Death metal

Death metal
Death metal
Stylistic origins Thrash metal[1] Early black metal[2]
Cultural origins Mid 1980s, United States (particularly Florida)
Typical instruments Vocals, electric guitar, bass guitar, drums
Mainstream popularity Underground in 1980s, gradual rise until peaking at small to moderate in early 1990s. Increasing diversity and legitimacy since 2000s.
Melodic death metal, technical death metal
Fusion genres
Deathcore, blackened death metal, death/doom, deathgrind, death 'n' roll
Regional scenes
Florida, New York, Sweden, United Kingdom, Brazil, Japan, Poland
Other topics
Extreme metal, death growl, blast beat, list of death metal bands

Death metal is an extreme subgenre of heavy metal. It typically employs heavily distorted guitars, tremolo picking, deep growling vocals, blast beat drumming, minor keys or atonality, and complex song structures with multiple tempo changes.

Building from the musical structure of thrash metal and early black metal, death metal emerged during the mid 1980s.[2] Metal acts such as Slayer,[3][4] Kreator,[5] Celtic Frost,[6] and Venom were very important influences to the crafting of the genre.[2] Possessed[7] and Death,[8][9][10] along with bands such as Obituary, Carcass, Deicide and Morbid Angel are often considered pioneers of the genre.[11] In the late 1980s and early 1990s, death metal gained more media attention as popular genre niche record labels like Combat, Earache and Roadrunner began to sign death metal bands at a rapid rate.[12] Since then, death metal has diversified, spawning a variety of subgenres.[13]



Emergence and early history

English heavy metal band Venom, from Newcastle, crystallized the elements of what later became known as thrash metal, death metal and black metal, with their 1981 album Welcome to Hell.[14] Their dark, blistering sound, harsh vocals, and macabre, proudly Satanic imagery proved a major inspiration for extreme metal bands.[15] Another highly influential band, Slayer, formed in 1981. Although the band was a thrash metal act, Slayer's music was more violent than their thrash contemporaries Metallica, Megadeth and Exodus.[16] Their breakneck speed and instrumental prowess combined with lyrics about death, violence, war and Satanism won Slayer a rabid cult following.[17] According to Allmusic, Slayer's third album Reign in Blood "inspired the entire death metal genre".[18] It had a big impact on the genre leaders.[16]

Jeff Becerra of Possessed, who christened the term "Death Metal" in 1983 on the band's 1984 demo of the same name.[19][20]

Possessed, a band that formed in the San Francisco Bay Area during 1983, was attributed by Allmusic as "connecting the dots" between thrash metal and death metal with their 1985 debut album, Seven Churches.[21] While attributed as having a Slayer influence,[22] current and former members of the band had actually cited Venom and Motorhead, as well as early work by Exodus, as the main influences of their sound.[23][24] Although the group had released only 2 studio albums in their formative years, they have been described by both music journalists and musicians as either being "monumental" in developing the death metal style,[25] or as being the first death metal band.[26][27][28] Earache Records noted that "....the likes of Trey Azagthoth and Morbid Angel based what they were doing in their formative years on the Possessed blueprint laid down on the legendary Seven Churches recording. Possessed arguably did more to further the cause of 'Death Metal' than any of the early acts on the scene back in the mid-late 80's."[29]

Chuck Schuldiner (1967–2001) of Death, during a 1992 tour in Scotland in support of the album Human.

During the same period as the dawn of Possessed, a second influential metal band was formed in Florida: Death. Death, originally called Mantas, was formed during 1983 by Chuck Schuldiner, Kam Lee, and Rick Rozz. In 1984 they released their first demo entitled Death by Metal, followed by several more. The tapes circulated through the tape trader world, quickly establishing the band's name. With Death guitarist Schuldiner adopting vocal duties, the band made a major impact on the scene. The fast minor-key riffs and solos were complemented with fast drumming, creating a style that would catch on in tape trading circles.[30][31] Schuldiner has been attributed by Allmusic's Eduardo Rivadavia as being "widely recognized as the Father of Death Metal".[32] Death's 1987 debut release, Scream Bloody Gore, has been described by's Chad Bowar as being the "evolution from thrash metal to death metal",[33] and "the first true death metal record" by the San Francisco Chronicle.[34]

Along with Possessed and Death, other pioneers of death metal in the United States include Autopsy, Necrophagia, Master, Morbid Angel, Massacre, Atheist, Post Mortem,[35][36][37] Obituary and Deicide.

