Previously in this series on death metal, we discussed the early days of the genre and the different scenes and sounds that developed in cities like Tampa, Montreal, and New York. There was already an astounding variety at work, from the brutal and basic acts like Morbid Angel and Deicide to the serious technicality and musical theory of Atheist and Death. But as the 90s blazed onward, death metal would begin to splinter into an even greater variety of subgenres. It was obvious that there was more to this music than just an uninhibited focus on speed, aggression, and gore, but mainstream commercial success continued to elude it nonetheless.
One country where another kind of death metal sound became a strong presence was Sweden, where American death metal wasn’t always welcomed with open arms (in fact, a group of animal rights activists went as far as attempting to blow up a Deicide show). Many Swedish groups pulled back the reins a bit on the guttural vocals and all-out speed, opting for a stronger focus on higher-pitched sandpaper vocals and more melodic, memorable riffs in the style of Iron Maiden or the Teutonic thrash bands like Kreator. It was still plenty brutal though, and formed another good point of entry into extreme music for fans of more traditional heavy metal. Fans in Europe especially dug it.
It was famously dubbed “melodic death metal” or “melodeath” for short.
Another term used for it is the “Gothenberg sound” after the Swedish city where it became a scene unto itself (interestingly enough, also home to the mainstream pop sensations Ace of Base…must have been interesting going to each other’s gigs). Though this city became legendary for the style, melodeath’s roots lie across the North Sea, with a British band, Carcass.
If Death, Morbid Angel, and Cannibal Corpse are considered the top 3 death metal acts of all time, Carcass is assuredly the fourth (they’ve been kicking around since the mid-80s). Although they are also cited as a key pioneer of a subgenre called grindcore, Carcass are also responsible for key early melodeath work. Birthing just one subgenre of metal is a terrific accomplishment; creating two is legendary. For melodeath, Carcass’ 1993 effort, Heartwork, is a key recording. Lead guitarist Michael Amott contributed searing solos amid a surprisingly well-produced, polished sound for the effort. Plus they used a sculpture by famous artist H.R. Giger for their album cover, which is always awesome.
Notice in the below song that although the growling and fury is still present, the guitar parts wouldn’t sound out of place on an earlier effort by a more traditional metal band. Dare we call it catchy? Perish the thought!
So Carcass helped start melodeath. But the new style received an even bigger boost from a trio of iconic bands in the Gothenberg, Sweden area. They’re still the best-known bands in the genre.
At the Gates was originally the most short-lived of the bands, but are legends nonetheless. After paying their dues for a few years and establishing strong credibility for their challenging, abstract lyrical matter, they peaked. 1995 saw a mammoth release by At the Gates, Slaughter of the Soul. Many of melodeath’s most iconic features were on full display there: fuzzy, distorted production; unconventional riffage, gentle acoustic interludes. The album is now considered a classic and was especially influential in the New Wave of American Metal movement (more on them later).
A dramatic increase in publicity and touring followed for At the Gates, but the band split in 1996 amid all the pressure and infighting. As vocalist Tomas Lindberg said in the inevitable special edition re-release, “the legacy of Slaughter of the Soul will remain intact.” And for a while (19 years, to put an exact number on it), that proved very true. Fans were sad to see them go, but largely respected the concept of exiting on a true high note.
But then, they got together for an appearance at Wacken and several other festivals in 2008. But the band insisted that it would be “pointless” to record a new album more than ten years after Slaughter of the Soul, as it would just “disappoint people.”
Then they played more shows a couple years later. And then, the language changed again: “I won’t say NEVER to recording under the At the Gates name again.”
And then it happened. They’re back. Final tour, my ass.
In Flames was also quite successful at the melodeath game in those days, their early work providing some of the subgenre’s finest moments. They infused folk and gypsy-inspired melodies into their music to keep it interesting, and they remain one of the most-loved melodeath bands worldwide. As the accolades mounted and the group continued into the 2000s, the ever-shifting lineup was responsible for taking their brand of metal and thrusting it into the mainstream with the 2006 hit, “Take This Life.”
Although fans of In Flames’ early songs like “Moonshield” bemoan their move away from the traditional Gothenberg sound, their continued commercial success (over 3 million sold worldwide) has invited new fans to discover them. At the same time, some view melodeath’s new millennium efforts to represent a serious dip in quality. Regardless, it says something about In Flames that they are now successful enough to have alienated early fans!
