Simple list: these are 25 old-school death metal albums that we could not live without!
Presented in order of year of release as opposed to any kind of favouritism……
Death – Leprosy (1988)
Emerging at a time when death metal was still barely in nappies, Leprosy was the next logical step after the neanderthal bludgeoning of Scream Bloody Gore had laid waste to thrash back in 1987.
Notably progressive when compared to Death‘s solid debut, the late, great, Chuck Schuldiner upped the ante in every department on this sophomore effort and with a vast improvement in songwriting, Death were already leaving their peers in the dust.
Leprosy‘s 8 tracks of sublime brutality arguably defined the genre before it had even begun and is, quite simply, an album whose importance to death metal cannot ever be underestimated.
Autopsy – Severed Survival (1989)
The thickest, most putrid sound of death imaginable was at the very core of Autopsy’s debut masterpiece, the incomprehensibly evil sounding Severed Survival.
Wallowing in the kind of muddy riffs that submerge the senses, Severed Survival bucked the prevailing death metal trends of playing faster and playing harder and instead upped the brutality by slowing….things….right….down.
In turn, Autopsy did hit harder, announcing themselves as the go-to death metal band for those who sought variation to go along with their gore. There was still speed when speed was required of course,but the impact was greater due to the lumbering riffs that often preceded furious bursts of noise.
When death metal was at it’s freshest and during it’s most enticing and exciting period, Autopsy dragged the genre back down in the gutter, to writhe in the decaying mass of human existence. Which is exactly where it belonged!
Morbid Angel – Altars of Madness (1989)
Altars Of Madness is arguably the pinnacle of death metal 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……and we can’t live without it!
Pestilence – Consuming Impulse (1989)
Pestilence‘s debut was a thrash album in essence but their sophomore album, Consuming Impulse, was a death metal album through and through….and it proved to be a key moment in death metal’s rampaging evolution.
Raw, honest, powerful and confident, Pestilence fashioned a collection of exemplary death metal songs built on a solid foundation of inventive riffs, atonal solos and Martin VanDrunen’s recognisably unhinged howls.
Songs such as “Dehydrated”, “Suspended Animation” and “Out of the Body” have become part of the death metal lexicon and while Pestilence were already exhibiting much of the technicality that would go on to inform their later efforts, Consuming Impulse was still very much focused on delivering the heaviest, most brutal death metal around.
Consuming Impulse was simply Pestilence at their most ferocious and has gone down in history as a classic of the genre. Not a bad way to end the decade!
Napalm Death – Harmony Corruption (1990)
Take a trip to Morrisound Recording studios and this is what you get….pure early 90’s death metal genius from a band who’d already revolutionised grindcore with their 2 previous releases!
Napalm Death’s Mentally Murdered EP had already indicated a change was coming but few could have predicted Napalm’s wholesale embrace of death metal. Roping in soon to be scene legends John Tardy (Obituary) and Glen Benton (Deicide) made it pretty clear that death was the order of the day and their contribution to “Unfit Earth” signalled a union between giants of the genre.
In purely death metal terms, the band would never fully capture again such a dense wall of death and while Harmony Corruption could be accused of being a meat ‘n’ potatoes kind of release (especially when compared to the majority of Napalm Death’s back catalogue), that would be missing the point.
This was death metal in 1990!
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 unique death metal release.
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 dominated as he belched, growled and summoned a legion of agonised 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 launched 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.
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 very 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 so 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.
Atheist – Unquestionable Presence (1991)
The finest progressive death metal album ever conceived? We certainly think so and with Unquestionable Presence, Atheist transformed the death metal landscape in a blitzkrieg of technical bass lines, dissonant and warped riffs unaccustomed to generic structure and an almost improvised feel to Steve Flynn’s commanding drumming.
Led by Kelly Schaefer’s rasp-inflected growl, the primitive nature of death metal was dissolved overnight within a framework of challenging lyricism and even more challenging musicianship. Structured chaos reigned as thrash, death, jazz, fusion and prog rock collided in an esoteric force of will, fuelled by integrity, vision and an unwavering commitment to forge forward into new terrain. While Atheists’ debut, Piece Of Time, had turned heads, Unquestionable Presence blew minds.
Unquestionable Presence remains a landmark record in the history of death metal and it’s more than a little unnerving to think that this pioneering piece of artistry came from the minds of 4 human beings.
Unquestionably unmatched, unparalleled and utterly unique.
Bolt Thrower – War Master (1991)
Bolt Thrower, oh how we miss you!
Let’s face it you could take your pick from their first 4 groundbreaking albums and all would sit proudly here. As it turns out, we’ve settled on 1991’s War Master, Bolt Thrower’s first pure death metal release (any evidence of grindcore now jettisoned) and a bone-fide death metal classic.
The UK may not have been as prolific as the U.S in the death metal stakes but we did produce arguably its greatest band – the mighty and magnificent Bolt Thrower – and War Master signalled a band who were ready to take on the big guns of the scene.