Growing popularity

By 1989, many bands had been signed by eager record labels wanting to cash in on the subgenre, including Florida's Obituary, Morbid Angel and Deicide. This collective of death metal bands hailing from Florida are often labeled as "Florida death metal". Death metal spread to Sweden in the late 1980s, flourishing with pioneers such as Carnage, God Macabre, Entombed, Dismember and Unleashed. In the early 1990s, the rise of typically melodic "Gothenburg metal" was recognized, with bands such as Dark Tranquillity, At the Gates, and In Flames.

Following the original death metal innovators, new subgenres began by the end of the decade. British band Napalm Death became increasingly associated with death metal, in particular, on 1990's Harmony Corruption. This album displays aggressive and fairly technical guitar riffing, complex rhythmics, a sophisticated growling vocal delivery by Mark "Barney" Greenway, and socially aware lyrical subjects, leading to the creation of the "grindcore" subgenre. Other bands contributing significantly to this early movement include Britain's Bolt Thrower and Carcass, and New York's Suffocation.

To close the circle, Death released their fourth album Human in 1991, an example of modern death metal. Death's founder Schuldiner helped push the boundaries of uncompromising speed and technical virtuosity, mixing technical and intricate rhythm guitar work with complex arrangements and emotive guitar solos.[38] Other examples are Carcass's Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious, Suffocation's Effigy of the Forgotten and Entombed's Clandestine from 1991. At this point, all the above characteristics are present: abrupt tempo and count changes, on occasion extremely fast drumming, morbid lyrics and growling vocal delivery.

Earache Records, Relativity Records and Roadrunner Records became the genre's most important labels,[39] with Earache releasing albums by Carcass, Napalm Death, Morbid Angel, and Entombed, and Roadrunner releasing albums by Obituary, and Pestilence. Although these labels had not been death metal labels, initially, they became the genre's flagship labels in the beginning of the 1990s. In addition to these, other labels formed as well, such as Nuclear Blast, Century Media, and Peaceville. Many of these labels would go on to achieve successes in other genres of metal throughout the 1990s.

In September 1990, Death's manager Eric Greif held one of the first North American death metal festivals, Day of Death, in Milwaukee suburb Waukesha, Wisconsin, and featured 26 bands including Autopsy, Broken Hope, Hellwitch, Obliveon, Revenant, Viogression, Immolation, Atheist, and Cynic.[40]

Later history

Death metal's popularity achieved its initial peak between the 1992–93 era, with some bands such as Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse and Obituary enjoying mild commercial successes. However, the genre as a whole never broke in to the mainstream. The genre's mounting popularity may have been partly responsible for a strong rivalry between Norwegian black metal and Swedish death metal scenes. Fenriz of Darkthrone has noted that Norwegian black metal musicians were "fed up with the whole death metal scene" at the time.[41] Death metal diversified in the 1990s, spawning a rich variety of subgenres which still have a large "underground" following at the present.



The setup most frequently used within the death metal genre is two guitarists, a bass player, a vocalist and a drummer often using "double bass blast beats".[42][43] Although this is the standard setup, bands have been known to occasionally incorporate other instruments such as electronic keyboards.[44]

The genre is often identified by fast, highly distorted and droptuned guitars, played with techniques such as palm muting and tremolo picking. The percussion is usually aggressive, and powerful; blast beats, double bass and exceedingly fast drum patterns frequently add to the complexity of the genre.[45]

Death metal is known for its abrupt tempo, key, and time signature changes. Death metal may include chromatic chord progressions and a varied song structure, rarely employing the standard verse-chorus arrangement. These compositions tend to emphasize an ongoing development of themes and motifs.

Vocals and lyrics

Death metal vocals are often guttural roars, grunts, snarls, and low gurles colloquially known as death growls. Death growling is mistakenly thought to be a form of screaming using the lowest vocal register known as vocal fry, however vocal fry is actually a form of overtone screaming and true death growling is in fact created by an altogether different technique.[46][specify] The 3 major methods of harsh vocalization used in the genre are mistaken for each other often, encompassing vocal fry screaming, false chord screaming, and true death growls.[47][Full citation needed] The style is sometimes referred to as Cookie Monster vocals, tongue-in-cheek, due to the vocal similarity to the voice of the popular Sesame Street character of the same name.[48] Although often criticized, death growls serve the aesthetic purpose of matching death metal's aggressive lyrical content.[49] High-pitched screaming is also commonly utilized in death metal, being heard in songs by Death, Exhumed, Dying Fetus, Cannibal Corpse, and Deicide. Often death metal singers will alternate between shrieks and growls in order to create a contrasting effect.

