— Michael Amott In the liner notes of the 2000 reissue of "Dark Recollections" by Carnage
Death metal, also known as "that genre concerned parents hate", is a particularly notable subgenre of metal that is usually characterised by growled, roared, or shrieked vocals, heavily downtuned guitars, and generally quite proficient musicianship utilising a variety of unusual techniques and instrumentation such as tremolo picking, palm muting, double kick blast beats, and complex, evolving song structures with frequently morphing time signatures played at quite tremendous speeds. Lyrics usually (though not always) focus on anger, hate, gore, and death, and some pretty gory album covers are not at all uncommon.
It is The New Rock & Roll; easily one of the most misunderstood musical genres since its own inception, its critics almost always characterise it as an unlistenable noise attack, ignorant of the genuine, if not universally endearing, musicianship involved. Special hate is often reserved for the distinct and distinctively named vocal style, commonly characterised as ugly, unmusical, or mere screaming with an equal degree of ignorance as to the immense skill and physical fitness required to sing death vocals well without quickly ruining one's voice.
The style evolved from Thrash Metal in the eighties, with some bands influential on the genre (thrash or otherwise) including Slayer, Venom, Celtic Frost and Kreator. The first band to get acknowledged for playing death metal was the thrash band Possessed, with their landmark album Seven Churches. While Possessed may have been the Trope Namer (they even had a song named "Death Metal"), the Trope Makers, and according to some sources the Ur Examples, were Death, who released their first album, Scream Bloody Gore, in 1987. They replaced the overt thrash influences of Possessed with an at-the-time unparalleled fusion of brutality and technicality, solidifying the genre.
Initially just an underground niche for the most extreme of metalheads, death metal only managed to gain recognition outside the underground thanks to some of the more popular and controversial bands, such as Deicide, Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel, who in the early 1990s were suddenly being noticed by livid moral guardians the world over. There was the brutality of the music itself, featuring extensive use of dissonance, atonality, syncopation, deep forays into the deranged realms of frequently shifting Uncommon Time, and the general tendency to angrily take a hatchet to most of the other things that make pop music accessible and catchy (like simple melodies and rhythms); this, combined readily with the decidedly offensive (some might say antisocially so) thematics of the genre helped culture warriors and moral crusaders to froth up an image of terrible music that promoted violence, sex, sexual violence, Satan, and probably somehow drugs as well. This culminated in Cannibal Corpse being banned from performance in several countries.
Since then, the genre has mostly remained underground, with a devoted but relatively modest following, stellar critical acclaim and a thoroughly international scene (for example, did you know Botswana has a thriving death metal scene?); however a few bands have had a large amount of recognition, as have a couple of subgenres. The genre's influence has also been felt in many other genres, including Gothic Metal, Groove Metal, Nu Metal, and Metalcore. These, and several other forms of more traditional or popular metal have developed a harder, more abrasive sound, with harsher vocals and heavier distortion in response to the pioneering sounds of Death Metal, while retaining more accessible or conventional song structures and motifs.
For the hip-hop equivalent see Horrorcore.
Multiple scenes with specific sounds have popped up over the years; for those wondering, the main ones are:
Florida: Thrashy, riff-oriented material, frequently with a pronounced technical edge and virtuosic playing. Easily the most successful scene to the point where bands with that sound were relocating there back in the day (Cannibal Corpse, Morbid Angel, Malevolent Creation); notable native bands include Death, Obituary, Deicide, Atheist, Monstrosity, Six Feet Under, Brutality, and Nocturnus.
New York: A mix between aggressive, grind and hardcore-influenced material that laid the template for brutal death and doomy, dirgelike acts. Also includes bands from surrounding states, primarily NJ and PA; notable bands include Suffocation, Immolation, Incantation, Malignancy, Morpheus Descends, Dehumanized, Pyrexia, and Internal Bleeding.
California: A mixture of brutal, riff-oriented material that eschews leads in favor of a massive sea of winding, interconnected riffs building off one another, and melodic proggy tech that carries heavy late-era Death influences, with many of the former bands gradually turning into the latter. Notable bands include Deeds of Flesh, Disgorge, Decrepit Birth, Arkaik, Severed Savior, and Odious Mortem.
