Mexican Death Metal in the 1990s: An In-Depth Look at a Dawning Scene
There is an odd propensity within the death metal world to ignore bands that come from south of the United States border. This is particularly egregious when considering the sheer depth of the scene from Mexico, which had many of the best and most creative bands in death metal. While it's understandable why financial, lingual, and political barriers as well as a general lack of international label interest kept classic bands from Mexico from extensive touring in the United States or abroad, it makes less sense why the internet and legions of savvy, near-encyclopedic modern fans have not twigged on just how killer Mexican death metal was between the genre's dawn and the end of the '90s.
The roots of Mexican death metal go back to the first Mexican rock and heavy metal bands. There was not a robust, instantaneous thrash scene like there was in so many other countries; it took until the mid-'80s for real heavy metal records from bands like Cristal y Acero, Ramses, Zebra, and Luzbel to even surface, and right around when death metal was becoming a global phenomenon, the first Mexican thrash bands started popping up a few years too late.
Though cult bands Virgin Witch and Death Warrant really kickstarted the invention of more fast and aggressive metal in the country, it was Transmetal that took it to the next step. Not only amongst the first thrash bands in Mexico, they were also one of the first to put out a record, and possibly the first to take that vital leap towards death metal ferocity on a full-length. They were also proof that Mexican metal could be successful, and remain by far the most popular and celebrated band from the early wave of Mexican extreme groups, with album after album of cool material in the general vein of death metal pioneers like Possessed, Sepultura, and Death coming out in between 1988 and 1993.
Hot on Transmetal's heels were Damned Cross, who were perhaps the first real death metal band in Mexico. With only a single primitive official demo released before changing names to Cenotaph in 1989, Damned Cross sported an impressive lineup of members that largely still play killer death metal to this very day and helped lay the foundation stones for all Mexican death metal.
Prior to getting into the article proper, special attention must be given to the Mexican Underground Metal zine series. The series was a vital resource when I was digging past the bigger names, and is the next step for any reader that wants to dig past what is included in this article. If you see an article on Swedish death metal, you read it and then turn to Ekeroth's Swedish Death Metal to dive deeper afterwards. If you read this one and want to go further with Mexican death metal, you turn to Mexican Underground Metal; thanks both to my friend Dan, who co-wrote this article with me, as well as to the editor of Mexican Underground Metal (who by request is not named here) for helping with the proof-reading of this article.
It's also impossible to talk about this scene without a special mention to Chaos Records, who has been the single greatest driving source in reviving the most important records from Mexican death metal history via a series of loving reissues that goes back years. Many of the bands discussed in the article owe their first releases since the'90s to Chaos Records, and often their first or only CD and vinyl editions. Toxodeth, Cenotaph, Agony Lords, Blackthorn, Bloodsoaked, and many others can point a finger to Chaos Records for modern reissues, and remains a great place to get many of the records you’re about to read about.
Mysteries About Life and Death: The Gods of Mexican Death Metal
Toxodeth wasn't just one of the most singularly bizarre bands from Mexico but a genuine pioneer in strange, progressive death metal all around. Toxodeth was in a very real sense the Mexican equivalent of a band like Atheist or Cynic. Their potent blend of insane, ever-changing vocals that ranged from whispers to rasps to shrieks, odd song structures, punctuated bursts of neoclassical shredding, and punctuated staccato riffs set them aside from everyone else in a scene obsessed with being as brutal as possible.
Their first and most significant album, Mysteries About Life and Death, was also along with Mortuary's Blackened Images not only one of first full lengths from the Mexican underground but also one of the first that was sung in English, a controversial move initially that would later be nearly universally adopted. It was also one of the very few to be released on CD and vinyl right off the bat via the legendary (and infamous) Wild Rags Records. While the band had as much thrash in the mix as death metal, they rightfully deserve credit for being one of the very first genuinely extreme and unique bands from their scene.
