For those wishing to truly understand death metal – by now a vast and complex body of music – it’s sometimes helpful to return to the primordial soup from whence this music was birthed. This can be done by journeying back to the genre’s earliest origins, but it is also instructive to look at those releases that broke this music down to its most basic components. Melting all style and technique down to the most painfully simple elements is not only informative, but also engenders a renewed appreciation for more complex variations on the form; in that we are better able to identify divergences and similarities.
Telford’s Cancer were somewhat side-lined in their first iteration despite the Scott Burns name being attached to their first couple of releases. Their debut LP ‘To the Gory End’ released in 1990 is an ultra-primitive take on the murky death metal coming out of Florida at the time, still heavily routed in thrash but with enough down tuning and minor keys thrown in to set it apart. This pulls straight from the Obituary school of death metal in that bouncy, mid-paced rhythms are thrown against slower, repeated breakdowns of droning, repetitive chords.
The production is fairly standard for the era, with crunchy guitars dominating the mix and drums afforded enough clarity to cut through them. This is very reminiscent of other mixes of the era that Scott Burns was involved in, ‘Harmony Corruption’ etc. It allows enough clarity for the chaos to shine through whilst restraining the musicians so that they do not completely overpower the capabilities of the tech of the era to capture the essence of this music.
Vocals remain at a mid-ranged rasping sound that lends this music more of a demonic quality than is usual for ultra-straightforward gore-based death metal. Due to the highly rudimentary approach to riffcraft, the most basic of shifts in pitch or rhythm change the whole perspective of each track. There are plenty of faster moments still routed very much in thrash – albeit with a filthy sheen to them – but where Cancer really shine is the slower, mid-paced sections where they are able to unpack the riffs more fully, and they become more playful with the rhythms and tempo changes. This also affords a chance to hear the drums and bass at work which, during the faster passages, tend to get drowned out.
Unleashed are the missing piece of the puzzle in terms of Swedish death metal bands that formed out of the carcass of Nihilist. They also represent something of a black sheep in that scene not only due to their lyrics famously calling on Viking mythology for inspiration, but also because their sound is immediately distinct owing to a more typical guitar tone. Musically however, they don’t stray to far from the nest as far as Swedish death metal goes, consisting as it does in one part d-beat punk, one part Autopsy, and one part NWOBHM. Despite the epic narratives that the Viking theme suggests, Unleashed are probably the most primitive and basic of the Swedish canon.
Their debut LP, 1991’s ‘Where no Life Dwells’ is what we call lightening in a bottle. Made of the most elementary riffs, sometimes consisting of simple two note shifts, which are then set to a rhythm section that seems stuck on two settings: fast and slow. There is no intrigue or tensions or whimsy behind this approach to drumming beside a straight up pummelling. Guitars follow a similar pattern in that the temptation to explore the complexities of the instrument seemed suppressed by connecting up these fundamental building blocks into pleasingly logical stories with a beginning, a middle, and end. Even the vocals are noteworthy in their no thrills approach. Occasional inflections give them more emotion and character than a lot of death metal, but they end up following the most basic rhythmic patterns and offer additional exclamations at the most obvious of intervals.
But what’s really remarkable about this album is how it hides its complexities behind the veneer of the primitive. Small inflections in the drum fills, connecting riffs made up of more developed tremolo strummed riffs, the interaction between the two, and the transitions that – on repeated listens – reveal themselves to be surprisingly well thought through. All this amounts to an album bent on presenting itself in the most basic light possible, despite the fact that there are many layers hiding beneath the surface. Their Swedish brethren were more prone to flashy solos, to epic meandering tangents, or more outright melodrama. Unleashed by contrast remained restrained in every regard despite disciplining many of the same elements into their bouncy, swaggering approach to death metal. It was a trick that would grow very tired on follow up releases as no developments were offered for us to learn anything new about Unleashed’s take on the death metal form. But on ‘Where no Life Dwells’ we are given a rare glimpse into death metal at its most naked.
Despite Cancer being from the UK, in comparing them to Unleashed it’s clear that their approach to death metal sits very much within the thrash tradition that rose to fame in Florida. Unleashed, despite the immediately obvious elements that set them apart from other Northern European attempts at the time, are clearly informed far more by NWOBHM and hardcore punk than were Cancer. And in the duplo universe that we’re currently operating in these contrasts are even more apparent. I would not go as far as venturing a preference for either style, as both have produced timeless works with their own unique appeal. But for these two releases specifically, ‘Where no Life Dwells’ offers just that bit more audacity, intrigue, and memorable moments than Cancer’s ‘To the Gory End’. They are both albums that will endure, but I would not normally listen to them more than once in a six-month period owing to their own very intentional self-limitations. But new rewards are always garnered from another spin, both intrinsically and also for lessons in how this music is crafted, and what traditions and influences are at work behind them.