5 albums that invented death metal

July 16, 2014 –

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

A Year at the Wheel releases archive of video interviews

July 1, 2014 –

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Shane and Amy Bugbee drove across America for a year-long epic road trip spent producing some 200 short videos featuring interviews with classic American figures, including metal- and punk-related ones such as Jeff Becerra (Possessed), Ian Mackaye (Minor Threat) and Averse Sefira. They called this project A Year at the Wheel and have released the extensive interview footage to the public.

Their footage has been featured on syndicated news shows, and even in the Peter Jackson documentary West Of Memphis. They financed their project with no grants, no sponsors, and not even a credit card, and began with only $180 between them. Since that time, their YouTube videos have received over 1.3 million views and they have published a 534-page book called The Suffering & Celebration Of Life In America including their interviews with the above musical figures.

In response to popular interest the Bugbees have made their archive available to others through Archive.Org. The footage can be not only viewed, but used by other filmmakers and journalists in their own projects. Subjects include internationally known photographer Joel Peter Witkin, anthropologist William H. McNeill, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, Attorney for the American Atheists Edwin Kagin, punk icon Ian MacKaye, the Godfather of Death Metal Jeff Becerra, American Indian Movement activist Dennis Banks, the black metal band Averse Sefira, and eyehategod’s Mike Williams.

The Suffering and Celebration of Life in America by Shane and Amy Bugbee

February 16, 2013 –


The Suffering and Celebration of Life in America
by Shane and Amy Bugbee
532 pages, $50 (direct: paperback $25 ebook $10)

the_suffering_and_celebration_of_life_in_america-shane_and_amy_bugbeeShane and Amy Bugbee are no strangers to controversy. Shane helped produce the original Milwaukee Metalfests, then ran several of his own Expo of the Extreme shows, while publishing classic Ragnar Redbeard texts with intros by Anton LaVey and running a radio show called Radio Free Satan with the blessing off the occult community.

In addition, the Bugbees put fingers into about every pie in the outsider art community, from banned comic book artist Mike Diana to — well, evil metal, now that you mention it. Their book The Suffering and Celebration of Life in America is a tour of the USA to discover its roots, but it’s also a series of interviews with some of metal’s greatest minds.

Originally, Shane and Amy Bugbee, a married pair of artists and entrepreneurs, planned an adventure called A Year at the Wheel where they would drive the length and breadth of the United States during an election year and record what they saw.

Luckily these artists are also metalheads and so decided to visit with a number of classic figures in the underground or related scenes. They interviewed Jeff Becerra (twice), Ian Mackaye (Minor Threat), Averse Sefira, the West Memphis 3, metal artist Jeff Gaither, and Gene Hoglan (Dark Angel).

These interviews tend to be in-dept explorations of the motivations behind metal artists, and include a number of statements that are crushing in their honesty and profundity. In many ways, they showcase the best of metal when all of the rock-star impositions are removed.

For example, take this selection from Averse Sefira:

Some people think the only real difference between black metal and other forms of metal is the fact that you wear corpse paint and that you scream instead of growl. That’s really, really short sighted. You look at a band like Emperor. You could not write a song like ‘I Am The Black Wizards’ in death metal or thrash or anything like that. You could not write a song like ‘Blashyrkh’ the song that Immortal did in any other genre but black metal. It wants to transcend and that is why we are involved in it. (307)

Interview questions become interesting as the Bugbees interrogate their subjects about historical mysteries, and in doing so, lay bare to some of the vital issues conflicting them. For example, Jeff Becerra (Possessed) on his Satanism and censorship:

We had to take the upside down cross off of the second and third records, well we didn’t, the record company did. We actually toned down the Satanism for the second and third because it was the bonfire of the vanities, the Christians were throwing books on the fire and burning shit up that might be important. People’s moms were making them switch to catholic school cause they were getting caught with shit, like it was drugs, people were afraid of Satan then, no one is scared of Satan now… It’s a trip because if people find spirituality without fear it’s gonna be okay. Life is
scary enough at this point in time, we don’t need to put metaphysical boogie men in our children’s heads. (445)

Not all of the interviews are metal per se, but it’s hard to deny the influence of Minor Threat on underground bands who came after them. Much as punk is different than metal however, the punk outlook as expressed by Ian Mackaye (Minor Threat) is less metaphysical and more political — in fact, this may be the most significant difference between metal and punk, now that I think about it:

In my mind, at least in our culture, the overriding emphasis is on profit and wealth. I think it’s actually the modern form of power. Before there were royalty and kings, or this guy has the biggest knife and cuts off more people’s heads. Now the warriors, the really powerful people are the rich people, and profit is so dominating in all business conversations. (514)

What makes these interviews interesting (outside of the content) is that they are not in a fanzine. This is a book about driving across America to figure out what it’s all about. The goal was to discover it, and themselves, for the authors. In doing so, by approaching many classic musicians from non-standard angles, they captured a lot of what motivated them.

In addition, the Bugbees are no strangers to the type of experience that a metalhead has in a society that, whether motivated by Jesus or money or something else, doesn’t like the disobedient and too smart to conform and get in line for the easy jobs and abundant shopping. In their case, it was a professed interest in Satanism, horror movies, metal and pornography that attracted negative attention.

In America’s heartland, they had to abandon a town and a successful business when a “poison pen letter” outed them as the authors of several atheistic and not-so-very-Jesus blogs that might have endorsed Satanism. Along their trip, they lost other jobs too, as well as non-profit opportunities. In a few cases, they almost lost friends or other contacts but were able to rescue the situation.

Wherever they went, these accusations seemed to follow them. It would make anyone paranoid. It explains what so many metalheads feel in this society, which is that the instant it identifies us as outsiders, it goes on the offensive. We are seen as a threat to its way of life, whether it be conservative and Christian or politically correct and urban.

For this and other interesting explorations of what it is to be an outsider, The Suffering and Celebration of Life in America is a great read for anyone who has stepped outside of the mainstream, and wants to find a reason not just to be outside, but to celebrate it.