Death Metal: A Voyage of (Re-)Discovery

March 06, 2023 03:31 PM

Nocturnus - The Key (1990)

I heard this ages ago and wasn't terribly impressed, only affording it a measly three out of five, however I have come quite a long way in my exposure to and appreciation of death metal in the meantime, so a reappraisal is probably long overdue. First off, this is nothing like as technical as I remember it being and that, for me, is a big plus as I am not especially fond of technical death metal (or thrash metal for that matter). In fact, despite the fact that there is a lot of frenetic fretwork during the solos on The Key, I am not even sure this counts as technical death metal, or at least not by modern standards. One thing for certain though is that Nocturnus cannot be accused of producing an album that is a clone of other popular releases from the time, the numerous guitar solos and the inclusion of keyboards on a death metal album was certainly not de rigeur for the day.

The foundation of the album is solid, with some terrific riffs, a few of which still seem to hold a fair bit of thrash metal DNA and the rhythm section turn in a fine performance (especially listening to the FDR edition). The keyboards are an interesting addition and, unlike most other death metal bands that use them, they aren't used here for a gothic horror effect, but instead they are quite thin-sounding and reinforce the science fiction aesthetic that the band were striving for. The big draw here though has got to be the lead work of Mike Davis and Sean McNenney whose guitars howl and squeal through almost the entire runtime, it sounding like their fingers must have been an almost constant blur on their fretboards. The great thing with The Key is that the technical guitar work never interrupts the flow of the tracks, as one of my bugbears with tech-death is that the constant changes and shifts in tracks often robs them of forward impetus and leaves them floundering. Here the solos seem to add even more velocity to the tracks and gives them an increased impetus. The big letdown on The Key are Mike Browning's vocals which just don't carry the necessary evilness or strength that the better vocalists of the time achieved, being buried in the mix a bit doesn't help their cause much either and takes away a significant ingredient of top tier death metal bands of the early nineties.

So, in summation, Nocturnus but together an album that marked them apart from most of their competitors in Floridian death metal and in so doing helped lay the foundations for an offshoot genre of the still expanding death metal genre. I am not going to pretend that it has shot up to the top of my death metal appreciation list, but it is a much finer album than I gave it credit for way back when, the science fiction theme makes a nice change from the constant charnel house themes of their contemporaries and it is certainly an enjoyable enough listen.


March 19, 2023 02:57 PM

Dismember - Like An Everflowing Stream (1991)

A while back, in connection with a review for Carnage's Dark Recollections I asked if anyone could enlighten me on the "swedish death metal sound" which both Daniel and Ben kindly did. So fast forward just over a year from that release and Carnage were no more, with three of the members now in the lineup of Dismember and the band releasing their debut full-length, Like an Ever Flowing Stream. Well, I gotta say, Like an Ever Flowing Stream certainly illustrates that swedish sound better than any release I have heard previously. The distortion on the guitars is cranked up to a ridiculous level and it certainly imparts a wall-of-sound effect to the riffing, but I've got to say, I'm not completely at home with it. It sounds too overdriven to me and gives the album the effect of the various components working against each other rather than together. The vocals seem to be fighting for dominance over the all-encompassing guitar and the poor old rhythm section are pretty much on a hiding to nothing, although Fred Estby does a valiant job behind the kit and is one of the album's winners. Whereas with Carnage that sound produced a down 'n' dirty effect, here it's more of an eardrum-bursting fight for sonic supremacy and the often quite shred-like solos just seem to add more fuel to the fire. Matti Kärki's vocals are great, very gruff and gravelly and, along with Estby's drumming, are the highlights of the album for me.

It is very rarely that I would utter these words in respect to extreme metal, but I really wish that Dismember had dialled it back a bit on Like an Ever Flowing Stream because underneath all that aural blitzkrieg is a decent album. There are some terrific riffs, but they are just buried under so much distortion that I personally found it a distraction. I guess I am more drawn to the Floridian sound as it feels less artificial and has a more earthy, atmospheric aspect to it than this out and out blitzkrieg approach.


March 20, 2023 07:34 AM

Interesting thoughts here Sonny.  I strangely have not reviewed or rated this one despite me having a vinyl copy Mrs Vinny bought for me.  I am probably the opposite of you and would put this album above Carnage, although I agree that they are two differing beasts in that Dismember's offering is a much more savage entity.  I find with all Swedish death metal that it has limited playtime as opposed to other styles of death metal in that if I throw this or Left Hand Path on for a spin then the itch is scratched and I rarely (if ever) go on a three or four album listening spree back to back of pure Swedish death metal bangers, unlike Saturday when I was battering death doom for three hours.  Need to get my arse in gear and get a review done of this album though (and Left Hand Path as well it seems).

