Death Metal and Bluegrass are as natural a pairing as...well, okay, there’s nothing really natural about it. But Swedish band Slaughter of the Bluegrass have merged the two, nature be damned, and the result is a band that plays Bluegrass covers of Death Metal songs. (Deathgrass? Blue Metal?)
SotB, whose name is a reference to the classic death metal album Slaughter of the Soul by At the Gates, currently have two songs available:
“Blinded by Fear” (At the Gates cover) [MP3]
“Punish My Heaven” (Dark Tranquillity cover) [MP3]
Because the two musical genres seem so incongruous, yet the results of the merging are so intriguing, I tracked down these mad geniuses to find out what inspired them to attempt such a thing in the first place. I interviewed band founders Dan Norman and Peter Norlinder via email.
How did you guys first discover bluegrass? Is it popular in Sweden?
We don’t really listen to bluegrass, but Peter got tired of playing the guitar and bought a mandolin and a banjo just for the hell of it. When we got to much time on our hands in out recording studio, we just couldn’t leave the instruments gathering dust, hanging on the wall.
Bluegrass is probably one of the least popular genres in Sweden, but we’re dead sure we’ll change that.
What instruments do you incorporate into the band?
We use mandolin, banjo, upright bass, violin, western guitar and some drums and percussion. And of course coconut halves.
What first made you think to try playing bluegrass covers of death metal songs?
We had heard the American band Iron Horse made bluegrass versions of Metallica songs and we thought “why not?” The idea came up that we should try to make some of our favorite metal songs this way.
You currently have a poll up on your website for fans to decide which song you should cover next. (I vote for any of the In Flames songs; it seems appropriate to do an In Flames song next, so you’d then have the Holy Trinity of Swedish Melodic Death Metal Bands done.) How did you guys decide to do “Blinded by Fear” [original version] as your first and then “Punish My Heaven” [original version] second?
We choose “Blinded by Fear” because it’s one of the best metal songs ever and that it would be pretty easy to cover. Then we made the mistake to add “Punish My Heaven” to the poll and and as the saying goes “you will reap as you have sown.1”
I discovered the band thanks to a brief piece in Decibel Magazine, which they titled “Plucked By the Light of Christ.” Any chance you’ll return to At the Gates and do “Raped by the Light of Christ”? Or are you going to try to stick to one song per band for a while?
We’ll probably stick to one song per band for now. At least for the first three or four albums. As we are a democratic band, we are bound to do what the poll tells us to do. If the masses demand that we make a bluegrass version of Meshuggah’s “Bleed,” who are we to question their will? Of course, we decide what songs that will show up in the poll...
Are there any songs you’d love to cover but would just be impossible to recreate using the banjo, etc.?
One would think that “Punish My Heaven” was next to impossible but we pulled it off. Stuff that are too atonal wouldn’t make good bluegrass songs though.
When I first contacted you guys about doing the interview, I said that there wasn’t anything inherently geeky about what you guys do, but you (Dan) disagreed. You said:
“I’ll have to disagree with you about the geekiness of listening to a metal song 200 times and try to play riffs and melodies with super precision according to the original track. It takes huge amounts of time and up your mind is completely filled with the song you’re working on during long periods of time, not to mention the practice of strange instruments. And all this just for the heck of it, and we’re never sure if someone is even gonna give it a listen or not.”
So how much time do you spend in preparation to record a track?
“Punish My Heaven” kept us busy for a couple of hundred hours. Although we think that song is the most challenging we’ll do, at least for the time being. “Blinded By Fear” wasn’t nearly as time consuming.
What’s the process like? How do you break down the song into its component parts then go about trying to recreate it with instruments so very different than used in the original?
First we transcribe the harmonies using the acoustic guitar, sketching up the basic structure of the song . After that we experiment with the riffs and melodies using different instruments and decide who plays what. The most important and creative part is turning the growl vocals into melodies. We do this by ad-libbing the vocal parts until we find something sweet. Throughout the process we have to throw stuff around and try different solutions for everything. When the song is properly arranged we call our fellow band members and lay down the tracks. After mixing and mastering the material, we throw it up on the Internet and keep our fingers crossed.
I can’t speak for all death metal fans, but I, for one, speaking as a huge huge fan of both At the Gates and Dark Tranquillity (and of those two songs in particular), really dig the two songs you’ve released so far. What has the general reaction been from death metal fans? Is that who most of your fans are, do you think, or is it a more random sampling of music lovers?
From what we’ve gathered most metal fans like the songs a lot. Some even like our versions better than the original. Maybe it’s because we give them a new perspective on their favorite songs. We believe that a great song remains great regardless of its’ wrapping. Naturally our main audience is metal fans but we have received plenty of good feedback from non-metal listeners as well.
1 Not only is that a common saying, but it's a quote from the title track off Slaughter of the Soul and so that's a cleverer comment than would otherwise appear if you didn't know that.
John Joseph Adams (www.johnjosephadams.com) is an anthologist, a writer, and a geek. He is the editor of the anthologies By Blood We Live, Federations, The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Living Dead (a World Fantasy Award finalist), Seeds of Change, and Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse. He is currently assembling several other anthologies, including Brave New Worlds, The Living Dead 2, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, and The Way of the Wizard. He is also the assistant editor at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.