Thus far in this series about the history and development of death metal, we’ve focused on three cities where the extreme music scene was quite strong: the Tampa Bay area, New York, and Montreal. Although these cities are bastions of death metal music, with the advent of the Internet and increased globalization, it became easier and easier for bands outside these main clusters to connect with each other….and to be discovered by new fans. We no longer have to turn to tape trading or the like to discover fascinating new acts, as metal has become a truly international (if still underground) sensation.
This final part of my history of death metal is about death metal elsewhere, outside the main hubs of extreme music and the bands carrying it to the far corners of this world…
The social forces, problems, and environments that had originally inspired Black Sabbath in the very earliest days of metal were still alive and well in the British Isles in the 1980s, only this time Margaret Thatcher was in charge and punk rock was pretty much over. Loss of industry, social decay, and general malaise were affecting many, and some of the nation’s youth discovered fulfillment by forming extreme metal bands. Musicians joined and quit one another’s bands left and right, leading to a unique sense of camaraderie and competition that can only come from creating a new form of sound, together as a wave.
Carcass was one of them (and we covered them in part 3 of this series). Similar to the story of their companions in At The Gates, Carcass split at the height of their popularity in the mid-1990s and took a long hiatus before unexpectedly reuniting only a few years ago. But back in the day (mid-to-late 1980s), the bandmates in Carcass were also very close with members of another band, Napalm Death. You see, both of these bands helped start a subgenre known as grindcore (but that’ll be its own section). But briefly: grindcore is very similar to death metal, but condenses even more extreme sounds into even shorter songs (less than one minute sometimes). It’s about as concentrated a blast of speed, heaviness and aggression as you can possibly get.
Each band had its lyrical topic of choice: Carcass took on the themes of the most gruesome medical procedures they could find (it helped that they knew a surgeon or two), and Napalm Death with its themes of social justice and environmentalism. Both bands eventually moved on from grindcore–Carcass into melodeath, and Napalm Death into more traditional, straight-up death metal by the mid 1990s.
If war themes were more your cup of tea than social justice or medical procedures, your death metal band of choice was Bolt Thrower (named after a weapon in the Warhammer series). As so many other groups did around the same time, Bolt Thrower gained a strong following in 1989-1991 with the release of the albums called Realm of Chaos and War Master. They eventually signed to iconic death metal label Earache Records (along with Carcass, Morbid Angel, et al) and enjoyed support from BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel. They were successful enough that Warhammer’s offical artists were hired to do their album artwork.
Today all three of these bands are still active, with Napalm Death cementing itself as one of metal’s hardest-working and consistent groups, Carcass reuniting after a long hiatus to headline 2013’s Maryland Death Fest (and more!), and Bolt Thrower continuing to drive forth its themes of war and its consequences (though it’s been a while since they released an original studio effort).
And to finish this section, here’s Jim Carey talking about Napalm Death. Just because.
And if you stopped during that video and said, “Wait! Napalm Death isn’t thrash!” then congratulations. You’re learning!
It’s hard to imagine what the Dutch extreme metal scene would look like without Martin van Drunnen. He’s one of those guys who has fingers in many different bands and has made a career out of many collaborations and projects. Van Drunnen’s hoarse, throaty, mid-pitched growl is one of the most distinctive in death metal, and its presence is unmistakable in Pestilence, one of the first (and many would argue the greatest) of the Netherlands’ death metal groups. They were right there in the thick of it in the late 80s as the US scene was booming. Pestilence’s efforts inspired not only American seekers of extreme music, but also the continental European scene as well.
But having such death metal classics as Malleus Maleficarum and Consuming Impulse wasn’t enough for the restless van Drunnen. He then joined Asphyx, a more traditional death metal outfit that employed doom metal influences than the jazz-fusion, progressive elements that Pestilence had already worked so hard to create. And when Asphyx eventually called it a day, van Drunnen formed a “death metal supergroup,” of which he became vocalist and historian: Hail of Bullets. Martin now pens World War Two-themed cuts for this band, his dominant project these days, and can be considered something of an elder statesman of death metal, doing both his music and the Netherlands proud.
Across the border in Germany, a country much more closely identified with power metal, a band called Morgoth also took a similar path, proving Martin van Drunnen and Pestilence weren’t the only band in the region who could hack it with the emerging death-doom greats.
Bonded by a mutual appreciation for native metallers Sepultura, the members of Krisiun followed in their footsteps to play extreme technical death metal, complete with blast beats and guttural growls. After relocating to Sao Paulo in the mid-1990s, Krisiun encountered and embraced the same struggles and themes as Max Cavalera and his bandmates. Thanks to the attention Sepultura helped bring to the metal scene in Brazil, a strong metal subculture has developed across all across the different subgenres.
