From Hell it came in the mid-1980s and deep into the pitch-black heart of hard rock at most extreme it went. From there, the music and movement that would come to be known and (properly) feared as “death metal” went on to pound, pulsate, and devour all other remote representations at the further fringes of punk, hardcore, and heavy metal.
October 16, 1985 can be pinned as one logical launch point for death metal’s initial ascent. That’s when San Francisco Bay Area teenagers calling themselves Possessed lit up Seven Churches. The album pushed past thrash far enough to require a new genre name unto itself—one it handily provided for itself by way of its closing track, “Death Metal.”
That same year, Slayer also reconfigured thrash in its own image by way of the horrifically hard, dark, fast, and ferocious Hell Awaits. Slayer then slayed even harder, darker, faster, and more ferocious on Reign In Blood (1986).
Possessed’s debut, coupled with Slayer’s unprecedented one-two hair-raising haymaker, largely laid the blueprint for so very much of the death metal that would ever follow.
By 1990, Hades’ gates had burst open and death metal’s fire-geysers gushed relentlessly into appropriately intense locales such as infernally hot Florida, frozen-souled Sweden, and politically tumultuous Latin America and Eastern Europe.
The diabolical parade that subsequently poured forth included Cannibal Corpse, Deicide, Autopsy, Bolt Thrower, Carcass, Suffocation, Master, and a newly mutated by way of Mentally Murdered) Napalm Death. Among the fearless labels that first took up the combustive cause were Combat, Earache, and Roadrunner.
In honor of death metal turning 30, let’s raise some horns high, hard, and heavily for 6.66 albums that pointed the way forward down DM’s left-hand path.
6.66 WELCOME TO HELL – Venom (1981)
The diabolically berserk Welcome to Hell by the English “long-haired punks” known as Venom is the primordial bloodbath from which emerged the key genres of ’80s rock at its most extreme: speed metal, thrash, black metal, and, indeed, death metal.
Sounding as punch-drunk and inflamed with rage as its subject matter, WTH is overtly pro-Satan, pro-murder, pro-chaos, and anti-anything that might get in the way of that sort of “good” time.
Directly from Venom, death metal absorbed spine-snapping tempos, roared vocals, occult infatuations, and a celebratory attitude toward (in)human atrocities. The band also provided a model of “by any means necessary” gumption when it comes to spreading a new form maliciously merry madness and building your own scene.
The Prince of Darkness can do a lot for you, but he’s not going to mail out demo cassettes or paste up Xeroxed flyers for basement shows: some things you have to do yourself—just ask any and every death metal outfit that’s come up in Venom’s wake.
6. CORONER’S OFFICE – Post Mortem (1986)
The members of Post Mortem were still in high school when they belted their way out of Boston’s hardcore punk scene, en route to profoundly mutating the genre toward death metal on their 1986 long-player debut, Coroner’s Office.
Embracing not just metal guitar dynamic but also jazz and experimental influences, Post Mortem exuded outright antagonism toward the lockstep punk mentality. The band’s lyrics combined personal issues with gore-soaked fantasy and matched the music in terms of skull-smashing outrage.
In coming to define what would be a crucial death metal modus operandi, Post Mortem frontman John McCarthy once summed it up succinctly. “It’s much better to piss off people who think they’re pissed off,” he said, “than to piss off your grandma or your mother or your father.”
5. SEASON OF THE DEAD – Necrophagia (1987)
Some time in the first half of the 1980s, Ohio splatter movie enthusiast and headbanger supreme Frank Pucci changed his name to the far more fitting Killjoy DeSade and concocted the perfect musical vehicle for his uproariously unsavory passions: Necrophagia.
The band initially caught on through the same homemade tape-trading networks that, just a few years prior, had launched Metallica, Slayer, and the entire thrash movement.
As thrash caught on in the mainstream, Necrophagia’s barf-bag odes to flesh feasting, corpse fornication, and damnation both cosmic and otherwise hurled the underground into deeper and danker nadirs, ultimately culminating in the 1987 LP, Season of the Dead.
SOTD is filthy, ugly, and unrelenting: in other words, an instant and beloved death metal classic.
4. ALTARS OF MADNESS – Morbid Angel (1989)
On Altars of Madness, Morbid Angel comes out swinging chainsaws, chanting incantations, and stomping faces into muck by way of sick songs blasted out with psychopathic urgency.
Each track also erupts with next-level technical prowess, throwing down a gauntlet from which metal could not simply turn back and make nice.
Immediately upon its 1989 arrival, then, Altars of Madness enormously impacted extreme metal movements on a global scale. The album exerted a particularly sanguine influence on the soon-to-be vanguard death metal scene in Sweden.
To say Morbid Angel forever changed the world of metal, then, is no exaggeration. In fact, it may even be an understatement.
3. SLOWLY WE ROT – Obituary (1989)
The very first remnants of death metal on record, per se, may remain forever open to debate. Obituary’s Slowly We Rot, however, bowled over headbangers with brand new brute force in 1989 as the first whole example of death metal fully, and flawlessly, formed.
The album’s somewhat murky production only seems to enhance the pummeling effect of frontman John Tardy’s hell-beast growl vocals, backed by the incendiary guitar rampage of Allen West and Trevor Peres, and the barbarous beat-down slammed out by Donald Tardy (John’s brother) on drums.
Paradoxical to its title, Slowly We Rot rapidly hastened death metal’s out-with-the-old/in-with-the-new onslaught, especially from Obituary’s home turf of Florida. Turns out it’s not all sunshine in that state.
2. SCREAM BLOODY GORE – Death (1987)
Straight out of Orlando, Florida—home of Disney World, SeaWorld, and convicted pedophile Lou Pearlman’s no-longer-flourishing boy band factory—Death released Scream Bloody Gore in 1987 and splattered extreme metal entrails and body fluids all over the universe.
Conjuring gutbucket horror film imagery and deliriously spraying hostility in every direction, Scream Bloody Gore is perhaps death metal’s most definitive before-and-after line. Before the album, there wasn’t much death metal; afterward, anywhere bands were shattering taboos and blasting down barriers suddenly seemed to be, well, screaming bloody gore.
In fact, with Scream Bloody Gore, Death uncaged a beast that, in retrospect, seems to have devoured thrash, hardcore, and other definitively ’80s genres whole and then scrambled, screamingly, forward into the ’90s—and beyond.
1. SEVEN CHURCHES – Possessed (1985)
While thrash ruled the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-1980s, a cabal of teenagers going by the moniker Possessed toiled in the shadows of Megadeth and Exodus (of whom they were devoted fans) and did nothing short of invent death metal in the process.
Led by Jeff Bercera on bass and vocals, and Larry LaLonde on guitar, legend has it that Possessed recorded Seven Churches during its key members’ spring break from their junior year of high school.
While the album’s anger, energy, and fixation of devilish derring-do might be described as youthful, its musical execution seems beyond merely mature to the point of eternal, and the spheres it taps aesthetically and conceptually feel both ancient and timeless.
The “Seven Churches” of the title is a reference to Biblical endtimes prophecy. Other occult elements scald tracks such as “The Exorcist,” “Pentagram,” “Satan’s Curse,” and “Fallen Angel.” The songs live up to the hellfire invoked by their monikers.
While Seven Churches is a perfect whole, it’s impossible to avoid the significance of its album-ending cut: “Death Metal.” In what turned out to be nothing short of a manifesto, Bercera sings: “Darkness has fallen/and your soul is sold/Claws will dig into your meat/When the sun doesn’t rise/and the day is like night/Know that your life is at its end/Rendered helpless/So scream out in fright/Death Metal came in the wind/Death Metal! Death Metal!”
For all previous most way-out subgenres of heavy metal, truer words were never roared.