Death Metal Underground

5 albums that invented death metal

July 16, 2014 –

morbid_angel-live

When the new genre of death metal emerged, no one knew what to call it at first. It grew out of a time when metal was just managing to break out of its last assimilation by rock, the late 1970s and early 1980s glam, through speed metal bands like Metallica. As soon as those broke through, others followed with an even more alienated and disturbing sound with what came to be called “death metal.”

Since that time, advertisers and marketers have descended on the phrase. Outsiderness means authenticity and authenticity sells products. Every product that wants to tag itself with rebellious, “fun” and nonconformist would benefit from using the term. But before it became another media tag-line, death metal constituted the most vital genre that existed outside that form of social control.

Its origins remain in murky obscurity, but can be tracked through the bands that innovated the sound. Read on for the five albums that invented this sound.

sepultura-morbid_visions

1. Sepultura – Morbid Visions/Bestial Devastation

Way back in 1985, Sepultura released Bestial Devastation as a fully mature death metal album including unorthodox song form that fit to content and Slayer-style introductions with related motifs to new riffs. Fast and furious in the style that Morbid Angel, Massacra and Vader later developed, this tremolo-picked fury joined Morbid Visions on a release to commemorate these early and massively influential works. Notably this band also spun off guitarist Wagner Antichrist to Sarcofago who later kept black metal alive in the intermediate years between Hellhammer/Bathory/Sodom and Mayhem. Although this early release was recorded with borrowed instruments in what sounds like a dungeon with DC power, many of the elements that became central to death metal presented themselves here: complex riff changes fit together by theme, abrupt breaks, layering by repeating at double speed, use of chaotic guitar highlights, and vocal drops over transitional riffs. For its primitive origins, Morbid Visions/Bestial Devastation demonstrates death metal entering its maturation process after early years of using loan-techniques from related metal and punk genres.

possessed-seven_churches

2. Possessed – Seven Churches

Like many early albums attempting to forge a death metal path, Seven Churches borrows much of its technique from earlier styles of metal. In particular, much of speed metal persists here in song structure and rhythmic sensibility, but Possessed nailed the infernal voice that would become an easily noticed characteristic of the genre and gave it its name. This album slashes through songs that mostly follow riff-chorus song format but interrupt it with discursive passages such as the famous melodic riff on “The Exorcist.” Riff shifts generally occur at significant points in the song rather than as extensions of the standard format, which gives this release a chaotic and uneven feel fitting its subject matter. Its song titles embraced outright positive feelings about Satan, which in the 1980s was enough to cause a listener social problems. The lyrics no longer warned of the possibility of evil, but the certainty of it and the necessity of embracing it to avoid the rotted and calcified lies of the “good.” Its pacing and riff forms often resemble those of speed metal as well as its tendency toward bouncing rhythms which favor the offbeat, where later death metal bands might have adopted a more downbeat approach. Despite spanning these genres, Seven Churches lent so much to the new death metal genre that it forever seems appropriate to associate it with death metal.

death_strike-fuckin_death

3. Death Strike – Fuckin’ Death

Paul Speckmann contributed much to the rising death metal movement under a bevy of different names: Master, Death Strike, Funeral Bitch, Abomination and Speckmann Project. His basic approach took 1960s protest rock, violent punk, and early dark heavy metal and mixed them into what basically sounded like rudimentary metal with punk rhythms. Death Strike emerged in 1985 with death vocals and grinding riffs but Speckmann’s demos had exemplified these attributes for at least two years at that point. While the result sounds spacious for modern death metal ears and uses variants on standard song format almost exclusively, this early embrace of the aesthetics of violent chaos and radically simplified riffing set many on their path down to the fiery depths of death metal.

