Writing on metal is pretty much a journalistic kiss of death. Despite metal’s growing inroads in popular culture (three major nationwide tour festivals, the return of Headbangers Ball on MTV2, the strange and often embarrassing ubiquity of Ozzy Osbourne), journalists have yet to embrace metal with the same bandwagon fervor accorded, say, grime or psych-folk. Perhaps this is because of the genre’s inherent unfriendliness. Screamed vocals, machine gun drums, and finger-in-electric-socket guitars aren’t exactly inviting. Neither are the long-haired hordes at metal shows. Think metal’s hip? Go to a metal show as a “normal person”, and you’ll never feel squarer.
Enter Albert Mudrian. Not only is he short-haired and friendly, he makes a living from metal journalism. Mudrian is editor-in-chief of Decibel, which has rapidly risen in the last two years to become extreme metal’s premier magazine. Decibel‘s informative yet irreverent style mixes “proper” writing with fanzine enthusiasm. Mudrian’s own writing is likewise accessible. In 2004, Feral House published his first book, Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal and Grindcore. Mapping previously uncharted waters, Mudrian conducted interviews with over 100 of metal’s movers and shakers to construct the first definitive history of these genres. From his Pennsylvania home, Mudrian talks about his book, his magazine, and every music journalist’s idol, John Peel.
How and when did you get into metal?
I probably got into metal in grade school, like maybe 6th grade, with bands like Iron Maiden and Metallica. I didn’t get into more extreme stuff until I was around 15 or 16, when Slayer and stuff crossed over into Sepultura, Obituary, Napalm Death, and things like that. The way I was exposed to those heavier sounds was through a college radio station in the area where I grew up, Wilkes-Barre. It’s kind of a shit town in Northeast Pennsylvania, [with] not a whole lot going on there. There was a good college radio station that dedicated an entire day, Monday, to metal…
...That they cleverly called “Metal Monday” [laughs]. They’d play stuff like the aforementioned bands and even more esoteric stuff for that time like Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride.
How long have you been a metal journalist, and does that pay the bills?
I’ve been writing about metal since July 1996, but I’ve been fortunate to have an editorial position since April 1997. So in that sense, I’m not a freelance metal writer. I’ve been able to edit music magazines that were more general audience publications for a number of years before I became the editor of Decibel, a full-on metal magazine. People who are full-time freelance metal writers, they really have to hustle to pay the bills. I don’t think there are more than a dozen in the US that can pull it off.
For the average non-metalhead, how would you define death metal and grindcore?
Well, we’ll have to make a vague assumption that people are familiar with Metallica and Slayer. From there, you could say that it’s a very extreme version of that. The instruments are played about as fast as they can possibly be played by humans. It’s almost an explosion of sound, something that to [non-metalheads’] ears, might sound like a barrage of noise, but after closer inspection is something that’s under control musically and emotionally, if just barely, anyway. I’ve been fortunate enough to not have to describe it to people who have no concept of what it is.
Do you feel a burden to explain or justify metal to non-metalheads?
You know, I used to, back in ‘96, ‘97, ‘98. Back then, it wasn’t quite as socially acceptable as it is now to like heavy music. It almost seems to be in vogue to have some kind of appreciation for bands like Pelican, Isis, or the Southern Lord bands, or even bands like Killswitch Engage, who can sell almost half a million albums. So now I don’t feel it as much. But back then, if you liked a band like Converge in 1998, you really needed to justify that was actually music to a lot of people. Over the past few years, it’s become nice that this is acceptable to a wider audience now.
Why is the history of death metal and grindcore “improbable”?
Well, something that’s so extreme, that at the time was as heavy and fast and over-the-top musically as you can get—I think that it ended up appealing to a pretty wide audience. That in and of itself is improbable. As it relates to Choosing Death and the broader picture, in the early to mid-‘90s, there were a lot of bigger labels that thought it was going to be the next big thing. For a band like Napalm Death, where they started out, playing little shows and clubs in Birmingham (England), and almost doing it half as a joke when they started, to getting to a point where they’re being distributed through Sony, and they’re getting big budgets and advertising campaigns, and people pouring money into them as a product—to get it to that point, even though it didn’t cross over to big commercial success, and to get it on the cusp of things seems to me an unlikely story.
One of the most interesting parts of your book discusses what happened when independent labels like Earache and Roadrunner signed distribution deals with major labels like Columbia and Epic. Do major labels have any business dealing with metal?
I think so. I think they have more of a handle on it now that they did before. It’s all in how they put it together. I mean, Pantera was on a major. They released their most important records on a major and they were kind of just put out there. There wasn’t a big crossover promotional campaign. It wasn’t like [the label] was suggesting that someone needed a stylist or wardrobe person. If they enable bands to do what they want to do, and just get their music out there, I think it could be successful and healthy. Look at Lamb of God. Now that’s a band that’s signed to a major and made a record that was still very heavy and didn’t deviate that much from they did before. The band and the label seem pretty happy with the way that relationship has turned out. So I think it can work. As far as extreme death metal and grindcore on major labels, probably not, ultimately. I’d be very surprised if we ever see a straight, pure death metal band on a major label again.
John Peel wrote the introduction to the book. How did this come about?
I wanted to interview John when I started putting the book together because he was such an important part of how things developed over in the UK. I eventually got a hold of his agent, who at the time kept brushing me off and kept saying, “He’s busy,” or “He’s on holiday,” or “Try back in a month.” I kept at her, and one day she said, “I spoke with John, and he said to just give him a call at home.” So I called him at home and had a great interview with him. As we were getting off the phone, he said, “If you ever need anything, just give me a ring.” And I said, “Do you want me to call your agent or email you?” And he said, “No, no, no, just call me at home.”
About six, seven months later, as I was putting things together, it dawned on me that it would be great to get him to write an introduction to [the book]. So I just called him up one day at home and said, “Hey, I spoke with you several months ago, book I’m working on, blah, blah, blah.” I asked him to do it, and I had this big windup, as I was very nervous. And he said, “Oh yeah, sure, no problem.” So it was great. It took three, four months of me having to hound him to finish it up and get it to me, but he was fantastic. He refused to accept any money or anything at all for it. I said, “Look, can I donate to charity in your name? You’ve obviously put some work into this, and I feel like you need to have some kind of compensation.” He said, “No, no, don’t worry about it”. So I eventually talked to his wife, and I asked her, “What does John like?” He was a big red wine fan, so I sent him a couple bottles of red wine from some winery near his house. And that was it. When I got advance copies of the book, I sent him one. He died about a month after I got the book and sent it to him. I never had a chance to follow up and see if he had a chance to sit down and check it out.
In his introduction, Peel said that death metal went wrong in the early ‘90s when it became too serious. Do you agree?
Well, I know what he’s saying. For him, it was fun. And for me, it was definitely fun, too, and it still is. Even ultra-serious death metal bands were fun for me. I think there was an innocence about it that was lost around the early ‘90s as there became more labels that were indiscriminately signing bands that weren’t necessarily that interesting, but were just “brutal death metal”. There became, as he touches upon, all these offshoots of [death metal] that were very technical. What appealed to John was that this stuff was very raw and very, in a lot of ways, founded in the punk ethos. And when you had bands playing crazy, ultra-technical things, it didn’t necessarily jive with him. It never bothered me per se, but I get what he’s saying.
What is the state of death metal and grindcore now, and where do you see these genres going?
Now it’s much healthier than it’s been in a long, long time. You’ve got all these bands that are rooted in the traditional sense, like Nile and Hate Eternal. But you’ve got all these other bands that are bringing in [other] influences, like Akercocke and Zyklon and what’s going on with the Willowtip label, with bands like Neuraxis and Necrophagist. These bands are bringing in jazzy things, more melody, or in Akercocke’s case, who knows what the fuck. There are all these different offshoots right now, and there’s more variety for the fan than back in the good ol’ days. Where it’s going to go is hard to say, because the flagship bands are obviously getting older, like Morbid Angel and Napalm Death and Obituary—these guys are now mid-30s to 40. There’s a finite amount of time that you can continue to play this stuff. But whether that’s five more years or ten more years, I don’t really know, because there have never been 45-year-old death metal bands before. As long as people getting into the scene now are aware of those bands, it will continue to evolve.
You interviewed a who’s who of the metal world. Did you ever feel starstruck?
The only one, really, was Peel. I guess, maybe a little bit at first, like calling Jeff Walker from Carcass at home. At first, you’re like, “Wow, that’s Jeff Walker.” Then you’re on the phone with him for an hour, and you realize he’s a regular dude at home just like you are. That’s the thing about the metal world. For the most part, there’s a lack of pretense. These guys are pretty mild-mannered. The notion of stardom in death metal and grindcore is a level of notoriety that’s only so high. It’s not like you’re talking to international superstars or super-intimidating figures.
