Shfl Guide: Technical Death Metal

Since its emergence in the late ’80s, first as a more primitivist, aggressive outgrowth of thrash and then as its own thing once certain stylistic trademarks like the blast beat and guttural “Cookie Monster” vocals became established, death metal has been a playground for musicians interested in all types of extremity. Drummers who want to play faster than anyone before them; guitarists who want to yoke harmonic complexity and even atonality to headbanging fury; producers who want to explore nearly subsonic levels of bass: all find a home in death metal’s musical sub-basements.

Throughout the genre’s early history, regional scenes sprang up, and small groups of like-minded bands focused on narrow micro-styles. The most obvious of these was in Sweden, where post-Motörhead rock ’n’ roll riffing was fused to D-beat rhythmic pummel, but in Florida, a school came together to push the music toward increasing compositional intricacy. Guitarist Trey Azagthoth’s Morbid Angel abandoned traditional scales as they flew off into mind-blasting psychedelic explosions; Cannibal Corpse may have seemed like straightforward bashers, but bassist Alex Webster was a stealth virtuoso and the band’s guitarists frequently threw in more flourishes than were strictly necessary; while Atheist and Death (and later Cynic) infused their music with elements of jazz and progressive rock.

In the mid to late 1990s, a few acts began to refine the Floridian language, focusing on extreme precision and ultra-clean production. Death metal’s key features — downtuned guitars; machine-gun drumming; guttural vocals — are mostly concentrated in the lower frequencies, which makes it a challenge to mix the music without turning the whole thing into a muddy mess. But technical death metal (“tech-death” for short) set out to solve that problem via sampled drum triggers, guitars fed straight into the mixing board, and other state-of-the-art engineering achievements. At the same time, their songs shrugged off traditional verse-chorus structure in favor of dense collages of riff upon riff, and ear-piercing solos laid atop blindingly fast, hit-everything-twice drumming.

In the early 2000s, tech-death really hit its stride, with bands from all over the world competing in a kind of musical arms race that made the art-metal high-water marks of previous decades, like Metallica’s And Justice for All and Megadeth’s Rust in Peace, sound like Ramones demos. For whatever reason, French-Canadian bands (Gorguts, Cryptopsy, Neuraxis, Martyr, and more) really took to tech-death, but groups from Germany (Necrophagist, Obscura) and various US states (California’s Decrepit Birth, New York’s Suffocation, Kansas’s Origin) released landmark albums as well. And then there was Sweden’s Meshuggah, whose music layered seemingly conflicting rhythms and time signatures over each other until you couldn’t even headbang to it without a calculator. These days, technical death metal has achieved a kind of airless, gleaming sterility, like a highly polished spaceship, but the guttural, nearly pre-linguistic vocals make certain that the human element never disappears completely.

Quantum Catastrophe cover

Brain Drill’s debut album, 2008’s Apocalyptic Feasting, was the kind of onanistic display of guitar splatter over relentless blast beats that inspires awed laughter. Two years later, they learned how to write songs and were much better for it. Guitarist Dylan Ruskin is still a one-man fretboard fireworks display on Quantum Catastrophe, but bassist Ivan Mungula (real name) makes the most of a few spotlight turns and the tracks have dynamics — tempo changes, choruses, and clean sections that are occasionally quite beautiful.

None So Vile cover

This French-Canadian band’s second album threw down the gauntlet so hard in 1996, it cracked the floorboards. Impossibly fast, dizzyingly complex, and propelled by the manic drumming of Flo Mounier, death metal’s own Neil Peart (like Rush’s drummer, he never seemed to play the same beat twice), it combined the guttural energy of grindcore with the labyrinthine song structures of the most progressive death metal of the time. It’s a record bands (including Cryptopsy themselves, honestly) are still trying to measure up to, decades later.