The lyrical themes of death metal may invoke slasher film-stylized violence,[50] but may also extend to topics like Satanism, anti-religion, occultism, Nature, mysticism, philosophy, Science Fiction, and politics.[51][52] Although violence may be explored in various other genres as well, death metal may elaborate on the details of extreme acts, including mutilation, dissection, torture, rape and necrophilia. Sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris commented this apparent glamorization of violence may be attributed to a "fascination" with the human body that all people share to some degree, a fascination which mixes desire and disgust.[53] Heavy metal author Gavin Baddeley also stated there does seem to be a connection between "how acquainted one is with their own mortality" and "how much they crave images of death and violence" via the media.[54] Additionally, contributing artists to the genre often defend death metal as little more than an extreme form of art and entertainment, similar to horror films in the motion picture industry.[2] This explanation has brought such musicians under fire from activists internationally, who claim that this is often lost on a large number of adolescents, who are left with the glamorization of such violence without social context or awareness of why such imagery is stimulating.[2]

According to Alex Webster, bassist of Cannibal Corpse, "The gory lyrics are probably not, as much as people say, [what's keeping us] from being mainstream. Like, 'death metal would never go into the mainstream because the lyrics are too gory?' I think it's really the music, because violent entertainment is totally mainstream."[55]

Origin of the term

The most popular theory of the subgenre's christening is Possessed's 1984 demo, Death Metal; the song from the eponymous demo would also be featured on the band's 1985 debut album, Seven Churches.[56] Possessed vocalist/bassist Jeff Becerra said he coined the term in early 1983 for a high school English class assignment.[57] Another possible origin is a fanzine called Death Metal, started by Thomas Fischer and Martin Ain of Hellhammer and Celtic Frost. The name was later given to the 1984 compilation Death Metal released by Noise Records.[58][59] The term might also have originated from other recordings. A demo released by Death in 1984 is called Death by Metal.[60]


It should be noted that cited examples are not necessarily exclusive to one particular style. Many bands can easily be placed in two or more of the following categories, and a band's specific categorization is often a source of contention due to personal opinion and interpretation.

  • Melodic death metal: Scandinavian death metal could be considered the forerunner of "melodic death metal". Melodic death metal, sometimes referred to as "melodeath", is heavy metal music mixed with some death metal elements, such as growled vocals and the liberal use of blastbeats. Songs are typically based on Iron Maiden-esque guitar harmonies and melodies with typically higher-pitched growls, as opposed to traditional death metal's brutal riffs and much lower death grunts. Carcass is sometimes credited with releasing the first melodic death metal album with 1993's Heartwork, although Swedish bands In Flames, Dark Tranquillity, and At the Gates are usually mentioned as the main pioneers of the genre and of the Gothenburg metal sound.
  • Technical death metal: Technical death metal and "progressive death metal" are related terms that refer to bands distinguished by the complexity of their music. Common traits are dynamic song structures, uncommon time signatures, atypical rhythms and unusual harmonies and melodies. Bands described as technical death metal or progressive death metal usually fuse common death metal aesthetics with elements of progressive rock, jazz or classical music. While the term technical death metal is sometimes used to describe bands that focus on speed and extremity as well as complexity, the line between progressive and technical death metal is thin. "Tech death" and "prog death", for short, are terms commonly applied to such bands as Cryptopsy, Edge of Sanity, Opeth, Origin and Sadist. Cynic, Atheist, Pestilence and Gorguts are examples of bands noted for creating jazz-influenced death metal. Necrophagist and Spawn of Possession are known for a classical music-influenced death metal style. Death metal pioneers Death also refined their style in a more progressive direction in their final years. The Polish band Decapitated gained recognition as one of Europe's primary modern technical death metal acts.[61][62]
Aborted are "key contributors to the death-grind genres," according to Allmusic.[65]

Other fusions and subgenres

There are other heavy metal music subgenres that have come from fusions between death metal and other non-metal genres, such as the fusion of death metal and jazz. Atheist and Cynic are two examples. The former of went as far as to include jazz-style drum solos on albums, and the latter incorporated elements of jazz fusion. Nile have also incorporated Egyptian music and Middle Eastern themes into their work, while Alchemist have incorporated psychedelia along with Aboriginal music. Some groups, such as Nightfall, Septic Flesh, and Eternal Tears of Sorrow, have incorporated keyboards and symphonic elements, creating a fusion of symphonic metal and death metal, sometimes referred to as symphonic death metal.

