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Death Never Dies: A case for death metal in Calgary

By Matty Hume, October 4 2018 —

Even in the dead of night, when pleasant dreams fill the minds of sleeping souls from Sundance to Hidden Valley, Ninth Avenue remains a restless stretch of dimly lit pavement. It’s the gateway to downtown for much of Calgary’s northwest. It’s the home of the National Music Centre, the Glenbow Museum and a rowdy-howdy nightclub leaking gin and tight shirts. But just around the corner from a wig shop and a small decent down a narrow stairwell, Dickens Pub is rattling the teeth of every smiling face in a packed house.

Dickens boasts a not-so-secret habit of booking some of the greatest death metal bands working in our universe — and the noise-hungry are taking full advantage. Even during the all-consuming extravaganza of the Calgary Stampede, Dickens gave a home to the unbelievably stacked bill of Inferi, Alterbeast and Rivers of Nihil. So what’s the appeal?

Each of those bands are known for their guttural howls, seven-string madness and unfathomable speed. Where Owls Know My Name, the latest full-length from Rivers of Nihil, even features classic rock-reminiscent keyboard solos and jazzy saxophone breakdowns. In an interview with BeatRoute Alberta, Rivers of Nihil bassist and vocalist Adam Biggs described the record succinctly.

“It’s like, do you like Cannibal Corpse, and then also Pink Floyd? And do you want to listen to them at the same time? Then go ahead,” he said.

But even with all the flashy adjectives and apt descriptions, it’s understandable that a genre known for inaudible lyrics and gore-riddled album art is a tough sell. Yet, as live music venues like Mikey’s Juke Joint and Nite Owl are closing their doors, death metal shows have turnouts that barely leave room to bang your head. It’s because, without hyperbole, experiencing death metal in the flesh is the most fun you can have with your Vans on.

It’s chaotic meditation, or a reflective maelstrom. The basement bar slowly fills with long hair not ever attached to long faces. Black T-shirts adorned with illegible fonts and haunting illustrations meet for caring embraces between friends in all corners of the dark room. Eager heathens line up at the merch tables with excitement to find a new patch to ruggedly stitch to old denim vests like priceless trophies. And before you can reconcile the unnerving imagery with the unquestionable displays of joy, the titans of technical skill hit the stage.

While the talent of death metal musicians is clear through your favourite pair of headphones, the love of the craft comes from feeling your guts shake from the rapid vibrato of double-kick drums and staccato triplets. Your ribs quake with every palm-muted note, adding to the adrenaline induced by having to constantly brace yourself should the mosh pit decide to envelop the ground you stand like an ravenous organism. Even the visuals match the sui generis nature of the violent sonics — Guitars and basses are headless with more strings than a battered hydra has heads. Drum kits are adorned with cymbals ripped from the mind of Salvador Dali. At a certain point, as the time signature changes dance at unlimited beats per minute, you realize these artists aren’t haunting, they’re humbling. More than anything, they’ve simply discovered how to create compositions with new tools better than anyone before them. So good, in fact, you never even realized what they do on stage was even an option.

Any confusion arising from a discrepancy between the sight of closing venues and the thought of a bar filled to the brim with smiling skeletons, all howling for fearsome noise, can be quickly cured once you feel the mastery for yourself. As the soft-tuned and easy-listened are put to rest, death is far from dying.

Join the future and raise some hell. Catch Quietus on Oct. 5 and Unleash the Archers on Oct. 12 at Dickens Pub on Ninth Avenue and be a skeptic no more.

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