Is it strange to be the interviewee rather than the interviewer?
It was at first. But I think I’ve almost adapted to that. I’ve probably done four dozen interviews in my life, which is [not much], when you think about some of these artists in the book like Napalm Death, who has 10 records. They probably do that many [interviews] per cycle of a record. I’m probably still not very good at it. I’m probably babbling on and on, and if I were you, I’d probably be cursing me when you’re doing a transcription.
You learn to excise all the “uh"s and the “um"s.
Oh yeah. There were probably about 130-140 interviews that were done for the book, and there were hours and hours spent transcribing. I swear, I think the whole first year was spent transcribing.
It was painful. With Decibel, I try not to do too many interviews now, or have an intern do the transcriptions.
So let’s talk about Decibel, the magazine that you edit. What sets it apart from other metal magazines?
I think there are a couple things. It’s done with a sense of history and also more of an irreverent sense of humor about things. There are a few really good metal magazines out there. A couple of them I grew up with. One in particular, Terrorizer—back when Nick Terry, who contributes a foreword to Choosing Death and who is a contributor to Decibel—back when he was the editor of Terrorizer from 1996 to 2000, it was a lot of fun. There was this very inclusive [sense] of taking the music seriously but being able to poke fun at it. I think that with a lot of the underground metal magazines, there’s a lot of maybe taking things a little too seriously at times and living in a vacuum, not knowing that there’s this world of music beyond that, and not making any attempts to connect with people who are maybe only 25% interested in metal.
Magazines often make most of their money from ads, not subscriptions. Is there a tension between running an ad for an album and giving it an objective review?
Not really. I mean, every once in a while, if it’s a record that you know a label is really, really excited about, what they’ll call a “priority release”, and you may have a assigned a review, and your writer may have hammered it, it might be the kind of thing where you hold the review for a month. Rather than just being a total dick and running this review that’s destroying this record that’s right next to this ad that these people placed, we’ll run the review a month after. There are certain kinds of considerations like that every once in a while. You try not to fuck anything up for anybody, basically. But at the same time, you have editorial integrity. We’ve run reviews of big records that really bummed out a lot of label people. I’ve gotten emails and phone calls from people that were like, “I can’t believe this record only got a 6!” You’re always going to have some of that. But you can’t not give a record a bad review because you’re worried about not getting the advertising.
Metal’s the healthiest it’s been in a while. Why do you think this is so?
I guess it’s a cyclical thing. You’ve got periods where ... I hesitate to refer to hair metal as metal, but for the sake of argument, we’ll do so. In the late ‘80s, that obviously gave way to grunge and post-punk and alternative, another bunch of meaningless terms. In terms of extreme metal or heavier metal, why that’s more popular now, I think a lot of it has to do with the longevity of the music, just hanging around for a while and being able to permeate itself in different ways, [like with] an AOR band like Breaking Benjamin that’s screaming in some of their songs, and they’re just a shitty rock band. People are making better records, and more records are out, and more bands are doing interesting things that are appealing to a wider cross-section of people. I don’t know if it’s going to continue to grow like this. I have the feeling there are some people who are checking it out now or are into it because—it’s almost hilarious to say this—it’s the hip thing right now.
Did you see the New York Times article on metal a few months back?
Yeah, I was actually interviewed for that. I thought that the article in and of itself was good. But the idea of the article was almost like, “Cool people like metal now.” Or, “It’s OK, it’s cool to like metal now, everybody, just so you know.” That’s kind of weird. But at the very least, it’s exposing people to [the fact] that something’s going on right now, and it isn’t your older brother’s metal. It’s some of it, but it’s the good parts of it.
In the future, will you undertake a similar type of book for other kinds of metal, like black metal or thrash?
Oh God, no (laughs).
Why are you so certain?
I feel that the story for Choosing Death was very natural. I was a big fan of this music, and it’s very personal to me, and I was very close to it. Even though I like thrash and doom and black metal, I feel it might be disingenuous to go back and say, alright, here’s Choosing Thrash. I think Choosing Death should just be what it is. In four, five years, hopefully if there’s a demand for it, I’d love to do a revised, expanded edition of the book, with 100 more pages and to update a bunch of things. That would be great, but we’ll have to see.