Death metal

Death metal is an extreme subgenre of heavy metal. It typically employs fast tempos, heavily distorted guitars, deep growling vocals, morbid lyrics, blast beat drumming, and complex song structures with multiple tempo changes.

Building off the speed and complexity of thrash metal, death metal emerged during the mid 1980s. It was mainly inspired by thrash acts like Slayer, Kreator and Celtic Frost. Bands like Possessed, Death and Morbid Angel are often considered pioneers of the genre. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, death metal gained more media attention as popular record labels like Earache Records and Roadrunner Records began to sign death metal bands at a rapid rate. Since then, death metal has diversified, spawning a rich variety of subgenres.

Death metal has been met with considerable hostility from mainstream culture, mainly because of the socially unattractive themes, imagery and stage personae surrounding many bands. It is typically seen as an underground form of music, in part because it does not appeal to mainstream tastes due to its aggressive nature and because the musicians often choose to remain obscure.



The setup most frequently used in death metal is two electric guitars, a bass guitar, a vocalist and a drum kit almost universally using two bass drums or a double bass drum pedal. Although this is the standard setup, bands have been known to incorporate other instruments such as electronic keyboards.

The genre is often identified by fast, highly distorted and downtuned guitars, played with techniques such as palm muting and tremolo picking. The percussion is usually fast and dynamic; blast beats, double bass and exceedingly fast drum patterns are frequently used to add to the ferocity of the genre.

Death metal is known for its abrupt tempo, key, and time signature changes, as well as extremely fast and complex guitar and drumwork. Death metal may include chromatic chord progressions and a varied song structure, rarely employing the standard verse-chorus arrangement. These compositions tend to emphasize an ongoing development of themes and motifs.

Vocals and lyrics

Death metal vocals are often guttural roars, grunts, snarls, and low gurgles colloquially called death grunts or death growls. This vocal style is sometimes referred to in tongue-in-cheek as Cookie Monster vocals because of the similarity with the popular Sesame Street character of the same name.

Death metal's lyrical themes typically invoke Z-grade slasher and splatter movie violence, but may also extend to contain themes of Satanism, criticism of religion, Occultism, mysticism, and/or social commentary. Although violence may be explored in various other genres as well, death metal elaborates on the details of extreme acts, including mutilation, dissection, torture, rape and necrophilia. Sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris (author of Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge) commented that this may be attributed to a "fascination" with the human body that all people share to some degree, a "primal desire", and that although the genre often glamorizes violence and obscurities, there is equally as much fear and disgust amid the exploration. Heavy metal author Gavin Baddeley also stated that there does seem to be a connection between "how acquainted one is with their own mortality" and "how much they crave images of death and violence" via the media. Additionally, contributing artists to the genre often defend death metal as little more than an extreme form of art and entertainment, similar to horror films in the motion picture industry. Needless to say, this has brought such musicians under fire from activists internationally, who claim that fact is often lost on a large number of adolescents, who are left with the glamorization of such violence without social context or awareness of why such imagery is stimulating.

According to Alex Webster, bassist of Cannibal Corpse, "The gory lyrics are probably not, as much as people say that's what would keep us from being mainstream, like, 'Death metal would never go into the mainstream because the lyrics are too gory,' I think it's really the music, because violent entertainment is totally mainstream."

There are Christian death metal bands, such as Living Sacrifice and Impending Doom whose lyrics are Christian.

Origin of the term

There are several theories how the term "death metal" originated. One theory is that the name originates from an early pioneer of the genre, Death. A Florida journalist explained to his readers that Death play their own kind of metal: "Death's Metal". Others contest that Death is not the origin, but that the harsh vocals and morbid lyrical content generally inspired the genre. Another possible origin is a fanzine called "Death Metal", started by Thomas Fischer and Martin Ain of the band Hellhammer (later Celtic Frost). The name was later given to the 1984 compilation Death Metal released by Hellhammer's label Noise Records. The term might also have originated from other recordings. Possessed's 1984 demo is called Death Metal, and a song with the same name is featured on their 1985 debut album Seven Churches. A demo released by Death in 1983 is called Death by Metal.

Early history (up to 1991)

The history of death metal begins in the early 1980s. A style emerged that was between death metal, black metal and thrash metal. European bands like Venom, Bathory, and Hellhammer, and bands from the US like Possessed and Slayer formed the basis of this extreme heavy metal music style. From these founding acts styles diversified into death and black metal. The British band Venom crystallized the elements of what later became known as thrash metal, death metal and black metal with their 1981 album Welcome to Hell. Their dark, blistering sound, harsh vocals and macabre, proudly satanic image proved a major inspiration for extreme metal bands. Another highly influential band, Slayer, formed in 1981. Although the band is a thrash metal act, Slayer's music is more violent than thrash metal contemporaries Metallica, Megadeth or Exodus. Slayer is regarded as one of the most sinister thrash metal bands from the early 1980s and are considered the ancestors of and directly responsible for the rise of death metal. Their breakneck speed and instrumental prowess combined with lyrics about death, violence, war and Satanism won Slayer a rabid cult following. According to Allmusic, their third album, Reign in Blood, inspired the entire death metal genre and had a big impact on the genre leaders: Death, Obituary and Morbid Angel.

Possessed, a band that formed in 1983, was heavily influenced by early Slayer. Although Possessed's brand of metal resembled Slayer's fast and Satanic thrash metal they're often cited as the first death metal band. This is largely because of the grunted vocals which set the stage for death metal's breakaway from thrash metal. The 1984 demo Death Metal and 1985 album Seven Churches are regarded as their most influential material. Not long after the dawn of Possessed, a second monumental death metal band was formed in Florida. The band Mantas, composed of Chuck Schuldiner, Kam Lee, and Rick Rozz released a demo entitled Death by Metal in 1983. In 1984, under their new name Death, more demos were released. The tapes circulated through the tape trader world, quickly establishing the band's name. With Death guitarist Schuldiner adopting vocal duties, the band made a major impact on the scene. Fast, dark minor-key riffs and fierce solos were complimented with fast drumming, creating a style that would catch on in tape trading circles. Subsequently, Schuldiner has been "widely recognized as the father of death metal".

Along with Possessed and Death there were other influential bands who introduced an early raw extreme metal style, guttural vocals and lyrics concerning death and/or Satanism. In 1984, Bathory released the influential early black metal album Bathory. Hellhammer have released demos as early as 1982. In 1984 they were featured on the split album Death Metal.

As heavy bands like Slayer, Death and Possessed paved the road for death metal in America, heavy European and South American bands were creating a buzz in the metal underground. By the mid 1980s, German thrash metal bands like Kreator, Sodom and Destruction were becoming underground majors. These band's releases all featured uptempo rhythms, fast guitar solos, raspy screamed vocals and dark lyrical themes; an influence on later death metal bands. At the same time a small South American scene would emerge. Bands like Holocausto, Sarcófago and Sepultura would release death metal records around 1986, most notably Sepultura's first LP, Morbid Visions.

An early death metal album, Season of the Dead, was released by Necrophagia in 1987. That same year saw the release of Death's Scream Bloody Gore, which some writers consider the subgenre's first "proper" release.

By 1989, many bands had been signed by eager record labels wanting to cash in on the subgenre, including Florida's Obituary, Morbid Angel and Deicide. This collective of death metal bands hailing from Florida are often labeled as "Florida death metal". To their credit, these early death metal bands did push the format forward, something that would ultimately pay off in a new form of music that was substantially different from their closest forefather, thrash metal.

Death metal spread to Sweden in the mid 1980s and had been a major act there since the late 1980s with pioneers such as Nihilist, Entombed, Dismember and Unleashed, but later on a subgenre of death metal took its form. In the early 1990s the rise of typically melodic "Gothenburg metal" was recognized, with bands such as Dark Tranquillity and in the mid-1990s bands such as At the Gates, In Flames and Soilwork.

Following the original death metal innovators, a new hybrid began by the end of the decade. Just as the creation of New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) lead by Iron Maiden and other bands was sparked by the youthful energy of punk rock in the late 1970s, so did cross-fertilization between metal and punk once more create something new in the late 1980s. The chaotic and often confusing development that took place around this time is well illustrated by the British band Napalm Death, often characterized as a "grindcore" band, although simultaneously a part of the death metal scene. However, Napalm Death themselves changed drastically around 1990, leaving grindcore behind for the most part. In particular, on 1990's Harmony Corruption, the band can be heard playing something most fans would call death metal today, i.e. modern death metal by the above characterization. This album clearly displays aggressive and fairly technical guitar riffing, complex rhythmics, a sophisticated growling vocal delivery by Mark "Barney" Greenway, and thoughtful lyrics. Other bands contributing significantly to this early movement include Britain's Bolt Thrower and Carcass, and New York's Suffocation.

