Death By Metal: A bizarre musical journey
One of countless subgenres of the musical genre collectively known as heavy metal or just metal, death metal traces its roots back to the early 80's thrash metal and speed metal phenomena, exemplified by bands such as the USA's Metallica, Brazil's Sepultura and Denmark's Mercyful Fate. In the mid-80's, death metal scenes appeared more or less simultaneously in Northern Europe and the United States. Speed metal and its ancestor of "traditional heavy metal" (that would be bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and the grandfathers of all heavy metal in Black Sabbath) was a musical attempt to save the world, riding on the last dying waves of the hippie movement. A recurring theme of these songs was political injustice and the horrors of war. Some of the increasingly alienated youth that flowed into the metal scene had just about had it with saving a world that didn't want anything to do with them, and instead chose to embrace all-out morbidity. It was this that led to the advent of death metal.
The beginning: Death metal of the 80's
The band Death that came roaring out of the swamps of Florida was not the band which invented the style (the invention of death metal technique is usually credited to Possessed or Slayer, depending on which band name is on the ragged T-shirt of the long-haired freak you ask), although while both those bands experimented with elements essential to death metal, neither of them defined themselves as a death metal band. The term "death metal" originates from the title of an old Possessed song, although it was used by music journalists to describe the budding new metal genre. Strange and alien it definitely was; early death metal was remarkably brutal, primitive and, to say the least, in your face. Death's 1987 album Scream Bloody Gore (all tracks of which were studio recordings of demos that had been floating around the scene since '84) is an excellent example of early death metal lyrics as well as early death metal technique: The lyrics are excessively morbid and highly politically incorrect, featuring women and homosexuals finding themselves on the receiving ends of chainsaws, flamethrowers and other nastiness, as well as zombies, blood rituals and other references to the occult. Chuck Schuldiner, the surprisingly mild-mannered composer, songwriter, guitarist and "singer" of Death (who was just 17 at the time of Scream Bloody Gore's release), later said that the entire album was written under inspiration from bad gore flicks, and that he certainly didn't mean it as a statement of any kind (and, in fact, the band's later albums would eventually completely abandon morbidity in favour of various philosophical and political thoughts as Chuck grew older). Early death metal mainly dealt with death, destruction, war, insanity, drugs and sex, and contrary to popular belief, not very much about Satanism.
From a more musical perspective, early death metal more or less completely abandoned melody and harmony, and in this land of musical insanity, the chromatic scale reigned as law. Death metal guitarists usually played faster than their speed metal counterparts, and most songs featured at least one solo with heavy chromaticism, often sounding completely random to the casual listener. The rhythm guitar would usually play fast, hard and simple riffs. Virtually all death metal drummers of this era used double bass drum pedal techniques of the style pioneered by Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo and Dark Angel drummer Gene Hoglan. Perhaps the most well-known aspect of death metal is the vocalists' style, the characteristic growl, making many death metal vocals completely unintelligible. There are exceptions; Death's Chuck Schuldiner had a vocal style unlike any others, his trademark tortured, guttural yet oddly melodious low screams sometimes being described as the "Death grunt". 80's death metal bass players typically played with picks, and played the root notes of whatever the rhythm guitar was playing. They were often close to inaudible, drowning in a sea of drums and distorted guitars.
The 90's: The advent of Technical Death Metal
Death metal took several strange turns in the 90's, and indeed this decade changed even the old school to a degree where the music was hardly recognizable afterwards. Basically, death metal went in two separate directions, and one branch of the genre took its morbidity to satirical (if *highly* politically incorrect, often downright distasteful) extremes, upped the tempo and stripped out whatever traces of harmony was left in ancestral death metal. Example of this are the US bands Deicide and Cannibal Corpse (possibly most well-known from their appearance in the Jim Carrey film Ace Ventura, in which they played their "hit" single Hammer Smashed Face). To say that Cannibal Corpse has explicit lyrics would be the greatest understatement since Captain Ahab told his friends he would go fishing for a while, and the gruesome lyrics makes even Death's Scream Bloody Gore pale in comparison. Lead singer Chris Barnes (later replaced by George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher)'s growl is so deep that it is patently impossible to understand a word of what is being sung. This offshoot of death metal, often termed "technical death metal", is musically characterized by artists with extreme technical skill: The drummers play at near-superhuman speed, the guitarists play fast and extraordinarily complex riffs, and those of the bass players in this genre who didn't use picks developed techniques for matching the drummers' rhythm using four-finger style (a very difficult way to play, since the pinky finger isn't exactly known for its dexterity and stamina, and because the differences in finger lengths makes it very difficult to get the sound right) or even by extremely quick thumb slapping. The music, while extraordinarily technically complicated and extremely difficult to process for the analytical musical ear (which is arguably what makes it fun), is more or less completely devoid of harmony and melody, being purely rhythmically driven. An offshoot of this genre is Grindcore, which fused elements of technical death metal with hardcore punk rock and typically replaced the excessive morbidity with left-wing political messages (example band: Napalm Death).
