by Graham Scala
It starts slow, dissonant guitar squalls emanating forth, an atonal mattress of sound onto which shrieks, howls, feedback and a pitched-down spoken word salad of “evil” imagery so disjointed in its arrangement it almost seems Dadaist. Its title - “Of Hell” - could hardly be more appropriate, and the album it introduces, NME's 1985 release Unholy Death, sustains this infernal ambience through a garbled, messy take on metal from start to finish.
Even by the standards of heavy music's extreme fringes in 1985, NME was something of an anachronism. Whereas bands like Possessed and Slaughter were helping push the still-nascent thrash metal of the day into heavier, more sinister realms through previously-unattained speed and militaristic precision, NME opted for something closer to what Venom and Hellhammer had done years earlier. Their interest seemed to lay not in selling out stadiums like Metallica or playing on Beastie Boys albums like Slayer, but rather concocting the noisiest, harshest take on the music imaginable, almost as if traditional ideas of musicianship were somehow too studied, too tame, too far from the primal pounding in which they traded.
Underneath their blackened veneer, there's a punk-ish, almost catchy quality to the music that renders it far more listenable than the majority of the proto-death/thrash/etc bands that have found favor in recent years. But despite that, the music rages and howls, the songs' noisiness almost acting as a fifth member. Small wonder that, of the small fanbase they had during their existence, much was found in the early Scandinavian black metal scene (Euronymous was a vocal proponent of the album), a milieu whose earliest works were possibly NME's only real aesthetic contemporaries.
But just as the output and lives of so many black metal originators were cut short by violence, so was that of NME. Unlike that scene, where the murder and mayhem tended to be more ideologically-driven, NME guitarist Kurt Struebing's musical career (as much as the word “career” could apply to something like this) was cut short by incarceration for murder. Three months after their album was released, due to some combination of mental illness and large quantities of hallucinogens, Struebing became convinced that he and everybody around him were actually robots. In order to prove this to the world, he murdered his adoptive mother with a hatchet and scissors. His mental instability was factored into sentencing and he was given a twelve-year term, of which he served eight years. Upon his 1994 release, he became active in music again, worked as a graphic designer, became a father. Despite this turnaround, in March 2005 he drove his car through several barriers to plunge off of an open drawbridge over the Duwamish Waterway and died on impact.
While the band's back story ensures them a degree of notoriety (and possibly more retroactive attention than they may have gotten had everyone involved been law-abiding and stable), its lurid qualities overshadow the real message that can be drawn. While a certain facet of metal certainly fetishizes anything shocking, Kurt Struebing didn't commit murder for aesthetic purposes or to further his band's agenda, he committed murder because he was deeply troubled. That he could fight that unsettled nature as hard as he did – by all accounts after eight years in a psych ward he emerged a relatively stable, nice guy who organized benefit shows for friends in financial trouble, helped young bands get their footing, and generally tried to pull his life together as best he could – and still succumb speaks to both the depths of his torment and the means that heavy music acted as a sanctuary.
It's easy to forget in the post-Nirvana world in which underground culture gained a higher degree of commercial and cultural acceptance than at any point previously (not that Nirvana has much to do with bands like this, though their signing opened to floodgates for major labels to dip their toes into heavier waters, releasing bands like Morbid Angel, Napalm Death, and Entombed), but this type of music was more than just music, it provided a haven for people who didn't fit elsewhere. People who looked different, felt different, had no place else to go, and ultimately people so possessed by their own demons that they could find comfort in little other than an overdriven amplifier.
NME's legacy lies less with their sound or whatever limited influence they might have exerted on various sub-sub-genres of heavy music than it does with the manner in which they acted as a sort of a security blanket for somebody whose instability rode him to the point where he did things his nature might not have otherwise permitted. Despite the over-the-top sinister ambience of the music, it ultimately comes off as something more cathartic than evil, a primal scream into the bleakness of a lonely world that would sideline anyone committing the cardinal sin of standing out. Nobody will likely ever know the true depths of what Kurt Struebing experienced, but in between the notes of “Unholy Death” one can hear somebody truly at home, safe for thirty short minutes from the brutal caprices of a society that doesn't care about those crushed by alienation and suffering until it's too late.