Karl Willets vocals were deadly yet distinctive – a voice that would become one of the most recognisable in death metal – while the band outclassed themselves with a more considered approach to their deathly bludgeoning. Slowing down and embracing a keener ear for melody, the likes of “Cenotaph” and “What Dwells Within” were juggernauts, smashing and crashing their way into your head-space with glimpses of thrash and doom hidden within their DNA.
Self determination, defiance, bloody-knuckled hard-work and a DIY aesthetic summed up the UK’s finest ever proponents of death metal and that was none more apparent than on this classic release.
Masters of War!
Carcass – Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious (1991)
Dumping grindcore in favour of a (slightly) more accessible death metal sound, Carcass truly proved their mettle on Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious, culminating in their finest hour and one of the defining moments in UK death metal history.
Managing to be both a prime slab of mutilated old-school death/grind and a pioneer of tech/progressive death metal, Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious blew fans and critics away on its release in 1991 and continues to be revered as a defining moment in death metal history (UK or otherwise).
With a new guitarist in the formidable shape of Mike Amott (Arch Enemy) adding layers to their sound, Carcass as a unit were obviously improving at a formidable rate with across-the-board performances proving exemplary and arguably never bettered. Each track was a mind-blowing cacophony of tempo-changes, melodic guitar leads, brutal riffing and Jeff Walker’s instantly recognisable growls culminated in an extreme metal masterpiece for the ages.
Convulse – World Without God (1991)
One of the most brutal releases from the first wave of death metal, these Finnish nightmare-makers harnessed the dirty downtuned guitar tone made famous by Entombed, Dismember etc, added ultra guttural vocals courtesy of Rami Jämsä and unleashed an eerie, sonically vicious cult classic in the grotesque shape of World Without God!
Convulse went darker than most and saddled with a sound befitting the era, their unremittingly dense, claustrophobic tone and complete lack of subtlety adhered faithfully to death metal’s original modus operandi. Anyone with a taste for musical violence found their appetite satiated via the utter depravity and barbarity on display.
A true cult classic, World Without God may not have the reputation afforded the majority of the albums on this list but its pedigree remains undisputed.
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 embracing an introspective, humanistic approach. Backed up by a formidable death metal supergroup in its own right, Chuck and 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, alongside the influence of Atheist’s Unquestionable Presence and Pestilence’s Testimony Of The Ancients, birthed a new breed of technical, progressive death metal.
Death’s flawless freedom of expression floored the majority of 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 competed with jazz-fusion passages of improvisation while still maintaining the backbone of death metal; these were songs you could philosophise over while still head-banging to your head fell off!
Deicide – Deicide (1991)
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 fuckin’ 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”, “Dead By Dawn” and “Carnage In The Temple Of The Damned” blur into a swirling vortex of noise and religion-despising diatribes. The bands commitment to causing offence remains completely believable – and generally disturbing – as vocalist Glen Benton channels demonic possession to the point of lascivious lunacy.
Deicide would go on to release albums equally as mesmerising (Legion, Once Upon The Cross, The Stench Of Redemption), but none would be quite as epochal as their genre defining debut.
Dismember – Like An Everflowing Stream (1991)
Alongside Entombed’s Left Hand Path, Dismember’s Like An Ever Flowing Stream is one of themost crucial documents of the pioneering Swedish death metal scene; establishing a format and sound that’s still retro-fitted by a leg of bands to this very day; often replicated in a fruitless attempt to invoke the same response this primitive beast induced back in 1991.
Featuring the obligatory downtuned, ultra-distorted guitar and bass riffs – ably backed by Matti Karki’s feral barks, inhuman gurgles and animalistic roars – this is the sound of Scandinavian death metal perfected and each and every song on this all-time classic still slays, grinding its way into your sub-conscience with each serrated buzzsaw riff.
The best thing to ever come out of Sweden?
Grave – Into The Grave (1991)
Agonisingly aggressive one minute, irresistibly groovy the next, Grave have always been the (relatively) unsung heroes of Swedish death metal’s pioneering generation, despite their initial contributions easily rivalling the early works of Unleashed, Edge Of Sanity and Cemetary!
With much of Grave’s admiration falling firmly at the fetid feet of Into The Grave, it’s no surprise that it is to this outstanding debut we turn. As pure as they come and stunningly effective without being labelled ‘simple’, Into The Grave‘s ever-undulating, meaty grooves and guttural growls immediately have an impact; the sheer commitment with which they are delivered indisputable and, often, unrivalled.
“Deformed” and the title track are the acknowledged classics, ably the supplying the well crafted, blue-collar-esque, foundations on which Swedish death metal was built. Without them, this list may have turned out vastly different!
Immolation – Dawn Of Possession (1991)
The word classic gets bandied around with alarming regularity of late (and we’re as guilty as the next blog) but there’s no other way to describe a moment in extreme metal history that continues to surpass 99.9% of all death metal out there. We refer, of course, to Immolation’s awe-inspiring debut album, Dawn Of Possession. Released today this would still blow minds but as it stands, Dawn Of Possession is a time-capsule that perfectly encapsulates the experimental inventiveness of early 90’s death metal….a time when anything seemed possible and the idea of ‘heavy’ was being routinely challenged.
