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1985-1995: The Golden Age Of Death Metal

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Death should be credited with creating death metal, at least the old school style we recognize now, as they birthed the infamous Tampa, Florida sound. Bands such as Autopsy and Obituary—two of the forerunners—would not exist without Death. Death is not the true father of death metal, though. That distinction goes to Possessed. The California Bay Area group not only played a style of brutal, vicious metal, with loads of Satanic imagery, they also coined the term “death metal” on the “Seven Churches” album.

Around 1985, albums similar to “Slowly We Rot” (Obituary) and “Mental Funeral” (Autopsy) simply did not exist. Thrash was the fasted, craziest music around. Of course Possessed has already been mentioned, but the influence of Slayer, who obviously influenced Possessed, can not be under recognized. Where Possessed was different was they used a rougher production. Dark Angel, whose drummer, Gene Hoglan, would go on to be one of the most heralded drummers in the metal biz, certainly showed a good dose of Slayer in their sound. In the beginning, Slayer was nothing more than a faster, nefarious, more solo-oriented Venom protégé.

European bands such as Celtic Frost/Hellhammer, Sodom, Destruction, Kreator, and Bathory also played a role in what we now know as “death metal.” Celtic Frost used barbaric imagery and played a style with much groove and punk influence. They would go on to influence many artists, in particular Sepultura and Obituary.

The trio of Teutonic thrashers somewhat followed Slayer. From the dark, new wave of British metal tricks and licks to the imagery and subsequent style changes, the Teutonic thrash metal trio was hip to what Slayer was doing. Still, once the shrill vocals animate Mille Petrozza of Kreator or the graceful guitar tricks by Destruction accost one’s ears, an educated metal head can point out which German thrash band you’re listening to.

The Teutonic trio influenced many death metal bands, but were more influential on bands from places such as Scandinavia where disenchanted teens would take the dark nature of these albums and place them into their own consciousness. 1,000 year-old churches were burnt to the ground. People died—all the while these bands hailed the greatness of the European bands mentioned above. They were obsessed with the imagery, Satanic lyrics and overall Satanic ideology of the music (life and art must be distinguished here.)

After a short side note on black metal, we get back to the topic at hand: death metal. Especially the Florida bands were on to something new. It wasn’t entirely new because, although their music is fast and barbaric, they still sounded a bit like bands such as Dark Angel, Slayer and Possessed. Listen to Sadus and even Cannibal Corpse and notice the thrash influence. Morbid Angel’s first album “Altars of Madness” also shared some traits with thrash metal.

Cinematic gore hoarders, Rigor Mortis (now known as The Wizards of Gore) signed a contract with major label, Capital Records to release it’s self-titled debut. They were considered the first “death metal” band to sign to a major label. Being a band that pens songs based on horror films is no novelty to early death metal bands, but when Rigor Mortis did it in 1988, it influenced a whole new flock of talent.

None were as important as Death, though, as the group released a trio of albums that would find the ears of the best in the business. Those first three albums, starting with “Scream Bloody Gore,” (1987)—which was an important early death/thrash record—and going through 1988’s “Leprosy” and “Spiritual Healing” in 1990, laid the ground floor for creating a death metal group.

His voice was deep and guttural—although distinguishable compared to gore grind bands that came later. It’s as if Chuck Schuldiner had exhaled a pungent stench and the grooves got heads moving. The influence of Death on death metal just can not be understated. Chuck Schuldiner was like a father to a garden of blossoming, skeleton roses. Chris Reifert (Autopsy), Terry Butler (Six Feet Under, Obituary), Steve DiGiorgio (Sadus) and Bill Andrews (Massacre) all played on early Death records.

Rigor Mortis may have influenced the speed and lyrical content of death metal, albums such as Death’s “Scream Bloody Gore” reflect that sentiment, bit it wasn’t until albums such as Obituary’s “Slowly We Rot,” and Deicides’ self-titled effort when death metal found it’s true sound. Never engaging in the horrendous, criminal acts of Norwegian black metal artists, (Euronymous of Mayhem hated Deicide), Deicide, nonetheless, knew how to shock, offend and amaze crowds.

