Essential Death metal albums? Is there such a thing? Damn straight there is. Death metal has been around, in various permutations, since the early Eighties so there's definitely enough of a history and body of work to warrant examining some of the pillars of the genre. More importantly, there are newer death metal fans out there who might never have heard of bands like Sodom or Celtic Frost, groups that are cornerstones of the field. A longtime fan may scoff at that idea, but, hell, 40% of today's students don't know which side Hitler was on in World War II. So where did death metal come from? It was a natural --or unnatural, if you prefer-- offshoot of the thrash/power metal scene, itself sired by the punk and New Wave of British heavy Metal explosions of the late Seventies. Thrash metal bands, like Exodus, Slayer and Metallica, while consistently heavy, always kept a steady stream of melody running through their music. But some hardcore fans and bands wanted something even heavier, faster and uglier; they wanted metal taken to the very extreme. So the tempos got quicker, the riffs got darker and more brutal, and the vocals got hoarser, more guttural, until they resembled screaming animals, instead of anything human. Death metal shied away from traditional hooks or melodies, it was simply an explosion of raw power and crushing heaviness. Of course, some bands took the genre to rediculous extremes, while others refused to progress. That's why there aren't too many quality death metal albums being released nowadays, and why the genre has reverted to mostly underground status. Other bands have broken out of the death metal ghetto and continue to flourish --Sepultura being a prime example. no matter what, there are a number of albums that define the parameters of one of the few kinds of rock and roll left that will definitely still annoy your parents.

Magazine: Guitar School / USA
Article: Welcome to Hell

Written by: Jeff Kitts
Published: April 1996







Welcome to Hell
(Neat Records, 1981)

If there is a granddaddy of death metal, this album could be it. Venom came out of the starting gate with many of the elements that formed the template for death metal to come; fast, punk style tempos, a raw, brutal guitar sound, harsh vocals and a sense of foreboding, amplified by the band's unrelenting, obsession with Satan. On the surface, this first Venom album was positively frightening: it looked and sounded as evil as our parents envisioned rock music to be. But the truth was, Venom consisted of three dorks from Nothern England who didn't believe any of the shit they wrote, and the amazingly raw sound of their album was more a result of shitty production than any agenda on the band's part. Nevertheless, Welcome to Hell still holds up as one of the early Eighties' most over-the-top metal albums. Venom released the even more amazing Black Metal in '82, then rapidly made one bomb after another for the next several years. But the moster was unleashed.




Slaughter of the Soul
(Earache, 1995)

The most recent effort by this quintet also happens to be its best. Over the course of its three previous albums, At The Gates spawned the "Gothenburg sound" (coined after their hometown in Sweden) whose signature is high-speed tandem guitar work that makes equal use of heavy chords and wandering melodies, along with a particularly raw vocal delivery. There's a slew of other bands that have followed suit, such as Dark Tranquillity and In Flames -- U.S. fans probably aren't familiar with the names, but they all bear further investigation, Slaughter of the Soul signifies a landmark for At The Gates -- and a sound that death metal up-and-comers will hopefully embrace in coming years.




Beneath the Remains
(Roadrunner, 1989)

When Slayer's Reign in Blood came out in 1986, many proclaimed it the ultimate thrash metal album. For intensity, sheer brutality, and dizzying dexterity, it simply could not be beat. Sepultura tried with Beneath The Remains and a lot of people think they came damned close. Technically, Slayer is not death metal -- Tom Araya's voice doesn't sound shredded enough-- but this little Brazilian quartet immediately endeared itself to legions of fans with this out-and-out classic. After recording two albums released only in its native country, Sepultura signed with Roadrunner in 1988 and recorded Beneath the Remains in Rio de Janeiro. Perhaps driven by a burning desire to escape Brazil, fueled by the band's anger over its people's oppression by a corrupt government, Sepultura delivered an album that is one long explosion of fury. Beneath the Remains is utterly relentless, but it's also filled with excellent songs --well-crafted and arranged, brimming with memorable riffs and anthemic choruses. It took a band from Brazil, previously a non-contender in the international metal field, to show that death metal could be about actually making music. The title track, "Inner Self", "Mass Hypnosis" and "Primitive Future" are just some of the gems on this high-energy, low-fat monster of an album. Sepultura has gone on to make even more progressive albums, like Chaos A.D. and the upcoming Roots, which have allowed them to keep their fan base, yet ultimately transcend the confines of death metal. You can count, on one hand, the bands that have made that jump.




