Review – Death Metal

By T Coles, 2023

One has to admire the unassuming guile it takes to release a book like ‘Death Metal’ into the wild of 2023, without supervision or shelter from the harsh weather currently ravaging the death metal landscape. This book arrives under the guise that it will reach an imagined audience of death metal novices free of obstruction or protest from the faithful, and be received for what it is, a well meaning and rather naïve attempt to provide a beginner’s crash course in this music.

33 1/3 is a series of books documenting seminal albums from a diverse cast of writers. Their new ‘Genre’ series attempts to provide a-very-short-introduction style books on various underground music scenes. Whether intentional or not, the fact that this is done in physical book form is telling. If you were a passionate music fan in the 2020s, interested in learning about a new genre, especially one as well documented as death metal, would you buy a book on it? Raising questions as to who this book is aimed at.   

There’s a certain charming innocence to thinking this endeavour would be well received by fort death metal. No matter how one spins the yarn of this genre’s frictional history, someone’s gonna kick off, even if we acknowledge that these books are short by design, and far from comprehensive or overly troubled by detail.

If this book is sincerely aimed at the unconverted for the purposes of learning, one could do worse than picking it up, but sadly one could also do a whole lot better. The book is riddled with factual errors, imprecise phrasing that fudges the chronology, and…shall we say unusual choices of emphasis. I can best sum this up by saying that Napalm Death receives far more column inches than Hellhammer or Celtic Frost, Entombed, Sepultura, or any Finnish death metal band combined. This is probably because Coles originally pitched the idea to 33 1/3 as a focus on ‘From Enslavement to Obliteration’ only to be turned down and offered a death metal genre book deal instead, thus leading them to retcon the history of death metal with all that surplus research on British grind

For the pedants among you I have listed the genuine factual errors, typos, and (what I consider to be) stylistically lazy writing at the very end of the review. But the crux of my contention with this book is the fact that it not only gorges on the accepted narrative of death metal without compunction, but warps it beyond accepted recognition. This in itself is not damning, but the contested significance or otherwise of certain narratives goes unacknowledged, let alone expanded upon.

The book begins with the usual suspects of thrash, hardcore punk, a slice of NWOBHM, early contenders in Slayer, Hellhammer/Celtic Frost, Venom, into Possessed and eventually Death, few surprises lurk in the opening chapters. But the book is already placing great emphasis on vocal style, texture, aesthetic, lyrical content, and intensity over an analysis of the actual musical forms and content. The philosophical discussion of death is welcome in such a brief book, but does little to bring to life the source of the music’s enduring appeal beyond its initial posture as a nihilistic ultimatum to prior musical forms as well as life itself. Its endurance as a compositional form that transcended its sister genres goes largely unanalysed for the sake of more discussion on production values and vague allusions to “tightening up” the sound as recorded material matured.

This is not a demand for hardcore tonal analysis or dense theoretical dissections of important riffs, but at least some attempt to frame the musical components of death metal would have helped to shape the narrative and define both its limitations and wonderful nuances. This loose attitude to definitions is explicitly acknowledged as the book continues, and shifts its orientation from impartial instructor to invested partisan player. The book defines this ongoing tension as the progressive/regressive push and pull, a common but skin deep framing. And, as we shall see, it leads to some odd points of emphasis and choices for inclusion in a book about death metal.

Yes, this is a short read, and so far we are hitting the same beats metal trivialists such as Sam Dunn would. But the lack of strict definitional framing leads to the centralisation of the UK grind scene in the formative discussion. Whilst grindcore should not go unmentioned in a history of death metal in the 80s, this is usually positioned as peripheral to its early evolution, kindred but separate. Bolt Thrower, Carcass, Napalm Death, none of them adopted death metal until at least the turn of the decade. But here their early career is placed front and centre, at the expense of an in depth analysis of the Scandinavian and South American scenes who were far more encased within full bodied death metal early on. Can’t let all that Napalm Death material go to waste I guess, research is hard.

Equally, the US scene is positioned as a mere footnote to the towering figure of Chuck Schuldiner. It would obviously be foolish to downplay the guy’s extra-musical legacy, but if one were reading this with little knowledge of the genre, they could be forgiven for thinking that he crafted the entire nation’s scenic infrastructure with his bare hands. Pointing out that other international scenes go unacknowledged is thus more than “you left out band x and y” quibbling, but actually an essential course correction that would have saved this narrative from going off the rails further down the line.

Coles goes on to touch on the progressive turn, the flirtation with mainstream success, and the eventual decay of the genre in the late 1990s, with the usual visits to ‘Heartwork’ and ‘Slaughter of the Soul’ on the way. The account of this period is well written, and really gets across that sense of death metal being left out in the cold during these wilderness years, having been killed off by major label interest and black metal’s successes. Interviews with latecomers Karl Sanders of Nile and Bill Hunt of Benediction really bring to light the loss of purpose felt within the scene at this time.

