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Blood, Politics, and Mainstream Crossover: The State of Death Metal in 2015

Death metal just turned 30, and 2015's been a wild year for this most brutal of genres. So, where will it go from here?

Tribulation / Photo courtesy of the artist

Death metal officially became 30 years old this year, with Possessed’s landmark Seven Churches reaching that milestone on October 16. It’s hard to believe that a genre invented by high school students is still around today, but in three decades of existence the style has evolved to create countless distinct regional scenes and merged with every subgenre under the metal umbrella. Now that it has long been established, what does death metal look like in 2015?

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While much of the genre’s old guard still exists (albeit with massive lineup changes in most cases), it appears that the elder statesmen are mostly an afterthought, even as some of the best younger bands are playing a style firmly rooted in the old school sound. Yeah, Grave and Malevolent Creation, holdouts from the heydays of Sunlight and Morrisound Studios, released solid slabs of headbangable riffs this year, but while that’s a nice excuse for more touring (and certainly better than releasing tired crap under a known name), it’s no longer enough to just chug along putting out consistently enjoyable albums every few years. When metalheads look back on 2015 a few years or even decades from now, they won’t remember it as the year Grave did a pretty good job on their 11th album. The bands that define modern death metal are taking the classic sound of their forefathers and invigorating it with youthful energy and creative songwriting.

Horrendous is the first such band that comes to mind. Just a year after dropping one of 2014’s best albums, Ecdysis, the East Coast trio put out another contender at the end of October with Anareta. Like most acts on Dark Descent Records, Horrendous’ sound belongs firmly in the early 90s (their list of influences is a who’s who of the original Swedeath scene), but their progressive touches and intense dual vocal attack make for a far more vicious approach than any of their heroes are capable of taking in the modern age.

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On the other side of the Atlantic, Cruciamentum finally released their debut full-length Charnel Passages in September. Featuring members of Adorior and Grave Miasma, Cruciamentum specialize in churning, twisting riffs a la Incantation, but with clever songwriting that separates them from legions of other groups that worship that particular outfit by adopting their cavernous atmosphere and calling it a day. These are the albums that people will look back fondly on in 2020 or 2025, not yet another Malevolent Creation record.

One thing that death metal as a whole has not produced in 30 years is an artist that breaks out of its niche audience. Of course music this inaccessible will never be mainstream—and its practitioners clearly like it that way—but musically literate non-metalheads have found plenty to enjoy among other subgenres. Mastodon have been ascending for over a decade and are now practically a household name. Deafheaven had the single best-reviewed album of 2013 and a pretty damn liked follow-up this year. Pallbearer have been referred to as a “game changer.” Bands like Cannibal Corpse, Death and Morbid Angel have moved an impressive number of units in the past, but who’s the new-school death metal band that actually has a chance of making waves among those normally preoccupied with indie rock or art-pop?

If one band is to break out of musty metal bars and into the limelight in the next few years, it’s going to be Tribulation. That idea would have been laughable when the Swedish four-piece debuted in 2009 with The Horror, a pure old-school death/thrash release that serious metalheads will likely always consider their best work, but then, in 2013, they did a 180 with the much lighter, prog rock-leaning The Formulas of Death. On this year’s The Children of the Night, they started to add more and more influences to the mix, from traditional heavy metal to post-punk and gothic rock. The results already show where Tribulation could be headed: an 8.4 on Pitchfork and a tour opening for Deafheaven followed the album’s release. That level of exposure had led to unexpected success for the band, and to new kinds of faces popping up at their shows (when I saw Tribulation on that Deafheaven tour, I overheard somebody asking if they were “a real black metal band.” The response: “I dunno, I don’t like metal enough.”) There will be an inevitable wave of people who consider them the worst thing that ever happened to death metal—if they even deign to call Tribulation a death metal band at all—but lest we forget, the genre could have far worse representatives out there in the tastemaking music blogosphere.

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Cruciamentum / Photo by Jack Latimer

In addition to the looming specter of a mainstream crossover, death metal bands in 2015 have also had to contend with a far more progressive audience than those that came before them. Once the go-to genre for tasteless gore and shock value, most younger bands seem to have cleaned up their image. The violent misogyny that frequently appeared in the genre’s golden age is now passé if you’re not a generic slam band. There just isn’t any room for “Entrails Ripped From a Virgin’s Cunt” or “Skin Her Alive” in today’s metal scene, and more importantly fans have responded angrily when actual violence against women occurs, as blackened death band Deiphago learned when guitarist Sidalpa was accused of punching a woman in the face backstage.

Death metal is still an overwhelmingly male scene as far as raw numbers go, but things are changing slowly but surely. This year saw new releases from quality extreme acts like Vastum, Cloud Rat, Fuck the Facts, and a litany of others who count women among their members —including the staunchly feminist Castrator, who flipped the script on death metal misogyny with the violently misandrist No Victim EP, and queer, nonbinary duo Vile Creature, whose debut A Steady Descent Into the Soil made waves. Death metal, like every other metal style, is gaining more and more female and nonbinary performers, and women’s presence on the stage is generally accepted, even if it’s still not something one sees at the average show.

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Death metal listeners are also clearly taking a stand against racism. Over the summer, Malevolent Creation were raked over the coals because of blatantly racist and xenophobic Facebook posts. In the fall, Disma were booted from multiple festivals due to frontman Craig Pillard’s alleged Nazi associations. Netherlands Deathfest organizers said that “at least 10 bands” would have refused to play on the same bill as Disma had they not been removed. Pillard is a major figure in the scene, having been an integral part of Incantation’s prime years, but even in the normally apolitical (and extremely white) world of death metal, fans and artists are starting to lose patience with prejudice—even if the majority of listeners are not yet swinging left.

One thing is for certain—musicians with intolerant beliefs will have to handle backlash better than Pillard did: his Facebook response read “yes, its true the liberal agenda pc assholes got to the promoter of those shows and we removed Disma which is a not affiliated with any political group at all.” He has also defended his Nazi side-project, Sturmführer, as “a musical and social experiment…not meant for your pleasure, but your pain. If I have offended anyone then it has fulfilled its intended purpose.” I can’t fault the man for standing up for himself, but hopefully these incidents lead to a generation of smarter, savvier death metal musicians and not a collective of social outcasts rambling about “SJWs.”

So, what is the state of death metal in 2015? The music is still as vital as ever and the genre is flooded with talented musicians. We’ve certainly moved past those halycon days when a game-changing album would drop every other month, but that’s typical for any kind of music after a certain point. While fans long ago realized that death metal is no novelty, the rest of the music world is finally taking notice, and under this newfound scrutiny, death metal will undoubtedly keep moving forward.

Travis Marmon is undead on Twitter.