morbid_angel-abominations_of_desolation

4. Morbid Angel – Abominations of Desolation

The first Morbid Angel album made it to a limited release only on a small label in Tampa, Florida, and so was lost to time until Earache re-issued it in 1991 as a full release. Featuring the drum and vocal talents of Mike Browning (Nocturnus, After Death) this early powerhouse showed the unique and progressive rock influenced songwriting that would appear on later Morbid Angel but without the similarity of aesthetic. Abundant lead guitar spills out all over, songs vary tempo widely, and riffs span many more forms than the solidified final Altars of Madness — which shares most of its songs with this album after three years of refinement while band members worked at a car wash — would demonstrate. Some of lead guitarist Trey Azagthoth’s most creative and psychedelic playing adorns this release, as well as songs that stray into doom metal and progressive metal territory. While this album followed a battered and twisted path to release, it made itself known to the tape-traders who were the backbone of non-mainstream metal in the 1980s, and from there influenced the entire genre.

necrovore-divus_de_mortuus

5. Necrovore – “Divus de Mortuus” demo

Speaking of demos, some of death metal’s most profound work never made it to vinyl or polycarbonate. Traders passed around demos and most band members were traders or had zines and got copies of demos in for review. “Divus de Mortuus” appeared in 1987 after some years of rehearsal and live tapes circulated among the demo circuit and immediately galvanized many. In particular, its influence can be felt on Morbid Angel, whose David Vincent adopted the more aggressive vocals and warlike posturing of vocalist Jon DePlachett. While the riffs on this demo focus more on abrasiveness and less on phrase, many of the elements inherited through Hellhammer and Slayer shine through here on what might be described as the first atmospheric death metal release. While this demo may never make it into stores, its influence spread outward from Texas to Florida and Europe beyond and it lives on in the death metal that followed it.

Heavy metal’s relationship to religion

June 18, 2014 –

church_ablaze

If you ask a metalhead about the relationship between heavy metal and religion, you’ll no doubt get a few different answers. Some will tell you that it stands in firm opposition to all religion, some will list off a plethora of Christian heavy metal bands, and some have no opinion on the subject and just wanna headbang and tune out.

Perhaps there is half-truth to these assessments: Deicide’s militant anti-Christian message is obvious even to the most passive listener, but on the other hand heavy metal with Christian themed lyrics has existed since its inception with Black Sabbath. In addition, many bands use occult imagery in either an artistic or neutrally atheistic way.

But maybe there’s another road to take, maybe these assessments are analyzing the relationship incorrectly.

I was an atheist for four years of my life (age 12-16). I was fairly vocal and enthusiastic about it as well, looking upon anything religious with scorn. I was very stereotypical when it came to my atheism too: I posted anti-religious memes on social media, went into silly debates with random creationists, and I had no real understanding of science, I just vomited forth Richard Dawkins’ philosophy.

But sometime within my 16th year, my outlook changed. I began to listen to heavy metal more actively, and my atheism slowly faded into wonder. It seemingly lashed at my inflated ego and made me face the possibility of something greater than myself. It challenged me to be more ambitious with my existence, and to want more out of life.

Prior to my revelation, I had a very human-centric view of the world, but Hellhammer’s “Only Death is Real” concept made me look at this in a whole new light. Death will take everyone regardless of their status in life; in the end, it is the only victor. This is important because it weakens the ego of the individual, and forces them to look elsewhere for meaning. Humility before something more powerful than yourself (death) is an undeniably religious concept, and has grown to be the core ideology of death metal for decades.

Religion itself is very important to heavy metal, where would legends like Slayer and Morbid Angel be without it? Metal has always expressed a deep reverence for power, and what greater power than the omnipresent force of the cosmos? Some perceive it as God or Gods, some perceive it as Satan, and some perceive it as nothing more than a functional force that keeps the universe rolling. All of these possibilities are astonishing, and have inspired the greatest sense of awe and wonder in mankind throughout history.

Heavy metal has become not only my passion, but my guiding light to a life that I may not understand completely, but that I’m learning more about every day. It has taught me to appreciate and find beauty in all aspects of the world, from the worms in the earth to the birds in the sky. It — like every other aspect of an intense life — is a form of worship in itself.

