Death metal, the bastard son of thrash is the marmite of metal sub-genres; for every fan who froths at the mouth like a rabid, head-banging loon another turns their nose up at death metal’s guttural vocals and often incomprehensible speed.
Here at Worship Metal we frickin’ love death metal; from it’s early, neanderthal days in the mid to late 80’s to its current, tech-obsessed incarnation. Frankly, it’s all good and it all slams harder than a pickaxe to the nutsack.
So we got to thinking, there’s so many ridiculously great death metal albums out there, could we definitively choose the 15 Greatest Death Metal albums of all time?
The answer, after many Jack Daniels, a few arguments and a lot of whirlwind head-banging was yes, yes we bloody could!
And here they are….
15. Malevolent Creation – Retribution (1992)
A stone-cold classic from Death Metal’s early days, Retribution is the greatest record Malevolent Creation lent their name to and is a searing blast of hellish speed and aggression.
Thrash’s influence still looms large with Rob Barrett and Phil Fasciana’s riffs echoing Slayer and Kreator at their most scathing while still pushing Death Metal forward into unchartered territory and Brett Hoffman’s formidable vocals are guttural yet discernible, a positive in a genre when lyrics can be lost amidst a barrage of grunts and squeals. The production, a vast improvement on the weak sound found on their still excellent debut, adds serious muscle and clarity to a set of songs primed for ultimate impact and helps push Retribution into the elite of Death Metal albums.
As a gateway album to Death Metal’s brand of frenzied fury, Retribution is indispensable. It’s bridging of Thrash and Death providing easy access to the uninitiated and “Eve Of The Apocalypse”, “Slaughter Of Innocence” and “Mindlock” are discernible highlights, each track administering a thrashed-up, groove-laden bashing to the brain.
In the early 1990’s, Floridian Death Metal seemed to throw up a quality release every other day and while Retribution may not be technically astonishing, it is damn consistent and damn near essential to any definitive Death Metal collection.
14. Decapitated – Nihility (2002)
Thank f*ck for Decapitated!
In 2002, Death Metal was in serious need of an adrenaline shot to awake it from its self-imposed stupor and then along came Poland’s Decapitated who injected a welcome dose of groove and technical audacity, single-handedly ushering in a new era of Death Metal in the process.
Nihility oozes technicality but never at the expense of an honest-to-goodness Death Metal riff and the musicianship on display is nothing but staggering. Each track on Nihility is memorable and picking a highlight becomes relatively pointless but “Spheres Of Madness” with it’s spiky staccato riffs and ridiculously accomplished and innovative double-bass work stands out and should be enough to have you hooked to Decapitated’s brand of Metal malevolence in minutes.
In 2002, Death Metal needed Decapitated and they were man-enough to deliver an album which gave a moribund genre a swift and necessary kick up the caboose.
Soon to tour Australia with the brutal Suffocation, Decapitated and Nihility‘s importance to Death Metal should not be underestimated.
13. Gorguts – Colored Sands (2013)
You can keep all your Deathcore and pig-squealing pretensions, Canada’s Gorguts are the future of Death Metal….and the past.
Born during Death Metal’s prime, the band would progress from relatively standard, yet well performed, beginnings on their 1991 debut “Considered Dead” to a band bravely forging their own path, creating their own language and arriving at a destination known only to them; we’re just lucky to be along for the ride.
Gorguts and band mastermind Luc Lemay have always spoken in a virtually unrecognisable musical dialect, one that is unencumbered by tradition and completely transcendent in it’s chaotically dissonant complexity.
Most revealing is ‘The Battle of Chamdo” a completely orchestral piece which sounds ill-fitting but adds yet another dimension to the albums avant-garde approach .
Colored Sands (along with 1998’s Obscura and 2001’s From Wisdom To Hate) toys with Death Metal’s building blocks, reshaping them amidst discordant guitar leads and harmonic wails while other, equally foreign, atonal noises push and shove against changing tempos and whiplash-inducing time signatures.
Completely mystifying and utterly essential.
