Death metal is an offshoot of thrash metal with more extreme and harsh lyrics; notable pioneers include Cannibal Corpse and Obituary as founding bands.
Bands performing this genre typically don black clothing and possess an aesthetic associated with this subgenre; their music glorifies violent imagery while exploring themes related to Satanism, occultism and mysticism.
Death metal music was initially created in 1985 by a group of musicians inspired by thrash metal. The sound produced is distinguished by low-tuned and heavily distorted guitars, blast beats (a sixteenth-note figure played at machine gun speed on double bass drums), time signature/tempo changes that create an aggressive/threatening atmosphere and death growl vocal styles (requiring deep diaphragm strength and lung power to produce), along with harsh vocal delivery combined with morbid lyrics, creating an otherworldly vibe) as key characteristics of death metal bands.
Florida’s Death and California’s Possessed were two early death metal bands to use fast paces and distorted guitar tones from thrash metal bands as foundations, while adding harsh death growls, shocking lyrical themes and other distinctive elements of their own to create their unique musical identity. By the end of the 1980s, dark gospel had spread worldwide with acts such as Bolt Thrower, Carcass and Napalm Death joining Britain’s Bolt Thrower to form Bolt Thrower Carcass and Napalm Death as well as Sweden Entombed setting precedents which would influence later bands in burgeoning subgenre. These early death metal bands would set an influential precedent that would influence future bands to follow their path and work would influence later bands after them.
In the 1990s, melodic death metal, also known as melodeath, began gaining ground as an alternative style of death metal that focused more heavily on melody and catchy riffs than on brutality – giving rise to bands such as Arch Enemy and Killswitch Engage.
Progressive death metal and blackened death metal have also emerged over time, both distinguished by a harsh vocal style and Satanic imagery. Venom, Celtic Frost, Bathory and Mayhem can be considered examples of such styles of death metal music.
Musical hybridization has also seen increased exposure, with bands like While Heaven Wept and My Dying Bride merging classical doom metal with death metal vocal styles to form While Heaven Wept/My Dying Bride; Funeral Doom marries doom instrumentation with death metal vocal styles (such as Morgion/Runemagick); more recently the genre has also taken advantage of jazz influences; artists like Gorguts/Pestilence creating music which falls somewhere between progressive death metal and Jazz Metal genres.
Death metal music can be distinguished by abrupt tempo, key and time signature changes; chromatic chord progressions; heavy guitar work featuring techniques like palm muting and tremolo picking; fast drumming; two guitarists, bass guitar player, vocalist; however some bands may add keyboard or electronic keyboards for variety and emotion in their soundscape.
Death metal lyrics often dwell on themes of death, horror and darkness as well as violence and hatred. Many bands use violent imagery and stage personae in their performances – leading some activists to accuse it of glorifying murder and other forms of violence.
Early death metal bands such as Florida-based Possessed and Death and Britain-based Venom and Cannibal Corpse often featured dark imagery and lyrics, sparking a trend for bands to embrace darker themes and subject matter – which has contributed greatly to death metal’s development into a fully formed subgenre.
Death metal vocal styles often feature deep, guttural growls or roars characterized by death growlings and other throaty growling sounds that require intense lung power to produce. Death growls are also commonly accompanied by guitar melodies featuring distortion and lower pitched melodies than in other metal genres.
In the late ’80s, several South American and European bands released albums that would ultimately become influential in shaping death metal’s development. This second wave was distinguished by more complex song structures as well as musical elements drawn from progressive rock and jazz genres; bands like Carcass, Obituary and Suffocation all helped lay the groundwork for what would later become known as death metal.
As death metal artists strive to set themselves apart from competing bands, many death metal artists have begun pushing the limits of speed and technical virtuosity further than before. This has given rise to “tech death”, or simply ‘tech’; an aggressive yet brutal subgenre of death metal which extends its attack even further than usual.
Death metal music explores various themes and can often be perceived as controversial due to the extreme imagery employed by bands. Common topics include death, violence, horror, Satanism occultism and fantasy which often manifest themselves through images like skulls, skeletons bloody crosses. Bands tend to consist of men wearing long dirty hair dressed in black leather garments with gothic lettering as well as stage props such as skulls axes corpses. Lyrically the bands often sing about Satan murdering people, graphic violence as well as anti social rubbish; whilst these topics often inspire lyrics such as death, violence rape gore as well as anti social rubbish lyrics which typically depict these themes visually.
Subgenres of death metal include blackened death metal and funeral doom. Blackened death metal blends heavy death metal riffs with musical approaches from black metal. Bands that practice this style include God Dethroned, Behemoth, Belphegor and Vital Remains – many also embrace its thematic elements such as Satanism or occultism in their music.
Funeral doom metal is a subgenre of death metal which blends classical doom metal’s musical approach with the vocal styles typical of death metal bands, such as Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride and Runemagick. Bands that perform funeral doom include these examples.
Melodic death metal is a popular death metal subgenre that combines heavy instrumentation and fast tempos of thrash metal with the melancholic melodies found in doom metal, pioneered by bands such as Autopsy, Asphyx and Incantation.
Melodic thrash metal, technical death metal and melodeath are also subgenres of death metal, but some bands use more complex instrumentation like sweep picking and fretless bass playing in their songs whereas other groups focus more on melodic singing rather than growling for their sound.
Many bands have experimented with the intersections between death metal and other genres, like jazz. Atheist and Cynic are two bands which combine death metal with jazz; other combinations may include black/speed metal and black/sludge metal fusions; some artists even include elements of folk music in their works such as Alchemist and Nile.
Death metal music evokes themes of death, horror and darkness and can be considered a subgenre of heavy metal music. Composed mainly of distorted guitars, blast beats and growled vocals combined with distortion effects and growled vocals to produce its distinctive sound, many find death metal music disquieting. Thrash and black metal influence its sound but death metal goes much further and faster in pace.
Death metal has inspired several subgenres that further expand and sharpen its sounds. Melodic death metal, which combines heavy metal melodies with some death metal elements, is more accessible and less violent than traditional death metal, as evidenced by bands like Arch Enemy, Dark Tranquillity and early In Flames. Technical death metal represents a more sophisticated subgenre; this style marries chaotic song structures and weird time signatures with aggression-fueled death metal to produce challenging listening and playback from musicians – challenging both listeners and players!
Bands like Death, Napalm Death and Cannibal Corpse set the bar high in death metal during the 1980s. As its popularity increased rapidly worldwide, record labels began signing more death metal bands; Earache Records, Relativity Records and Roadrunner Records emerged as prominent names within death metal music publishing albums by such groups as Carcass, Napalm Death and Morbid Angel.
While Florida-based death metal bands pioneered its foundational sounds, other artists started exploring other sonic territories. Some bands adopted punk and rock influences while others focused on darker topics with lyrics about masturbation or violence. One-upmanship between bands led them to push their sound even further – for instance one may play faster or feature more guttural vocals; eventually giving rise to grindcore music.
Death metal inspired numerous bands to use occult imagery and themes in their music, leading to accusations that death metal promoted devil worship and Satanism – leading to moral panic among parents, community leaders and politicians and perhaps one reason why death metal never achieved mainstream popularity.