So if, as a parent, you see your son/daughter with a copy of Slayer’s Hell Awaits, fear not. Heavy metal inspires a sense of wonder and passion. That wonder may very well turn their eyes to the stars, and that passion may very well ignite their flame of life.

Death metal albums of which I will never tire

May 4, 2014 –

morbid_angel-live

Early death metal (Bathory, Slayer, Hellhammer, Sodom, Master) emerged as an aggregate of the past, comprised of speed metal (Metallica, Exodus, Nuclear Assault, Testament, Megadeth), late hardcore (Cro-Mags, Amebix, Discharge, The Exploited, GBH), classic heavy metal (Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Motorhead) and thrash (DRI, COC, Cryptic Slaughter). As a result, most death metal bands exhibited some tendencies more than others, although the founding early death metal bands tended toward the type of tremolo-powered phrase-based riffing exemplified by Slayer.

For example, Deicide on its second album Legion arguably made the album that …And Justice For All wanted to be, with lots of choppy percussive riffing forming intricate textures from which a melody emerged. Early Master sounded more like a punk band with its simple song structures and emphasis on droning, protest-like vocals. Second-wave death metal like Death and Possessed had a tendency to apply speed metal song structures and riff styles. Even advanced death metal like Pestilence often sounded like a more technical and complex version of early speed metal.

But focusing on death metal requires we look at what was unique to it. Getting past the vocals and the intensity, what distinguishes it musically is its use of that tremolo-strummed phrasal riff. This in turn forced bands to escape from riffs integrated strictly with drums, and to as a result put more riffs into the song to drive changes that previous would have been done by the drums. That in turn forced bands to make those riffs fit together, what Asphyx call “riff-gluing,” so that songs avoided the “riff salad” plague that captured later speed metal.

These bands exploded onto the world from 1983-1985, inspired in part by Discharge’s Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing which hit the ground in 1982. Slayer in particular stitched together classic heavy metal and ambient hardcore like Discharge and GBH and ended up with its particular formulation, taking the tremolo and riffs independent of drums from Discharge and matching them to the complex proggy structures of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden with Motorhead speed and aggression. This was what launched death metal free from the shadow of speed metal, which was the first metal genre to break out of underground status despite being — for the time — fast, aggressive and dark.

If you want to get to the core of death metal, these albums might help. They’re albums I keep returning to year after year because they have enough complexity and that unquantifiable quality of having purpose and being expressive, perhaps even emulating the life around them and converting it into a beast of mythological quality, which makes them interesting each time I pick them up. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, the players….

Slayer – Show No Mercy

While Hell Awaits has more expert composition, South of Heaven better control of mood and melody, and Reign in Blood more pure rhythmic intensity, Show No Mercy captures Slayer flush with the fervor of youth and the belief in big concepts. As a result, it is an intensity mystical album, uniting a narrative about war between good and evil with the actions of people on earth. It is not like Hell Awaits more solidly situated in a single mythology, nor like Reign in Blood and after an attempt to explore the dark side of modern existence in a literal sense. Instead, it is a flight of imagination mated to an apocalyptic vision of a society crumbling from within. As a result it is musically the most imaginative of Slayer albums, creating grand constructions of visions of worlds beyond that stimulate the fantasy dwelling within our otherwise obedient minds.

Massacra – Enjoy the Violence

Another early album in very much the style of Slayer but with intensity cranked to the ceiling, Enjoy the Violence shows a band intent on conveying intense energy through their music. To do this, they rely on not only near-constant breakneck speed but also vivid contrasts between the types of riffs that are used in a song, welding a rich narrative from riffs that initially seem simple like the scattered twisted bits of metal left after a battle. The result is closer to epic poem that punk music and blows conventional heavy metal and speed metal out of the water with the sense of unbridled aggression and lust for life that surges through its passages. In addition, it carries on the mythological tradition of Slayer but adds a Nietzschean spin whereby constant war for supremacy and domination is the only path not only to victory, but to personal integrity.

