A Lesson In Violence

Obituary bassist Frank Watkins explains the appeal of death metal.

Obituary House of Blues, 308 Euclid Avenue 6:30 p.m. Saturday, September 10; $20-$25; 216-241-5555
Back from the dead: Obituary is touring the States for the first time in eight years.
Back from the dead: Obituary is touring the States for the first time in eight years.
Frank Watkins knows there are plenty of reasons to hate death metal. So as the Obituary bassist attempts to explain the appeal of a genre that his band helped popularize, he speaks with the calm, patient air of a kindergarten teacher, the kind with tattoos and a penchant for dropping f-bombs.

"I kind of look at death metal like movies," Watkins says from his home in southern Florida. "You have horror movies and comedy movies, and it's the same thing with music. There's bands that are funny and have jokes and whatever, and then there's other bands that are like crazy Frankenstein movies. That's something that I've been into since I was a kid. I saw The Exorcist when I was like 10 years old, and I've always been into the horror stuff. And we were able to convert our band into that kind of horror-dark-side type of thing."

And like the horror movies of which Watkins speaks, death metal is an acquired taste. It's purely cathartic, wholly insular, and abhorrent to parents. The music is aural ipecac to most ears, and for good reason. Let us count the ways that death metal offends:

1. The vocals. Death-metal singers don't sing; they growl, grimace, and shriek like Bigfoot with his nuts in a bear trap. You can't understand the lyrics, but in a genre that's spawned such classics as "Addicted to Vaginal Skin" and "Orgy in Excrement," this isn't necessarily a bad thing.

2. The velocity. With blast beats and warp-speed guitars, death metal is fast enough to make Chuck Yeager look like a total puss. This can render songs indistinguishable from one another and turn albums into a blur of loud 'n' fast violence.

3. The eternal damnation. Owning a copy of such satanic standard-bearers as Deicide's self-titled debut or Morbid Angel's Blessed Are the Sick will get you to hell quicker than driving a school bus full of handicapped children off the white cliffs of Dover.

But like most genre-defining bands, Obituary embodies many of death metal's hallmarks while subverting some of the scene's more cartoonish conceits. Whereas many of its peers are preoccupied with the need for speed, Obituary blends fleet riffing with a doomy crawl, abetted by one of death metal's most distinctive guitar tones -- a nasty, stoner-friendly grind that buzzes like a blown subwoofer. This gives the tunes a palpable groove that many death-metal bands lack. It also makes the songs much more distinct from one another.

Moreover, Obituary band members have never painted their faces in pig's blood or donned Flash Gordon-worthy stage gear as have many of their Florida scene mates. In a way, the band humanized death metal, eschewing satanic posturing for a much less dogmatic take on the genre.

But what really set Obituary apart from everyone else was frontman John Tardy's pained bellow, a sharp, distinctive growl that pulses like an exposed nerve.

"Years ago, John's dad was yelling and screaming at us; he was like, 'Goddamit, I can't understand a fuckin' word you're saying,'" Watkins recalls with a chuckle. "And John was like, 'You know what? That's how I should sing. I should just take it to the next level and make it so freakin' brutal that you can't even understand it.' And when he did that, it just jelled with the music that we were playing. The more we tried to make it heavier, the better the songs came out."

Beginning with 1989's seminal Slowly We Rot, Obituary helped spearhead the boom in American death metal that reached its peak in the early '90s. The band's definitive disc, 1992's The End Complete, moved more than 100,000 copies, making it one of the top-selling death-metal albums ever. But soon after, the scene began to wane in popularity, as black metal took over. By 1997's Back From the Dead, Obituary's fan base had dwindled.

"It got to the point where we doing so much touring and playing, and the money really wasn't coming in," Watkins says. "All of a sudden, I'm 30 years old, and I was like holy shit, I've got a wife now, and I've got a kid coming. When we started this band, we weren't even thinking about money, and now all of a sudden everything was money, money, money. I'd hate to have to go into the studio to write a record just so I can feed my family. That would be the biggest sellout."

So Obituary went on hiatus for seven years. Watkins became a mortgage banker, and John Tardy started a computer-networking business. His brother, drummer Donald Tardy, joined Andrew WK's band, while guitarists Allen West and Trevor Peres kept busy in their death-metal side project Catastrophic. Eventually, an offer to play Tampa's Sun and Steel Festival last spring got them back together.

"There was definitely something that was missing in our lives that we needed to fulfill," Watkins says. "Actually, I think we sound heavier today than we ever have, because we're more focused people, as far as our lives being on track."

Obituary's latest, the recently released Frozen in Time, testifies to that. The record makes it sound like 1992 all over again, with funereal dirges and Tardy's callused vocal cords sounding as strained as ever. It's a thoroughly uncommercial affair, and therein lies much of death metal's appeal.

The same thing makes this kind of music beloved by some and hated by most: a complete disregard for harmony, tunefulness, or anything else that makes music palatable. Instead, it's a pointedly ugly and abrasive sound, with zero chance of ever crossing over into the mainstream. Few have the stomach for this stuff -- and that's why its audience likes it.

When asked what advice he'd give to newcomers experiencing death metal for the first time, Watkins suggests taking a big-picture approach to the music.

"I'd tell them to approach it as a feeling, like a vibe that you can get into," he says. "Definitely don't listen to an Obituary record if you want to hear technical notes. Our stuff is very, very blatant -- it's laid out on the table, and it's very structured. But at the same time, it all comes from our hearts."

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