Interview with Brett Stevens of Death Metal Underground webzine.
Recently I made the acquaintance of Brett Stevens of the internets longest running Metal webzine, Death Metal Underground. As a long time defender of the faith we knew we wanted chat with him and get an expert perspective on the state of Death Metal today. Enjoy!
1. What is your official role at Death Metal Underground?
Right now, I am just a writer. I was its founder and editor for many years, but as of several months ago I passed the editorship on to David Rosales, who is a talented young writer, musician and editor who has great insights into metal music. As the site was shaped from my vision based in what I played on my radio show (1992-1998) I remain its biggest internal influence, even as I spend less time on daily content for the site. The <a href=”http://www.deathmetal.org/bands” target=”_blank”>Dark Legions Archive</a>, which continues at the Death Metal Underground, is the net’s oldest and longest-running metal site and the result of my vision plus a lot of advice from others and learning over the years. I am glad to see it carry on in such capable hands, and to contribute when I can.
2. Tell us a bit the early days of the site and how it has evolved in terms of technology from 1998 to today.
The site started as a collection of textfiles uploaded to hacker BBSs in the late 1980s (you can read more about this era in my article <a href=”http://www.furious.com/perfect/hackermetal.html” target=”_blank”>”Hacker Metal”</a> at <em>Perfect Sound Forever</em> ezine). I was calling all of these underground boards where a lot of people who were into telecommunications and security (heh heh) were also into metal. At first, I uploaded lyrics files, then began reviews and articles. These got popular over time and so I moved them onto the wider internet, first with FTP and gopher, the later the web, in the early 1990s. The site was straight HTML at that point and went through several upgrades in appearance. By 1998, the site was a full-fledged HTML maze focused on the best of the underground. Since then, I have added a metal news blog and automated the review posting using custom software of my design.
3. How much time do you spend on the site and what is your average day like?
These days, I spend a lot less. In the past, depending on how much metal listening I could get away with during the workday, I would spend 4-6 hours a day listening, writing and publishing the material. At this point, I tend to have less listening time, so I mostly binge-listen on the weekends and then write from notes during the week. I like to give anything I review at least a few listens before trying to think up something to say about it unless it is execrably devoid of creativity, at which point I tend to pitch it in the bin and move on. My average day involves work, family and writing both for DMU and other projects, starting early in the morning and ending relatively late at night. The schedule is somewhat grueling. If it were not for green tea and strong tobacco, I would fall over a lot more.
4. DMU has a reputation for being very academic and thought provoking. Why has this been the driving force be hind the writing?
My background was first in journalism, next in academia, and finally in information technology. In addition, my “hobbies” are literature and philosophy, both reading and writing. All of these, including a fair amount of post-modern theory, went into the style of writing that I developed and which is somewhat widely emulated today. I started down these paths by accumulating intellectual tools for understanding the world through analysis. The reason I apply these to metal is that they fit: heavy metal is a reality-based, highly analytical form of music which tends toward Latinate language and use of terms from philosophy and religion. Since most metal subject matter finds parallels in the era of Romantic literature, music and visual art, translating analysis from that domain provides a fertile ground for understanding metal!
5. Alone the same lines, DMU has often been ‘the sharp point of the stick’ when it comes to (allegedly) controversial issues in Heavy Metal. Is that a role that you enjoy to be the champion and defender of Metal against the clueless and feeble-minded who don’t get it? Do you catch much flack from bands (or labels, agents. PR people) you call a spade a spade and call out lame bands for being….well…lame?
DMU arose during a time when metal was the whipping boy for many social ills and scapegoated by politicians, teachers, academics and parents alike. It was important then, as it is now, to not allow the opposition to define the terms of debate, because their goal will always be to distract us from their misdeeds by finding something to blame. Heavy metal was a convenient target upon which to heap the suicides, violence, drug use, promiscuous sex and criminality rising in society during the 1980s, and now it is used as a political symbol by others. In addition, I have been active in anti-censorship and pro free speech activity since the mid-1980s, as I find this is always under threat. Generally, those who attack metal are worse than clueless and feeble-minded, although that may <em>also</em> be true; they are acting in bad faith. We all know heavy metal does not cause suicide and drug use, but looking into the actual causes of those problems will make politicians and other authority figures look bad so… blame heavy metal! To their credit, most label people and PR agents have been very cool about the fact that DMU hates just about everything. Our good reviews are worth more than those on some sites which shall remain unnamed — but you probably have some idea of who I am speaking — who try to write fawning “it will rip your head off!” type reviews for anything the bigger labels send them.
6. For the more knowledgeable fan there are a number of Death Metal sub-genres. Do you have a preference or do you try to avoid over-categorization?
I am generally agnostic on everything but music quality, which is both competent expression and having some form of content, emotional and otherwise, to express. If a band does this in any genre, I am interested and will write what I find. I separate this assessment from personal taste, which is what I enjoy surrounding myself with and in which I find personal resonance with the sound. Most of my tastes run to old school death metal from 1985-1993, selected black metal and some rare heavy metal standouts like early Iron Maiden and Mercyful Fate. I have no problem with detailed categorization, so long as people separate descriptive terms from genre terms. For example, “technical” is a modifier for any genre, but “tech-death” is a type of metalcore. I find it useless when people invent genres like “retro-gore pirate metal” to describe what is basically a speed metal band with some guy singing about ale and wenches rotting from within.