To close the circle, the band Death released Human in 1991, an example of modern death metal. Death's founder Schuldiner helped push the boundaries of uncompromising speed and technical virtuosity, mixing in highly technical and intricate rhythm guitar work with complex arrangements and emotive guitar solos. Other examples of this are Carcass's Necroticism: Descanting the Insalubrious, Suffocation's Effigy of the Forgotten and Entombed's Clandestine from 1991. At this point, all the above characteristics are clearly present: abrupt tempo and count changes, on occasion extremely fast drumming, morbid lyrics and growling vocal delivery.

As mentioned above, by the end of the 1980s, various record labels internationally began to sign death metal bands at a rapid rate. Earache Records, Relativity Records and Roadrunner Records became the genre's most important labels, with Earache releasing albums by Carcass, Napalm Death, Morbid Angel, and Entombed, and Roadrunner releasing albums by Obituary, Sepultura, and Pestilence. Although these labels had not been death metal labels to start with (Earache was founded for grindcore and Roadrunner for thrash), they became the genre's flagship labels in the beginning of the 1990s. In addition to these, other labels formed as well, such as Nuclear Blast, Century Media Records, and Peaceville; many of these labels would go on to achieve successes in other genres of metal throughout the 1990s.

Later history (1991–present)

Death metal's popularity achieved its peak between the 1992-93 era, with some bands such as Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse and Obituary enjoying mild commercial successes; however, the genre as a whole never broke in to the mainstream owing to its extreme nature. Nevertheless, rather than fading away, death metal diversified in the 1990s, spawning a rich variety of subgenres, including the following. It should be noted that cited examples are not necessarily exclusive to one particular style. Many bands can easily be placed in two or more of the following categories, and a band's specific categorization is often a source of contention due to personal opinion and interpretation.

Melodic death metal

Scandinavian death metal could be considered the forerunner of "melodic death metal". Melodic death metal, sometimes referred to as "melodeath", is heavy metal music mixed with some death metal elements, such as growled vocals and the liberal use of blastbeats. Songs are typically based around Iron Maiden-esque guitar harmonies and melodies with typically higher-pitched growls, as opposed to traditional death metal's brutal riffs and much lower death grunts. Carcass is sometimes credited with releasing the first melodic death metal album with 1993's Heartwork, although Swedish bands In Flames, Dark Tranquillity, and At the Gates are usually mentioned as the main pioneers of the genre and of the Gothenburg metal sound. Additionally, Afflicted, Entombed, Amon Amarth, Unleashed and Tiamat helped to define the sound that would evolve into common melodic death metal. Entombed (ex-Nihilist) was the band which started to combine punk and death/thrash riffs and set a trademark "Sunlight studios" guitar sound.

Technical/Progressive death metal

Technical death metal and progressive death metal are related terms that refer to bands particularly distinguished by the complexity of their music. Common traits are abruptly changing, sometimes chaotic song structures, uncommon time signatures, atypical rhythms and unusual harmonies and melodies. Bands described as technical death metal or progressive death metal usually fuse common death metal aesthetics with elements of progressive rock, jazz and/or classical music. While the term technical death metal is sometimes used to describe bands that not only focus on complexity but also on speed and extremity, the line between progressive and technical death metal is thin. "Tech death" and "prog death", for short, are terms commonly applied to such bands as Cryptopsy, Edge of Sanity, Opeth, Origin and Sadist. Cynic, Atheist, Pestilence and Gorguts are examples of bands noted for creating jazz-influenced death metal. Necrophagist and Spawn of Possession are known for a classical music influenced death metal style. Death metal pioneers Death also refined their style in a more progressive direction in their final years.

