Song 153: The Mountain Goats, “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton” (2002)

all hail west texas

For a long time, John Darnielle recorded songs on a Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox. He’d write songs every night, and as soon as he could, he’d hit “Record” and “Play” simultaneously, and perform the song before it got stale. These recordings were released as-is, usually on vinyl or cassette. He called himself The Mountain Goats.

The “last grinding burst of the machine,” as Darnielle put it, was the collection of songs that became All Hail West Texas, an album that consists of (according to the cover art) “fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys.”

This album is my favorite of Darnielle’s boombox records, because the songs are so damn good. They’re completely believable stories, and Darnielle’s informal delivery makes it sound like he’s describing people he knows. And hearing them by way of a Panasonic boombox gives the songs a “found artifact” feel, as if you’d found a cassette buried under dirt on the side of a road.

Among the great songs on All Hail West Texas is “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton.” I had a hard time choosing between this song and the devastating “The Mess Inside”; “Death Metal Band” won out because it’s also a song I like to play whenever I perform. Not only is the song equally funny and heartbreaking, but it’s constantly surprising over the course of its two and a half minutes (and I can tell you firsthand that there’s a special thrill that comes with loudly singing “Hail Satan!” as a big finish). On one live recording of “Death Metal Band,” Darnielle introduces it as “A song about how they treat children badly …The ‘they,’ I guess, is just, assholes. This is a song, a story, that needs to be told to all the assholes.”

Darnielle knows from child abuse, and one of the most interesting aspects of his songs is his treatment of child abuse–including his own–as an adult singing from a child’s point of view. In his song “This Year,” Darnielle captures the simultaneous feelings of liberation and dread that result from rebelling against those who can (and probably will) hurt you. In the case of “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton,” Jeff and Cyrus may not have been the victims of domestic violence, but they were certainly mistreated by being told that their band would never amount to anything, and by Cyrus getting sent to the “locked treatment facility” noted on the album’s cover art.

The details of this song’s story are sketchy (and who knows how terrible and grisly the duo’s “plan to get even” was), but it’s another instance of Darnielle speaking up for mistreated kids. He’s very good at it, for an unfortunate reason.

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