Since its initial beginnings from the middle of the 1980s and beyond, the musical style of death metal has become one of the most extreme forms of music not just in the world of metal but in the industry generally. Having started as a natural evolution from the bands and musical scenes that we now know as thrash, death metal set to push the limits of what could be achieved through metal specifically when it comes to the visceral content of lyricism, instrumental technicality and proficiency, and the sheer sound of the music in question.
The bands that influenced the first wave of death metal
So how did the genre come to be? Like I said in the introduction, the first wave of death metal bands all point directly at the heavier and darker side of 1980s thrash as an influence and inspiration on the music that they themselves would go on and make. From the mid-1980s onwards, albums including Slayer’s ‘Reign in Blood’, Sodom’s ‘Agent Orange’, Dark Angel’s ‘Darkness Descends’, Kreator’s ‘Endless Pain’ and ‘Pleasure to Kill’ and various others marked a new evolutionary point in terms of aggression and musical bite in thrash. It was these records and more that spurred on the imagination of the then slowly growing death metal scene that found itself situated in small pockets across the United States and subsequently caused those bands to emerge as front-runners of a new style of metal, evolving from what had come before but also putting their own unique creative stamp on the genre that had yet to be seen or heard.
The UK-born musical style of grindcore and its own importance in terms of the growth of death metal is also significant to note, as many of the initial grindcore bands to form in the 1980s and 1990s themselves had periods where they adopted a more traditional death metal approach to their musicianship and musical output in one way or another. Of course there will be more discussion and mention of these bands throughout this feature but groups such as Carcass, Napalm Death, Bolt Thrower and bands that formed slightly later on such as Dying Fetus, Exhumed and Cattle Decapitation should not be underestimated when it comes to their impact on shaping death metal in the contemporary musical world.
Death metal in the 1980s
This is where it kicks off properly. There has been much debate in the 30+ years since the beginnings of death metal as to who can be considered the first death metal band, in the same way that people will still to this day debate passionately as to who of Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath is more influential. The Jeff Becerra-led Possessed released their now-highly acclaimed album ‘Seven Churches’ in 1985 two years before Death introduced their legendary debut ‘Scream Bloody Gore’ in 1987, with these two records solidifying the presence of a new style of heavy metal more extreme than anything that had come before it in terms of the United States.
A collection of other bands around this time would also prove to be almost or equally as influential to the development of death metal and where it was destined to go. 1989 saw the release of Autopsy’s ‘Severed Survival’, Morbid Angel’s ‘Altars of Madness’, Obituary’s ‘Slowly We Rot’ and more, while Deicide, Cannibal Corpse, Bolt Thrower and others by this point had enjoyed success with album releases or were finalizing their line-ups prior to releasing their own albums. At this point still, however, thrash metal reigned supreme as Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax reached their creative high-points, and the emergence of grunge rock in terms of mainstream dominance was quickly approaching.
Death metal in the 1990s
Much can be said about the individual willpower of a musical genre to survive in the underground for such a long amount of time and not diminish slightly in terms of its ethical principles or its own musical integrity. While black metal toyed with church burnings, suicides, murders and other grim circumstances throughout its time in the 1990s, death metal remained primarily stable while the thrash bands of the previous decade enjoyed mainstream dominance due to most of them watering down their sound, and acts such as Pantera, Fear Factory, Machine Head and more flying the flag for heavy music, death metal continued to exist outside of the consciousness of most people, with only Sepultura realistically bringing the genre some notice with ‘Beneath the Remains’ and its other critically successful releases throughout this time. This lack of attention from the mainstream allowed death metal to expand in various different ways, with a particular emphasis on instrumental technicality as opposed to anything else.
Whereas the first burst of death metal was based significantly around blood and guts, most notably through bands like Death, Autopsy, Obituary and Carcass, the 1990s marked a noticeable evolution in how this music was played. Suffocation’s ‘Effigy of the Forgotten’ as well as many of the Cannibal Corpse records to be released around this time clearly demonstrated that death metal was the most instrumentally taxing of every genre that metal had produced thus far, but at the same time could also prove incredibly satisfying for those who took the time and effort to master their respective instruments. Suffocation’s brand of what is now known as technical death metal, as well as the musicianship of Chuck Schuldiner in Death, Alex Webster in Cannibal Corpse and Trey Azagthoth in Morbid Angel has inspired countless contemporary bands to try their hand at this style of music.
Death metal in the 21st century
Since the turn of the millennium 17 years ago, death metal and indeed extreme metal in general has seen somewhat of a ‘mainstream’ revival in terms of its acceptance in the wider world of rock music (more on that later though). With the popularization and the wide usage of the Internet it is now easier than ever for bands and musical acts of all genres to get discovered, including death metal bands. The state of death metal in 2017 could possibly be at its best in the entire history of the genre, with the legendary acts of this style of music such as Obituary, Deicide, Cannibal Corpse, Dying Fetus and more enjoying new levels of success all the way down to the increased diverse range of styles and sounds that are all considered part of the wider death metal scene. In Flames, Children of Bodom, Amon Amarth, Soilwork and Dark Tranquility have throughout their respective histories as bands been able to stamp a melodic edge onto what is otherwise an extremely aggressive style of music, and acts such as Nile, Decapitated, Revocation, Origin, Gojira and Necrophagist have all been able to spin an increased aspect of technicality into what they do. And if you dig the really brutal guttural side of things, there’s plenty of bands to explore – Aborted, Deeds of Flesh, Benighted, Hour of Penance, Skinless, Krisiun…the list is genuinely endless.
Death metal’s place in rock music
With death metal being such an admittedly niche art form in itself, the fact that bands within this genre have been able to have such a significant impact not just on bands from other metal subgenres but also on the mainstream rock world and indeed mainstream culture in general. Whether it is Cannibal Corpse appearing in Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, to Napalm Death featuring in various British television programs, and artists way outside the boundaries of conventional extreme metal such as the hip-hop artist Ghostemane being influenced musically by Death, Carcass and other acts.
Despite death metal obviously being a significantly gruesome style of music, hopefully this read has been at least slightly interesting even if the genre in question isn’t 100% your thing, and well if it is then maybe you learned something new. Who knows? Like I did with my ‘evolution of thrash metal’ feature, below I’ve listed 20 albums from the world of death metal that I feel are good starting places if you’re looking to get into the genre itself, or just looking for something new to check out. Again, thanks for reading!
- Morbid Angel – ‘Blessed Are the Sick’
- At the Gates – ‘Slaughter of the Soul’
- Napalm Death – ‘Apex Predator Easy Meat’
- Vader – ‘Impressions in Blood’
- Dying Fetus – ‘Reign Supreme’
- Entombed – ‘Left Hand Path’
- Devourment – ‘Molesting the Decapitated’
- Suffocation – ‘Effigy of the Forgotten’
- Cannibal Corpse – ‘Evisceration Plague’
- The Black Dahlia Murder – ‘Miasma’
- Decapitated – ‘Nihility’
- Lecherous Nocturne – ‘Behold Almighty Doctrine’
- Deicide – ‘To Hell With God’
- Vital Remains – ‘Dechristianize’
- Cattle Decapitation – ‘Monolith of Inhumanity’
- Gojira – ‘From Mars to Sirius’
- Nile – ‘Annihilation of the Wicked’
- Ingested – ‘Surpassing the Boundaries of Human Suffering’
- Pestilence – ‘Consuming Impulse’
- Death – ‘Leprosy’