The UK never had much luck with death metal. There is a sincerity that sits as a hidden requisite beneath the delivery of this artform that the Brits never really nailed. The big three in Carcass, Napalm Death, and Bolt Thrower were all infinitely more interesting when playing less structured forms of grindcore and punk. Also-rans in Benediction or Cancer could craft the shell of death metal, but never drummed up the same level of conviction as their American and European counterparts to fill it with any notable statement of their own.
This fits in with a broader trend of British contributions to various metal styles. The wry humour of these damp islands banished our standing in the annals of extreme metal to experimental outliers, throwing projectiles of the weird at the rump of the genre, suggesting new directions if never actually bringing them to fruition.
The problem with British music is the requirement for misery. Death metal blusters forth with a violence and activity that has little time for self-reflection or subtle pontifications on drizzle and concrete. But British music so often delves into the crushing realisms of experience either in the abstract or directly, that the lofty and often aspirationally mythological basis of death metal is just ill fitted to our sensibilities. Hence a My Dying Bride or a Paradise Lost circling the style under the guise of goth and doom aesthetics as a means to say the unsayable.
At the turn of the century the likes of Akercocke and Anaal Nathrakh took things in an even more chimerical direction, borrowing liberally from a range of influences and ending on a style completely their own, but one that ultimately failed to produce a statement with any era defining potential. And then we have acts like Sarpanitum, Grave Miasma, and Mithras, using medieval, sci-fi or straight up glum imagery to reinterpret a style that was still more death metal than anything else, but with a distinctively British eccentricism.
But a newer generation is now begging to differ with this assessment. They are finding a way to write convincing death metal on both a technical and philosophically serious level whilst retaining the barbed randomness of British humour. They indulge in the eccentric side of British artforms, but manage to integrate this into a sophisticated and ultimately heavy interpretation of death metal. Whilst stylistically they bear only incidental similarities to each other, there is a commonality of theme and delivery that warrants commentary.
This crop of younger Britdeath artists have been thrust into a mixed legacy. Some appear to be alive to their responsibilities to the national story they are now part of. By playing a style that sits squarely in the death metal camp, but blending elements of the British weird in contemporary music in everything from Hawkwind to Throbbing Gristle, these artists tie up the loose ends of the UK’s unresolved relationship to death metal. And they appear to have found a route out of the contradictions that blocked previous attempts to treat the genre in a distinctively British way, and have, as a side effect, produced some of the most cutting edge releases of the genre in the last five or so year.
A rigid adherence to a uniquely glum aesthetic meets an adeptness for melodic manipulation and riff placement, Glasgow’s Tyrannus shine forth with an unmistakable character that speaks of understated contemporary darkness.
A jagged, cluttered riff factory of sci-fi obsessed progressive death metal, Leeds’s own Cryptic Shift are as outrageously ambitious as they are totally convinced of their ability to deliver this lofty juggernaut of near limitless musical ambition.
Referencing the innocent roots of the genre, Cambridgeshire’s Celestial Sanctuary work to resolve the legacy of the OSDM trend by stamping it with a younger voice. The packaging may be familiar, the aspirations modest, but the austere ethos of this artist yields more fruit than many more elaborate offerings of the recent present.
A stylistic hall of mirrors, London’s Atvm are akin to lifting a rock and witnessing all the putrid life beneath. A hive of activity that swells from primitive randomness, to carefree play, to bombastic statements of epic and expertly crafted death metal.
Combining technical wizardry with quirky riffcraft, cold brutality and goth melodrama, Damim flesh out a Frankensteinian phantasmagoria of death metal. Both physically demanding to listen to, yet infused with melodramatic emotion, they boast a rare expressive and aesthetic range whilst retaining an impressive coherence.
Newcastle’s Live Burial also operate at the old school end of the genre, but unlike the direct workmanship of Celestial Sanctuary, Live Burial inject an emotional and expressive range into their delivery that injects new life into an old format.
Although really more of a blackened thrash outfit, to not include Lancaster’s Insurgency in a list of eccentric British extreme metal would be a crime, as their format of outrageously direct violence is truly a wonder to behold.
Chasmic death metal for the void injects an agreeable degree of architecture to keep the riff-minded interested, soaking up the heavy emphasis on atmosphere with weighty, tritone based riffs. Although being very much “on trend” in terms of caverncore, Vacivus deliver their tribute with an outrageously direct brutality that warrants attention.
This energetic prog thrash oddity is certainly Britdeath in spirit, delivering the same balancing act of conviction and professionalism combined with overtly quirky flourishes that make it stand out from so much background noise within modern extreme metal.
Classic thrash and early death metal riffs abound from York’s Deathmace, with a very pronounced hardcore punk flavour woven throughout. They may rest almost entirely on emulating their predecessors, but whilst we can sit back in our armchairs smoking our pipes and point out their similarities to Master, Deathmace actually beat veterans at their own game.