In recent weeks I’ve made several attempts to contact New York death metal duo Mortician for an interview. Those attempts were not responded to. The band hasn’t released an album since 2004’s Re-Animated Dead Flesh and only plays a handful of live shows a year, so one can only assume that this relative lack of activity has something to do with it. I can’t say I blame them. But, I’ve wanted to write about Mortician for a long time, and even without an upcoming national tour or new album on the way, there is still much about the band’s totally unique and oft-misunderstood take on death metal that’s worthy of discussion.
I don’t believe for a second that Will Rahmer (bass, vocals) and Roger Beaujard (guitars, drum programming) set out to create some sort of ultra-heavy avant garde anti-metal when Beaujard joined Mortician in 1991. I think it’s much more likely that the two bonded over a love of metal and horror films (and possibly illicit substances) and wanted to contribute something of their own to that world. It just so happened that their vision of grinding, horror-themed death metal sounded totally unlike anything that’s come before or since.
The key components of Mortician’s sound aren’t uncommon to extreme music on their own. Distorted, down-tuned guitar and bass, guttural vocals and even the use of drum machines and samples are all well-worn tools of the metal trade. It’s the way Mortician uses these tools that makes them so interesting. We can examine each of these tools individually and how they fit together in order to get a better sense of what Mortician’s music is and what it does.
Probably the most talked about aspect of Mortician’s sound is the drum machine. It lends a mechanized, almost industrial vibe to the music that recalls bands like Ministry or Godflesh more than it does other death metal bands. There is absolutely nothing flashy about the synthetic drums, they serve only to keep time and push the songs forward; this is rhythm at its most basic, yet it is executed with inhuman precision and speed. When Mortician dials up a blastbeat, it is the very definition of OTT, the music degenerating into a blurry wash of jack-hammering noise and distortion more akin to something you might hear on a Prurient album. I’ve often postulated that there is nothing more extreme than noise when discussing the merits of artists such as Merzbow and the aforementioned Prurient, and the same line of thinking can be applied to Mortician’s patented hyper-speed blasts. They sound like an automobile factory gone homicidal, a rush of ear-damaging din in the midst of the down-tuned death/grind assault that significantly ratchets up the extremity factor in a very unexpected way.
Mortician is known for their extensive use of samples from cult horror films. There was a period of time when it seemed like every band on Relapse Records incorporated samples on their albums, but Mortician was the band that used them the most effectively, since they were actually writing songs about the movies they were sampling. The band’s critics claim that the samples are there so that listeners can tell Mortician’s songs apart, but they’re missing the point. Mortician’s music isn’t about individual songs you can tell apart. It’s about unrelenting violence in the tradition of classic grindcore, and the samples serve as a breather between beatings, in addition to adding to the horrific atmosphere.
Will Rahmer’s bass playing and tone is probably one of my favorite aspects of Mortician. I’m not sure how far down Mortician are tuning on their recordings, but Rahmer’s bass is so low and filthy that it barely sounds like any actual notes are coming out from it, just globs of sludgy, amorphous frequencies that give the recordings a strange low-end rumble. The bass’ distortion sort of creeps around the edges of the songs and for some reason always makes me think of the television set in Poltergeist, that spectral electronic snow being harnessed into music. It adds an eerie character to Mortician’s sonic framework, a ghost in the machine. Listen to the track “Inquisition” from Hacked up for Barbecue for a great example of Rahmer’s bass in action.
To call Rahmer’s vocal approach guttural is an understatement; his cavernous gurgle adds almost as much low-end to Mortician as his bass playing. If you buried a still-animate zombie under six feet of dirt and recorded its grunting and groaning through a sewer pipe, you might come close to replicating it. The vocals are totally unintelligible, often blending in with the music to the point where they could be mistaken for yet another layer of distortion. Rahmer’s lyrics are brief and to-the-point, an exercise in minimalism perfectly suited to Mortician’s simplistic musical attack. The lyrics to “Bonecrusher” from Domain of Death are a perfect example of the vocalist’s verbal economy.
“Sledghammer, bash your skull
Head explodes, brains and bone
Swinging mace, cracks your face
Nose smashed in, teeth kicked in
Baseball bat, breaks your back
cracked rib cage, shattered legs”
With just thirty words, Mortician paint a lyrical picture of violence that’s every bit as blunt and harsh as the music. The use of the word “your” indicates that you, the listener, are the the intended victim. This is typical of Mortician lyrics. “You” are the one being attacked, killed, butchered, mangled, etc, the object of the band’s murderous obsession. There is a desire to dominate the listener exhibited in the band’s depraved lyrics, as well as the pummeling sonic techniques they incorporate.
Of course, no dissection of Mortician’s sound would be complete without discussing Roger Beaujard’s guitar-work. His playing is chunkier than the exploding head scene in Scanners and thicker than the black goo of unknown origin that covers the Tarman in The Return of the Living Dead. Beaujard rarely strays from hefty power chord riffs that sound like they’re emanating from the bowels of hell; things like leads and solos simply do not exist in Mortician’s world. Earlier recordings, such as the aforementioned Hacked up for Barbecue saw Beaujard occasionally incorporating pinch harmonics and whammy bar abuse, but the six-stringer has simplified his playing over time, in keeping with Mortician’s musical philosophy of every note in the service of sheer brutality and heaviness. To fans of shredding and technicality, Beaujard might as well be the antichrist. “Ghost House” from Darkest Day of Horror perfectly illustrates his bare-bones approach to the instrument.
Mortician are often unfairly dismissed as some sort of death metal troglodytes, but their unwillingness to evolve or overcomplicate their sound is integral to the very fabric of the band’s oeuvre. Like the slasher films that inspire much of their work, Mortician’s music is rife with themes of dominance and submission that tap into mankind’s most sadistic instincts. This primal quality can be found in the instrumental blunt force trauma created by the crushing simplicity of the guitar and bass arrangements. The cruel, calculating exactitude of the drum machine juxtaposes itself against Mortician’s barbarous human element, degenerating into total berserker rage whenever one of those death-factory blastbeats engulfs a song. Underneath the music’s deceptive austerity and devastating heaviness are two men bending technology (drum machines, electric instruments) to their collective will in order to create primitive, brutal art, humanity’s inherent subconscious bloodlust brought to the surface and taken to its illogical conclusion.
Whether or not Mortician is truly “the heaviest band in the universe” might be up for debate, but there can be no doubt that they’re among the most idiosyncratic and interesting. Here’s to hoping they return from suspended animation to cave our skulls in and grant me an interview.