Death Metal is an extreme form of heavy metal that was born from the influence of thrash bands like Slayer and Venom in the 1980’s. Death metal would take the speed of thrash and bring it a few steps further concentrating more on heavier guitar distortion, double-bass blast beat drumming, various abrupt tempo changes, and the creation of deep growling (sometimes even garbage disposal like) vocals. They also took the lyrical themes of metal in a much more sinister direction. Songs include the subjects of hyper-violence, horror, murder, Satanism, mysticism, anti-religion, and politics. There is some argument about where the term death metal came from, but the majority of fans believe it came from the 1984 demo of the band Possessed, which contained a track called Death Metal. Lead singer, Jeff Becerra, said he invented the term for a high school English class paper in 1983.
Venom, Slayer, Possessed, and Death are widely regarded as the main bands that helped to pioneer this form of heavy metal. Venom would bring harsher vocals and the tenets of Satanism and the macabre to speed metal laying the groundwork for the death growl and lyrical subjects of death metal. The Slayer album Reign in Blood is regarded as a huge influence on death metal with its breakneck speed and lyrical subjects of war, Satanism, and violence.
Possessed is considered by many to be the first death metal band, as they were one of the first bands that melded thrash metal with the much more brutal style of fast drumming, tremolo picking, and growled vocals. Their debut album, Seven Churches, released in 1985 is still considered to be one of the best death metal albums ever. Many bands in grindcore, death metal, and black metal site Possessed as a major influence. As influential as they were, Possessed only released two studio albums before breaking up in1987. They have had many reunions, but haven’t released any new material.
Death metal came to prominence in Florida and then spread out across America, much like thrash in the Bay Area. Florida band, Death, are responsible for fathering death metal as we know it today. Death was one of the first bands to use the fast blast beat drumming mixed with breakneck riffs and solos. Their debut album Scream Bloody Gore released in 1987 is considered to be the first true death metal record as it took the more brutal style of thrash metal created by Possessed and turned it completely on its head. After the release of this record, Florida natives Morbid Angel, Massacre, Atheist, Obituary, and Deicide would emerge and really popularize death metal. Death remained a mainstay in death metal until the passing of lead singer, Chuck Schuldiner, in 2001. They are not only credited with fathering death metal, but also with being one of the first death metal bands to experiment with and add other elements and sounds to death metal.
Essential Death Metal Albums:
- Seven Churches (Possessed)
- Deicide (Deicide)
- Human (Death)
- The Jester Race (In Flames)
- Hate Malice Revenge (All Shall Perish)
- Altars of Madness (Morbid Angel)
- Slaughter of the Soul (At the Gates)
- Unhallowed (The Black Dahlia Murder)
- Tomb of the Mutilated (Cannibal Corpse)
- Effigy of the Forgotten (Suffocation)
- Left Hand Path (Entombed)
- Close to a World Below (Immolation)
- Onward to Golgotha (Incantation)
- Annihilation of the Wicked (Nile)
- Mental Funeral (Autopsy)
- None So Vile (Cryptopsy)
- Cause of Death (Obituary)
The most well known and commercially successful death metal artist without a doubt is Chris Barnes of Cannibal Corpse and Six Feet Under. Since the incarnation of Cannibal Corpse in 1988, Barnes’ gutteral vocal style has been one of the best and most recognizable in death metal. When most people think of death metal, Cannibal Corpse is one of the first bands that comes to mind. They have certainly written some controversial material, mostly to get a rise out of people. This controversy would give them the publicity needed to have some mainstream success. They were mentioned by politicians, like Bob Dole and Joe Lieberman, as having offensive material that should be banned. Being put in the same category as 2 Live Crew will certainly help one get noticed. Kids started to purchase more Cannibal Corpse concert tickets and albums to see what it was that was pissing off their parents so much. The band would get one final push from death metal enthusiast, Jim Carrey, who requested they be given a cameo in his highly successful film Ace Ventura. Shortly after the release of Ace Ventura, Chris Barnes was asked to leave Cannibal Corpse in 1995.
By the late 80’s and early 90’s death metal had grown a huge cult following and many record labels began to snatch up as many bands as they could. This mass signing of bands caused death metal to reach its peak in 1993. Some bands have had some commercial success and remain popular to this day, but for the most part death metal failed to breakthrough into the mainstream. This is what many true metal fans find appealing about the genre as it remains a very popular niche. The peak in 1993 would lead to the creation a few new death metal subgenres that would help to diversify it and bring death metal to a wider audience.
Melodic Death Metal
Melodic death metal was born in Gothenburg Sweden in the early 1990’s. Bands like Dark Tranquility and In Flames formed as side projects from members of death metal bands that wanted to create a more harmonized death metal sound. The biggest misconception is that melodic has to do with the singing. Although some bands would add intermittent clean vocals, death growls were still used. The melodic part comes in regard to the dual harmonized guitars influenced by NWOBHM. The double-bass pedal drumming and heavily distorted guitars wouldremain the same. The 1995 release of Slaughter of the Soul by At the Gates is widely regarded as the defining moment of melodic death metal. Since then, it has become one of the most commercially successful forms of death metal and it is still wildly popular at the present time. Melodic death metal would end up highly influencing many of the current subgenres of metal, especially metalcore, in the early 2000’s.
Deathcore is death metal with hardcore breakdowns instead of guitar solos. There are also some metalcore traits such as melodic guitar riffs. Unlike hardcore and metalcore, there are little to no clean vocals. The death metal growl remains. Deathcore came about in 1996 with the emergence of bands like Suffocation. Well known deathcore bands include The Black Dahlia Murder, Whitechapel, and Emmure
Death thrash mixes the harsh vocals of death metal with the faster pacing of thrash. Sepultura was one of the godfathers of this form of faster death metal in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. In the 2000’s death thrash branched out into the thrash subgenre of groove metal with bands like DevilDriver and Lamb of God using death metal vocals mixed with groove guitar riffs. It seems at this point that many of the contemporary thrash acts use these death metal elements more so than their predecessors, probably trying to appeal to a wider audience.
Technical Death Metal
In the early 1990’s some artists began combining the lyrical themes and brutality of death metal with progressive elements like complex riffs, drumming, and song structures. Death metal bands like Pestilence and Death would start experimenting with these sounds influencing acts in the later 1990’s. Other technical death metal bands include Opeth (early albums), Gorguts, and Nile.