When evil isn't really evil - NME and the comfort found in darkness

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.

Don Rickles and Bobcat Goldthwait Once Starred in an Episode of “Tales from the Crypt” Involving a Ventriloquist’s Symbiotic Hand-Twin

by Brent Eyestone

“I’m making an asshole casserole, pal, and you’re the main ingredient!”

Okay, that actually kind of looks/reads funny on paper. Maybe that’s how this episode actually got approved and eventually to air on June 5, 1990? Either way, by the time that line is dropped (by Bobcat Goldthwait, oddly using his Police Academy 2-4 “Zed”-voice for no apparent or logical reason), one's 2018-level of television and entertainment-consuming sophistication overrides any sort of enjoyment out of the line as it’s delivered on the front end of the climactic attempt at bringing the episode home.

“The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” was the tenth episode of the second season of Tales from the Crypt. Richard Donner, best known for the Lethal Weapon franchise, Goonies, and the original Superman films, directed it. What many wouldn’t know is that Donner actually had decades upon decades of television directorial experience prior to his film career, including shows that would have suggested that the man was beyond capable of crafting three solid episodes of Tales from the Crypt just before the twilight of his career: six episodes of The Twilight Zone, two episodes of The Fugitive, seven episodes of The Rifleman. If you named a decent show from the 60’s or 70’s, it’s likely that Donner did an episode or two.

And yet… “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” is just a mess that can’t seem to figure out its tone. In one moment, it seems to want to go in a slapstick direction in a ham-fisted attempt at utilizing Don Rickles and Bobcat Goldthwait’s comedic chops. Then, in transitions akin to yanking a parking brake on lap 184 of the Indy 500, the tone attempts to shift to dark, reclusive, murderous, and sinister within the next line spoken by the same actor. The performances vacillate wildly from the top and nothing ever quite sets in. Never mind the fact that Goldthwait’s character is supposed to be 26 in the episode, all characters are able to freely flee from and/or interfere in murder scenes (with witnesses) without any resistance, the various breakouts of straight up Kabuki moments, and on and on.

Rickles' character "Mr. Ingels," moments before performing an act he apparently could have easily done many decades earlier in order to make his life easier...

Rickles' character "Mr. Ingels," moments before performing an act he apparently could have easily done many decades earlier in order to make his life easier...

Apologists attempt to cite Rickles and Goldthwait as “not being real actors” in terms of why the episode doesn’t work before celebrating it with the played out, couch stoner copout-speak of it being “the best kind of bad.” I’d counter that Rickles and Goldthwait’s talents (see: the rest of their legendary careers) are not what sinks the episode, but rather poor, absent direction on a script adapted from a flimsy comic book series wherein the network ordered far too many episodes in a minuscule amount of time to allow for anything actually good or of any modicum of quality.

On a meta level, it’s almost like there was a gap between the end of The Twilight Zone and the start of Black Mirror where we, as a society, were just incapable of creating dark, standalone, episodic series’ wherein things go unexpectedly wrong for the protagonists amidst an inevitable, and ultimately decent plot twist. Toward the former, I’d cite the inherent genius, work ethic, and cohesive vision of Rod Serling. Toward the latter, I’d cite services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon affording creators the leeway to determine how many episodes they can realistically create while keeping the content of a certain level. Through the same lens, the shortage of content being created in the 60’s seemingly allowed for focus and execution on what was being made. The over-abundance of content being created in modern times effectively raises the bar on the creatives and the various networks to create something impactful that will break through the clutter.

Either way, for better or for worse, here’s the half-assery one could apparently get away with in the 90’s: