Death metal for the general listener

Here’s a crazy notion: maybe the modern music fan is more open to dense and extreme music than at any point in the last seventy years, and maybe they don’t require another reader’s digest of poppy death metal spoon fed to them by the gabbling pondlife of metal’s internet fandom.

The modern listener is happier genre hopping amongst a wider array of music than ever before. They are able to note commonalities they find appealing between genres without the help of youtube’s ghostly visages. Gone are the days of setting up camp in a subculture at sixteen and using it as a stand in for personality for the next two decades….  

This makes the “beginner’s guide to x” lists oft trotted out by metal’s “content creators” look all the more redundant. Death metal is particularly susceptible to this. As the troubled spectres of yesterday’s fandom take to their blogs and the youtubes to once again prop up the withered corpses of ‘Heartwork’, ‘Spiritual Healing’, or ‘Left Hand Path’ they look not just obsolete, but actively harmful. However well-meaning their intentions, they only serve to reinforce a cultural hegemony that – for death metal at least – we badly need to move past if the genre is to evolve.

So here’s a list of classic albums curated with a view to reinterpreting death metal’s formative years as a deeply avant-garde and experimental moment in rock history. This is not just another “death metal was metal but more” apologist piece. This is aimed at music fans in the broadest possible use of the terms, as in anyone that counts listening to and discovering new music as a hobby.

These albums are all taken from the genre’s apex decade: the 1990s. They have all been selected because they displayed a basic desire to be truly, alienly different. They have not been chosen for their commonalities with other styles; the “if you like x you might like y” disposition of the congenitally lazy recommender. These are not entry level. But the modern listener doesn’t want entry level. They want music of substance, experiential and challenging. And I think it’s high time death metal showed a little avant-garde leg in this regard. These albums are a great place to start.

Demilich: Nespithe
Year: 1993
Origin: Finland
Subcategory: avant-garde/technical

Misunderstood in its day, but a fan favourite in recent years, this is technical death metal at its most playful, whimsical, weird, and oddly accessible. The idsioyncratic approach to riffing, the barebones presentation, the inhumanly guttural vocals, all make for a truly uncanny experience. This is a far cry from the harsh walls of impenetrable dissonance that defines modern technical death metal. Demilich may have had a weird approach to key and rhythm, but they wear their song-writing on their sleeves, bearing all for all to see on the no thrills mix . Complex, undulating, ponderous segments of self-sustaining chromaticism are spliced together to craft horrific yet oddly hypnotic sonic inertia. All is wrapped in a Lovecraftian tentacled aesthetic that has proven impossible to replicate.

At the Gates: With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness
Year: 1993
Origin: Sweden
Subcategory: melodic

Forgot the candyfloss ABC of their pop metal favourite ‘Slaughter of Soul’ so often wheeled out on “beginner” lists, this is where the real beauty of melodic death metal lies. The riffs veer wildly from infectious ear candy to wildly unpredictable melodic inflections that meld seamlessly with Adrian Erlandsson’s stilted drum performance that swings so wildly between tempos, it’s akin to watching time lapse footage of a river being repeatedly dammed then unleashed. Riffs were composed and then played in reverse, giving these pieces an oddly intangible quality. The faithful rightfully favour the debut ‘The Red in the Sky is Ours’ in raw musical terms, but there’s no getting away from its weaker production and overly zealous delivery. ‘With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness’ poses as a typical Gothenburg digestible, but the Alf Svensson era of At the Gates was a truly unique beast when it comes to melodic and rhythmic manipulation. His departure saw At the Gates take one of most dramatic and sudden qualitative nosedives in death metal history.

Incantation: Diabolical Conquest
Year: 1998
Origin: USA
Subcategory: doom

Perhaps the closest to “conventional” death metal on this list, at least in the American sense, Incantation are a pillar of true-blue death metal that melded the genre with slow tempos, ringing, tritone based chord progressions, and painfully drawn out narrative progressions. Their debut ‘Onward to Golgotha’ is rightfully the fan favourite, but it’s this, their fourth album, that sees them flex the truly epic potentials of longform composition whilst retaining the harsh textures and straightforward delivery of more traditional death metal. Incantation melded the unbridled chaos of dense and fast-paced riff salads typical of the genre and smashed them into sparse and hauntingly empty doom segments, taking the art of dynamics, tension, and contrast to new levels within the genre.

Gorguts: Obscura
Year: 1998
Origin: Canada
Subcategory: avant-garde/technical

Probably the most challenging work on the list if we look at the sheer quantity of information thrown at the listener; ‘Obscura’ remains a divisive album even amongst the Gorguts fanbase. This album arguably birthed the modern understanding of technical death metal as complex and dense tapestries of dissonance, abrasively tinny percussion, high-pitched distorted vocals, and wild displays of musicianship. But there’s method in the Gorguts madness. I’d liken it to a Jackson Pollock painting. Its unpleasant to look at, it’s massive (the album is an hour long), it’s complicated, and it’s messy. Yet one cannot help but be impressed by the sheer audacity of the thing, the imposition it seeks to make upon our lives and our intellect warrants serious consideration. A demanding undertaking that must only be enjoyed (if it is to be enjoyed at all) on occasion.

