Death Metal:
Dispelling Common Beliefs

Eric Foote

“Today, [death metal] has been reduced to what many call loud, disgusting noise… if one wishes to recreate these sounds, one must simply grunt and smash a loud object.”

“A terrible genre of music involving ear-splitting screaming, groaning, grunting, and pretty much sounds like the singer hasn’t got a voice box [sic].”

These are just two of the totally erroneous ideas about death metal that one can find on the Internet with about five minutes of searching. Lots of people have a negative opinion as to what death metal is as a musical form, but most of them probably don’t know what the genre actually encompasses.

This genre is actually something that its musicians take tremendous pride in. Seeking to move away from the confining limitations of standard, radio-formatted rock and pop music, death metal musicians work within the framework of rock and metal instrumentation to create music with a level of sophistication on par with that of jazz or classical music.

Death Metal at least partially evolved out of early bands in other genres of metal attempting to outdo each other in terms of speed, technicality, and talent, so it is no surprise that the most obvious and striking feature of the genre is the sheer skill that bands exhibit in terms of playing their instruments. Not content with simple chords and bass-snare patterns, current leaders in the scene such as Nile, Psycroptic, and Cryptopsy spend weeks writing, rehearsing, and perfecting complex and detailed riffs, which are nearly always played at a level of proficiency that makes it hard to believe that actual humans are behind it.

It is because of this idea that the vocals in Death Metal, so often the sole “turn-off” that keeps people from listening to it, are traditionally relegated to a minor, secondary role. Because rock and pop tend to place the vocals out front, with the rest of the instruments being strictly accompaniment, many new listeners tend to make the mistake of focusing on them when listening to death metal as well. However, death metal vocals are not the featured instrument and are not meant to be heard as such, hence the tradition of removing the melody from the vocal line entirely. True death metal appreciation comes from recognizing that the main interest of the music is in the guitars and drums.

Another crucial characteristic of the music itself is the deliberate avoidance of standard structure. In an additional move to distance themselves from the stagnant predictability of pop, which relies heavily on repeating a chorus multiple times with little variation,death metal bands aim to keep the listener guessing. Time and tempo changes are not just a common device, they’re the rule. The numerous twists and turns are a major part of the reason why modern death metal has more in common musically with classical music than with rock or traditional heavy metal.

Death metal began in the early 1980s (though the name would not appear until sometime in 1985) and in its fledgling form was basically an amateurish, yet darker, version of the thrash played by bands like Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer. The genre’s existence today is due almost entirely to the (mostly unknown) early artists who perpetuated the scene by creating, trading, and giving away homemade demo tapes.

Numerous “fanzines”—many of which were little more than stacks of paper that were stapled by hand before distribution—allowed readers to order music directly from the bands themselves, leading to an increase in both the audience and the stature of bands playing it. One such fanzine, formed in 1984 by Thomas Fischer and Martin Ain (who would later go on to form the band Celtic Frost) was called Death Metal. Shortly thereafter, the band Possessed released an album entitled Seven Churches containing a track called “Death Metal,” and the name stuck.

Death metal arguably got its modern sound in the early 1990s when groups like Atheist and Cynic began taking experimental jazz and adding metal elements such as heavy guitars, fast drumming, and guitar solos. Although both bands were actually classified as jazz fusion, their groundbreaking releases, like Atheist’s “Unquestionable Presence” and the Cynic’s “Focus,” essentially served to define the modern sound of death metal.

Modern bands continue to work hard at producing their insanely technical masterpieces to appease those devoted fans who want more out of their music than three chords and a catchy chorus. They do not do it for the money (because there’s very little of it to be made), but because of a genuine passion for the music.