One of the Mountain Goats’ best-loved songs, which elicits massive shouted singalongs at the band’s live shows, is a 15-year-old tune called “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.” In it, two friends defy the conservative standards of their community to start a band whose logo makes “prominent use of a pentagram” and considers naming itself, among other options, “The Hospital Bombers.” It is a song that condemns the savagery of a world that would “punish a person for dreaming his dream”—especially if that person is a teenager.
Lyrics about youth in righteous revolt, and the artificial constraints society puts on the human spirit are common in Mountain Goats founder and frontman John Darnielle’s songs. But so are songs about metal, which he’s blogged about and written about in a critical capacity for years. Shades of black abound on the Goats’ new album, Goths, and its penultimate track, “For the Portuguese Goth Metal Bands,” is an especially tender tribute. Its chorus provides a visual interpretation of what Darnielle finds so appealing in dark music: “Candlelight playing its tricks on the walls of the cave / Hauling these songs to the light from the mouth of the grave.”
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When we asked Darnielle to recommend five metal albums that exist on Bandcamp, he replied graciously that he’d rather send us recommendations of albums he bought on Bandcamp (follow his fan account here), and he sent us six.
When did you first fall in love with metal, and what it was about it that stole your heart?
I owned this compilation—Heavy Metal: 24 Electrifying Performances—when I was a kid. I took a chance on it at a department store during one of the summers my family spent in Portland. Now, you’ll note from the tracklisting that there isn’t really much that could be called metal on it—Sabbath, maybe. Deep Purple, maybe. But it made me curious. Then, when I was 16 and briefly had my first job, I bought both Number of the Beast and Piece of Mind [by Iron Maiden]. Those records are just a banquet of riffs. I think I borrowed Killers from a friend, and that one knocked me over, too. It took me quite a while to really get deeper into metal, but, when I was 19, having read a preview in [Portland alt-weekly] Willamette Week for a Celtic Frost show, and being unable to go because the venue was 21-and-up, I made a mental note to listen to that band when I got a chance. Maybe a year later I found the Tragic Serenades EP at Music Plus in Pomona, California. I would say that EP was the push into the deep end for me; it was so weird and unique. You couldn’t just let it play, you had to deal with it.
What does listening to metal do for you these days?
I mean, it’s music that I enjoy. I enjoy the playing, I enjoy the compositional approaches to musical expression. It’s weird, nobody ever asks. ‘What does listening to this type of music do for you?’ about any other kind of music, but with metal there seems to be this ‘justify your connection to it’ vibe out there. It’s a unique mode of musical expression that challenges the listener and transports me to different realms. I’d say the same of the rap I listen to, or the classical music, or the ambient music—but I guess I find a lot of different headspace to explore in metal, a lot of different moods to enjoy and ways to enjoy them.
On The Mountain Goats new album, Goths, there’s a smoky nightclub jazz song called ‘The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement.’ The chorus insists, ‘I’m hardcore / But I’m not that hardcore.’ How does one define one’s own hardcore-ness?
Sort of in the nature of extremes to have a spectrum on which one positions oneself, I guess. The narrator in the song sees a guy in traffic; the guy in traffic has fangs, and he reflects that he’s not such an extreme person as to file down his teeth.
We’re all living with these dual anxieties of ongoing environmental destruction and the possibility of nuclear war. These are well-worn themes of metal. Are metalheads just one step ahead of the rest of us when it comes to grieving for a lost world? And will we all come around soon? Does listening to metal help you cope with all the crazy that’s piling up right now?
Well, people talk about metal as a ‘release’ in that way—I think probably if I have some aggressions I feel like giving vent to, I might listen to some grind. Brutal Truth, probably. But most of that ‘release’ model would have to take place in the pit, and I’m past my mosh pit days, I’d guess—I last got in one at a Municipal Waste show three or four years ago. Thematically, I think of metal as several kinds of genre fiction folded into a style (or several styles) of musical expression that, taken together, evoke moods. These are often dark, reflective moods for sure, but that’s been something present in music and literature and art forever: Goya, Edgar Allan Poe, [Gustav Mahler’s] Kindertotenlieder, horrorcore, Grand Guignol. People have always enjoyed these sorts of themes.
How do you tend to find the new metal bands and albums that you like?
