The Metal Manifestos: The question that drives us

What is death metal and why should we care? Shawn explains.

I love it when people ask me what kind of music I listen to. The grin that spreads across my face must look sinister, because the person who asks the question usually starts to look like they're wondering just what they’ve gotten themselves into. My answer hits them like a gust of frigid air: “Death. Fucking. Metal.”

The usual reaction — dumbfounded horror — may amuse me more than it should, but hey, it’s the little things in life, right? And of course, my hapless inquisitor's follow-up (if he or she hasn't made a hastily retreated by then) is this week’s million dollar question: “What the fuck is death metal?”

So ... what is death metal? I, too, asked that question once, and I love when I'm asked to define it. For the purpose of this series about metal, I’ll act as your guide over the threshold, help broaden your death metal horizons — make you one of us. Or at least, understand those of us who listen to it.

“Death metal” is just a phrase — a combination of words used to represent something much bigger. Sure, I could give you a pat definition. However, if you’re reading this, then I’ll assume you've already found all the usual satisfactory facts to answer question in a million different places on the Web and you're seeking something more meaningful and personally insightful. So rather than tell you what, specifically, death metal is, I'd rather share what it means and what it does for those of us who love it.

Death metal is only one of many, many sub-genres of extreme music, which also encompasses melodic death metal, technical death metal, black metal, “kvlt,” doom metal, funeral doom metal and dozens of others, not to mention all the “cores”: metalcore, grindcore, deathcore, etc. Having said that, however, it’s not important what style or form your preferred flavor of extreme metal takes. The essential quality that drives people to become lifelong fanatics of any of these sub-genres is that they are extreme. It is a mindset. It is a way of life — we, the fans of extreme music, live for it.

So what is it about this crazy shit that people love so much?

From my experience, most people, upon hearing any of the aforementioned extreme metal styles for the first time, complain, “I can’t understand what they’re saying...What the hell are they saying?!” Our collective reaction to this too obvious criticism is a shake of the head and a face-palm. The thing they seem to have the hardest time grasping is that the words don't matter. I can’t understand what they’re saying either, and I don’t care. What I do care about is the emotion that the band is trying to convey. Anyone in a relationship can tell you that your significant other's tone of voice carries significantly more meaning than any actual words she might have spoken:

“Is something wrong?”

No. I’m fine!

click to enlarge The author expressing his emotions - Melissa Mason
Melissa Mason
The author expressing his emotions
  • Melissa Mason
  • The author expressing his emotions

She's saying that she’s fine, but she’s telling you that she’s anything but fine. It’s her tone that tells you you’re in deep shit, and if you don’t do something to fix it real quick, you’ll just be digging yourself in deeper, son.

It’s this very tone that makes up the essence of extreme music and serves as its central core of communication. There’s no pretense — just pure emotion, in your face, plain-to-see, bullshit-free.

That is what we love about it.

And yes, if you were to take the time to actually scan the lyrics, you’ll find the bands’ messages are, more often than not, negative, cynical, misanthropic, and generally unpleasant. “But why would anyone enjoy music with such a negative message?” you might be asking. Well, why do people like horror movies? Or Shakespearean tragedies? Or Edgar Allan Poe? Why do people like to play Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto? Why do people slow down and cause a traffic jam for miles when there’s a wreck on the shoulder? Because we want to see. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll admit that you, too, want to see if someone got mangled or if it’s just some poor sap with a flat tire, just like the rest of the rubberneckers braking to take a look.

The ancient Greeks first recognized the idea of “catharsis,” or the purging of emotions. The idea is that if you bottle up your emotions, you might just explode one day. So, as humans, we attempt to address these feelings through our art. We watch movies, we watch sports, we read poems, we play video games, and we look for dead bodies when there’s a traffic accident. Or we listen to extreme metal in all of its forms.

Still interested? Check out some videos below. If any of these bands rustle your jimmies in a good way, then let me know. I’ll be happy to show you some more...

As You Drown
Brutal death metal from Sweden — some of the best

Anorexia Nervosa
Face melting black metal from France.

Shape of Despair
My favorite doom metal band, from Finland.

Cannibal Corpse
Essential Florida death metal icons. Common folk will likely recognize them as the band that appears in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.


Shawn Ohtani has been an active member of the death metal scene — a fan, then musician and studio engineer — since his first Morbid Angel show in 1996. Click here to read his introduction and first Metal Manifestos column.

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