After Mysteries About Life and Death Toxodeth would put out another album in 1993 on a significantly bigger label, Culebra Records, who were a local imprint of Sony's BMG Music Entertainment Group. Predictably, the label attempted to seize a significant amount of control over the band, and after several disputes and unauthorized changes (including both the album's title and cover art) the band parted ways with Culebra and broke up soon after.
Recommended listening: Mysteries About Life and Death (1990), Lo más mórbido de la realidad (Una observación) (1993)
Mortuary’s debut album Blackened Images is not the most unique for the time, and it leans heavily on the early developments of the contemporary Floridian death metal scene. Despite that, it was proof Mexico could compete with worldwide heavyweights and make death metal that was really worth listening to. Blasphemous, heavy, and featuring art from an actual international artist rather than a local Mexican one (and none other than the now-legendary Christopher Moyen at that), it was a statement that evil was not determined by geography: evil is something in all of our hearts, and belongs to everyone.
On top of being the first real death metal album from Mexico, it was also notable for being one of the few to be released by a non-local label via Germany’s Brain Crusher Records and one of the only records from Mexico at the time to make it to vinyl, as well as one of the first two (along with Toxodeth's Mysteries About Life and Death) to feature lyrics exclusively in English within the underground Mexican death metal scene. They were also one of the first Mexican death metal bands to play in the USA alongside Anarchus, and local proof that Mexican death metal didn’t have to stick to unsuccessful, locally-distributed-only demos.
Despite having more momentum locally than nearly anyone in the scene at the time, Mortuary did not capitalize on their early success with another full length until 1995 when their approach to death metal had largely passed into obscurity, and broke up just a couple of years later. These days the band has reformed and does a killer full Blackened Images set at festivals fairly regularly–try and make it out, they still slay live!
Recommended listening: Blackened Images (1990)
Cenotaph's The Gloomy Reflection of Our Hidden Sorrows release in 1992 was a major milestone for Mexican death metal. Dense, atmospheric, and immense, it was hailed around the world for being one of the finest records in the genre. A major accomplishment, The Gloomy Reflection of Our Hidden Sorrows not only put Mexican death metal on the map globally, but helped move the local scene past simple fascinations with brutality and gore into something more refined. It was at once both death metal and also refined; Toxodeth attempted much of the same approach musically but their horror-focused lyrics and wonky songwriting kept them from making the same deep and lasting impact on the scene, and with their first record Cenotaph was the next logical step in local death metal. Cenotaph would prove to be the culmination of years of development stirring within the Mexican underground and The Gloomy Reflection of Our Hidden Sorrows remains one of the best albums in death metal even today.
After The Gloomy Reflection of Our Hidden Sorrows, the band's frontman and bassist Daniel Corchado left to pursue more personal music with a new band called The Chasm. In his absence, the band decided to leave behind the sound that they had developed and moved towards the new giant rising across the ocean in Sweden: melodic death metal. Their talent for songwriting was not diminished by the jump, and while the albums following the debut are very different, they’re well worth delving into for fans of records like The Red in the Sky Is Ours.
Recommended listening: The Gloomy Reflection of Our Hidden Sorrows (1992), Riding Our Black Oceans (1994)
Certainly the most famous death metal band from the original Mexican scene (outside of mainstays like Transmetal), and possibly the single most unique is The Chasm. After leaving Cenotaph, Daniel Corchado wanted to make something that was less brutal and "trend driven," with a focus on the personal sounds that he heard in his heart. The Chasm is the result. At the time too singularly unique and bizarre for Mexico's scene, which rejected them, their impact over the years has been immense and bands across the world owe a heavy debt to The Chasm sonically. Dense, technical, progressive, and melodic without sounding anything like the bands that those adjectives evoke, The Chasm stands as a unique testament not only to the power of death metal but to heavy metal and even black metal.
Daniel moved to Chicago, Illinois, after recording the band’s third album and to this day continues to make killer and original death metal. Not many bands in or out of Mexico can boast of eight amazing full lengths since 1994, but The Chasm is testament to the power of an unwavering vision and a callous disregard for trends.
Recommended listening: Procreation of the Inner Temple (1994), Deathcult for Eternity: The Triumph (1998)
Shub Niggurath were amongst the first generation of death metal bands to form in Mexico, forming under the name of Tormentor in 1988 and officially changing their moniker to Shub Niggurath two years later. From the outset, Shub Niggurath maintained a strong adherence to the early death metal pioneers Slayer, Possessed and especially Morbid Angel with a strong emphasis on dynamic and varied songwriting evidenced by their early EPs like Blasphemies of Nether World and Evilness and Darkness Prevails.
The band's crown jewel came only a few years later, with the release of The Kinglike Celebration (Final Aeon on Earth). On this album, Shub Niggurath took their classic death metal formula and infused it with a strong black metal undertone through dark synth work and more abundant tremolo picking. What we get is a deeply varied and occult record that goes through a myriad of moods and tempos–all within the span of just half an hour. While largely dormant since then, they have been on a handful of splits and released a full length in 2011 (A Deadly Call from the Stars) which still keeps the formula largely intact. A timeless and essential band for any death metal fanatic.
Recommended listening: Blasphemies of Nether World (1990), Evilness and Darkness Prevails (1994), The Kinglike Celebration (Final Aeon on Earth) (1997)
Souls Vortex: Focused Listening For the Discerning Fan
Short-lived and with barely any released material, Hardware's brief and bizarre existence was shockingly significant compared to similar acts that popped up and vanished without an album. These guys completely ignored the trends of the time to focus on being as absolutely insane as possible, more comparable to international acts like Timeghoul or Demilich than local Florida-obsessed contemporaries. The band merged every disparate sound that they could find, and somehow made it work; atmospheric, heavy, grinding, and industrial all without it sounding out of place, they were dead-set on uniqueness and achieved it with a skill that dwarved most similar bands.
Unfortunately, despite a strong enough local gigging presence and enough connections to make appearances in LA and Hollywood (a rarity at the time), Hardware would fold after their successful Souls Vortex 7" release.
Recommended listening: Souls Vortex (1992), Hardware (1991)
These days perhaps one of the better known bands from Mexico City, Blackthorn sounded much more like foreigners Death or Obituary than like anything else. Their debut album The Rotten Ways of Human Misery is hardly original, even for the time it was released, but it's well-executed, catchy, and carried on the best parts of the legacy of bands that had largely moved on to more progressive, doomy, or commercial pastures if they weren’t outright broken up by then. The production quality is high and instruments and the mix itself sound heavy and gross in the best of ways, and the songwriting had clearly learned from some of the mistakes of other bands leaning on the same giants for inspiration. There's a ton of variety within the confines of the style, and each song has plenty of hooks and individualisms to make for a worthy listen despite how well-trodden the path that Blackthorn walked is. Blackthorn may not interest fans looking to avoid more derivative music but is a worthwhile stop for the curious maniac.
Recommended listening: The Rotten Ways of Human Misery (1992)
One of the better demo-only acts, Unholier were formed in Monterrey and lasted approximately only three to four years before vanishing, but not before leaving behind two demos–1991's La Ronde du Sabbath and 1993's Revelations of She'Ohl. Their first demo is a potpourri of early death/thrash that will satisfy any fans of early Death, Possessed, Sadistic Intent, etc., however, their last demo tried to go beyond the primitive sounds of the debut with a more refined sense of songwriting, bringing in more black metal influence and crafting more elaborate solos that gave them a much darker and ominous vibe–similar to what Shub Niggurath would achieve in their later works. Unsurprisingly, being a demo only band means the sound is somewhat subpar, but luckily it doesn't detract too significantly from the listening experience. Unholier were definitely one of the more impressive smaller bands that should have gotten more attention and at least one full length.
