Because heavy metal was splintering and branching into different substrata throughout the 1980s, death metal doesn’t have a widely agreed-upon birthdate. (Certainly nothing like Friday the 13th of February, 1970.) Some people point to 1985, when Possessed’s debut Seven Churches closed with a track called “Death Metal”; others look to 1987, when Florida’s Death finally managed to turn a seemingly endless parade of demos into their full-length debut, Scream Bloody Gore. Whatever the starting point, it’s generally agreed that death metal has now been around for at least 30 years.
Those three decades have seen the proliferation of subgenre upon subgenre, as bands both push the basic elements of death metal to their logical extreme, and often borrow a broad collection of sounds from outside the genre. Death metal has been blended with doom, thrash, black metal, grindcore, progressive metal, industrial, hardcore, sludge, and nearly everything else. The richness and creativity of this intra-genre diversity belies the popular image of death metal as a genre obsessed with gore, speed, and extremity purely for its own sake.
But those qualities are exactly what makes the genre so thrillingly vital. So, for every band tinkering with death metal’s formula in new and bizarre ways (Symphonic orchestration! Robotic vocals! Gravity blasts!), there’s another group grinding away in the shadows with cheap amps and cheaper beer, playing in garages and basements and practice spaces, chasing that gruesome feeling. It’s far too simplistic to suggest that death metal has only two wings (progressive or regressive), but it’s also hard to deny that throughout its history, death metal has often been advanced most effectively by those who want to push the limits outward, but who still know their history.
As easy as it is to wax nostalgic about the golden, formative age of death metal (say, from 1987-1993 or so), there’s a strong case to be made that there has never been a better time to be a fan of the genre. With that in mind, here are 10 newer bands keeping the ragged, bloodied-lip grin intensity of death metal alive and (un)well.
The loss of Death mastermind Chuck Schuldiner to cancer in 2001 left a huge void in death metal. While bands such as Necrophagist, Obscura, Spawn of Possession, and Augury have worked to further the technical and progressive aspects of late-period Death, guitarist and vocalist Matt Harvey (also of Exhumed) has used Gruesome to pay explicit tribute to Death’s early work. Twisted Prayers echoes Death’s Spiritual Healing not just with its lyrical themes, but in Harvey’s immaculately Schuldiner-esque dry rasp and the way the geometrically precise riffs are egged on by the rhythm section. “Crusade of Brutality”’s sublime instrumental break reminds the Death faithful that imitation is the sincerest form of splattery.
Succumb’s devastating debut album positively quivers with grooves. Drummer Harry Cantwell (also of skronky black metal weirdos Bosse-de-Nage) flails his kit to punctuate and surround the frantic lurch of each sinuous riff. Cheri Musrasrik’s vocals are easily the most unique thing about Succumb, as she howls in a furious sneer that sounds like it’s coming from several rooms down the hall. Musrasrik’s vocals and the nervy, often amelodic riffs combine to form a death metal that sounds profoundly unwell, as if Bolt Thrower tripped on some bad acid while listening to Unsane and Jesus Lizard.
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Australia’s Depravity walks a challenging line between head-spinning technicality and lurching brutality. As such, they follow in the footsteps of Suffocation and Nile, but the twinkling sheen of the guitar leads that occasionally poke through the choppering drums has more in common with the cosmic preoccupations of Mithras. Although each song whipsaws between lightspeed rhythm riffs and moshpit-frothing breakdowns, Evil Upheaval is smartly peppered with memorable themes and near sing-alongs. Put it another way: this album is a precision assault of mean, aggressive sounds that is just plain fun.
Skeletal Remains’ third album, Devouring Mortality, isn’t shy about its pedigree. With Dan Seagrave cover art and vocals from guitarist Chris Monroy which dance between Chuck Schuldiner (Death) and Martin van Drunen (Pestilence, Asphyx), Skeletal Remains walk the line between needle-sharp precision, heads-down grooving, and the sort of encroaching progressive touch that made the early ‘90s such an explosively creative time for the genre. But it’s far from simple tribute: listen to the snaky dual-guitar interplay near the end of “Mortal Decimation” for proof that old moves in new hands can still move bodies.
