If you’ve been reading the Metal History all in order from the beginning thus far (good for you!), know that this is the time where we’ve reached a key crossing point. All the genres covered up to now are pretty accessible musically; even for the newest headbanger there’s a very good chance that they’ve been heard of before somewhere. Early metal like Black Sabbath has a lot of overlap with perennially-popular classic rock; British metal bands like Iron Maiden have sold enough records and iconic imagery to merit some recognition, and thrash continues to be a worldwide juggernaut (some of the most popular music in the world, and what many folks think of first when they hear the word “metal”).
The majority of fans will stop exploring any further once they get familiar with thrash, and this is unfortunate. They’re either satisfied with where they are or feel intimidated by going any further. To be fair, it’s a dramatic leap from listening to thrash to listening to death metal, which is the most logical next step for those who want to continue. For those who make the jump, they’ll find dramatically smaller, generally more elitist crowds. There aren’t as many instantly-recognizable “hits” in extreme metal (there are some of those, but in general it’s more focused on full, classic albums rather than catchy individual songs).
It can be a tough leap to make, and forcing it isn’t recommended. But for those who do with an open mind, extreme metal offers a more complete perspective on the world of heavy metal, as well as some truly excellent music.
By “extreme metal” we’re generally talking about three subgenres: death metal, black metal, and doom metal. There are also even smaller niches like grindcore and folk metal. There’s also progressive and power metal that have their own set of tropes and are more accessible than the others upon first listen.
When extreme metal was developing, most people’s first exposure to it was when death metal act Cannibal Corpse made an appearance in the Jim Carey movie “Ace Ventura” (supposedly at his personal request).
That happened in the early 1990s, which are considered a very fruitful time for death metal. But as we’ve seen in so many other cases, extreme metal is older than you think.
Back when we looked at Teutonic thrash, we saw bands like Kreator and Celtic Frost that turned up the heaviness even more than most of their counterparts. The lyrics were more evil, the growls were meaner, and the production was more raw. For these reasons, Celtic Frost especially had a huge influence on extreme metal of all kinds. Even today, the Swiss band commands a broad-based level of respect across extreme metal, a rare feat.
For death metallers, the official birth of their subgenre of choice is either “Seven Churches” by Possessed or “Scream Bloody Gore” by Death. Possessed came out first, in 1985 and has a legitimate claim to being the first death metal record of any kind. Some would argue that although Possessed got there first, Death and its visionary frontman, Chuck Schuldiner, were able to expand on the raw template first offered by Possessed to establish a more complete document. You make the call, but one thing is certain: without either of those two albums, it’s very likely that death metal would not exist.
Over in Europe, a push towards more explicit Satanic/occult imagery and lyrics was also happening. Although musically closer to Motorhead and thrash, Venom scared the daylights out of record buyers with the cover of its debut, “Black Metal.” Although it may seem relatively tame today, for the time having pentagrams and goat heads on the cover was unthinkable–it really was frightening. Frontman Kronos famously described his band’s philosophy as, “The song ‘Black Sabbath’ was amazing, but then they had to go and ruin it by yelling, ‘Please God help me!’”
A group from Denmark also emerged with a sound that wasn’t quite the same as the British bands, but wasn’t quite thrash either–meaning they were incredibly difficult to categorize. Perhaps because of that, they had far-flung influence as well. That band was Mercyful Fate.
Picking up where Alice Cooper left off, iconic frontman King Diamond smeared on his corpse paint and took to the stage with a shrieking falsetto about his soul belonging to Satan. People were so freaked out that for a while it became common knowledge that he lived in a castle lit only by candles, his Satanism causing him to shun electricity. It may not have actually been true in real life, but Diamond certainly sounded as if that was the case:
For all intents and purposes, more extreme forms of heavy metal were taking shape. Dear readers, I encourage you to pause for breath after this first half of metal history and take the plunge into the rest!
Written by Matt P