Brutal death metal

Brutal death metal developed by combining death metal with aspects of grindcore, and took death metal to greater extremes in terms of speed and aggression. Brutal death metal tends to be drum-heavy and rhythm oriented leaving little room for melody and harmony. Typically, guitar riffs make use of fast tremolo picking, and heavy palm muting for a percussive effect. The drum lines are fast and blast beats are predominant. Brutal death metal vocalists employ low-pitched death grunts and the lyrics are often, but not always gore related. Some bands occasionally alternate fast and aggressive parts with slower grooves and breakdowns. Bands who focus more on these slower groovy parts and breakdowns are sometimes referred to as slam death metal.

Certain bands in this genre, for example Nile and Suffocation, have also been categorized as technical death metal. There is a sizable overlap between the two genres, as some bands not only focus on speed and aggression but also incorporate technical and progressive elements. Brutal death metal is also associated with bands like Suffocation (band), Disgorge and Hate Eternal.


Death/doom (also known as doom/death) is a style that combines the slow tempos and melancholic atmosphere of doom metal with the deep growling vocals and double-kick drumming of death metal. The style emerged during the late 1980s and gained a certain amount of popularity during the 1990s. It was pioneered by bands such as Autopsy, Winter, Asphyx, Disembowelment, Paradise Lost, and My Dying Bride. Death doom subsequently gave rise to the gothic metal genre.

Blackened death metal

Blackened death metal is a subgenre of death metal fused with the more fluid and melodic elements of black metal. These bands also tend to adopt some of the thematic characteristics of that genre as well; evil, Satanism, and occultism are all common topics and images. Early influences for blackened death metal included death metal bands such as Deicide, Acheron, and Immolation as well as black metal bands like Mayhem. Some good examples of the blackened death metal style would be God Dethroned (Early), Behemoth (Later), Akercocke, Belphegor, Angelcorpse, Zyklon, and Sacramentum.


Deathgrind is a fusion of death metal mixing the intensity, speed, and brevity of grindcore with the complexity of death metal. It differs from death metal in that guitar solos are often a rarity, shrieked vocals are more prominent as the main vocal style (though death growls are still utilized and some deathgrind bands make more use of the latter vocal style), and songs are generally shorter in length, usually between one and three minutes. It is usually the band's aim to play high tempo and atonal music with little to no slower passages. But this style differs from grindcore in the far more technical approach and less evident hardcore punk influence and aesthetics. Some notable examples of deathgrind are Brujeria, Cattle Decapitation, Cephalic Carnage, Soilent Green, Pig Destroyer, Circle of Dead Children, and Rotten Sound.


With the rise in popularity of metalcore, traits of modern metalcore have been utilized in death metal. Bands like Job for a Cowboy (only on their first EP Doom) and Suicide Silence combine metalcore with death metal influences. Death metal characteristics such as fast drumming (including blast beats), down-tuned guitars, tremolo picking and partially growled vocals are combined with melodic riffs and breakdowns. In the case of some groups such as Despised Icon and Bring Me the Horizon, lyrical themes are less focused on gore and violence, and more on personal issues.

Other fusion subgenres

There are other heavy metal music subgenres that have come from fusions between death metal and other non-metal genres, such as the fusion of death metal and jazz. Atheist and Cynic are two prime examples; the former of which went as far as to include jazz-style drum solos on albums, and the latter of which incorporated influences from jazz fusion. Nile have also incorporated Egyptian music and Middle Eastern themes into their work, while Alchemist are one of the only death metal bands that have incorporated psychedelia along with Aboriginal music. Some groups, such as Nightfall and Eternal Tears of Sorrow, have incorporated the heavy use of keyboards and symphonic elements, creating a fusion of symphonic metal and death metal, sometimes referred to as symphonic death metal. Industrial metal has also been fused with death metal on Fear Factory's early albums.

See also



  • Albert Mudrian, Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal & Grindcore (Feral House) ISBN 978-1-932595-04-8
  • Kahn-Harris, Keith 'Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge' Berg,, ISBN 1-8452-0399-2
  • Purcell, Natalie J. 'Death Metal Music: The Passion and Politics of a Subculture' McFarland & Company, ISBN 0786415851
  • Christe, Ian. Sound of the Beast: the Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2004.
  • Harrell, Jack. "The Poetics of Destruction: Death Metal Rock." Popular Music and Society. Spring 1995. Republished, April, 1996 in the Social Issues Resources Series (SIRS) database.

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