Sweden: Raw, punkish material with a darkly melodic undertone and frequent doom influences, as well as a trademark "chainsaw" guitar tone. Some acts also helped give birth to death 'n roll by way of infusing their music with hard rock elements. Threecertainbands from Gothenburg partly eschewed brutality in favor of melody, thus creating and estabilishinga more melodic approach to death metal. Notable bands include Entombed, Dismember, Grave, Unleashed, God Macabre, and Carnage.
Finland: Dark and doomy material with a focus on creepy atmospheric sections and occasional bits of eerie melody. Notable bands include Amorphis (early material), Demilich, Demigod, Convulse, Sentenced (early material), and Adramelech.
Poland: Focuses more on the technical, thrashy side or the more atmospheric blackened edge of death metal. Notable bands include Vader, Behemoth (starting with Pandemonic Incantations), Decapitated, Hate, Trauma, Lost Soul, and Yattering.
Quebec: Highly technical and aggressive material with a general focus on speed; later bands also started adding in progressive elements. Notable bands include Gorguts, Cryptopsy, Kataklysm (early material), Neuraxis, Martyr, and Quo Vadis.
Russia: Very big on slow, but rock-bottom heavy slam, though some of them have begun to move in a more technical direction with prominent Dying Fetus influences. Notable bands include Katalepsy, Abominable Putridity, Abnormity, 7 H. Target, and Big End Bolt.
East Asia: Rooted in grindcore, noise rock and deathcore, mathcore and slam death. Bands often have a strong affinity for Neoclassical Punk Zydeco Rockabilly, some have melodic tendencies, some go Up to Eleven thanks to Harsh Noise influences. Notable bands include Magwi and Oathean from South Korea, Hydrophobia, Vomit Remnants, Dir En Grey (from Marrow of a Bone onwards), Imperial Circus Dead Decadence, Kokuyasou, Ritual Carnage, and Youthquake from Japan, Bloodshedd and Sin from the Philippines, and China's Lunar Eclipse.
Australasia: Weird, experimental fare with heavy jazz, post-rock, and black metal influences that borrows heavily from Gorguts and Atheist and runs the gamut from winding, playful, jazzy riff-fests to extremely dark, moody, and often nightmarish soundscapes. Notable bands include Psycroptic, Stargazer, Ulcerate, Mephistopheles, The Amenta, Beyond Terror Beyond Grace (Nadir, mostly), and Portal.
Italy: Possibly the most extreme scene, generally involves extremely fast, blast-heavy brutal death with occasional blackened death and/or tech death influences. Notable bands include Hour of Penance, Fleshgod Apocalypse (pre-Agony), Septycal Gorge, Putridity, Hideous Divinity, and Antropofagus.
There are many different subgenres of death metal. Three of them (Melodic Death Metal, Technical Death Metalnote (four, but Progressive Death Metal and Technical Death Metal share the same page) and Deathcore) have their own entries. Here is a quick list of bands by basic subgenre:
Old-School Death Metal Pure, classic death metal.
Abysmal Dawn (new band playing material in the vein of the original Florida acts, particularly Morbid Angel)
Criminal (depending on the album, they may lean more towards thrash or death; their earlier material is more death, while their later material is more thrash, although No Gods No Masters is pretty much a straight-up death metal album)
Sepultura (From Schizophrenia to Arise; later became Groove Metal with Chaos A.D., followed by a brief Nu Metal jaunt with Roots and a return to their Chaos A.D. sound with Against. The death/thrash influence returned starting with Dante XXI, though.)
Melodic Death Metal Death Metal with a greater emphasis on melody, along with a dose of Power Metal or traditional Heavy Metal riffage. For more information, go hereBrutal Death Metal Death metal with more emphasis on brutality and speed, and less on melody. Often incorporates elements from grindcore (in particular, obviously, goregrind).
Abnormality (notable in that Mallika Sundaramurthy is one of the few frontwomen in a heavily male-dominated genre)
Internal Bleeding (Trope Codifier along with Dehumanized, Pyrexia, and Suffocation. Also arguably the Ur Example of slam; while Suffocation and Pyrexia were making use of slam breaks before Internal Bleeding was even around, they were one of the first bands to make them a central element of their music.)
Technical Death Metal Essentially what happens when a death metal band starts to increase the technical musicianship borrowed from Jazz, Classical Music, and/or Progressive Rock/Progressive Metal. For more information, go hereSlam Death Metal Seen mainly as a progression of brutal death with subtle but noticeable hip-hop influences and a generally heightened focus on mosh-oriented rhythms, slam death metal is characterised by gurgling vocals, breakdowns, and grooves. Sometimes considered to be "proto-deathcore"; there is also a certain overlap between slam death metal and the more extreme deathcore bands, which is why Waking the Cadaver are on this list.
