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The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton

Central Question: When is an ethical argument best advanced by misdirection?

The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton

Martin Seay
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The eponymous best-ever death-metal band, John Darnielle informs us, “was a couple of guys who’d been friends since grade school,” and we—being fans of literate indie rock, putatively unfamiliar with the knuckle-dragging end of the pop-music continuum—immediately wonder: just how effective is a two-piece death-metal band?

This carefully packaged information arrives in the first lines of the first song on All Hail West Texas, one of two albums Darnielle released as the Mountain Goats in 2002. Like everything else on the album, as well as virtually all of the Mountain Goats’ prior recorded output, its sonic palette consists solely of Darnielle’s acoustic guitar and his precise, insistent voice, recorded on a consumer-grade Panasonic boom box with a degree of clarity that makes most lo-fi indie rock sound like it was produced by Giorgio Moroder. The song’s lack of drums and heavy riffage and cosmic doom, plus the groundedness and sincerity signified by its asceticism, puts it well outside death-metal territory.

Back to the band: it was just two kids, Cyrus and Jeff. Even if we ourselves don’t listen to death metal, we’re fluent enough in its folkways to wonder again: wouldn’t the names “Cyrus” and “Jeff” be judged inadequate in a subculture populated by characters with menacing appellations like “Cronos” and “Destructhor”? Further, Darnielle tells us, the boys never did get around to naming the band itself, although “after weeks of debate” they narrowed the field to three finalists: Satan’s Fingers, the Killers, and the Hospital Bombers. These options strike us, respectively, as silly, overused, and just perplexing.

In the third verse, after an overview of the fame and fortune the boys “believed in their hearts” lay within reach of their calloused fingers, Darnielle reports that “in script that made prominent use of a pentagram, they stenciled their drumheads and guitars with their names.” That fastidious subordinate clause—“prominent use of a pentagram”—is the clue that lends credence to our suspicion: these kids are clueless dorks, blinded by naïveté and grandiosity to their own hopeless ineptitude. We’re sure we can hear Darnielle smirk as he adds this detail.

We are mistaken. “And this,” he explains in the next line—opening the trapdoor, curdling our grins—“was how Cyrus got sent to the school where they told him he’d never be famous. / And this was why Jeff, in the letters he’d write to his friend, helped develop a plan to get even.”

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