Ripping, furious death metal in the vein of 1980s death metal with vestiges of speed metal, solos that bear the mark of Trey Azagthoth, this band is one of the many followers of the legendary Morbid Angel. However, Blasphemic Cruelty is not content with being a clone and continues the work of Angelcorpse by playing a style that takes one facet of Morbid Angel and expanding on it. It is basically the older band’s most brutal side taken as the parting point and center of the music. While Azagthoth would mix a few fast sections with his own trademark of mid-paced and slow riffs, Blasphemic Cruelty pushes the pedal to the max throughout the entire pieces.
While Crucible of the Infernum will not distinguish itself as innovative in any way, it is an example of excellent composition for this style of ripping, blasting death metal. The band’s work here is ideal in the sense that within the limitations it sets for itself, every single space it uses is purposeful by virtue of its integration within the big picture, even if this picture isn’t very big. Admittedly a work of modest reach, Crucible of the Infernum is a solid release strongly recommended for fans of Angelcorpse, Sodom and early Morbid Angel.
Most metalheads, not being of the commercially-minded type, rarely stop to think about heavy metal as a brand. Media sells a certain image with heavy metal, just like Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Jack Daniels whisky, both of which are highly successful brands. Metal forms more of a meta-brand, symbolizing rebellion and bad boy lawlessness. That image can be used to sell a lot of products, since consumers really hate the idea that they are merely being good sheep by buying whisky and transportation.
In commercials, television and movies, rebellious characters are often introduced with heavy metal in the background. Fight scenes in both football and blockbusters often get the heavy riff treatment, as do superhero epics. Bizarrely, House Hunters — a television program about people choosing which house to buy — uses AC/DC style hard rock riffing in the background to its real estate epics. Anywhere boldness, bravery, rebellion and defiance must be shown, heavy metal is the appropriate soundtrack.
Much of this can be seen through the use of well-known bands in movies. Check out how many soundtracks Slayer has contributed to, for example. The royalties from those might even outpace their album sales. At some point in the future, perhaps metal bands will put out albums and tour so that they can sell their music for commercials, television, movies, sports/MMA and house hunting. Now look at AC/DC. Metallica. Iron Maiden. Pantera. Anthrax. Compare to Morbid Angel and Darkthrone.
Back in 1986, one lineup of Morbid Angel recorded what that lineup considers the first Morbid Angel album, Abominations of Desolation, which was later re-released on Earache Records in 1991. But three years later, the band re-recorded most of the songs in a streamlined form and released it as Altars of Madness, which the lineup of the band as was at the time through the present considers to be the first Morbid Angel album.
Avoiding a peek into the controversy and the clash of personalities behind it, metal archaeologists today can look at the musical differences between these two albums. Altars of Madness focuses on a tighter and more streamlined style that too often slips into the type of verse-chorus with bridge that was used extensively on speed metal/death metal hybrids like Seven Churches and Rigor Mortis. This may show the influence of Texas band Necrovore, who established a more aggressive aesthetic but kept song structures closer to the NWOBHM model that speed metal used.
At the same time, other bands were taking a hint from Hellhammer/Celtic Frost and writing songs which had some repeated passages which could be used as verse and chorus, but behind those varied the riffs to give the song a unique structure. This opened up new possibilities that all bands entrenched in the rock ‘n roll “verse, chorus, bridge, solo, repeat” pop song format could not reach. In that new frontier, bands saw new musical and artistic possibilities, and the form of modern death metal began.
The first Morbid Angel album contained many of these aspects, particular in some of the odd structures used on the first track. For the most part however it stuck to good old fashioned pop song format with a few modifications, using the Slayer technique of introductory riffs and some hints from Possessed. This showed a dramatically different side of the band than the extended compositions of Abominations of Desolation which, while many used verse/chorus at their center, were more likely to vary riff form and use solos as a kind of second layer to the rhythm guitars.
Controversy continues to this day regarding which is the “true” Morbid Angel. As strange as it seems, the first recording may be the one that opened up more historical space, although its lesser production and expanded song structures made it less hard-hitting at any instance and thus less “heavy” or “brutal” to the audience, which is why the band wants it to be the first album: it is a better product. For many of us however Abominations of Desolation has long surpassed the first two Morbid Angel albums as the one most frequently listened to because of the depths of its complexity and musical imagination.
Underground death metal band Morbid Angel has compiled tracks from a live concert appearance at Nottingham’s Rock City on November 14th, 1989 into a limited 12″ vinyl release entitled Juvenilia.
The recording, of which 1500 copies will be made, will be released on Record Store Day, which falls every year on April 18. If you want a copy in the US, you have to meet up with Morbid Angel bassist/vocalist David Vincent at Waterloo Records in Austin, TX on Saturday, April 18, 2015, beginning at 3 PM.