Badass Normal: Many death metal artists showcase an everyday casual look, which comes across as more "normal" (save for the hair and, occasionally, the beards) than the styles worn by non-death metal artists. Many of them also appear (and are actually ) very nice and approachable, though their music and lyrics indicate otherwise.
Bald of Awesome: A growing number of older artists and fans are embracing this hairstyle, which may or may not be paired with a Badass Beard.
Loudness War: Not a problem with older releases in the genre (unless they've been "remastered"), but this plagues modern releases. It's almost impossible to find a modern death metal album that isn't horribly brickwalled, with generous doses of clipping on top. May be a case of Stylistic Suck, and is unfortunately encouraged (indirectly or not) by some fans and critics.note in the case of the latter, The Metal Observer is particularly bad about this, praising the production work of known War criminals like Erik Rutan and Jason Suecof. There are some producers fighting this trend, however, with Colin Marston being the most visible example.
Love It or Hate It: One of the worst cases of it: either you like it for being highly complex and puzzling, or dislike it altogether for being downright unlistenable, probably for just one thing. Professional critics are equally polarized.
Within death metal, slam. It's either simple, trashy, groovy fun that's a recipe for a good time live, or it's stupid, boring, and obnoxiously derivative garbage with a fanbase full of deathcore kiddies and dumb wiggers.
Mean Character, Nice Actor: Many death metal musicians are actually very friendly when not playing. Two examples are Kyo (singer of Dir En Grey) and Alex Webster (band-leader of Cannibal Corpse).
Metal Scream: Relatively prevalent in the music, and often of the type 2 variety, though it's not uncommon for vocals to lean towards type 3.
Motor Mouth: It is common for death metal vocalists to speed up their vocal work to catch up to the already fast instrumentation, often coming close to Singing Simlish.
Misogyny Song: A common theme of Brutal and especially Slam Death Metal lyrics. Began with early Cannibal Corpse and was later popularized by bands such as Devourment, Waking The Cadaver and Waco Jesus. Though it's likely that they want to troll the general public than actually promote misogyny. Somebands have gained notoriety for this, at one point or another.
Pretty Fly for a White Guy: Quite a few slam acts have a very wigger-ish aesthetic; while the origin of this isn't precisely known, it seems likely that it came from the more "urban" styles of Internal Bleeding, Dehumanized, and Dying Fetus, all of whom had very prominent NYHC influences.
Protest Song: If it's even remotely politically-tinged, it'll usually be this.
The Scrappy: Deathcore. If you consider it part of the death metal canon, that is. Melodic death metal has earned scorn from some corners of the metal fandom (particularly Metal-Archives) due to its more melodic sound and vaguely commercial nature.
Slam death metal and the more generic brutal/tech death metal bands tend to be disliked by fans of old school death metal.
Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: A lot of death metal lyrics and song titles feature scientific/medical jargon and other gibberish-sounding words, which is no surprise considering the lyrical and aesthetic themes associated with the genre.
Troll: Many of the artists that write the misogynistic Gorn lyrics are moreso this than not.
Trope Maker: Death. It's unclear whether they were the first death metal band (because they were around at roughly the same time as Possessed, Master and Necrophagia), but they are generally agreed to have properly established death metal as a genre with Scream Bloody Gore.
Trope Namer: Generally either Possessed (with the song "Death Metal" off Seven Churches) or Death (their style apparently being dubbed "Death's metal" in their early days, before death metal really took off as a genre).
Trope Codifier: Cannibal Corpse in the public eye; metalheads are more likely to cite Morbid Angel, Obituary, or Deicide as such.
The Unintelligible: Thanks to the genre's focus on Harsh Vocals, death metal vocalists are embodiments of this trope by default. Some examples are worse thanks to foreign-language or badly-writtenEnglish lyrics, which may or may not be combined with the liberal use of Motor Mouth as the main vocal delivery.
Up to Eleven: Death metal did this to Thrash Metal and metal in general. And, as if the extreme nature of death metal wasn't enough, brutal death and deathgrind took regular death metal, intensified it by a hundred times, ran away with it, and let it evolve as a full-fledged metal microgenre.