Wed 15th July 2020
Baking bread, clearing out the loft, gardening, attempting a new language... there have been a multitude of stories of people staving off boredom and distracting their fear with positive new outlets to learn during lockdown. I decided to try and get into death metal.
As upside down as the world currently feels, it is easy to forget the chaos the world became engulfed in when it hit each respective country - as at the end of March for us in the UK. Empty shop shelves, mistrust and fear of the unknown, sudden shutdown, the country watching daily political briefings, Tories adopting socialist economic packages. I took my young kids out for a walk early on in lockdown, and as they loitered picking dandelions from a roadside verge, I became aware of a police car crawling along behind us - were they checking up on us and ensuring we kept moving? It was the strangest of times.
I was working from home from the off, and must caveat anything written here with the knowledge that I have had it easy and many people have suffered in so many grave ways. And while video meetings with your bedroom in the background is a mildly discomforting oddity, there are perks - listening to music while I work being a major one. I started listening to albums I'd never heard, bands I'd somehow missed out on. I made a list to get through, of which I realised there was a decent percentage of death metal. That day, a friend (James Parker, once of Hey Colossus, Gorse, Black Shoals and more) posted a link to Incantation's Onward to Golgotha on Facebook. A plan started to formulate...
I have of course heard the pillarstones of death metal. In my teens I listened to whatever Roadrunner put out that month, stuck Sepultura posters on my wall, watched Headbanger's Ball, and played every track on free CDs on the cover of magazines - I naturally came across Obituary, Deicide, Morbid Angel. I just didn't feel it. So when my tastes evolved around the age of 16, it was stoner rock and doom that I found, and have been there ever since.
I've crossed death metal's path plenty more times in the intervening years, including many I have loved - Entombed, At the Gates, Nile, Portal - and bits here and there of Death, Hate Eternal, Cryptopsy and others. Add to that I've been listening to a lot of death/black boundary riders and war metal extremity in recent years, the murky potions of Teitanblood, Tetragrammacide and Diocletian, if not anything purely DM. Yet my overriding gut feel toward the genre was that it was dated and increasingly unoriginal and, more than anything, just something that wasn't for me.
I have harboured a nagging suspicion however, that there was a missing strata of death metal, below Altars of Madness and Human, that remained alien to me if I was to really hold this position. I therefore set the following premise on 7th April:
To try and understand - if not get into - death metal, to see if my preconceptions were misconceived, by listening to one album per day for the rest of the month, which I'd never heard before, all the way through.
7th April - Discovery
I began with Incantation. It is dark, unsettling and brilliantly thunderous, unlike anything within my consensus of death metal. We recorded a podcast that night, and so I told Mike of my plan, asking him to pick an album for the following day. He directed me to Origin. But I would need more help if this was to continue, so sourced some lists online, settling on three - Terrorizer's 40 Death Metal Albums You Must Hear, Decibel's Top 100 Death Metal Albums of All Time and to try and give a broader reference than just classics, a list found on a search at random, someone's 100 Essential Death Metal Albums. I was reading the excellent Heavy by Dan Franklin at the time, which added Bloodbath to my list, and I quikly moved on to a book sat too long on my shelf, the huge wedge of a tome efficiently titled Swedish Death Metal, by Daniel Ekeroth, directing me to Grave, Unleashed and Dismember (to begin with).
My first choice from this newly created structure, on day three, was Bolt Thrower's The IVth Crusade. It was a revelation. A band that fit firmly into the category of somehow never heard (although never being a GW boy in my youth the Warhammer cover art may have had a subconscious hand in this), I had little expectation but finished it mouth agape. It was a transformative exposure. It was here, so early on, that I knew this was going to be more fulfilling experience than I thought, a journey of becoming a fan of death metal, not just of understanding it.
Not everything I play made a mark - Ripping Corpse display death's evolution from thrash too clearly for me, Gorguts surprisingly leave me cold and I still can take or leave Morbid Angel. But that wasn't the overriding feel at the end of April - instead, I found unheard of bands to enjoy, learnt of the early attempts to broaden the sound by Atheist and Cynic, and found music I genuinely loved in Demilich, Demigod and Disembowelment.
