It’s an oft made distinction, but that doesn’t make it any clearer. The difference between underground metal, and extreme metal. I’m forever using the tag ‘extreme metal’ for the sake of convenience. But the term is open to abuse. From Sam Dunn documentaries and flashy marketing videos for latest Enslaved album at one end, to your mate’s new fledging project birthed in mum’s garage at the other. The process of entropy acts on all movements as a matter of inevitability. As a result the usefulness of certain terms melts away before our eyes. The reason for even making the distinction between ‘extreme’ vs. ‘underground’ can be traced back a long way. It probably became pertinent once death metal made its first encroachments onto MTV in the late 80s and early 90s. From then on there has always been a dichotomy between extreme metal bands capable of booking world tours and playing to festival crowds, and truly underground metal that sticks doggedly to the DIY ethos. And for the latter, since making money was never a realistic prospect, commercial incentives are less likely to hamper the artistic endeavour with needless bells and whistles. The distinctions in the music itself are probably too varied and many to draw out here. But it goes without saying that underground bands can and do jump to mainstream status, with a larger label turning modest PR campaigns into well-oiled marketing projects, flashy music videos, and endless additional content to keep fans interested. For all the ways and means this foggy distinction has played out over the years, here are two artists that have held on to an underground ethos both philosophically and musically.
Imprecation are one of many bands that have received something of a new lease of life in recent years. Despite releasing some quality material in the early 1990s, they never go off the ground in the same way as many of their contemporaries. Cut to 2010, with comeback EP ‘Sigil of Lucifer’. As with many acts consigned to the aether of time only to rise again, it was immediately apparent that Imprecation’s new material stood head and shoulders above later efforts from bands that have stayed on the scene right the way through (Suffocation, Immolation, Incantation etc.). The full length ‘Satanae Tenebris Infinita’ released in 2013 continued this upward trend.
The album proceeds by taking a similar approach to ‘Realm of Chaos’. Simple themes are strung together with determination despite being constantly interrupted by moments of utter, blasting chaos. The riffs themselves are relatively simple, but they communicate the idea that any forward progression is always at the mercy of the random destructiveness of the universe. These slower passages that hint at a tonal centre are far more developed than the Bolt Thrower classic, and are even underpinned by some keyboards in places. This subtle inflection of timbre – along with an earthy guitar tone that lends itself to doom – as well as providing additional depth to the mix hints at Imprecation’s overall intentions behind their craft. This is a beast of conflict and resolution. But the onward march of progress represented by these purposeful mid-paced riffs, atop which melodies, soaring leads, and deep keyboards can all build upon is the overriding backbone of ‘Satanae Tenebris Infinita’. Drums, although fairly low in the mix, loyally follow the path of the rhythm guitars. Providing a rock solid rhythmic core to anchor the dichotomies of staccato and ringing chords as they play off each other.
This can make it all the more dramatic when the order and structure is overtaken by short blasts of atonal energy. But in their wake they leave additional layers of harmony that are then layered on top of variants of the original opening riff of each track. One can hear elements of classic Incantation as well Morbid Angel at work behind some of the chord progressions of the more frantic passages. By applying the blunt instrument of Bolt Thrower to these more sophisticated influences they have created a work that makes the best of both traditions. Simplicity finds a wider purpose in forcing complexity into constant patterns of destruction and recreation. Upon each new beginning the riffs build back more complexity and nuance with each reiteration. Each competing element grows in intensity as the album reaches its close. Structure gradually gives way to disorder. Hints of Finnish weirdness take root with a pronounced Demigod influence in the lumbering, haunting swagger the riffs take on by the close.
Known to any follower of Chicago death metal, Cardiac Arrest are consistent champion of the ethos of underground metal as well as its execution. We could pluck any album from their now substantial discography, right up to 2020’s ‘The Day That Death Prevailed’. But for the sake of sticking with the former half of the 2010’s, we’ll focus in on ‘And Death Shall Set You Free’ released back in 2014. A much more direct beast than Imprecation, Cardiac Arrest toy with similar rudimentary components, but the impact is very different. If Imprecation are esoteric, with a sense of lingering finality to their work, Cardiac Arrest are celebratory. The music is dark, aggressive, basic death metal, broken up by some droning doom passages borrowed from Autopsy, but the feeling one gets is of a life affirming nihilism as opposed to a wonderment at our own finiteness.
Explanations abound. We could point to the adoption of almost endemic atonality, the frequent d-beats that give the music additional bounce, or the chord progressions that sound like traditional rock riffs twisted through the vortex of aesthetic extremity. One and all are worthy causes of the nourishing vitality found on this album. The deeper answer can be found in the interplay between these moods. The album opens with an instrumental doom intro that is anything but joyful. But as faster paced death metal gets going (still relatively slow by the standards of the genre) we witness this battle it out with riffs that – whilst not providing a happy mood in the way you would get from a major key – certainly demand an energetic response from their listener. Set the ambiguous atonal chords against a bouncy d-beat, and contrast them with doom passages dictated by tritones and minimal minor harmonies, and nihilism becomes joyful, amorality becomes a code of revelry.
This idea is made explicit in the hints of loose blues found on tracks like ‘Bridge Burner’, which openly acknowledges its own playfulness in a manner similar to Autopsy or Cianide. That’s not to say that Cardiac Arrest don’t string together some decent tremolo picked riffs at all. These make an appearance by the second half of the album as the pace picks up, speeding us along to our inevitable demise. Solos are brief and infrequent; playing out the battles of the album in miniature as melody struggles to articulate sophistication against the demands of single note screams and directionless fretboard attacks that explode across the mix like sirens. The inertia of the sludgy guitar tone goes some way to compensate for the overt simplicity at the core of this music. There is an exhilarating hum that sits beneath fat death metal of this nature. In the right hands it can be used to great effect, providing subtle and hidden layers of atmosphere. The key is balance. If the riffs are simple but not simplistic they can be offset by the inherent virtues of a particular tone. Go too far with either element and the overall effect loses out. On this and many release from Cardiac Arrest they have proved themselves adept at manipulating crude death metal into a truly esoteric beast.
These two albums have been chosen almost but not quite at random from these artists’ discographies. I say this not only to highlight the amount of quality work both have put out, but also because the wider point on the agenda is what the artists themselves represent rather than these specific albums alone. They both operate in this obscure, ill-defined world of underground metal, which here we are directly contrasting with extreme metal; a term which could cover everything from Cradle of Filth to your mates noodling at the local practice studio. Underground metal is not just defined by how big an artist is. Nor is it defined by motivation alone, many underground bands aspire to success. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that either. It’s how you marshal competing motivations into artistry that counts. Imprecation and Cardiac Arrest (and many other examples over the years) are single minded in their ambition to craft the best death metal possible. It’s a philosophy defined not just by an admirable work ethic, but by ambition and craft that finds its motivation in the creative potential in death metal first and foremost. Treating the output as products to be sold is limited as much as is practical for artists that must sell albums and book gigs all the same. But the art is never compromised for the sake of these unavoidable evils.
Sermon aside, it’s time to pick a lane. The pick of the week is Imprecation’s ‘Satanae Tenebris Infinita’. It is that bit more unique and ambitious when compared to ‘And Death Shall Set You Free’. Cardiac Arrest are a reliable pilsner, Imprecation are a daring craft beer made with familiar elements and just a twist of the exotic that works perfectly as a combination of the known and the unknown.