In the second installment of genre primers, death metal makes the case for healthy aggression.
The average person sees death metal as the kind of music you use to scare your neighbors. A mysterious genre favored by longhaired, basement-dwelling teenagers who are just starting to spew venom about religion. A wall of cacophonous noise and unintelligible vocals. Those who have not delved into the genre may have little exposure beyond Cannibal Corpse’s cameo in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, but they have a fully-formed opinion on it anyway.
“It’s just a bunch of screaming about Satan! How can you listen to that stuff?”
“I like the instruments, but then the Cookie Monster comes in and ruins it.”
“You’ll grow out of it.”
I’m here to explain that there’s a hell of a lot more to death metal than its public perception. There’s a reason why it has existed for almost 30 years now, with men in their 50s still touring the world and playing to frenetic audiences of all ages. I’m 21 years old (an adult in every legal sense at least). I have short hair and I love my parents. My thoughts on religion can be described as apathetic. I have a normal social life. I’ve been listening to death metal since I was 13 and plan to do so until the day I die.
At its roots, it’s easy to see why death metal may be perceived as music for rebellious teenagers. The name was most likely coined by the band Possessed, a group of California high schoolers (including future Primus guitarist Larry LaLonde) who recorded a demo entitled Death Metal in 1984. Possessed are widely considered the first death metal band, although musically the only difference between them and the established thrash metal bands of the time (i.e. Metallica and Slayer) was Jeff Becerra’s guttural bark, in lieu of any attempt at singing or even just shouting. Possessed were formed with one goal: to make the most evil-sounding music ever recorded. At the time, they appeared to be successful.
Across the country in Florida, another teenager named Chuck Schuldiner had formed a band with similar ambitions called Mantas, who after a few demos changed their name to something much more simple: Death. After they released the debut full-length Scream Bloody Gore in 1987, death metal was officially its own subgenre. With hardcore punk on the decline, angry young white men needed a new outlet for their aggression, and metal fans were looking the most extreme music they could find. Soon, death metal bands were popping up all across the globe.
The difference between this movement and hardcore—and one of the reasons I think death metal is quality listening even for refined adults—is that the musicianship was almost unparalleled. Any drummer who hoped to establish himself in this world needed two bass drums and incredible stamina. While Death and its rotating cast of members became nearly virtuosic musicians over the course of their career, the genre was completely turned on its head when Atheist introduced jazz-fusion elements on 1989’s Piece of Time and took the genre to new heights in technicality. Today, their influence can be heard on the seemingly infinite number of “tech-death” bands that seem to be competing with each other to see who can cram the most notes into a single song.
Death metal soon became a worldwide multi-cultural phenomenon, with different regions having their own takes on the genre. Death and Atheist were joined in Florida by bands like Deicide, Morbid Angel and Obituary in making essentially a vicious bastardization of thrash metal with breakneck tempos and over-the-top vocals. Swedish bands such as Entombed and Unleashed began to experiment with a highly distorted “buzzsaw” guitar tone made famous at Sunlight Studios in Stockholm. Technicality reigned supreme in Quebec, as Cryptopsy and Gorguts played songs that were mind-bendingly complex.
For a style that seems to appeal to the anti-social, death metal fostered one of the most collaborative international communities in music. In its own way, this intense musical genre created its own brotherhood, a clique with a fair dose of “they-just-don’t-understand” mentality, to be sure, but also one with shared history, goals, and movement toward artistic growth. It’s that kind of community that teenagers, that much-worried-about/much-feared contingency of potential live wires, needs. It’s structure through anti-structure. It’s aggression directed.
It was not long before death metal became one of the more diverse metal subgenres, but to this day it rarely breaks into the mainstream because it can’t shake the stigma of those “cookie monster” vocals. To those naysayers, I say you’re listening to it wrong. Vocals in death metal are simply another instrument. If you like harsh instrumentation, there’s no reason to dislike harsh vocals. Lyrics should never be a priority with this style, but if you must understand what’s being said, there are plenty of vocalists that are easy to follow. Schuldiner, Kelly Shaefer of Atheist, Jeff Walker of Carcass and Martin Van Drunen of Pestilence and Asphyx are relatively intelligible. And it always helps to read along to the lyrics.
Besides, who decided understanding music should be easy? Death metal challenges its listeners for a reason. This music is not supposed to be accessible, persay—it’s supposed to be raw in a way that strips away unnecessary sonic embellishment or manipulation (sorry autotune) and connects purely to the power and energy of the musicians. And sometimes, yes, that can be overwhelming. Abrasive even. But death metal takes listeners back to their roots in the most literal way, saying this is what anger, what pain, what passion sounds like. Do you remember what that felt like in its purest form? Though its confrontational at first, death metal welcomes those who put the time in into the fold of fans, the ones chanting the words few understand.
But the primary reason that men should feel comfortable listening to death metal well into their adult years is the pure adrenaline rush. Anybody who enjoys aggressive music in some capacity can find something to love about death metal. There is a limitless supply of riffs to get stuck in your brain. Amazing drummers are the standard. The best bands will keep your head banging with a wonderful sense of groove.
It’s perfectly possible to enjoy all of these things without scaring everybody around you. I’ve managed so far.
Travis’ Top 10 Death Metal Albums
Atheist – Unquestionable Presence (1991)
Death – Symbolic (1995)
Carcass – Necroticism: Descanting the Insalubrious (1991)
Gorguts – Obscura (1998)
Cryptopsy – None So Vile (1995)
Immolation – Close to a World Below (2000)
Suffocation – Pierced From Within (1995)
Dismember – Like an Ever Flowing Stream (1991)
!T.O.O.H.! – Rád a Trest (2005)
Lykathea Aflame – Elvenefris (2000)
Photo: Flickr Creative Commons, Shadowgate