Death metal has to be one of the most inaccessible forms of structured noise ever to have passed itself off under the loose rubric of “popular music”. With vocals that are more growled than sung, drumming that sounds more like a jackhammer than a beat, a brutal insistence on lack of groove, and lyrics that embrace Satanism, decay, and being torn limb from limb — well, let’s just say that the genre isn’t everyone’s cup of steaming pus.
It’s true that if you like only twee indie pop with the occasional foray into folk, you should probably stay far, far away from death metal. But if you have any appreciation for heavy, from Guns N’Roses to Zeppelin to Black Flag to Iron Maiden, there’s no reason that you shouldn’t be able to find something to appreciate in death. Here are a few easy entry points from someone who, long leery of the genre, has finally seen the black corpselight.
Slayer — Reign in Blood
Slayer’s 1986 masterpiece is thrash metal, not death — but there’s no death band that doesn’t worship at its unholy altar. Dave Lombardo’s blazing double bass throughout the album is the touchstone for death’s fist-to-the-face percussive roar, and the demonically-fueled, resolutely unbluesy, riffs-as-bludgeons laid down by guitarists Hanneman and King are almost as influential. These death elements, though, come in a package that is, for neophytes, relatively accessible. Tom Araya sings like a human rather than an ogre; the production (by Rick Rubin) is much cleaner than most death albums, and the songs, for all their breathtaking speed and power, are constructed around brutally effective hooks. In short, this is the perfect place to jump off into some real death.
Possessed — Seven Churches
Recorded the year before Reign in Blood, Seven Churches may be the first actual death metal album. Jeff Becerra brings the cookie monster vocals, and the band blazes along like Motorhead with double the amphetamine prescription and a twisted theological bent. The songwriting is significantly more rudimentary than on “Reign in Blood” — or, indeed, than on most fetishistically technical death metal albums to come. But Becerra’s charisma is considerable, and the album’s single-minded rush has an easily appreciated visceral charge that was (more-or-less deliberately) jettisoned as the genre solidified.
Malevolent Creation — The Ten Commandments
Part of the influential Florida death metal scene, Malevolent Creation’s recorded their first album in 1991. The Ten Commandments is top quality, straight ahead early death metal. The songs are only a short step removed from thrash; fast, brutal, adrenaline-fueled, and relentless. The title-track, Malevolent Creation, is one of the few songs by any death band anywhere that actually gives Slayer a run for its black and bartered carcass.
Vader — Future of the Past
The Polish band Vader is one of the most revered 90s European death metal outfits. Future of the Past, their 1996 third album, is composed entirely of covers — which makes it unusually accessible. In the first place, choosing songs by a multitude of different writers gives the album a welcome variety. In the second place, every song just kicks ass. “Storm of Stress” (originally by Terrorizer) is 1:15 of breakneck brutality, punctuated by a single bass run pause so you can take a breath and contemplate the blood pouring out of your ears. “Dethroned Emperor” (originally by Celtic Frost) slows down for a classic doom slog, with thick detuned minor chords thumping to the floor like rough-skinned and slaughtered ungulates. Covers by classic thrash acts like Sodom, Kreator, Dark Angel, and Slayer are also top-notch — and give you an incentive to go check out lots of bands to see whether the originals can possibly be as loud and fast as Vader’s covers.
Morbid Angel — Blessed Are the Sick
Morbid Angel is both totally validated classic Florida death metal and flat out weird in a genre not known for encouraging idiosyncrasy. Released in 1991, Blessed Are the Sick was actually dedicated to Mozart, and while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to fans of Amadeus, the album’s song structures are definitely unique. Throughout the album, the band liberally mixes in elements of doom, while drummer Peter Sandoval throws in off-kilter rhythms and weird accents between blast beat pummels as if he has secretly sacrificed his soul to Bill Bruford. The result is a dexterously lurching masterpiece, fierce enough to appeal to purists while open-ended and inventive enough to draw in fans of great heavy songwriting, from Zeppelin to Nirvana.
Therion — Of Darkness
One of the founders of the important Swedish death metal scene, Therion has moved more and more into orchestral death metal, actually performing at some concerts with symphony players. Back in 1991 when Of Darkness was released, though, those impulses were still incipient — the album takes the sweep of classical music while remaining resolutely death. The songwriting is remarkable, with brutally ranting chunks of death incorporated seamlessly into larger structures. The sense of development makes each track a mini-epic, with rapidly changing tempos and dramatic arrangements. Fans of black metal, especially, should find a lot to like here, but the emphasis on composition makes this one of the least monotonous and most engaging death metal albums out there for any listener.
If you’re still with me at this point, I’d also highly recommend early Deicide albums like Deicide, Legion and Once Upon the Cross, Grave’s gloriously guttural Into the Grave, and Decapitated’s fearsomely proficient Winds of Creation. Also great are Cancer, Cannibal Corpse, Carcass, Death, Dismember and (early) Entombed. And from there you’re free to follow the blasphemously infected trail on your own. Happy torment!