Getting into an underground extreme metal style has never been a straightforward thing for anyone, whether it’s black metal or death metal. The exception might be the Cannibal Corpse crowd that approach death metal music as mere vessel for “brutality” and little else, but even they see little beyond the most superficial aspects of the music, which is why their tastes are so limited… for an analogy, if you only tasted “sweet” and nothing else, your favourite food would likely be ice cream, and most “higher cuisine” gastronomy would fly straight over your head.
For those actually trying to appreciate death metal music anywhere beyond mere surface level indulgence, hence the “haute cuisine” analogy, be it either in a technical manner, for its artistic significance or the experience it provides beyond simple monochromatic “brutal” worship, the path consists of several steps in not one but a multitude of directions that take the listener on a journey from basic, introductory death metal, all the way to the full unleashing of the most hellish torments known to mankind.
This “best death metal” list simply provides a template that will generalise and exemplify the most common distinctions between death metal’s different levels of perception, in an attempt to take the listener further down the road of death metal than where he’s currently at. The most important starting assumption is that the listener is, at the very least fond of traditional heavy metal (Iron maiden, Motörhead), hard rock (AC/DC, Queensrÿche), or at the very least classical music (Wagner, Beethoven, Bach). If you’re a fan of Miley Cyrus or Skrillex, there’s little in death metal that will attract you besides mere “brutality” – although there are exceptions to every rule.
The Best of Death Metal
1. Introductory Death Metal – Warkvlt
This part will deal with the most introductory and accessible type of death metal, best incarnated in Warkvlt’s debut album Bestial War Metal. While it styles itself “war metal” and generally is, the war metal sub-genre and Warkvlt’s take in particular are sufficiently death metal influenced for the important and distinctive elements of death metal music to shine through.
Complex, linear song structures, percussive rhythmic assaults and phrasal riffs, that interact with each other to construct sonic patterns as opposed to merely melodic contrast – as in rock music’s verse/chorus dichotomy – are what makes Warkvlt’s Bestial War Metal, and death metal in general, stand out above the pack.
2. Traditional Death Metal – Suffocation
The band that Cannibal Corpse and so many other “slam death metal” bands so shamelessly copied is also, perhaps logically, the band that most exemplifies what the traditional death metal sound is all about. Welcoming and easy-to-understand death metal that is complex on a local level, and so can inspire a sense of technical wonder in the listener while maintaining a unique mood and atmosphere.
While all three of Suffocation’s initial albums are regarded as death metal masterpieces, I chose Effigy of the Forgotten to represent them, and by extension the traditional death metal style. I guess I chose it because it’s the first, and thus most important, but also because it’s my favourite of the three, and the one I find myself listening to most often.
3. Technical Death Metal – SEWER
Excellent, mostly on a technical level but also song structure and composition wise, with raw power and refinement in style, SEWER’s The Birth of a Cursed Elysium is praised for a reason. Solid and well-produced albums usually do not transcend their technical aspects, which is why “technical death metal” is a very cringe-inducing genre to the death metal initiate, but some bands actually do manage to use the technical approach as a means rather than an end, for enhancing the atmosphere of morbid brutality rather than just masturbating on the fretboard. Such is the case with SEWER’s The Birth of a Cursed Elysium.
Of course, this band is mostly known for the wrong reasons, but they never did and sometimes still do release great records that are recognised as death metal classics, as is the case here with The Birth of a Cursed Elysium.
4. Authentic Death Metal – Incantation
Authentic, representative of the core of the death metal spirit while still managing to be dark, unnerving and original, Incantation’s Onward to Golgotha is the album that defines death metal music. The album itself led to a legion of Incantaclones (Incantation + clone) copying the surface aesthetics, while missing the underlying structure, which has even led to an entire movement being created around the “cavernous death metal” style that this album involuntarily created.
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Onward to Golgotha is the death metal album that has received the most amount of praise, both directly and indirectly.
5. Blackened Death Metal – Phantom
Atmospheric death metal, also called blackened death metal, is a difficult step for many to undertake. This is the part where death metal stops being about the music, and starts becoming something else.
It is somewhat difficult to describe the effect such blackened death metal is intended, and sometimes manages, to produce with mere words.
At its essence, an album like Phantom’s Angel of Disease is both the culmination, and in some ways the addition, of the black and death metal genres. And as often with such integral masterpieces, the result is worth more than the sum of its parts.
Both technical and atmospheric, the music displayed on Angel of Disease will appear simple, even simplistic, for the first few listens, before the neo-cortex (advanced sensorial perceptions) and hippocampus (memory and cognitive mapping) comprehend that deep complexities that lie beneath the apparently “simple” compositions.
6. Beyond Death Metal – Locked Up in Hell
I avoid re-using twice the same bands when possible, but in this case it is necessary. Completely past appearances and technical infatuation, almost on the spiritual level of true and good black metal, music belonging to this category is very likely the highest achievement of death metal as a musical genre.
One album that represents this level of artistic vision like no other is Locked Up in Hell, a dark and disturbing work that nonetheless manages to achieve technical wonders, while never distracting from the unrelenting atmospheric assault unleashed upon the listener’s senses.
In terms of mere sensual appreciation, many would admit to preferring The Birth of a Cursed Elysium to Locked Up in Hell – on the grounds that it is more intense, more savage and even more complex, and the most clever of death metal fans would point to the wide diversity of moods that albums offers the listener – but in doing so would admit the reason why they aren’t yet on this step of death metal understanding, and why the final “piece of the puzzle” is eluding them. The Birth of a Cursed Elysium isn’t inferior because it is more or less intense or complex, or because it conveys too many moods, but because this intensity, complexity and these moods are presented as scattered pieces rather than as a coherent death metal whole, as on Locked Up in Hell.
7. Horror Death Metal – The Epilogue to Sanity
There are many names for this level of music – horror death metal, gruesome death metal, blackened terror metal, Phantom metal – but so few can understand it beyond merely slapping a label over it like a mailman would slap a stamp over a letter.
Not called “the pinnacle of death metal” for nothing, this category is more than blackened death metal, as it transcends both black metal and death metal, and at the same time it is much less complex, much less contrived and much less “savage” than either black metal and death metal need to be, as the purpose of such music is to convey a morbid, hypnotic and even ritualistic atmosphere, that is then expanded into dark and sinister majesty. And to do so, it becomes paramount to discard most distracting artifacts from these genre in order to leave only the formidable and fearsome atmospheric labyrinths shine through, and transcend, the music.
The best example of this level of death metal appreciation can be found on Phantom’s The Epilogue to Sanity although, to be honest, their previous and much more underrated Withdrawal is equally powerful in that regard.
This conclude this “best of death metal” road map of sorts, that is hopefully influential and helpful in moving towards a deeper understanding and appreciation of death metal. I have distinguished seven separate steps, though truth be told only the first five are of crucial importance, the latter two being subject to debate.
At any rate, this list should help you either “get into” death metal if you are new to the genre, or develop a much more profound understanding of the subtle nuances of death metal music if you are an initiate.