If you follow music and metal journalism as closely as we do, you definitely saw Kerrang‘s list of The 50 Greatest Death Metal Bands Right Now (along with the ensuing discourse). While I’m going to use this intro to share some commentary on the list, I’m not going to waste time on the standard batch of criticisms these lists face. As is the case with any “Top” list, there are countless bands I feel should have been included and excluded, and I’d definitely tweak the order throughout; ranking Vitriol under
a Death covers band Gruesome feels particularly egregious.
Frankly, as an overall list, there are a ton of excellent selections that Jonathan and I would certainly place among the greatest young/contemporary bands operating in the genre today. And given Kerrang‘s usual coverage and their prominence, it’s pleasantly surprising to see them spotlight a genre that’s on the rise in terms of mainstream appeal but still operates primarily in the underground. More specifically, it’s great to see that they didn’t just spotlight established death metal bands who have already made their mark over the last several years or even decades (unlike some other publications).
Where I struggle with this list most is with its parameters and intentions. For starters, the self-inflicted limitation of only including bands that are “specifically death metal” is puzzling. It’s worth pointing out that they ignore their own criterion by including excellent, non-conventional death metal bands like Artificial Brain and especially Pyrrhon. Perhaps the reason behind this oversight is the fact that sonic evolution determines a genre’s longevity and relevance, which is why the bands we love most frequently experiment with genre norms. For Kerrang to specifically exclude such a relevant contemporary death metal band like Rivers of Nihil because “[they’re their] own weird beast” seemingly presents a misunderstanding of how genres grow and thrive. By this traditionalist logic, any band that doesn’t draw from an OG thrash-inspired, extreme metal blueprint isn’t “specifically death metal.”
My second thought in reaction to this piece is more open-ended. What exactly does “greatness” mean, in the context of this list and similar discussions? According to Kerrang, these are “the 50 bands from the past 10 years who’ve kept death alive and well,” comprised of “a new wave of crashing, creative, and most of all diverse death metal bands … making the genre once more a place to find unique and insane talent.” While this seems like a clear thesis on the surface, it doesn’t actually define the common thread that makes these bands “great.”
Could greatness be defined by uniqueness and creativity? There are several bands on this list whom I love but would struggle to describe as entirely “unique,” considering how many comps they have from death metal’s golden years. How about defining “great” as “best”? As in, most talented, best songwriting, etc.? Frankly, determining an objective measure of talent is a harder task than defining what greatness means. Well, then what about influence? Ranking the bands on this list by the impact they’ve had on the progression of the genre? But the whole point of this list is analyzing what’s being done now by young, up-and-coming bands, several of which simply haven’t released enough material to accurately gauge their impact. Hell, the resurgence of early ’90s death metal we’re experiencing took roughly 30 years to become a full-on movement.
The point of this internal, Socratic dialogue is to illustrate the elusiveness of a true definition for greatness. When we make our Album of the Year lists, we’re operating under a pretty specific, definable guideline: did this album come out this year? Even then there’s limitations, given how difficult it is for even avid music listeners to digest every notable release from every genre in just a year’s time. That’s why a list like this is set up for failure and presents itself as if it says more than it’s capable of declaring. As Eden mentioned on a recent episode of our podcast, you simply can’t nail down the “greatest” bands in a genre like death metal using a list with just 50 spots. Not only are there are too many distinct scenes, death metal has always been rooted in the underground, and it requires deeper inspection to curate and spotlight the next wave of torchbearers for the genre.
As much as I love the extra attention for some of death metal’s rising stars, I hope those unfamiliar with the genre who read Kerrang reach beyond this solid-but-limited list of bands. What makes death metal so great has been its ability to adapt new ideas while still remaining a bludgeoning musical tour de force. Every month, Jonathan and I aim to capture that with our Death’s Door roundup. And while we’ll certainly cover the big names and promising newcomers highlighted by Kerrang, we’ll also spotlight groups that are on the fringes of the genre’s blueprint or otherwise operating in a more shadowy section of the underground. Death metal has a vast, rich history of sonic exploration, and it’s worth digging into the depths of the modern genre landscape to discover what new bold ideas might be hitting the mainstream next.
Cream of the Crop
Beneath the Massacre – Fearmonger (brutal tech death)
I start nearly all my blurbs for the blog with some type of verbose intro paragraph to give the music some extra context. But we don’t have time for that with Fearmonger. If you’re even remotely interested in death metal, then you need to listen to this album ASAP. Honestly, you can stop reading here and go do that right now; my feelings will remain intact. I’ve been unbelievably hyped to hear Fearmonger from the moment Beneath the Massacre released “Autonomous Mind,” their first new music in eight years. Just look at Jonathan’s and my reaction when Eden told us we received a promo copy:
After listening to Fearmonger in full countless times, I can confirm that it indeed makes me want to run through a brick wall, and then crawl back over to the remaining concrete structure and run through it again. There’s simply no other brutal death metal or tech death band that can execute a synthesis of these styles as well as Beneath the Massacre can. The band sounds as vibrant today as they did when I first discovered Mechanics of Dysfunction in high school. Frankly, I didn’t think they could raise the bar much higher than they did on Incongruous, yet here we are, once again watching Beneath the Massacre pole vault over the lofty standards they’ve established for themselves.
