the defensiveness of some when it comes to heavy metal. I have since been disabused of my ferocious attachment to Nespithe, albeit against my will. There are certain records and bands that still trigger that kind of pure and primal, utterly irrational sense of psychic melding -- I still know what this sensation feels like. It emerges not from the reality of our discoveries but from the mythic anti-rational aura that surrounds them, like we are briefly living in a novel or a film and this is some profound and pivotal scene where some life-changing piece of art emerges like cold stone sheeting colder water off in waves as it pierces up from beneath the waves.
Nespithe is anti-rational perfection, an album that has been surpassed both in brutality and in abstraction but still feels more abstract, more alien, more intimidating and strange. Finding something that makes you feel that way is often not incomparable to entering a cult; in the thralls of the cult leader's incantations, you do not wish to raise your eyes from the prayer book laid in your lap to find an interloper in your midst.
The fact that I understand this impulse leaves me conflicted. There are many deplorable acts of gatekeeping that happen as a result of it, from obvious dismissals of people of color and queerfolk and non-men to the more pernicious and eye-rolling sneering that some do from a presumed position of authority. The act of gatekeeping itself is somewhere between petty annoyance and crudely-obscured bigotry depending on its execution. But the underlying impulse that generates this -- that the art being gatekept is special -- I can frustratingly understand. Protecting a genre space means to some degree nurturing it like a gardener, one hand fertilizing while the other hand prunes. It is a sentiment born at least partly out of love, even though dismissing it as something hateful and small-minded feels right -- all things counted, gatekeeping serves to ultimately needlessly drive people away from spaces they want to love.
I wish at this point that I had some profound and clear and concise statement to cut through this mass of thoughts, some final ribbon to tie everything up into a neat presentable kernel, but I don't. These are questions better and smarter people than me have pondered over before and will ponder over after as well. We know we must defend the art and spaces we love, and we must do this because that sense of discovery and that personal relationship they forge with us is important in an experiential way. But what does proper defense look like, one that doesn't overstep or unduly punish or banish others? I don't know. I'm not always even perfectly capable of recognizing precisely where an approach goes wrong, though sometimes it is more obvious than others. I mull things over, I think about them, and some days they weigh more heavily on me than others, but I do not always have answers or insights and even when I do I try my best to turn them over again and again.
As aggravating as that can be, I look at my relation to Demilich, one that was not built off of seeing them universally beloved but instead seeing them forgotten -- of feeling like I was discovering something, owning it -- and I begin, maybe, to understand.
Langdon Hickman is listening to death metal. Here are the prior installments of his column:
I’m Listening to Death Metal #1: Opeth
I’m Listening to Death Metal #2: Atheist
I’m Listening to Death Metal #3: Ulcerate
I'm Listening to Death Metal #4: Gojira
I'm Listening to Death Metal #5: Tribulation
I'm Listening to Death Metal #6: Morbus Chron
I'm Listening to Death Metal #7: Pissgrave
I'm Listening to Death Metal #8: Morbid Angel
I'm Listening to Death Metal #9: Gorguts
I'm Listening to Death Metal #10: Cynic and Bloodbath.
I'm Listening to Death Metal #11: Cannibal Corpse