The Field Guide to Slovakia’s Death Metal Past
The metal scene behind the Iron Curtain, even to this day, remains under-reported outside of those countries, and among some of those overlooked scenes were those from the countries formerly (and collectively) known as Czechoslovakia. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union and the split of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, the export of death metal from Slovakia was limited as far as most probably knew; despite the country's small population, however, there was a rich and creative scene that just never got much international acclaim.
Though they were close together geographically and formerly being part of the same country, the Slovak death metal scene largely varied from the slightly better known Czech one. There was less thrash metal in Slovak death metal after the earliest years of the scene than there was in the Czech scene, a greater focus on the Morrisound death metal sound than most countries had at the time, and a heightened sense of melody stemming from a strong Slovak sensibility for it.
The emergence and peak of the early Slovakian death metal scene happened during the mid-to-late 1990s, sometimes considered a bit of a dark period for death metal. Although this epoch was definitely worse for the genre than the so-called golden age, it was also a time when death metal accelerated its branching into distinct subgenres (melodic, technical, brutal, etc). What made the Slovak scene so interesting was so many of their more popular bands often laid at the intersection of all these styles. While some understood brutality and melody to be distinct concepts, many of the following bands embraced both attributes and contributed to one of the more unique scenes to be found after the period of classic death metal ended.
Speaking on the bigger influences on the scene, René Blahušiak, guitarist on Slovak giant Dementor's best albums, says that the "main influencers from abroad were Morbid Angel, Immolation, Cannibal Corpse, Deicide from the USA. Entombed, Dismember, Hypocrisy, In Flames from Sweden but Dutch scene also created monsters such as Sinister or Pestilence."
On the country's tendencies toward melodicism, Martin Lukáč (vocalist of Nomenmortis until 2012 and author of the "Monstronomicon") says:
I could say this [melodicism] is partly something deep into the genes of Slovak metal musicians, their subconscious roots in domestic folklore, or this also could be a matter of temperament. And it's also fair to say that people were influenced by the music they were listening to. If you prefer to listen to some melodic and moody, yet still aggressive death metal music typical for Scandinavian and Finnish scene, if this is the music that "speaks to your mind and soul", it's only natural that you start to create something of this kind.
Of course, many bands from the scene were not melodic, and there was a wide variety of sounds within the Slovak death metal scene, many of which are touched on below. This guide does not attempt to be an end-all be-all of Slovak death metal, but merely to introduce some fans to one of the world's most underrated and unknown death metal scenes from back in the day. The focus is strictly on more underground "old school" death metal, and does not touch much on brutal death, gothic metal, or the more modern school of melodic death metal that became prominent after Slaughter of the Soul.
I'd like to thank my friend Dan for writing this guide with me and for introducing me to this scene some time back, and for the help and insight provided by Adam from Malokarpatan, Martin from Nomenmortis, René from Dementor, Martin from Sanatorium, and everyone else who answered our questions and helped me out with this article. This was a research piece from death metal fanatics who are not Slovak, so if you feel like we got anything wrong, please get in touch.
Primer: Story of an Early Scene
As with many other countries cut off from what was happening in Europe and the United States at the time, Slovakia's extreme metal scene got a late start in developing; there was virtually no death metal related activity until 1992, and there wasn't really a record with more death metal than thrash or punk to it until 1994. Unlike some other countries, however, Slovakia didn't have much of a scene leading into the death metal one: a handful of thrash bands, such as Dark Mordor and Editor, helped to pave the way, but they largely formed around the same time as the earliest death metal bands in the country.
One of the first bands playing extreme music to pop up in Slovakia was Gladiator, who were simultaneously loved and derided a bit as a Sepultura knockoff -- a comparison that's immediately apparent after hearing either of their first two full-lengths. The band came together in 1988 and knocked out albums in 1992 and 1993 that closely resemble the mid-1980s Sepultura material and partially due to this largely liked style, Gladiator is one of the few extreme bands from Slovakia at the time to be regularly recommended outside the country.
