Back in Black

Here is God Dethroned lead singer/songwriter Henri Sattler, on his record label's Web site, describing "Under the Golden Wings of Death," off his band's latest, Bloody Blasphemy (Metal Blade): "Song about a psychopath who needs to kill over and over again. It just makes him feel good doing this." Then, the kicker. "We did a video for this song so watch out for it."

Did you catch that? This is why heavy-heavy metal acts like Sattler's and others, such as Cannibal Corpse, Hate Eternal and Diabolic -- which, incidentally, will all perform at Cardi's this weekend -- don't expect to be taken seriously. Apparently without a second thought the guy who presents himself on CD and stage as "responsible for the abduction of Archangel Gabriel" juxtaposes the very non-mainstream content of his music with the very mainstream medium of video. All in the same stream of thought.

Yet there are plenty of reasons to respect these metalhead cases. Most honor solid musicianship, don't take themselves too seriously, pack clubs and always, by being as out of style as possible, stay in style. Taking into account the sheer number and popularity of death and black metal acts today, selling gore or hate or satanism or Norse legend or even a touch of xenophobia remains fashionably unfashionable -- and lucrative. Cannibal Corpse, which traffics expressly in blood, guts and, well, cannibalism, landed in the Billboard Top 200 in 1996 with its third release, Vile, marking the first time an avowed death metal act ever scored so well on the industry Kaaba. (For the record -- and since you're probably wondering -- none of the bands playing Houston this weekend publicly espouse the breaking of the ultimate taboo, hating others based on race.)

Cannibal Corpse will be packing 'em in at Cardi's this weekend.
Cannibal Corpse will be packing 'em in at Cardi's this weekend.
Jay-Z (left) and Scarface in Rap-A-Lot's studios, getting their breaks on.
Jay-Z (left) and Scarface in Rap-A-Lot's studios, getting their breaks on.

Not lost on concert promoters is the salability of these outfits, which are really as dependent on imagery and marketing as on musicianship.

"We'll get about 800 [people]," says Cardi's Michael Lomax. The venue holds approximately 900 max. Average heavy-duty metal fans are white, male and between the ages of 16 and 25. And, says Lomax, they're typically well behaved. Cardi's may be the only spot in Space City that regularly opens its doors to such fans and groups. Headliner Cannibal Corpse has played Cardi's a couple of times over the years. Says Lomax frankly: "They draw."

Part of the attraction is, of course, the sound. Cannibal Corpse delivers accelerated loudness. Tempos reach 150 mph. Vocals -- almost always screamed in guttural nonsense -- come off as forcefully as bass drum tones, and barre chords reign. And the Netherlands' God Dethroned, which is playing the United States for the first time and will play second fiddle to the Corpse this weekend, provides a mix of speed, thrash and, yes, heavy metal as Bon Jovi or Warrant knew it. Melodic interludes are woven into most of the material.

Another, more potent reason heavy-duty metal acts like these seem to pull in people off the street like vampires mesmerizing buxom blonds is... the show. "They're all packages," says Lomax. "Every one is entertainment. I don't care what kind of music you label 'em; they're giving you a show. They're shows. Even if that's not your purpose [for seeing] music, you'll get a show. I don't care. It's ... it's great."

For a minority, the appeal is also in the bands' dark philosophies themselves. There actually are some people out there relieved to know that Sattler is on Gabriel's trail.

Don't laugh. What N.W.A. was to Compton gang thugs in the early 1990s, so are some black or death metal bands to young, disenfranchised white males. In the early '90s in Sweden, where black and death metal acts remain extremely popular, a rash of church burnings as well as a couple of murders and suicides were linked to fans and musicians of the genres. This desire for "street cred," obviously as valuable to Scandinavian metalheads as to U.S. rappers, made every black or death metal band seem to be practicing what it was preaching. Which wasn't always, if rarely, the case.

Black metal's roots lie in Europe, where in the late '60s the dark, psychedelic British outfit Coven began performing with candles, altars and huge wooden crosses -- preceding another British band called Earth that changed its name to Black Sabbath and whose members, including front man Ozzy Osbourne, turned the crucifixes on their neck chains upside down. Like Sabbath, Coven was corny.

By the early '80s, however, dark heavy metal began to take on a legitimately evil edge. The members of Sweden's Bathory, for instance, believed in the lyrics of their songs, jingoistic Norse lore that touched on national socialism and even fascism. The band appeared real in every sense. By the time Mötley Cr¨e hit the scene, this fascination with the occult had become more gimmick than ideology.

"It's an outlet, it's fantasy," says E.J. Johantgen, vice president of public relations for Metal Blade, the largest metal label in the world. "Cannibal Corpse. Those guys are truly some of the nicest guys I've had to deal with, and I've dealt with some big names. Those guys, they're just sweethearts. It's an outlet for them. It's pure fantasy."

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