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Replicant twists death metal into queasy shapes, and although the influence of Gorguts casts the longest shadow, the band’s discordance and unsettling ambience reflect everything from Today Is The Day to Botch to Ripping Corpse. Pete Lloyd’s guitar speaks in a broad vocabulary, consisting of skronk riffing, alien-sounding scrapes and dives, pinch harmonics, circular bent-note patterns, and hugely grooving chugs. (He even channels Tom Morello briefly on “Sewing Seeds in Dead Soil.”) Negative Life is engrossing and disquieting.
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California’s Bay Area has long been a magnet for stranger metal. Not so, however, with Oakland’s Extremity, whose full-length debut, Coffin Birth, is classic death metal of the very moldiest old school. With a collective resume that includes Cretin, Vastum, Vhol, Agalloch, and much more, Extremity dispense with any niceties for these eight riff-rich tracks that are blessed by the crusty rattle of Bolt Thrower, the buzzsaw mania of Grave and Dismember, and the grime of Autopsy. “Grave Mistake” even wails out some seriously evil Slayer guitar harmonics. All you lovers of greasy death metal, Extremity is here for you.
Altar of Decay
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Mortiferum is a brand new entrant to the scene, yet their churning death/doom feels like it was dredged from the same well that gave the world the earliest rumblings from Amorphis, Morgion, or Paradise Lost. The tone of this demo is so dense and chewy that it sounds like the band is playing on guitar strings made from thick-spun gristle. The dual guitar harmonies that open “Vitiated Mortality” creep like moss spreading from a cracked headstone. It may have been Obituary who penned “Slowly We Rot,” but Mortiferum want to do it rottener.
Perennial Void Traverse
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Norway has seen a remarkably rich eruption of savagely weird death metal in recent years, with bands like Diskord, Execration, and Obliteration twisting the music’s foundational aggression into grimly psychedelic sideways symphonies. Reptilian join this proud march on their debut Perennial Void Traverse, funneling their expansive and frequently doom-leavened riffs through a sparsely naturalistic mix shot through with Cato Bakke’s desperate, ramshackle vocals. Reptilian’s long-form jams allow them to settle into the kind of creeping, cosmic horror that often evades traditional death metal. “Cadaverous Creature” howls into the gaping void of space, and sees death in that infinity.
The Looming Spectre
Most of the notable trends in death metal history have been about more: more speed, more extreme lyrics, more instrumental technique. Copenhagen’s Dead Void, however, hit a perfectly filthy sweet spot on this demo by remembering the virtue of restraint. Don’t be fooled: these four songs are as oppressively heavy as being smothered by a lead blanket, but Dead Void’s approach is refreshingly parsimonious—dial in a disgustingly thick guitar tone, crank out riffs that wobble and bend like Incantation at their murkiest, and lean so far back on the beat that the rhythms feel like a funereal jazz reinterpretation of diSEMBOWELMENT. Get crushed.
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Finland’s Ghastly make expert use of reverb and a spindly melodicism to paint death metal in a gauzier palette on their striking second album, Death Velour. Echoing the startling transformation between albums one and two made by fellow Scandinavian atmospheric death metal lurkers Tribulation and Morbus Chron, Ghastly soften some of the more aggressive edges off their sound here, but in so doing clear space for a tremendous vocal performance and a nearly unfair bounty of bleakly beautiful guitar leads. Ghastly illustrate how death metal can be pensive without sacrificing its core intensity.
Manor of Infinite Forms
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Toronto’s Tomb Mold have put out a flurry of releases despite only being active for two years. On Manor of Infinite Forms, the band’s second album, they have buffed clean some of the rickety scuzz that made last year’s Primordial Malignity such a gratifyingly gross blast of Autopsy/Convulse-styled death metal. The bass guitar still rattles along like a rotten branch being dragged under a car, but Derrick Vella’s guitar riffs stretch into long, unspooling melodies, and the songs churn with a dirtbag sophistication that belies their persistent putridity. Right now, Tomb Mold are unstoppable.