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[Ed's note: A few sections have been edited in order to keep some details included in the article up to date.]
It’s the unearthly growls that grab you. Against a backdrop of noisy guitar riffs and thundering backbeat, the vocalist spits out garbled lines like Cookie Monster gurgling metal blades, then thrashes about the stage as if possessed by evil spirits. Minus the unraveling sonic boom, the scene comes straight from an exorcism rite, also sans an officiating demon catcher.
This is death metal. This is the music of the undead.
Death metal isn’t exactly new. In rock lineage terms, the music is rooted in the dark legacy of Black Sabbath who provided a foreboding counterpoint to the carefree jam associated with the carefree hippies of the late ‘60s. Where groups like the Grateful Dead, Deep Purple and even Led Zeppelin offered a glimpse of nirvana through peace, love and drugs in a time of war (i.e. the Vietnam war), Sabbath’s sludgy hard rock zoned in on the carnage and body count that went on behind the daily news.
The future was grinding to a halt. In the late ’80s, an American band named Death re-wired Black Sabbath’s bleak prognosis to the sound and fury of underground punk and hardcore, producing the primordial blueprint for death metal. Various other groups, mostly Norwegian and Swedish metal brigands, would take death metal to the extreme—to the fastest as well as slowest, dirge-like ends, disembowelment and sacrilegious iconography, church burning, and murder of the first degree. Death metal would later on split into micro-genres to accommodate an expanding lurid lexicon of offensiveness, profanity, and plain old filthy badness among its practitioners.
The Pioneers Rise!
The filth and the profane were the least of their worries when Kabaong ni Kamatayan unleashed their death-defying metal sometime in the late ’80s. The Kabaong ni Kamatayan trio of vocalist/guitarist Elmer San Juan, bassist Joseph Conde, and drummer Paul Magat went on to become pioneering fixtures in the first wave of Pinoy death metal bands.
Elmer, Joseph, and Paul were then high school friends who merely wanted to share their music with an audience. The Kabaong trio grabbed any opportunity to perform live, mostly in Marikina, being one of the few hotbeds of underground music in Metro Manila at the time. KnK debuted, as expected, in gigs featuring local punk and hardcore acts. In front of moshing punks and skinheads, KnK uncoiled their Valium-to-slam-dancing death metal.
Conde remembers earlier bands such as Crematorium and Valhalla, whose speed thrash burned the way for the coming of death-spawned metal. He recalls hooking up with the Valhalla circle of fans and friends as his break into Marikina’s underground metal scene. In their company, he befriended future members of Death After Birth, Iconoclast, Scum, and Barang.
Most death metal fans at the time got their listening by trading bootlegged cassettes of imported albums. The albums were either sent by relatives abroad or sourced from stores in downtown Quiapo. Intermittent concerts in Marikina and in Dapitan, Manila as well as Tandem building in Manila and Cartimar market in Pasay became centers of tape trading and meeting places of the fledgling Pinoy death metal community.
Kabaong ni Kamatayan first appeared on record in the legendary Screams from the Underground cassette released in 1992. They were the only death metal band in the compilation outnumbered by punk bands paying tribute to their Ramones and UK Subs influences.
KnK opened Side A with the classic metal slam and death growl of “Eve of Pain” and followed it up with a 30-second spurt of thrash and death makeout “Let Flesh Decay.” Conde says that as an angst-ridden teener back then, his musical inspiration came from violent comic books and horror/gore/zombie movies.
“My love for those kind of flicks led me to calling the band Kabaong ni Kamatayan because I wanted to have a B-movie-sounding band name,” Joseph says. “It also showed that we were just a bunch of kids having fun who could care less with what other people think.” To him, the issue of demonic possession or anti-Christianity behind the music begs the question. Death metal pumps him up, keeps him even more alive. The lyrics are fun to read or sing along to in their absurdity.
As part of the Valhalla community of unrepentant rockers, KnK got a taste of the rock ‘n’ roll high life. “Drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll! I experienced the whole trip when we became part of the Marikina underground scene. We would be holed up in Valhalla’s aptly named pad Impyerno for a couple of days, drinking, getting wasted, wallowing in filth while having easy access to girls,” adds Joseph.
Tight-fitting jeans, basketball hi-tops, or board shorts and of course, black T-shirts were the normal dress code in the community. In a bizarre stunt, KnK once performed with a small empty coffin on stage fitted with strobe lights as a prop. It spawned an urban legend that the band customarily lugged around a coffin during their performances.
Another underground punk and death metal compilation in 1994 provided the bridge between the first and the next wave of death metal bands.
In Alternatibong Musikang Pilipino Dekada 90, Death After Birth pushed the envelope for death metal with their grunge-infected growler, “Son of Sam.” Tucked at the end of a parade of good-sounding punk rockers, the track starts out with molten Sabbath slow burn. Then, it ebbs and flows with the clashing rush of thrash and old school melodic hard rock. And the lyrics, while barely decipherable, actually talked about the notorious New York City serial killer David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz.
Melodic quotient and radio friendliness would key in Pinoy death metal’s second wave of champions.
Around 1995, radio station LA 105 began airing its Top 50 Alternative Songs of the Week. The special show on Sunday afternoon hosted by The Doctor, Ramon Zialcita, called the roll and surprisingly, death metal’s legends and future icons showed up in the countdown.
