The Birth of Death

MORTA-SKULD-Dying-Remains-CD

Honestly, death metal was one reason why I lost interest in heavy metal. I was there when it was all coming together, as the ingredients were being mixed, the concoction stirred. However, I missed the final crucial years, and by the time the potion had been decanted, I came in to look and wondered what had happened to my beloved heavy metal music. Where were the new Rob Halfords, Bruce Dickenson’s, and Ronnie James Dios? Had singing gone out of fashion?

I came in to the metal scene just after the New Wave of British Heavy Metal had washed ashore and heavy metal became a household word. Then, just as Quiet Riot, Def Leppard, and Motley Crue were making metal the underdog chart champion of the world in 1983, thrash metal suddenly crashed onto the scene. With it came more extreme metal bands like Celtic Frost, Bathory, and Possessed. I was into each of these bands, but by 1987 I became more interested in the roots of heavy metal, and by 1989 when I came back to contemporary releases via Christian heavy metal, I found myself a little nonplussed by the deep guttural vocal styles of bands like Vengeance Rising and Seventh Angel (wish I had never sold off that one now!). Bands I had liked, such as Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer, were changing their sound and it didn’t appeal to me either. I lost touch with the developments in my favourite music genre and what I heard—Fear Factory, Marilyn Manson, One Minute Silence—was good but not what metal was to me. And whenever I heard these bands with incomprehensible, rumbling, roaring, growling vocals, I likened them to demons vomiting after a night of heavy drinking and spicy Mexican food.

It took a long way round for me to return to heavy metal and discover just how many subgenres it had fractionated into. My interest in progressive rock took me to progressive metal which brought me to Devin Townsend and then to Opeth. Finally, early in 2017, I came to appreciate the death metal growl and became curious about other bands. Then the history buff in me took over and I plunged into old school death metal.

Heavy Metal: Progressing to the Extreme

creem metal deadIn the late seventies, heavy metal had lost its identity. The depressed and nihilistic lyrics about war, political corruption, psychopathic mental illnesses, substance abuse, the doom of the earth and the human race, and sometimes just plain old lyrics about Satan winning thanks to our sinful ways, had gone out of fashion for the most part by around 1972, and a more fun type of energetic guitar music about rock and roll, women, relationships, and a few hard times in life became the new hard guitar music. Traces of doom and gloom still surfaced in the odd band or album, but aside from metal kings Black Sabbath, the rest was mostly underground.

When punk rock came to force in the late seventies, heavy metal was said to have lost its relevance and become redundant. What critics hadn’t bet on was that young metal musicians would learn from punk’s aggressive attitude and DIY approach and create a new brand of metal for a new generation. With the help of Judas Priest’s reinvention of the metal sound, some inspiration from progressive rock, and Motorhead’s bombastic raw and speedy style, heavy metal became faster, fuller, and demanded new levels of skill.

The NWoBHM delivered various styles of metal, and it was the faster, punk-influenced concoction that spurred the American thrash scene, while some of the darker-themed bands encouraged new directions in extreme metal in Europe.

venom

Venom

Venom were the most influential of the lot, playing fast and aggressive music that was a natural extension of Motorhead but also using Satanic lyrical themes and imagery. The music was, for the most part, still rather fun though. Switzerland’s Hellhammer and Sweden’s Bathory would do more to develop the darker and vocally deeper side of metal. Influenced by the punk band Discharge, Hellhammer went in search of a new sound for metal. With the addition of Martin Ain on vocals and a change in sound, the band became Celtic Frost, which would go on to influence a number of future death metal bands. Bathory’s sound would in turn set a template for the later black metal movement.

Back in the U.S.A., thrash was the pimply-faced, beer-swilling rival and challenger to L.A.’s hairspray and spandex glam metal scene. But while many bands sang about violence and war, one band took things more extreme. Slayer burst onto the scene with the Satanic themes but went further with lyrics of horror and homicide. Their album Hell Awaits became an inspiration to many young European bands. The next step came with Possessed’s Seven Churches. This album made metal not only faster, but more frightening with Jeff Becerra’s deep, roaring vocal style. Indeed, Possessed’s song entitled “Death Metal” would lend its name to this budding new extension of extreme metal.