Melodic Death Metal
The other direction death metal took in the 90's was "melodic death metal", which went in the exact opposite direction. Both technical and melodic death metal are characterized by lots of musically unusual stuff; in the technical camp we find the experiments with atonality and extreme tempo, whereas melodic death metal took lots of inspiration from the progressive metal genre, combining melody and functional harmony with the instrumental style of death metal. Death was one of the bands which moved from its ancestral death metal role into the melodic death metal camp (even introducing the fretless bass to death metal on their 1993 release Individual Thought Patterns, featuring metal and jazz fusion bass player Steve DiGiorgio); other examples are the microtonal experiments of the US band Atheist (which featured bass lines and guitar soloing with a very clear jazz inspiration), the strange forays into ambience by the US band Obituary, female growl vocals used by the German band Occult, and Swedish At The Gates' strange violin solos played over traditional death metal rhythms. Melodic death metal is sometimes almost as fast as its technical cousin, and the genre can best be described as a strange cross between classical music and traditional death metal. Melodic death metal compositions tend to feature more time-based variation (much like progressive rock and classical music), and usually feature more varied guitar techniques than the purely riff-driven rock and heavy metal traditionals. Melodic death metal drummers retained the traditional death metal double bass drum style, while the genre's bass players tend toward fingerstyle playing (often using three- or occasionally four-finger style) as well as dedicated bass lines instead of having the bass mirror the guitar root notes. Melodic death metal was all the rage in Europe for a long time, and an especially noted school of melodic death metal is the so-called Gothenburg Death, named after the Swedish city Gothenburg which was home to many, many influential death metal acts of Sweden.
The Death of Popular Death Metal
In the late 90's, interest death metal started to wane, as grindcore was providing a better kick for the extreme-is-not-extreme-enough crowd, and tons of bands which were essentially complete copies of the death metal originals flourished. Death metal became a trendy underground curiosity for a brief time in the mid-90's, but as all trends and fads, its moment in the sun would soon pass. By 2004, many of the originals are still playing, but most of the less significant bands have long since disappeared, and the majority of the "trendy metaller" crowd has left. I guess you could say that all that is left is the hard core, those who didn't get into death metal because it was a trend or to piss off their parents, but because they actually saw musical value in the widely ridiculed and despised genre. It takes a strange and uncommon musical ear to notice the beauty that underlies some of this aggressive, thunderous musical assault; to know that with the right music, even anger and alienation can have a beautiful, well-performed expression. Anyone can get stoned or drunk and go bang their heads at a local death metal concert, but it's a special breed of music listener who actually likes what he (or she, for while they are not abundant, there are indeed female death metal fans, as well as artists) hears. The current death metal scene is back in its place in the obscurities of the deep musical underground, but new artists are still innovating the genre. Many current death metal bands feature re-combinations of the technical and melodic schools. None, or at least very close to none, in the current death metal scene are wishing for a re-popularization of death metal, most are content to just have the genre moving forward in the directions its bands feel like taking it, without regard to music business politics.
Influential Death Metal Bands
(note: In completely random order)
Death metal tracks you should listen to:
For a good impression of what the genre is about, I'd recommend these (assuming you're not used to death metal):
- Death: Leprosy (traditional death metal. Fast, furious, aggressive)
- Napalm Death: The Ongoing War On Stupidity (A later-era ND track, displaying the band's distinctive mix of grindcore and death metal)
- Obituary: Slowly We Rot (one of Obituary's classics)
- Cynic: Uroboric Forms (Cynic shows off their strange blend of death metal and jazz-fusion)
- Vader: Wings (hard, punching old-school death metal)
- Death: The Philosopher (one of the more accessible death metal songs, I still consider it a masterpiece. Especially the end, which features a fade-out during which the bass player and the guitarists take turns playing cool solos)
- Occult: Stolen (Occult has both a male and a female growl vocalist, which they use to good effect in this song)
- Slayer: Raining Blood (a classic -- it's as much thrash as it's death, but let's not get worked up on silly labels, ok?)
- Possessed: Death Metal (which list would be complete without this one?)
- Cannibal Corpse: Hammer Smashed Face (Hard and brutal, and features a short unaccompanied bass solo, which is rare in death metal)
- Death: Trapped In A Corner (features one of the most beautiful and complex guitar solos in the genre's history)
- Nile: Black Seeds of Vengeance (a fairly representative new-school death metal song)