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So. You wish to get into death metal, the harshest and sweatiest of extreme musical genres. The potential reasons for getting into death metal are numerous: could be an attempt to round out your musical knowledge because you?ve been taught to value that for some reason or maybe you started dating someone whose neck is thicker than their head and you wish to understand them on a deeper level, the reason doesn?t actually matter. On some level you?re curious about the genre that?s the musical equivalent of a Game of Thrones fight scene. I can dig it.
Your first major problem, not one endemic to the genre but one that plagues it in a key way ? there is a plethora of bands that all sound the same and are probably very terrible. Partially due to the ?undeviating? nature or lack of evolution within the genre, death metal has a very discernible sound that can quickly become hackneyed. There are tricks and tropes to any niche based musical style, with some artists using them better than others to great success while others are just off-putting to the detriment of the genre.
So. Here is your clear-eyed, straightforward and in no way subjective guide on how to get into death metal (by focusing on a handful of bands that are actually worth your time).
A lot of what wikipedia credits death metal being known for is mostly accurate but misses what makes the music truly unique. Sure, bands utilize fast playing speeds (so do thrash, grindcore etc), distorted and detuned instrumentation (as do stoner metal and doom etc.) and growling/screaming vocals (like black metal and generally all modern metal does in some vein) but there are a few qualities that make the music death metal truly idiosyncratic.
In terms of differentiating sounds, what sets death metal apart from other metal subgenres is its hostility ? death metal has no chill.
It?s an aggressive genre, both in its intent and delivery: eg, the ?death growl? style of vocals is more guttural, with the aim to sound like a demon puking; the heavy guitars are more sinister, sounding like the guitarist are stabbing and slashing at their instruments; the drumming reaches machine gun-like speeds while still sounding like coked-out rodents running over typewriters. The coolest/nicest way to describe the overall intended sound is ?soundtrack to a riot in Hell? while a more fun/honest description is ?dysenteric troglodytes who loudly fuck trashcans? ? this is supposed to be appealing; this is me selling you on it.
Lyrically, death metal songs are only about two things: a critical examination of religion (or the repurposing? of spirituality to suite one?s aesthetic) and death (however tangentially you need to stretch it). There have been death metal bands who?ve written songs about other topics but that should be counted against them. That shit ain?t pure ? songs gotta be in some way either about death or pontificating on mythic figures and tenents. The two topics can lend themselves to greater variations than just ?I hate God/religion? and ?let?s describe killing things in detail? when you?re forced to write multiple albums worth of material.
With that in mind, a few things to clear up before moving forward?
These bands are not death metal but they do benefit from being similar enough to death metal that they?re worth a shout out.
One of the original (if not the original) grindcore bands, but not a death metal band. They?re worth mentioning because they have flirted with a sound that easily crosses over, becoming more of the hybrid subgenre known as deathgrind with age. Overall, their discography is more solid than the majority of bands their age.
Pig Destroyer maybe one of the greatest bands to ever exist and they have the heaviness and intensity of the best acts to grace the genre, but they?re not death metal, they?re more the platonic ideal of a deathgrind band. To elucidate, Deathgrind is the beautiful bastard child of death metal and grindcore, where bands often just poach/cherry-pick the greatest qualities of both genres. Death metal likes to creep into other subgenres of metal a lot. Pig Destroyer are great and every album they?ve released is great, check them out.
Death metal has done a lot to influence other subgenres and metal as a whole, with some of the greatest acts today having some quality of death metal imbued in their style. Xibalba?s sound is both dope as hell and an excellent example of the crystallization of death metal tropes (ie. it?s easier to identify qualities of death metal from those outside the genre who?re influenced by it rather than those who strictly identify as a death metal band) . They?re more of a hardcore/ metalcore/ groove metal band with heavy doses of death metal influences.
People like to credit Death as the first death metal band in the same way people name Sex Pistols the first punk band (Possessed are the first death metal band, but they only made two albums and they?re very mediocre ? that?s literally all I have to say about them). Death?s early material (Scream Bloody Gore, Leprosy, Spiritual Healing) is fairly dope, but they can be more accurately described as a slightly heavier thrash band with some good gore-based lyrics.
