Death Metal 101: a history of death metal and the best death metal bands

Pat O'Brien of Cannibal Corpse, America's most prominent death metal band.
Pat O'Brien of Cannibal Corpse, America's most prominent death metal band.

Death metal, the most brutal music made by man. While some use the phrase death metal as a blanket term for all brutal metal, death metal is a legitimate and well developed genre in heavy metal. This genre tends towards blazing speed, heavily detuned guitars (often 2 steps down or more), aggressive drums including blast beats and double bass. The guitars are unrelentingly brutal and the vocals guttural. For those who actually care about metal lyrics, death metal songs are near exclusively about death (surprised?) and sometimes evil.


The History of Death Metal

There is some discussion on the topic of the first death metal album and death metal band. Death metal grew out of thrash and determining the exact point in which death metal ceased to be thrash is an act of futility. Stylistically, death metal departs from thrash with guttural vocals, blast beat drumming, a de-emphasis of the shredding solo, a further down tuning of guitars, and an absence of any of the bounciness that often occurs in thrash. These developments didn't happen overnight, but a good start is Death's Scream Bloody Gore album (1987) where most death metal elements are present.

Death metal had something of a slow start in the late eighties as bands made their way mostly through tape trading circles (the 80's version of Myspace) until highly influential bands starting getting on important record labels, first Combat but then Earache (releasing Morbid Angel's Altar of Madness in '89) and Roadrunner (Obituary's Slowly We Rot and Sepultura's Beneath the Remains).

1991 and Tampa

The combination of influential albums and label support lead to its discovery by more mainstream (comparatively) audience and an explosion of new bands appeared in 1991, death metal's biggest year in the history of death metal. Most of the best death metal bands hail from this era, or a year or two before it. A strong scene developed in none other than... Tampa Florida? Yes, a strange fact in the history of death metal, but the sunshine state spawned many of the earliest and some of the best death metal bands.

However, I would warn you about going after old death metal from the early 90's without some sort of guide as the explosion of bands during this time lead to an overly generic sound (as it turns out, if you set out to make the most brutal death metal band, you're pretty much limited to being brutal). The reader is referred to Death is Just the Beginning pt. 2 if they do not believe me. But do not fret! Here I have my list of the most relevant and best death metal bands:

Cannibal Corpse: The Bleeding

Cannibal Corpse is my favorite death metal band and in the running for my favorite metal band. While their previous release (Tomb of the Mutilated) is much darker, their next release (Vile) is a bit more aggressive, this is probably Cannibal Corpse's best in terms of song writing. If you're going to start listening to death metal, you should probably start here (I did). When Cannibal Corpse is at their best, you can hear both brutal death metal and nuance, especially on this album. Cannibal Corpse is probably the best death metal band, though their albums seemed to have declined in the 00's

Dismember: Like an Ever Flowing Stream

All in all Dismember is a kick ass band, but their music doesn't stand out much in comparison to old death metal as does the sound quality. Using a prominent and heavy distorted bass, the are the among the best examples of the "rusty air conditioner" sound you will find. The distortion is so thick and the sound is so heavy that it times resembles a roaring engine. This album is quite deep and brooding, like the lament of a motorcycle engine

Krisiun: Conquerors of Armageddon

If you really want from death metal is speed, these are the guys to go to. While I'll admit that their style starts getting a bit boring on this album, I counter that remark by telling you to just listen to half the album at a time. Krisiun songs keep the bashing of death metal strong while still writing songs that are catchy and can be listened to repeatedly.

Nile: Black Seeds of Venegeance

Death metal has a tendency to be over the top and overly technical with its constant tempo changes, but Nile is one of those bands that goes above and beyond. For fans of brutal death metal it must have been obvious that there was a limit to how heavy a riff could be. So how could they make the music more extreme? By adding more riffs and tempo changes of course. Nile and a handful of bands (Cryptopsy, Soilent Green, the Red Chord, etc.) with the technical talent did just that. Generally you could listen to an old death metal song a few times and catch all its riffs. But with a band like Nile, you really need to listen to a song twenty times+ to catch all the riffs (to the point where the term "riff" barely has any meaning). Nile is the most awesome example of this tendency and they skillfully incorporate Egyptian/Mediterrean influences to boot. It is indeed Egyptian death metal.