I mean it when I say Beneath the Massacre stand alone on their own plane within the death metal universe. Sure, you might be able to find more brutal, technical, and memorable songwriting from the genre, but I genuinely haven’t found a death metal band that better combines all these benchmarks into such an exceptional encapsulation of modern death metal’s strengths. Every single song on Fearmonger fires on all cylinders from start to finish, channeling pure sonic violence with an onslaught of blastbeats, breakdowns, and noodling.
What’s perhaps most incredible about this is the fact that Beneath the Massacre manage to write such memorable songs with distinct hooks despite never slowing their pace. They don’t need interludes or slow, groovy songs to give listeners respite from the aggression. Every track perfectly blends technical guitar wizardry and blistering gravity blasts with bludgeoning breakdowns and rumbling double kick rolls. Again, if you like modern death metal, I guarantee everything that attracts you to the genre is on display on Fearmonger and performed at a level higher than your expectations.
Read More: Review | Editors’ Picks
Best of the Rest
Plague – Portraits of Mind (old school death metal)
As will become apparent as you continue to read through this column, unhinged, ugly, old school madness was the predominant name of the game for death metal in February. And there are few albums in this most depraved of spaces that filled my cup more readily than Grecian hellions Plague’s debut infernal conjugation Portraits of Mind. For those who have yet to discover this band’s thoroughly nasty charms, you’re in for a treat.
Plague come from a fairly simple school of thought when it comes to death metal songwriting. Riffs, riffs, and more riffs. This is great, because this hungry brain can and will never get its fill. The band aren’t out to wow with technical wizardry (though each musician here is more than capable of hanging with the best of them), but instead bury you in a pummeling pile of guitar-based savagery, written and performed directly and with great zeal. The ominous piano tones of opener “Intersperse” set the tone that mixes Incantation-like moderation in pace with more-than-occasional bursts of musical madness reminiscent of Floridian stalwarts like Morbid Angel. The remainder of the album digs into this juxtaposition with a fierceness that’s difficult not to admire and appreciate, and churns out memorable passages at a regular clip. It’s a doozy of a listen, and one that won’t disappoint fans of death metal’s nastiest varieties.
Greece has been slowly building a death metal arsenal over the past few decades, with Dead Congregation, SepticFlesh, and Inveracity clogging ear holes with plenty of high quality music. Plague can confidently add themselves to that list of giants, as Portraits of Mind is a bona fide banger from start to finish. An excellent debut.
Sentient Divide – Haunted by Cruelty (blackened caverncore)
Sentient Divide hail from Spokane, Washington, and play some of the most oppressive, cavernous death metal you are likely to hear in 2020. A bold claim this early in the year, but I feel confident in this assessment. The band’s sophomore full-length Haunted by Cruelty is an absolute banger from start to finish, balancing incredibly ferocious riffs and drum work with a cavernous atmosphere that would make even Incantation take note. It’s a record that. knows exactly what it’s trying to achieve and accomplishes its mission to borderline perfection.
Outside of the aforementioned fathers or caverncore, fans of the hellish sounds of bands like Father Befouled and Obliteration will find plenty to enjoy in terms of sheer feral nastiness. The band wield atmosphere like a bloody club, with the opening title-track and its follow-up “Ancient Dominion” setting the stage for the sheer brutality to come. But there are plenty of bands out there peddling this old school, bellows-from-the-pit-of-hell sound, so what sets Sentient Divide apart? That would be their penchant for black metal, which makes its presence known with razor-sharp regularity throughout the record. “Spear and Snare” and “Eternal Conviction” trade off between bludgeoning death metal chugs and speedy blackened passages with absolute ease, culminating in a record that balances its influences with superb focus without ever feeling disjointed. It’s a masterful blend of sounds that sets Sentient Divide apart from their caverncore contemporaries.
Front to back, there’s little to complain about with Haunted by Cruelty. If you’re looking for a wicked slab of cavernous death metal that blends in furious black metal seamlessly, you may have found your favorite album of 2020. Regardless of your preferences within the death metal cosmos, this is a record I highly recommend to fans of quality songwriting, fantastic musicianship, and nuanced brutality. A must-listen.