See also


  1. ^ "Death Metal/Black Metal". Allmusic. Retrieved 2008-07-04. "Death Metal grew out of the thrash metal in the late '80s." 
  2. ^ a b c d e Dunn, Sam (Director) (August 5, 2005). Metal: A Headbanger's Journey (motion picture). Canada: Dunn, Sam. 
  3. ^ Joel McIver Extreme Metal, 2000, Omnibus Press pg.14 ISBN 88-7333-005-3
  4. ^ The greatest metal band for Mtv
  5. ^ Joel McIver Extreme Metal, 2000, Omnibus Press pg.100 ISBN 88-7333-005-3
  6. ^ Joel McIver Extreme Metal, 2000, Omnibus Press pg.55 ISBN 88-7333-005-3
  7. ^ Rivadavia, E. Possessed: Biography, allmusic, (accessed August 13, 2008)
  8. ^ allmusic ((( Death > Biography )))
  9. ^ Metal Rules Interview with Chuck Schuldiner
  10. ^ The Best Of NAMM 2008: Jimmy Page, Satriani Models Among The Highlights | News @ Ultimate-Guitar.Com
  11. ^ Morbid Angel page @ Allmusic "Formed in 1984 in Florida, Morbid Angel (along with Death) would also help spearhead an eventual death metal movement in their home state"
  12. ^ Is Metal Still Alive? WATT Magazine, Written by: Robert Heeg, Published: April 1993
  13. ^ Silver Dragon Records "During the 1990s death metal diversified influencing many subgenres"
  14. ^ Venom – Welcome to Hell review @ Allmusic "Make no mistake: Welcome to Hell, more than any other album, crystallized the elements of what later became known as thrash, death, black, and virtually every other form of extreme metal"
  15. ^ Venom band page @ Allmusic "Venom developed a dark, blistering sound which paved the way for the subsequent rise of thrash music; similarly, their macabre, proudly Satanic image proved a major inspiration for the legions of black metal bands"
  16. ^ a b Into The Lungs of Hell Metal Hammer magazine, Written by: Enrico de Paola, Translated by: Vincenzo Chioccarelli, Published: March 2000 ""
  17. ^ Slayer band page @ Allmusic
  18. ^ Huey, Steve. "Reign in Blood – Slayer". Retrieved 2007-01-05. 
  19. ^ John Peel,, Albert Mudrian (2004). Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal and Grindcore. Feral House. ISBN 193259504X. 
  20. ^ Scaruffi, Piero (October 15, 2003). A History of Rock Music: 1951-2000 (page 277). iUniverse. ISBN 0595295657. 
  21. ^ Possessed – Seven Churches review @ Allmusic
  22. ^ Possessed band page @ Allmusic
  23. ^ POSSESSED interview - Jeff Becerra
  24. ^ POSSESSED interview - Brian Montana
  25. ^ Purcell, Natalie J. (2003). Death Metal music: the passion and politics of a subculture (page 54). McFarland & Company. ISBN 0786415851. 
  26. ^ McIver, Joel (2008). The Bloody Reign of Slayer. Omnibus Press. ISBN 1847721095. 
  27. ^ Ekeroth, Daniel (2008). Swedish Death Metal (page 12). Bazillion Points. ISBN 9780979616310. 
  28. ^ John Peel, Albert Mudrian (2004). Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal and Grindcore (page 70). Feral House. ISBN 193259504X. 
  29. ^ Jeff Becerra interview
  30. ^ Death band page
  31. ^ Purcell, Natalie J. (2003). "3". Death Metal Music: The Passion and Politics of a Subculture. McFarland & Company. pp. 54. ISBN 0786415851. Retrieved June 2007. 
  32. ^ Death biography, allmusic
  33. ^
  34. ^ Aldis, N. & Sherry, J. Heavy metal Thunder, 2006, San Francisco: Chronicle ISBN 0-8118-5353-5
  35. ^ "Post Mortem offered my first real exposure ever to death metal, arriving before standards like Death’s Scream Bloody Gore in 1987 and Autopsy’s Severed Survival in 1989"
  36. ^ Boston Herald: "Boston isn’t known as a death-metal hotbed, but if the city could claim one pioneer band in the genre, it was Post Mortem"
  37. ^ Boston Globe:"helped pioneer the underground subgenre of death metal"
  38. ^ Empty Words, where there are dozens of reviews along this line
  39. ^ 'Death Metal Special: Dealers in Death' Terrorizer #151