Diminishing Between Worlds cover

These guys started out as West Coast clones of Suffocation, but on their second album, they really blossomed by embracing their progressive side, taking obvious influence from the early ’90s work of legends like Death, Atheist, and Pestilence while pumping in a heavy dose of brutality. The band’s primary creative force, guitarist Matt Sotelo, unleashes one shredtastic solo after another (he plays the bass parts, too) as drummer KC Howard lays down thunderous blast beats. Vocalist Bill Robinson is present, but honestly, this could just as easily have been an instrumental album; it’s Sotelo’s show from beginning to end.

Nihility cover

Polish death metal band Decapitated’s second album was an absolute bombshell when it landed in 2002. The primary creative forces were guitarist Wacław “Vogg” Kiełtyka and his younger brother, drummer Witold “Vitek” Kiełtyka, the latter of whom was 17 when Nihility was recorded. The riffs are intricate, the rhythms ever-shifting, but what really vaults the record out of the pack is its muscular production, worthy of a Pantera or Slayer album. Vitek’s drums, in particular, are mixed with skull-punching force. Sadly, he only got to make two more albums; he died after a road accident on tour in 2007.

Omnivium cover

Obscura are a band of virtuosi capable of stunning displays of technical skill, particularly guitarists Steffen Kummerer and Christian Münzner, but bassist Jeroen Paul Thesseling and drummer Hannes Grossmann are far more than just their rhythm section. On this album, acoustic interludes and prog-rock solos break up the blast beats and hoarse roars (Kummerer is also the vocalist), and fretless bass adds a jazz-fusion flavor at times. Grossmann’s drums are mixed to sound as woody/organic as possible, avoiding the “typewriter” sound common in the genre. Each song is like a mini-suite, but the sections fit together seamlessly and logically.

Epitaph cover

Necrophagist started out as Turkish guitarist Muhammad Suiçmez’s one-man passion project. He recorded 1999’s Onset of Putrefaction alone at home; five years later, he had guitarist Christian Münzner and drummer Hannes Grossmann in his band. Both would later join Obscura. Epitaph’s eight tracks fly by in just under 33 minutes; Suiçmez’s compositions are high-speed, hairpin-turn vehicles for intricate group interplay and wild solos. Sadly, this lived up to its title, as the band’s final effort, but it’s a landmark album that’ll have you torn between frenzied air guitar and manic headbanging.

Trilateral Progression cover

With its rapid melodic and rhythmic shifts and dissonant harmonies, technical death metal can be alienating. Montréal’s Neuraxis wrote crushingly heavy riffs that regularly spun out into orbit, but they could be as fist-pumpingly catchy as At The Gates when they felt like it, too (try “Thought Adjuster”). The band’s secret weapon was vocalist Ian Campbell, who didn’t play an instrument (a rarity in tech-death) and was thus free to be a genuinely dramatic and charismatic frontman.

Symbols of Failure cover

Psycroptic are from Tasmania, and vocalist Jason Peppiatt sounds remarkably like the cartoon Tasmanian devil on this album. The Daley brothers (guitarist Joe and drummer David) have an almost telepathic bond as they tear through their hyper-complex compositions, with Cameron Grant’s bass adding a pleasing thickness to the mix. The songs blur together, but only because the band never lets the energy level flag for an instant. Listening to this album is like running full speed for 40 minutes. Imagine what it must have been like to play it.

Nothing cover

Two versions of Meshuggah’s breakthrough album exist. The original 2002 release was recorded with downtuned seven-string guitars; in 2006, they went back and re-recorded it with eight-string guitars, dropping the music even lower in the process. The last song, “Obsidian,” also lost its fade-out, going from four minutes to eight. The original (orange cover) has a jagged, ripping quality that the remake (blue cover) lacks, but the band’s polyrhythmic, interlocking-gears style of metal remains fascinating in both incarnations, like watching insects perform synchronized war-dances.

Pierced From Within cover

Long Island, New York’s Suffocation were pioneers in death metal, combining the technical intricacy of the genre’s progressive wing with a punishing brutality drawn from hardcore and thrash. Their first two albums are a blast, but Pierced From Within was the moment when their style matured, the dense, smothering production making the occasional moments of clarity, when a Terrance Hobbs guitar lead would break through and soar skyward, that much more thrilling.

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