Alvin Baes, a death metal fan and frontman for Rumblebelly, submitted a demo and one of his compositions, “Anak ng Gabi,” made such an impression that it landed at the top spot of The Doctor’s Sunday countdown.
“We were surprised when Death After Birth gave death metal the exposure it deserved on radio,” Alvin says. “Our band experimented and The Doctor liked what he heard from us. We eventually got invited to contribute to a compilation of underground music at the time. We were death metal fans and we referred them to the station for consideration. He actually asked Rumblebelly, even dared us, to do a Tagalog song.”
The resulting compilation, Sa Kabilang Anyo ng Buhay (Tone Def/Ivory Records, 1994), became the first gathering of local death metal bands in a release from a major record label. It has become a major tipping point in death metal’s rise from the local underground. The bands included in the compilation were Rumblebelly, Barang, Kabaong ni Kamatayan, Brimstone in Fire, Iconoclast, Dethrone, Death After Birth, Genital Grinder, Amocrass, and Thanatopsy (whose guitarist went on to become managing editor of FHM Philippines print edition).
But as early as the ‘90s, problems were already brewing in the scene. A schism was one of them.
“Death metal was branching out into sub-genres like doom, etc.” Joey Dizon, guitarist of Skychurch and Intolerant, and editor of local music magazine Pulp, recalls. "It became difficult to characterize the music anymore as strictly death metal. The sad thing was that so-called serious fans and scenesters openly disowned the bands that appeared in the compilation. They were branded as sell-outs.”
Even then, gigs were hard to come by especially with the established rock joints. They got gas money, a couple of bottles of beer, and rationed food for talent fees—at best. Mostly it was for free.
It was clear, though, to the scenesters that they were in it for the music. “There are extreme sports and then there’s extreme music,” Alvin elaborates. “The growls, the aggressive playing allow me to unload all my adolescent angst after every show. It’s a release and a relief, really!”
Joey adds: “As a musician, I was attracted to the technicality in the playing and the interplay among band members. Death metal actually took hard rock to extremes. It broke all rules and made the music competitive by being the slowest and the fastest music ever.”
Beyond the shock of the music, fans and musicians are drawn to the cover art, some of which are the most graphic illustrations of profanity, gore, and filth. You’d see demonic fetuses crawling out of a woman’s open womb or Christ in repose on a dissected frog. The flip is a vegan band taking a stand by presenting mutilated human body parts, instead of animals, on their album cover.
Seasoned death metalheads are seeing a resurgence of the Pinoy metal underground. A new wave of Pinoy death metal merchants is on the rise from across the country.
Second wave death metal stalwarts Brimstone in Fire are alive and well and killing ‘em all 15 years after their inception. On a balmy Saturday afternoon at Ka Freddie’s Bar in Bacoor, Cavite, the group did a soundcheck consisting of fiery thrash and death growlers capped by a progressive rocker that crossed The Allman Brothers Band’s “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” licks with Metallica riffage circa Ride The Lightning.
Brimstone in Fire guitarist Lloyd Isberto says the band’s continuing involvement with metal is their way of giving back to the music of their youth. He has also just published the maiden issue of Filipino Metal, a magazine that provides ample print space for rising stars as well as the old guards in the Pinoy metal scene.
“Around 2000, the local metal scene fell silent,” says Lloyd. “Then about three years ago, bands started supporting each other setting up gigs, recording, and distributing records. It’s the whole DIY ethos again, but with new players on the scene. There were gigs once a month back then and most metal fans would show up. Now, there are metal gigs once a week and this tends to segregate fans into various camps. With the magazine, we aim to help unify a fragmented metal scene.”
It’s an exciting time for metal. The main live action still happens in Metro Manila in such venues as Club Dredd and Black Kings Bar in Quezon City. Underground productions in the metro are also very much active in hosting gigs that showcase the best unknown death acts in the country.
Metal bands from the provinces are creating their own buzz abetted by the Internet, and in some cases, distribution muscle of a foreign record label. Death metal, however, remains marginalized by choice of the present crop of players, mostly Black metal heads, and the fact that the metal itself has split into competing, arguably harder, faster and heavier sub-genres.
A compilation CD released along with Filipino Metal magazine showcases a slew of death metal bangers along with their hardcore and thrash brethrens. Female-fronted Wicca starts the descent to sonic hell with “Darkness in Chaos.” Blasphemous Creation, based in Manila, conjure the ferocity of horror-ogre thrash while Power Tools from Olongapo summon images of a life painfully wasting away.
Drawing from the same poisoned well, Olongapo’s Down from the Wound spew brutal death collected in a release distributed internationally by New York-based Sevared Records. Since 1991, Pathogen has been unleashing their deadly aural infection from the bowels of San Pablo City in Laguna. They take care of the decaying essence of primordial death metal in a 2008 split CD with Brimstone In Fire.
Human Mastication spread their putrid emanations from Davao while the aptly named Cookie Monster periodically pollute Dumaguete’s cool breeze with thrashy putrefactions. Cavite’s Phlegm Thrower injects even harsher electronics to death’s gloom and doom.
In death, they thrive. There’s brutal beauty in death metal’s continuing race to the uncharted extreme.
This story first appeared on the October 2009 issue of FHM Philippines.
Photography Carlo Bandoquillo (RIP) Illustration Sonny Ramirez of Lungraf.com Additional photos Satti Ombao and Bryan Maglalang