The question of why we listen to this stuff is asked so frequently as to become quite meaningless. Sam Dunn’s Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey documentary concluded that you either “get it” or you don’t, and that’s fine. Find a seventeen-year-old who’s just heard Nile or Behemoth and they’ll inform you that metal is for the musically elite, wrapping words about history and antitheism in swathes of dizzyingly technical instrumentation (especially the drums). I disagree with both to some degree, and the question being posed by a great friend I have tremendous respect for led me to think more about it than normal. DeathgraVe, an American deathgrind band, offered a good test case: if their debut full-length So Real, It’s Now is good, it can provide answers in its goodness; if it’s bad, perhaps the privations can illuminate that important factor needed for listening to this racket willingly.
The initial reviews of this record seem to peg DeathgraVe as travelers with a wide breadth of musical scope and influence, but such an account is too broad to be useful. Deathgrind is the appropriate descriptor, and the essential elements of death and grind — which include hardcore punk, Autopsy, and whatever developed into “powerviolence” among them — are here in spades. This isn’t as sloppy or vicious as early Napalm Death, nor as concise or subtly detailed as Repulsion. So Real, It’s Now provides shortened death metal songs with the spirit of hardcore — “deathgrind” is mere shorthand for this — and in turn reminds of fun bands like Cliteater and Suppository, and in many instances Impaled.
All of this is meaningless to those unfamiliar with the names above, so the question remains from above: why would I listen to this? “Casket Bath” opens the proceedings by sounding like you dropped the needle a few seconds too late on a lost Terrorizer LP, and quickly morphs into a big Incantation via Autopsy chug section. This is all violent and ugly music, but it’s not overly serious; this is certainly more Evil Dead II than Martyrs. There’s a cathartic appeal here, as this type of over-the-top metal, obsessed with gore and death, seems to be at base a parody via extending to absurdity the human curiosity about death, pain, and mortality.
The device used most often and to greatest effect by DeathgraVe is a demented disharmony played on the lead guitar almost universally over slow riffs. It sounds like a loving parody done well, riffing on Incantation’s propensity to play something unsettling over their slowdowns and taking it to a ludicrous extreme by making it as obnoxiously abhorrent as possible. Fortunately, it works in context, offering a stark counterpoint to the fast deathgrinding which pervades some of the record. It’s a bit odd to have a deathgrind band enjoy playing at slow and mid-paced tempos this much, but similar to the speedier World Downfall this aids in having a record which ebbs and flows instead of blurring into white noise. Deathgrind has always seemed to possess an inherent sense of humor that, unlike more serious death metal and black metal, lends itself to catchier riffs and more playful songs; Exhumed and Impaled do this in death metal well. DeathgraVe are no exception, and their short songs are overall decent in quality and fun to hear when they’re on.
And yet, I’m left with the impression that this is an okay record at best. This isn’t because of salient flaws that lend themselves to cheap and easy ridicule — though closing number “Carnival Grotesque” is rather useless — but rather because DeathgraVe does very little that would compel a listener to return repeatedly. Hot takes will praise this as a great or very good record, as it’s just wonky enough to stick out for a short time and employs an armory of serviceable riffs. But is this really something that will stay in rotation, inspire a fond nostalgic listen years later, or cause me to discuss the band with like-minded friends? No, probably not.
Why would I listen to DeathgraVe? I wouldn’t, at least not frequently. Nonetheless, So Real, It’s Now provides an example of the amusing and cathartic power of metal to make death less threatening via a strange sort of reductio ad absurdum of its most horrific instances. This original exploration of a basic human truth — that we’re all fearful of our own mortality — is reason enough for me to subject my ears to the filthiest death metal possible, but it’s done far better elsewhere.