So, getting all that out of the way?
The 7 (or 8) Death Metal Bands That Are Worth It
1. Cannibal Corpse
?The Standard? for death metal both in style of music and overall band attractiveness
Years Active: 1988 ? Present
Key Player(s): George ?Corpsegrinder? Fischer (current singer), Chris Barnes (original singer), Alex Webster (founding member, bassist, songwriter, all ?round swell dude) , Paul Mazurkiewicz (founding member, drummer), Jack Owens (founding member, guitarist until 2004)
Why Them: Ok, this is some basic bitch level shit right here but that?s what you have to start with sometimes. If you?re wanting to get further into death metal, Cannibal Corpse serve as a perfect barometer: basically, in order to be worth consideration, a band should be as good as or better than Cannibal Corpse.
With a heavy lyrical focus on gore and violence, Cannibal Corpse cemented death metal as the musical equivalent of a horror movie. In such an analogy, Cannibal Corpse would preferably see themselves as a Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Cannibal Holocaust of metal, with their disturbing lyrics and harsh guitar noises, but really they?re more of a The Evil Dead or Braindead/Dead Alive of metal ? they?re wackier than you expect as the extremities of their lyrics frequently result in gallows/black humour.
As a band, the group have a long history that displays both an evolution in sound and songwriting ability, but with a consistency that implies the group know what works for them. The group?s timeline can be neatly bisected into separate periods, The Chris Barnes Era (1988?1995) and The Reign of Corpsegrinder (1996-present), that?re worth exploring in order to discover the nuance in the genre?s development over time. This is also an interesting case of a band getting better after replacing their original singer. There is a lot to be said on Barnes v. Corpsegrinder: although Tomb of the Mutilated (the one with ?Hammer Smash Face? on it) was released with Barnes on vocals, the majority of the band?s best work has been done with Fischer as their singer and frontman. Reasons for this are various (lyrics penned by Barnes were a bit too misogynistic in nature, Fischer is actually fairly charismatic as a frontman, the band just got better in general etc.) and serve as a good reason to explore their discography. Also, bassist Alex Webster is genuinely an amazing musician and his bass doesn?t have distortion nor is it mixed away into the background ? Cannibal Corpse are, strangely enough, a great band to listen to if you?re a bassist.
Best Album: The Wretched Spawn (2004) with George ?Corpsegrinder? Fischer, Tomb of the Mutilated (1992) with Chris Barnes
[Brutal Death Metal]
?If you get your group shot taken on School Photo Day you don?t have to pay for it?
Years Active: 1988 ? Present
Key Player(s): Frank Mullen (singer), Terrance Hobbs (guitarist), Mike Smith (drummer)
Why Them: They?re the same every time, but it?s a great same to be. A band you can refer to as ?Old-School? and no one would look at you too weird. One of those seminal forces that help shaped the genre as a whole by actively changing the way people played and performed. They influenced the genre as a whole but they?re also better than a lot of the stuff they influenced. Most bands in the ?brutal death metal? vein just sound like overcompensating imitators. Like any true classic, they can?t be too harshly held for the faults of bands trying to be them. In brutal death metal, there seems to be a rule that your singer?s vocals sound like they recorded themselves burping in a bathroom? and Frank Mullen is partially to blame for that, but his extremely guttural growls are the closest to that shit burping while still being tolerable if not actually good, and that makes it awesome in its own way.
