Death in Transition – A Brief History of the Evolution of Death Metal

Progress and change are divisive topics. How these words are defined, contextualized, and framed is dependent on a vast array of variables that metamorphose and evolve with each topic they are attached to. Social. Political. Economic. Artistic. Take your pick. It would be difficult to find two people who agree on what progress or change look like in each. What is forward-thinking revolution to one is abject heresy to another. Thus is life. Thus is metal.

Death metal in particular has received an increased level of attention as of late due to its musical progressiveness. It is difficult to look at death metal output in 2016 alone and not notice substantial amounts of diversity and progression in style and content. From Blood Incantation’s widely lauded space horror soundtrack Starspawn to the technical wall-of-impenetrable-nihilism barrage that is Ulcerate’s long-awaited Shrines of Paralysis, one of metal’s most historically popular and influential sub-genres unleashed a nearly overwhelming onslaught of quality mayhem that satisfied the eardrums of many a metal-head last year.

Death Metal’s 2016 Domination

A closer look into death metal’s recent successes shows that this emphasis on variety, diversity, and progression is endemic within the sub-genre as a whole. Lyrically, death metal songwriters of all varieties penned tracks on topics as varied as existential philosophy (Mithras), the nature of violence (Dormant Ordeal), science fiction and technology (Wormed), dystopia (Zhrine), history (Gorguts) and, thankfully, Majora’s Mask (THANK YOU, Chthe’ilist). Musically, death metal albums arrayed themselves in mixtures of dazzling technicality, straightforward brutality, seething atmosphere, and copious amounts of blasting while pushing the boundaries of the sub-genre itself through the incorporation of jazz, black metal, hardcore, and other forms of music. Hell, even album artwork added a vivid component to the tapestry of death metal in 2016, with work from artists such as the legendary Paolo Girardi and surrealist painter Sergey Laisk adorning albums with pieces that added depth and style to the music of the bands they collaborated with. On most counts, the death metal renaissance is in full bloom, and there is much rejoicing.

Much of this thematic and musical diversity could be considered a bit surprising historically, given that the sub-genre’s pioneers roared primarily about cannibals on the rampage, death of the extraordinarily violent variety, and such hopelessly romantic fare as copulation with knives (here’s looking at you, Cannibal Corpse). Most who are familiar with this historical backdrop recall the days when shoddily rendered gore-splattered corpses adorned the covers of the vast majority of its records, and how Tipper Gore was moderately unhappy about it. Shock and awe was the name of the game, subtlety be damned. With a past such as this juxtaposed against a contemporary backdrop, it is fair to assert that death metal has come a long way in expanding beyond its gore-fed roots.

Not all view this as a positive development. Aversion to the unknown and the new is most definitely a thing, and music fans are no exception to this aspect of the human condition. This perspective is evident throughout the metal landscape, but has recently found a home in the modern death metal scene. What to some is invigorating musical ingenuity and prowess others argue is nothing more than technical wankery; musical stylings replete with sound and fury, disrespecting the past and signifying a hell of a lot of nothing. The old way is the best way; now put on some 80s ‘tallica!

But like it or not, death metal has been steadily marching toward a new horizon for decades, splitting into dynamic prisms of sub-genres within sub-genres at such a rapid clip that is becoming difficult to keep track of the difference between old school, brutal, progressive, technical, Sumerian, and deathgrindslamcore. While slightly obnoxious, it is all death metal, and it has made its presence known in force as of late. A quick look into death metal’s historical evolution provides insight into how death metal became the multifaceted entity it is in 2017, and how this progression has impacted metal as a whole.

A History of Death (in Brief):

Suffocation. Autopsy. Obituary. Dissection. If one were to ask the question “what’s in a name” in regard to early death metal, the answer would be fairly obvious. Most every facet of death metal’s early aesthetic dripped with an overwhelming infatuation with grim and fantastical depictions of violence. It was in-your-face, unapologetic music that alienated itself from the mainstream through graphic imagery and an utter lack of any shade of subtlety. Following in the footsteps of forebears such as Venom and Slayer, death metal emerged in full force in the late 1980s and early 1990s as an even more visceral, chaotic, and punishing form of metal than thrash and the first wave of black metal, pushing metal’s technical and lyrical components to new extremes.

Generally, early death metal can be split into three categories of stylistic emphasis: violence/gore, occult/anti-religious, and progressive/technical. The first category was occupied primarily by the above mentioned bands, who unleashed a general whirlwind of hyper-violence throughout death metal’s early years. Of all death metal acts blazing the trail in the late 80s and early 90s, none were as emblematic of death metal’s murderous obsessions as Cannibal Corpse.

 

In their debut album Eaten Back to Life, the band put on full display the sheer brutality lyrically, musically, and aesthetically that death metal would become known/loved/reviled for. Throughout the early 90s, Cannibal Corpse would become the gold standard of the death metal style: blazing speeds coupled with graphic depictions of dissection, murder, and cannibalism, and helped cement death metal’s early reputation as one of metal’s most extreme products. Somewhat bafflingly, they would become relatively popular with mainstream listeners, being the only metal band that can claim acting credits in an Ace Ventura film. Whether or not this fact is great or god awful is probably a debate for another time.

