A Seizure Almost Devastated His Ability to Play Death Metal
Words: Chris Krovatin
Photo: Mathieu Bredeau
In late September of 2018, Zack Rose finished some minor vocal work on his latest EP and went back to bed. As the creative driving force behind death-thrash act Nekrofilth, Zack was wrapping up a covers EP that would be released as a companion to his band’s second full-length album, Worm Ritual. With the last tweaks made, he went upstairs, put his arm around his girlfriend, Lauren Grace Gallegos, and dozed off. A few minutes later, Lauren woke him when his arm began spasming.
“I’d had weakness in that arm a couple of weeks earlier but my doctor told me it might be a rotator cuff injury,” says Zack, who has been dealing with a neuromotor disorder for the past five years. “Two weeks later, it felt fine, and we played a couple of shows. But [the spasming] meant it was neurological. It had gotten better in the past, so I took a Valium, laid back down, Lauren went downstairs to make breakfast…and the next thing I remember is the EMTs in my room.”
Lauren remembers the day in more vivid detail: “Zack was on the floor by the bed, thrashing around. He looks over his right shoulder at me, and I know instantly that something is wrong. He was bleeding down his face — he’d either hit his head on the nightstand or had abrasions from rubbing his face on the carpet. His pupils were the most dilated I’d ever seen, and his mouth open and slack. It was like all those shitty exorcism movies. At first, he wasn’t responding, he just made horrible groaning noises…and then he began screaming, ‘Help, help.’”
Lauren called 911, and EMTs rushed to Zack’s house. When Zack came to, he had almost no memory of the past day.
“The first thing they asked me at the hospital was, ‘Who’s the president?’” laughs Zack. “And I thought, ‘Fuck, what a way to come back to reality…’”
To most, Zack Rose is the quintessential underground metal dude — wry yet sympathetic, thoughtful yet brutally honest, a filthy mouth hiding a big heart. He digs old-school bands with lifer attitudes and early releases by Slayer, Motörhead, Repulsion and Mortician. A former member of blasphemic Cleveland metal act Nunslaughter, in 2008 Zack started Nekrofilth, a scummy mixture of death metal, thrash, and crust punk writing street-level anthems to introspective body horror and snickering gutter smut.
But anyone who’s hung out with Zack has noticed his walk. This is because Zack’s neuromotor disorder affects the signals between his brain and legs; Zack’s muscles are strong and aren’t degenerating, but the signal between his brain and muscles is too strong, resulting balance issues and spasticity (think when you lifting a heavy weight and your arm shakes). His legs aren’t numb or weak, they just feel like he has fifty-pound weights attached to them at all times.
“I was literally weeks away from moving here, and I went to a chiropractor,” says Zack. “For about a year, I’d begun to feel this soreness that wouldn’t go away in my legs, specifically in the calf and quad muscle of my right leg, but to a lesser extent the left leg. The chiropractor tapped my knee with the hammer, which I didn’t know is a central nervous system test. Obviously, you’re supposed to kick a little — well, I kicked out really hard.”
The chiropractor sent Zack to a neurologist, who eventually had him go get an MRI (“I wrote the song Acid Brain about that”). The results were inconclusive — he didn’t have MS, they said — and his doctor assured him that there were neurologists and physical therapists who could help him in Colorado. Zack moved to Denver, where he continued writing and recording with Nekrofilth, and eventually met Lauren at a birthday party at infamous Denver dive Bar Bar.
“I joke that I thought it’d be a one-night stand, and then he just kept calling me,” laughs Lauren. “I didn’t really notice his condition the night I met him. Then on our first date, he took out some pills. He didn’t really seem like the type to be doing drugs, so I asked him what was up, and he gave me a real brief description. But that was only a year in, and obviously, it’s something you can see on him now.”
As Zack’s condition got more pronounced, he dealt with new obstacles. “When we got back from Japan last year, I was lifting heavy stuff upstairs,” he says. “But when we got back from Korea, I got strep throat, and my mobility got to the point where I needed to be driven from door to door.” That said, the stigma of lost mobility got easier to deal with as he lived through it more and more. “This one kid came up to me in New Orleans and asked if I had CP, and I told him no. CP is a birth defect. And he said, well I do, and I think it’s very cool to see someone like me onstage making music. He recognized the day-to-day difficulty with lack of mobility. I’ll never forget that moment.”
As Zack’s life progressed, so did his music. As he began writing Nekrofilth’s sophomore full-length, Worm Ritual — the title referencing a “fictional primitive culture sacrificing a missionary to their worm goddess”, inspired by eating mealworms at a restaurant in a cave in Mexico after visiting a Mayan temple — he decided to move away from the sleazier lyrics of previous Nekrofilth releases and focus on communicating filth in the band’s production sound, echoing early influences like Sodom and Possessed.
Above: The cover of Worm Ritual. Art by Matt Putrid.