Therion: Beyond Sanctorum
Year: 1992
Origin: Sweden
Subcategory: neoclassical

The neoclassical moniker may be contentious, but around the time this was released death metal was evolving in many different directions, and Therion (for a time at least) were exploring its potential as a means of unwinding longform melodic threads from a starting point of chaos. The genesis of this album is dirty, fast, primitive death metal articulated via pounding drums, a filthy guitar tone, and a proudly sloppy presentation. But this is all a façade. A mere jumping off point by which to evolve weighty narrative compositions that take entire movements to fully unwind. Through this endeavour we see death metal aspiring to a degree of compositional ambition rarely seen in contemporary “rock” based music.

Molested: Blod-draum
Year: 1995
Origin: Norway
Subcategory: avant-garde/technical death metal

This album was released at a crossroads for death metal. Having just been discarded by the culture industry, dropped from MTV and kicked off major labels, it was unsure how to proceed. Does it follow the money and embrace nu metal? Or does it accept its status as financially unviable, and embrace the creative freedom this implies? Although Molested were a short-lived entity, only managing this one LP before the members moved onto other projects, ‘Blod-draum’ remains one of the most unique creative and telling expressions within the genre. It’s worth pointing out that this emerged in Norway at the height of black metal’s ongoing controversies. The character of riffing found on this album is an interesting blend of black and death metal philosophies which would now be considered commonplace. But here at the germinal of this particular intersection of genre alchemy they strike the listener as strangely uncanny. Further study of the riffs reveals harmonic material closer to black metal and later pagan offshoots, delivered under a decidedly death metal aesthetic. The album is littered with traditional melodic progressions which offset the atonality of death metal. This gives the music a heroic and epic undertone that sits beneath the destructive nihilism of the immediate presentation.

Septic Flesh: Έσοπτρον
Year: 1995
Origin: Greece
Subcategory: symphonic

Now known as Septicflesh, this Greek entity brought a touch of the symphonic, the romantic, and the proudly melodic to the death metal table, embracing classicism and eschewing the atonality of American death metal that never fully emerged from Slayer’s long shadow. Riffs are defined and crafted with a view to counterpoint, which immediately shifted this music away from the power-chord orientated riff salads typical of the style. Septic Flesh were more intent on crafting fluid and serpentine compositions that unfold their ideas in a linear, cinematic structure. These pieces work like epic film scores, proudly embodying the high drama of the epic narratives of antiquity. The vocal delivery – equally at home with clean or distorted techniques – more than meets the moment in delivering this with a conviction that side steps the humorous and becomes borderline Homeric. This album exemplifies a form of grace in motion, seamlessly melding tempo and rhythm to fit with the dramatic cadential payoffs of the music.

Atheist: Unquestionable Presence
Year: 1991
Origin: USA
Subcategory: progressive

Cementing death metal’s relationship with jazz and progressive rock, Atheist’s second offering is one of the most seminal thirty minutes of music in extreme metal. By limiting the runtime of this album, Atheist deliver a compact, flowing, colourful punch of dense and technical music with absolutely no excess fat. There is no dull moment, no meandering passages of self-indulgent showmanship, each second is nutritionally rich with artistry and information in equal measure. Each moment provides gloriously intuitive context to the next. One can almost forget the technical/progressive genre tag entirely in appreciating this music, seeing as these elements are put to work in delivering this bouncy, colourful, and life-affirming piece of art. Although these are not words often associated with death metal, this is the direction that Atheist insisted on taking their sound, with a work of endlessly unfolding beauty that is simply impossible to get tired of.

Sentenced: North From Here
Year: 1993
Origin: Finland
Subcategory: neoclassical/melodic

Another album that shies away from the atonal thrash origin story of death metal in favour of exploring the limits of melody within rock instrumentation. The interweaving guitars are not guided by the lurking desire for a cadence or complementary melodies. Instead they seek to devolve the strict formalism of these pieces into harsh dissonance and off-kilter tritones. Enhancing this unsettling tendency is a relatively shrill guitar tone by death metal standards, one that settles and stays in higher pitches, interweaving idiosyncratic counterpoint and providing space for the bass to both drive the music as a whole and explore its own melodic potentials. Sentenced shun any garden-variety notions of the “epic”, or the sweeping melodic metal designed to invoke a vivid but ultimately domesticated image of wintry Finnish landscapes. Instead we are presented with an unsettling, eerie, and ultimately dangerous invocation of nature, played out through an idiosyncratic approach to melodic progression as it intersects with death metal’s impatient approach to rhythm.

Disharmonic Orchestra: Not to Be Undimensional Conscious
Year: 1992
Origin: Austria
Subcategory: progressive/avant-garde

Surrealism meets brutality in what I’d describe as Europe’s answer to ‘Unquestionable Presence’. The guitars work their way through off-kilter chord progressions and outrageously unconventional melodies; all interspersed with grooves that touch on funk and hip hop alongside the fraught urgency of blasting death metal. This is given additional texture owing to the use of the Swedish buzzsaw guitar tone, so prized on Entombed’s ‘Left Hand Path’. Although the vocals embody the hoarse primitivism typical of death metal’s punkier tendencies, the album on the whole is more oppressive than it is aggressive. Confusing the listener with its constantly evolving key changes and left of centre chord progressions. Like a mental state that requires intense meditation to reach, ‘Not to Be Undimensional Conscious’ never fails to disturb and mesmerise in equal measure. It comes across as a fuzzy fever dream of half formed philosophies and vague suspicions regarding the true nature of the reality we are all irksomely trapped in.

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