Part of what makes the Motor City so livable is that pretty much any musical style can be found on many stages all over metropolitan Detroit. However, until Writhing found its way onto our desks with its "Indomitable" EP recently, we had found it extremely difficult to find a bona fide death metal combo in metro Detroit.
A problem: There are so many sub-sub-genres to metal that it nearly rivals electronic music. If you want heavy raaawwwk in Detroit, there are plenty of hardcore punk bands (new- and old-school). You'll find screamo, thrash metal, speed metal, power metal and even touches of black metal. Some bands cross all boundaries. There are whole books written on the subject of metal and, while Detroit has never been a hotspot for that umbrella genre, there have been moments. But death metal itself has remained alien.
It's difficult to work out exactly why that is when heavy hardcore punk has thrived here. Perhaps because hardcore subject matter tends to be reality-based — and not pretty reality. Such bands as Negative Approach and the Necros were everyday guys spouting off about what pissed them off in their everyday lives. Death metal bands in Florida, such as Deicide (singer Glenn Benton has an inverted cross branded on his forehead, natch!) and Cannibal Corpse (with the sing-along ditty "Entrails Ripped From a Virgin's Cunt"), were growling on about zombies and putrid corpses doing unspeakable things to each other.
Think of it like this: Death metal is really about creating sick horror movie themes, set to matching metal music. The indecipherable vocals can shred trees, the guitar is skilled and meth-fast and rides shotgun atop rapid-fire drumming. Many lazily wave the musical din off as "just noise" but, when you get it, you get it. What's more, the highly subjective and gruesome album art and band logo are parts of the experience.
But while death metal rose into existence over the decades, Detroiters never really embraced it.
Listening to the aforementioned EP took this writer straight back to early '90s college years when friends would swap tapes of Brutal Truth, Morbid Angel, Obituary, Carcass and Napalm Death. We'd hunt down the heaviest stuff out there, without help from a then-nascent Internet. Whose lyrics shocked best? Whose song title was most vulgar? Who'd annoy our parents most? That's the shit we'd collect and feed our ears with.
And Writhing is a breath of fresh air ... er, a breath of maggot-filled, rotting, pus-stinking air in this city. Yay!
As if to hammer the point home of how scarce this music is here, the members of Writhing are based all over the metro area, though we meet in Royal Oak.
The three guys — guitarist Don Durr, singer Matt Deplancke and bassist Mike Nastasy (drummer Greg Mastin was unavailable) — attract long stares as we, perhaps naively, settle on a sports bar for a talk. "Here's a Detroit posse," spouts some smartass chick as we enter, as if to make sure we understand that we are indeed in Royal Oak.
"Everyone's a comedian," Durr says.
In truth, the Writhing guys come off as regular dudes in their early to mid-30s. They hold day jobs and have families. But upon hitting the stage, the manly gents want to rumble the most brutal music imaginable.
Where does that come from?
They all talk of listening to early Metallica and constantly searching for something heavier, eventually arriving at death metal.
"It doesn't seem to be heavy enough, and it keeps getting gradually heavier until you're listening to Cannibal Corpse and stuff like that," Nastasy says.
Durr agrees: "My brother is 10 years older than me, so I'd riffle through his record collection," he says. "He grew up on Metallica, Megadeth, W.A.S.P., Overkill, stuff like that. When I discovered Metallica, I thought it was the greatest shit on the planet. But it got so it wasn't heavy enough anymore. Once I got turned onto the Florida metal stuff, that was what I was really sold on."
There's a legend that says that all of the '70s punk bands formed when every Stooges and Velvet Underground fan in every town found one another. Writhing formed in much the same way. Not many people play this stuff, so they had to find each other. The band originally formed more than a decade ago, recorded an EP, changed lineups and, at one point, went on hiatus. Now, finally, the Writhing guys have their shit together.
Frontman Deplancke is the most recent addition, though the chemistry between the guys is clear. He and his twisted lyrics were the missing link.
"I try not to get into typical clichéd Hail Satan shit, but it is death metal so it will get violent and ugly," Deplancke says. "Everything's metaphorical. If I have a certain feeling on a given subject, I'll try to create a metaphor using war, zombies or some other stupid cliché. I try not to be too literal. I try to let it be open-ended. If you look at the lyrics, which you're gonna have to fucking do to understand them anyway, it could be a million different things."
Deplancke says that his vocal technique originally came from imagining the Incredible Hulk with a mic. "When I started getting into death metal and listening to bands like Deicide, I'd do my own little project at home by myself," he says. "Since getting together with these guys, I feel like I've gotten a lot better. It hurts really bad when you first start. It's hard to explain, because you don't get lessons. Nobody's gonna teach you. It's kind of trial and error. Eventually, you develop a technique. Each practice, it hurts a little less and I do it for a little longer."
Nastasy says that, while it's not always easy for a death metal band to gig around Detroit, they can essentially play the same venues as any other band as long as the lineup's appropriate. "There's the Halfway House in Detroit," he says. "It's a house that puts on basement shows. We played there a couple of months ago. There's also the Corktown Tavern, the Lager House. Not too many metal bands play Harpos anymore. There's the Token Lounge, and the Ritz, I guess. Blondie's has metal touring packages coming through, and if a local band wants to play they make you sell tickets."
So what's an "appropriate lineup" for a death metal band in a town nearly devoid of death metal? "Actually, there's a scene with a lot of bands developing a following," Deplancke says. "Battlecross is doing really well. Every band has its own little niche and we're definitely the old-school death metal band in the scene. Black Dahlia Murder is close, but they have the melodic thing. I hate subgenres and labels, but I guess we're one of the few true death metal bands in Detroit."
Nastasy looks up from his beer. "And right now, we're at our strongest."
Writhing plays April 20, at the Halfway House, 13367 Loretto St., Detroit.