The Nine Circles ov…80s Death Metal


In any form of art, there’s something magical about the “early works,” those seminal points of origin that set the course for wider narrative. It’s like the moment when the archaeologist finds and examines the fossil that ties together the map of disparate species. Or like the literary researcher who finally reaches the shelf with all the old texts, dusts them off and sets to work. Early extreme metal is a lot like this. There’s that turn around 1985 when you hear bands start to pull away from classical heavy metal. The guitar and bass picking patterns change, the vocals begin to lose their pitch, and the double-bass drum steadily becomes more important. Certain records appear and you realize, “wait, this isn’t really thrash anymore is it?” Buckle up and ride with us through The Nine Circles ov…80s Death Metal.

This stylistic evolution, heavily indebted to metal bands like Venom, Slayer, Hellhammer/Celtic Frost, Mercyful Fate and Sodom (along with punk and hardcore bands like Discharge, The Exploited, Black Flag and Minor Threat) would break apart into a few directions by the late 1980s. There was the grindcore of Napalm Death, the black metal of Bathory, and today’s most gleeful and joy-sparking subject: death metal.

The nine songs selected below all share a certain raw quality that speaks to their place in death metal history, which gives them a particular power that differs from the well-produced works that would come later. This was before the “clicky drums” that Fenriz likes to rail against, and before showy technicality would rear it’s arpeggio-laden head. But they also point to the various directions death metal would take in the following decades. For these reason, and because they totally rule on their own merits, it’s worth ruminating on the sacred tomes below.

Note: This list obviously isn’t comprehensive, nor is it meant to be. It’s only meant to highlight what I think are nine great jams from the early days of death metal. There are certainly a lot more where this came from.

Possessed – “The Exorcist” (from Seven Churches, 1985)

Sometimes you create the best stuff when you don’t really know what you’re doing. Sepultura basically made a black metal album by accident in 1985, and the case is pretty similar with this indispensable classic. The main songwriters in the band were high school juniors when they recorded it during spring break that year. That’s right, they basically recorded the first formally released death metal album when they were in high school (with Death’s Venom-worshipping Death by Metal demo infecting the tape trading scene the previous year). What’s your excuse?

Morbid Angel – “Hell Spawn” (from Abominations of Desolation, 1986*)

*Although this album was recorded in 1986, Trey Azagoth wasn’t satisfied with the result. After some internal squabbles caused the band’s lineup to fracture, producer and financier David Vincent wound up joining as the bassist and vocalist. And the rest is history. Abominations eventually saw the dark of night in 1991, after Morbid Angel had secured their place as death metal giants with Altars of Madness and Blessed Are the Sick. Still, I think Trey was possibly too hard on the band’s performance on this album. This version of “Hell Spawn” positively rips, as does the album’s version of “Chapel of Ghouls.” This song, along with most of the others on the album, would one day be re-recorded. It lives on as “Hellspawn: The Rebirth,” on 1998’s Formulas Fatal to the Flesh.

Death – “Denial of Life” (from Scream Bloody Gore, 1987)

I’m very much in the camp that Possessed Seven Churches is THE full-length death metal album. But it’s also true that the style really got going as a recognizable and increasingly popular musical force on Death’s Scream Bloody Gore. The album is essentially a Chuck Schuldiner solo album with Chris Reifert on drums (more from him later). But, oh what an album it is! Just as it’s hard to go back to plain soda after you’ve had a Jack n’ Coke, it’s hard to go back to thrash after getting bashed in by this album.

Nihilist – “Supposed to Rot” (from Premature Autopsy, 1988)

Meanwhile in Sweden. It’s incredible to consider how important the tape-trading scene was in the 1980s, along with all the parallels among the various scenes. Sweden, much like Britain and the US, had a thriving punk and hardcore scene, but no thrash bands really caught fire there. So much of its underground was seeded by metal fans congregating at Anti-Cimex and Mob 47 shows and then starting the death metal scene almost out of nowhere (well, a lot of it involved drinking cheap beer in train stations while blasting Slayer). The culmination of those early years was the great Nihilist, who would later change their name to Entombed (which was partially a passive aggressive way to fire their bass player, who would go on to form Unleashed).

Atheist – “On They Slay” (from Beyond, 1988)

Even on this demo, Sarasota, Florida’s Atheist is at a level of technicality far beyond their contemporaries. This includes the phenomenal bass playing from Roger Patterson, an element of the music that often goes unrecognized in death metal. This was before being technical meant smashing as many notes as possible to show just how good you were at your instrument. In this case, the technicality serves to bolster the ferocity and chaos evoked by the music.

Obituary – “Suffocation” (from Slowly We Rot, 1989)

Was 1989 the best year for death metal ever? Although 1991 definitely comes close, the end of the 80s saw a spree of critical releases, including this one. I initially found this album in a used-CD bin at a video game store in early 2005, and immediately thought…“why on Earth did that idiot sell off this album???” I pick “Suffocation” because it’s just a great example of John Tardy’s absurd vocals: “Roootting beneeeeeaath, beloooooowwwwwwww!!!!”

Bolt Thrower – “Eternal War” (from Realm of Chaos, 1989)

For whatever reason, Bolt Thrower’s groundbreaking 1988 release, In Battle There is no Law, isn’t on Spotify. But that’s ok, they still have another bonafide classic in 1989’s Realm of Chaos. This of course features the immediately recognizable artwork from Games Workshop, which syncs up nicely with Bolt Thrower’s lyrics inspired by Warhammer 40,000.

Carcass – “Exhume to Consume” (from Symphonies of Sickness, 1989)

The story of Carcass is bound up with the history of both death metal and grindcore. But on this album, their second, the band (Bill) steered very much away from the gurling bash-fest of their debut and introduced more dynamics into their sound. A lot of retrospectives and fan discussions revolve around later albums like Necroticism and Heartwork, but my favorite release remains this gem. You can’t top a song like “Exhume to Consume.”

Autopsy – “Service for a Vacant Coffin” (from Severed Survival, 1989)

Told you we’d be getting back to Chris Reifert. This album is a clear antecedent to the various doom-laden variants that would emerge in bands like Incantation, Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride, Disembowlment and all the rest. Yes, the core of Seven Churches and Scream Bloody Gore remains intact here, but there’s a lot more going on with those slow sections and the low-end of the guitar. Darker and heavier times were definitely in store.

– J Andrew

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