12. Obituary – Cause Of Death (1990)
As opposed to playing at lightning speed, Obituary were one of the few bands to slow down and still maintain Death Metal’s recognisable ferocity.
John Tardy’s vocals dominate as he belches, growls and summons a legion of sounds from his larynx to provide Obituary with their most unique feature. Not that the music on this old-school epic is anything but punishing, the arrival of guitar-legend James Murphy (for this one release only) perpetrated its own rewards as the band launch into a series of slowly decaying anthems.
“Chopped In Half” and “Find The Arise” bring the speed and “Dying” and the title-track often slow to a zombified crawl, the perfect juxtaposition of Obituary’s sound; one which embraces no light and a whole lot of shade.
Completely devoid of hope, Cause Of Death is a hauntingly bleak record which retains it’s ability to appall and enthral in equal measure.
11. Pestilence – Testimony Of The Ancients (1991)
Pestilence may have dallied with Thrash (1989’s Malleus Maleficarum) and cavorted with Progressive Jazz-Fusion (1993’s Spheres) but their spiritual home has always been in Death Metal. When they followed up their Death masterpiece “Consuming Impulse” with one of the most forward-thinking albums of the period in Testimony Of The Ancients, their standing as cult heroes was firmly set in stone.
Alternating between ethereal instrumentals and Progressive Death Metal epics, Testimony Of The Ancients is still one of the most unique records in Death Metal’s illustrious history.
Experimental song structures jostle with obligatory neck-wreckers and the whole package is an absolutely perfect rendition of all that Death Metal can be when boundaries are broken.
The 1-2-3 of “Soulless”, with it’s flamenco (!) guitars, “Presence Of The Dead” in all its progressive fury and the futuristic dissonance of “Mindwarp” signal the true innovation on display.
In 1991, these Dutch mavericks were utterly fearless and with such bold artistic innovation at work it’s no surprise that Testimony Of The Ancients lives on as a definitive record.
10. Immolation – Close To a World Below (2000)
Immolation have never released a sub-standard album and any one of their 9 releases is fit to grace this article but it’s Close To A World Below that truly ranks as definitive and is an undisputed modern classic.
Suffocating and dense, Immolation are utterly remorseless in their sonic battery, each track ushering in a renewed assault that utilises dissonance and blatently bewildering guitar techniques to conceal fiendish rhythms and colossal grooves.
“Father, You’re Not A Father” is a highlight, a controversial vindication of Christianity’s ideology and a black-hearted blast of fearless freedom of speech; a very apt notion in 2015.
One of the most relentlessly exhausting Death Metal albums ever released, its rewards are too numerous to mention but if intelligent Death Metal, performed by masters of their craft, piques your interest then consider Close To A World Below a definitive purchase.
9. Incantation – Onward to Golgotha (1992)
Dark, evil and deliciously demonic, Incantation’s debut was the sound of descending into the wretched bowels of hell made flesh; unrelenting, extreme and as disturbing as a pit full of contorted, flesh-stripped bodies.
Just a cursory glance at the song titles unveils the bands intentions: “Blasphemous Cremation”, “Rotting Spiritual Embodiment,” “Christening the Afterbirth”. Revelling in sludgy, misanthropic malice, Onward To Golgotha is a masterpiece of doomy, dirge-ridden disease and should go down in history as one of the dirtiest sounding Death Metal records to be released.
If Incantation’s modus operandi was to disturb and disgust then they should consider themselves 100% effective. In the annals of Death Metal few can live up to this sick blast of grandiose extremity and in a genre where it can be notoriously difficult to stand out from the pack, Incantation’s diabolical debut elevated them to the upper echelons of the scene
8. Nocturnus – The Key (1990)
When Mike Browning was unceremoniously set adrift from an early-era Morbid Angel his answer was to return with a band whose identity was just as unique as the more famous band he’d originally helped engineer.
Nocturnus released their debut in 1990 and while most Death Metal bands of that era peered down into the bowels of hell for inspiration, Nocturnus looked to the skies and conjured a sci-fi masterpiece of Progressive Death Metal which possibly gleamed with space-age shine and technical efficiency.
