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Music > Turbo Teen

Loud loonies of God's creation

Michigan's extreme metal underground dwells in fringes and basements. Choke Chain label head explains why

Insane frown posse: Project Apocalypse.
Defcon 666
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Published 12/6/2006

No, it's not about inline skating or Moto X.

Extreme metal is a catchall term for musical subgenres like death metal, black metal and doom metal, all of which descend from the pounding, screeching and punkish spirit of 1980s thrash. Death metal is accelerated thrash, singing swapped for guttural growls, with lyrical ideas straight from the Anton LaVey, Aleister Crowley and Dawn of the Dead schools. Black metal was born in London, raised in Sweden, and lived its awkward years in Norway. And the doom heads, well, they just slowed everything down to a deadening, terrifying linger — like loiterers on the Grim Reaper's doorstep.

Michigan has always been a breeding (brooding?) ground for metal of all types. And even if these days most of it comes out of westward burgs like Saginaw, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, if you're an extreme metal fan in the Detroit area, you're committed by nature. It's in the blood. The fans stick with the musicians, because metal is often all they have left to hold onto.

Bob Colton is keeping extreme metal's bloodied flag flying. He's the face of Choke Chain, a small record label he runs out of his Bay City home. (He's a telecommunications technician by day.) Colton's made it his mission to get Michigan metal noticed. But he's also gone gray doing it, and admits that extreme metal might be a financial death warrant.

"I spend a lot more money than I make," he says. "One day, it might turn around. But if I was in it for the money, I would have probably chosen a different music."

The musicians know that they're probably destined for the musical poorhouse too. "Just about everybody in every band on our label has a full-time job," Colton says. "I know every musician dreams of doing this full-time, but it's pretty hard to make a living off playing this type of music."

And yet, it's understandable why Colton wants to take extreme metal to higher heights — he's been doing it all his life. "I've been in bands since I was 17 years old," he says, then pauses, almost like he's reminiscing. "I've been a death metal/black metal vocalist for a long, long time."

Currently there are five bands on the Choke Chain roster, though Defcon 666 and Project Apocalypse are the only ones actively touring. Defcon uses crisp production and instrumental chops to offset a lyrical mind-set seemingly culled from Satan's skull, while Project Apocalypse (for which Colton serves as vocalist) combines the manic pace of death metal with the morbid, war-obsessed ascetic of black metal.

See, extreme metal is never about love and lilies.

"A lot of it is about war," Colton says. "Anti-religion, anti-establishment. Pretty much the darker side of life." He's proud of this, beaming as he says it. "Like most death and black metal bands, we stay away from the happier stuff. Leave that for the radio-friendly bands."

Most of the Choke Chain bands call Bay City home. But Colton says that that city's metal scene isn't the real hot stop for headbanging. "Grand Rapids has the most quality metal. Most of the heavier bands are from western Michigan."

A glance at a metal map of the Mitten State proves Colton's point. Veteran extreme-metallers Summon, for example, hail from Lansing, while Flesh for the Beast live in a basement somewhere in Grand Rapids. (There's dark hope for Detroit too — Saprogenic lurk in Fraser, and just issued a full-length called Ichneumonid.)

Like any largely underground scene, Michigan metal bands have to play some pretty far-flung places if they want an audience. They're at the mercy of what's in the pockets of fans they have. But do the gigs really pay?

Rarely, Colton says rather angrily.

"That's one of the problems with the metal scene right now," he says. "Bands just want to play out and for very little money. The problem I have is this: It's cool if you want to play for free, but the bar owners and club owners won't do any advertising. For Project Apocalypse, we go to Kalamazoo to play. None of us are from Kalamazoo, though, so it's kind of hard to promote it ourselves."

Worse, Colton says bands like Project Apocalypse and Defcon can't really count on larger clubs like Detroit's Harpo's.

"It'd be nice to get the exposure, but they want you to sell so many tickets to play. It's really hard, so you usually end up just paying out of your pocket."

Extreme metal is abrasive, obsessive and often grating to an outside ear. It's not financially rewarding, and there's a good chance it never will be. Don't look to MTV or the national tour circuit for help — most metal fans will roll their eyes at a bill topped with some Headbanger's Ball blowjob fave like Eighteen Visions, because they know it's just the favorite of the week.

"If someone is trying to make money playing this type of music, they're in the wrong business. Just getting the merchandise is tough. That's why, if you're in a small band and working a day job at the same time, Choke Chain wants to help out — help these bands get their merchandise out and help get their CDs done. As far being a community, yeah. All the bands get along. They all do shows together. And everybody supports everybody else."

And true to traditions of the genre, the fans never fail to satisfy in places that treat metal with respect. "Fan reception's always good, man," Colton says. "Metal fans are dedicated. They support their bands."

He's upbeat, despite the adversity.

"A lot of the bands I started listening to that got me into death metal are still around. Deicide just put out new CD, and it's great. Still around, still touring, still sounding good. It gives the guys that are getting a little older some hope. We can keep doing this into our 40s."

Kent “Zacky” Alexander is a 16-year-old Metro Times intern and fulltime metal freak. Email him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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