It’s a combination of promo links sent to me by labels (I used to write metal reviews for several publications, and I did so for years, so I get a lot of these) and just standard 2017 exploring: stuff I hear people talking about online, new stuff by bands I already like. And I read Decibel magazine, of course, and look at the ads. Looking stuff up based on ads in zines is sort of a time-honored way of finding new stuff in metal and punk. And finally—not to look like I’m buttering up my host or anything—Bandcamp sends these, ‘You bought something on Debemur Morti records, that label released two new albums today’ emails. I click the links on those emails, they’re really useful and have led me to new stuff.
Six Metal Albums John Darnielle Bought on Bandcamp
Various Artists, In Mordor Where the Shadows Are: Homage to Summoning
This is a bunch of bands covering songs by one of my favorite bands of all time, the Austrian band Summoning, whose themes are almost exclusively drawn from Tolkien. The bands give a lot of different looks: some, like Caladan Brood, are very faithful to the source. Others, like Evilfeast and Mesarthim, really reach out and find different streams to follow. I think Summoning writes some of the best songs in all metal so it’s a treat to hear other bands exploring these songs.
Mare Infinitum, Alien Monolith God
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This is a Russian band—there’s a great deal of good metal coming out of Russia. These guys are in an epic doom style, the lineage is pretty deep—bands like Candlemass or Solitude Aeturnus who’re building on the legacy of ‘70s doom, which tended to be still rooted in blues-rock but was sometimes looking for where to go from there. Mare Infinitum takes the ‘epic’ part of the equation to real heights—you can get pretty lost in these songs, they take a long time to build and then crest like great waves. The slow development and payoff is like Bruckner to me, and I’m a big Bruckner fan.
Darkcell, Nightmare Document Part 1
I’m pretty into Japanese metal. One of the joys of genre music in any style is exploring regional scenes: individual regional takes on genre are totally essential to genre growth, in my view. Boris and Church of Misery, two of the best doom bands to ever stomp on an overdrive pedal, are from Japan (though Boris has really moved on from doom to dreamier areas, I think). I think I read the copy about this band on a release they had on the Moribund Cult label, and took a chance. I listened to the CD a lot in my car, and, as with a lot of one-person black metal bands, it opened onto a very individual vision, one that approaches an ambient mood. It’s pretty personal stuff, to my ear. That’s something I really like in metal: There’s group expression, like with Ares Kingdom where the whole is greater than the sum of parts, but there’s plenty of sole-auteur projects where you’re just getting access to one person’s visions and dreams. There is a whole lot of Japanese metal to explore, dating back to the speed metal days of the ’80s. Shadow Kingdom Records has reissued some of those, and they’re really worth looking into. There’s also Arkha Sva, one of the most distinctive black metal bands ever. Lots to find!
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Portuguese goth metal! What a beautiful album, I don’t know anybody who’s heard this who didn’t like it. Just lovely stuff.
Morbid Evils, In Hate With the Burning World
This is death metal, and it’s really beautifully done. Great death metal is: 1.) Played by great musicians; and 2.) Very attentive to atmosphere. For some people, this sounds angry/dark/aggressive. All that’s in there, for sure, but that’s sort of the frosting, for me. The substance is richer than that: The sound of musicians playing together, responding to one another, collaborating on a project of playing and listening to make something that expresses—like, a musical expression, something evocative, a space for the listener to inhabit. I really view the thematic concerns as part of the picture, but not really the primary one—more like signposts. They’re indicative of the mood, just as when something’s in a minor key, it’s more likely to be reaching for sad moods than something in a major key.
Metal expands that into places past keys and modes, and into tonal choices, like how much reverb you use, what tempos you favor, guitar tone choices, all that. It is very like painting, I think, the combinations of color choices and texture choice and medium all work together to develop grand, complex expressions. The guitar on this one… that sound. It’s just a massive, living, breathing sound, incredibly expressive. I’ve always liked this kind of lumbering, growling death metal.
One of the best metal bands ever, Autopsy, was among the earliest to slow down the tempo a little and see what the music sounded like that way, since when this style of death metal was new, thrash was still quite current and thrash was necessarily lightning-fast. Death metal asked questions about how the tonal languages being explored in metal might grow by getting harder, by getting more complex, by increasing the distance between metal and its grounding in rock ‘n’ roll. Some of these questions are as simple as, ‘What if there’s more repetition?’ or ‘What if we slow it down?’ Morbid Evils pose both those questions specifically to really hypnotic effect. This is grand, glacial death metal, really cinematic.