Not only were Nocturnus a rarity in having a Drummer as a Vocalist they also pioneered the use of Keyboards in Death Metal, a brave move but one that immeasurably adds to the otherworldly atmosphere and originality of this most obscure Death Metal release.
“Visions From Beyond The Grave” best conveys the bands unique approach, a song which masterfully incorporates keyboards amidst its barrage of blastbeasts. Only Pestilence on their “Spheres” album can rival the ingenious, cosmic and hallucinogenic nature of this Death Metal classic.
7. Deicide – Deicide
Deicide’s debut is a true classic of the genre, completely devoid of mercy and intent on bludgeoning its blasphemous rhetoric over your head until you submit…it’s f*ckin’ brilliant in other words.
With a terrifyingly tight approach to Satanic slaughter, Deicide unleashed insane blastbeats, demonic growls, howls, screeches and barks and riffs that were creative, coruscating and as fiery as Hell itself.
Classic follows classic as “Lunatic Of God’s Creation”, “Sacrificial Suicide” and “Dead By Dawn” blur into a swirling vortex of noise and religion-despising diatribes. The bands commitment to causing offence completely believable and generally disturbing as vocalist Glen Benton channels demonic possession to the point of lascivious lunacy.
Deicide would go on to release many more fine albums (Legion, Once Upon The Cross, The Stench Of Redemption), but none would be quite as epochal as their debut.
6. Entombed – Left Hand Path (1990)
Entombed may have only been in their late teens when they released this seminal work but their youth was no reflection on the game-changing, buzzsaw noise that erupted from their fetid, putrid pool of groove and gore.
Brandishing a guitar-tone that sounded like a chainsaw cutting a swathe through decaying corpses, Entombed shouldered the burden of channeling Sweden’s endless pool of creativity and created an instant classic at the first attempt.
While the influence of Anarcho-Punk pioneers Discharge can clearly be heard, this was an album that entered the new decade with nothing but nihilism and a new dawn on its mind.
D-Beat repetition may have been an inspiration but Entombed were much more than just mere plagiarists. Each track on Left Hand Path takes on a deathly life of its own, from the thrashing belligerence of ‘Revel In Flesh’, to the glorious grooves of ‘When Life Has Ceased’ and on to the Satan-summoning “Premature Autopsy” in an exhilarating and enthralling 45 minutes.
The albums piece de resistance though is the eponymous, opening track itself, an epic masterpiece which should be heralded as one of Death Metal’s most breathtaking songs.
It’s not often that a band can harness the entire power of their sound on the opening song of their debut album, Black Sabbath are one of the few to manage it, and “Left Hand Path” is the Death Metal equivalent of that Metal milestone.
Left Hand Path is a legendary release from a band who steamrolled the gates of hell on their own path to infamy; definitive in every sense of the word.
5. Suffocation – Pierced From Within (1995)
Suffocation have long been revered as brutal Tech-Death Kings and Pierced From Within is their definitive work. Very much in the same open vein as their classic debut Effigy Of The Forgotten and sophomore effort Breeding The Spawn, the band upped the ante on this, their most intricate and accomplished collection of crushing compositions.
Frank Mullen’s dense and guttural growl is as formidable as ever, clear enunciation and inhuman delivery providing a bruising experience while the band embrace song structures that ebb and flow through time changes, doom-passages and eerily-clean guitar intros (“Torn Into Enthrallment” & their re-working of their own “Breeding The Spawn” particularly showcasing the bands ability to meld beauty with brutality).
A masterpiece of 90’s Technical Death Metal, Suffocation reinvented what it meant to be heavy on Pierced From Within and their influence can still be felt in today’s deathly landscape.
4. Necrophagia – Season Of The Dead (1987)
A truly overlooked classic and a monumental moment in Death Metal’s infancy, Season Of The Dead is a pioneering record that took a Proto-Death approach to extreme music, one masterminded by scene legend and vocalist Killjoy.
With an emphasis on atmosphere over speed and technical prowess, Season Of The Dead is a Slasher film set to music, relentlessly evil and thrillingly effective.
Surprisingly melody, not a generic term used to describe Death Metal, plays an important part with the riffs often adopting a mid-paced chug as opposed to all-out attack. That’s not to say that Necrophagia don’t know how to quicken the pace, moments on “Mental Decay” combine the two styles perfectly while “Abomination” is a thrashy slice of morbid malevolence.
Season Of The Dead is a unique, splatter-saturated ode to Horror and stands bloodied and proud as a defining moment in the evolution of Death Metal; Necrophagia may have gone on to perfect their sound on 1998’s terrifying Holocausto de la Morte but Season Of The Dead is the pinnacle of their achievements.
3. Possessed – Seven Churches (1985)
Strictly speaking, Seven Churches pre-dates Death Metal and subsequently takes the majority of its influences from established genres of the era, notably Speed and Thrash Metal, but without it Death Metal may never have taken form and must be considered a definitive release in the history of Death Metal.
Released 2 years prior to Death’s Scream Bloody Gore debut, Possessed took a cut and paste approach to their music by incorporating the viciousness of Venom, the speed of Motörhead and the thrashing, atonal guitars of early Exodus and Slayer, eventually stumbling upon an innovative and primitive sound which allied Thrash and Death like no one else before them.
“The Exorcist”, “Burning In Hell” and “Seven Churches” are held together by Jeff Beccara’s unholy roar, simultaneously aping Lemmy from Motörhead yet producing a guttural tone that would go on to be the bread and butter of Death Metal.
Possessed take the honour of inventing Death Metal on their debut album, this is constantly up for debate but we’re standing by it; no Seven Churches, no Death Metal.
Oh, and the last track on the album is called “Death Metal”, that’s probably quite prescient!
2. Death – Human (1991)
Chuck Sculdiner changed the landscape he originally helped to mould when Death released Human in 1991.
Out went the gore and in came the intelligence, Chuck dismissing the lump-headed violence of old and embraced an introspective, humanistic approach. Backed up by a formidable Death Metal Supergroup with Chuck’s revolving door of peerless musicians providing ever astonishing results, Guitarist Paul Masvidal (Cynic), Bassist Steve DiGiorgio (Sadus, Autopsy, Testament, Iced Earth) and Drummer Sean Reinhart (Cynic) changed the face of Death Metal overnight and Technical, Progressive Death Metal was born.
The flawless freedom of expression on display floored their peers with “Flattening Of Emotions”, “Lack Of Comprehension” and “Vacant Planets” particularly showcasing the diversity each band member bought to the table. Flurries of frenzied Riffs and intricate Bass and Drum work compete with Jazz-Fusion passages of improvisation while the backbone of Death Metal remains; these are songs you can philosophise over while head-banging.
It has to be said, Leprosy was originally to be included for it’s bludgeoning contribution to the scene but this is a Definitive List and if you’re only going to hear one Death album it needs to be Human; Death were arguably never better.
1. Morbid Angel – Altars of Madness (1989)
Altars Of Madness is the pinnacle of Death and one of the finest extreme albums ever conceived.
Chuck and Death may have popularised the genre but Morbid Angel chrystalised it, gave it a complete and recognisable identity and produced one of the greatest albums in Metal history in the process.
How songs with this much groove could be performed in such a non-standard manner still blows minds.
Here were unconventional musicians, unafraid, challenging preconceptions and embracing the extreme and yet somehow composing music that invites rather than repels; each track lingers long in the mind and although “Immortal Rites”, “Visions From The Dark Side” and “Evil Spells” are highlights, the entire album is utterly indispensable.
Altars of Madness captured the souls of millions of newly-converted Death Metal fanatics and the flood gates were well and truly open; Death Metal had arrived.
Honourable Mention: One Death Metal legend is noticeably absent; Paul Speckmann (Death Strike, Master, Abomination, Speckmann Project, Krabathor). Responsible for some of the earliest and most groundbreaking examples of Death Metal with Death Strike and Master, his influence on the genre is incalculable but his recorded output, spread over so many releases, remains somewhat patchy; hence no inclusion here.