March 20, 2023 08:03 AM

Strangely, neither "Like An Ever Flowing Stream" (3.5/5) or "Left Hand Path" (3.5/5) have ever struck me as being anything terribly special & I came into both in real time. If pushed I'd probably take "Like An Ever Flowing Stream" over "Left Hand Path" by a slim margin but I find "Clandestine" (4.5/5) to be miles ahead of both.

The Fallen The Horde The North The Pit
March 20, 2023 07:29 PM

Strangely, neither "Like An Ever Flowing Stream" (3.5/5) or "Left Hand Path" (3.5/5) have ever struck me as being anything terribly special & I came into both in real time. If pushed I'd probably take "Like An Ever Flowing Stream" over "Left Hand Path" by a slim margin but I find "Clandestine" (4.5/5) to be miles ahead of both.

Quoted Daniel

Totally agree with this.

March 28, 2023 01:04 PM

Autopsy - Mental Funeral (1991)

So, while my journey of discovery through the early years of death metal has brought me into contact with many releases for the first time, here is one with which I am exceedingly familiar and which sits near the very top of my list of all-time favourite death metal releases. Mental Funeral doesn't sound like a band playing their instruments, but rather like they are beating the songs out of them. There is a certain looseness to Autopsy's sound that belies the actual abilities of the musicians involved, but which imparts a cavernous brutality to the album that very few have been succesfully able to tap into. The production of Mental Funeral cannot be underestimated and I think Peaceville have managed to reproduce exactly the vibe the band were going for, which speaks of echoing underground caverns reeking of the foetid stench of decay where unspeakable acts of brutality take place. Track names like Twisted Mass of Burnt Decay and Torn From the Womb tell you all you need to know about the bands ethos, but where they score over the rest of the death metal sickos is by their inclusion of doom metal riffing that slows down the onslaught and allows a lurking fear of darkness to envelop the listener rather than an unrelenting bludgeoning that doesn't give any time for reflection. There are few better examples of what real death doom metal should sound like than some of the slower sections here, Robbing the Grave, after it's initial assault, slows to a menacing and spine-tingling crawl that should set the hairs on the back of your neck on end and send any would-be death doom pretenders heading for the exits. The doomy sections breaking-up the out-and-out brutality of the (admittedly still extremely brutal) death metal riffing imbue the album with a more memorable quality than some of the band's more high velocity contemporaries. Check out the riff to In the Grip of Winter for point in question - this has got to be one of the most iconic death doom riffs ever.

I must also state at this point that Chris Reifert is an absolute fucking beast. He made a significant contribution to Death's seminal Scream Bloody Gore, but here with his own band and agenda he has removed any shackles holding him back and his drumming is at times awesome to behold - I'm no technician so don't know how technically sound it is, but it is just so brutally pummelling that it almost becomes a force of nature - Bonesaw is a forty second death metal drumming masterclass in my book. Add to this arguably the filthiest-sounding vocals in all of metal and you can hear that Reifert has stamped his authority all over the album.

The riffs are fantastic and are some of my favourites in all of metal. The solos are wounded, howling beasts that sound like guitarists Danny Coralles and Eric Cutler have tortured their instruments to get them to give them up, suiting the album's atmosphere better than I would imagine a smoother, more technically gifted guitarist like James Murphy, for example, would. The songwriting is brilliant with several twists and turns throughout some of the longer tracks with multiple time changes and transitions and I don't think there is a weak track on the whole album. I think I would go as far as to say if you want an album to sum up what metal is truly all about then you should slam on Mental Funeral and be electrified! This is nothing less than doom-laden metal of death, necrotic and pungent with the malodorous stench of mouldering corpses and is a true classic.


March 29, 2023 10:40 PM

"Mental Funeral" is Autopsy's finest work in my opinion. I'm possibly not as big an Autopsy fan as most extreme metal nuts are as I tend to favour a more sophisticated brand of death metal but they really hit a sweet spot with this record as well as the "Retribution For The Dead" E.P. from the same year, both of which I found to be a clear step up from "Severed Survival" (3.5/5) which I've always found to be overrated. The enhanced doom component was certainly most welcome.


March 29, 2023 10:47 PM

"Mental Funeral" is Autopsy's finest work in my opinion. I'm possibly not as big an Autopsy fan as most extreme metal nuts are as I tend to favour a more sophisticated brand of death metal but they really hit a sweet spot with this record as well as the "Retribution For The Dead" E.P. from the same year, both of which I found to be a clear step up from "Severed Survival" (3.5/5) which I've always found to be overrated. The enhanced doom component was certainly most welcome.