These New York natives were darkness incarnate and blessed (or should that be possessed) with some of the most sinister and hauntingly disharmonic riffs in the then fledgling genre. They were beyond heavy, they were the sound of demonic armageddon and their ever-threatening grooves and chromatic displays of precision riffing were the next logical step in death metal’s evolution.
Immolation may have evolved into an ever more technical wrecking machine over the years but Dawn Of Possession is home to their most vivid collection of twisted tunes.
Massacre – From Beyond (1991)
Home to ridiculously catchy riffs and harsh but decipherable death growls from Kam Lee – a vocal style he is often cited for inventing – From Beyond, Massacre’s debut, remains an underrated masterpiece overflowing with some of the greatest compositions found in the first wave of the genre.
Death metal may have progressed rapidly after From Beyond‘s release – and it does sound almost quaint compared to the extreme death and grind albums released in the preceding years – but precious few death metal albums contain songs as memorable as the ones found here.
Featuring heavily distorted guitars and the kind of demonic vocals that would make Deicide’s Glen Benton reach for a lozenge, Massacre were a death metal super-group before the term existed, with these ex-members of Death – Kam Lee (Vocals), Rick Rozz (Guitar), Terry Butler (Bass) & Bill Andrews (Drums) – summoning forth an album of diabolic intensity.
When you need a break from being assaulted by today’s overly technical material, have a listen to From Beyond and remind yourself exactly why real old-school death metal remains so thrillingly effective!
Morbid Angel – Blessed Are The Sick (1991)
Following up Altars Of Madness was always going to be tricky but Morbid Angel cast off the shackles of their genre-defining debut by further establishing themselves as one of the most weirdly unique sounding outfits to emerge from death metal’s first wave.
Morbid Angel operated without limitations, the past having no baring on their own innovation and it left them free to explore new realms. Their blackened souls were further charred via Trey Azagorath and Richard Brunelle’s inhuman riffs, David Vincent’s outstanding (and most importantly audible) vocals and Pete Sandoval’s tireless drumming invention which, when so flawlessly combined, flung the band headfirst into the abyss
With other-worldly song structures creating a singular vision, Morbid Angel’s ability to achieve true heaviness by slowing down (as opposed to many of their peers speeding up in order to reach similar peaks) led to one of the most unique collections of audible nightmares ever conceived and a collection of songs that somehow managed to invoke pure chaos while somehow remaining catchy
Suffocation – Effigy Of The Forgotten (1991)
Where the fuck did this come from?!
In 1991, Suffocation were beyond brutal, they were another beast entirely and while Effigy Of The Forgotten must have come as quite the shellshock to the uninitiated; the furious technicality on display and multiple layers that rewarded the brave with each subsequent listen bringing into question the very nature of what death metal could achieve….and how extreme it could go!
With the most brutal vocals imaginable, courtesy of Frank Mullen’s pioneering throat savagery, a monumental and groundbreaking performance from Mike Smith on drums and some of the first breakdowns heard in death metal, Effigy Of The Forgotten was a true unknown and changed the face of death metal overnight.
Technical death metal had arrived!
Cannibal Corpse – Tomb of the Mutilated (1992)
With their 3rd album, Tomb of the Mutilated, Cannibal Corpse perfectly encapsulated the grim and grisly aesthetic they’d been aiming for with, what can only be described as, the perfect semblance of over-the-top aggression (comically so) and censorship baiting artwork – unsurprisingly, they succeeded.
A balls-to-the-wall gore metal triumph, this album can only be described as a musical milestone in death metal (and metal in general) with the boundaries of obscenity and decency pushed as far as they could feasibly go! This was a band who knew exactly what they wanted to achieve and by wallowing in the eviscerated innards of unimaginable horror – while also polishing their overall sound – they achieved infamy.
Opener “Hammer Smashed Face” may have been the cataclysmic door-opener that enabled Cannibal Corpse to leap into the big leagues, but the likes of “I Cum Blood” and “Entrails Ripped From A Virgin’s C*nt” were just as brutal and equally as incendiary.
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.
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 remains 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.
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 yet again, 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.
Nile – Amongst the Catacombs of Nephren-Ka (1998)
We’re pushing it with the ‘old-school’ tag here, but fuck it, we’re sticking to our decision….
Death metal was drowning in shit creek when Nile released their astonishing debut in 1998, and a struggling scene instantly found itself revitalised and reinvigorated.
Here was a band that took the core of death metal, the blast-beats, the growls, the requisite speed and ferocity and not only reproduced it better than everyone else but also introduced influences rarely heard in the genre .
With short, carefully structured songs incorporating all manner of Egyptian themes and instruments, Nile instantly had a sound of their own. Deftly balancing guttural growls with flutes, percussion, effective chanting and an epic atmosphere that bordered on the biblical, the blasting and the Egyptian symbolism were juxtaposed perfectly.
While Nile would arguably go on to record better albums, Amongst the Catacombs of Nephren-Ka remains a pivotal release and one that further widened death metal’s often self-imposed confines.
Which death metal albums can you not live without? Pop ’em in the comments below…..