Things Get Brutal

pleasure to killWith one album under their collective belt, Germany’s Kreator were looking to take things to the next level. They approached their new producer, Harris Johns, with copies of Hell Awaits and Seven Churches and said that this was the kind of album they wanted to make. The producer responded with, “Oh, I think we can do better than that”. Kreator’s second album, Pleasure to Kill featured fast, tight, and sometimes complex playing with snarling, teeth-gnashing, gruff vocals. Another German band, Sodom, took to thrash metal with a similar vocal approach. It seemed that while Americans preferred shouted vocals, Europeans were more into menacing and brutal vocals.

SLAUGHTER-Strappado-LP-BLACK-ORIGINAL-MIXMeanwhile over in Canada, Toronto’s Slaughter were joined by a musician from Florida. Chuck Schuldiner of Mantas played with the band for six months before returning south (couldn’t stand the winter?). By the time Slaughter recorded Strappado, their first full-length album in 1986, their sound had become full-on brutal bombast with deep, grumbling guitars and dual vocals that sounded like shouted, angry barks and barbaric growls.

scream bloody goreChuck Schuldiner’s band, Death, released their debut album, Scream Bloody Gore, in 1987, and this is often considered as the birth of the death metal subgenre (was it because of the screams at the start of the album?). Other Floridian bands soon followed. For many fans, death metal was born in Florida, and yet it a way, the Floridian extreme metal scene was like a response to the Californian extreme metal scene. Thrash elements were still largely present and bands typically headed west for performances, mingling with the Californ-I-A bands. But Florida’s scene was to feature two important differences: the music was splitting into either more technical styles as with Atheist and Cynic, or slowing to a bone-crunching grind as with Obituary. But as death metal rapidly caught on and spread northward, brutal and technical music became the favoured approach as with New York’s Immolation and Quebec’s Gorguts.

Don’t Forget the Brits!

necroticismAll the while extreme metal was developing and evolving in the U.S., the British had their own scene going on. Across the Atlantic, hard core punk was branching into metal—the opposite of what had happened in the States—and a new subgenre called grindcore became the British answer to thrash. It didn’t take long though before British bands also took to brutalizing things up a bit. Carcass and Napalm Death fully embraced the deep, guttural vocal style, and after the release of a couple of solid grindcore albums, their styles took on a death metal sound. Close behind were Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride, whose vocals went even deeper but whose music was typically slower and more ominous, leading the way for the death/doom offshoot. Perhaps Britain’s first death-from-debut band was Bolt Thrower, who adopted war as its signature theme and released its debut, In Battle There Is No Law, in 1988. It’s important to note that Bolt Thrower’s foundations were built upon Discharge, Crass, and Slayer, once again bringing the British roots of hardcore punk and grindcore and the Slayer influence into the picture.

Mad as a Corpse Cannibalized on an Altar

altars of madnessOne of the most important albums in death metal would come in 1989 from Floridian band, Morbid Angel. Their debut album, Altars of Madness, set the bar for death metal by taking fast, technical, and brutal metal to a new level. If the mantra for death metal bands had been “faster, heavier, more brutal, more technical” then Morbid Angel carved it in bone. In fact, when looking at lists of top old school death metal and even death metal albums in general, Altars of Madness is more often than not at the top of the list. But as the Floridian scene rapidly evolved, New York’s brought forth one of the most famous bands in death metal with Cannibal Corpse, a band who took human corpse mutilation to the extreme of every horror film and novel, and whose album cover art represents some of the most imaginative, macabre, and grotesque ever to sit in a record store. Junior high school boys everywhere were thrilled!

vintage-cannibal-corpse

Cannibal Corpse with Chris Barnes

Oh, Those Ghoulish Swedish

left hand pathEuropeans can’t leave a good metal scene alone, and it was time for Sweden to rise from the grave to the occasion. Emerging also in the late eighties were the bands Carnage, Morbid, and Nihilist, who then fragmented into Entombed, Dismember, and Unleashed. The fourth of the Swedish Big Four was Grave. These bands lowered the tuning of their guitars and made good use of the Boss HM-2 distortion pedal. The Swedish take on death metal proved there was more than one way to explore and develop this new subgenre. In fact, a good point was made in the Banger TV episode about early death metal—that early death metal musicians looked at what they could do to define the death metal sound and the results were fairly diverse.

