WHO STARTED DEATH METAL?
I get this question a lot. For me it started with Venom. Venom were the first band to play what I would call extreme metal where the rock and roll blues vibe or the classic metal riffage and symphonic heaviness of euro metal wasn’t always there in much of the music. Take the song “Black Metal” from 1982 for instance. It has little to no melodics or scalic work but flat out brutality. Coupled with the demonic vocals of lead singer Chronos this took metal away from what I would call heavy rock to straight out extremity.
Fast Forward to 1983 and you had the formation of the Sanfrancisco bay area thrash scene with bands like Slayer using using the demonic vocals to some degree (go back and listen to Show no Mercy) and using the same brutality that Venom used but with better musicianship. To be fair Slayer built on what Venom did, but I don’t feel what they did was particularly more extreme overall than Venom’s early work.
Next up Sodom who formed in 1981 as a Motorhead styled band paying tribute to their influences. It wasn’t long before the band released the “Witching Metal” demo in 1982. You can hear the Venom, Slayer and Motorhead influences in there but its hard to tell from the quality of the recording whether these vocals fall into the gutteral or more thrash metal/ crust punk barking category. To be fair they gained a lot of heaviness from the noisiness of their recording. Either way the band went on to become a mainstay of the German Metal scene and underground metal in general. You can hear here:
SODOM – WITCHING METAL DEMO TAPE 1982
Hellhammer / Possessed / Bathory 1983
Next up we have Hellhammer who managed to get a demo out in 1983 called Satanic Rites. Gone is any real use of melody but there is the next step in evolution of the gutteral vocals. It sits somewhere between the barking grunting style of crust bands like discharge and and gutteral death metal we know today. I would consider this closer to death metal than the previously mentioned Sodom Demo tape, but I still don’t think they were doing anything beyond what venom was doing but just with a rawer uglier tone.
HELL HAMMER – SATANIC RITES DEMO 1982
For my money though the next step in the evolution would have had to be bay area thrashers POSSESSESSED who even coined the term “Death Metal” in a similar way to Venom coining the term “Black Metal”. Possessed used the satanic imagery Slayer and Venom used but took it a step further. They removed most forms of “Classic Metal” riffage and anything pentatonic/blues based from the guitars. Aiming to be the most extreme band on the planet with bludgeoning riffage, high speed alternate picking and fast drumming Posssessed certainly did raise the bar in terms of extremity. Possessed released their first demo tape called “Death Metal” in 1984 which you can hear here:
POSSESSED – DEATH METAL DEMO
I would regard this as the first death metal recording for my money.
Next up we have another contender to the throne, Swedish band Bathory. Whist not really a fully functioning live band in late 1983 they manged to record two songs for a the Scandanavian Metal Attack compilation record. (Put out by Quorthorn’s father). They managed to record a two song demo in May 1984 and followed it up soon after with their debut album. Bathory are widely credited as the next step in Black metal after Venom. I tend to agree with that but their sound does have death metal elements. Overall, I view this as more a blacker thrash metal record rather than death metal (but its still a great listen to see where this stuff started). You can judge for yourself here:
BATHORY DEMO 1984
Death / Massacre 1984
Another extreme in vocal delivery techniques would have to be the Floridian band Death (formed as Mantas in 1983) who managed to release a first demo as the band Death in 1984. “Death by Metal” was a rough precursor to the brilliance that the then teenage visionary Chuck Schuldiner would show in the years to come. Besides the vocal delivery I think Death were the first to really nail the death metal drum sound.
DEATH – DEATH BY METAL DEMO 1984
Massacre have gone down in history as the unsung heroes of the Florida death metal scene forming around the same time as Death but unfortunately failing to release anything until 1987. The band featuring many musicians who later joined Death and Obituary (Allen West, Rick Rozz, Terry Butler, Bill Andrews). Kam Lee for my money joining a little bit later was the final piece of the death metal vocal puzzle. After this point there was no argument about the death metal vocal style being thrash or punk or whatever. From here on in it was Death Metal full steam ahead! Unfortunately by the time the band did release anything bands like Sodom, Sepultura (early records) and Possessed had released proper albums on labels and already gained a name.
Morbid Angel / Necrophagia 1983-1986
Its a little unclear about Morbid Angel when exactly they formed and how they sounded in 1983 vs how their first recording from 1986, Abominations of desolation sounded. I’m going to say this is a hybrid between thrash metal and death metal but its a little irrelevant as by this time many other bands had recorded songs that I would already consider to be death metal. Not to take anything away from the band, they really did pioneer the sound as well as taking it to new levels of musicianship. When their 1989 debut album “Altars of Madness” came out I would have defined it as the best death metal album up until the time and many would still regard it as the best death metal album ever.
Nercrophagia fall into a similar category having formed at the dawn of death metal but not releasing anything until 1986/7. This means that it’s kind of hard to know where these guys were really at were they more thrash or death at the time?
Napalm Death 1981 -1986
I don’t mind Napalm Death but I’ve never been what I’d consider a huge fan of the band. I actually needed to so some research here. I was surprised to learn that Napalm Death had been around for so long. Forming in 1981 and playing their first show in 82, They rose out of the English crust scene and were probably barely into their teenage years at the time. It also doesn’t appear that the band recorded anything until 1984 for a “crust punk” compilation. After a raft of musicians coming in and out of the band in 1985 Mick Harris joined the band on drums and contributed what I’d call the first real blast beat to death Metal. Is the blast beat essential to Death Metal? I don’t think so but its a major characteristic of the brutal death metal sound and was to my understanding the turning point from which Napalm Death became Death Metal (Grindcore) from Punk
DEATH OR POSSESSED?
For my money I’m going to give it to Possessed, as they took the artform to new extremes and for me signalled the difference between the barking thrash / crust punk vocals style into death metal. Possessed are a band that sits somewhere between death and thrash metal. To me its close enough to get the award for first off the line. They get extra points for coining the term “Death Metal” as well.
Death and Massacre were the first bands that I didn’t associate with thrash, to me they seemed to play just Death Metal.
I’m giving a close runner up award to Chuck Schuldiner’s Death for the “Who Started Death Metal?” award. Basically, Schuldiner was the one to run with the batton and take it to a purer death metal direction and newer more accomplished levels than possessed managed to. With that I have to say the 2019 album from Possessed is bloody awesome as well!
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