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It Ain't Easy Being Mean

Why death-metal bands struggle to stay alive.

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You will be my devoted disciple.

I walk to feed upon precious blood.

Condemned to hell I command

Winds!!! Winds!!! Winds!!!

--from "Through Haunted Caverns," by the band Ezurate

The Chicago suburbs are a breeding ground for death-metal bands, but you'd hardly know it. There should be a thriving community of the musically extreme, offensive, and bellicose, yet most of these groups are wary each other.

This is surprising, especially since the bands seem to know each other's work; local record distributors generally offer musicians CD trades instead of cash. Terminology may be partly responsible for the divisions. "Death metal" is an all-encompassing label for the aggressive, fast-paced music--heavy on the guitar solos and double-bass drumming--but many bands affiliate themselves with certain subgenres: black, grind, thrash, gore.

At a recent show at Smiler Coogan's--a west-side club that's pretty much the only place in the city devoted to metal bands--one singer attacked not only the other acts but the audience, peppering his onstage rants with epithets like "faggot" and "nigger." Stories about Scandinavian black-metal bands burning churches and murdering competitors have been circulating for a good five years, while the death-metal scene in the United States has been blamed for everything from vandalism to teen suicides.

The bands appear to enjoy the notoriety. Their derisive stances are part of an effort to appear hardened and hostile, and though some may come off as more rabid and merciless than others, they all seem to end up alienating anyone with money. As a result, death-metal bands are often left to navigate the business side of the metal scene alone.

Named after a Dungeons & Dragons demon, Ezurate, a black-metal group from the northern suburbs, has been around for seven years. Its current lineup ranges in age from 17 to 32. They fancy diabolic black-and-white face paint, sport metal-spiked wristbands, and brandish terrifyingly surreal swords and knives. They've perfected their showmanship--the only thing they're missing is a place to put on a show.

Area metal bands have achieved varying degrees of success. Some--such as Broken Hope, Macabre, Fleshgrind, and Usurper--have fans throughout the world, while bands like Ezurate are virtually unknown. Part of Ezurate's problem is high turnover. A string of unreliable, untalented, and wildly unpredictable members led to frequent personnel changes. Last spring was the first time the lineup stuck together long enough to learn all the songs.

They've played only a handful of gigs. Getting even small shows requires connections, complains lead guitarist Blackthorn. "There's no metal brotherhood but plenty of trash talking," he says. A carpenter by day, Blackthorn is one of the band's two core members, along with drummer Sir Dameon Hellstorm, an unemployed data-entry operator who's a fan of Renaissance fairs and sword collecting. "People in the metal scene tend to be elitists," Blackthorn says. "Bands are always trying to prove who's the most evil, and that's just poser-ish."

A faithful fan base can materialize quickly but getting one can financially devastate a band--it's common on the metal scene to pay a promoter in advance and then to try to make the money back by selling tickets. "It's a rip-off," says Sir Dameon. "I don't recommend it." He paid $800 of the $1,200 needed to open for Emperor, an internationally known black-metal band, at the Congress Theater in July 1999. Though the band had been going through different lineups for a few months, Sir Dameon didn't want to miss a chance at a "big break" and finally settled on two guitarists, a vocalist, and a bass player a couple days before the show. Then Ezurate ended up discounting its tickets at the door.

Sir Dameon says the band was underrehearsed and overenthusiastic. They'd given up their rehearsal space and had been practicing irregularly in a parent's garage. Few people showed up early enough to see them, which often happens to metal bands stuck in the first slot. They'd decorated the stage with lanterns they'd snatched from churches, and the singer heaved "medieval" weapons around the stage while threatening to kick audience members in the face. Though promised a 45-minute set, they were allowed to play for less than half an hour. They were so angry they left their stolen props at the theater.

Mostly Ezurate takes whatever it can get. A week after the show with Emperor, they drove to New Jersey to play for 20 minutes in the clean-up spot after Mortician. In September '97, they jumped at the chance to perform a "destruction ritual" on the "My Teen Worships Satan" episode of the Jerry Springer Show. The ritual, popularized by the late Church of Satan head Anton LaVey, featured the band dressed in black robes as they destroyed a "dollhouse-size" model of a church. A '98 booking at Big Horse, a Mexican restaurant and music venue in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood, led to another meltdown. "We're playing at a taco stand?" incredulous members asked before storming out. Last-minute replacements filled in that night, and a booze-fueled evening of improvised black-metal jams ensued. Last year at the now-defunct Roby's, Ezurate played for so long at such an excruciating volume that many people left before the band finished its set. A few months ago Ezurate drove to Nashville to perform for a typical crowd of black-leather-clad metalheads as well as a middle-aged man in gauntlets. Bassist Culg-Gath gripes that one member of the audience was a little too appreciative, describing a "midget paraplegic biker fag" who begged to stroke his spiked cuff.