“With the album, I wanted to get rid of the juvenalia of the earlier stuff, and just focus on really good songs,” says Zack. “There’s still gross stuff in there, but it’s difficult to offend someone these days without being really mean, and that’s just not fun for me. We’ve never written about violating consent or causing anyone harm, but there were some songs which, when read in a certain light, I didn’t lie. I really dislike that side of a lot of late ‘90s death metal that’s all about raping women. So this time around, it’s still gross, but not purposefully provocative.”
By September 23rd, 2018, except for the recent weakness in his one arm, things were looking up for Zack.
That morning, he had the seizure. By the next day, he could barely move the left side of his body.
After EMTs brought Zack to the hospital, he was given another MRI. This time, as he puts it, “they found shit in there.”
“They said I had a seizure because there’s inflammation in my brain,” he says. “So I figured it would be a few days and I’d go home…but then the weakness started to really increase in the left side of my body, to where I couldn’t go home because I wouldn’t have been able to get around. I basically couldn’t even sit up in bed. I had all of no strength on that side. I could barely move my left arm, and my foot on the left side was totally useless.”
The initial treatment was a huge dose of steroids to reduce inflammation, but that came with its own perils. “Steroids reduce inflammation, but the make you fucking crazy. I kept trying to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and I’d fall because I couldn’t walk. Every time, in my head, I thought, ‘I can totally do this’, but it happened two nights in a row.”
Above: Zack with his dog, Rodeo.
As Zack began rehab and physical therapy, movement of his arm began returning immediately; Lauren brought his acoustic guitar, and he quickly got Smoke On The Water down on one string. But recovery also involved overcoming psychological boundaries, including his own hang-ups about what it meant to be handicapped.
“In rehab, I had to use a wheelchair, and being in a wheelchair was a fear of mine for a long time,” he says. “On a flat, linoleum hospital floor, it’s awesome, but in the real world, getting over an eighth-of-an-inch bump in the sidewalk is horrible. It gave me a new appreciation for what people with limited mobility have to deal with.”
One positive side effect of Zack’s situation was the outpouring of love and support from the metal community, ranging from local acts to former lineup-mates. “I had a lot of really cool visitors. The dudes from Exhumed came by, [Riley] from Power Trip called me — we’d played shows together before and hung out, but this time we talked for alike an hour. Morris [Kolontyrsky, guitarist] from Blood Incantation saw me on Facebook commenting on a first-pressing copy of Hell Awaits — I’d sold my copy when I moved — and he showed up with it. It even had the order form in it, where you could order Show No Mercy for $7.99.
“You don’t always know where you stand with people,” he continues. “So all those visits, ands reconnecting with tons of people…that was the most positive thing about the experience.”
Above: A gift from GWAR.
Zack’s mobility came back steadily, but took time. He left the hospital by mid-October (“I had to be out by the 18th — I had tickets to see Cianide”), and eventually traded the wheelchair for a walker (“For Halloween, I went as an old man, so it was just part of the costume”), and is now using a cane. His doctors are still trying to understand the exact parameters of his condition; he doesn’t want to give its exact name, and is trying not to Google it until the experts he’s working with have come up with a concrete treatment plan. Until then, he’s looking for ways to make Nekroflth work even if he has another seizure and needs to spend more time in recovery.
“Doctors told me [recovery] could take up to a year, and after a year is up, if it’s not any better, that’s what it’s going to be,” he says. “My left hand can’t do things quickly, so moving chords around isn’t automatic. I don’t know if my hand will ever be reliable enough. For the recording, I wanted to do stuff with guest guitar plays, and a bunch of people agreed to it. Matt Harvey from Exhumed said he’d do it, Sean and Ross from Ghoul said they’d do stuff, and Morris said he could do something. It’ll be super cool to hear other people’s interpretations of what we do. And there’s definitely plenty of lyrics material from my time in the hospital.”
Above: Matt and Ross from Exhumed visit Zack in the hospital.
Today, Zack is recovering quickly, and sounds positive if somewhat cautious. He can play guitar, and is playing a show with Nekrofilth next month. He’s keeping up with the day-to-day of recovering from the seizure — he does pilates, ashtanga yoga, goes to physical therapy regularly, and has begun writing about his experience. His focus right now is to move forward and keep making metal, no matter what happens.
“Look, I’m never climbing a mountain,” he says. “I’m up and down. But I’m feeling really good right now. The thing that’s scary is, it’s not really been determined what is wrong. There have been some strange conflicting findings, so I’m going to be seeing a lot of doctors, which is tough, because what I’d thought I was dealing with before took me years to accept. I was completely fucking helpless. Right now, I’m self-sufficient, I can get around, and making that transition is very eye-opening. It gives you an appreciation for life that you don’t have otherwise. The worst-case scenario is, this is something I can’t treat. But even if that’s the case, I have to keep going.”
Kerrang! is excited to stream Nekrofilth’s Worm Ritual a week before its release on Friday, 12/28. Check it out below:
Watch the first part of the new documentary about Chester Bennington’s first band.
Here are 10 bands whose visual styles are as iconic as their music.