Best Album: Effigy of the Forgotten (1991)
[Blackened Death Metal]
This is the least dramatic photo of the group
Years Active: 1991 ? Present
Key Player(s): Nergal/ Adam Darski (guitarist, singer, head songwriter), Orion/ Tomasz Wroblewski (bassist), Inferno/ Zbigniew Robert Prominski (drummer)
Why Them: In compiling this list, I noticed that all of the bands can be broken into one of two types: bands whose output epitomize key aspects of the genre so well they?re essentially the definitive (see Suffocation above), or bands whose relative consistency as a group and evolution in sound/style/songwriting is something to behold. Although they?ve had other members in the past and they have a second guitarist a lot of the time who can be ignored, all best versions of Behemoth have lead guitarist/singer Nergal and drummer Inferno (oh, and Orion, I guess ? slam! Bassist Joke!). Thanks to Nergal?s dedication to growing as a songwriter, Behemoth continuously put out great albums that tend to be better than their predecessors. Their development and progression as songwriters is solid enough but they?ve always done a good job at making great songs.
They also dig deep into theatrics, having a pagan/black-metal aesthetic that?s just fun and gives them that perfect level of ?scary (kinda) satanism? that still looks cool.
Best Album: The Satanist (2014), Demigod (2004)
4. Morbid Angel/ Deicide
[The Satanic Oldies]
Out of anyone on this list, Morbid Angel are the most openly 80?s
Years Active: Both are original bands that started in the mid 80?s but you should only care about their output from 1989 to 1999.
Key Player(s): Morbid Angel ? Trey Azagthoth (guitarist, main guy), David Vincent (singer, bassist), Pete Sandoval (drummer)
Deicide ? Brian and Eric Hoffman (guitarists), Steve Asheim (drummer), Glen Benton (singer, bassist, songwriter, a dude who literally burned an inverted cross in his forehead)
Why Them: They?re the Originators, the best of the Tampa Death Metal scene. Both bands hail from Tampa, Florida, which is a key location in the history of the genre for no real satisfying reason other than ? just because?. You can dive into any album released by these two and find greatness? as long as you stay within 1988?1999. Anything beyond 2000 isn?t really worth it. This coincidentally happens to be the time when both bands became ?less satanic? and broadened their songwriting topics. Morbid Angel dropped references to the devil and started referencing Lovecraftian Old Ones and Glen Benton took a break from writing songs exclusively about hating God to writing songs sometimes about hating his ex-wife. I?m not saying that?s specifically why they stopped being worth it, but it?s just an interesting thing to note.
All in all, Morbid Angel would be the closest death metal gets to hair metal. They have some shredding solos that take over a few songs and the lineup frequently features good talent behind it yet they are usually focused on the product rather than over indulging in wank solos. Morbid Angel is tight.
Deicide band photo feat. pre-burned-inverted-cross-into-his-forehead Benton
Deicide are that satanic biker gang that your divorced dad joined. Deicide?s first three albums are amazing full album experiences, with great riffs, solid arrangements of songs and good sense of storytelling, I think you can see where I?m setting this up and yes I?ll say it, Deicide is the dad rock of death metal, accept it. Morbid Angel is the closest death metal got to Warrant and Deicide is the Steely Dan.
Best Album: Legion (1992) by Deicide, Altars of Madness (1989) by Morbid Angel
[Technical Death Metal/ Nerd Shit]
This is the most attractive photo of the group
Years Active: 1993 ? Present
Key Player(s): Karl Sanders (guitarist, singer, head songwriter), Dallas Toler-Wade (guitarist, singer)
Why Them: Technical death metal has a bad rep for being boring nerd shit. Niles is an ancient-Egyptian themed technical death metal band, which is the nerdiest fucking thing but goddamnit, Karl Sanders is committed ? this is the good nerd shit. Albums contain pages of liner notes directly talking about the historical context of the songs, a lot having to do with things Sanders read in a book and thought was gnarly. It?s fitting subject material for one?s death metal band to base your whole gimmick on an ancient civilization deeply obsessed with the afterlife. I would go to Coachella if Nile was on the bill, they would fit in well with the cultural-appropriation angle. But seriously, put them in Coachella, (no-joke) that would be dope.
On a songwriting level, Sanders is a great storyteller and not only are the songs structurally epic, they contain decent hooks. The way Sanders and co-guitarist Toler-Wade craft solos exhibit a dramatic tension that supports the flow of a song rather than overwhelming the song with an easy climax. Their best album is 2009?s Those Whom The Gods Detest as it is the best collection of what they do ? the songs are surprisingly catchy, the production is tight, the mixing is clear and it even has one of those classical orchestral/instrumental songs most death metal albums seem to have* but done with traditional middle-eastern instruments (what?d I tell you ? they?re nerdy as fuck).