1st May - Divergence
April ends, I've listened to 25 death metal albums I'd never have got round to otherwise, and I've completed my brief. Pleased with myself, I post about it on Facebook, even inviting people to suggest other genres I could do similar with. Instead, friends start to provide a multitude of suggestions of where to go next in death metal. I vow to continue.
The suggestions broaden my initial aim to close off the obvious gaps in my knowledge - now my playlist would include albums from the last decade, obscure and underground releases, and also recommendations for further albums by artists I'd already played for a different perspective. Immolation go up considerably in my estimation as a result, from Dawn of Possession to Here in After, likewise Asphyx, while I cement my new love for Bolt Thrower via Realm of Chaos.
My enjoyment of the 21st century bands isn't too surprising, but fulfilling none the less. Blood Incantation, Spectral Voice and the like are exceptional, but how much I utterly fall for a band I'd not heard of before - Mortiferum (for example) - still brings a thrill. My friend Lee (who plays in the death/black walls of chaotic noise Drawn from Ichor (and Blind Monarch, thekevorkiansolution, OutInk... and so on)) pushes me into the darker recesses - and brings golden treasures of Infester and Timeghoul and more.
I have now passed the point of no return.
26th May - Revelation
Fifty days in. My understanding of death metal has changed. Many of my preconceptions are disproven. The early albums that followed the big name originators do not sound dated as I thought they would. It still sounds fresh and brutal and grimy, thirty years on. It isn't derivative - there is experimentation and variance. And, perhaps my biggest error considering my years of listening to doom - death doom is not, as I've been known to proclaim, a jack of all trades master of none subgenre. That must have cost me in missed music over the years.
I still find plenty of very early DM to play, and practically without fail am amazed each time as to how well each still hold up to this day, and against the production values and evolution of the sound that benefits those in modern times. Master, Massacre, Possessed, Pestilence - not only are these great albums, but I am surprised by how little drop off there is (if at all) from the absolute biggest (typically Floridian) names of the early days. Roll your eyes at me all you want, for assuming otherwise, and for now stating what has been obvious to so many for so long - it would be warranted - but this is why I did this whole exercise.
I seek further friendly recommendations, and receive plenty. In particular, Alastair quite rightly questions how I can try and gather an understanding of death metal via albums, when the history of the genre was propped up by a demo tape trading worldwide network. Many years ago I read Lords of Chaos and Choosing Death back to back, and what struck me was that while the former was the sensationalist storyline, it was the rather anodyne tales of cassettes being recorded in teenage bedrooms that birthed grindcore and death metal that I enjoyed more; the story reassuringly familiar and relatable (Mike and I traded CD burns of early 00's sludge and doom for years before we even met).
So I delve into the unknown crackling demos of Revenant and Devastation, as well as the familiar names of Lord of Putrefaction and Anathema. Probably most revelatory of all are Decomposed - early British death metal that you can feel the raw and doom-edged breaking of new grounds, simultaneously a deathly dirge and utterly vibrant - a band which Alastair himself was in, before heading towards more straight up doom grounds as guitarist for Blood Island Raiders, Age of Taurus, Brule and more.
In that spirit, I play the Nihilist demos compilation on day 67 - over-excitedly (and incorrectly) declaring aloud to a room of no-one that the greatest 13 seconds of DM are between the 11th second and 23rd second of Shreds of Flesh. Much like the opening passage of Baghdad by High on Fire is for doom, this doesn't feel like notes or mere part of a song, just the stripped back pure tone of a genre.
20th June - Reappraisal
I keep quiet this time on my quest, having built up enough of a playlist to get me through to my new target of 100 days. There were areas left unbroached, some niggly that I'd avoided, others delayed for fear of wandering too far from the central mission brief.