The brachiating of death metal—sometimes toward fast and technical, sometimes toward slow and massively heavy—continued until around 1992/93 when new avenues were opened up: the so-called melo-death or melodic death metal, death-and-roll, progressive death metal, and even more extremes of technical and brutal death metal. Death/doom had a short-lived period that for some bands led to gothic metal, such as with My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost, and Finland’s Amorphis. Perhaps 1993 is a good year to draw a line ending the old school death metal growth period. Production of death metal albums improved as the nineties advanced, and the old guard were often playing new styles or in some cases had disappeared.

I’ve compiled a list of frequently-cited old school death metal albums. I consulted several lists on the Internet: some private lists on RateYourMusic and also lists by LoudWire, MetalStorm, and Metal Music Archives. I’ve also checked lists of top old school death metal albums on YouTube. Here are thirty of the most often-mentioned albums released between 1985 and 1993. They are not in any exact ranking order; however, albums near the bottom of the list were more frequently mentioned than albums near the top. The album most consistently included on old school death metal lists was Altars of Madness.

Napalm Death – Harmony Corruption
Cynic – Focus
Immolation – Dawn of Possession
Incantation – Onward to Golgotha
Demilich – Nespithe
Death – Leprosy
Malevolent Creation – The Ten Commandments
Pestilence – Testimony of the Ancients
Pestilence – Consuming Impulse
Autopsy – Severed Survival
Death – Human
Demigod – The Slumber of Sullen Eyes
Deicide – Deicide
Obituary – Cause of Death
Death – Individual Thought Patterns
Unleashed – Where No Life Dwells
Autopsy – Mental Funeral
Terrorizer – Downfall
Death – Scream Bloody Gore
Atheist – Unquestionable Presence
Obituary – Slowly We Rot
Bolt Thrower – Realm of Chaos
Carcass – Necroticism Descanting the Insalubrious
Suffocation – Effigy of the Forgotten
Possessed – Seven Churches
Morbid Angel – Covenant
Carcass – Heartwork
Dismember – Like an Ever Flowing Stream
Entombed – Left Hand Path
Morbid Angel – Altars of Madness

Videos about death metal

Banger TV Early Death Metal

A Basterdized History of Death Metal

Death Metal versus Black Metal

Death Metal Doc

Advertisements

The Year of Extreme Metal

We are three quarters of the way into 2017 and this is only my third post of the year. It’s not because I haven’t been exploring music very much this year. On the contrary, I have bitten into to something larger than almost anything I took on in previous years, with the one exception being my conscious entrance into the world of progressive rock in 2012. I emphasize “conscious” because almost since I began exploring music in the early eighties I had been adding various albums to my collection that fall under the progressive umbrella. I simply wasn’t aware that the music was referred to as “progressive”.

Over the decades, I have generally been into either a band or a sub-genre. In 1986 I was into Nazareth. From 1989 to 1992 I was largely into various styles of Christian rock and metal. For many years, I followed the Canadian power pop rock band, Sloan and other Canadian artists. Then I was looking into Japanese bands. The I got back into Scorpions and after that once more into Deep Purple. The journey I have been making has always kept me exploring new avennues.

This year started out safely enough. I was determined to make 2017 the year I did not spend too much money on music. Early on I became interested in Dream Theater and bought five more albums, and decided to finish off my Opeth collection, purchasing four more albums. For the next eight weeks I placed no orders and only looked forward to a few new releases coming up in the early summer.

