Death metal was still defining itself when Cannibal Corpse released their debut, 1990’s Eaten Back To Life, and consequently, it was a primitive, thrashy album they’d evolve past very quickly. Butchered At Birth represents the first stage in that evolution. The guitars are a hellish buzzing sound, while the drums are a machine-gun blast, bolstered by Alex Webster’s thick rumble of bass. Chris Barnes’ vocals, simultaneously hoarse and guttural, set a bar for extremity that others (most notably his successor, George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher) would vault with ease, but at the time he barely sounded human.
Florida Death Metal
All of metal’s greatest innovations were achieved between 1980 and 1990. Everything afterward has been refinement, synthesis, and in some cases reactionary response. New ideas came fast and furious as the decade began: Mötley Crüe fused punk and glam rock in 1981, Venom invented black metal in 1982, and Metallica’s debut introduced the world to thrash in 1983. By 1986, young headbangers were connecting with each other by mail, trading demo cassettes that held the seeds of something new: guttural vocals, downtuned guitars, and machine-gun drums.
The first band to play what could truly be called death metal was Possessed, from California’s Bay Area, but when their demo tape arrived in Florida, a teenaged guitarist named Chuck Schuldiner was inspired. His band Mantas became Death, and an unending sequence of lineup changes began as Schuldiner’s creative ambitions grew with every release.
The Florida scene exploded fast, with pioneering acts like Avatar (later Savatage) and Nasty Savage influencing younger musicians, and Tampa quickly became the center of the death metal universe. Morrisound Recording was the studio of choice, thanks to engineer Scott Burns, who produced basically everyone, creating a sonic template session by session. Local bands like the ultra-Satanic Deicide, the almost psychedelic Morbid Angel, and the swampy Obituary were joined by acts from out of state who could tell something was up and wanted to be part of it: both Cannibal Corpse and Malevolent Creation relocated from upstate New York to Florida. The sound became so dominant that even the inventors of grindcore, Napalm Death, came to Morrisound to make their third album, Harmony Corruption.
The mainstream music industry had no idea death metal even existed, but a few independent labels were quick to sign the most promising bands. Roadrunner Records grabbed Obituary, Deicide, Malevolent Creation, and later Cynic, while Metal Blade took Cannibal Corpse and Atheist, and Earache signed Morbid Angel and Nocturnus.
Cannibal Corpse might be the archetypal death metal band, the one you’d play for someone who wants to know what the genre sounds like, and they got an unimaginable break when they performed “Hammer Smashed Face” in the movie Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. They established their style on their second album and have refined it ever since, achieving AC/DC-like levels of consistency.
Deicide were furious thrashers whose bassist/vocalist, Glen Benton, infamously burned an upside-down cross into his forehead. His voice, frequently doubled in the studio, sounded like a possessed Rottweiler, and guitarist brothers Brian and Eric Hoffman delivered squealing solos that owed as much to Black Flag’s Greg Ginn as to metal.
Obituary’s music was tuned way down, their tempos tended toward the sludgy, and John Tardy’s vocals didn’t sound like anyone else in death metal; he sobbed and howled like the crazy guy on the bus. On much of the band’s debut album, 1989’s Slowly We Rot, he didn’t even write lyrics — he just made horrifying sounds. (Mike Patton of Faith No More has cited Tardy as an early influence.)
Morbid Angel’s debut, Altars Of Madness, was both crushingly heavy and wildly experimental; lead guitarist and primary creative force Trey Azagthoth wrote mind-warping guitar solos, around which bassist/vocalist David Vincent and drummer Pete Sandoval constructed some of the most punishing and yet awe-inspiring songs in death metal.
Nocturnus were the first death metal band to make prominent use of keyboards, and one of the few to write a concept album: their debut, The Key, is about a cyborg who travels back in time to kill baby Jesus. Atheist and Cynic, meanwhile, brought in ideas from jazz fusion and prog-rock, launching death metal out of the abyss and into space.
By the mid-1990s, death metal had become a global phenomenon, with crucial scenes developing in New York state, Sweden, South America, and pretty much everywhere else. But in those key early years, it was all happening in Tampa, and the albums of that era retain an astonishing vitality, the sound of young men breaking down walls and making a brand new kind of noise.
Obituary’s debut album, 1989’s Slowly We Rot, set them apart from the death metal pack with its swampy riffing, but it was on this 1990 follow-up that their sound congealed. John Tardy’s unhinged vocals and his brother John’s tumbling drums, lashed to the second-gear grind of guitarists James Murphy (recently ex-Death) and Trevor Peres and Frank Watkins’ sludgy bass, gave their music an ominous feel, like you were being stalked by a faceless figure. Even when they played fast, they seemed like they were playing slow, which allowed the deceptively simple riffs of songs like “Chopped In Half” and “Dying,” not to mention their thunderous cover of Celtic Frost’s “Circle Of The Tyrants,” to sink deep into the listener’s brain.
Nocturnus were the first death metal band to incorporate keyboards, not just as textures, but as a key element of their intricate compositions. Their music set an early bar for technical complexity and featured insane guitar shredding from Mike Davis and Sean McNenney. Vocals (most courtesy of drummer Mike Browning) are filtered through electronics and hurled at the listener from all sides of the stereo field to disorienting effect. Plenty of death metal explores sci-fi themes, but The Key is one of the only death metal albums to actually sound like it’s from the future.