Of the former, I couldn't put off any further. I started with In Flames' The Jester Race, fully aware of their latter material, and unconvinced over claims around their earlier. As I listen through, I completely switch off to the melodic-DM, save for a bit halfway through December Flower where I remember it is on, only to find it quickly fading into the background again. Elsewhere I fare better - Amorphis in particular completely prove me wrong, and I play The Karelian Isthmus twice through.
Aside from a few newer releases I choose (Altars being the pick of the bunch), I submerge myself for a brief time in the lesser known lights of early death doom, down a wormhole of discovery. Having established I was an idiot for avoiding this, based on the success I'd had listening to recent generations' output, I dig in, and make myself at home, finding real joy in the likes of Cianide, Morpheus Descends and Purtenance.
On the penultimate day, Monday 13th July 2020, I am at a loss what to pick from the vast array open to me. An album cover catches my eye on YouTube (my feed now littered with death metal suggestions) - Catacomb's In the Maze of Kadath - and it feels appropriate and in the spirit to go with that, unplanned. It is telling that I adore it immediately.
I already know what my final album is to be. I'd made sure to pick up on some of the 'knowns' in this last quarter. I'd played Legion by Deicide, as have heard the self titled many times, and remain ambivalent. I also had Cannibal Corpse lined up too, a band I know some of hence exclusion to date. But then when seeking internet guidance on the quintessential album to go with, I start to read the lyrics of essentially glorified rape and murder, and decide - fuck them.
Is that hypocritical given that I haven't vetted my choices thus far (other than to dismiss Dissection from consideration), that this is death metal, that the likelihood is I've already played music with questionable lyrics and/or of bands with dodgy politics? Yes, almost certainly. But that doesn't mean it should not be ignored. Metal as a whole has needed to address its problems for too long, and death metal no less than other genres. Thankfully, the signs are good - during this period we saw bands such as Blood Incantation, Necrot, Gatecreeper and more publicly backing the Black Lives Matter movement, and Venom Prison lead a drive of progressive lyrical themes.
The pre-chosen final destination to this odyssey is with Altars of Madness; I felt it needed something monumental to act as a full stop, and to come full circle to the opening premise. It's alright. And I'm okay with that. I wasn't sure whether reappraisal of the albums I'd heard when not getting into death metal in my teens would provide an awakening - instead, it tells me that I just didn't hear the albums I needed to then to trigger a new direction for my tastes.
14th July - The end
On day 54 I listen to Death's Symbolic. I knew three of the first four Death albums, exceptions to the rule of me not being into DM. But on this day, sat in my garden on a boiling hot day with a beer in hand, I listen to Symbolic for the first time and feel a truly strange sensation, transporting to the same emotion of listening to music back when I was young, when putting on a CD or cassette for the first time felt like discovery, to be wholly wrapped up in the experience. If I'd have heard this back when I was listening to Beneath the Remains, who knows where my head would've turned.
And it was not just there. Day 62 - Dead Congregation, chosen at random on a busy day; superb - more than that, this is music I already love, just subtly different and with an alternative genre tag applied. Day 8 - the awakening provided by the gurgling, other-worldly Nespithe. Day 98, Miasma, day 49 Mortiferum, day 52 Desecrecy, countless other days filled with wonderful death metal from bands not even on my radar to begin with.
On 22nd May (day 47), I, Voidhanger Records release two unbelievable records by Esoctrilihum and Cosmic Putrefaction, showcasing the pristine state of extreme metal and its sense of adventure and danger and excitement right now. The latter is a concoction of all the elements that I now know attract me - it is technical but in ways to make the music strange and hypnotic, it is doomy and cosmic. This was proof the experiment was rubbing off on me, but also that I can now quantify elements I love within death metal; I am not only at peace with the history of death metal, but I have an understanding of my relationship with it.
To bring me back to the premise, I feel I have achieved more than my original goal. There are still gaps - a missing decade or two from around 1995 for example, and I perhaps didn't give melodic death metal a fair trial - but all my negative preconceptions lay disproven (other than the idea that the album artwork is by and large comedically bad). It's still not a patch on my beloved doom. But I am undeniably in this now.
Find the full list here.