Their singer, a burley biker dude named Glen Benton, burned an inverted cross onto his head. The group’s 1992 opus “Legion” became a death metal classic, much due to its Satanic content. Bleating goats and demonic voices assaulted young impressive ears on album opener “Satan Spawn, the Cacao Demon.” They promoted merchandise that featured a tri-fixion, a pyramid-shaped pentagram and the death of Jesus. Of course the wicked whammy bends and blazing-fast guitar solos by the Hoffman brothers, Steve Asheim’s quick hands and Benton’s scary vocals were the real winner on this album.

Other Satanic/blasphemous acts include Acheron, Incantation, Immolation and Morbid Angel. While death metal’s punkier cousin—grindcore—was bringing the fastest (and briefest) metal on the planet, some of the evil-aligned DM artists were slowing down in the most reprehensible fashion. Immolation, Morbid Angel and Incantation all played slower, crawling riffs and warped solos. Band leaders such as Ross Dolan of Immolation relayed blasphemous lyrics in a more deliberate, easy-to-understand (compared to old Deicide) fashion than some of the “Cookie Monster” vocalists.

Of course, these bands are no strangers to speed (Morbid Angel currently boasts ‘The Fastest Drummer In The World’), but were not opposed to slowing down and grooving out. Ross Dolan (Immolation) and David Vincent (Morbid Angel) are two of the better growlers that are easier to understand, too. They have the trademark ‘Cookie Monster’ vocals, unlike a quivering, tentacle-laden creature of Lovecraftian lore that some bands opt for.

It was the fall of 1992 my friend and I were waiting to see Metallica for the first time. We were still figuring out metal and listening to mostly popular bands, but this crazy, Satanic metal head at school let me borrow Cannibal Corpse’s “Butchered At Birth” (1991) and “Tombs of the Mutilated” (1992) The lyrical content was especially offensive. You just don’t paint pictures of zombies cutting up babies and hanging them on clothes lines out to dry. We heard songs of war, personal strife, Satan, etc, but never having sex with corpses, putting people on meat hooks or smashing in someone’s face with a hammer. The music was too fast and the vocals weren’t clear, even with the lyric sheet. It wasn’t until three years later when a buddy in college let me borrow “The Bleeding” (1994) that I began to understand Cannibal Corpse. This album featured understandable lyrics and refrain that wasn’t as apparent on earlier efforts.

While not losing a step, or a foot, in their quest for semi-stardom, the group brought out it’s crown opus—the one that produced their theme song that they also close their set with, “Stripped, Raped And Strangled.” In 1995, during recording sessions for a new album, singer Chris Barnes was dismissed and replaced by Monstrosity singer George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher. Barnes rose from what may have seemed his tomb and formed one of the most popular death metal bands in the coming years, Six Feet Under, which also featured members of Obituary and Massacre.

Cannibal Corpse and Obituary were part of the infamous Tampa, Florida death metal scene, but in the northeast there was another brand of brutality brewing. Albums such as “Effigy of the Forgotten” (1991) by Suffocation and “Voracious Contempt” by Internal Bleeding (1995) added a skull-stomping cadence to their rhythms that later earned the title “slam.” A whole scene with leaders such as Devourment spawned its fetid head on shirt and album covers depicting the grossest things imaginable while listing their band name in sprawled out, undecipherable letters.

While Morbid Angel and Cannibal Corpse were getting corporate press on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball and through record companies such as Giant (Morbid Angel), a similar thing occurred in Europe. Earache Records worked in tandem with major label, Columbia Records . Entombed, Napalm Death and Carcass all flew the flag of Earache Records and in turn received much attention. The marketing was flawed though and these groups didn’t sell like mainstream artists. This period did, however, mark a time of more commercialism in sound. Many old school death/grinders hate Carcass’ “Hearthwork” (1994), but the rock ‘n’ roll grooves of Entombed’s “Wolverine ‘Blues,” (1993) solos and melodic frame work of “Heartwork” and a more traditional approach to song writing on Napalm Death’s “Fear, Emptiness, Despair” (1994) were more easily accessible to fans of traditional metal and thrash.