Sarasota, Florida’s Atheist formed in 1987 and represented an immediate challenge to their peers; their brand of death/thrash metal was breathtakingly intricate, guitarists Kelly Shaefer and Rand Burkey’s riffs in a near-constant state of flux as Roger Patterson’s bass did its own thing underneath and Steve Flynn played drums with Neil Peart-esque complexity. On this, their second album, they broadened their sonic palette, bringing in jazz harmonies, subtle Latin rhythms, ambient electronic sounds, and slap bass from Tony Choy (Patterson died in a van accident between albums). This may also be the only death metal album to feature recordings of birdsong (“Mother Man”). It’s still furiously aggressive, too, of course.
After 2004’s Scars Of The Crucifix, guitarists Eric and Brian Hoffman left Deicide; bassist/vocalist Glen Benton and drummer Steve Asheim brought in Ralph Santolla and Jack Owen (ex-Cannibal Corpse) and made an absolutely masterful album. Lyrically, it’s the same old story (“Death To Jesus,” “Homage For Satan”), but when it’s guitar solo time, the whammy-bar gymnastics of old have been replaced by epic, at times stunningly beautiful shredding that elevates the music to an unprecedented level of virtuosity. Seventeen years into their career, Deicide made their masterpiece.
Blasting through eight blindingly fast tracks in 29 minutes, Tampa’s Deicide were out for blood on their second album. Bassist/vocalist/mastermind Glen Benton roared with a drill sergeant’s authority as guitarist brothers Eric and Brian Hoffman cranked out thrashy riffs and squealing solos and drummer Steve Asheim cracked the whip, pushing the tempos to the point of near-exhaustion. In keeping with the band’s name, Benton wrote about exactly one thing: how much he hated Jesus. But it was easy to ignore his monomania and bang your head to the band’s furious death metal eruptions.
It gives some sense of Death’s achievements to say that their fourth album was a transitional effort for them, and a stunning leap forward for the genre as a whole. Founder Chuck Schuldiner brought in new collaborators on every record, and for Human he recruited guitarist Paul Masvidal and drummer Sean Reinert — already working on their own project, Cynic — and bassist Steve DiGiorgio. The songs were fierce and thrashy, but the grinding primitivism of the early albums was gone, replaced by soaring, grandiose guitar leads and ever-shifting, sometimes almost swinging rhythms. This was progressive metal in the most literal sense; Schuldiner and company were moving forward, and pulling the rest of the genre along behind them.
Tampa’s Morbid Angel — guitarist Trey Azagthoth, bassist/vocalist David Vincent, rhythm guitarist Richard Brunelle, and drummer Pete Sandoval — were one of the first wave of Florida death metal bands, along with Deicide and Death. They wrote songs that shifted gears rapidly and often, sometimes seeming like mere pretexts for Azagthoth’s squealing, over-the-top guitar solos, but Vincent’s fuzzed-out bass and Sandoval’s insanely fast blast-beat drumming were an equally powerful draw. They meant to overwhelm the listener, and this debut album succeeded and then some.
On Death’s fifth album, founder Chuck Schuldiner revamped the lineup again; only bassist Steve DiGiorgio remained from 1991’s Human, joined by second guitarist Andy LaRocque of Mercyful Fate frontman King Diamond’s solo band, and drummer Gene Hoglan. Individual Thought Patterns is a harder, less fusion-y album than Human, but Schuldiner’s and LaRocque’s leads and solos, bolstered by DiGiorgio’s liquid fretless bass and Hoglan’s ultra-precise drumming (his nickname is ”The Atomic Clock”), are lyrical and mind-warpingly progtastic. The songs can seem like collections of riffs, piling complexity on complexity for its own sake, but taken as a whole the album is a brilliant and thrilling journey through one man’s unceasing artistic evolution.
When George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher took over on vocals, Cannibal Corpse’s music began a steady evolution, streaminlining and strengthening its best qualities (RIFFFFFSSSSS) while abandoning some of its worst, notably the grotesque misogyny of 1994’s The Bleeding. Kill delivers 13 shotgun blasts of pure death metal fury and marks the beginning of what can only be described as their mature artistic period. Hate Eternal guitarist Erik Rutan’s production turns the music into an avalanche of bricks, with enough clarity that you feel every impact.
Guitarist Paul Masvidal and drummer Sean Reinert formed Cynic in 1987, and had already been through multiple other members before recording Focus in 1993. Joined by bassist Sean Malone and second guitarist Jason Gobel, they employed keyboards, guitar synths, and Chapman stick to give the music a kind of cybernetic jazz fusion feel. Growling vocalist Tony Teegarden was balanced by Masvidal’s robotic croon (using a vocoder) and clean background voices from Sonia Otey and Steve Gruden, and the guitars frequently shifted from precise, crunching riffs to pastoral shimmers as Malone’s fretless bass wanders in blissful patterns. Couple the music with the almost hippie spiritualism of Masvidal’s lyrics, and you’ve got an album that baffled many metalheads upon release, but is now regarded as a classic.
Obituary might be the most “don’t fuck with the formula” band in metal. Three founding members — vocalist John Tardy, his drummer brother Donald, and guitarist Trevor Peres — are still with the group nearly 40 years since forming in 1984. On this, their tenth album, newish guitarist Kenny Andrews and bassist Terry Butler deliver exactly what fans are expecting: caveman riffs, often delivered in a midtempo chug, and shredding solos. Donald Tardy’s drumming is loose but just right, injecting a swamp-rock groove into their death metal, making it almost bluesy at times (“A Lesson In Vengeance”), and John Tardy is still one of the most unhinged-sounding vocalists in music.