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Death Metal Epic, Book 1: The Inverted Katabasis
By Dean Swinford
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Dean Swinford's Death Metal Epic, Book 1: The Inverted Katabasis is both exactly what you would expect from a book with this title, and nothing like what you'd expect -- it is in fact a rather sweet coming-of-age tale about a Florida teen in the early '90s enmeshed in the "death metal" culture so prevalent at the time, exploring both the humiliating lows that he goes through in his pursuit of being a "dark one" and a heartfelt look at why he feels it's so important anyway. And that's really the key to this book working as well as it does, because it neither takes itself too seriously nor is it a "Spinal Tap" deliberate comedy about losers; it is instead merely a clear-eyed look at the trials and triumphs (okay, mostly trials) of our put-upon, mall-working hero "Azrael," as his band Valhalla first breaks up, then reforms under the influence of a Tolkien-worshipping hippie who "doesn't believe in percussion," and then is finally sent by his exasperated record label on an ill-funded and non-promoted tour of small college towns in northern Europe, where he eventually falls under the spell of thinly-veiled versions of real-life death-metal veterans Oystein Aarseth (a.k.a. "Euronymous") and Varg Vikernes (a.k.a. "Burzum"), setting things up nicely for the coming part 2 of this legitimate saga. (For more on the '90s death-metal scene in northern Europe, and the violent extremes it eventually devolved into, a necessary primer for enjoying Swinford's work at its fullest, see the still excellent 1998 book Lords of Chaos by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind.)
I mean, obviously "legitimate saga" is being used here in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way, with the majority of this book's fast-moving plot being about the small indignities Valhalla (now known as Katabasis) must endure on a daily basis while pursuing their dreams (their drunken adventures with a group of Norwegian undergraduates on holiday break is a great example, and one of the highlights of the book); but ultimately Death Metal Epic fits squarely in the tradition of such now classics as Joe Meno's Hairstyles of the Damned or Abram Shalom Himelstein's Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing, a plain-spoken and moving ode to outsider art and its transformative effect on bored teens across the planet, no matter what age or what scene you're talking about. A brisk read that is always entertaining, and brutally honest about its subject's shortcomings where other books wouldn't be, volume 1 of Death Metal Epic comes strongly recommended whether or not you're a metal fan yourself, and I'm now highly looking forward to volume 2.
Out of 10: 9.1