A Good Death

In early 1974, English band Judas Priest recruited guitarist Glenn Tipton into its ranks, and alongside the band’s resident six-string wizard, K.K. Downing, the two would go on to become one of heavy metal’s greatest guitar duos. In the same year, two months after his death, American cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker won a Pulitzer Prize for his book The Denial of Death.

In his book, Becker argued that human civilization is a giant facade, constructed to combat the knowledge of our own mortality. Now, I’m guessing Becker wasn’t a huge fan early ’70s metal, so, understandably, the link between a steely studded riff machine like Judas Priest, and a book that tackles the dilemmas of human existence, might seem tenuous.

However, the dilemmas of human existence are totally metal, and Becker’s argument, that our anxiety around death motivates us to indulge in “immortality projects” to symbolically transcend death, is one hundred percent metal too.

In the simplest terms, Becker’s argument boils down to the fact that none of us want to be forgotten, metal gods or not, and Judas Priest’s heavy metal heroics can certainly be seen as pursuits seeking to deny death’s finality. The band’s meaningful works, and its reputation, will exist well beyond its lifespan, and in branding their names onto the heavy metal heavens, the band members have found purpose in life and personal value in a vast uncaring cosmos.

You can hear that quest for immortality in plenty of Judas Priest’s powerful, and now classic, compositions. However, the argument that artists are seeking to transcend death by attaching their names to something eternal is applicable to any metal band — past, present or future — because they’ve all sought, or are seeking, to leave a distinctive mark on the world, however nasty, bloody or brazen that is.

Au revoir

On 22 September 2013, Indianapolis-based doom band Gates of Slumber ended its 15-year run with a brief statement detailing fractured relationships. To see the band end was, well, fittingly crushing. Gates of Slumber had made some excellent albums over the years, including 2009’s Hymns of Blood and Thunder and 2011’s The Wretch, and its even-tempered demise underscored that artistic immortality is inextricably tied to how and when bands end.

Admittedly, why bands end might seem like an important element in that equation. But, while some bands end for surprising reasons, most cease to exist for very familiar ones, as Gates of Slumber did. How bands break up is often more interesting than why, because if they’re wanting to leave an eternal imprint, and have us respect their name long after they’re gone, how they break up can greatly affect their chances of having that wish granted.

We’ve all had relationships go sour, and who’s right and who’s wrong can make for plenty of fireworks and provide for some long-term emotional chafing. However, with bands, you get to take all those quarrels and add in amplified voices, and a larger forum. You’re all set for a spectacular display of pyrotechnic recriminations, and plenty of bands have provided just that, as they’ve met their demise.

In the wake of that carnage, you’ll often find the remains of lineups dueling over the use of a band’s name, and the accusations flying between competing versions of Queensrÿche, since vocalist Geoff Tate was fired from the original band in 2012, have granted us full view of a very ugly divorce. We’ve all seen acrimonious fallouts before with bands, and there’s nothing like a wounded rock star ego to set things fully ablaze.

Previously, Queensrÿche was going to be remembered for a few great albums — including 1988 masterwork, Operation Mindcrime — and now its legacy has been overshadowed by a circus of bitter claims and counterclaims. That conflict isn’t going to add to the band’s quest for immortality, and when artists fight over the rights to a name or oeuvre, those scuffles are all about who is going to be recognized as the true face of those works, for eternity. High stakes are being played for, because it’s a fight to see who holds the title upon death, and let’s not forget, that there’s often a mix of artistic repute and a fight for scraps at the commercial table on the line–and nothing sets things on a fierce boil like the prospect of loot.

Obviously, if you’re playing music that’s already a certifiably challenging cacophony, you know the economic reality going in, and, practicalities aside, clearly not everyone is mercenary about any potential financial reward. Still, even if metal artists are simply doing it for the love — while dispensing all that wonderful hate — when relationships break down there are still creative and personal reputations at stake. We’ve all felt the intense desire to retaliate after an attack on either of those in our own lives, so while it can be frustrating to see the bands we enjoy disintegrate in a whirl of anger, in the end, it’s not remotely surprising.

An Attractive Corpse

Thankfully, most bands don’t detonate in gigantic public eruptions that taint their legacies. Some fade away without a fuss, with all their dignity intact, and others, such as UK doom legend Cathedral, provide a graceful funeral.

Cathedral announced the end of its career before its final album, 2013’s The Last Spire. The release found the band still having plenty to say after two decades of fantastic and fantastical doom, and there was sadness to see Cathedral exit while still producing solid albums. (Although, that’s entirely apt considering the band’s morbid themes.) We didn’t have to watch the band struggle through a long and creatively bereft sickness either, so there was no sense of, “Thank God, they’re finally at rest,” about the band’s demise.

Instead, what we got was a simple explanation from the band, noting that after two decades it was time to move on, leaving fans with immensely enjoyable albums to reflect on, and the memory of a great band that was laid to rest in a composed manner. While Cathedral was always going to feature in metal’s hallowed halls, its prospect of immortality is certainly helped by a classy exit.

Of course, when bands end while still producing compelling work there are always questions about ‘what could have been’ left lingering. In June this year, Irish black metal band Altar of Plagues announced its impending demise, not long after releasing the stunning Teethed Glory and Injury. The album opened a fascinating new artistic vein for the band, so, unsurprisingly, the band’s announcement greatly disappointed its fans. That’s likely to be the case for any band going out on a high, but better to end on an inspired note than a washout. There’s something commendable about bands knowing when their time is done, especially if the prospect of even louder applause beckons.

That doesn’t have to be after a long career either. US black metal forebear, Weakling, only made two demos and one full-length album, 2000’s Dead as Dreams. However, Dead as Dreams has been echoing ever since its release, becoming hugely influential in the US black metal canon. In one sense, you can look at Dead as Dreams as a great example of Becker’s immortality project theory in action, with Weakling’s long-term legacy assured because the band’s flame was lit for such a brief but highly influential period.

Of course, that single album immortality isn’t exclusive to Weakling. There are plenty of metal bands whose names are worshipped, even though they only produced one release before splitting up. One of the highlights of being a metal fan is discovering a group that poured all of its creative powers into one single shot for metal immortality, and perhaps we have a denial of death to thank for that too?

There are far too many metal bands stuck on a carousel repeating themselves over and over to ever-diminishing returns. So, it’s a relief when a band recognizes that it has no desire to fall into the dull-eyed, formulaic camp. There’s a healthy sense of self-respect in that decision, and an admirable sense of self-awareness too, and that was certainly the case for acclaimed post-metal titan, Isis. Announcing its disbandment in 2010, the group stated, “[we’ve] done everything we wanted to do, said everything we wanted to say,” but just as importantly, Isis recognized there was no need to,”push past the point of a dignified death”.

While the denial of death might well exist in choosing to make music in the first place, as Isis, Cathedral, or Altar of Plagues show, when a band chooses its point of death wisely, it often leaves a more attractive corpse.

That’s not to say that when bands come to an end through misfortune they are disadvantaged per se, because a tragic demise can obviously amplify an artist’s reputation too–whether it’s deserved or not. However, whether through choice or tragedy, bands’ endings bring grief to their fans’ lives. While interviews or cringing documentaries might allow us a glimpse into the fractiousness of some bands’ relationships, often, when they end, it can be a completely gut-wrenching surprise; which is why a good death counts for a lot.

A Good Death: A Devilish Case Study

If, as Becker suggests, artists are setting out to achieve a sort of heroic self-image, and set their names in stone before their demise, then it follows that the manner of a band’s passing is all important. Where bands die gracefully, such as with Cathedral or Isis, then that shapes our memories of them in a positive light; but then, supernova terminations or scandalous finales aren’t necessarily bad ways to go, either.

Those final moments count because the death of a band is always going to be measured against how it lived its life. The disintegration of the original line-ups of Black Sabbath or Guns N’ Roses serve as examples of bands whose immortal status is based on remembrances of red-hot, rock ‘n’ roll authenticity, in their early days. But, as Axl Rose drags his hired-hands Guns N’ Roses roadshow about these days, you’ve also got all the elements needed to degrade that immortality quest too.

Still, where bands with legendary appetites for destruction finally get round to self-destructing, their quest for immortality is given a boost by a fitting end. Obviously, those kinds of exits involve pain and anguish too, and I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but those are endings we’ve all at least contemplated as appropriate.

So, calm, chaos, or a gladiatorial bloodbath, it’s the end that matters most, and in January this year, Dutch occult rock band the Devil’s Blood brought the sacrificial blade down on its career on a perfect note.

The band had provided a shot in the arm for the occult rock scene with 2008’s Come Reap EP. And its full-length debut, 2009’s The Time of No Time Evermore, dished out a heady mix of progressive rock, ’70s horror, and ’60s psychedelia. The band’s demise had all the components you need for a good death, and it’s a great case study of the conclusion of an artistic vision, and that step into immortality. At least, it is in the minds of those of us who adored the band.

Interviews with the band founder Selim ‘SL’ Lemouchi have been fittingly mysterious as to the exact reasons why the Devil’s Blood ceased. He has, in the main, noted that he and his sister — band vocalist Farida ‘F. The Mouth of Satan’ — decided the band’s work was done. While fans had no choice but to accept that decision, looking on, it seemed like the band wasn’t remotely close to finishing its mission at all. Right there, you’ve got elements for a fitting death of an already enigmatic band. What made it all the more poetically tragic was the fact that the Devil’s Blood’s final studio release, 2012’s The Thousandfold Epicentre, was such a superlative suite of supernatural rock.

