Several years ago, at the end of a dull weekend in Western Massachusetts, I decided that a walk through nature would break up the monotony. A short hike down the road from my apartment brought me to the Wentworth Farm conservation area (a large meadow surrounded by marshland). The growl of engines gave way to birdsong as I wandered down trails in tall grass. Life pressed in on me from all angles; after long periods of isolation, staring into liquid crystal, it was both intoxicating and oppressive.
When I returned across the bridge marking the reserve’s entrance, there wasn’t much light left in the day. Before long, I was back on the busy street leading home. A constant stream of cars darted by inches to my left. The lack of a guard rail usually caused some anxiety, but my mind was elsewhere, back in the reeds and lilies. The fresh air had cleared the cobwebs from my mind and body, and I was feeling at peace. I looked down at the sidewalk and saw the marble eyes of death.
The squirrel was locked up in rigor mortis, mouth open wide in a rodential rendition of Munch’s The Scream. My reptilian brain took hold, sensing danger and preparing to claw its way to safety. In that instant, 500 million years of evolution coalesced in an awkward dance—fight or flight. I recall an irrational fear that the body would stir, that the bared incisors would latch onto my ankle and never let go. The submerged fact of my mortality was wrenched to the surface, and my surroundings took on the haze of a fever dream. Gone were the trucks and vans driving by at fifty miles an hour; in their place were morbid equations. What happens when a two ton vehicle meets what is essentially a bag of water with some tissue floating in it?
As I opened the door and entered the safety of my bedroom, my inner skeptic threw in the towel. There was truth, after all, in the old adage: you never feel more alive than in those moments when Death traces its fingers down your spine.
Listening to Carcass for the first time was a similar experience – without the immediate threat to my body. Having cut my teeth on Kamelot and other thrash and power metal bands, I was no stranger to gruff voices, but the layered vocals of Jeff Walker and Michael Amott were like nothing I’d ever heard. Or considered possible from the throats of human beings. Their 1991 album, Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious, was the rotten sound wave through which I first experienced death metal. It was grotesque, bizarre and uncomfortable. I pressed repeat.
What is it about down tuning and desiccated esophagi that grasps the psyche with such ease? Like a slasher film for the ears, death metal allows listeners to confront the inevitable in the safety of a controlled environment. Consider it the aural equivalent of peeking at a shrouded figure being wheeled from wreck to ambulance.
The genre is at once an inoculation against the casual brutality of our lives, a meditation on the unknown and a test on the limits of the human body.
Death metal’s nascent form emerged from San Francisco and the swamps of Orlando in the mid-80’s, its purveyors hellbent on casting thrash from the throne of extremity. Possessed and Death, the bands credited with the creation of the style, sought to bury audiences under the weight of graveyard dirt.
Guitar tunings plummeted while distortion rose to new levels (eventually reaching its final form in the infamous “buzzsaw” tone of the Swedish scene). When combined with accelerated kick drums and blastbeats, the result was a sonic urgency, compositions that played out as battles between instrument and flesh.
Nowhere is this conflict more audible than in the vocal cords of the death growlers. In a genre primarily focused on deconstructing our anatomy (in its imagery, rapidity, etc.), the rasping voices of thrash were deemed too human. Too much the product of beating hearts.
These vocalists push their larynxes to the limit, removing all traces of humanity; what’s left has sunken deep into the bass clef. Barks, growls and gutturals, often unintelligible, serve as both monstrous narrators and percussive instruments, embedded in the framework of songs. These vocals imbue a host of emotions into the music, the most common being an obliterating catharsis.
Death metal is an inherently volatile genre—young, reckless and pliable. Just a decade into its existence, what had been insulated scenes of tape-traders scattered across continents, were bombarded by the arrival of the Information Age. The flood of concepts, cultures and voices (facilitated by the Internet) quickly mutated the genre: melodic death metal rose in Gothenburg, Sweden, while experiments in dissonance took off in such disparate locales as Canada and New Zealand. Like with other extreme genres, the borders of death metal have proven permeable. The result? A patchwork abomination, shambling, hungry for new parts to add to its collection.
The Pokémon I’ve chosen to represent death metal is Gengar.
