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On the Downfall of Death Metal
by Noctir (Oct. 2010)

In the shadows of the early-to-mid 1980s, a malevolent darkness fell over the underground metal scene. While speed and thrash metal were more intense and aggressive than what came before, the first wave of black metal and the early death metal bands created an atmosphere that was shrouded in evil, death, and darkness. This truly was a special time in music history, when the stars were aligned in such a manner that allowed for so much creativity and the spawning of various new sub-genres.

Inspired by the early thrash and black metal bands, death metal came forth in the mid-80s, and little did anyone suspect that it would grow as large as it did. Many look to Possessed and Mantas / Death as the first death metal bands, though the lyrical content, aesthetics and execution of Seven Churches links Possessed much more strongly to the likes of Venom, Slayer, Bathory and Hellhammer. With Possessed belonging to the first wave of black metal, this leaves Mantas / Death as the true beginning of pure death metal. In a short time, many other bands formed and those earliest groups forged ahead and represented the true spirit of this new sub-genre of metal. Morbid Angel, Necrophagia, Xecutioner / Obituary, Massacre, Autopsy and many more joined in establishing the core elements of death metal. In time, the plague began to spread and other bands, some of which were playing thrash or grindcore, were soon drawn into the ranks (including Nihilist, Pestilence, Carcass, Napalm Death, Carnage, etc.).

Death metal grew in popularity, throughout the late 80s and into the early 90s. All of the best albums of the sub-genre were released between 1987 and 1991, roughly. However, just as things seemed to be going well, the same problems that befell thrash metal began to afflict the scene. Record labels saw dollar signs and signed a slew of uninspired bands, many that were merely taking influence from their contemporaries rather than from those bands and the ideology that had served as the original source. Instead of having a handful of talented bands making great albums, legions of mediocre and unimaginative bands were churning out rehashed music that had little passion or creativity. One of the problems was that many bands were all aiming for the same sound as those that they looked up to, leading to a situation where everything seemed to sound alike.

The two most popular places to record were Morrisound Studios in Tampa, Florida and Studio Sunlight in Stockholm, Sweden. After the release of Entombed's Left Hand Path, most Scandinavian death metal bands wanted to record at Sunlight in an attempt to get the same sound. And, more times than not, Tomas Skogsberg succeeded in giving the band the general sound that they were looking for. As a result, most Swedish death metal from this period sounds very similar. Bands even traveled from Norway and Finland to get this type of production. In the states, the problem was even more detrimental. The cause for homogenization was lead by Scott Burns, whose awful production jobs sucked the life out of nearly every record that he ever had a hand in. Death, Obituary, Morbid Angel, Deicide, Malevolent Creation, Cannibal Corpse and dozens of others were all ruined by this man's vision of what death metal should sound like, as well as their own bad choice of seeking out this particular studio. Bands even traveled from abroad to get this awful sound, such as Napalm Death and Pestilence. So many good death metal albums were all reduced to non-threatening, soft piles of wasted potential. Some classics, such as Blessed Are the Sick, manage to shine despite this, but imagine how much better the record could have been if only the band had gone to another studio or not suffered the ineptitude of Scott Burns. thrash, black and death metal are supposed to have a raw sound, and each loses a great bit of atmosphere as the production techniques slowly smooth away those rough edges.

Another problem was branching out and becoming too progressive. This went against the very essence of Death metal. In the beginning, they were conjuring the essence of death, and you can hedr this in the old albums. From Scream Bloody Gore and Leprosy to Consuming Impulse and Slowly We Rot, you could almost smell the decaying flesh and rotting graves. [In all honesty, releases such as Altars of Madness seemed to owe more to the old black metal bands, in atmosphere and content. Similarly, Deicide did very little to invoke a feeling of death. As many in the Norwegian black metal scene said, they were more like a commercial black metal band, as their message was Satanic and had nothing to do with death, more or less, yet they utilized the typical death metal sound.]

As time went on, even the more established bands began changing their style. Some were obviously tired of playing death metal, seeing that the sub-genre had certain limitations that did not allow them to grow as musicians. So, rather than give up their bands and move on to something else, they began to allow different influences into their albums. Their "death metal" riffs were boring and generic, and were then fused with technical nonsense, or more traditional metal riffs and arrangements, often creating more upbeat and accessible music than they previously had. One need look no further than Death for one of the earliest examples of this. Of course, other bands came along with this idea from their beginnings, such as Atheist. It would be difficult to call such a band pure death metal, as there's really nothing deathlike about the atmosphere that they created. The same can be said for many others. With so many bands ripping each other off and using the same studios and producers, it's no wonder that some ventured outside the boundaries of the sub-genre in an attempt to make themselves stand out as something “unique”. However, injecting jazz influences in death metal... there is no excuse for this. It seemed that the progression away from pure death metal first took place in Europe, as many bands from Entombed and Tiamat to Amorphis and Sentenced all drifted to different territory.