However, the lack of clarity early on prepares the ground for later chapters that abandon the task of telling a history of death metal altogether. Despite being fully cognisant of why I diverge with the author’s position, it still generates a sense of injustice and anger when presented with the differing picture this book paints to many people’s direct experiences of the genre, and the source of their passion for it. I can argue over the value of Opeth all day, and whether they should be considered progressive metal or metal’s answer to Keane, or whether Death’s later work represented a great leap forwards or an intractable dead end.

Whatever my personal feelings on these bands, they are part of the accepted narrative of death metal by this point, to ignore them would be even more disingenuous. Just as any account of death metal in the 2000s has to acknowledge the existence of nu metal and deathcore. But here the emphasis feels wrong. Deathcore and slam are not only acknowledged, but given a full chapter. This, when Swedish death metal is treated as an afterthought to Tampa and Birmingham, Finnish and South American death metal ignored entirely.

As with the centralisation of UK grind in this narrative, it’s not that these things are entirely irrelevant, but the oddly heavy emphasis on them warps history. No one can deny how barren the 2000s were for death metal, nor the fact that deathcore filled a popularity vacuum. But by laying a foundation in the earlier chapters that foregrounded vocals, texture, and lyrical themes as being the defining facets of death metal, it leads to an odd focus on these genres as somehow central to the thread of death metal. The fact that Finn Mckenty of the Punk Rock MBA was interviewed for this chapter is telling, and is perhaps partly responsible for this narrative skewing.

The frustration felt here is not a mystery. The story of death metal is one I and many others are deeply invested in. The experience of reading an account that directly contradicts what I know and love about the genre is psychologically abrasive. This is our story being distorted, warped, hijacked, in unassumingly cheerful prose. It’s not the author’s fault, this is just how the story exists in the zeitgeist now, thanks to figures like Sam Dunn, Finn Mckenty, and Metalsucks writers. Academics like Keith Kahn-Harris and David Burke are able to offer some philosophical insight on the genre’s various push and pulls, but their commentary is chiefly deployed to provide theoretical rather than historical context.

The backlash to deathcore is acknowledged by Coles, but again framed as the old guard being suspicious of anything new, rather than the simple fact that for the majority of death metal fans, association with music for babies and eventually Fisher-Price’s Gojira was an affront to the metrics of good taste, and many don’t like being subjected to music for babies on festival line-ups crafted by disinterested booking agents drawing false equivalencies based on these superficialities for marketing purposes.

The book concludes with the obligatory discussion of Blood Incantation, Venom Prison, and Cryptic Shift. There is an interesting if brief account of the old school turn amongst younger acts, although the number of genuinely older acts “returning to form” in the 2010s is largely passed over. Blood Incantation are rather predictably framed as the great trailblazers, rather than being lumped in with the old school navel gazer crowd, concocting as they do unanchored chimeras of Timeghoul and Gorguts offcuts.

A well written discussion of death metal’s history of misogyny leaves room for the genre to be both inclusive and dangerous, with some younger voices offering welcome interventions. Although the centralisation of Venom Prison in this argument will ring hollow (through no fault of Coles’) once singer Larissa Stupar is fully outed as a TERF. And we conclude the book with another tonally bizarre discussion of Napalm Death.

So what’s the real takeaway here? I could go on for hours about all the claims I disagree with, the misplaced emphasis, the glaring omissions and odd inclusions. But this ultimately comes down to the simple fact that the scenery of death metal is too complex and contested for a naïve little book like ‘Death Metal’. As an unassuming attempt to frame the genre and its history it succeeds more than it fails. But the fact remains that this book positions itself as supportive of a status quo I consider to be antagonistic to reality and to where the real value of this genre lies. This may stem from Coles paying slightly too much attention to orbital voices in Dr Steer, Dave Hunt, and Greenway, all of whom gave up their stake in death metal’s future long ago and whose voices’ diminishing relevance requires the counterweight of strong supplementary research. Or again it may stem from taking the claims of Metalsucks writers, Finn Mckenty, Sam Dunn, and a host of label bosses at face value. Or it may be Coles’ sincerely held perception.

This divergence is perhaps best illustrated in the “10 Essential Tracks” list that closes off the book. I see only five death metal tracks in the list, if I charitably include ‘Slaughter of the Soul’, which is also the only Swedish entry, whilst grindcore era Napalm Death and Carcass are both included, along with Job for a Cowboy. This is not just obscurantist moaning on my part here, even Anthony Fantano doesn’t include deathcore anywhere near a death metal starter pack.

The fraught sense of identity and contested spaces are glossed over and treated as agreed facts in ‘Death Metal’, furnished with highly selective exposition. A book that fails to properly acknowledge this deeply contested history – even for those old enough to give first hand accounts from the time – will only ever stoke the fires of militant hair splitting further. And given the below list of factual errors, one possible reason for this may be that the author is simply unaware of the hornets’ nest they are poking here.

So finally, for the masochists amongst us, here’s the list of errors, stylistic quibbles, and bones of contention that I spotted on the first read, there may well be more. This is not (entirely) intended to be a “gotcha” list. But ‘Death Metal’ is a published work that I paid money for. My own writing is riddled with typos and dubious claims, but I don’t have an editor, it’s free, and my essays are very clearly partisan. My writing is not aimed at a general audience. This book is.

