Even a genre as fundamentally uncool as death metal has trends. The current trend is conservative, almost pastoral.
But to its followers, there’s only one way to do death metal: “the brutal way”, as Martin Van Drunen recently put it. Simple riffs. Sludgy tones. Slowish tempos. No triggers, no weird rhythms, no jazz influences. Just pure tombstone bashin’.
Death metal has incorporated this conservative streak basically since day one. But the genre also attracts lots of weirdos, and weirdos like to do weird things. Such people are not satisfied with traditionalism. Thus, we have death metal that’s transgressive even by the genre’s own standards.
Most of us know of Atheist, Cynic, Immolation, and Gorguts. Portal seems poised to join this unhallowed company. These bands use death metal to do more than bash tombstones. They use it to bash minds. Sometimes they’re technical and clean; sometimes they’re sloppy and dirty. But they’re all zany as hell. And there’s more bands like them than you might think.
1. Atrocity – “Deep In Your Subconscious”
from Hallucinations (Nuclear Blast Records, 1990)
When I think of Atrocity, I mostly think of them as a fruity German goth band that shares members with Leaves’ Eyes. But Atrocity was a death metal band back in the day and a precocious one at that. Hallucinations features chopped-up rhythms that are hard to follow even by modern standards. Keep in mind that it came out in 1990. Its contemporaries include Death’s Spiritual Healing, Deicide’s self-titled, and Entombed’s Left Hand Path. Crazy!
2. Ripping Corpse – “Seduction of the Innocent”
from Dreaming With the Dead (Maze Records, 1991)
New Jersey may be a famously cruddy place to live, but it’s produced some great metal in its day. Ripping Corpse, featuring future Hate Eternal mainman Erik Rutan, only released one album. It’s loaded with ramshackle anthems that sound like they might fall apart at any second. Check out the whammy-abusing riff at 0:25. Most death metal bands today don’t have the chutzpah to pull that one off.
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Ripping Corpse – “Seduction of the Innocent”:”
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3. Demilich – “The Sixteenth Six-Tooth Son of Fourteen Four-Regional Dimensions
from Nespithe (Necropolis Records, 1993)
No discussion of wacky death metal is complete without Demilich. This band has somehow become a posthumous legend, in spite of the toilet-flush vocals and taped-glasses song titles. Their formula remains way left of center to this day. I can’t think of another band that pairs oddball thrash riffs with those vox or of another death metal band that palm-mutes so rarely.
4. Wicked Innocence – “Lines”
from Omnipotence (Napalm Records, 1995)
I think of Wicked Innocence as the American Demilich. The abstract melodies, walking tempos, and gurgled vocals are all still there. But instead of noodley thrash, we get lots of chunky-monkey slamming and a surprisingly audible bass guitar, a la Suffocation. How much more American can you get?
5. Human Remains – “Swollen”
from Using Sickness As a Hero EP (Relapse Records, 1996
Ripping Corpse was pretty strange, but things didn’t really start to run off the rails in New Jersey until Human Remains got going. Featuring future members of Burnt By the Sun, Discordance Axis, and Gridlink, Human Remains never produced a full-length album. But their guitar duo slung a selection of bizarre noises that I haven’t heard replicated since. And those are some ravenous vox!
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Human Remains – “Swollen”
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6. Appalling Spawn – “Mantra of Hope”
from Freedom, Hope and Fury (Obscene Productions 1998
Lykathea Aflame have become legends after the fact on the strength of a single album. They’re kind of like Demilich that way. But almost nobody remembers Appalling Spawn, their immediate predecessor. It’s a shame; AP’s own single longplayer is tenser and tauter than its follow-up, if not quite so adventurous.
7. Rune – “Babylon Burning”
from The End of Nothing (Willowtip Records, 2003
Man, a lot of weird death metal bands only produce a single album. Rune is one of those bands who tried to imitate Gorguts, missed, and were better for missing. The End of Nothing had the seething and clanging thing down, but delicate diatonic melodies undergird the chaos. On this cut they break through and take charge, a la Cryptopsy’s “Phobophile”.
8. Noneuclid – “The Digital Diaspora”
from The Crawling Chaos (Merciless Records, 2008
This band arguably ought to be excluded on the grounds of the vocals, which are very un-brutal. But their thrashy tones only highlight the overt DM lean of the music itself. Noneuclid indulge in flashy acrobatics, but they’ve got plenty enough muscle to choke the life out of you. The solo riff at the end of this song sounds like a scratched copy of Gateways of Annihilation that keeps skipping.
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Noneuclid – “The Digital Diaspora”
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9. Flourishing – “Watching Sparrows”
from A Momentary Sense of the Immediate World EP (The Path Less Traveled Records, 2010
These guys may not have produced a full-length album until this year, but they’ve been playing music together on and off for more than a decade; the material from this EP dates from the first half of the aughties. Flourishing’s subtle metalcore lean is more evident here. No mosh parts or gang shouts to be found, though—the punk is all in Garrett Bussanick’s keening guitar.
10. Sickening Horror – “The Perfect Disease”
from When Landscapes Bled Backwards (Willowtip Records, 2007
George Kollias of Nile materialized out of nowhere in the Greek highlands and descended to earth to bestow his ripping blastbeats upon Karl Sanders’ muddy guitar tracks. Or at least that’s what most people think. But in truth, he got his start in Sickening Horror. Silly industrial noises almost derail this cut right off the bat, but the skin-flensing riff that ensues makes up for ‘em.
11. Necroblaspheme – “Sorry For Us”
from Destination: Nulle Part (Agonia Records, 2008)
Cosmo once dismissed this band as “boring death metal”. I beg to differ. For starters, they’re one of the only noteworthy French DM bands around (there’s also Gojira and . . . um, yeah). More importantly, they’re rockin’, but mercifully without “roll”. That opening riff is a mandatory fist-pumper, and all without a single bluesy bend!
12. Execration – “Left in Scorn”
from Odes of the Occult (Duplicate Records, 2011)
Execration are crypto-weirdos. At first blush, they’re easy to mistake for an old-school retread. But a seasick dissonance haunts these cuts. Behind the burly death metal façade is a strung-out Deathspell Omega fan with a head full of the brown acid. Watch out—things get spooky at about 4:30 here.
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Execration – “Left in Scorn”
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13. Painted Rust – “Failed Breath”
from Painted Rust EP (self-released) 2010)
This Jersey-based Tombs side project only produced a four-song EP before falling apart. I’m still pissed about that. Like Human Remains and Ripping Corpse before them, Painted Rust’s music was palpably decadent. There’s a corrupted brightness in those whammy-whacking riffs, like the tang of food just gone bad. Can’t you smell the sweetness?
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