Morbid Angel – Abominations of Desolation

Most prefer the more refined versions of these songs from Altars of Madness and Blessed Are the Sick, but my ear favors these nuanced and unsystematic detail-heavy songs which feature more of a blending of textures into what sounds like a communication from another world heard underwater or through the croaking voice of a medium. Trey Azagthoth’s solos were best when he used his half-whole step leaps to make solos that sounded like the creation of gnarly sculptures, and these songs powered by Mike Browning’s drums and voice have more of an organic jauntiness to them than the later mechanistic tanks-crushing-the-shopping-mall sound of the full albums. In addition, this combination of songs strays from the later more interruption-based riffing this band would attempt and instead brings out their inner desire to rip all ahead go at all times, creating a suspension of reality like war itself.

Incantation – Onward to Golgotha

When the idea comes to mind of death metal at its essence, this album will be mentioned because it creates a sound unlike anything else. Incantation took the Slayer riff and song formula and slowed it down, doubled the complexity, and focused on alternating tempos and riff styles to create a building mood of immersive darkness. The result was not only aggressive, but melancholic and contemplative, like a warrior looking out over an abandoned bullet-pocked city. Detuned riffs collide and deconstruct one another, resulting in a sound like the inexorable flow of black water through underground caverns as civilizations collapse above. This rare group of musicians achieved a triumph here that none have been able to repeat individually, suggesting this album was born of a magic confluence of ideas more than a process (ham sandwiches on a conveyor belt).

Carnage – Dark Recollections

If you want “the Swedish sound” at its most powerful, Dark Recollections offers every component synthesized into a package that has not yet had time to become self-critical and neurotic, and thus is an unfettered expression of the thoughts of precocious adolescents translated into sound. The components of Swedish death metal are the modified d-beat, the use of melody to expand song development, a gritty electric explosion of guitar sound, and a tendency to write songs that are half searing budget riff and half horror movie sound track.

Sepultura – Morbid Visions/Bestial Devastation

The first EP in this two-EP package is the more classic death metal version and packs a solid blast of inventive riffcraft staged with theatrical precision into songs that form narratives of the topics denoted in their titles. But the riffs are instant creations of their own, shaped from raw chromaticism and whipped into fury by two levels of rhythm, both in the change of chords and the texturing of the sounding of them. The result owes quite a bit to Slayer, Bathory and Hellhammer, but also to the punk hardcore underlying those acts and a good knowledge of dark metal of the time, and yet is still its own animal. Nothing sounds like this except it, and by giving itself a unique voice, it conjures a power of revelation that endows these songs with lasting enjoyment for the listener.

Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces, by Albert Mudrian

September 11, 2013 –


Precious Metal:
Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces
edited by Albert Mudrian
365 pages, Da Capo Press, $14

The 25 Masterpieces
Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell
Diamond Head – Lightning to the Nations
Celtic Frost – Morbid Tales
Slayer – Reign in Blood
Napalm Death – Scum
Repulsion – Horrified
Morbid Angel – Altars of Madness
Obituary – Cause of Death
Entombed – Left Hand Path
Paradise Lost – Gothic
Carcass – Necroticism — Descanting the Insalubrious
Cannibal Corpse – Tomb of the Mutilated
Darkthrone – Transilvanian Hunger
Kyuss – Welcome to Sky Valley
Meshuggah – Destroy Erase Improve
Monster Magnet – Dopes to Infinity
At the Gates – Slaughter of the Soul
Opeth – Orchid
Down – NOLA
Emperor – In the Nightside Eclipse
Sleep – Jerusalem
The Dillinger Escape Plan – Calculating Infinity
Botch – We Are the Romans
Converge – Jane Doe
Eyehategod – Take as Needed for Pain

 

albert_mudrian-precious_metal_decibel_presents_the_stories_behind_25_extreme_metal_masterpiecesRock journalism challenges even the bravest writer. Musicians are not known for being articulate, nor is it easy to pin them down, and lore snowballs in that vacuum. For this reason it’s great to see the series of in-depth explorations that have come about recently regarding many classic events of metal. As musicians age, given that musicians have a shorter life-span than average, this is also a race against time in many cases.