Cosmic guitarist Trey Azagthoth commented on the title, “”‘Juvenilia’ says it all; works of one’s youth; early works of an artist or author.” Emerging from the hazy days of 1989, these live tracks show Morbid Angel at the time of its first album, Altars of Madness.
Early death metal barely made it out of the shadow of speed metal before. We call it speed metal, not thrash, because it was a direct extension of NWOBHM using some punk technique, not an outright punk hybrid like thrash. Speed metal represents one of the most varied sub-genres in metal, running the gamut from percussive (Exodus) through traditional (Metallica) and all the way to adventurous stuff like Voivod, Anacrusis, Coroner and Sacrifice. It is in that latter category that The Science of Horror begins.
This demo re-issue will be — for now — limited to 100 copies pressed to vinyl that incorporate two demos, The Science of Horror (1988) and Nocturnus (1987). These show both a band looking for a balance between the early death/speed hybrids and its future as a technical death metal band, and the personal vision that Mike Browning has been refining since this time through the present day with his current band, After Death. This vision unites the progressive with morbid rock and extremity, aiming for a theatrical presentation as much as musical obscurity, and never afraid — unlike too many prog bands — to use a primitive riff where it is effective. Like many progressive-inspired bands, there is a high degree of internal variation in these demos, Nocturnus and After Death, used like an ancient storyteller might use an extensive vocabulary. The theatrical nature of this approach means that the songs on these demos, which are mostly duplicative, take an atmospheric approach to a genre in transition that was otherwise more inclined toward all-ahead aggression. But like Anacrusis, Voivod and Coroner, Nocturnus adapted its songs to use both death metal technique and speed metal but creating a sense of rhythm of its own that emphasized frequent transitions and complex patterns without drifting into other known genres.
Several of the song segments used here show similarity to what appeared on Morbid Angel’s early work, notably its 1986 Abominations of Desolation, and feature the same flexible rhythm that nonetheless approximates the chorus rhythm without doing so in trope, leaving plenty of space for instruments to work independently. Like speed metal, much of this material aims for discrete chords in repetitive patterns, but especially on the second demo, use of tremolo to create smooth transitions gives this material a new aura of mystery and suspension of belief. As a document of early death metal, The Science of Horror both emphasizes the creative possibilities of metal at the time and reminds us how weirdness was once more front and center and how it did the genre well. On another level, this music provides pleasurable listening at the nexus not only of two genres but also several compositional styles, and the change from the first to later demo shows the incorporation of keys in the way that would later define Nocturnus and be expanded to become a fundamental part of the technique as a way of creating spacious, atmospheric death metal. With any luck, this pressing of the demos will see CD release later this year, as despite being the same tracks twice this recording serves well for casual listening as well as historical examination of death metal.
Tracklist The Science of Horror Demo 2 (1988)
1. Before Christ – After Death
2. Standing in Blood
4. Undead Journey Nocturnus Demo 1 (1987)
6. B.C. – A.D.
7. The Entity
8. Unholy Fury
Mike Browning: Drums, Vocals
Mike Davis: Guitars
Louis Panzer: Keyboards
Jeff Estes: Bass
Gino Marino: Guitars
Mike Browning: Drums, Vocals
Richard Bateman: Bass
Vincent Crowley: Guitars
Gino Marino: Guitars
Calling a band “technical” — not to be confused with musicianship as popular circles frequently do — creates general indifference among those accustomed to seeing this term used as a selling point. The industry generally uses the term for bands that cannot compose meaningful songs and so encrust them in adornments of musical acrobatics, creating artistic Potemkin villages which offer a cornucopia of musical fireworks on the surface but emptiness beneath. Many believe that musicality is only valid if the artist consciously intended to give the music a certain technical quality. This could not be further from the truth.
The best music has often comes from technically competent artists, but this does not mean that their music is guided by a handbook of rules, but the other way around: they use technical flair to elaborate on the ideas that motivate their music. When an musician has a superior talent for organizing notes into melodies, aligning melodies into harmonies and building sections that flow and speak to one another as seemingly essential parts of a whole, this process can be reverse-engineered by a clever and knowledgeable analyst. But like software reverse engineering itself, we only arrive at technical explanations about the originating commands that give the result its nature, not the programmer’s feelings, train of thought or the content they hope to communicate through their art.
Morbid AngelAltars of Madness is lauded as as a young genius’ masterpiece born out of raging emotion and unprecedented innovation in the then-young genre of death metal. Only new or superficial fans of the genre are oblivious to the achievements of this album that go well beyond mere historical relevance. Whether or not Trey Azagthoth planned each twist with the implied theoretical knowledge behind them is not important, although we can assume he may not have because such fervor as these pieces present is only possible coming from the deepest well of human emotion. Yet scrutinizing of them at several levels reveal logical explanations for the impact, drive and fluid development that they showcase.