Recommended listening: La Ronde du Sabbath (1991) and Revelations of She'Ohl (1993)
Agony Lords were formed from the ashes of Ripping Flesh, one of the finest early technical death metal bands from Mexico. Rather than continuing through with this direction, Agony Lords were enticed by the new melodic sounds emerging from Sweden and decided to transition towards melodic death metal with a subtle doom and gothic undertone. However, they retained much of the adventurous songwriting from Ripping Flesh and that of other national acts playing the same style (Cenotaph, The Chasm).
This is evident when you listen to both their demo Unions and their debut, The Sun of the Cursed. From the very beginning, the listener is captivated by the wild guitar work - the band does a great job at executing sudden transitions, from slow-paced rhythms to frenetic and highly emotive solo work. This latter part is what makes Agony Lords such a special band, as it’s easy to get lost in the stirring and soaring melodies. After their first album, the gothic influence became more prevalent with mixed results. Nonetheless, early Agony Lords remains essential for anyone looking to explore the more intrepid side of melodic death metal.
Recommended listening: Unions (1993), The Sun of the Cursed (1997)
Not for the faint of heart, Dark Half’s low studio budget is obvious in almost every aspect of their debut album Reborn. Blown out and raw, it perfectly captures the unrelenting spirit of the band, and the gnarly production if anything lends an air of authenticity to an album that might be bland with a sleeker recording. Reborn focuses on the most pummeling side of early death metal, with thrash rhythms slowed to a mid-paced bounce and an emphasis on dismal atmosphere over the more brutal aggression of some of their most comparable peers at the time.
That isn’t to say that Dark Half didn’t know how to speed up, but it isn’t the sole emphasis, and their songwriting tended to be smarter when using those big tempo upswings than bands that took a bit more directly from Death or Sepultura. Past the tinny production there’s a lot to dig into here and Reborn is a hell of an album. Also worth noting is the curiosity of the original Death Comes True demo, which largely takes the same approach songwriting and production-wise as Reborn but instead utilizes clean sung thrash vocals instead of the harrowing shrieks and growls from the album—a bizarre contrast in terms of tone but one that works surprisingly well.
Recommended listening: Reborn (1992)
Bloodsoaked were a band that exhibited the somewhat experimental nature that Mexican death metal could take—particularly evident on their only full length, Frost Image. While at its core this record is thrashy death metal (not unlike Sadistic Intent, Death, Morbid Angel and so on), it is also contrasted by occasional sprinkles of darker sounding synths and guitar solo virtuosity; one spin of the instrumental “Sadness to Come” shows the songwriting and proficiency of the artists. These elements would be explored further on their final EP The Omen, but this would be the last release before the band decided to call it quits until announcing a reunion in 2018.
Recommended listening: Frost Image (1993)
Foeticide started out as a fairly standard death metal outfit, before transitioning towards more adventurous and intricate songwriting on their Life and Death demo and later on The End... of the Beginning in 1997. Much like their brethren Cenotaph, Foeticide were clearly influenced by the melodic sounds sweeping Sweden at the time and were keen on forging their own take on it. If you’ve already listened to Cenotaph’s Riding our Black Oceans, this is the type of melodic death metal we’re talking about. As the years passed, Foeticide would adopt a more conventional approach influenced by the Gothenburg scene in their full lengths.
Recommended listening: Life and Death (1994), The End…of the Beginning (1997)
More Flesh-Ripping Torment For The Supreme Maniac
Though more rooted in thrash than in death metal, Deadly Dark’s aggressive assault is worth a listen for fans of high-velocity sonic torment. While not the most inventive material, both the demo and first album are solid slabs of extremity, and Vade Retro (1990) especially is a cool rarity and great insight into where the scene was at the time.
Recommended listening: Vade Retro (1990), Slaughter Times (1995)
One of the earliest Mexican death metal groups, Noctambulism started under the name Necrophiliac all the way back in 1986 and released an album’s worth of demos through the late ‘80s and the first half of the ‘90s. Their earliness is felt especially in the thrash edge on the first demo material, though they grew and developed over the years and by the time of the Mournful Sculpture demo (1995) they’d started to develop the same strange, personal edge that countrymen like The Chasm and R’lyeh infused their music with.