Within the scene they were stars, and notably had an MTV appearance in the early 1990s, which most Slovaks would never have believed possible for a local extreme band. After the release of Made of Pain, Gladiator dropped their metal influences, started playing pop rock, and are now one of the country's more popular bands in their chosen popular style.
Another of the earliest Slovakian bands, Dementor, had put out two demos and put out a split with several other local bands in that time, and another popular early death metal band, Depresy, had put out their first demo. Dissonance had formed under the name Notorica and got their start learning to songwrite, Dehydrated put out their first two demos, and another half dozen bands started writing, playing shows, and forming the seeds of what would become a rich scene. By the time that Gladiator was ready to move on to more commercially friendly realms, death metal was on the rise in Slovakia.
By 1994, the scene was going in earnest, with many bands putting out demos and EPs, and a smaller amount putting out full lengths. Due to the country's size and lack of strong label support for death metal, any sort of real studio album can be assumed to mean that the band in question was fairly popular; bands without local popularity struggled to get into the studio, or get a label to release their music.
Below are some of the most important and some of the best bands from the Slovak death metal scene up until the end of the 1990s. Though most of these bands are long since broken up, their music lives on and deserves attention.
-- Brandon Corsair
Unlike most of the Slovak death metal scene, Dementor managed to reach fans outside the country via their years of unwavering dedication to making punishing death metal. They were both one of the first bands on the scene alongside Kar, Gladiator, and Phantasma, as well as one of the first to put out a full-length that was more death metal than thrash with 1994's The Church Dies. Their influences were always worn on their sleeve: the earlier material should appeal strongly to fans of Death and Carcass, and by the time 1997's Kill the Thought on Christ came out, Dementor had largely switched focuses to making material in the vein of Morbid Angel and Deicide.
All of this aligns closely to what René Blahušiak, the band's guitarist from 1991 to 2005, had to say when recalling those years: "In the early 1990's we were pretty much under the influence of bands like Pestilence, Bolt Thrower, Death, Obituary but in the second half of the decade those were mainly Deicide and Morbid Angel having the biggest influence over what we were doing with Dementor." Accordingly, fans of those bands would do well to listen to Dementor, whose music should make it obvious why they were a leader within their scene.
Recommended listening: Morbid Infection, The Church Dies
Originally existing for a number of years as Notorica, the group dissolved and rebranded as Dissonance in 1993. Whereas Notorica was fairly by-the-numbers death/thrash, Dissonance took a different course and paid heavy tribute to mid-era Death. There are still some remnants of the band's early thrashy days within their first full length Look to Forget, but this is overshadowed by the sheer amount of riffs directly plucked from Human and Individual Thought Patterns. While not the most original, Dissonance certainly are competent musicians and it's worth digging into for fans of early-to-mid 1990s technical/prog death metal.
Recommended listening: Look to Forget
One of the earliest death metal bands in the country, Dehydrated put out a slew of demos in the early 1990s before releasing Ideas in 1997. As the name of the band might suggest, Dehydrated had a good foundation of thrashy death metal in their sound, ala Pestilence/early Death, but also incorporated a good chunk of brutality into the mix (Suffocation, Monstrosity) and even some melody. There's a great deal of groove, but what really stands out are the intense bass lines that would make Steve DiGiorgio proud. If you want a good template of how Slovakian bands seamlessly incorporated different styles of death metal into their mix, look no further than Ideas.
Recommended listening: Ideas, Suffering of the Living Mass
By the time Depresy's "A Grand Magnificence" EP was released in 1998, melodic death metal was all the rage within the scene (at least in Europe). You could certainly be forgiven for thinking Depresy were just another act riding the wave, but that description doesn't do them justice. While it's fairly obvious Depresy borrowed some ideas from In Flames and At the Gates, their sound is more rooted in the works of early Septic Flesh and Hypocrisy (the cover of "An Alder Spirit's Reincarnation" should be the biggest hint of this).
Thus, instead of just delivering your usual rehashed harmonized guitar riffs with a thrashy edge, Depresy opt for a more grandiose and epic sound that alternates between faster and more doomier passages, sprinkled with small doses of synth to add a greater sense of dramatism. Even with these elements, it still delivers heavy amounts of aggression and brutality rooted in traditional death metal. Depresy continued to elaborate on their more bombastic and grandiloquent sound in their follow-up Sighting and following albums, which bear more resemblance to later Septic Flesh – greatly emphasizing the symphonic elements.