Thoren – Gwarth II (dissonant tech death, avant-garde death metal)
While firmly obsessed with its gnarly past, modern death metal has its own unique strain of forward-thinking artists that don’t hesitate to confound and bamboozle within the confines of traditional death metal punishment. There are plenty such bands making waves in the scene currently (Ingurgitating Oblivion, Portal, and Peripheral Cortex to name but a few), but none in quite the style of Michigan’s Thoren. Over two full-length albums, the band have presented a nigh unhinged brand of the nasty stuff that is unmistakably recognizable as their own. Their hyper dissonant, absolutely batshit take on avant-garde death metal is not for the faint of heart, but those willing to leap into its swirling pool of bloody charms will find themselves amply rewarded.
Opener “Gwarth” shows listeners exactly what they’re getting themselves into. The riffs here, provided with enthusiasm by Anthony Lipari, are a sinuous stew that ebbs, flows, and morphs with such irregularity that it can be difficult to latch onto anything that’s going on. But the more time one spends with the record the more impressive this teeming mass of notes and chords becomes. There’s a method (however grad school it may be) behind the madness, and Lipari and bassist Joseph Paquette do a brilliant job of riding the music just to the edge of utter insanity without tipping completely over. “Thaw Gur”’s slightly more melodic and less breakneck pacing show the band at the top of their game, providing enough memorable moments to keep listeners hanging on for dear life. That’s the balance that Gwarth II strikes on a regular basis, making for an album that’s disorienting without feeling directionless.
This style of death metal is most certainly not for everyone. But those who have jumped headlong into the murk of dissonant death metal will find plenty to enjoy and admire in Gwarth II. A fantastic record that simply begs for repeat exposure.
Read More: Review
Cadaveribus – Open the Gate (primordial tar pit death-doom)
Bleeeeuuurrrrrggggghhhh. The first demo from this Japanese death-doom quartet oozes with pungent, cavernous slime, aiming for the same sort of “beating you over the head with crusty, decaying Autopsy riffs” energy as bands like Frozen Soul, Ossuarium, or Tomb Mold at their most primitive and slap-happy. Cadaveribus don’t necessarily do anything that different from their peers, but if you’re looking into death-doom demos with black and white cover art, I have a sneaking suspicion that novelty matters far less than the quality of the riffs within.
Much like their Texan peers in Malignant Altar, the deciding factor in giving Open the Gate an endorsement is in their management of tempo and groove. Take the end of “Stigma,” for instance: the band breaks into a full-out sprint before winding down, taking one last burst of energy and forming it into an auditory spear hurled directly at the listener. It’s a perfect way to cap off the song, giving it a memorable finish before the instrumentation spirals out into the ether. Open the Gate is a veritable treasure trove of moments like these. Huge props to these guys for cramming a ton of power into four short tracks. If you’re hankering for something nasty, Cadaveribus have just the thing to satiate that need.
Conjureth – Foul Formations (chaos-worshipping eldritch death metal)
Holy shit! Talk about the return of a prodigal son! After the dissolution of Ghoulgotha, one of the most underrated and underappreciated bands to grace death metal in recent years, I had no idea when the next project led by Wayne “Elektrokutioner” Sarantopolous would emerge, or if we’d even get anything after the bizarre opus of To Starve the Cross. The man’s kept himself busy drumming for Father Befouled and Encoffination, but given his penchant for weirdness, I was not looking forward to a long wait for new material with him in the driver’s seat.
Well, now I must wait no longer, because Conjureth are here, and holy shit, they’re fucking glorious. While sometimes newer projects take a release or two to find their footing, Foul Formations seems to have emerged from its gestation chamber completely ready to rumble. At 4 tracks, just under 13 minutes, it’s a far more vicious and pointed attack than Sarantopolous’ other bands, but it keeps the same basic thesis alive: doom-inflected death metal in the American tradition, but with a strange, non-Euclidean sense of melody, where everything seems… not quite right. Nothing lands or sticks as it’s supposed to, like the world has shifted out of formation ever so slightly. Imagine Edge of Sanity writing the A-side of Incantation’s Mortal Throne of Nazarene and you’ve got a decent idea of what’s going on here.
Weirdness aside, what makes Foul Formations such a joy is that each of these songs is honed to a point of molecular sharpness and each member of the trio is so completely locked in that this whole EP just fucking slays. If you’d have told me that one of the best demos of 2020 was going to come from Sarantopolous, I’d certainly believed you, but even then couldn’t have imagined how good Foul Formations would be. Perhaps it’s unfair to say this of such veterans, but this is the apex of what newer bands can be doing at this point in death metal: employing a profound degree of creativity and personality without sacrificing any of the killer energy and brutality we all know and love. You are not going to want to miss this.
Neptunus – Planetary Annihilation (brutal tech death)
Peripheral Cortex – God Kaiser Hell (avant-garde tech death)
Stoned God – Incorporeal (progressive death metal, groove metal)
Tómarúm – Wounds Ever Expanding (progressive death metal)
Xenobiotic – Mordrake (progressive tech death)