New Zealand has a strong history of punching above our weight creatively, especially when you consider that we have a population of just over four million people. On a global scale we are the same size as the cities of Melbourne and Houston, while London alone is two times bigger than us. So when one of our own garners international success, we are understandably thrilled and plaster their image across every cover we can print. Of late, Lorde has been the artist du jour, and whether you love or loathe her, she has been impossible to escape.
New Zealand Death Metal band Ulcerate signed to major US label Relapse Records in 2011. Since then, they have amassed some 35 thousand fans on Facebook thanks to a critically acclaimed album and relentless international touring. But you are unlikely to have read about them in any major publications. They are joined by Vassafor, Witchrist and Diocletian as home grown acts with a global audience. Given this track record of bands, it makes the down-playing of New Zealand’s successes within local media all the more glaring. But these are not accessibly cool pop stars. These artists produce challenging sounds that redefine the extremities of music. This has led to misconceptions about the genre. To understand them, I asked some of them about their passion, and perhaps uncovered some reasons why New Zealand’s extreme metal scene has been swept under our cultural carpet.
In Craig Hayes’s excellent two-part documentary for Radio New Zealand entitled South of Heaven, he pinpoints that the first rumblings of extreme metal in New Zealand were heard in Christchurch during the 1980s, courtesy of Bruce Ray’s shop Ace T-shirts. It was also home to Grunt Records, his extreme metal LP importing business. Ray is remembered by Chris Rigby from industrial metal band Dying of the Light as being “a master of publicity” who frequently wrote letters to New Zealand’s music video shows telling them that “they needed to play more real metal.” They eventually listened, and Ray was given his own slot called Metal Primer. “He played bands that were doing things totally different to what we were hearing in New Zealand” recalls Rigby. This new wave of sound encouraged listeners to pick up instruments and form bands, often simultaneously. These initial naiveties lead to “a really interesting sound- really guttural sounding stuff that had a beauty to it.”
High unemployment levels were an issue across New Zealand in the 1990s, and those affected within the metal community vented their frustration accordingly. However, this burgeoning scene was to be short lived. “The 90s started with a hiss and a roar but it was all over by 1994” says Rigby. Another veteran of the New Zealand extreme metal scene Steve Francis of Wellington Black/Thrash band Bulletbelt states that this wasn’t simply due to the “Nirvana effect” either. “The 90s weren’t very kind because by that stage extreme metal bands had become very polished and produced…people lost sight of why they started.” Rigel Walshe agrees. He formed his death metal band Dawn of Azazel in 1997, a time when “there wasn’t much of a scene at all (in Auckland).Initially we had to organise our own shows as there were no venues to perform in.” There was a sense of needing to “rebuild” the extreme metal scene in New Zealand, a task which the community took on with idiosyncratic dedication and passion. The advent of the internet was another watershed moment. Bands had previously relied on an underground network of fans handing out flyers and ‘zines to get their music out into the world. Now they had a wider audience than ever before. Ulcerate formed in 2000, according to drummer Jaime Saint Merat: “Aside from bands forming and dissolving, (the New Zealand extreme metal scene) is essentially in the same state it has always been-a varying ebb and flow of activity, minimal shows, (and) unpredictable show turn outs.”
As an outsider to extreme metal and as a New Zealander something here is ironically familiar. The DIY initiative these bands have towards creating music is a trait that is held dear not just by the general populous, but also by some of our most prolific artists. It was the same attitude shown by Flying Nun, a local record label of considerable international success within its own musical arena. This was largely thanks to it being synonymous with the jangly ‘Dunedin Sound’ of the 1980s and early 1990s. Bearing this in mind, I was interested to see if the success of our extreme metal scene could be accredited to a unifying sound.
The answer was a unanimous “No.” “There is not quite enough history or lineage to warrant a sound just yet. Bands here are a lot more serious and sober, there aren’t that many fun bands, probably because it’s not fun being a band in New Zealand” observes Walshe. Rather than having a ‘sound’ it would seem that for most of those interviewed, extreme metal in New Zealand has an ‘ethos.’ Rigby cites it as being “a number 8 wire philosophy” that encourages bands to be innovative and self-sufficient. He links this back to one of the formative extreme metal bands in New Zealand, Diocletian, who were inspired by the book “The Might Is Right.” Published in 1890 and written by anarchist Arthur Desmond, “it was originally written as a piss-take, but it became a Bible of the power of the Individual…the aggressive tone of Diocletian was inspired by that book, and if you draw a longer bow, that is the feeling you get within extreme metal in New Zealand.”
Historically, New Zealand’s geographic isolation has been both a blessing and a curse for creatives. This is no different within our extreme metal scene. Joseph Schafer, editor of the influential metal blog Invisible Orange describes the New Zealand metal scene as “a microcosm of the western metal world at large-it’s a country where metal appears to be abnormally popular given (its) population size.” But “the country’s local scene remains pretty isolated”. Despite interest in metal being at an unprecedented high, Schafer says “New Zealand remains deep cut territory….There’s a pack of pretty fierce acts that are trying to find new frontiers of heaviness… To those in the know, New Zealand is one of those places where musicians are really trying to push the boundaries of what metal can be. But I think that art might even be better known in America than in New Zealand.” Closer to home, local music journalist and metal enthusiast Tove Partington echoes this sentiment. “New Zealand metal is raw and pure without over production…it’s almost fashionable [overseas] to like a New Zealand band-obscure is considered cool and rare, and New Zealand is pretty obscure.”
