Death Metal Is Getting Old
Iconic Suffocation vocalist Frank "The Chop" Mullen is retiring after 30 years of gore, and our favorite bands are facing the brutality of aging.
Earlier this week, death metal legends Suffocation announced their latest run of tour dates alongside a slate of like-minded bands certain to bring an expected level of brutality—Krisiun, Cattle Decapitation, Soreption. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about a Suffo tour—they’ve been pounding the pavement, crushing skulls, and giving embattled Long Islanders a source of local pride since 1988. The interesting (and, honestly, a little heartbreaking) thing about this tour is that it marks the final time that trailblazing vocalist Frank Mullen will stalk across the stage wearing his trademark manic grin, spouting his gleefully unhinged stage banter, and doing That Thing He Does With His Hand (also known as the “chop”, or what writer Cosmo Lee once dubbed “death metal spirit fingers”).
As one of the first (and still the best) death metal vocalists to introduce ultra-low pitched growls into the genre, Mullen’s bootprint on metal is indelible, as is Suffocation’s as a whole, and things just won’t be the same without him. However, Mullen has also always been forthright about his struggle to balance real life and road life, and it appears he’s reached the end of the line. As he said in a statement via the band’s label, Nuclear Blast, “This is it, after 30 years of being a part of this amazing band, which I have had the opportunity to tour the world and bring our music to the sickest fans on the planet, it has come to this time—I bid you a farewell.”
According to Nuclear Blast PR, the band will continue, but a new vocalist has yet to be confirmed. This move is sad for fans, but should come as no surprise; as far back as 2012, Mullen was open about his need to step away from heavy touring, and he teased his exit from the band earlier this year in a Facebook video. His reasons for finally pulling the plug appear to be the same now as they were six years ago when he first began cutting down on road time; as he said then, “At this point, you’ve gotta start thinking ahead in your life, you’ve gotta start thinking long-term goals and stuff… Unfortunately, as you get older, death metal doesn’t make tons of money, and I’ve got a good job, so, you know, you’ve gotta work. And that’s pretty much what it is. I’m not a kid no more.”
He’s not alone, either; over the past few years, as the genre itself reaches middle age, a number of death metal bands of a certain age have been slowing down. Deicide’s combative vocalist Glen Benton—who famously branded an inverted cross into his forehead back in the 90s and gave moral America a constant stream of heart attacks with his over-the-top Satanic, Bible-bashing lyrics—set the best-known precedent for a well-known member stepping away from a still-active band for grown-up reasons during the early 2000s.
At the time, he was embroiled in a bitter custody battle with his ex-wife, and stopped touring with Deicide for several years. As he told the Washington Post in 2009, “I went for custody of my son, which I did win, but I had to take a little hiatus so the courts couldn’t use it against me. I got a really good attorney, and I told him from the get-go, if this is going to be an issue, let me know and I’ll get the ACLU involved.”
He told Metalsucks a few years later that he’d been prepared to quit the band outright if that was what was needed. “I put it out there that if I have to retire to maintain custody of my son that’s what I’m willing to do,” he says. “And if you can’t understand that as a human being, that a father’s love for his son is more powerful than anything, I don’t know what to tell you except you don’t have a heart. It was me putting that out there: if I have to, I’m done. But I [didn’t] have to.”
Benton eventually returned to the fold after his legal troubles had settled down (and released an extremely personal album, Til Death Do Us Part, about dealing with the fallout that included songs like “Hate of All Hatreds” and “Not as Long as We Both Shall Live”) and Deicide is now preparing to release a new full-length (their 12th!) on September 14. According to their publicist, there are no tour dates planned for 2018, which isn’t surprising; the band has played only sporadically over the past decade, and evan as far back as 2009, Benton seemed fed up with touring.
“It’s a hard life on the road; people think it’s all parties and fun, but it’s a lot of work, driving, and it’s like living like a carnival worker or somebody in a circus,” he told the Post. “I always say it’s like going on a car ride with mom and dad that’s gone horribly wrong. Where you go on a trip for a couple of days — and it just don’t stop. In two, four, six weeks, it finally stops, but when you get home you’re mentally and physically exhausted… I just want to go out and entertain the kids and come home. Because I’m 100 percent alcohol and drug free, so I’m not into the partying thing at all. So, me sitting back there looking like an old fart in the backstage area, it’s not good for morale. So, I just wait in my hotel room to go out and do my thing.”
Touring is hard on the body, and extreme metal demands a level of physicality than other genres don’t always need to meet, whether we’re talking the insanely intense drumming, the complex guitar work, the throat-shredding growls, or the brain-rattling headbanging. This shit will tire you out if you’re out in the audience, let alone onstage every night for weeks or months at a time. We’ve heard similar sentiments from hoarier metal statesfolk before, too—from stadium-fillers like Slayer’s Tom Araya and Slipknot’s Corey Taylor (who one assumes enjoy a far cushier ride than your typical van-dwelling underground band) and former Arch Enemy vocalist Angela Gossow, who retired from the band after 13 years as their firebrand frontperson to pursue other interests and spend time with her family (but stayed on as their manager). As she told Roppongi Rocks in 2014, “There’s a time and place for everything. I started out in 1991. I was simply losing the joy to be doing this, living a life on the road. So I decided to step down rather than pretending.”
Family is a big theme in terms of death metal retirement, which makes sense—the musicians who’ve been out there since the genre’s early days in the mid-to-late 80s aren’t exactly spring chickens anymore, and many of them have partners and children who they’d understandably like to see for more than a few weeks at a time. Cannibal Corpse’s iconic vocalist Corpsegrinder still seems to enjoy hitting the road, but was far more interested in talking about taking his daughters to Disneyland than in sharing tour stories the last time I spoke with him, and when I crossed paths with Frank Mullen on a friend’s tour bus few years ago, he also mentioned wanting to spend more time with his daughter. Now that Mullen’s final tour is looming, he’ll finally get his wish, and will get to take on the role of goofy-but-intimidating Long Island dad full-time.
Let’s be really real: death metal is getting old. Mullen is 48 years old. Corpsegrinder is 49. Possessed’s Jeff Becerra is 50. Benton is 51. Chuck Schuldiner (R.I.P.) would have been 51 this year. Morbid Angel’s Trey Azagthoth is 53. Master’s Paul Speckmann is 54. They’re not old men, but they’re not young, either, and they’ve given their entire adult lives to this genre, the same way that the bands that they and their peers have inspired—from Scorched and Tomb Mold to Horrendous and Gruesome—are doing now. It’s intensely admirable that so many of the old guard are still out there slaying, but it makes a lot of sense that some may be pulling back; after all, for all the gore and glory of it all, they’re still only human.
In Mullen’s case, it seems like the right time to take a bow. He’s been in Suffocation since he was 18, touring hard and playing countless shows around the world, sleeping in bus bunks and on floors and god knows where else, hauling gear and staying in constant motion. My dad started working construction at the same age, and I bet you Mullen’s back is almost as fucked up as my dad’s is by now. He has a good job, and a family, and priorities (including a low-key acting career!) that no longer include him spending weeks on end crammed into a tour bus, and as fans, we need to respect that—even if we’ll always miss the chop.
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Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey; she's also on Twitter, where she's currently geeking out about her new pet snake.