In 1993, I received the recording "Mystic Places of Dawn" and I immediately fell in love with it. I knew this was the way and I wanted to follow it the same way. It will probably be my southern roots and temperament, why I like it. Why there aren't more such bands, it doesn't bother me. They probably couldn't do it that way. They didn't feel that way.
-- Roman Špatko, guitarist of Depresy
Depresy's early output is not just excellent on its own merit, but represents an interesting and unexplored branch of melodic death – one which followed the path of Mystic Places of Dawn rather than Slaughter of the Soul.
Recommended listening: A Grand Magnificence (the re-issue with the ...and There Came the Tears with Christ demo), Sighting
Like many of their peers on this list, Nomenmortis got their start in the early 1990s. However, aside from one demo in 1994, no full-length came until 6 years later with the release of How I Learn to Bleed...for the Things I Wish to Forget, making them a relative latecomer to the scene. As the record kicks off, you would be forgiven for thinking Nomenmortis are just a regular Death/Grind act influenced by Carcass and the New York death metal scene. Yet it's not long into the record when you're suddenly hit with a whirlwind of melodic harmonized riffs and beautifully crafted solos that bear some resemblance to the Intestine Baalism debut. Like Carcass, there is a good dose of dual singing – with vocalist Martin alternating between Antti Boman low gutturals and black metal shrieks.
What ultimately makes Nomenmortis such a memorable band is the way these elements are infused into their death/grind formula, never really sacrificing the brutality of the record – the heaviness retained in great part thanks to the intensive percussion and relentless blast beats. Sadly, future Nomenmortis records would drop their more melodic experimentation in favour of more brutality, something which personally detracts from the experience. If you're in the need for out-of-field death/grind with some riffs that wouldn't feel too out of place on a Dissection record, Nomenmortis's debut is a worthwhile listen.
Recommended listening: How I Learn to Bleed...for the Things I Wish to Forget
Though they didn't form until 1992 and didn't put out a full length until 1997's Gluttony, Pathology Stench were one of the more active bands in the scene and played live regularly with most of the most important groups in Slovakia. Their first and only demo Practical Brutality was around album length at about 32 minutes and, like Dementor or Dehydrated, took from early death metal (particularly Deicide) and extreme thrash to create something both primordial and devastating. Gluttony continued in a similar direction but added a large dose of technicality, stranger riffs, some Carcass influence, and lower, more gurgling vocals; the end result is more varied and mature than Practical Brutality, and though perhaps with less general appeal.
Later on the band would go on to lean more into brutality, modern groove, and modern tech-death influences, but unlike many that took a similar road, Pathology Stench never lost sight of their aggressive thrashing death metal roots. The later material isn't in the scope of this article, but the demo and Gluttony are excellent and highly recommended.
Recommended listening: Practical Brutality, Gluttony
Despite having achieved less international success than many of their countrymen, Phantasma was important to the early scene due to both how active they were and how early they were. Formed in 1992 in Košice, Phantasma was quick to get out a demo the same year and released their debut album only two years later in 1994.
Where Phantasma differs from their scene was in how spectacularly bizarre they were, even when compared to some of the other really out-there bands on this list; though the same shades of Floridian influence that most of their peers relied on are audible, Phantasma was not afraid to go off on tangents of personal discovery or to shove in odd synth parts or samples. At times Phantasma resembled Mortuary Drape or old Greek death metal (a la pre-album Septic Flesh or Horrified) more than anyone from Slovakia, but constant tempo changes and a generally faster take on the genre kept them from gathering the same occult atmosphere that'd be expected from those comparisons.
Though their debut Welcome in Heaven isn't even 33 minutes long, it packs in enough riffs and general eccentricity to never feel short. Most bands taking a somewhat similar approach to phrenetic insanity come across as relying on riff-salad and "random" composition, but Welcome in Heaven is put together well enough that it feels like a much more personal journey through terror than the result of a band throwing darts to see what would stick. Phantasma won't appeal to everyone and probably didn't break out for a reason, but they were absolutely excellent and are well worth a listen.