There’s nothing like a shock exit following a tour de force to get the immortal engine revving, and The Thousandfold Epicentre‘s elaborate arrangements–all sweetened by melodic morsels wrapped in bewitching harmonies–definitely made for a masterpiece of menacing beauty. That the ritualistic rock therein was built on a foundation laid down by acts such as Black Widow, Jethro Tull, and Black Sabbath, was no bad thing either. Being inspired by such greats, all arguably set to be immortal acts, situates the Devil’s Blood in a classic rock field.

Of equal importance, was the Devil’s Blood’s fervent sacrilegiousness. The band bathed itself in blood for performances, and profane pronouncements were routine, but Satan wasn’t there to provide any Mephistophelian melodrama. While the band’s tunes dripped with dulcet tones–rather than the wall of noise provided by many of its philosophic kin–there was no mistaking that the black arts weren’t lost to hollow symbolism with the Devil’s Blood.

Behind the band’s devilish dramatics was a deep knowledge of the occult, and that unholy spirit–and the band’s passionate exaltations–provide all the ingredients for the Devil’s Blood to stake its claim for immortality based on sincerely held beliefs. We’ll be remembering the band for its music, but that is inextricably bound to the authenticity of its beliefs, and you can point to elements of Becker’s denial of death in that premise.

The band’s creations were carefully crafted to live on past the point of the Devil’s Blood’s death. That’s obviously an expected component in most artistic statements, but for the Devil’s Blood, it came with the message that evil doesn’t end, and neither will the band’s praising of it, even when it passes on. What’s also interesting about the Devil’s Blood, is that there was no attempt to deny our impending demise. The band indulged in wicked enterprises to leave a scorched mark on this earth, as well as aiming to make its mark in the afterlife. That might corrupt Becker’s original premise, somewhat, but that’s something the Devil’s Blood would no doubt heartily approve of.

The band blazed out on a hallucinatory high with its final studio album, but it also bestowed a post-departure gift with Tabula Rasa or Death and the Seven Pillars. The release collected the demos recorded by SL at home for what would have been the band’s next full-length studio album, and accordingly, the band’s lush studio orchestrations were absent.

An appreciation of Tabula Rasa or Death and the Seven Pillars hinged on an acceptance of preliminary drafts over kaleidoscopic portraits. But, at their best, the songs on the album revealed that the Devil’s Blood wasn’t suffering from any lack of imagination at the end–and the standout 22-minute opening track, “I Was Promised a Hunt”, is proof of that. However, the album is also one gigantic post-mortem tease. It sits there as an unfinished work, right alongside the knowledge that had the band made it into the studio proper, so much extra and delicious flesh would have been added to the album’s bones.

Still, although the album had a more limited audio palette, it certainly contained abundant visceral charms, and that only added to the Devil’s Blood’s mythos. Tabula Rasa or Death and the Seven Pillars‘s existence provided a bittersweet life after death presence for the band, and its jagged songs left us remembering the band as it lived–cruelly, beautifully, and determined to follow its own rules–and that’s as good a death as you could hope for.

Last Rites

The tale doesn’t finish there, either. A rumored live album and acoustic EP from the Devil’s Blood lurks on the horizon, and SL’s new project, Selim Lemouchi & His Enemies, recently released its first three song EP, Mens Animus Corpus, which hints at a lot more sublime work to come.

As the death of the Devil’s Blood revealed, not every band’s end is, necessarily, a tragedy. If bands die with fitting aplomb, or in an apt manner, there’s a lot of goodwill that comes with that — no matter how much ill-will the band’s recordings may have dispensed beforehand.

Of course, that’s not always possible, or even conceivable. Emotions run high when bands end, and even the most good-natured separation probably teeters on the edge of discontent. Still, as metal fans, we’re no strangers to emotionally complex situations. We spend our time listening to bands exploring the twisted heart of the human condition, and metal doesn’t run and hide from the Angel of Death, either. Becker’s notion of artists setting out on heroic immortality projects to deny the grip of death might seem strange to some, but metal is already filled so many different representations of death, that perhaps, as fans, we’re more attuned to recognizing those quests for what they are.

We know what death looks like because it isn’t some distant eventuality in metal; it’s right here, all the time. That’s why a good, or at the very least fitting, death is important. How and when bands meet their fates matters because we want to see courage in the face of death, a roar at the Grim Reaper’s grimace. Not submission, not a refusal to die in the face of evidence, and not any desperate clinging on to a rapidly dissolving legacy.

Forty years after its publication, Becker’s The Denial of Death still has a lot of fascinating things to say about human existence. Becker’s ideas on the roots of creativity are reflected in metal’s thematic predilections, and they’re all there in the genre’s thunderous and passionate howls into the void. There’s a fantastic documentary based on Becker’s work, 2006’s Flight from Death, that explores, just like metal does, the reasons behind some of humanity’s darkest actions.

However, Becker’s musing aside, metal’s already got its own theory to encompass our impending demise; only death is real. In the end, denial or not, death is approaching fast. What matters most is how we spend our time before the hammer drops.

I’d recommend listening to Judas Priest.

A lot.