Beginning in the mid-1980s (when many of the bands formed) and through the early 1990s, the death metal scene in the USA was booming in Tampa Bay, Florida. Extreme metal heavyweights like Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse, and Deicide were spreading their wings with a new sound that was even heavier than the heaviest thrash metal. These bands all played a key role in helping this new sound step out of the shadow of thrash metal (which dominated the underground at the time) to become its own subgenre. A flourishing trade in fanzines, tapes and demos generated far-reaching buzz, and the omnipresent scent of cannabis hung in the hazy heat.
During this time, a band called Death was right in the thick of it; some even credit them with giving the genre its name. So-called “death metal” was born.
But there was more going on within death metal than this newfound brutality or an obsession with who could play faster, or be more evil. Another sound called “technical death metal” was emerging too. Keeping traditional death metal elements like blast beats and harsh vocals, technical death metal has its name because it combines frequent changes of riffs, time signature and mood within the same song (a feature more commonly seen in progressive music). Off-beat rhythms, non-traditional song structures, a high degree of complexity and theory are the order of the day. It’s a kind of music that really rewards repeated close listening and can take a while to internalize, but is very rewarding when you do.
A good example is “Trapped In A Corner” by Death, which featured one of Chuck Schuldiner’s catchier arrangements:
Another way to view it is to imagine technical death metal as a fusion between death metal and some other seemingly unrelated genre, like jazz improv. For that strange combo, I introduce you to Atheist and their sometime-rivals from the Tampa Bay area, Cynic. Both brought a fascinating new brand of “jazz metal” into the world, fueled by their love of both genres. But they were only sometime rivals–they jammed together and attended one another’s gigs, and when Atheist was in need of a new bassist due to their original one (Roger Patterson) dying in a car crash, Cynic bassist Tony Choy stepped in for his friend.
Death metallers almost universally regard Atheist and Cynic highly–the former with its shrieking vocals, the latter with its robotic vocoders. They are also similar for having a brief recording and touring time in the early 90s before taking very extended breaks; only recently have they re-emerged to the joy of technical death metal fans everywhere. Cynic got some attention recently in 2014, but sadly not for their amazing music: its two core songwriters, Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert, came out of the closet and promptly landed a front-page, above-the-fold story in the LA Times. Sadly, this is what it takes these days for death metal to be paid any serious attention by a mainstream publication, but privileged death metal fans have known about their top-notch quality musicianship for years.
Although I’ve given a very Tampa Bay-centric depiction of death metal to this point, the truth is that there are at least two other centers of the death metal scene, especially for technical death metal: New York and Montreal. Let’s leave the blistering sun of Tampa Bay for a bit, and shift to Long Island, New York to meet one of the world’s most important death metal bands–Suffocation. Led by wiry bassist Derek Bowyer and vocalist Frank Mullen (both widely acknowledged as two of the best at their craft in all of death metal), Suffocation fused its death metal with another extreme subgenre, grindcore. The result is as crushing and infectious as one might expect. They are true forefathers of the movement, with at least a pair of certified classic albums: “Effigy of the Forgotten” and “Pierced From Within.” These were both released around the same time as the Tampa Bay scene was peaking (1991 and 1995, respectively).
Along with fellow New Yorkers Immolation and Incantation, they defined the New York death metal movement, with Frank Mullen’s phenomenal growl and “hand chop” motion flailing.
Even farther north in Montreal, Cryptopsy came to the party a bit later (1996 when None So Vile came out), but they were so good, the fans didn’t care. Recruiting a vocalist who called himself Lord Wurm (I’m not making this up), Cryptopsy’s music was devastatingly fast, complex…and believe it or not, in its own way, was pretty catchy.
Quebecois Canada may not seem like a likely place for technical death metal to develop, but Cryptopsy and fellow techies Gorguts singlehandedly put Montreal on the map for it. Big props to Gorguts for their most recent, Colored Sands.
Technical death metal continues to draw fans today, and new bands crop up at a dizzying rate. South Carolina band Nile found its niche by focusing on ancient Egyptian mythology beginning in the mid-90s and continuing into the 2000s; Origin came bursting out of Kansas of all places; Dying Fetus hailed from Maryland and continue to provoke just from its band name alone.
“I’m watching Origin’s drum check before the show…he can’t be human,” a metal friend texted me once. This was encouragement enough to get me out to see bands like Suffocation, at least partially for the curiosity of seeing if they could reproduce this artful cacophony live onstage. Naturally, they could and did….with conviction.
Witness the new sound of technical death metal for yourself; they pummel and amaze audiences all over the world, forming some of the most exciting new metal music in recent memory. It’s challenging and complex music that can be difficult to like upon your first listen (unless you’re special), and for that reason some will write it off. “If your fans can’t really play your music in their bedrooms, shouldn’t that be enough?” someone wrote in “The Merciless Book of Metal Lists.”
You make the call, dear listener. Let me leave you with a few more prime cuts before we move onto part 3 (melodeath).
Written by Matt P