Swedish Death Metal by Daniel Ekeroth: a review

Adam Ganderson


Swedish Death Metal
by Daniel Ekeroth
Bazillion Points Books
$34 U.S.

October is the most politically incorrect month. For kids it’s about candy and ghost stories. For grown ups, it’s about trying to get women to dress like naughty kittens and French maid hookers. It is the sinister howl of autumn wind, the mental patient in a white mask next to the hedges, and burning leaves on the outskirts of town. October is as much a celebration of decay as it is about raising the specter of youthful rebellion: pumpkins smashing, eggs flying at cop cars, and middle aged conservative suburbanites pulling toilet paper out of trees. And though Halloween is reportedly a relatively new concept for Sweden, nearly everything that makes the month of October great, musically speaking, is celebrated in Daniel Ekeroth’s superb new volume: Swedish Death Metal.

Published this year for US consumption by author Ian Christe’s Brooklyn based company Bazillion Points, Swedish Death Metal is an in-depth history and assessment of one of the world’s most fertile death metal breeding grounds. It is also not a book for beginners.

Throughout the 1980’s a convergence of musical elements had amassed into the perfect storm of death metal. The term, coined by Jeff Becerra of California thrashers Possessed, defined a music that was essentially a combination of the speed of punk rock, a faster version of the D-beat of crust punk bands like Discharge (the blast beat), and lyrical content first laid out in the early 80s’ through the horror/occult imagery of Britain’s Venom. By the 90s’ the genre had grown especially knotted roots in two places: Florida and Sweden. Yet despite the focus on Ekeroth’s Swedish home region, certain comparisons and recognition of influence are unavoidable in regards to US bands like Morbid Angel, Cynic, and Deicide, among others. Regardless of location, death metal, in terms of content and melodic accessibility, raised the rock n’ roll controversy bar about five hundred notches above anything that had come before.

On the readers part, even a tenuous recognition of the bands covered is helpful, but more important is an interest in exploring the history of Sweden’s current place in the landscape of extreme metal today. Swedish Death Metal is an in-depth survey of a specific moment in time, with the key action taking place roughly between 1985-1995. The approach works as a framework to show the evolution from punk to speed metal to thrash to death and eventually black metal, as a revolving door of members make the rounds through name shifting bands and multiple records labels. The result is a thorough, if sometimes rambling, account of teenagers learning the pitfalls of the business, finding and losing creative strides, and many drunken evenings. Ekeroth wisely leaves himself out entirely for large portions of the text, which are given to pages of direct quotes from the characters interviewed. It is a cinematic undertaking, much like sitting at a seaport bar watching film reels of Swedish metal luminaries as Ekeroth, the crusty mariner, interjects moments of criticism, explanations, and occasionally hilarious tales of high adventure. Though capable of writing in an academic intellectual tone, the author keeps the vocabulary simple and direct. The style is somewhat the result of his incomplete grasp of English, which is partly intentional; as stated in the introduction: “This is not rocket science, it’s death metal!”

The style also enhances the relevance of the book as a personal first hand account rather than just a sterile petri dish examination. Beginning with the incredible cover painting by Nicke Anderson of Nihilist/Entombed, the text itself is peppered with rare photos of key scoundrels and death metal inspired artwork from zines, concert posters, and album covers. The last 150 pages are an encyclopedia the most relevant Swedish death and black metal bands, a bibliography of fanzines, and a biographical list of the central characters.

Ekeroth is an exponent of what he calls “pure death metal journalism” and the end result of this viewpoint is actually a 447-page fanzine. The theory that nothing is ever as good as when it’s new is a theme espoused by many music purists and is seemingly one held by Ekeroth. His tendency to not shy away from delivering a personal critique on bands and albums is a common quality of the best fanzines. It goes without saying that these were the days before the proliferation of the Internet and it took some work to be a fan of underground music. Fans often had to order music from the labels directly and discussion/criticism/promotion of bands was often done through tape trading and hand made individually printed fanzines. As much as the book is an account of the various bands that make up death metal, it is also a tribute to the early fanaticism that led to the genre explosion; a genre largely responsible for the early success of the now internationally known labels such as Earache, Century Media, and Nuclear blast..

Death metal, as its name suggests, has from its inception been about graveyards, blood, and otherwise death related things. One key observation is that all this was, and often still is, meant for the sake of creepy blood curdling fun. This attribute of fun became one of the central divisions between the Swedish scene and the arrival of the overly serious, depressive, often nationalistic tendencies of Norwegian black metal. Among the more fascinating themes to arise is the relationship between the black and death genres and the subsequent interaction as they relate to Sweden and her Norwegian neighbor. From the beginning Ekeroth pays close attention to the evolution of fellow Swede Tomas ‘Quorthon’ Forsberg and his band Bathory, convincingly making the case for him as the originator of the black metal sound as it is known today. Ekeroth points out that black metal, as it came to be espoused in Norway by Mayhem founder Euronymous, was a copy Bathory’s sound. Ironically, Norway would later come to claim the sound for it’s own and eventually become known as world HQ for black metal.

All this is essentially water under the bridge for Ekeroth. A musician himself, he is respectful of the black metal genre, but obviously prefers the thick crunchy guitars of the death sound to the thinned out tones and atmospherics that came to dominate much of the Norwegian movement.

The book binding, like the musicians and artists inside, is built to withstand high levels of wear and tear, long distance travel, and, thanks to heavy, thickly coated paper, numerous spills of whatever liquid is on hand. Many of the key bands covered, among them Dismember, At The Gates, Entombed, Unleashed, and Grave are comprised of musicians now in their thirties who are still going strong. Add to that the never-ending supply of death metal bands sprouting up across the globe and it is clear that this is not the all-encompassing anthology of the genre. It is, however, a thorough tribute to highly creative kids who decided not to rebel on the political grounds laid out by previous generations, but who created their own scene in the then still uncharted territories of graveyards, grotesque imagery, and obscenely fast, often complex music.

For more see: http://www.bazillionpoints.com/