Quoted Daniel

 "Unsophisticated" is my middle name!!

March 29, 2023 10:49 PM

I don't have a middle name as I find them to be unsophisticated.

May 14, 2023 02:06 PM

Immolation - Dawn of Possession (1991)

The only Immolation album I was familiar with prior to checking out this, Immolation's debut, was their classic 2000 album, Close to a World Below, to which I awarded a five star rating, so it has been interesting to check out how the debut stacks up to that behemoth. Back in 1991, when Dawn of Possession was released, death metal was solidifying it's identity and had finally severed it's ties with the thrash metal scene that had spawned it. So too had Immolation, as they had left the thrash-based death metal of their early incarnation, Rigor Mortis, behind (none of the founding members of Rigor Mortis remained in the band at this point) and had evolved their sound into true death metal.

The riffs come thick and fast and seem to be constantly changing, but not in a choppy, distracting manner that some of the more technical death metal bands employ, but rather in a way that maintains the impetus of the tracks whilst still injecting a feeling of controlled chaos, which is often reinforced by the intense and savage soloing. The drumming is well worthy of note as Craig Smilowski turns in a superb performance behind the kit, deploying every trick in the book whilst not missing a beat and the positioning of the drums in the mix is perfect, allowing every beat to be heard without overwhelming the other performers. Last and not least come Ross Dolan's vocals which feel quite unique, the raspiness of his gutteral delivery seems unlike most other death metal growler's to my ears and he manages to create a brooding sense of menace in his exhortations to devilish forces and his celebrations of evil-doing.

I suppose Dawn of Possession could be cited as an early evolution towards the use of dissonance in death metal, but I never found it grating as I often do with modern disso-death, but rather it engenders a feeling of brutality and chaos and never allows the listener to get into a comfort zone where the tracks wash over them, as you have to constantly stay on your toes with this one. Not quite the classic that Close to a World Below is, but a damn fine debut nevertheless that any OSDM freak should love and goes some way to cementing Immolation as one of my favourite death metal bands along with Autopsy and Incantation.


May 15, 2023 03:03 PM

Suffocation - Effigy of the Forgotten (1991)

I have a strong aversion to brutal death metal that stretches back to when I returned to metalhood around the turn of the millenium and I was still reading metal mags. Every cover disc from Terrorizer or Zero Tolerance seemed to be made up of about 60% crappy brutal death metal bands, so I gained a disdain for the genre as it all sounded basically the same. Suffocation is a name that I have come across many, many times over the years, but my distaste for the more brutal flavour of death metal meant that I had never investigated them further, at least until now. I had, of course, listened to a fair bit of Cannibal Corpse's discography and didn't mind them too much, especially in small doses, so there was hope yet that Suffocation might do it for me.

It's pretty obvious from the very off that Effigy of the Forgotten is superior to 99.9% of the shit that "adorned" those metal mag cover discs as, despite Suffocation's brutality, there are a whole heap of subtleties and nuances contained within it's nine tracks. Now I am not going to insult anyone's intelligence by making out that I know what makes a great death metal album (brutal or not), but I will say that these seemingly insignificant subtleties make all the difference to a borderline "fan" like myself.

Suffocation certainly seem to be aptly named because, initially at least, their sound is so dense that it feels claustrophobic and asphyxiating, leaving the listener gasping for air come albums end. Repeated listens, however, reveal that the band don't just seem to be about blasting you away with sheer bravado and brutality, although they certainly don't lack in that department either, but the ever-shifting riffs, searing, laser-focussed soloing and the technically superb-sounding, but totally badass, maniac behind the drum kit all combine to produce a ridiculously tight sound that contains far more than at first appears and rewards the listener the more invested in it they become. Hell, there are even times when the riffs turn downright "groovy" although those sections are short-lived, so don't let me mislead you that this is anything other than the unmitigated assault on your senses that it is. The vocals are one of the possible sticking points for me as sometimes this style feels far more forced and "put on" than, say, Chris Reifert or Dave Vincent. I don't hate Frank Mullen's growls altogether, but I feel they are one of the weaker aspects of Effigy of the Forgotten although they are much better than some of the "stuck pig" style of vocals that seem to have become popular in more modern brutal DM.

In summation, I would probably have to say that this is as good as it gets for me with brutal death metal as it isn't a genre I think I will ever come to truly love, but this is an album I could listen to again and whilst it doesn't tick all my boxes, there is more than enough here for me to get my teeth into without being overwhelmed by a band seeking brutality for brutality's sake.


