Metal History – Death Metal – Part 1 of 4

February 10, 2015 — Leave a comment

Death metal is for many people the definition of what “heavy metal” is.

Remember Cannibal Corpse’s appearance in the last section on extreme metal? Although the mighty Corpse is one of death metal’s definitive groups, the death metal genre is incredibly diverse, and not all bands will sound like Cannibal Corpse. In general, death metal can be said to contain extremely fast riffing and drumming (called “blast beats”), as well as rough vocals. There are two styles of rough vocals: “Cookie Monster” and “Sandpaper.” The first is guttural, the latter is higher-pitched.

Broadly, death metal can be divided into 3 main subgenres: brutal death metal, technical death metal, and melodic death metal.

Brutal death metal is the kind people tend to be most familiar with–cookie monster vocals, blast beats, and explicit lyrics. It can be considered the next step in heaviness after you’ve been listening to a heavy thrash metal group like Kreator for a while. It’s the kind made most famous by Cannibal Corpse, the world’s top-selling death metal act. Although they weren’t responsible for necessarily inventing it, the Buffalo, NY group featured incredibly graphic cover art (which has been banned in several countries), and gory, violent lyrics taken to an almost-comical level of sickness.

The band’s approach is now considered by some to be stereotypical, but Cannibal Corpse has managed to attain commercial success despite the extreme approach. When you’re able to do that to a genre like death metal of all things, that’s a commendable achievement, and a big reason why they’ve been able to have such a solid metal career. Their early hits like “Hammer Smashed Face” established the trademark Cannibal sound, while later albums took on more of a groove, like the pleasantly titled “Make Them Suffer.”

“When we were starting out, the bands we liked –Death, Slayer, Possessed, Kreator, Sodom…they all had horror-related subjects in their songs, and it made sense for us to do that too; it’s the kind of thing you’d find in a horror film,” says bassist Alex Webster.

“When you go to the Vatican museum and you some of the art there–now THAT’s brutal stuff,” adds vocalist George Fisher in the documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. “Our album covers are SUPPOSED to gross you out. If it doesn’t, we’re not doing our job or there’s something wrong with you!”

The central location for early death metal in the USA was Tampa Bay, Florida. For some reason, most of death metal’s major players either came from there or relocated there beginning in the late 1980s. Maybe it was the heat? Or the presence of producer Scott Burns at Morrisound Studios there, whose services became so sought after that even Cannibal Corpse relocated there from Buffalo to work with him. It was considered THE place to be for the death metal production you wanted.

As Webster mentioned, the true creators of death metal were Possessed and Death. Acknowledged for the classic Seven Churches, Possessed unfortunately was only sporadically active in the late-80’s to early-90’s. In 1991, the latter rewrote the entire rulebook (again) with an album entitled Human. Death’s best-selling record at that point, it proved hugely informative for both brutal and technical death metal, offering unparalleled heaviness and speed with a flair for musical theory.

Another Tampa Bay group that helped make death metal what it is was Morbid Angel.

“Like Slayer times ten,” fans praised at the time, and they were right. Led by the sinister growl of Dave Vincent and the chaotic guitar-playing of Trey Azagthoth, Morbid Angel is responsible for numerous death metal classics. Their Altars of Madness album took the underground by storm in 1989, and introduced the band’s practice of starting each of its album titles with a consecutive letter of the alphabet (starting with A for “Altars of Madness,” they’re currently up to “I”).

Morbid Angel’s early shows by all accounts were simply insane, and as the crowds kept coming back, their popularity grew to the point where they were responsible for the best-selling death metal album of all time (1993’s “Covenant).

If Cannibal Corpse is considered the gore-obsessed band that wanted to gross its fans out, and Morbid Angel loved the Lovecraftian evil atmosphere, then Deicide was the band that got the most overtly Satanic in the early days. Frontman Glen Benton’s wild lifestyle drew plenty of fans; his exploits included branding an upside-down cross into his forehead, getting into live arguments with radio evangelists, and storming into a record executive’s office to demand a contract (eloquently saying, “Sign us, you f*cking asshole!”). His behavior pissed off plenty of people in general, and not just evangelical Christians. However, Benton’s antics shouldn’t detract from his band’s excellent music.

But like his cohorts in other bands, Glen still enjoys a great horror movie, and one of Deicide’s biggest “hits” is about the Evil Dead…

Not far away from Deicide were two other well-regarded bands of the brutal death metal genre: Obituary and Autopsy. Taking subject matter that made sense from the bands’ respective names, Obituary focused on death and graveyards, while Autopsy loved to write about the most gruesome medical procedures they could find. Both were mainstays of early death metal, are damned solid and consistent, and continue to record and tour into 21st century.

Autopsy wasn’t strictly a Florida outfit, but drummer Chris Reifert enjoyed the company of Chuck Schuldiner by drumming on Death’s legendary debut album, Scream Bloody Gore (which we talked about in the intro to extreme metal). And here’s something that I always found funny about Obituary and its vocalist, John Tardy. If you look at comments for their song “I Don’t Care,” there are basically two categories of comments:

1. “ICKY-POO! What the hell is this? How on earth is he singing like that? Are you kidding me? How do people enjoy this? This is so disgusting,” etc.

2. “FUCK YEAH MAN!!! JOHN TARDY ROCKS ASS AT VOCALS!!! THE GUY COULD READ A FUCKING PHONE BOOK AND MAKE IT SOUND MENACING!!!”

Choose your camp wisely. Or not. You could just listen.

By the early 1990s, the death metal movement was in full bloom in Tampa Bay, but this group of acts was only half the story. Technical death metal was also on the rise, focusing on different musical aspects than the brutal bands. It was a vibrant, hyper-creative scene, all presided over by Chuck Schuldiner and his band, Death, which was beginning its ascent to become one of the greatest all-time metal bands.

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