Op-Ed

In 2018, Death Metal Reigned Supreme

As the world burned around us, a new class of forward-thinking bands rose up from the ashes to remind us that only death is real.

by Joseph Schafer
02 January 2019, 11:35am

Tomb Mold / Photo by Joey Arredondo

2018 has approached its conclusion, and it is leaving a trail of excellent metal records in its smoldering wake. While extreme metal continues to fly below most people’s collective musical radars, the genre is thriving, with new, innovative bands consistently producing album-length revisitations of – and improvements upon –old sounds. 2018 in particular should be remembered for its bumper crop of young bands exploring old school death metal, and not since the genre’s initial creative frenzy in the early 90s have so many bands taken the sound of Florida’s punishing blastbeats and Sweden’s chainsaw guitars to this current level of acclaim.

Before we go too much further, it’s probably necessary to spell out what old school death metal actually sounds like – which is a bit of a challenge, since the style has had various distinct, region-specific mutations. Bands from Florida (outside of Obituary's swampy stomp) tried to sound otherworldly and wickedly fast, often incorporating jazz or psychedelia into their mix. In Sweden, the Boss HM-2 guitar pedal was ubiquitous, and gave most bands from that region a distinct tone – the now-famous "chainsaw" guitar. In Finland, bands like Demilich and Demigod tuned their songs low while showing off their considerable instrumental chops.

No matter the region, the bands shared super-distorted guitars and bass, as well as the hyper-fast double kick and snare drum pattern now known as the blast beat. They tended to play in very extreme tempos, either very slow or very fast, sometimes both in the same song, and, most importantly, each of these bands used ragged, barely comprehensible vocals that sound more like growling than singing.

Philadelphia’s Horrendous – whose complex, cerebral take on death has always been reminiscent of Floridian bands like Death and Cynic – added jazzy basslines and a forward-thinking sense of melody to their new album, Idol. Meanwhile, in Toronto, Tomb Mold expanded from a duo to a full live band, and released an uncompromising but intoxicating sophomore LP, Manor of Infinite Forms, that came indebted to Finland's more knotty death metal legacy. In Quebec, Outre-Tombe channeled the classic Swedish saw sound on their sophomore LP, Nécrovortex. All of these records have wound up on multiple metal publications' year-end best-of lists, and they’re just the tip of the iceberg.

Death metal never died, to be clear. Many graduates of its early 90s classes continue to put out great work, and some – like Obituary, for example – are arguably more popular now than they ever were. However, until recently, the genre’s other permutations superseded their popularity with new listeners. Death metal's many subgenres – characterized by bands like In Flames' poppy melodies, progressive rock passages a la Opeth, highly virtuosic musicianship as exhibited by tech-death stalwarts Gorguts, or a thrashier approach mixed with black metal's codified blasphemy, like Skeletonwitch – took center stage, while newer listeners' enthusiasm for its meatier, more straightforward sounds seemed to stagnate.

However, several years ago, a sea change hit the scene, and old school death metal (OSDM) became an unexpectedly hot commodity, and it's clear that 2018’s bumper crop of albums sprouted from seeds planted five or more years ago. Everything old is new again, and the ongoing OSDM revival is especially intriguing because so many of its bands are young.

Most of the members of Delaware’s Scorched weren’t even in elementary school when old school death metal was known as just plain “death metal,” but their 2018 album Ecliptic Butchery recaptures the sound and fury of old perfectly. Outer Heaven guitarist Jon Kunz left his more commercially-palatable outfit, Rivers of Nihil, to complete his newer project's debut LP, Realms of Eternal Decay – truly a sign of the times. Naturally, the two bands released a split together in 2016.

Another rising band, Gatecreeper, also appeared on the aforementioned Scorched/Outer Heaven split, and released a split with thrash vets Iron Reagan this year. The Arizona outfit's acclaimed first album, Sonoran Deprivation, dropped in 2016, the same year that Denver’s Blood Incantation released their landmark first LP, Starspawn (Blood Incantation released a live cassette this year). Blood Incantation will tour in the spring of 2019 with Necrot, a punky death metal brigade that shares members Acephalix, Vasum, and Scolex, all members of a Death Metal scene that has persisted in the San Francisco Bay area. Each of those bands is arguably as important to the OSDM revival in 2018 as any outfit that released an album proper.