Altars of Madness
(Earache/Relativity, 1989)

When it comes to musicianship, few death metal bands, past or present, can compete with Florida-based veterans Morbid Angel. Altars of Madness, Morbid's 1989 debut album, featured some of the scariest and most musically complex music in the death metal's history. A psychotic whirlwind of twisted arrangements, stop-and-go-faster rhythm shifts, and Satanic incantations, Altars of Madness challenged the listener to comprehend its intricacies and keep up with the pace --and rewarded those who did with a truly dizzling display of hellspawn rage and uncompromising musical prowess. While frontman David Vincent's garbled vocals sounded only borderline demonic, six-string wizard Trey Azagthoth played like a man possessed. Each time he launched into one of his spastic, skittering solos, it was as if the gates of Hades opened up and let loose an army of enraged demons. So close to pure evil, you should go to confessions after listeing to it.




Slowly We Rot
(Roadrunner, 1989)

Five years after Morbid Tales, the influence of Celtic Frost was still being felt. Obituary came out of nowhere (Florida, actaully -- same thing) and took the warped Frost sound to a new extreme, with down-tuned guitars, grinding riffs and the impossibly guttural growls of vocalist John Tardy creating a potent, if simple, stew. Slowly We Rot is a cheap, bare-bones type of album, but you can derive a sense of just how much these Southern rednecks got a kick out of making it. For a low-budget production, the sound is pretty thick, with piles of steaming, gooey riffs dripping all over the rhythm section, which alternates between excruciatingly slow jams and bursts of sudden speed. The story goes that many of the songs on the record --opuses with titles like "Internal Bleeding" and "Bloodsoaked"-- didn't actually have lyrics; Tardy just made noises that sounded like words in his strangled delivery, and no one was the wiser. Lyrics or not, the imagery of Obituary's music helped bring the "gore" element to the forefront of death metal. Songs about Satan and hell were replaced with songs that read more like autopsy reports or wartime atrocity descriptions. Obituary has made pretty much the same album three more times, each one a bit more proficient than the last , although the band is reportedly breaking up. If so, then let this be its epitaph.




"Obituary's Slowly We Roth is a powerful album with all the ingredients that make death metal albums great."

Andreas Kisser - Sepultura


Morbid Tales
(Noise, 1985)

There has never been, and will probably never be again, a band quite like Celtic Frost. Founded by visionary madman Torn Fischer (aka, Tom Warrior). Frost could barely play when it began life in Switzerland as Hellhammer in the early Eighties. By the second full-length Celtic Frost album, To Mega Therion, the band was adding orchestral arrangements and operatic vocals to thunderous epics of brutal death metal that led one critic to coin the term 'avant-metal'. But even that album didn't capture the primitive intensity of Morbid Tales, Frost's beloved debut masterpiece. The production and playing have not aged well, but Fischer's warped, tuned-down guitar sound made Morbid Tales one of the heaviest things the metal world had ever heard. Classics like "Into the Crypts of Rays", "Return to the Eve", and the brilliant "Procreation (of the Wicked)" were bathed in sludgy, sinister waves of monster riffing and boot-stomp drums, with Fischer spitting out eerie lyrics about ancient civilizations and elder gods. Pity it didn't last. Despite several boldly experimental albums, Fischer was unhappy with the band's underground status and went for an all-glam gross-out on Cold Lake --one of the biggest career mistakes in rock history. The band never recovered, despite returning to a heavier style for another album or two afterwards. Regardless, Morbid Tales, To Mega Therion, and parts of Into the Pandemonium are proof that Celtic Frost was one of the heaviest, most unique metal bands to ever come down the pike.




World Downfall
(Earache, 1989)

This one-off side project melded several disparate influences (at least at the time) into one powerful recording. Napalm Death guitarist Jesse Pintado, Morbid Angel bassist David Vincent, drummer Pete Sandoval and Nausea vocalist Oscar Garcia came together for this recording, a project supervised by a young producer named Scott Burns. The manic, relentless work of Pintado and Sandoval fused grindcore and death metal into one powerful package that still holds up as perhaps the classic "side project." Numerous others have been initiated since then in an attempt to match the impact of this project, but all have fallen well short of the mark.




