Death metal…I’m afraid the Americans did it better: Incantation and Suffocation

Okay, so if we’re weighing it up against European death metal alone it’s a close run thing when you look at the early output of Therion, At the Gates, Bolt Thrower and Dismember, but in terms of quality and quantity I’m afraid the Americans just clinch it. And it’s consistent workhorses like these two artists that are partially responsible for this. There were broad regional trends one can easily outline in death metal at this time. But each have exceptions. Florida was closest to death metal’s thrash roots musically. But with the end of the cold war thrash metal found itself wrong footed lyrically with the imminent threat of nuclear war temporarily abated. But then Atheist leapt well past these routes beyond what any had achieved at the time in progressive metal. Sweden is known for the buzzsaw guitar sound and d-beat inspired punk rhythms. But then Therion’s first few releases pointed to a nea-classical and expansive universe open to abrasive guitar music. Britain was known for its mix of grindcore and crushing primitivism, but then Carcass released Heartwork and everything became melodic.

And in the northern cities of the USA, New York and Chicago namely, a hardcore inspired form of tech-death was taking shape, exemplified by Suffocation and Immolation. Incantation followed along similar lines but quickly incorporated slower passages to create death metal of tension and menace over urgency. Their debut, 1992’s ‘Onward to Golgotha’ should be remembered as a cornerstone of the genre. Ask a civilian what death metal sounds like and they might describe something that approximates this album. In reality it typifies – or rather exemplifies – one strand of classic old school death metal. Craig Pillard’s guttural vocals set a new bar for monstrosity in music as they buzz beneath already bassy guitars.

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Beyond this, the key to this album’s superficial heaviness is the snare drum. Modest reverb and almost zero high-end somehow retains enough clarity to ease us through the blast beats without dissolving into total chaos. Incantation often play at breakneck speeds, and when they do the production lends gravitas to this, offering us a wash of unbearable noise. But the riffs are discernible through the fog. And herein lies the genius of the production on this album. Because whilst it is not so meaty as to fall into noise when Incantation play fast, it is still mixed like a doom metal album, which allows Incantation to behave at once like a doom metal and a death metal band.

And death/doom seems to be the name of the game here, but a thoroughly different beast to the likes of Asphyx. This is far more despondent, menacing, hopeless, than the epic and almost triumphant tone that Asphyx struck with their doom passages. Contrasted with this, Incantation mix cyclic chord progressions above busy but not overly technical drum-work, proving that they do not need to rely on speed alone to create sonic chaos and confusion. They seem to effortlessly switch between frantic collections of high speed riffs that fall over each other to get out, and more patient builds and crescendos augmented by chaotic high end guitars: solos that seem to be turning themselves inside out before our ears. Every subsequence album from Incantation has troughed and peaked in quality, but has ultimately been a variation on the groundwork laid by this foundational work.

Another strong contender for typifying what death metal means to a lot of people comes in the form of Long Island’s Suffocation. Aesthetically, musically, culturally, they are known for laying the groundwork for a stripe of death metal all of its own. They combined hardcore and grindcore’s energy with speed metal riffing to craft a highly technical form of extreme metal that would later be dubbed ‘brutal’ death metal, or ‘tech-death’. Although probably one of the more tedious subgenres to emerge out of extreme metal – blamed for metalcore, djent, and slam all in one – these originators had no shortage of talent and along with Gorguts who started along similar lines, are responsible for much quality death metal over years.

Their debut LP ‘Effigy of the Forgotten’ dropped in 1991 and pretty much defined what death metal would mean for an entire generation. This mechanical, frantic, atonal, death metal works its way through what are essentially recycled thrash riffs, but filtered through a blender of seemingly never ending tempo changes, and never ending transitions. Even the most basic track on here…say ‘Infecting the Crypt’, goes through four or five riffs in the first minute. And even if a riff does hang around long enough to stay in the mind, Mike Smith’s masterful drumming frames it in a variety of rhythms and tempos, giving the illusion of complexity. Vocals are highly distorted and guttural, serving to add to the chaos and power of this music rather than as a sonic focal point of some sort.

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This percussive death metal is the true inheritance of atonal metal, developing innovations from Discharge through to Slayer to Napalm Death. The riffs define the rhythm, the tempo, the structure, the fact that they are largely atonal means they are not bound by key as well as a pre-conceived structure. The drums exist to add flourishes to these riffs rather than act as chief rhythm keeper. In this sense the drums work more like a lead instrument. And this is the real lynchpin of Suffocation’s success and their influence on much death metal to follow. Unfortunately the take home message for many was brutality and speed alone. Or else highly technical playing devoid of direction.

Of these two albums, Suffocation is definitely the most influential. For some reason it struck a chord with a generation of metallers and for better or worse spawned several new subgenres as a result. But outside of Suffocation’s work, brutal technical death metal was to prove to be a highly limited affair. However, Suffocation themselves are hardly to blame for this, least of all ‘Effigy of the Forgotten’, which remains an undisputed classic of death metal. Incantation’s ‘Onward to Golgotha’ may be a more straightforward affair in terms of what death metal was capable of at the time, maybe with a heavier emphasis on doom than many were ready for, but it remains exemplary in its field.

So in terms of choosing the album of the week I am going to fall back on personal preference, because ‘Onward to Golgotha’ holds a very special place in my collection as the first album I heard that truly made me fall in love with death metal. Sure I’d heard Morbid Angel and Carcass before this, but nothing so menacing as Incantation. I appreciate Suffocation’s work beyond the influence that it had, but so much of it is impenetrable, or rather one must concentrate fully to reap the benefit of their music, that my relationship with them has always been somewhat academic as opposed to emotional.

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