The Man-Machine Will Rock You
The Existential Paradox of Technical Death Metal

Technical death metal is the hidden side of its genre, having more in common with prog-rock and jazz fusion than with the mechanistic, Satan-obsessed grinding that’s the music’s dominant public image. (Indeed, some players actually “graduate” from one form to the other: Chris Poland, former lead guitarist of Megadeth, now fronts OHM, an Allan Holdsworthesque power trio with Ginger Baker’s son Kofi on drums.) This split has existed since the beginning.

Death metal is almost directly traceable, appropriately enough, to the Florida band, Death, and its lead guitarist, songwriter and vocalist Chuck Schuldiner. Schuldiner’s voice was a raw punk howl, akin to a street crazy ranting on a bus and nothing like the Cookie Monster roar that dominates today. Death’s early albums were lyrically fixated on gore and violence, and that element of the music inspired cruder peers like Deicide, Morbid Angel and Cannibal Corpse. But as a composer, Schuldiner was almost without equal, continually firing band members who couldn’t play his increasingly complex pieces. Death’s music peaked on three early-90s albums, Individual Thought Patterns, Human and Symbolic, which are as knotty as the Mahavishnu Orchestra or Return to Forever but with a savage energy that the jazz-rock players never matched for fear of staining their headbands and silk shirts with sweat.

Naturally, Death inspired other highly skilled Florida players to form bands of their own; the two main contenders for the technical-death-metal throne were Atheist and Cynic. Atheist’s debut album, Piece Of Time, was driven by the interplay between lead guitarist/founder Kelly Shaefer and bassist Roger Patterson, whose lightning-speed fingering was on a par with Jaco Pastorius’s (but not nearly as recognized, since he was working in a ghettoized genre). But while on tour, Patterson was killed in a van accident, leaving behind enough nearly completed songs for a second disc.

To record that follow-up, Unquestionable Presence, Shaefer recruited bassist Tony Choy from Cynic. That band had yet to enter the studio on their own, since guitarist Paul Masvidal and drummer Sean Reinert had just joined Death for the Human album. When Human and UP were complete, Cynic reunited and recorded Focus, an album that was even jazzier than anything else Atheist or Death had done to that point. The vocals were a combination of Masvidal’s raspy voice and a vocodered counterpoint, which alienated some fans and registered as a major leap forward to others. Like Atheist, Cynic avoided clichéd lyrical subject matter, writing songs called “Veil Of Maya” and “Celestial Voyage”.

Death’s catalog has never gone out of print, but Atheist’s and Cynic’s did, at least for a while. Now they’re back, remastered with bonus demo and live tracks, to inspire new generations of metalheads. I recently attended a show at New York’s BB King’s at which one of the opening bands, Avarus, announced, “We’ve got one more song left in our set. We can play an Atheist cover or a Death cover. Which do you wanna hear? ” The crowd voted for Death, and the band launched into a flawless version of the opening track from Human. Many of the other bands on that bill were signed to Willowtip, a Pennsylvania indie label that’s a major home for technical death metal. They put out CDs by Neuraxis, Arsis and Necrophagist, all of whom played that night.

Neuraxis are French-Canadian, like earlier tech-death titans Voivod, Gorguts and Cryptopsy. Their music is impossibly dense, indebted to the machine rhythms of Meshuggah and Godflesh as much as to the jazzy, melodic guitar arpeggios of the Florida tech-death pioneers. It crunches ahead like a truck on seven square wheels, making moves that sometimes seem almost counterintuitive, but work out in the end. More importantly, there’s a real beauty to their songwriting, despite the initially alienating relentlessness. And like their forefathers, they’re less concerned with praising Satan than with interrogating the nature of modern existence — song titles range from “Lid To Your Soul” and “Thought Adjuster” to “Monitoring The Mind. ” Their latest album, Trilateral Progression, is their strongest to date. (Their first three are now available on a 2-disc set.)

Arsis are even stronger instrumentalists than Neuraxis. A recent EP contains a 13-minute track commissioned by an avant-garde dance company; their full-length debut, A Celebration Of Guilt, might indulge a darker lyrical perspective than that of the philosophers in Neuraxis, but the music aims for a similar transcendence. The guitarists play barbed-wire circles around each other, while the drummer blithely rattles off polyrhythms that suggest a machine gun with a degree in calculus. In an age when many rock players seem incapable of a simple four-count, the skill demonstrated by death metal musicians is simply astonishing. And despite the reputation metal bands have as hard partiers, make no mistake — you can’t play this stuff drunk. It requires years of practice. Anybody with two functioning hands (hell, a left hand and a hook capable of holding a pick) can play like Johnny Ramone in a week; to play like Chris Poland, Kelly Shaefer or Chuck Schuldiner takes a lot longer.

The third Willowtip act on the bill that night, and one of the most astonishing bands in technical death metal, was Necrophagist. The band represents the triumph of bedroom obsessiveness — the lead guitarist, vocalist and songwriter is Muhammad Suicmez, a Turkish Muslim from Germany who taught himself guitar under the nose of his strict father. He recorded Necrophagist’s first album, Onset of Putrefaction, as a solo act, playing both guitar and bass and programming the beats. For the follow-up, Epitaph (Relapse), he hired a band and was finally able to go on tour. The songs were almost bebop in structure; perfunctory verses (featuring gory lyrics that seemed rote, as though he’d spent so much time practicing his knuckle-popping riffs he didn’t have the mental energy to write about anything but genre clichés) were bracketed by lightning-fast guitar solos, along with the occasional bass or drum break. It was thrilling to watch someone perform this music before the naked eye, to know that it wasn’t a trick of studio editing — this band was really that tight, that skilled, that precise.

Technical death metal does have one major Achilles’s heel. Because of its structural complexity, it requires fierce concentration on the part of the players; so most of the bands, featuring guitarist/singers, are quite boring live, unless you’re a guitarist yourself and can crowd at the lip of the stage and watch a Muhammad Suicmez’s fingers fly. Of all the bands at BB King’s, only Neuraxis had a frontman — a singer with no instrumental role — and they owned the night as a result. He leapt about, making apelike faces and air-guitaring along with the solos, banging his head in a whirl of sweaty hair and inciting the crowd into a frenzy. When they were done, I went straight to the merch stand and bought both their CDs. I picked up Onset of Putrefaction and A Celebration of Guilt that night, too, but Neuraxis had become my favorites, because they were the most ... human of all the bands on the bill.