Broadly speaking the origins of American death metal lie in thrash, and the origins of Scandinavian death metal lie in a blend of d-beat and NWOBHM. Whilst it pleases me that this fits so well, there can be a danger in placing too much emphasis on the importance of regional sounds in the develop of the style. But there’s no doubt that in the pre-internet age it played a huge part in shaping the music. Here’s two examples of Scandinavian artists that surpassed this narrative.
Stockholm’s Necrophobic are one of those missing link acts between death and black metal, striving for a darker aesthetic than their countrymen, but ending up with what is essentially ‘evil’ death metal. Whilst Dismember and Entombed poached the riffs of Autopsy and gave them a d-beat sheen and some melodic sensibilities, Necrophobic revamped early Slayer with a neoclassical flourish. In many ways their debut LP ‘The Nocturnal Silence’ (1993) is the true genesis of melodic death metal. It may be darker than ‘Heartwork’ or ‘Slaughter of the Soul’, but Necrophobic’s ear for catchy hooks shines through even within some pretty sophisticated narrative structures.
The basis of this music is fairly basic thrash. The guitar tone is razor sharp and clear, drums are competent but unremarkable, vocals would be at home on a black or death metal record. But atop this simple framework is an unfolding tour of creative and playful riffs and leads that breathe life and class into this otherwise familiar foundation. They adeptly build tension around each track that leads to a climax which offers a conclusion to one section and signposting to the next.
Knitted into this compositional technique is their use of dynamics, which was an underused potential within death metal at the time. They use them sparingly but effectively, adeptly contrasting it with the chaos and nihilism of the atonal thrash passages. The whole album exudes a cavernous atmosphere to it. This is achieved not just through creating spaces between the riffs or simple layering of reverb, but by building tremolo strummed riffs into crescendos of expertly crafted minor chord progressions and melodies evoking a sense of the dark and the spaces without.
This is a classic of Swedish extreme metal that has been rightly recognised as such. It may sound generic to modern ears, but this is one of those albums that created the iconic sound. It is simple but not simplistic. At first listen it may seem somewhat rudimentary in form. But repeated listens offer new corners and passages one may have missed first time around. This is the hallmark of intelligent and intuitive composition, one that through slight of hand unfolds its ideas gradually, without the need to be upfront with its own complexities.
Finland, despite being the world’s metal capital, has never really had a distinctive death metal sound in the same way as Sweden or Florida did. What it does have however is an impressive number of innovative and frankly weird-ass extreme metal. Amorphis need no introduction from myself. You remember when they used to play music and not Nickleback b-sides? Their debut LP ‘The Karelian Isthmus’ (1992) is one of those works that both sits within, and builds upon an important but ill-defined pillar of death metal. It channels that elusive sense of the epic and heroic without the exoteric nonsense of power metal.
I say ill-defined because it does not have a name, belong to one scene or period, and everyone will have their own ideas about which artists should fit within it. But here it is for all to see on ‘The Karelian Isthumus’. This album is such a pleasure to listen to for a number of reasons. The guitar tone is full and fat, drums have an organic sheen to them, vocals are reminiscent of a young Mikael Akerfeldt, scant keyboards add to the breakdowns when required. But musically it should be used as an elegant beginner’s guide to constructing metal riffs.
There is a beauty to the simplicity of these riffs, not just how they are pieced together, but how complementary melodies can be layered atop simple chord progressions, how to return to a riff later in a track once new ideas have been unfolded and concluded. Each and every segment works like a set of practice exercises, but they are placed at certain points throughout the work as a whole to serve their structural purpose. I cannot think of a better illustration of why musical prowess is only half the story when it comes to crafting metal.
In scope and ambition, the work itself feels like watching a classic historical epic film. But through clever trickery and an instinct for melody they have created this through some very familiar techniques. The melodies are simple but instantly recognisable within this work. The use of tritone was well trodden ground for death metal by this point, but Amorphis wield it in new and novel ways through simple ringing chords that feed into tremelod riffs atop mid-paced drumming akin to Bolt Thrower. The simple scale runs and interweaving guitar lines all bind together into a captivating fireside story. I would also add that this simplicity lends it a charm lacking on more slick offerings in this style, much like a well-made low budget film when compared to the Hollywood equivalent.
Two pretty strong contenders this week. Both well established entries in the annuls of death metal. It’s a damn shame Amorphis eventually sacked off the whole project of music that aspires to more. But we have their first clutch of releases to cherish forever I guess. For that reason TKI is my pick of the week. It starkly demonstrates how much one can achieve with so little, and is reminder that no matter how complex music appears, no matter how much production, style, and pomp is packed within an album, we must search for the substance beneath. Otherwise its appeal is bound not to last. A similar tale could be spun of Necrophobic in their effortless class, and ‘The Nocturnal Silence’ remains a classic. But for me, TKI just feels that little more unique, special, one off.