The OSDM revival predates those bands as well. It’s not clear that either of them would exist without the groundwork laid by now-defunct hardcore punk bands like Black Breath and Trap Them, who both adopted old school Swedish death metal's distinctive guitar tones and incorporated them into something new more than a decade ago. Occurring between those two phenomena, there was a brief but enthusiastic propagation of bands who tried on the murky and obscure end of old school death metal–bands like Grave Miasma, Dead Congregation, and Necros Christos took on the gurgling sound of Pennsylvania’s Incantation, and made it sound so vile and cavernous that it skirted the line between ambient music and death metal proper.

Musical movements enter public awareness like a wedge. First, a few bands adopted the old school death metal sound, but not its structure. Then, early adopters (like Gatecreeper and Blood Incantation, for example) dig deeper into the sound proper, and gain a little popularity. This creates a pathway for more bands to break through, and stirs up more interest from music consumers. Only after that groundwork has been laid do we end up with a year like 2018, one that's chock full of great bands that honestly embody a genre’s trappings while expanding it in thoughtful ways.

Groups which didn’t receive the notoriety of Tomb Mold or Horrendous stretched blast beats and growls even further. For example, Finland’s Ghastly focused on the sometimes-psychedelic passages of elders like Morbid Angel to create this year’s trippy Death Velour. Spain’s Ataraxy welded mournful, funereal doom passages to Bolt Thrower-esque tank treads on Where All Hope Fades. Turkey’s Burial Invocation spent seven years composing guitar hero shredding passages, acoustic interludes, and guttural experimentations nearly ten minutes long on their debut, Abiogenesis. Binah blend similar elements with the beloved Swedish guitar tone on Phobiate. Germany’s Chapel of Disease alloy OSDM with licks reminiscent of metal’s progenitors Blue Oyster Cult and Deep Purple, bringing the genre’s evolution full-circle on … and as We Have Seen the Storm, We Have Embraced the Eye (they even threw some Dire Straits chicken-picking in there, and somehow it sounds excellent).

While it’s unquestionable that the 2018 class of old school death metal acolytes has been a high-water mark, the reason why the past few years have been so good to this style of music is more open to interpretation. The easy answer would be to point to the Internet and say, “The kids found out Morbid Angel and Entombed were good all by themselves, and this is the natural result.” While there is truth in that answer, there are also hints at a deeper, more social cause. In an interview earlier in the year, Horrendous admitted that pieces of Idol were inspired by the 2016 presidential election in America. The title track refers to the way conservative media outlets like FOX News deified Donald Trump and his violent white nationalistic agenda, and sold him as a fascist false god to America.

Other bands' 2018 releases hinted at similarly huge, but less specific anxieties. Outer Heaven's Realms of Eternal Decay, Ataraxy's Where All Hope Fades, and Chapel of Disease's ... as We Have Seen the Storm, We Have Embraced the Eye aren’t explicitly political, but together they paint a picture of a storm-tossed world rapidly decaying, its denizens struggling to find hope.

This is not an irrational worldview. In 2018, authoritarianism continued its rise, with Horrendous' "idolator-in-chief," one Donald Trump, squatting in the eye of the storm. Maybe worse, according to this year’s National Climate Assessment, our window to prevent a global environmental cataclysm caused entirely by human industry is rapidly drawing to a close. In these tumultuous times, death metal is a grounding force. It asks listeners who engage with it to remember that they are made of flesh and blood which will one day expire and rot away. By meditating on death, through death metal, it’s possible that some listeners will begin to push back against the non-musical forces that made the old school death metal revival relevant and real. The world right now is an appropriate one in which to make death metal, but it doesn‘t need to be that way.

To quote horror author Clive Barker, himself an inspiration behind more than a few metal tunes, “everybody is a book of blood; wherever we’re opened, we’re red.” Death metal reminds us that no matter our identity or philosophy, the end is never far away, which means our actions and thoughts in the present carry significant weight. After all, they may be our last.

Joseph Schafer is transmigrating beyond eternities on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey US.