As a group, Nile showcase some of the best technical playing within death metal at any point in the genre?s history. They show that much can be done with a style of music that is at times stubbornly against any real change or evolution. They?re tight and don?t need to change much style-wise to continue being awesome ? kind of like Slayer? only more so than every other band who are like Slayer in some way (which is a lot of them). Karl Sanders even looks like Jeff Hanneman, that?s a plus but not really.
Best Album: Those Whom The Gods Detest (2009)
*Death metal albums will randomly have instrumental songs that are just classical music. Sometimes it?s pre-existing orchestral pieces (usually made famous by movies) but you?d be shocked as to how often they are original pieces written by the band.
6. Hate Eternal
[Pure Death Metal]
Condemned buildings are a godsend for band promo photos
Years Active: 1997 ? Present
Key Player(s): Erik Rutan (guitarist, singer, head songwriter)
Why Them: In a talk at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, Australia, writer Roxanne Gay was asked a question comparing three ?lifestyle feminists? ? Beyonc, Kim Kardashian and Ivanka Trump ? to the effect of ?what?s the difference between them?? Gay?s response was ?Beyonc makes sure she won?t be the last Beyonc? implying Bey emboldens others influenced by her to aim as high as they can, to be as good good or even better than her. In that sense, Erik Rutan is the Beyonc of death metal.
Erik Rutan is a skilled guitarist, charismatic (enough for death metal) frontman and a top-tier songwriter but beyond that he does a lot of work bolstering and influencing others within the community. Not only the ?main dude? in Hate Eternal, Rutan has established himself within the greater metal community over the past two decades a killer producer, opening up his own studio (MANA Recording Studio) and producing over 20 metal albums (all great) and even dipping into non-metal production (he?s one of the producers on The Mountain Goats 2011 release, All Eternals Deck).
As a band, Hate Eternal (mostly just Erik Rutan) have consistently made the best ?pure? death metal music in the past fifteen years (sans prefix/ qualifiers). Some musical acts just demand outsider attention. It doesn?t matter what your preferred style of music is, nowadays you need to have a basic understanding of people like Kendrick Lemar, Frank Ocean, Rihanna, and Roy Orbinson if you claim to be a fan of music. Hate Eternal deserves this distinction too, as does every other band on this list, but Hate Eternal are easily the best pure death metal with no gimmick, no theme, and no dirty touch of another subgenre.
Best Album: I, Monarch (2005)
[Avant-garde Death Metal]
When every TA you had in university forms a metal band
Years Active: 1989 ? 2001, 2012 ? Present
Key Player(s): Luc Lemay (guitarist, singer, head songwriter)
Why Them: Luc Lemay?s Gorguts, the greatest band to come out of Montreal?s valiant attempt at a scene, are the closest death metal gets to art rock. Gorguts is the best side of technical death metal; all the mixing is earthy and clear, riffs have weight, their catalog displaying the best of complex and experimental songwriting while still retaining a keen sense of emotional payoff.
The band has gone through many line-up changes but frontman/ singer/ guitarist Luc Lemay is a great leader and songwriter and has been a consistent voice in the band throughout their development. Lemay?s vocals are also properly brutal, his growling style sounding more like unhinged screams of some beast in a pit, and he hasn?t soften with age. Their first two albums are as basic death metal as they ever were but showcase the best qualities of the genre at the time, with punkier breakdowns and faster speeds with thrash level tremolo-picking, but the seeds of technical innovation are there. Their third and fourth albums, Obscura and From Wisdom To Hate, showcased a greater leap in an avant-garde style and experimental songwriting, not relying on speed through tremolo-picking, and ended up creating the closest thing death metal has to a Radiohead or Pink Floyd or whatever popular yet semi-experimental pop band you like.