Scream Bloody Gore
(Combat/Relativity, 1987)

One of the earliest and still one of the best death metal records ever, Scream Bloody Gore was the 1987 brainchild of 16-year-old Floridian Chuck Schuldiner, one of the genre's great pioneers. Though not nearly as refined as more recent Death albums sucha as Individual Thougth Patterns and Symbolic, Scream Bloody Gore thrived on innocence, passion and determination. At the time. Schuldiner's guitar and vocal skills were admittedly primitive, but they were effective enough to give the album an uncompromisingly gargantuan feel. Infectiously catchy songs like "Regurgitated Guts", "Torn to Pieces" and "Denial of Life" showed Schuldiner (who also played bass on the record) to have a keen yet simple sense of structure and composition, not to mention the ability to create piledriving riffs that hold up even to this day. Death hit the mark squarely again in 1988 with Leprosy, the follow-up to Scream Bloody Gore. Boasting a considerable improvement in musicianship (Death was a real band this time, not just Schuldiner and a drummer) and songwriting finesse, Leprosy --fueled by such songs as "Pull the Plug", "Born Dead" and "Left to Die"-- solidified the band's status as one of death metal's most respected outfits.




Persecution Mania
(Steamhammer, 1987)

If there was ever a ready-made market for death metal, it was Germany. Those wild, drunken German fans saw metal as a way of life and wanted it as hard and fast as possible. Along came Sodom, who stunned tape traders everywhere with their first demo, a blast of tuneless noise that laid claim to containing the fastest song recorded to that point, "Witchhammer". Sodom's first few releases, including their full-length debut, Obsessed by Cruelty, pointed up the fact that this trio (led by legendary Tom Angelripper) really couldn't sing or play. That's what made 1987's Persecutions Mania such a pleasant surprise. Despite being only its second full-length album, Persecutions Mania found Sodom learning how to write some fairly intense material that held together. "Nuclear Winter", "Electrocution" and "Christ Passion" all have brutal riffs and recognizable arrangements, even if drummer Chris Witchhunter more often than not sounds like he's attempting to beat the rest of the band to the end of the song. That, in the end, was what made Sodom so lovable; they always sounded like they were about to careen out of control and crash off your turntable. Plus Tom's heavily accented vocals ensured that you couldn't figure out what the hell he was snarling about. Sodom continued to release albums over the years, including some more technically proficient efforts like Agent Orange and Better off Dead. Once a cult item in the U.S. and in its homeland, the band seems to have fallen by the wayside in recent years. But Persecution Mania remains a peak of Teutonic metal lunacy.




"People didn't take Sodom too seriously when they first came out, but with Persecution Mania, I think they really matured into a solid outfit. They clearly inspired a lot of today's death metal bands."

Chuck Schuldiner - Death



(Earache, 1996)

It's been 10 years since Napalm Death --the English five-piece regularly hailed as grindcore, or 'extreme' metal, pioneers-- released its debut album, Scum. Napalm recently returned to the scene the band helped establish with Diatribes, arguably its most mature album to date. Once prone to recroding psychotic blasts of detuned spedd and calling them songs (one previous album, From Enslavement to Obliteration, actually contained 54 tracks, many of them only a few seconds in length), Napalm Death has clearly rethought its approach with Diatribes, opting for a more controlled and wholly more effective style of grind. Without forsaking its trademark blast beats and guttural intensity, Napalm has learned to harness its previously scattered power and transform the sound into a pummeling, full-frontal assault. Discipline (something Napalm Death have all but avoided through much of its career) plays a key role in why Diatribes hits the mark so squarely. The result is an album brimming with meaty riffs, savage vocals and well-crafted songs that have a distinct sense of individuality. Songs like "Cold Forgiveness" even generate a creepy, atmospheric quality rarely found in death metal. Credit Napalm Death --the band who ushered in the age of grindcore a decade ago-- with once again pushing death metal's evolutionary envelope.



Wolverine Blues
(Earache/Columbia, 1994)

Death metal in the Nineties has hardly been as exciting as it was during the previous decade, due largely to a new breed of bands whose only concern is to play faster and heavier than their predecessors. This approach has succeeded only in bringing death metal to new heights of sonic ugliness, bleeding the genre dry of all its creativity in the process. Enter Entombed, the remarkably disciplined and talented Swedish five-piece that used its unwavering originality to produce Wolverine Blues. 1994's best death metal effort and quite possibly the finest death metal album so far this decade. A benchmark of brilliantly crafted songs, powerful vocals and intelligent lyrics --three qualities not often found in modern death metal-- Wolverine Blues single-handedly gave death metal the shot in the arm it so desperately needed since blast beats, harmonized demon vocals and inaudible guitar noise became the tools of choice for its craftsmen. unlike many of its contemporaries, Entombed isn't content with merely tuning down the guitars and playing at warp speed in order to achieve a heavy sound. For this band the steamroller heaviness of Wolverine Blues is simply the end result of writing songs that crush the living daylights out of the listener. Seething with Entombed's signature passion and rage, tracks like "Hollowman", "Full of Hell" and "Demon" are some of the best the field has to offer. Ultimately, they make Wolverine Blues the standard by which all future death metal records should be judged.