7. Has there ever been any discussion amongst the staff/writers and volunteers to expand the site to include more genres of Metal?
All of us seem to tacitly agree on genre-agnosticism. DMU covers mostly death metal, but also black metal, grindcore, punk, doom metal, speed metal, progressive rock and classical music. Where we find good stuff, we will write about it. If there is ever a top-notch metalcore record released, we will write on it. That being said, some genres are defined by having limited their musical palette by overuse of certain techniques or self-imposed limits on the compositional frameworks used, and it makes it unlikely they will rise above the background hum of mediocre rock acts with which we are all familiar.
8. This is a tough but fair question…why do you feel the ‘scene’ saturated with so many of the technical Death/core bands lately? Is it merely an annoying (but profitable) trend to try to be like Origin and all those guys? Are there any new, younger Death Metal bands that are catching your ear?
There are some great newer bands that have caught my ear, although I am not sure of the ages of the musicians. Blood Urn from Austria is a great act, as is Desecresy from Finland, and a death metal band named War Master from Texas. In addition, some bands have some musicians from the older era like Blaspherian and Imprecation, but the rest of their line-ups are younger people.
Undoubtedly the ‘scene’ is saturated with core, and I think it comes about for the following reasons. It is easy to produce, because it embraces an aesthetic of randomness (high contrast between riffs) which makes songwriting a lot easier than in death metal or even black metal; further, because so much of its material exists at the surface level, its infrastructure is conversely forced to be relatively simple. Your average core band is a variation and verse/chorus/turnaround with as much attention as possible spent on making the riffs outlandish to disguise how musically similar they are, and how little goes on musically — separate from aesthetics like rhythm, surface arrangements, technique, vocal timbre and production — despite all of the guitar fireworks. Metalcore, of which deathcore and tech-death are variants, is also strikingly popular because it requires nothing from the listener. Since the songs are random, all they have to do is follow along with the vocals which are used to unite these grab-bags of riffs into “songs.” Finally, metalcore challenges nothing. It is the musical equivalent of pizza rolls and this makes people feel like they are rebels for being “metal” even though the music they are playing is as safe as listening to disco in the 70s or grunge in the 90s.
9. Brutal or technical? …or is that too simplistic of a breakdown?
That is a hard breakdown for me to use. For example, two of the bands I enjoy greatly, Suffocation and Demilich, have elements of both. Some of the best bands use techniques when appropriate, and trying to go “all-brutal” or “all-technical” would produce the same kind of listener boredom. I spend a lot of my listening time on classical music, which tends to have many voices within the same piece: sentimental, mathematical, aggressive, pensive, melancholic, etc. Within my daily listening, Atheist and Cianide mix it up with Haydn and Bruckner interrupted by Kraftwerk and Lord Wind, followed by some Amebix and Cro-Mags. I am not random in my listening but focused on the ability of the band to express itself artistically and make an object of <em>art</em>, or in other words a sensual experience that changes the listener intellectually by showing them the world in a new light and through that, revealing the inner notions they have concealed from fear of social pressure. All art does this, even great novels and symphonies, and metal — which is not from the pop tradition — does the same. This is why metal is so aggressive about self-policing against poseurs/hipsters (etc.!): it wants to keep its artistic basis and not be assimilated by the pop trend, which is obviously more popular and lucrative because it appeals to a lowest common denominator. This is why I remain agnostic to type of music, but wherever I find good music, listen the hell out of it. I tend toward metal because I find it most honest and sustaining, but within metal, as long as it does not betray the fundamental idea of metal (like Deafheaven or Vattnet Viskar) any style will do.
10. What is it with the tobacco reviews? lol.
As a pipe smoker for many years, I recently branched out into different types of tobacco. I find the process of harvesting different strains of tobacco, curing them in different ways and then finely adjusting the mixes of the resulting different tobacco types to produce different flavors, strengths and scents to be fascinating. In addition, it seems that just as in metal and literature, and even computer science, the public relies on some comfortable fictions which help them stay unconcerned, but underneath the surface there is a more complex reality to be uncovered. Just like how, statistically, “most” people prefer metalcore and Big Macs to old school death metal and off-the-path barbecue, most pipe smokers burn unsatisfying pipe-weed and then try to convince themselves they like it. I notice things in music, literature, philosophy, computer science and now tobacco that others overlook, mainly because my method is both analytical and syncretic, and so the same method is applied as in the metal reviews. Maybe I will convert some pipe-men to death metal.
11. Aside from total global domination what is next on the overall agenda for DMU?
It would be premature of me to say too much, but our goal is to expand into longer writings, more book and movie reviews, more philosophical/analytical writing, and more lifestyle features like the tobacco reviews which fit into the milieu of the death metal fan. Any hidden or “occult” truths delight death metal fans, and they are perhaps the most open-minded group on earth in how they will consider even barely related areas along with their death metal. David is doing a great job taking the site to the next level, and I and other writings chip in when we can, so much of this will be in his vision and not mine.
Thank you for a great interview. Looking forward to reading more of your writing on Metal-Rules.com!