Whether the old or new In Flames is better, I’ll leave it to you to make the call below.
The most stable and long-lived group of the original Gothenberg scene is Dark Tranquillity.
At the Gates took a very long hiatus, and In Flames alienated some of its fanbase, but Dark Tranquillity never really wavered, a fact their many fans admire and celebrate. The band contributed to a banner year 1995 with a strong album called The Gallery, but their popularity grew consistently with each unique release, and in 2007 they helped jolt the melodeath genre back to life with the hugely acclaimed song, “Terminus (Where Death Is Most Alive).” The song touched so many metal fans that someone created a music video for it using Lego toys, sent it to them, and impressed the band so much that Dark Tranquillity made it the official video for the song.
They are one of the few acts not considered to have “gotten worse” as time went on–and keeping four of the same consistent members since the 1990s probably has a lot to do with that.
Here they are live in Milan, performing their first hit, “Punish My Heaven.”
Much like the Big Four and the Tampa death metal scene, the Gothenberg bands broadly represent the same genre, but each gave their own take on the struggles and frustrations that fueled the music. From this original locale, melodeath spread throughout Scandinavia. It was a band from Finland that threw the transmission into overdrive, taking melodeath to its most popular and dynamic heights yet. Led by the fleet-fingered Alexi Laiho, Children of Bodom enthralled concertgoers with aggressive riffing, soloing, and shrieking with a vital twist: uplifting, swirling keyboards. Evoking those early guitar/keyboard call-and-response battles from bands like Deep Purple, Children of Bodom struck an especially powerful note with guitar geeks.
Despite injuries to his wrist (falling off his bunk while Bodom’s tour bus took a sharp turn) and several bouts with stomach infections that have forced him to take long leaves of absence, Laiho has a gift for the guitar.
Children of Bodom is a polarizing band in the metal community for some odd reason; people either love or hate them. I had a friend who refused to listen to them not because of any musical deficiency, but because she can’t stand the fangirls who have Alexi Laiho’s picture on their wall. “He’s an extremely talented guitarist,” I would argue. “Too bad he plays in a sh*t band,” she would shoot back.Oh well, everybody can’t love every band, right?
Whether Bodom continues to thrive or not, they deserve credit for helping to keep alive a part of metal that many thought was no more as the music moved into the new millennium: the beauty of the shred.
Another of their fellow Finnish bands is Insomnium, is generally considered one of the strongest and most successful melodeath groups operating today. Although they don’t usually compete directly with Bodom in the speed and technicality aspect of the music, Insomnium’s gothic/doom tendencies and top-notch modern studio production have allowed them to carve out their own strong fanbase, with an appreciation for longer, more richly-textured songs and lyrical sensibility.
These days, Michael Amott devotes his time his own successful band, Arch Enemy (although he briefly rejoined Carcass for a few of their reunion shows). Although the band started off on a strong note with capable vocalist Johan Liva, they caused a stir in the metal underground when he was replaced with Angela Gossow, who took over the guttural death metal vocals with conviction. She has inspired many who may not have even imagined that a female could handle such duties. With Amott’s wild guitar wail still present, Arch Enemy has catapulted itself into extreme metal’s big leagues. Gossow has since been replaced by another female lead singer, Alissa White-Gluz.
“I have women and girls who write to me all the time, telling me how much they were inspired by seeing me live, and they say ‘It made me want to start a band and try that myself,'” says Gossow in Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey.
The final newer melodeath act I’ll talk about is Wintersun, another Finnish group. Although they take their time in between records (eight years from 2004-2012!), the band is praised for the quality of its songwriting and for expanding upon the sound of Ensiferum (another band that guitarist Jari Maenpaa was part of). Though technically a side project of that band, in some quarters Wintersun is even more admired than Ensiferum, which has more of a Viking/folk metal approach that straight-up melodeath. And yes, for you Latin scholars out there: “Ensiferum” means “Swordbearer.” Hear for yourself:
It’s uncertain what direction melodeath will go in the future (though some would argue Insomnium is doing just that). Most of the original groups are still around in some capacity, and the famous Gothenberg sound refuses to die. It has helped spawn its own overlaps and offshoots, like Viking metal and folk metal, and remains an integral and appealing part of the worldwide metal landscape. Coming up in the final part of this history of death metal, I’ll wrap up some of the more difficult-to-categorize groups and spend some time outside the US and Scandinavia to see how death metal is doing elsewhere in the world. Stay with me!
Written by Matt P