Being “deep cut territory” is seen as a positive by Adam Thomson, vocalist for the brutal death metal band Farming the Population. It requires acts to produce a “standard of quality” while pushing sonic boundaries and has become something of a calling card. “We are really good at embracing new technologies and being forerunners- from splitting the atom to creating amazing music-we push ourselves and compare ourselves to the rest of the world, while people overseas may only compare themselves to their neighbour. Perhaps because we are down the bottom of the globe we look further, and that’s our driving force.”
Someone who is more likely to listen to The Smiths rather than Sepultura could find the unabashed aggression inherent within extreme metal confronting. But to an extent, evoking strong emotions is the point. Rather than ignoring the dark side of life, they wholeheartedly embrace it because it is all part of being a human being. Extreme metal is fearlessly existential. “If you go through life and don’t find something that is worthy of your anger and aggression you need to revaluate your value set” says Walshe. “There’s always something to be raged against, and metal is about taking that aggression and channelling it in a beneficial direction. These are emotions that are within everyone, and if everyone learned how to they could be harnessed in a beneficial manner, it would make the world a better place.”
The music produced is, in a word challenging. Unlike an instantaneously catchy pop song, extreme metal is something you need to almost learn to appreciate. To the uninitiated, the rich tapestry of sub genres can be reduced to being simply baffling and downright scary. Everything is packaged to be impenetrable and indecipherable. This is something that all involved are well aware of. “To Joe Public, it’s all the same f***king noise” laughs Francis. “The aesthetics and vocals of metal are hard to explain to someone who is not into metal. The first and foremost thing will always be the music. But there is a huge element of theatrics to metal. It’s a little like professional wrestling- I am not belittling it in any way, metal is my passion, but a lot of it is about persona and imagery.”
It is the bombastic theatrics of extreme metal-the corpse paint, the imagery, and aggressive vocals- that garner it mainstream attention rather than its artistry. This is something that those within the scene are accustomed to. “We are playing an incredibly marginalised style of music that is definitely not inclusive for the vast majority” points out Saint Merat. It feels unknown and foreign, which makes it a sensational target. Walshe experienced this first hand in 2005 when the media caught wind of his position as a police constable and found it newsworthy that he was in an extreme metal band. Because how could someone who plays aggressive music about death and destruction have the moral fibre for the police force? This demonising mythology also hinders extreme metal being taken seriously as a form of creative expression, not to mention as a group of productive members of society. Some people would consider fans of extreme metal to be demonic anti-social misfits. But when they take off that jacket covered in band patches and the final note fades, both performers and fans alike go back to their otherwise perfectly normal lives. Complete with professional careers and families. “You’ve got to be a working class citizen just to afford the gear” says Thomson. All involved are quick to dispel the myth of metallers being societal write-offs, and they themselves proved the opposite to be true.
Despite being bellowed with aggression, and despite the gore-soaked popular image, the featured bands’ lyrics were thoughtful and considered. Topics ranged from the infamous Minnie Dean to contemporary societal and environmental concerns. “The name death metal does not do itself any favours” explains Thomson. “It does infer lyrics about death and violence. The difference between extreme metal and metal in general is that metal has a lot of songs about killing people and violence, but in extreme metal the music and lyrics are more sophisticated, the lyrical themes are more intelligible, and that’s not for any mainstream success, it’s because people grow out of being offensive.” While much of extreme metal is intentionally designed to ‘shock’ it does not set out to actively ‘offend’ anyone. “Rap lyrics are more offensive, – they talk about misogyny and gang warfare- and for the majority of them, they are not going to go out and do any of that. It’s all theatrics, but it’s popular, which is why you hear rap on top 40 radio shows” says Thomson.
Unlike pop or rap, conventional mainstream success is not something that is expected or in some cases even actively sought within the extreme metal community. This isn’t out of “juvenile rebellion, just purely because it doesn’t fit any of the band’s approaches to what this is all about” says Saint Merat. Like other communities founded in marginalised music, they are bound by their mutual passion for their genre as well as the opportunity to freely express themselves. So while there is “a sense of quiet pride in local bands that do well overseas, you get respect for gaining popularity and sticking to your guns rather than changing your sound in order to appeal to a wider audience” explains Rigby. Whatever their size, metal audiences are notoriously zealous, an open secret that has been recently reinforced by Spotify crowning metal heads the ‘most loyal fans.’ This loyalty is also translated into transactions. Collecting vinyl and demo tapes is still actively supported within the community, while fans are encouraged to listen to both classic and emerging artists. This lends itself to the overriding sense of support within the extreme metal community.
While the sound of extreme metal is not to everyone’s taste, that doesn’t make its international successes any less culturally valid, and it is a community built on dedication and passion. New Zealand is a nation that prides itself on pushing boundaries, but when it comes to recognising the achievements of a maligned musical genre we shy away-unlike in Europe or in the United States, it would seem. In the eyes of Rigby, there is “room to push it a little further. It wouldn’t hurt to play a Witchrist video, or have Diacletian headline an event like Westfest.” Stranger things have happened.
SUBGENRES OF EXTREME METAL (relevant to this article):
Black Metal: employs shrieking accompanied by fast, heavily distorted guitars. Songs are structured to emphasise an atmosphere.
Death Metal: employs low-tuned, distorted guitars. Vocally, it involves deep growls and screams, while strong drumming is important, with an emphasis on blast beats and double kicks. The tempo is abrupt.
Brutal Death Metal: a musical subgenre of death metal. It has rapid tempo changes, distorted guitar and bass, as well as deep, guttural vocals.
Technical Death Metal: is a musical subgenre of death metal that focuses on the complexity within it’s music-structurally and rhythmically.
Industrial Metal: Combining thrash metal and hardcore punk with industrial dance music. Metal riffs are mixed in with synthesizers, samples, and distorted vocals.
War Metal: A hybrid of black and death metal with a very fast tempo.