Cannibal Corpse playing Devoured by Vermin

Disgorge: Forensick

I have been listening to death metal for over a decade and this is the sickest and most brutal death metal band I have found. I'm not even sure I would recommend it to a death metal fan. Their guitar is as down tuned as I have ever heard. The death metal vocals are the lowest and most brooding possible, and the drums are blaring all the time. The result is a music barely capable of being understood by the human ear. Likewise, the lyrics are so disgusting you need a medical degree to understand them. I really can't justify liking this album, but sometimes on long car rides it makes into my stereo. 

Gorguts: Obscura

Until Obscura, Gorguts didn't leave much of a dent in the unending flow of brutal death metal from the early 90's. Then there was Obscura. This album is hideously and unmercifully dissonant and atonal in addition to being brutal death metal. Hence it is dark and forboding, and a great grab anyone willing to approach such inaccessible music. I love this album.

My Dying Bride

Not your straight death metal. My Dying Bride put out some doom death (slow rumbling metal with death metal vocals) on their first album As the Flower Withers (the band has since been walking between the line between orchestral and metal). This album is what I might call moodless, as in it doesn't matter what mood I'm in, this stuff sounds good. Now it is true I'm usually in the mood for death metal and play it casually. If I want to relax (be calm) this album is among the first I turn to. But if I want something heavy, this stuff works too. I've used this fall asleep, calm down, and even to concentrate. It also works in intimate settings as well, I trait that none of these other bands share.

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Comments 10 comments

Ben Snowden profile image

Ben Snowden 5 years ago from Peoria, IL

You came up with a solid list of bands for this article. For people unfamiliar with this subgenre, a lot of death metal bands "sound exactly alike," but this article disproves that. It would be a really good starting point for anyone looking to get into death metal, and I appreciate any and all references to Gorguts!


yiasa profile image

yiasa 5 years ago from Dhaka

It is great to have someone so devoted like you on hubpages. I will definitely look forward for more.


TheOneWhoKnows profile image

TheOneWhoKnows 5 years ago from Croatia

I realllly love death metal, especially Melodic ( Kalmah, CoB, In Flames)


makensens profile image

makensens 5 years ago from Montreal, QC, Canada

Great article! People need to know about this awesome genre. You might want to take a look at my article on the subgenres of death metal.


Steve Orion profile image

Steve Orion 4 years ago from Tampa, Florida

I'm just now getting into the genre, thanks for the info!


TheHeavyReview profile image

TheHeavyReview 4 years ago

I love death metal! "Obscura" is a crazy album. But with all due respect... where is Carcass? "Necrotism: Descanting the Insalubrious" is a masterpiece! Great article, keep it metal!


starvagrant profile image

starvagrant 4 years ago from Missouri Author

When I was getting into death metal, I think Carcass was in the state of breaking up. Breaking up usually means less listeners so as a result I don't know much Carcass. You are correct in pointing out that Carcass was an extremely influential band in the early death metal scene.


starvagrant profile image

starvagrant 4 years ago from Missouri Author

By the way, anyone else reading this article on classical death metal albums have any suggestions for death metal bands from the aughts? (i.e. death metal after the nineties? It is the writer's opinion that 1991-2001 was the decade for death metal. I find modern death metal bands don't have a good appreciation for song structure. Sure they come up with great riffs, but they don't seem to have any appreciation for where they belong in the song. Any suggestions for aughts metal bands?


starvagrant profile image

starvagrant 4 years ago from Missouri Author

By the way, anyone else reading this article on classical death metal albums have any suggestions for death metal bands from the aughts? (i.e. death metal after the nineties? It is the writer's opinion that 1991-2001 was the decade for death metal. I find modern death metal bands don't have a good appreciation for song structure. Sure they come up with great riffs, but they don't seem to have any appreciation for where they belong in the song. Any suggestions for aughts metal bands?


Quintindmith666 3 years ago

death metal was introduced to me when i was 8 years old and i have loved it ever since Cannibal Corpse is the shit i love them.

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