Was 1991 the greatest year in death metal history? Before we can answer that, we’d have to rewind the clock back to 1990!
Let’s face it, 1990 was a damn good year for death metal, the fledgling scene hacking up classics such as Deicide’s self-titled debut, Obituary’s stunning Cause of Death, Carnage’s Dark Recollections, Entombed’s groundbreaking Left Hand Path and Death’s first steps to death metal nirvana in the shape of Spiritual Healing amongst many others.
It was going to be a hell of a year to beat.
And then 1991 rolled around and kicked everyone in the ass, with scene leaders adapting and transforming the very fabric of death metal in an attempt to one-up the previous years achievements. The result was a glut of material that shook the foundations of death metal and culminated in the greatest year the genre has ever witnessed.
So, here’s Worship Metal’s guide to 30 incredible death metal albums that turned 30 years of age in 2021 (presented in no particular order)….
Massacre – From Beyond [USA]
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!
Darkthrone – Soulside Journey [Norway]
Often forgotten in favour of Darkthrone’s lo-fi black metal classics, Soulside Journey was their accomplished death metal debut that featured highly complex and technical compositions….certainly not something you’d expect from a band with Darkthrone’s reputation!
But, back in 1991 things were very different and Darkthrone had unleashed a mandatory Scandinavian death metal release; grim, cold, dank and rippling with a dark, almost alienating, atmosphere. In essence, this was the same Darkthrone sound that evolved (or devolved) into A Blaze Under A Northern Sky etc but built on a Scandinavian death metal framework.
“Cromlech” is still the go-to track, a formidable opener that deftly incorporated synths in a manner only truly rivalled by Florida’s Nocturnus, and they ably back up the tremolo riffs that run rampant throughout this anomaly in Darkthrone’s back catalogue
Malevolent Creation – The Ten Commandments [USA]
A perfectly executed balancing act between thrash and death, The Ten Commandments remains a transitional milestone and one as instrumental in bridging the thrash/death divide as Pestilence’s Consuming Impulse and Sepultura’s Beneath The Remains. Malevolent Creation may have evolved into an even more potent death metal machine in the preceding years but this outstanding debut arguably remains their finest moment; feral, unpredictable and fearless.
With no jazz influences, no classical interludes and no experimental or technical showboating, The Ten Commandments simply let rip with ten tracks of direct and clinically efficient hammering and herein lay the key to The Ten Commandments‘ success; consistent songwriting.
Carried over from thrash’s heyday – with Malevolent Creation distancing themselves from death metal’s penchant for blasting away just for the sake of it – catchy choruses were paramount (check out “Thou Shall Kill”), groove initiated and confidence in ‘their’ sound flowed with abundance, a band content to let the quality of the songwriting speak for itself
Convulse – World Without God [Finland]
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.
Pestilence – Testimony of the Ancients [Netherlands]
Over the years, 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 death metal and when they followed up their masterpiece, Consuming Impulse, with one of the most forward-thinking albums of the period in Testimony Of The Ancients, Pestilence’s standing as cult heroes was firmly set in stone.
Distancing itself from the norm, Testimony Of The Ancients took the standard approach of 8 full-length tracks (notably, 8 progressive death metal epics) and interjected succinct and atmospheric instrumental interludes, one-by-one alternating power and grace to achieve a formidable and other-worldly aura.
Because of this, Testimony Of The Ancients remains one of the most unique records in death metal’s illustrious history; experimental song structures jostling with obligatory neck-wreckers culminating in an absolutely perfect rendition of all that death metal can be when boundaries are unceremoniously broken.
Dismember – Like An Everflowing Stream [Sweden]
Alongside Entombed’s Left Hand Path, Dismember’s Like An Everflowing Stream is one of the most crucial documents of the pioneering Swedish death metal scene. Establishing a format and sound that’s still retro-fitted by a legion of bands to this very day, Like An Everflowing Stream is 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? Probably.
Bolt Thrower – War Master [UK]
War Master was Bolt Thrower’s first pure death metal release (any evidence of grindcore now jettisoned) and a bone-fide death metal classic was born. While the UK may not have been as prolific as the U.S in the death metal stakes, 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.
Death – Human [USA]
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!
Entombed – Clandestine [Sweden]
Following up Left Hand Path – a benchmark Swedish death metal release – was never going to be an easy task but Entombed’s sophomore release was arguably heavier and more polished than their own genre-defining debut. Retaining the crunch and aggression already expected of them, the result was another death metal milestone and one that tuned out to be an absolute riff monster!
With riffing as immensely catchy as it was relentless, Entombed’s carnal rock fusion indicated that death ‘n’ roll was coming but, at this stage, Clandestine was resolutely death metal in nature.
The guitars dominated and with that god-like tone, Entombed’s thrashy/groovy distillation of death metal’s core ingredients offered up a variety of sound that has ensured Clandestine‘s place at the very peak of Swedish death metal’s hierarchy.
Autopsy – Mental Funeral [USA]
The thickest, most putrid sound of death imaginable was at the very core of Autopsy’s death/doom masterpiece, the incomprehensibly evil sounding Mental Funeral. Wallowing in the kind of muddy riffs that submerge the senses, Mental Funeral 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 (check out “Robbing The Grave” from the 21 minute mark) but the impact was greater due to the lumbering doom riffs that often preceded these 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!