The group took a break in the new millennium until Lemay corralled a bunch of musicians from prog metal acts together and reformed in 2012. The group?s return album and subsequent activity prove that they are still worth attention. Their 2016 release, Pleiades Dust EP, a single 33 minute song about the history of the The House of Wisdom, the largest library in Baghdad from the 9th to 13th century (when it was destroyed). The song is about the death of knowledge, specifically the concept of human knowledge is personified as a wandering human and focuses on their march to death after centuries of travelling ? that totally metal.
Best Album: Colored Sands (2013), From Wisdom To Hate (2001)
EXTRA: Solid Single Albums to Fuck With
Here?s some Extra Content: some bands are only good for one album but continue on like they?re trying to prove a point. Here are some one album wonders that are worth canonization beyond just the world of metal.
Cabinet by Spawn of Possession / Antithesis by Origin
Spawn of Possession and Origin are some more of the ?good? kind of technical death metal. They?re produced well and the mixing doesn?t hurt the songwriting in anyway. More specifically, these are tech death albums where the songs have hooks! Plus they?re not trying to sound jazzy, which is a huge positive for them. The songwriting is catchy and features personality and some forms of emotional depth. Cabinet is SOP?s first album and overall tightest, while Antithesis remains Origin?s best album after ten years. Others bands to check out are Australia?s Portal and New Zealand?s Ulcerate, both are really good dark and extreme metal acts that have roots firmly in technical death metal (ie. they sound like Gorguts).
Left Hand Path by Entombed
Entombed were the most well respected non American/British death metal act of the 90?s. They released three albums within that time, this is the good one. A lot of people talk about Entombed as though they set the foundation for ?the Swedish sound? within death metal, but I call folly on that line of thinking ? Entombed?s sound, featuring robust and fuzzier guitar distortion and more mid-tempo rhythms, can be heard as a true influence in the likes of certain Nordic grindcore bands such as Nasum and Rotten Sound. However, Sweden?s actual death metal scene was more influenced by At The Gates, who for better or worse ushered in the Gothenburg sound, commonly known as melodic death metal (think of it as the k-pop of death metal).
Slaughter The Soul by At The Gates
Sweden?s two greatest cultural exports are Ingmar Bergman films and an a seemingly continuous supply of Skarsgrds. Another thing Sweden makes is melodic death metal, which is a style of music that tries to pass off rejected material from Metallica?s Black Album as death metal. It?s the ?soft? stuff. It?s a subgenre you would only listen to if you?re an awkward high school metalhead with ill-fated hopes of getting laid and zero understanding of how humans work. As far as melodic death metal is concerned, At The Gates was the good one and Slaughter of The Soul was their best album. Trivia Point ? most versions of the album have the best cover of a Slayer song ever recorded.
My Arms, Your Hearse by Opeth
Once a ?mostly? death metal band that evolved out of the genre by becoming a prog metal band with heavy folk influences, Opeth get honorable mention because they are worth looking into beyond one album, but they do have one album that is very very good and you can just listen to it if you?re pressed for time. My Arms, Your Hearse is their best album that swims closest to death metal while also being the closest thing to goth I was ever into aside from that one long weekend when I was 15 where I liked AFI. They?re also the only band of any classification to ever blend folk and prog together without it sounding like a rejected theme for your weird aunt?s Ren Fair. Singer Mikael kerfeldt fronted a pure death metal band for a while called Bloodbath that are great but you don?t have to listen to them right away.
Dechristianize by Vital Remains
Vital Remains are a band that frequently features a lot of great talent (or just one really talented guy doing everything), but the only album that is worth your time is their best, Dechristianize, a solid hour of (strangely enough) some of the most beautiful death metal all in the name of hating Christianity. Also, Glen Benton of Deicide (dude who burned an inverted cross into his own head) came on as the group?s singer for this album and it?s some of his best vocal work ? dude truly sounds like a Jesus-hating Demon.
Well, alright then, that should be a good start to either get you interested in death metal or effectively turn you off forever. Regardless, You?re Welcome.