Recommended listening: Welcome in Heaven, Jazz For Jesus
Apoplexy was one of the stranger bands to have popped up in the Slovak scene. Much like their countrymen Dissonance, the obvious comparisons are more bands like Atheist or mid-era Death than their more brutality-focused peers; however, unlike Dissonance, Apoplexy found a bit more of their own sound and strangeness in odd Finnish-isms, rapidfire tempo and mood changes, and a talented ear for catchy songwriting. Not every riff was really worth recording and not every transition is as well done as the bands they took influence from, but Apoplexy did a good job with what they had and remain much more interesting than most similar bands. It's with good reason that labels Dark Symphonies and The Crypt have worked to reissue both of Apoplexy's albums -- definitely recommended for fans of Death, Atheist, Adramalech, or Purtenance.
Recommended listening: Tears of the Unborn, Monarchy of the Damned
Coming from the city of Žilina, Sanatorium, like their Slovakian brethren, were responsible for conjuring a particularly unique brand of brutal death metal, one which took multiple cues from both grindcore and the Swedish melodic scene. After producing a handful of demos and EPs, the culmination of this sound was reached with their debut Arrival of the Forgotten Ones. While primarily a brutal death record, it infuses this with a deeply atmospheric and melodic sensibility that contrasts nicely with the overall tone of the record. Sadly, Sanatorium would abandon this direction in later albums, focusing on their traditional brutal death metal/grind roots.
Slovakia had specific approach to dm as mix of brutality and melodic dark parts. Maybe it was a reason that it has also strong antichristian message. We don't have early really brutal dm or slam bands, grind core was also very small.
-- Martin Belobrad, Bassist/Vocalist of Sanatorium
Recommended listening: Arrival of the Forgotten Ones
Though they only managed a couple of demos before breaking up, Acoasma had some of the most interesting and well-balanced songwriting of the Slovakian scene. Their core sound was rooted completely in early death metal and distinguished itself from their peers. It wasn't through excessive melody or brutality, but through labyrinthian song structures full of tempo and mood shifts that seamlessly jumped from manic assaults to long-form tremolo melodies. They also employed chugging thrash-based riffs, often with each individual riff only being played a handful of times in a particular verse. Though on paper you would expect their music to sound disjointed, it's stunningly well put together, and an attentive listener will find in this band some of the best death metal from Slovakia. Also notably, the guitarist and frontman from Acoasma would later go on to join Dementor, remaining an active member of that band.
Recommended listening: Lost in Personal Hell
Hailing from Humenné, Amorbital got their start later than most of the bands on this list and broke up shortly after the release of their only album, Invidia. Despite coming around a little too late to capitalize on the international interest in melodic death metal (in the sense of death metal that's melodic, rather than in the sense of what the genre is known for) they put out what has become what of the style's best albums.
Invidia is extremely aggressive, but each of the songs is insanely catchy, well-written, and unique. Invidia was really the inspiration that led to the research for the rest of this article. The basslines are huge, the vocals are much more memorable than most death metal bands after the first wave of the genre, and the highlight of the album, the riffing, is out of this world. The album is best compared to what groups like Mi'Gauss or Armoured Angel did: bouncy death metal with extremely melodic leads and occasional forays into long, gorgeous sections that offset the aggression of the main rhythms.
Recommended listening: Invidia
Another short-lived band that never managed an album, Carrion's sole demo, Obeisance to Vanity, makes for a curious blend of influences that probably couldn't have happened at any other time in death metal history than the mid-1990s. The primary sound and tempo is that of death/doom, but listeners are immediately set upon by a massive wall of synths in the same manner as some of the cheesier Greek bands (Phlebotomy being an immediate comparison), and most of the songwriting and vocals can be compared to Greek bands or the early British death/doom scene as well. However, a lot of the riffs themselves are more akin to a slowed-down take on the nascent pre-At The Gates melodic death metal scene from Sweden; the blend is odd, but Eucharist as played by Gothic-era Paradise Lost works surprisingly well. This one certainly won't be for everyone, but it's worth checking out -- and if the synths don't sound appealing but the rest does, there's a lot less of them after the first song.
