Two canonised releases from death metal now. Despite the fact that neither of these artists never managed another full length release (can we just pretend that’s true with Massacre?….let’s pretend), I believe we should resist the temptation to call them one hit wonders. The reason being that the respective line-ups behind them were so knitted into their scenes, many either already involved in other projects or would go on to do so in the future, that they feel more like the collective efforts of a cooperative society tied together by music. This also highlights the community spirit so essential to true-blue underground music. Yes, there were dicks out for themselves, but for the most part this enduring music grew out of young dumb kids with an innocent joy and passion for what they were doing.
Sweden’s Carnage managed one LP in 1990. ‘Dark Recollections’ features many songs that would later go on to become Dismember tracks. And in one sense it feels like a dummy run of their legendary debut released in 1991. But I would go further (don’t start throwing things) and say it’s even a cut above Entombed’s beloved debut ‘Left Hand Path’ released later that same year.
In many ways it remains straddled between two worlds. One is the dark, primitive beginnings of Swedish death metal found in the ancient lore of Nihilist and Grotesque. And one is the more sophisticated long form compositions of death metal to follow in the years to come. I get this with much death metal written with the HM-2 guitar tone simply because it has such a big impact on the techniques employed by the music, more so than is normal for an effects pedal. It seems tailored to these hyper charged Slayer riffs set to d-beat rhythms and filthy droning chords. If one wants to work more nuanced chord progressions into the music crafted from this tone, one must turn to very traditional forms to do so, usually NWOBHM and its flair for neo-Romanticism in modern music.
Carnage’s ‘Dark Recollections’, whilst one can clearly hear both these competing traditions throughout the album, knits this together far more effectively than many of the releases to follow from their peers. As a result we have this intense and cavernous traditional death metal, augmented by Matti Karki’s primal approach to guttural vocals, with the occasional elegant melody thrown in almost seamlessly. Lead work too, whilst it will sometimes be straight up fretboard massacring, shows a surprising amount of maturity for foundational death metal. Of course, we know that these heady early days became overshadowed by Gothenburg and the later career of Michael Amott, thanks in no small part to the style’s own self imposed limitations that did not hamper their American counterparts. But this brief period in Sweden lasting roughly four years was to bear many fruits from a diverse array of bands well beyond the legendary Sunlight Studios sound, an era ushered in thanks to releases such as this.
In a scene that was already crowded with bands and releases by 1991, the fact that Massacre’s ‘From Beyond’ is an album still cherished today is no small feat. For the simple reason that most of their contemporaries boasted pretty impressive back catalogues even by 1990, and frankly put out works of far more originality and sophistication than ‘From Beyond’. Despite that, it would be wrong to write off ‘From Beyond’ so quickly. Kam Lee is a vocalist that needs no introduction. His style is instantly recognisable and still sounds oddly unique despite being so influential over the whole of death metal.
Musically – unlike say, Carnage’s ‘Dark Recollections’ – ‘From Beyond’ feels like a book end on the previous decade of death metal. It doesn’t bring anything new to the table in the same way that ‘Altars of Madness’ or ‘Piece of Time’ did, instead it brings together all the older and more primal elements of death metal at that time and binds them into a tight, bludgeoning and intriguingly epic feat of old school death metal. Yes, the Slayer spectre is still looming large. But – and this is thanks in part to the drum work – the approach to riffcraft is far more fluid and dynamic than thrash metal. As different chunks of music collide in Massacre’s blender one is given little chance to note their lineage as they have been stitched them together so well, and wheeled out so relentlessly that one cannot help but enjoy the ride. There is also a marked hardcore punk colour to many of the riffs, on the likes of the track ‘Biohazard’ for instance.
This sense of bookending an era is given further credence when we look at the production. Yes we can spot Slayer riffs here, Celtic Frost there, and Discharge over there, and admire how well all these are drawn together in relatively quick segments. But it also provides a big budget setting for the music of the previous decade. Some ended up threating over the polished Scott Burns treatment and what it did to extreme metal. But for a slick, technically competent slab of metal such as this, there is a lot to be said for the crisp guitar tone, the clear solos, the formidable presence of the double bass, and how all can be clearly discerned even at this album’s most intense moments.
So in a sense both these albums sit at a crossroads in death metal. From truly DIY, underground beginnings to an international phenomenon with its own internal hierarchies and social mores. One way to track this history is to follow the career of long standing bands such as Morbid Angel who were there at the beginning, and boast some of the genres most beloved releases, and who were even there (and partly responsible for) when things truly fell apart. One could write an entire book on how and why their more recent work came to light and what it says about older artists scrambling to keep up with a scene they helped to create, one that has very much run away from them by now. But another way to study this history is to pick out moments in time such as these two releases. Both thoroughly representative of their place in history and the world. And also the product of musicians who were not exactly rank outsiders in the extreme metal scene at the time. There are many others like them, but why did these two endure, and what does that say about our historical perception of the years they were released?
Anyway, enough rambling. For pick of the week I’m going with Carnage for the simple fact that I believe it just offered more to death metal both in terms of the Swedish scene but also to the movement as a whole. Call it a dry run, call it a deserving classic, it helped lay the groundwork for some of the most beloved releases in metal, and many of the riffs and tracks ended up on the more enduring Dismember catalogue anyway. Not only that, but it is a dark and unified work of primitive death metal in its own right. ‘From Beyond’ can boast similar credentials, but it’s an album that looked to improve the past and not forge the future, and for that reason it has lost out this time around.