Carcass is another band who deserves credit for shaping a new style—melodic death metal. “Heartwork” could blast your face off, but then put it on ice as Mike Ammott and Bill Steer rain melodies. Not only did Ammott play on Carcass’s “Heartwork” and “Symphonies of Sickness,” he predated Carcass with Dismember vocalist Matti Kärki in Carnage. Ammott later formed one of the more popular extreme bands in the world, the melodious heavy Arch Enemy.

Once Nihilist split after just some demo material, the group formed half of what we now know as the big four of Swedish death metal: Unleashed and Entombed (Dismember and Grave complete the four-way dismemberment). Grave broke down death metal into it’s simplest forms: brutal, chopping songs about death and it’s gratuitous nature. Unleashed brought the topic of Vikings into the subject of death, an idea he surely found while listening to countryman Quorthon of Bathory. Unleashed and Dismember both bring traditional metal into the discussion, creating old school jams in the vein of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. The intro to Dismember’s “Collection By Blood” has a definite Priest “Electric Eye” feel while Unleashed’s “The One Insane” provided classic head banging material.

Entombed shared members with Dismember and Unleashed. While those big four created legendary albums at Sunlight Studio in Stockholm, the scene in Gothenburg was about to explode. Bands like At the Gates, Dark Tranquility, In Flames and Dissection could make a crazy song crazier with dark melodies. This period was also the heyday in these bands’ career, their best material that was even less now than their Stockholm peers.

Dark Tranquility’s “The Gallery,” At the Gates’ “Slaughter of the Soul” and Dissection “Storm of the Light’s Bane” brought out the light in darkness, setting rhythmic patterns and melodic turning points for the coming generation. The mid-00’s brought forth the metal core scenes a scene still prevalent today. Job For A Cowboy, The Black Dahlia Murder, Killswitch Engage and All That revolutionized the coming era of death metal, and metal as we know it.

Sweden wasn’t the only place to find good death metal bands. Holland produced a good deal of DM albums through bands such Asphyx, God Dethroned, Sinister and Pestilence. Although Asphyx plays more of a down-tempo style than Pestilence, the two bands were linked with Martin Van Drunen providing leather-strapped voices for both bands in the beginning. He would later leave Pestilence, while band leader/guitarist Patrick Mameli took over the helm.

England boasted classic artists like Bolt Thrower, Benediction and Carcass and Napalm Death. The country also produced some of the gloomiest, most depressive music around. Death/doom is a combination that earlier bands like Incantation and Autopsy produced, but the big three of England—Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride and Anathema were much slower and drawn out. Their vision of death metal included longer, slower and with a greater dose of melody and emotion.

The 1985-1995 era of death metal survives today. There was a huge explosion of death metal that emerged from this period, many of those bands survive today. Also, the festival game affords bands like Morbid Angel and Cannibal a chance to play in front of several thousand people, instead of playing only small club shows. The festival circuit in this era was helpful, too, though.

Festivals such as Michigan Death Fest and Milwaukee Metal Fest were a place these bands could go to shine in the ‘90s, but now the biggest “death metal fest” in the States is Maryland Death Fest, which has a world-wide fan base, to see bands from overseas they normally would not. Death metal bands will continue to push the limits of what is acceptable in a polite society, while growing as artists and incorporating new elements. The era of 1985-1995 will always remain the gold, though.

1985-1995 Essential Death Metal Albums:

Dismember-“Like An Ever Flowing Stream”
Cannibal Corpse-“Tombs of the Mutilated”
Unleashed-“Where No Life Dwells”
Entombed-“Left Hand Path”
Grave-“Into The Grave”
Suffocation-“Pierced From Within”
Pestilence-“Consuming Impulse”
Immolation-“Here In The After”
Morbid Angel-“Covenant”
Obituary-“Cause of Death”
Death-“Scream Bloody Gore”
Unleashed-“Across The Open Sea"

Rex_84's avatar

An avid metal head for over twenty years, Darren Cowan has written for several metal publications and attended concerts throughout various regions of the U.S.

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1 Comment on "1985-1995: The Golden Age of Death Metal"

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1. Rex_84 writes:

Although I mentioned 51 bands, I still forgot to mention the tech death scene with bands like Atheist and Cynic. Also, I forgot to mention Necrophagia, who arose in 1986 and Repulsion, who was also an early, influential group.

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