Recommended listening: Obeisance to Vanity
Insepultus's arrival to the scene coincided with the explosion in the underground of more melodic oriented extreme metal. In this respect, Insepultus's early offerings (particularly the 1995 EP Considerations) represent the bridge between traditional death metal and the Gothenburg sound that was coming from up north. After a couple of years, Insepultus released their only full-length Stigma of Soul which featured a more conventional melodic death metal sound of the time. For death metal traditionalists, it would be best to stick with the EP, although the debut features plenty of beautiful harmonized riffs.
Recommended listening: Considerations
Eccentricity and weirdness are no strangers to the Slovak scene; perhaps this is why Lunatic Gods felt they could thrive in such an environment. Calling Lunatic Gods just a "death metal" band is a bit limiting, as their early 1990s work cuts through a wide variety of genres within a single song -- one moment you are treated to a standard Incantation-like passage before shifting to a black metal gear and throwing in some female vocals and symphonic elements to boot. Perhaps too experimental for the average listener, Lunatic Gods are still an interesting band within the domestic scene who are talented musicians and one that pushes boundaries.
Recommended listening: Inhuman & Insensible
Before joining the band in the 2000's, a couple guys from the current Depresy lineup played in a rad melodic death band called Maltum -- which makes sense, because Maltum sounds a lot like Depresy but with a huge influx of 1990s Swedish death metal. Huge melodies reminiscent of bands like Eucharist or Sacrilege rule here, and though this band was neither prolific nor particularly original, if you're into that early melodic death metal sound they did it fairly well. The band is notable also for having much lower vocals than typically accompany the sort of riffing present, with vocalist Horiburth using a powerful bellow that's surprisingly non-generic -- most melodic death metal vocalists at the time weren't doing anything particularly different from each other, and Horiburth would stand out even in a much darker band.
Recommended listening: The Thing of Beauty Is a Joy Forever
A side project featuring the future drummer for Dementor and Protest. Like many of their compatriots, Mentality were enamoured by the sounds of death metal and grindcore and decided to fuse both together. While writing death/grind was nothing new by this point in time, Mentality set themselves apart since the beginning by including a healthy dose of keyboards into the mixture. While this could have gone horribly wrong, Mentality managed to do so in a charming way without feeling out of place or wacky. In fact, it gives their only full length a surreal, almost progressive vibe that alludes well to the album title (Teonanacatl is a psychedelic mushroom). While Mentality were not one of the top tier bands of the scene, they are still a good listen and far better than a lot of the mind numbing brutal death metal that was coming out at the time.
Recommended listening: The Inexperienced Butcher, Teonanacatl
Though not particularly notable, Testimony deserve some credit for being one of the first bands from the country to release a death metal related album. Elements of Carcass, Napalm Death, and various death metal, grindcore, and thrash bands bleed through on their debut album, Satisfaction Warranted, which is a fun romp through the earliest years of goregrind and punk-infused death metal. After their first album they'd abandon death metal to focus more on crossover thrash, groove metal, and alt rock influences.
This one is best left as a curiosity for the most diehard fans of death metal, as they weren't exceptional; that being said, they were good enough to warrant a listen if you like any of the influences mentioned above.
Recommended listening: Satisfaction Warranted
Slovakia's affinity for the technical and progressive side of death metal is evident with many of the aforementioned bands, but Wayd might be one of the best at their craft. Forming in 1994, they've released four albums of very unconventional, quirky jazz-infused Death Metal that recalls the best moments of Cynic of Atheist. Your taste for experimentation will likely determine the album you most appreciate from this quartet. For instance, 1997's The Ultimate Passion has plenty of residual thrash to satisfy those who would prefer a more streamlined listening experience, whereas each successive album ups the progressive and experimental elements -- eventually culminating in 2003's Decadence, a really uncustomary and heterodox record. Wayd is definitely a band for those seeking the more adventurous side of the genre.
Recommended listening: The Ultimate Passion, Decadence