Outside of the kings of gore, acts such as California’s Possessed and Florida’s Morbid Angel and Deicide brought the occult to death metal with songs declaring the ascension of the Lord of Darkness himself and the fall of organized religion with well-regarded albums such as Altars of Madness and Legion. Further north along the East Coast, Immolation and Incantation added further anti-religious ferocity throughout the early 1990s, presenting a thesis of disdain for organized religion, particularly Christianity.

 

Less inclined toward outright anti-religious and gore-related topics were bands exploring a more experimental side to death metal. Atheist and Cynic, utilizing a type of jazz fusion in their compositions, added a new focus on technicality and musical exploration. Gorguts, another early giant in the scene, wrote incredibly dense and complex songs in a style completely their own. Lyrically, these groups focused on philosophy and more existential topics than their death metal counterparts. Vocals branched out from the standard snarls and roars of other death metal acts, with Cynic in particular utilizing clean vocal passages and a vocoder to create ethereal, alien vocals to compliment the jazz-infused craziness of the music.

 

Old school death metal was a crazy place, filled with talented bands and a lot of shock value. By the mid-1990s, however, the flame of this movement in death metal was slowly dying, as genre mainstays such as Morbid Angel and Cannibal Corpse experienced lineup upheaval and dips in quality output, and progressive acts such as Cynic and Atheist had either dissolved or ceased releasing new material. From the ashes of this stagnancy rose the band who would become the standard-bearers of progressive death metal throughout the 1990s: Death.

The Evolution of Death:

The importance of Death in death metal’s evolution cannot be understated. With their first two releases in death metal’s early years, Scream Bloody Gore and Leprosy, Death helped pioneer the gore formula so prominent in the early phases of death metal. By the release of their albums Spiritual Healing and Individual Thought Patterns, however, the band began to deviate from its roots and into more abstract territory. Lyrics grew introspective, album art less grotesque, and the music more progressive in composition. This new sound differentiated itself from Death’s early work by incorporating a heavy dose of intricate polyrhythmic drum passages, an increase in melodic guitar work spliced into death metal’s standard chugs, and even some acoustic and instrumental interludes enjoyed prominence, particularly in Death’s final album, The Sound of Perseverance. Part of this progression in the band’s sound was due to Schuldiner’s willingness to work with artists in the less prominent tech death scene such as Cynic’s Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert, who brought to the band an altogether new approach to the band’s songwriting. This alteration in style and content was not only evident in the music. Death altered its trademark imagery away from anti-religious themes, removing the inverted cross and reaper images from their band logo for their final album. Such changes would continue in death metal into the early 2000s following the passing of Schuldiner and the dissolution of Death. Bands like Immolation would follow suit with this dynamic, changing band logos and lyrical direction from religious topics to a broader spectrum of American society and politics.

 

The willingness of bands like Death and Immolation to explore new themes and territory served as a harbinger to the genre opening itself up in a variety of contexts. In the mid-2000s Cattle Decapitation elevated death metal’s gory motifs by merging the grind of Napalm Death with the ravenous chugging of death metal, and railed with fury against environmental abuse and for the ascension of non-human life. The Faceless melted brains with unrepentant technicality that would launch an entire generation of imitators. Behemoth unleashed a new era of Satanic panic with a stretch of records firmly entrenched in the traditions of black and death metal. In the 21st Century, death metal has sprouted its own set of branches. It has developed. It has adapted. It has evolved. It has progressed.

Yeah. Fine. But who cares?

Metal as a genre is relatively young, and the amount of evolution that it has undergone in its short existence is staggering. This matters, because a willingness to evolve and progress is one of the principal components of a genre’s survival. Metal is no exception. It is loud, it is brazen, and it very rarely sits still. It is not a slave to traditional sounds or concepts. Some listeners may be, but that has not stopped artists from blending styles of music that may not seem immediately complementary to metal. Classical. Jazz. Punk. Electronic. African-American spirituals. There are few boundaries that metal is unwilling to push, and the genre is better for it. Death metal is a sterling example of the fact that this change is inevitable. Some hate it. Others crave it. But it is a consistent reality nonetheless.

Which is a positive thing.

2016 was a case-in-point of the impact of musical and thematic progress in the world of death metal. Listeners were treated with an incredible amount of releases from bands who care about the history of this sub-genre, and have worked tirelessly to build upon and expand it. New topics are being raged upon. New listeners are being engaged. New generations of musicians are shredding their fingers to recreate Virvum riffs. Death metal of the past decade has proven that metal still has new and creative ideas up its sleeve, and that a willingness to embrace progress can produce excellent results. Progress and change may be difficult topics in which to find common ground, but in this era of uncertainty and division on a global scale, at least one thing is evident: death metal is alive and well, and thrives in a revived golden age of evolution, exploration, and manic creativity. And that is worthy of celebration.

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