As a short example we may take a look at “Chapel of Ghouls”. The song itself can be explained as using E major as its main or home key. As in classical music it ventures into the parallel minor and uses off-key passing tones for color. The most important of this is the fact that the guitars in the recording are tuned in E-flat standard tuning, which means that the repetitive muted strumming of the open low string consists of strumming the D (enharmonic equivalent of E flat) note, the seventh in the scale of E major. This gives the chugs a malevolent and dissonant feel. Another thing that should be mentioned is that the first two riff clusters in Chapel of Ghouls are quite unstable, each being in period form (antecedent and consequent phrases which mirror each other, but only the second one resolving). These riffs do not resolve convincingly (they do not land on either the tonic or the dominant when the consequent cadences), giving these both a satisfying feel and a need to continue and be completely resolved which appears to the listener as a will forward instead of a complete thought. This resolution is achieved on the third riff which finally leads to the tonic, but does not rest there, avoiding the typical full-stop feeling by switching into the relative minor (thereby using a flattened third and sixth which sound like off-key passing tones in the context of the major setting) and syncopating the rhythm while an atonal solo blazes above. And so the song is carried on with the mark of genius that cannot be now denied even by those who do not share a personal preference for the song. The songs in this album are not even remotely atonal or even overall dissonant; they make heavy use of the latter with striking effect while the atonality is reserved for solos which mark peaks and tornadoes of raw emotion that are never out of place here and which seem to be born out of the depths of this music.
Atomic Aggressor Sights of Suffering presents us with something that would be best described as a tribute to Altars of Madness-era Morbid Angel. But unlike Morbid Angel, Atomic Aggressor’s songs do not show Azagthoth’s structural cleverness and talent for directing and channeling emotion unavoidably towards strategic points in the song where powerful emotion surges. In fact, it is because this band is bent on sounding like early Morbid Angel that they are completely oblivious to the subtlety of the original composition and thus just manage to place riff after riff which sound like a more retro (sounding a little on the speed metal side at times) version of who they are trying to imitate. The vocals make this intention to imitate even more palpable not only in terms of the style of the growls but the way certain passages are emphasized or rounded off by grunts which in this far weaker music only manage to sound comical, especially if one is familiar with the original band. There is not much to say about this album because it is no more and no less than a bland, third-rate imitation.
When a band is accused of “selling out,” the first instinct most people have is to attack the definition of that phrase. In reality, “selling out” is easily delineated: changing your music/art/writing to reflect what the audience expects.
In metal, selling out usually consists of making the music happier, simpler, less tormented and more pretentious. This allows the people who are dedicated to not noticing anything real about their world to listen to it and have it confirm their existing bias that the best course in life will be to “keep on keeping on” by shopping, voting, bragging at the water cooler, watching television, eating fast food and otherwise being oblivious to everything.
Selling out can be compared to the difference between a home-grilled hamburger and a fast food burger. The home-grilled burger uses real meat, spiced and cooked with care, and does not look elegant but is a good balance of taste and nutrition. The fast food burger is made from ground-up bits of animals, filled out with soybeans and sugar, and most people prefer it because it tastes more like candy and nutrition, lol.
When a metal band sells out, it makes the conscious decision to alter its music to appeal to some audience. This can include an “outsider” audience that only likes ultra-lofi two-chord bands, or the usual meaning, where the music gets closer to big radio pop. When metal bands sell out, they damage metal by bringing in all the stuff metal tried to escape in the first place.
These five albums represent some of the worst sellouts in metal history.
At the Gates – Slaughter of the Soul
The first At the Gates album took our breath away. A weird mix of metal, folk, progressive and classical, it achieved an idiosyncratic voice of its own the way early death metal was prone to do. Then the band faltered, losing a key member and recording albums that did not feel with albums. Suddenly, this new album burst onto the scene and the old school death metal heads rushed forward to find… the exact opposite of what made this band great. Instead of inventive death metal, Slaughter of the Soul brought a warmed-over version of Metallica Ride the Lightning that had been given the Swedish melodic metal treatment. Songs swung easily with simple melodies that would have fit better in a television commercial or schoolyard song, and song structures fit an entirely predictable mold. Nothing challenged the listener; everything was sweetened, like biting into a hot glazed donut with extra icing. It made you feel icky inside, as if you had just been assimilated by the vast mass of people in modern culture who forcibly ignore any incoming ideas which do not fit into their own ego-worship and denial. However, the album was a stunning commercial success and inspired the metalcore movement, in which post-At the Gates band The Haunted applied this template to late hardcore and created a whole new audience.