Imagine their pride when Krisiun finally toured with their heroes in Sepultura only a few years later. “It’s been a great experience; we love being here,” Alex Camargo states.
SWEDEN AND DENMARK
If you read the previous part of this series focusing on the Gothenberg sound, you might be tempted to think that Sweden’s contributions to extreme music are limited to the melodeath bands of that city. Not the case. One of the most acclaimed and still-successful of the Swedish bands of the early 90s is Entombed. Their back-to-back classics Left Hand Path and Clandestine are mandatory listening for extreme metal fans, and they then carried on this death metal aesthetic by pouring it into a traditional hard rock format. This created the signature Entombed sound, which was called (somewhat cheekily) “death n’ roll.” Legal disputes between the members hampered their recent studio efforts, but many fans seem to appreciate the music more than Entombed/Entombed A.D’s infighting.
Grave played more traditional, brutal-style death metal and was able to start building its audience outside Europe, eventually by touring with Morbid Angel. They are true veterans of the death metal scene (formed in 1986) and and remain highly respected, having just recently released their 10th record.
Across the strait in Denmark, brutal death metal group Iniquity formed a few years later in 1989. Although they only released 3 albums before splitting in 2001, they maintain a strong cult following and showed that Norway and Sweden didn’t have a lockdown on death metal in Scandinavia. As one fan puts it, “There’s death metal…and then there’s Iniquity.”
Surprisingly enough, Poland has one of the most vibrant and respected death metal scenes in the world. A deeply Catholic country that is also the birthplace of Pope John Paul II, Poland may seem an odd place for such a strong scene. But then again, perhaps Catholicism’s strong presence coupled with the repression of living under Communism for so many years just created great conditions for the music to develop.
The first extreme metal band to emerge from behind the Iron Curtain, Vader breathes rarefied air in the world of death metal. Forming in 1983 makes them practically grandfathers of the genre. They single-handedly helped put Poland on the map for even more metal success. Enormous fans of Slayer and Venom (they continue to cover both bands’ songs in their live set to this day), Vader held crossover appeal with fans of thrash. Indeed, the entire continental European metal scene owes a debt to them for opening up Eastern Europe.
A friend once described them as, “Vader is like the grandpa sitting in his rocking chair at a party, smoking a cigar. You’re afraid to even try to relate to him, because he’s just so cool….actually, no. A pipe. Vader would be smoking a pipe.”
If there was no Vader (who remain active today and just recently concluded a tour with Gorgoroth), it is likely there would have been no Decapitated or Behemoth, the two foremost Polish death metal acts working today.
Behemoth are now known today as the embodiment of “blackened death metal,” which has a traditional death metal musical base but focuses on the dark and Satanic themes that are more prevalent in black metal (which they played originally). Over time, gradually the death metal influences overtook the black metal influences, and in 2009 the band and its indomitable frontman, Nergal, became metal superstars with their Evangelion album. They topped pretty much every awards list the metal world had a category for, and only Nergal’s diagnosis with cancer (leukemia) the following year kept them from enjoying even greater success (at least immediately afterwards).
Fans poured out their support and love for the stricken metaller from all over the world, and although he vacillated in and out of intensive care for a nail-biting three years, as of this time Behemoth has returned with The Satanist, their first full-length in five years. They toured with Cannibal Corpse in 2015, and Nergal looks to make a full recovery while donating many proceeds to leukemia research. At a recent show on that tour, Nergal mounted one of the amp cabinets to proclaim to his audience, “HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE ALIVE?!?!?!” Fans gratitude for him and his band is truly off the charts.
Unfortunately, not all young death metal musicians from Poland had such a happy ending.
Decapitated, from Krosno, is a technical machine who was around for ten years collecting accolades before an unfortunate automobile accident took the life of drummer Vitek Kieltyka and left vocalist Covan Kowanek in a coma. That was in 2007, but guitarist Vogg Kieltyka carried on and reformed the band with all new members two years later in his brother’s memory. And longtime Vader drummer Krzysztof Raczkowski (“Doc”) died of a drug overdose in 2005.
Considering the tragedies that have befallen these Polish titans, they have shown a remarkable capacity to soldier on and let the music continue–in defiance of those who would cynically suggest that they are “tempting fate” with their lyrical matter. Those people can stuff it.
And finally, let’s close out for a moment of silence for those who have fallen in death metal’s service…
Written by Matt P