Of all the spirits that dwell in the tower of Lavender Town (think Poké Sematary), Gengar best represent the malicious qualities of death metal. The coloration of Gengar is a bruised purple, reminiscent of corpses in livor mortis. Their ability to melt into the shadows of their victims, twisting them into grotesque shapes, echoes the genre’s fixation on dismantling the human form. A Cheshire grin is often seen spread across the faces of these phantoms, as they delight in the fear sown by their illusions. This perverted sense of humor runs parallel to the horrors depicted in the lyrics and imagery of some death metal bands; the cartoonish levels of violence mixing disgust and fear with the comedy of excess.
Move 1 – Mega Drain
Album: Barús (EP)
Scraping guitars open this track with an aura of dread, sealing listeners in a sarcophagus of sound. H’s bass growls in the dark throughout, the distortion bringing to mind the grind of stone on stone, of ancient doors closing for the last time. As layers are added to the first riff (guitars and the sermon of vocalist K), the hypnotic repetition of doom metal sets in, building tension with every recurring note.
The collapse at 1:58, in the form of double bass and a dissonant breakdown, showcases the death portion of the death/doom genre. Throughout the remainder of the song, these tempo changes result in constant apprehension. What lies around the corner, just out of earshot? Barús uses this anxiety (and a healthy dose of delay) to create an atmosphere of claustrophobia; voices echo through narrow halls as the song descends to its nadir, a litany repeated to the point of exhaustion. Chords drone, drums pound and words melt together, losing their meaning as we are interred.
Move 2 – Hyper Beam
Album: In Cronian Hour (Split EP w/ Mitochondrion)
Song: “Leaden Words Sown”
With a rush of air, Auroch descend from the portal, uprooting prey from terra firma before warping back to a realm outside our own. The journey ahead mimics the spastic motion of nightmares. One second, a torrent of riffs and blastbeats burns the senses, while in the next, melodic guitars shimmer like a mirage in the distance. These transitions are anchored by Zack Handler’s drum performance, which combines a loose, almost springy feel with a slew of technical flourishes (the cymbal work around 0:08, for example).
A hellscape is nothing without its inhabitants, however; Shawn Hacke (bass) and Sebastian Montesi (guitar) populate the abyss with an array of infernal characters. Whispers, gurgles and screeches recite an esoteric spell, overlapping each other to chaotic effect. While Auroch indulge in disorder for most of the track, they lock into a groove at 1:30 that showcases both their slippery and angular riffing styles. In a final moment of violence, the body of the music is expunged, leaving the spirit to wander in a vacuum.
Move 3 – Body Slam
Album: Necronomic Warfare (LP)
Song: “Necrotic Victory”
Like amphibians from the primordial sea, TrenchRot represent a transitional form—in this case, between the worlds of thrash and death metal. Justin Bean’s drums slice through a sludge of down-tuned tremolo riffs, melding punk rhythms with double bass kicks. The result is a propulsive sound that pulls at ligaments, begging the body to lash out (perhaps into other bodies).
TrenchRot display the vestigial traits of their forebears with pride as a hardcore breakdown leads into syncopated OSDM grooves (a la Bolt Thrower) in the song’s second half. Steve Jansson’s vocals trace the descent from mid-ranged thrash to the more guttural “proto-death” style, and the abuse of guitar vibrato at 1:08 tops the song with a garnish of barbed wire. The production is punchy (besides the reverb-soaked vocals) and devoid of studio gimmicks, leaving the instruments to speak for themselves. Their message is clear: TrenchRot are unconcerned with innovation. Instead, they focus on combining the best aspects of early death metal in a love letter to the grave.
Move 4 – Psywave
Band: Blood Incantation
Album: Starspawn (LP)
Song: “Vitrification of Blood (Part I)”
“Vitrification…” is kaleidoscopic in its composition, shifting through genres, tempos and moods throughout the 13-minute runtime. In Opethian fashion, there are often two disparate riffs (supplied by Paul Riedl and Morris Kolontyrsky) being played at once, creating a storm in the neocortex. This duality plays into Blood Incantation’s “cosmic” take on death metal, in which the warmth of order is in constant battle with the cold of space. Dissonant notes swarm around the rhythm guitars (0:41-1:40), overwhelming the senses before the song is pared down to a straightforward groove. In this labyrinthine structure, the only constant is the unknown.
When they’re not moving faster than light, Blood Incantation slow down to admire the celestial bodies around them. Stars gone supernova are mourned with funeral doom (8:17), and at the end of their voyage, the crew celebrates their return home with hopeful guitar leads and Isaac Faulk’s ecstatic drumming (12:00). The dynamic production allows each instrument to interact, with grace or with hostility, resulting in an opus of many colors and emotions. “My God…it’s full of blasts!”