Seven Churches
(Combat/Ralativity, 1985)

Few death metal albums have ever had the distinction of truly being scary. When Possessed exploded out of San Francisco with Seven Churches in 1985, a wave of terror swept through the death metal underground that conjured up images of gory Satanic rituals and demonic possession for anyone who dared spin its diabolic grooves. From the creepy opening chime of "Tubular Bells" from The Exorcist (here called 'The Exorcist'), and on through its 12 songs of blood-drenched primal rage, Seven Churches was the musical equivalent of The Evil Dead or some other grotesque horror movie. Featuring a young and obviously impressionable Larry LaLonde (now in Primus) on guitar, Seven Churches teetered on the brink of being an uncontrollable metal mess while still retaining an undeniable sense of power and fury. Song titles like "Burning in Hell", "Pentagram", "Satan's Curse" and "Holy Hell" summed it up perfectly; Seven Churches was ugly as sin, but at the same time it brilliantly captured the true essence of death metal. Possessed (prior to the shooting of vocalist Jeff Becerra during a drug deal gone awry, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down and mentally unsound) went on to release 1986's hidiously raw Beyond the Gates and finally The Eyes of Horror, a strangely musical EP produced by Joe Satriani.





"Possessed's frantic riffing and broken time signatures definitely influence Morbid Angel. Larry LaLondes's soloing was was totally creative and Jeff Becerra had some of the most hideous, growling vocals ever. Seven Churches is truly one of the great, all time death metal records."

Trey Azagthoth - Morbid Angel



(Black Mark, 1985)

It's amazing how some bands just stick around and keep making music. Witness Bathory, a one-man band featuring Quorthon, the reclusive Swedish maniac who first captured hardcore fans' attention with two songs on an early-Eighties compilation called Scandinavian Metal Attack. To this day, Quorthon continues to make records. Like Celtic Frost, Bathory exhibited little musical expertise at first, or any real songwriting; but the sound was just so diabolical that fans of extreme metal were attracted instantly. Bathory cemented the pseudo-band's reputation as a total deathfest and raised questions about this mysterious outfit. It soon became apparent that Quorthon's stories about having a full band were nothing but a hoax. But it didn't matter, 'cause kids took the Bathory sound like maggots to a corpse. The buzzsaw guitars, insanely fast drumming, and the demon-who-just-woke-up-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-flaming-pit vocals were simply out of this world. Like several other classics of death metal, Bathory doesn't hold up as well today. Those buzzin' guitars sound tinny, more like a fly than a chainsaw. And the songs are simplistic, little three-minute races to the finish line. But talent-free as Quorthon was at the time (he's since progressed to writing epic metal saga about Vikings and things like that), he still managed to drench his early work in gobs of atmosphere. And albums like this, The Return and Under the Sign of the Black Mark have had an undeniable impact on today's death metal.




(Earache/Columbia, 1994)

When it comes to the "gore" subdivision of death metal, no one perfected the art-form quite like this band. Carcass's early albums were filled with pictures of just that --human insides, strewn across lab tables and car wrecks, along with other fine collages of corpses, burnt and rotting flesh and plenty more. Jeff Walker's lyrics were not to be taken seriously --they read as if he simply cut and pasted words together from forensic textbooks. And the music was a tuned-down morass of sludgy doom alternating with hyperspeed rhythms-- in short, virtually tuneless. That all changed with Heartwork. Gone were the ridiculous lyrics and the start-and-stop approach to songs. This time, the band roared through real songs, with real choruses and a newfound sense of dynamics and, gasp, even a bit of melody. Hardcore fans wailed, but it was clear that Carcass had to progress at some point. The band should receive credit for maintaining the basic heaviness of its music, while at the same time making the most listenable ablum of its career. And perhaps its last. Recent reports indicate internal turmoil in the band, brought about by guitarist/founder Bill Steer's unhappiness with the record industry. Whatever happens, Carcass remains one of the best latter-day death metal acts, and Heartwork is its most accomplished hour.




Lost Paradise
(Peaceville, 1989)

There was such an intense amount of intrigue and curiosity surrounding this British band's first album, perhaps because Lost Paradise set the standard for doom/death albums to come. Granted, it was under-produced and plodding, and Nick Holmes' vocals must have brought on numerous throat polyps, but what it lacked in budget it made up for in atmoshpere (kinda like those classic Hammer films). Never before had a group reveled in as much depression --"sorrow-filled blessings," indeed. The band eventually grew to a modern-day incarnation of a EuroMetallica, but its use of somber, prolonged guitar melodies are still being imitated to this day.



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EmptyWords-Published on December 6 2003