Keeping with bands that were exploring beyond their established borders, we come to the so-called "melodic death metal" bands, such as early In Flames and Dark Tranquillity. It is my view that this label is quite erroneous. While it is melodic, there's little about this that should link it to death metal, other than the harsh vocals. And, in fact, a lot of these bands had vocals more similar to the second wave black metal bands. For example, Joakim Göthberg, was briefly the vocalist for In Flames, after a two-album stint as the vocalist for Marduk. Many of the vocalists for these bands utilized a raspier sound, having little in common with the predominant style of the period, or that which preceded it. Musically, these bands had much more in common with Iron Maiden and Helloween, than with Death or Obituary. [While At the Gates is often thrown into this group, I would say that they gradually evolved (or devolved) to that point, over time. There's nothing melodic about Gardens of Grief, and while The Red in the Sky is Ours does utilize more melody, it's more closely related to the first Burzum album (with the exception of the drumming).] And, of course, rarely did any of these "melodic death metal" bands reference topics of death or darkness and, of course, lyrical content is very important.

The lyrics of the early bands were mostly inspired by horror films or serial killers, or even simply ruminations on death itself, in a more serious tone. But, in time, the thrash influence took over, and many bands were writing lyrics with a more political nature or, in the case of Death, actually espousing positive thinking or using lyrics to address mundane worldly matters such as media slander or trash-talking ex-members. This was completely ridiculous and boring and had no place in death metal, whatsoever.

Then there were bands that didn't necessarily add the wrong kind of influences or topics, but they approached it incorrectly. By 1992 or so, the dominant sound of death metal was fast becoming more percussion-oriented. Quite often, the songs were driven by the drumming rather than the guitar riffs. The guitars were thicker and had more of a bass-like quality, with much less treble. Even the vocals were getting deeper and deeper. With vocalists such as Chris Barnes of Cannibal Corpse, Joe Ptacek of Broken Hope and Frank Mullen of Suffocation, it got to the point where the vocals took on the 'cookie monster' qualities and really stopped adding anything to the atmosphere. Even vocalists that had better styles, like David Vincent and Glen Benton began going deeper and deeper, losing the very qualities that made them stand out.

This deepening of the vocals was somewhat tied to this retarded concept of 'brutality'. By the mid-90s, it seemed that most of the death metal bands were trying to out-do one another, by being faster or more technical with more drum fills, time changes and riff cycles, with deeper and deeper vocals, or the ever-gimmicky dual vocalists, with one deep and one high-pitched. If the bands weren't bringing in Grindcore influences and making senseless noise, they were going in the other direction and trying to cram in so many riffs that Darkness Descends begins to look primitive and simplistic. As well, the overwhelming mindlessness of 90s “groove” began to take over as well, with bands focusing on catchy rhythms and breakdowns, further killing off the sub-genre and also making it appeal to a wider audience of mouth-breathing parasites.

To use an example, think of the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. The first one had a great concept and a creepy atmosphere. It looked pretty good, but was gritty enough to add to the ambiance and the story was well-written. The second one was, obviously, inferior but still not too far off. With the third installment of the series, it was now purely for the mainstream. Rather than seeming ominous and threatening, Freddy Krueger had become a stand-up comedian. In the original, he spoke very little and when he did, it was something like, “I'll kill you slow”. By the third film, he's smashing a girl's head into a television screen and saying, “Welcome to prime time, bitch”. The character turned into a joke, and there was nothing creepy about any of the sequels. There may have been “cool” scenes and interesting kills, but the atmosphere had been completely lost. The same is true for death metal.

Bands may write a decent riff or two, but the atmosphere and feeling has been forsaken. By 1997-98, bands like Suffocation, Nile, Cryptopsy and Opeth were all quite popular, and not a single one of them embodied the spirit of what death metal was to me, so I washed my hands of it. Anytime that I've heard any modern releases, in the decade-plus that has followed, it never failed to disappoint. Nothing new is being done, rather, nothing that adds anything positive. Old bands are still churning out worthless garbage and cheapening their legacies, while new bands are ripping them off and contributing nothing. The original principles that death metal was founded upon were long since forgotten. This was something that many others realized long ago. The musicians in the Norwegian black metal scene, for example, recognized that death metal had become something trendy and designed for the unintelligent masses as early as 1991-92, and began to rebel against this.

In the end, a sub-genre that was founded on the principle of creating and maintaining an atmosphere of death and darkness became sterile and, ironically, lifeless. That's the real death in death metal. It has no feeling whatsoever, just mechanical noise. Riffs and songs are interchangeable, as are the bands themselves. There hasn't been a relevant death metal release in well over a decade, and there's no reason to believe that this will ever change. death metal will continue on as a parody of itself, with very few of the musicians or fans even realizing it. It's a frustrating situation, but how can one even argue for the integrity of a sub-genre that was sold out by one of its own creators, almost two decades ago?

Copyright 2006-2021, Noctir