Albert Mudrian’s Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces presents a welcome addition to the genre of historical metal journalism. Combing through archives, the writers of each piece compiled band statements about the album and put them together in linear form, like a conversation. The result is a whole lot of information delivered in a very digestible form, with the extraneous confusion of live interviews edited right out of the picture. It’s a good starting point for anyone looking into these historical nodal points in the evolution of metal.

Mudrian seems aware how easily a book like this could become repetitive. Not just in the answers, where musicians might make roughly similar statements about touring, band formation, the troubles of collaboration and so forth, but in the similarity of bands. If for example he added another three Swedish death metal bands, it might start to get a little bit stuffy in the virtual room he’s created. Instead, he gives us space between acts and a wide variety of acts, but avoids the really awful nu-metal and tek-deth. However, the price of that spaciousness is that he includes bands like Monster Magnet and Kyuss which really aren’t metal at all.

There are some shockers in content, too. Some of these bands, despite their professions of various depraved behaviors, are insanely business-like in how they go about getting recorded and published. Sleep, Cannibal Corpse, Dillinger Escape Plan, Botch and Converge really had their act together. For a few moments, it was more like reading Forbes than Decibel, but it’s really gratifying to see this side of the business portrayed honestly. If you want your music heard, there’s a certain amount of business activity that must precede that event.

On the whole, these chapters are extremely well edited including the choice of material. They are in question-answer form, where the questions are usually prompts about historical events or general questions applied to specific moments or activities. When an incidental or minor character is cited, he or she speaks up for a few questions and then fades out. The bulk of the material favors the most articulate band members and major actors, but the writers shoehorn in as many diverse perspectives as they can. This makes reading Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces feel like being in a comfortable pub with these bands, on a rainy day, with a tape recorder next to the ashtray.

Each chapter corresponds to a classic album and comes with an intro paragraph. If anything, here’s where the book could benefit from some uniformity and toning down the “rock journalism” aspects. Perhaps not a just-the-facts-ma’am approach, but more of an assessment of where the band fits into history and why people like them, and leave it at that. Some of these were over the top for the actual function they serve. However, among the bombast is a lot of good information.

At that point the interview(s) compiled into a single form take over. Most of Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces is the bands speaking, and that is the power of Mudrian’s editing and the work of his colleagues. They’ve trimmed out the transient stuff, the window dressing and repetition, and left us with clear statements from the bands that show them in their own voices and approaching the situation at their own angle. This also helps create an epic feel to the epic interviews because it’s a compilation of the best moments of the band commenting on this album, put into one form that flows naturally.

Was the intro, “Human,” something you had conceived of before you went into the studio?
Ain: Yes, we had the idea before we went into the studio — we wanted to loop a scream and make it perpetual. We also wanted to use it as an intro for the live shows. A regular human scream would never last that long, so we wanted to loop it and make it sound like a scream from hell, like how you would scream if the pain was everlasting.
Warrior: We had talked about it, but we were basically still laymen, so we had no idea how we could put it together. So we told Horst what we wanted to do, and he proposed how to do it. But as I said, we only had six days to do everything. If one thing failed, we would’ve gone over budget or had to go home. So, in hindsight, it’s a miracle that tracks like “Human” or “Danse Macabre” came out the way we wanted them to. We couldn’t rehearse some of those parts, you know? I have no idea how we did that in just a few days, especially given our lack of experience. But therein lies one of the strengths of Celtic Frost to this day: Martin and I usually visualize certain pieces of music down to the last detail without even touching an instrument.