Page 30:

In 1982, NWOBHM latecomers Venom won the darks hearts of metal lovers with their second album, Black Metal…At a time where the leading metal bands like Iron Maiden, Metallica, and Megadeth were all pushing for an increasingly clean, stadium-filling sound,”

In 1982 Megadeth had not formed and Metallica only had one demo under their belts.

Coles continues:

“the record begins with a recording of dirt being shovelled onto a microphone, specifically intended to freak an audience out.”

That’s actually the intro to track three, ‘Buried Alive’, the record actually begins with the sound of chainsaws leading into the title track.

Page 74:

“Inspired by the raw musicianship, acts like Atheist and Cynic – both Death spinoffs – took on jazz fusion influences and ran with them, using their involvement with Chuck Schuldiner to propel their projects forward.”

Atheist were not a Death spinoff, they wrote some of the earliest Atheist tracks as R.A.V.A.G.E  in the mid-1980s, changing their name in 1987 to write the material that would appear on ‘Piece of Time’ in 1988, whilst Chuck was working on the decidedly unjazzy ‘Leprosy’, but ‘Piece of Time’ would not see release in the US until 1990 (released in Europe in 1989), Nocturnus are also frustratingly absent in the account of germinal progressive death metal.

Coles continues:

“At the same time, bands like Gorguts and Cryptopsy emerged”.

We need to know what “at the same time” means here, because Atheist predate Cynic, and both predate Cryptopsy and the progressive turn in Gorguts. I know this sounds horribly pedantic, but the timeline of early 90s death metal is insanely tight, making precision essential, especially in a published work whose key purpose is documenting this history. The Gorguts chronology is established in the next passage, but this ambiguous setup was left in regardless.

Page 85:

The discussion of Carcass signing to Columbia implies that they were the first death metal band to sign to a major, when in fact Morbid Angel are, signing to Giant Records in 1993 for the release of ‘Covenant’. Not damning, but slightly careless placement of emphasis here.

Page 93:

“’I think the earliest sorts of stirrings in that regard [industrial metal] would have been Fear Factory’ recalls Bill Steer. ‘That sounded extremely modern to our ears. They were introducing different elements that were totally alien to us’”.

In fairness to Coles, this is Dr Steer talking, but it’s up to the author to properly curate (or omit) their interview snippets where appropriate. Dr Steer is obviously just recalling his own experiences. But it’s up to Coles – as the historian– to fact check this by bringing to the reader’s attention the existence of Fall of Because/Godflesh, Ministry, Sonic Violence, Skin Chamber, Scorn, Head of David etc., all of whom predate Fear Factory.

Page 102:

“Job for a Cowboy’s debut full length, Genesis, became the highest-selling extreme metal debut since Slipknot’s self-titled record.”

Quoted without further comment.

Page 125:

“There’s Barus, Supercontinent, Black Curse, Afterbirth – all of whom are creating wildly different sounds that have never been heard before,”

Supercontinent are actually a long defunct sludge metal band, I’m assuming the author means Thecodontion, a bass and drum driven deathgrind outfit who released an album called ‘Supercontinent’ back in 2020, reviewed very highly by yours truly upon its release.

Page 138 (10 Essential Tracks):

“3. Carcass – Manifestation of Verrucose Uretha – 1998”.

I assume the author meant 1988 here, the inclusion of this and ‘You Suffer’ are odd choices for a death metal playlist.

And then there’s the metaphor/simile interchange to describe albums, which, if you read this book in one or two sittings (it’s a short book), begins to feel like a Jonathan-Frakes-asks-you-things meme:

Realm of Chaos sounds like the drama of warfare distilled and bottled”.
“Severed Survival is the soundtrack to a hack surgeon operating on you”.
“Altars of Madness is the sound of being hunted through forgotten tombs by diseased ghouls”.
“Slowly We Rot is the sound of being smashed to pieces by hammers”.
“Deicide sounds like a journey to hell”.
“Individual Thought Patterns sounds like everything you thought you know about dying re-arranged into something newly horrifying”.
“Heartwork is the sound of horror taking on a new form”. (Is it though?!)
“Orchid sounds like gentle decay”.
“In Their Darkened Shrines is the sound of being lost in deep catacombs”.
“Genesis is the soundtrack to being ripped apart by multiple hands”.
“Animus is the sound of a litany of sins being read to you before execution”.
“Visitations [of Enceladus] is the soundtrack to asphyxiation”.
“Nightmare [of Being] is the sound of death catching up with you”.

They were apparently so proud of the ‘Genesis’ description they printed it twice:

Finally at the start of chapter 3 we get a brief account of The KLF performing with Extreme Noise Terror at the 1992 Brit Awards. Kicking off think pieces with fun anecdotes and nuggets of trivia is stylistic bread and butter for journalists, but it usually connects with the overarching theme at some point, however loosely. This account is deployed to lead us into the seminal 1988-93 period of death metal…it’s not clear why.

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