When explaining my love of Swedish death metal to non-fans, I always fall back on one main point that suddenly piques their curiosity. Death Metal is to Sweden what hardcore punk was to American music in the 1980s. Entombed and At the Gates were as important in Sweden as Black Flag and Minor Threat were on American soil. And while purists can debate the relative importance of all the aforementioned bands, the simple fact is the DIY ethic that defined 1980s American punk -- with its small enclaves of die-hard fans creating microcosm scenes in each city that included their own zines, labels, and venues -- was just as important to the development of Swedish Death Metal.
Far better than any book on the subject I've read so far, Daniel Ekeroth's Swedish Death Metal gets to the heart of the DIY movement that created one of the most important developments in heavy music over the past couple of decades. It dragged me right back to the first time I heard Entombed's chainsaw guitar sound in the early 1990s. I was so taken aback, so in awe of that crunch. It was raw and alive, vicious and evil. It was everything a heavy music head wanted, especially at a time when heavy metal had started to become a dirty word in the United States and the standard bearers for high grade metal, Metallica, had turned into pop stars.
Obviously, Ekeroth has a bit of an advantage over other writers. He literally came of age in the Swedish death metal scene. What he lacks in actual writing skill -- there are parts where he is a little colloquial at times and too much of a fan at others -- he makes up for by having an in-depth, ground-floor knowledge of how the music (and the movement) developed. The writer's own treasure trove of saved demo tapes, flyers, and zines, combined with those from other musicians and avid followers, immerses you in not only the music that was created, but the full scope of creative output. Then there are the obscure little facts. It was stunning to learn that often the most inventive music was coming from teenagers, not even old enough to drink, bashing it out in youth centers that served as the only rehearsal space in snowbound small towns. Also, Ekeroth uses his in-depth knowledge of the history of Swedish heavy music to great effect, giving a step-by-step progression from Bathory and Candlemass to the apex of death metal in the early nineties. While all books of this nature can often be a slog to get through, especially when bands you have no interest in are discussed at length, Ekeroth's narrative rarely falls flat.
Most notably, Eckeroth made the wise choice to letting the musicians speak for themselves. What makes the book so fascinating is to hear such a wide cast of characters -- Nicke Andersson and Uffe Cederlund from Nihilist/Entombed, Michael Amott from Carnage/Carcass/Arch Enemy, Anders Borer from At the Gates/The Haunted, Tomas Lindberg from Grotesque/At the Gates, Fred Estby and Matti Kärki from Dismember, Dan Swanö from Edge of Sanity, and Johnny Hedlund from Unleashed to name a few -- talk very frankly about those early days and everything they put into (or didn't in some cases) the music.
About the only part that falls flat is when Eckeroth discusses the sudden rise of Norwegian black metal and its impact on the Swedish death metal scene. Eckeroth is honest enough to admit that most of the Swedish death metal bands were caught off guard by the shift. Entombed's Nicke Andersson quite possibly sums it up the best:
"I never understood what black metal was all about -- why suddenly everyone wanted to be so angry and `serious.'"
Sadly, Eckeroth drifts into a little bit of sour bashing on Norwegian Black Metal, without much ground to stand on. In many ways, the Norwegians were mirroring the Swedes' DIY ethic by creating their own sound, labels, and zines. While the musical styles of Swedish Death Metal and Norwegian Black Metal are different, including the level of seriousness, the simple fact is both have their worthwhile bands and obvious idiots.
Overall, Eckeroth deserves many points for pulling the history together and documenting it so well. This is a fantabulous testament to Sweden's most impactful musical contribution of the 20th century, as well as one of the key movements in heavy music.