This excerpt reveals the power of Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces. In the midst of the mundane description of studio struggles, Tom Warrior articulates part of the essence of his band. Many such moments of insight, casually and offhandedly mentioned in describing some rather ordinary thing, flesh out this book and make it more than a fan’s quest but a resource for musicians and anyone else curious about the origins and process of creating extreme metal.

Not everyone will agree on certain aspects of this book and naturally any choices made along these lines are divisive. However, the book has enough to offer just about anyone who loves metal so that the purchase will not be regretted, even if there are chapters you skipped. In fact, I recommend skipping those chapters and approaching this book as a buffet. No matter what sub-genres you adore, you’re going to have at least five you’re dying to read, another five you’re very excited to read, and another five you’re curious about, and the rest will be uncertain but you might find some interesting information there, as I did.

It is impossible to find just 25 to represent metal. Some of these choices are nods to the music industry and mainstream fanbase, like Dillinger Escape Plan, or to history, like Botch, who were the vanguard of the metalcore movement. Some are near-misses like the apologetic At the Gates treatment of their best-seller, but this interview also confirms a lot that reviewers said about this album, namely that it was retro to the past generation of metal and somewhat hasty. Some others, like Converge and Eyehategod, seem marginal in that these bands spent a lot of time disclaiming metal back in the day.

On the whole however Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces offers a good pan-and-scan perspective of what was going on in metal at the time, and by showing us the fly-over accumulation of variety, Mudrian and Decibel show us not only what these bands were doing, but the forces against which they were struggling to define themselves. The result is a treasure hunt of a book, bristling with secrets and previously undiscovered pathways, for those who enjoy extreme heavy metal.

Morbid Angel Covenant Tour 2013

July 14, 2013 –

morbid_angel-covenantTwenty years ago this year, Morbid Angel released their third album, Covenant, which stepped back from the concept album madness of their second work and seemed to look instead toward the collection of ripping songs and experiments that distinguished their first album.

Working more melody and conventionally-recognizable technicality into the mix, Covenant showed Morbid Angel after most of the initial thrust of ideas from their demos had worn off — leaving them to create anew, from a place where they were at the peak of their musical power. As a result, it is for many people a favorite from this band to this day.

Starting November 7, the re-constituted Morbid Angel of David Vincent, Trey Azagthoth and Pete Sandoval will tour North America playing the songs from Covenant in its entirety. This show be a good chance to introduce your college-aged children, who were conceived to this album, to the magic of Morbid Angel. Tickets go on sale July 19, 2013.

Morbid Angel Covenant Tour 2013:

City Date Venue
Atlanta, GA Nov 7 The Masquerade
Charlotte, NC Nov 8 Tremont Music Hall
Baltimore, MD Nov 9 Baltimore Soundstage
Cambridge, MA Nov 10 Middle East Nightclub
New York, NY Nov 12 Irving Plaza
Philadelphia, PA Nov 13 Theatre of the Living Arts
Cleveland, OH Nov 16 Peabody’s Downunder
Chicago, IL Nov 17 House Of Blues
Minneapolis, MN Nov 18 Mill City Nights
Sauget, IL Nov 19 Pops
Lawrence, KS Nov 20 Granada
Denver, CO Nov 22 Bluebird Theater
Seattle, WA Nov 25 Studio Seven
Portland, OR Nov 26 Hawthorne Theater
San Francisco, CA Nov 27 Slim’s
Los Angeles, CA Nov 29 Henry Fonda Theatre
Phoenix, AZ Nov 30 Joe’s Grotto
Albuquerque, NM Dec 1 Sunshine Theater
El Paso, TX Dec 2 Tricky Falls
Austin, TX Dec 3 Red 7
Houston, TX Dec 4 Warehouse Live
Orlando, FL Dec 6 Beacham Theater
Ft. Lauderdale, FL Dec 7 Culture Room