May 24, 2023 01:14 PM

Death - "Human" (1991)

If the only thing I took away from my deep dive into the early years of death metal was my re-evaluation of Death and elevation of Chuck Schuldiner to the level of metal god, then it would have been a worthwhile exercise. Being a death metal numpty at the outset I had, even here on the forum pages of Metal Academy no less, expressed scepticism that Death were all that. Approaching the band's releases chronologically and in temporal context revealed that yes, indeed, they were all that and Chuck Schuldiner may well have been the most evolutionary of all metal songwriters. A question that begs some contemplation is where would metal be now if Chuck had lived a longer life, what the hell would he be playing nowadays and is there anything even remotely like it in existence? I think it is fair to say that he was indeed the very rare case of a true musical visionary.

Where Death excelled is that although they constantly changed, literally from album to album, they didn't throw the baby out with the bathwater and always gave their existing fanbase a way into their new material by a process of evolution of their sound rather than a complete overhaul. There may never be a better example of a metal songwriter's evolution than Death's seven albums. It is almost as if with each release it is possible to trace the individual steps of Death's metamorphosis.

For Death's fourth album, Human, out went the rhythm section of bassist Terry Butler and the much-maligned drummer Bill Andrews (after a legal battle over the pair's use of the Death name on a European tour) and surprisingly, considering how big an impact he had on Spritual Healing, out too went guitarist James Murphy. Previously Chuck had written material with other members, but for Human he wrote all the tracks in isolation and, possibly realising he needed band members with the chops to do his new material justice, in came exceedingly capable musicians in Sadus bassist, Steve Di Giorgio, and Cynic members, drummer Sean Reinert and guitarist Paul Masvidal. This was an inspired move, as there is a greater emphasis on technicality on Human that is pulled off brilliantly by the four members.

The sound on Human has a greater clarity than previous Death albums and allows the multifarious riffs and more complex rhythms distinction in the mix that may have been lacking in the earlier albums' muddier production. Both Reinert and Di Giorgio's amazing contributions can be heard distinctly and their technical prowess in both maintaining the rhythms and adding interesting work of their own to the shifting soundscapes is obvious for all to hear. Paul Masvidal's lead work is excellent and he takes a jazzier kind of approach to his soloing than Murphy's more traditional heavy metal approach, and this increasing technicality and diversity seems to be one of the major reasons for his recruitment into Death's lineup. The solo halfway through Secret Face, for example, brings a spanish, almost flamenco-like flavour to the track which, especially in 1991, seems like an impossibility in death metal, but is pulled off here with aplomb.

Chuck Schuldiner had always written great riffs, but on Human they became more complex, seemingly evolving and mutating as each track progresses, like some kind of virus. Despite this increasing complexity and technicality Human still has some incredibly powerful death metal riffing - the main riff of Lack of Comprehension is an absolute killer that is as muscular as anything you could have heard at the time. Human is comprised of truly memorable tracks that stick in the mind well after the silver disc stops spinning and this is a huge plus for me as I often find a lot of technical metal is so focussed on it's own complexities that listenability is sacrificed at the altar of technicality for technicality's sake. Just when you think you have the measure of Human, though, they toss in instrumental Cosmic Sea, which is an insane piece of work that comes at you with pretty much everything Chuck could muster, atmospheric keyboards, soaring solos, weird, otherworldly dissonance and another brutally heavy riff all combine for one of the most interesting metal instrumental tracks you may ever hear. Then on top of Human's sublime instrumentation there are the vocals. Chuck Schuldiner is a seminal death metal vocalist and I think the main thing that makes his vocals so great is that they sound equally as horrified as they are horrifying, as if even he himself cannot bear the evil tidings he brings.

At 33 minutes the album is Death's shortest, but there is just so much to digest within it's slight runtime that it is hard to believe only half-an-hour has passed come album's end. This is as rigorous a workout as you could reasonably have expected back in 1991 and most bands would fail to get even close to producing a half hour of metal as genuinely awe-inspiring as Human.


May 24, 2023 07:39 PM

Great review Sonny and got me up out of my chair and reaching for the CD in question immediately.  I recall now I bagged one of the Relapse re-releases and so I have a second disc with all the basic instrumental versions of the tracks plus some of the demos too.  Tonight will be a good night up at the Vinny Manor.

May 24, 2023 09:49 PM

I really liked the first three Death records. Hell, "Leprosy" was my introduction to death metal! But I wouldn't say that any of those early releases saw me bowing down in worship. "Human" changed that immediately & still sits in my top three for death metal as a whole to this day. 5/5

May 29, 2023 01:16 PM