Recommended listening: Resurrection of the Dead (demo compilation, 2012)
This pounding and rhythmic death metal from Mexico City included at various times in the ‘90s quite a few members of other important bands from the scene, and most notably had Alfonso "Artgore" Ruiz on vocals—Artgore being one of the most important artists in the scene, responsible for cover art and logos for many bands. Though the band largely focused on devastating pummeling guitars they also had a great sense of melody in the demo years, which perhaps explains how they ended up doing a split with Dawn from Sweden in 1994. By the time of their first album they’d largely shifted towards Cannibal Corpse style death metal.
Recommended listening: The Dark Light / The Eternal Forest (1994), Gorific Carnal Confessions (1996)
The brutal precursor to the more melodic Agony Lords, Ripping Flesh live up to the name. With huge low end, merciless riffs, proto-technical aggression, creative song structures, and significantly better production than most other bands, Ripping Flesh should appeal to fans of bands like demo-era Demigod, Cenotaph, or even very early Paradise Lost not just for the devastatingly heavy nature or the songs or the occasional spoken word bit but also for the fact that the band was clearly determined to do something different than what their friends were doing. Certainly some of the best demo material to ever come from Mexico.
Recommended listening: Mercy (1992), Parallel Windows (1991)
Another really cool band that only did demos in the ‘90s, R’lyeh took more than just a name from Lovecraft: dense and slithering, their songs are both devastatingly heavy and supremely interesting. Definitely closer in spirit to early The Chasm or Cenotaph than to less-ambitious bands that took more from other established scenes. Despite moving slowly they also never broke up and continue making and releasing cool death metal to this day, and have released two albums in the last ten years.
Recommended listening: Ancestral Terrors (1992), The Black Island (1999)
Tenebrarum put out a string of demos before finally debuting in 1994 with Alta Magia, an album that shares some stylistic similarities to their countrymen Cenotaph and The Chasm in the sense that it’s very mid-paced doomy death metal with synths peppered in. For those that like their death metal to be a bit more moody in nature, this relative latecomer is a good listening experience.
Recommended listening: Alta Magia (1994)
Under Moonlight Sadness
Under Moonlight Sadness’ origins commence around 1993 under the name “Asgard'' before switching to the aforementioned moniker in 1995. Their first album, A Cosmic Gate, came out the following year. Given this record came out after most of the old Mexican guard had broken up or changed directions, it’s not surprising that their approach differs from them. Rather than leaning on thrash roots, the record has more progressive and melodic leanings. The length can be challenging (clocking in at 67 minutes), but there are many worthwhile moments for those seeking more unconventional death metal.
Recommended listening: A Cosmic Gate (1996)
Though the focus of this article is firmly centered around the birth of the Mexican death metal scene and our scope ends with the ‘90s, 1999 was not the end of the scene and it remains strong to this day. A variety of newcomers such as Question, Ravenous Death, and Infesticide continue to make absolutely killer music, often signed to international labels in direct contrast to how things were back in the day. There’s also a level of involvement from stalwart scene heroes in newer groups like Summoning Death, Necroccultus, and Denial that defies any sort of notion of death metal as a trend or something to do when you’re young and then leave behind; while in many other scenes worldwide a single classic album was the end of things, in Mexico, death metal sometimes is forever.
As an endnote, this article is not intended to represent the full scope of death metal in Mexico, even limited as the article is in terms of the years represented. It largely ignores grindcore/goregrind/brutal death metal/melodic death metal as well as extreme music that crosses over too much into black metal territory, and there are a near endless amount of bands that could have been included but weren’t for space. Fans that get through this and are hungry for more are again encouraged to pick up the zine mentioned in the intro, dive into the metal-archives, contact the authors to ask for additional recommendations, and look for outside resources (this RateYourMusic list is great!).