A few years ago, if someone had told me there was such thing as a university symposium centering around extreme metal, I would have laughed in their face. Don’t get me wrong, I love metal, but I couldn’t imagine academia wasting their time and resources on a misfit subculture when there were diseases to cure and people to send to the moon. All that changed when I read Metal Rules the Globe, a collection of papers on the global metal phenomenon. The writers talked metal culture the same way scholars examine jazz history, citing studies from previous publications and breaking down the music note by note. I was always aware of heavy metal’s rich history, but never thought it would capture the interest anthropology professors.
The first Grimposium was organized in 2014 by Vivek Venkatesh, an associate professor for Concordia University at the time. Since then, Grimposium events have been held in the United States and has even traveled all the way to Norway. The conference examines everything, from the economic and technical aspects to the revolutionary and purposefully controversial history of extreme metal. Events this year took the form of panels and lectures, film screenings and a high-profile concert.
August 4, 2016
Metalheads slowly filed into the small screening room and sat down in the comfy chairs with optional pull-out writing surfaces. Some looked like academic-types, others looked like they were going to a Slayer concert. Vivek Venkatesh warmly welcomed everyone for coming then introduced the first set of speakers, Marie-Hélène Landry and Sébastien Croteau, who gave a workshop on death metal vocals. As a metal vocalist, I was looking forward to this. The speakers went back in forth in sections, switching from English to French, explaining how they were exposed to death metal and how they developed their own technique for singing guttural. Croteau attributed his first influences to Cookie Monster and Suffocation, then drew parallels between death metal vocals and traditional throat-singing, as seen in parts of Mongolia and Northern Canada. Video clips were provided from Ubisoft video games, in which members of the Montreal death metal scene were recruited to do voices of monsters. Both speakers demonstrated how they warm-up before a show and finished by letting out demonic growls that could be heard from the back of the room.
Next was the panel on the economics of extreme metal, which featured Michelle Ayoub of Broken Board booking, Season of Mist label founder Michael Berberian, and Jason Netherton and Mark Kloeppel of Misery Index. Venkatesh led the panel, asking questions concerning social media, festival financing and politics within the scene. One interesting point that was raised was that even though extreme metal comes across as a D.I.Y (Do-It-Yourself) culture, a lot of it is still funneled through corporations such as Facebook and Instagram. The topic of freedom of expression vs. moral code was raised and everyone had an opinion on the matter. The content of lyrics in extreme metal has always been subject to heavy discussion, especially the rape-advocating lyrics found in grindcore and the national-socialist beliefs of many black metal bands. Ayoub argued that people who disagree with controversial lyrical content should just not listen to those bands, but shouldn’t force others not to. Berberian provided a few real-life examples of anti-fascist groups in Europe who banned certain bands from playing their country for the smallest reasons. Seeing no resolution in sight, the discussion was eventually cut short so the event could move along to the main attraction, the screening of Death By Metal.
Death By Metal is a documentary film showcasing the life of DEATH frontman, Chuck Schuldiner. Family members, former bandmates and managers of Schuldiner were interviewed, giving a history starting with DEATH’s original formation and recording of their 1987 album Scream Bloody Gore, all the way to Schuldiner’s final recordings with Control Denied and his eventual passing due to brain cancer in 2001. For a documentary, it was visually stunning, with the animated graphics of DEATH’s iconic album art and band photos between interviews. The film examined the various lineup changes of DEATH, the troubles with touring in Europe and how Schuldiner constantly wanted to break out of the box of brutality. Overall, it painted him as a human, full of ideas and flaws, as opposed to the rock god many metal fans see him as. After the screening, director Felipe Belalcazar answered questions from the audience. Belalcazar started filming Death By Metal after working with Sam Dunn on the Lost Extreme Metal Episode of the Metal Evolution TV Series. The episode only briefly glazed over Schuldiner’s legacy and Belalcazar wanted to dig deeper into the story. Although it was exciting for Belalcazar to find out more about one of his favorite bands, the project wasn’t without its financial problems. The reason the movie hasn’t made it to DVD yet is because Belalcazar is still in the process of paying for the rights for using clips from MTV and Schuldiner’s later recordings. He is slowly building up the money through t-shirt and poster sales.
August 5, 2016
Day two started with a live interview of with Scott Carlson of Repulsion at Katacombes. Questions were shared between Jason Netherton and Albert Mudrian, editor-in-chief of Decibel Magazine and author of Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal and Grindcore. Repulsion’s first and only album, Horrified, was originally released as a demo in 1986, then re-released several times through different labels. Despite this, Horrified is credited for being a huge inspiration to grindcore music today. The interviewers delved into the history of the band and the events that led to their recent reunion. The interview ended with Carlson promising Venkatesh that he would return to Montreal to play Grimposium next year. However, Venkatesh expressed doubt that he would hold more events after this year.
Attendees were then herded out of the venue so the bands could set up and sound check for the show later that night. I sat impatiently on the terrace of Katacombes, occasionally eavesdropping on the out-of-town metalheads planning on attending Heavy Montreal the next day.
The first band on was doom-psych three-piece, Cardinal Wyrm. Before launching into their set, drummer Pranjal Tiwari pointed out that they were the odd band of night; the other bands fringed on the more extreme side of metal. They were still able to capture the interest of the slowly growing crowd. The combined operatic vocals of Tiwari and bassist Rachel Roomian set an almost drug-like mood over me, complimented by the smoke machine and vibrant lights. By the end of their set, the entire room was slow-headbanging in unison, some flashing their metal horns in the air.
The stage suddenly became very crowded when all six members of Vengeful started setting up. The venue was dimly lit with red light and it stayed like that for the rest of the night. Vengeful’s sound was a lot heavier and harder compared to the previous act, due to the three guitarists pounding out seven-minute black metal epics. Being the only local band on the bill, they proved that Montreal is a proud hotspot for metal.
The stationary crowd was not prepared for the savage energy of Vastum. Within the first few minutes of their set, singer Daniel Butler was stomping down on full beer cans and throwing his body into the unsuspecting audience. After being spewed with beer and attacked by the maniac frontman, the few capable of enduring the abuse and spontaneity of Butler lingered near the front of the stage. Butler would often leave the stage and stretch the microphone cord to its utmost limit to reach the concert-goers hiding in the back. As a result, his mic cut out on two occasions, but that didn’t seem to slow him down. I was surprised to later find out that Butler works as a psychoanalytic clinician in San Fransisco. Who knew behind all those tattoos and snarling growls lurks a man of mental science.
Similarly, I found it difficult to imagine what Misery Index would be like after seeing Jason Netherton and Mark Kloeppel taking part in the academic discussions. I couldn’t get the image of Netherton leaning back in a chair and pensively scratching his beard out of my head. How could a man so calm and thoughtful take part in playing death metal music? Kloeppel as well was all smiles until the moment he got on stage; his expression was then twisted into one of brutality and determination. Kloeppel’s battle cry riled up antsy fans into a constantly spinning circle pit. Their stage presence and ability to command a room showed they were clear death metal veterans who could adapt to any situation. They finished the night with their crushing track “Traitors” and then it was abruptly over. No encore, no prolonged final speech, just one last thank you and unplugging of guitars. Although most audience members were looking forward to an entire weekend of heavy metal, I had already had my fill for the week.