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Gory Details Sell for Rock's Underground

August 13, 1994|LORRAINE ALI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At a recent show at the Whisky by the Genitorturers, the band pretends to pull the innards out of a half-naked corpse. Although the group's music couldn't rock its way out of a paper bag, let alone a body bag, the crowd stands transfixed.

That's just one sample of the current escalation of bloody imagery in rock's underground. Consider:

* A graphic police photo of a suicide victim, his head severed by a train, adorns the cover of the Unsane's self-titled album. The trio's other records feature blood-drenched shots of a bathtub suicide scene and a car accident.

* Nine Inch Nails' "Happiness and Slavery" video features a man being methodically mutilated by a machine.

* Members of White Zombie and Danzig are among the artists represented in a set of collectors' cards depicting serial killers.

* The group Marilyn Manson . . . well, the name says it all.

The lesson? Gore sells.

Although too subversive to push millions of albums, graphic record covers of autopsies and auto accidents and theatrical displays of carnage on stage appeal to a growing rock subculture of tattooed and pierced rubberneckers.

"People are attracted to our album art because it's extreme," says Vincent Signorelli, drummer for the Unsane, a trio from New York that plays heavy, claustrophobic rock. "It's like when there's an accident outside, you always want to look to see if it's terrible or not."

Gen, the platinum blond dominatrix who fronts the Florida-based Genitorturers, says, "People come to our shows and either leave excited or disgusted or titillated, but everyone goes away feeling something."

Who's buying? If the audiences at recent shows by these bands are any indication, it's middle-class kids who are cut off from the reality of true horror. In quiet neighborhoods, where the atrocities of war or urban crime are not present, the fascination with gore grows.

Aficionados collect gruesome pictures, books and film footage like stamps. The immediate rush of watching death and mutilation in these controlled media seemingly makes it safe and somehow free of responsibility. It's wimpishly voyeuristic and detached.

"Sometimes the stuff is aesthetically interesting and beautiful. Even if it's gory, it can work as a surreal graphic," says Stuart Swezey, owner of AMOK, an L.A. bookstore and publishing house that sells everything from autopsy videos to serial killer memorabilia.

Of course gory rock 'n' roll imagery is nothing new. KISS used to spit fake blood on stage, Alice Cooper decapitated and hanged himself night after night, Lydia Lunch did ultra-sicko stuff in various Richard Kern movies, and bloody illustrations were standard for a whole slew of death-metal acts.

But in the age when documentary shows such as "Cops" and "911" have replaced "Dragnet," it takes reality (or extremely intense representations of reality) to get a reaction.

It's not necessarily that this stuff will warp the kids--their parents survived comic books and early TV, and they may well come through this fascination to worry about their own children getting lost in some corrupting corner of the Internet.

The real worry should be about the music. By going for this lowest common denominator, artists are in danger of forfeiting their creativity. These bands act as if they're going out on a limb, but they really couldn't be playing it more safe. If they want to take chances, why not do it in the music?

Kennedy Compound: Rumors that the Dead Kennedy's record label Alternative Tentacles will re-release the group's "Frankenchrist" album--with the original poster that led to the celebrated obscenity trial of singer Jello Biafra in 1986--are untrue, according to a label spokesman. But the poster featuring male genitalia by H.R. Giger (the artist best known for his sets in the movie "Alien") is available through mail order and with proof of age--although dealers have been selling it as a discontinued collectors' item for the last eight years.

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