Metallica – Metallica
When metalheads first heard “One” on the radio, the general sentiment was worry. We all knew of the temptation of radio metal where bands toured in luxury buses and got loads of cocaine, chicks and fast cars. But …And Justice For All had its musical moments despite the awful rock-style drumming and simplified catchy songs, so the hope was that Metallica had gotten it out of their system. Then came the self-titled monstrosity. The first hint was the choice of eponymous name late in the career of Metallica, which suggested a break with the past. Then, the new logo: silver foil-embossed, stylized and slick. Then we heard “Enter Sandman” on the radio and fears were realized. Gone were the complex song structures and innovative riffs, but the use of melodic composition on guitar persisted from …And Justice For All, albeit in a form that fit well into the MTV lineup. Songs backed away from topics that might unsettle people into fairy tales about fears and personal drama, including the rage drama that Pantera was making famous. Metallica fans hung their heads, neatly folded their tshirts and put them at the back of the drawer, and covered their tattoos with black bars. Metallica had finally sold out.
Death – Individual Thought Patterns
As the 1990s progressed, death metal emerged as the clear next big thing. This came after nearly a decade of the music industry denying its existence, mocking it, and doing their best to conceal it. A number of them made overtures: if you could just drop the scary alienation, anger and post-human view of the world, maybe The Industry would work for you like it did for the Crue, AC/DC, etc. At this point, Chuck Schuldiner of Death was putting a lot of effort into making himself the founding father of death metal, and he fired his previous band for a mostly new group who came up with a heavy metal/death metal hybrid. That alone would have been bad, but what was worse was that he changed the music artistically as well as stylistically. The rage at a numb, callous and selfish world was replaced with personal drama, overplayed public compassion, and the kind of hollow rage that people sitting in air-conditioned homes direct at a world that “just doesn’t understand me.” Even worse, the music itself became saccharine. The wild lion of death metal became a neutered animal dependent on daily feedings of peer group approval. Not surprisingly, people loved it then and hardly mention it now.
Morbid Angel – Domination
After the public hounding that Ilud Divinum Insanus received, most fans forgot the previous great Morbid Angel disappointment that essentially fragmented the band. Thousands of death metal bands languishing in obscurity perked up when they saw Far Beyond Driven flirt with Exhorder-styled extreme metal and still make hordes of money. In the timeless and impeccably insane logic of record labels, it was suggested that death metal bands take the same route even though it would mean abandoning their fans and yet not being able to fully dumb down enough for the brocore generation. Morbid Angel came out with this disaster of a fourth album in order to try to bridge the gap and ended up (predictably) failing both. Where previous Morbid Angel albums showed inventive songs, Domination featured one interesting riff per song slowed down and mated with another couple of sludgy, partially doomy, and unforgivably bouncy Pantera-styled riffs. To accommodate the injection of nonsense into death metal songs, Morbid Angel broke them down into simpler songs that resembled the happy go lucky “beer metal” songs of the past: verse-chorus, chanty foot-tapping title of song repeated, and an artistic outlook which more resembled wounded anger than any kind of delving toward a hidden truth. After this album, the band fell apart and reconstituted itself in new forms, trying to recapture some vein of composition that might appeal to lots of MTV-reprogrammed listeners and yet still be death metal. Much like Bigfoot and the perpetual motion machine, it might be out there somewhere, but as of yet Morbid Angel has not found it.
Dimmu Borgir – Enthrone Darkness Triumphant
As soon as black metal hit the newsstands with stories of church arson and murder, record company stooges devoted many hours of thought to the simple question of how they could re-package it for the Hot Topic kids. Dimmu Borgir found the first workable solution with Enthrone Darkness Triumphant which mixed mall-goth, Cradle of Filth, and carnival music to come up with a style that reveled in its own randomness and made its listeners feel profound for having picked up an incoherent but inscrutable mess. The lush keyboards of mainstream Gothic dance music mixed with the darker rhythms of Nine Inch Nails and guitar influences from rock/metal/rap hybrids in order to interrupt the occasional black metal riff so it never came to fruition. The result became the artistic equivalent of a pop tart: thin bread crust around mystery ingredients mixed with sugar. Naturally, people loved it because it allowed them to “be black metal” (ist krieg!) without leaving behind the same digestible pap they had been swallowing for years under the rock banner. But the CDs seemed to fly out of stores, and black metal fans changed from lonely dissidents to bloated mall denizens looking for a new thrill to blot out the days of tedium as they tried to pretend they wanted to even be alive. Even more importantly, this album opened the door to “black metal” as a container for whatever you wanted to throw in it, which made the truly dark hearts of the record company execs jump with joy and visions of bank transfers.
Image: would you trust a cigarette company with marijuana? Most likely, they would do to it what they did to tobacco, which is remove variety in flavor and replace it with innocuous but consistent brand-perfect sensations.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.