But with Opeth I realized that I was at last ready to delve into death metal. Back in the eighties I had loved thrash metal and was a fan of other extreme bands such as Bathory, Kreator, and Celtic Frost. By the time death metal truly became its own sub-genre of metal, however, I was moving away into sixties and seventies proto-metal and early hard rock. I didn’t appreciate the deathly gutteral growls and roars. Strangely enough, as heavy metal whethered the grunge scene and sprouted new branches like nu metal and groove metal, I was not particularly interested. Pantera, Disturbed, and whatever else my metal-loving friend was buying, did not grab me. I liked Marylin Manson a bit; Nine Inch Nails were interesting, but Rob Zombie, Fear Factory, Korn, and System of a Down just didn’t click. Slipknot? They were okay, I guess. As I had no connection with extreme metal bands anymore, I didn’t know what was happening. I just stopped buying Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer albums and enjoyed the classics from the eighties.

So, Opeth was a kind of gateway drug for me, but I had already been primed by Devin Townsend and Strapping Young Lad, and some other bands like Baroness, Mastodon and Suspyre, ready for more aggressive, more brutal, and more compelx music.

Since around May of this year then, I have been exploring the world’s of death metal, Norwegian black metal, death doom metal, a little industrial, thrash and post-metal, and some progressive bands tinkering with metalcore or djent. I check out playlists on YouTube such as “The Best 50 Old School Death Metal Albums (part 1)” or “Top 50 Greatest Thrash Metal Albums of All Time” or “Top 10 Norwegian Black Metal Albums“. The lists go on and on.

Another big help has been Banger TV’s program, “Lock Horns“, which has introduced me to key bands and albums in various branches on the heavy metal tree. Some bands and albums will be mentioned in my YouTube travels two, three or even more times, and it’s those that I often decide to check out, first listening on YouTube to see if I might like them, and then placing the choosen albums in my Amazon cart and putting them on standby. Naturally, not only has my cart reached nearly a hundred albums but I have already brought home about sixty this year. The good thing is that extreme metal albums are often quite a bit cheaper than prog albums, and my guess the reason is because death metal albums –  the older ones anyway – are usually about 35 minutes long as opposed to prog albums which easily go over 65 minutes, sometimes even being double albums.

Choosing albums is not always easy either. Essential albums like Morbid Angel’s Altars of Madness, Cynic’s Focus, or Darkthrone’s Under a Blazing Northern Sky are easy enough; however, when it comes to bands it’s a bigger challenge. Do I choose the essential album, the debut, a recent release, or listen to various samples and choose the one I think sounds best? For Immolation I chose the debut, Dawn of Possession because it came up two or three times on these compilation videos. But it was the most expensive album in their catalogue! For Obituary I chose the album that I thought sounded best and ended up with World Demise, not one of their higher rated albums and not an easy album to get a hold of either (I got a used copy of the CD in near-mint condition but the case and booklet look awful). For Nile I chose the more recent Those Whom the Gods Detest and was duely impressed; however my next purchase of Annihilation of the Wicked didn’t thrill me as much, possibly due to a muddier production. And then there was Vader’s Revelations, one of the cheaper albums but one that got me interested in the band. Two more albums were recently purchased but again, not the same thrill level.

The quest for albums that totally impress me continues.

Yes, I have had a lot I wanted to write about this year. I read the biography of Dream Theater and wanted to write a post. I had things to say about Opeth’s interesting career. More recently, I am interested in just how it was that so many subgenres of extreme metal developed in the eighties and early nineties and also how heavy metal continues to evolve and develop new sounds, playing and song writing styles, and new sub-genres.

But I am still on this new leg of my journey. I am still watching, listening, reading and learning. It is now October and I usually try to wrap up my purchasing for the year by this month. Orders in November can become delayed and arrive just before or during my winter holidays when I have no time to listen to music. I’m considering the last ten albums to order. Should I make it twelve albums? Can I go until January with 90 albums in my Amazon shopping cart and a few more in my Discogs cart without ordering anything? If I watch a video that introduces an important, essential album, can I summon the willpower to just leave it until next year? More importantly, can I afford to keep buying so many CDs?

Music is far too attractive to a mind like mine. But I am loving this part of my journey into extreme heavy metal.