Defending Death

Death metal ain’t for everyone. But Decrepit Birth makes a good case for being the perfect gateway through which the metal-phobic could enter the darkened realm – provided that the prospective listener could overlook that scary-sounding name.

Take an instrumental like “The Enigmatic Form,” from the, Santa Cruz, Calif. band’s 2008 album Diminishing Between Worlds. The track would be an ideal place to start an unaccustomed listener prone to liking the group's jazzy riffs, symphonic keys, and clear, neo-classical solos. Say you start there before introducing them to Bill Robinson's matted-as-his-dreadlocks voice. "Wow," this extreme-music novice might remark, "I never knew heavy stuff could sound so... pretty! It's like Trans-Siberian Orchestra on speed!" (Enthralled genre newcomers often resort to hackneyed band-on-drug similes.)

Technical death metal seems to offer something for everyone: Gorgeous harmonic guitars for refined aesthetes, 300 beat-per-minute drums and growled vocals for the savages. As such, it has become relatively popular, leading to inevitable message-board sniping. Dustin Albright, who plays bass for veteran Topeka-based band Diskreet, a band that has shared a stage with Decrepit Birth, which headlines the Monsters of Death Tour coming to U.S.’s this week, agreed to help debunk - or confirm, when appropriate - the most common criticisms leveled against tech-death acts.

Criticism 1: Technical death metal albums sound "too good," due to their fancy musicianship and clean production.

Tech-death songs contain a lot of fast-moving parts, and without a producer to isolate and clarify the most important elements, these compositions would sound like indecipherable blurs. Of course, a number of metal fans actually prefer indecipherable blurs, so they're offended when they hear dual-guitar harmonies rendered with startling resonance. And cultish black-metal connoisseurs hate everything that doesn't sound fuzzy, ravaged and broken, like it's seeping through a speaker that's been stabbed repeatedly and set on fire.

"In punk rock, and especially powerviolence stuff, I can see why and how it's a more 'real' experience listening to garbage that sounds like it was written by people who just started playing three months ago, have no idea about writing music, and record their EP with a boombox stuffed inside a metal trash can," Albright says. "There's true passion behind that. But if you don't like your metal played with precision, go listen to that black metal crap. True black metal fans have got to be some of the dumbest music fans alive... If you're shredding, you want people to be able to tell what you're doing. The entire collective idea of playing in a band is to sound as perfect as you can."

Criticism 2: While technical death metal players execute difficult instrumental maneuvers, the music is hard-for-hard's-sake, without real compositional skill or coherence.

Albright: "That's true to an extent, until you find incredible composers like Mike Keene from The Faceless (who's producing the next Diskreet record) and Matt Sotelo from Decrepit Birth, who take things to the next level based on knowledge of theory."

Like most challenging artistic endeavors, technical death metal encounters a certain strain of anti-intellectualism; basically, "I don't understand it, so it must be crap." Complicating matters is the fact that some of it is, indeed, crap. Seeing unremarkable musicians slap together random blast beats and guitar squiggles in the delusional pursuit of tech-death prowess is like watching overconfident med students butcher patients with their tragicomic attempts at surgery.

Criticism 3: This genre produces some really pretty guitar solos, and is thus insufficiently br00tal.

"Tell that to Dave Suzuki of Vital Remains," Albright says. "’Dechristianize’ has the most memorable riffage in death metal history, and those riffs are the melodic ones. Vital Remains is one of the most popular Satanic bands. If it's good enough for Satan, then what's your fucking problem? Decrepit Birth comes up with amazing stuff too. If that's too prettied up for you, then go listen to Bury Your Dead. I hear they're pretty brutal. They're not, but that's what I hear anyways."

All complaints aside, I guarantee fans of jazz guitar, prog-rock, and, yes, Trans-Siberian Orchestra could find something to love during Decrepit Birth's set. I can't promise they'll feel the same about the other bands on the bill (Vader, The Amenta, Warbringer, Success Will Write Apocolypse Across the Sky, & Augr), but all that relentless metal will just make them even more receptive to Decrepit Birth's melodies.

Mon., Nov. 30, 5:30 p.m., 2009
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Andrew Miller