  40. ^ Biography, Official Atheist site, accessed December 10, 2008
  41. ^ Zebub, Bill (2007). Black Metal: A Documentary.
  42. ^ Purcell, N. Death Metal music: the passion and politics of a subculture, at 9, McFarland, 2003 (retrieved October 28, 2010)
  43. ^ Kahn-Harris, K. Extreme metal: music and culture on the edge, at 32, Berg Publishers, 2007 (retrieved October 28, 2010)
  44. ^ Marsicano, D. Melodic Death Metal, (retrieved October 27, 2010)
  45. ^ FretJam Guitar Lessons, "How to Play Death Metal Guitar"
  46. ^ Interview with Samuel Deschaine, Death Metal Vocal Instructor 2011
  47. ^ Melissa Cross, The Zen Of Screaming
  48. ^ "Cookie Monster Vocals". Retrieved January 21, 2006. . See further examples of this usage at "The cookie monster vocal explained". rocknerd. Archived from the original on February 18, 2006. Retrieved January 21, 2006. 
  49. ^ Sharpe-Young, Garry. Death Metal, ISBN 0-9582684-4-4
  50. ^ Moynihan, Michael, and Dirik Søderlind (1998). Lords of Chaos (2nd ed.). Feral House. ISBN 0-922915-94-6, p. 27
  51. ^ Purcell, Natalie J. (2003). "3". Death Metal Music: The Passion and Politics of a Subculture. McFarland & Company. pp. 39–42. ISBN 0786415851. Retrieved June 2007. 
  52. ^ Wikihow: How to Appreciate Death Metal
  53. ^ Khan-Harris, Keith. Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge. Oxford: Berg, 2006. ISBN 978-1-84520-399-3
  54. ^ Baddeley, Gavin. Raising Hell!: The Book of Satan and Rock 'n' Roll
  55. ^ Alex Webster (Cannibal Corpse) interview
  56. ^ Purcell, Natalie J. (2003). "4". Death Metal Music: The Passion and Politics of a Subculture. McFarland & Company. pp. 53. ISBN 0786415851. Retrieved June 2007. "Meanwhile, in 1983, the term was co-coined by some American teens who formed the band Possessed and labeled their demo "Death Metal"." 
  57. ^ Ekeroth, Daniel (2008). Swedish Death Metal (page 11). Bazillion Points. ISBN 9780979616310. 
  58. ^ Purcell, Natalie J. (2003). "3". Death Metal Music: The Passion and Politics of a Subculture. McFarland & Company. pp. 53. ISBN 0786415851. Retrieved June 2007. "The term "Death Metal" emerged when Thomas Fischer and Martin Ain, a pair of Swiss Venom fans in the band Hellhammer (later Celtic Frost), started a fanzine called "Death Metal". Later, their record label German Noise Records used the "Death Metal" name for a compilation featuring Hellhammer" 
  59. ^ Hellhammer biography"Karl from Noise is planning to call the LP Black Mass but it is Tom who talks him out of it and proposes Death Metal which actually is the name of the underground mag Tom used to run"
  60. ^ THE DEATH OF DEATH Martelgang Magazine, Written by: Anton de Wit, Published: January 2002, "Yet it's almost unthinkable that the term wasn't inspired by the band name Death or their first demo, Death by Metal from 1984."
  61. ^ Eduardo Rivadavia. "Decapitated Biography". Allmusic. Retrieved 2010-02-07. 
  62. ^ "Decapitated's New Lineup Performs Live For First Time; Photos Available - Feb. 3, 2010". Retrieved 2010-02-07. 
  63. ^ a b 'Doom Metal Special:Doom/Death' Terrorizer #142
  64. ^ a b c d e Purcell, Nathalie J. (2003). Death Metal Music: The Passion and Politics of a Subculture. McFarland & Company. pp. 23. ISBN 0786415851. Retrieved April 2008. 
  65. ^ Rivadavia, Eduardo. "Aborted". Allmusic. Retrieved 2009-06-10. 
  66. ^ "The Locust, Cattle Decapitation, Daughters", Pop and Rock Listings, The New York Times, April 13, 2007. [1] Access date: August 6, 2008.
  67. ^ Bryan Reed, The Daily Tar Heel, July 19, 2007. [2] Access date: August 6, 2008.
  68. ^ Henderson, Alex. "Ninewinged Serpent review". Allmusic. Retrieved 2009-05-03. 
  69. ^ Bowar, Chad. "Venganza review". Retrieved 2009-05-03. 


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