Sir Dameon notes that Ezurate's version of black metal is influenced by classical music and that it's more melodic than death metal, which is just "stereotypical meathead gore metal." If they were in the band to get famous, he insists, they would've quit a long time ago. They recorded their first CD, Infernal Dominatio, a few months ago and are now looking for a label or distributor. They don't want to limit their music to "a closed-minded cult," Blackthorn says. "We just wanna play fast and brutal death metal and have fun."

Synnecrosis, a relatively obscure death-metal band from the northwest suburbs, is hoping to get signed to a big label and tour. Their stage show is more tame than Ezurate's--they perform in jeans and T-shirts and stick to generic double-bass-drum blasts, hamfisted guitar work, and low-pitched, mush-mouthed vocals--but both bands feature fancy guitar solos that meander across the frets until the songs crash to a stop. Lead guitarist Shane Merrill books metal shows in the city and suburbs: the Knights of Columbus hall in Arlington Heights, Riley's Rock House in Aurora, and occasionally the Fireside Bowl in Chicago. He admits his connections have probably helped the band to get shows, but he's trying not to lean too heavily on his contacts. "I wouldn't put Synnecrosis on a show I didn't feel confident about--it would make us feel self-conscious." The band didn't even define its music as death metal until appearing at a metal event in August: "We played a Relapse Records-sponsored show and we fit right in."

They certainly didn't fit in when they performed at the Knights of Columbus hall last month. The other bands played angry-for-no-reason rich-kid hardcore metal--a cross between punk jock-rock and Iron Maiden. Some audience members strategically swung their fists, jumped in the air, and performed elaborate fake karate moves. All the khaki-clad guys groped and spanked one another, while the heavily made-up girls mostly hung out in packs, chatting about their apartments or their musical preferences. One guy tattooed with roses bearing the words "Eternal Faith" on the inside of his forearms said he didn't know what he placed faith in. The members of Synnecrosis would rather have been playing a true death-metal show, but they figured they were paying their dues.

A young woman who was obviously enjoying the mongrel metal said she hates typical death-metal concerts because the crowds are antisocial, aloof, and disrespectful toward women. Physically intimidating a woman until she accepts a drink or breathing like a bull on her head isn't necessarily the best way to get a girlfriend, but perhaps it works for some guys.

Most people find it ludicrous to watch men dressed in leather, greasy with sweat and face paint, growling about witchcraft, demonology, human innards, war, and topics covered in the Necronomicon. That's the main reason you'll almost never see a death-metal review in a high-profile music magazine, though you will find rock, pop, rap, punk, indie, and electronic music criticism all in the same issue. Perhaps it's socially unacceptable to condone primitive behavior, but rude conduct obviously draws fans. According to SoundScan, death-metal band Morbid Angel's Covenant sold 110,000 copies, 30,000 more than Dig Me Out, the best-selling record by critics' darlings Sleater-Kinney. And magazines like Pit and S.O.D. and specialty music stores (such as Chicago's Nightfall Records) that focus solely on metal culture do exist, though their sparsity suggests metalheads are lone satellites, suspicious of any "scene" as the nihilistic bands they support. The musicians brag that they thrive on evil--at least onstage--but their "survival of the fittest" mentality doesn't enhance their chances of success. You live by the sword, you die by the sword.

Ezurate will play on Saturday at Champs Overtime Sports Bar, 5728 W. 87th in Burbank (708-499-4140), and will perform live on WHPK 88.5 FM at 9 PM on October 20. Synnecrosis will perform on October 22 with Vader, Dying Fetus, Deeds of Flesh, and Cephalic Carnage at Riley's Rock House, 110 N. Lake in Aurora (630-896-1031). Nightfall Records is located at 4039 W. Lawrence in Chicago (773-725-3530), and Smiler Coogan's at 5637 W. Grand in Chicago (773-889-0601).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Suzy Poling.

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