Technical death metal; the pinnacle of death metal dexterity attempted by bands obsessed with constantly challenging themselves, demanding ever more from their own skill-set and embracing complex songwriting like no genre had before. The results were extraordinary and here’s Worship Metal’s pick of the 12 greatest technical death metal albums of the early 1990’s!
We’re talking the early 90’s here people, so nothing past 1994!
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 album, The Key, in 1990 and while most death metal bands of that era peered down into the dark, dank bowels of hell for inspiration, Nocturnus looked to the skies and conjured a sci-fi masterpiece of progressively-minded, technically-adventurous death metal which positively gleamed with space-age shine and divine talent.
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 technical death metal release.
Also recommended: Mike Browning may have ditched the vocals – with Dan Izzo picking up the mic – but 1992’s Thresholds is equal to The Key in almost every way.
Atheist – Unquestionable Presence (1991)
The finest progressive/technical death metal album ever conceived? We certainly think so and with Unquestionable Presence, Atheist challenged the norm 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.
Also recommended: We’re talking about one of the most talented bands in death meal history here so Atheist’s debut, Piece in Time (1990) and third album Elements (1993) are also, obviously, essential listening!
Pestilence – Testimony Of The Ancients (1991)
You could argue that Patrick Mameli and Pestilence have been jack-of-all-trades over the years.
With 1989’s Malleus Maleficarum embracing thrash, 1993’s Spheres cavorting with progressive jazz-fusion and their masterpiece, Consuming Impulse, concentrating on ultra-efficient brutality it’s left to one of the most forward-thinking albums of the period (we’re referring to Testimony Of The Ancients, obviously) to establish Pestilence as all-time cult heroes!
Distancing itself from the norm, Testimony Of The Ancients took the standard approach of 8 full-length tracks (notably, 8 progressive / technical 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.
Also recommended: The aforementioned Spheres is mind-bogglingly effective but less death metal inclined.
Death – Human (1991)
Chuck Schuldiner changed the landscape he originally helped to mould when Death released Human in 1991.
Out went the gore and in came the intelligence, with Chuck dismissing the lump-headed violence of old (although Leprosy had already more than hinted at what was to follow) by 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) shook the foundations of death metal and, alongside the heady influence of Atheist’s Unquestionable Presence and Pestilence’s Testimony Of The Ancients, gave birth to a new breed of technically astounding, progressively-minded 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 your head clean fell off. A deadly combination!
Also recommended: 1993’s Individual Thought Patterns will also have you reassessing your life choices!
Suffocation – Effigy Of The Forgotten (1991)
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 ground-breaking 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 well and truly arrived!
Also recommended: 1993’s Breeding The Spawn upped the technicality while dialling down (just a little) the brutality.
Atrocity – Todessehnsucht (1992)
Todessehnsucht (meaning ‘Longing For Death’ if you do not sprechen sie Deutsch) was the second studio album by German tech death metallers Atrocity and it would prove to be one of the pinnacle releases of the genre!
Technical to the extreme and absurdly progressive, the Glen Benton-esque growls and barks of Alexander Krull were efficiently offset by Atrocity’s onslaught of samples, keyboard interludes, woozy song structures and Chuck Schuldiner influenced flights of progressive fancy.
Determined and distinctive, Atrocity were operating at a ridiculously high level on Todessehnsucht and their own brand of vicious yet vicarious technical death metal remains a joy to behold.
An often overlooked masterpiece!
Also recommended: Atrocity’s 1990 debut Hallucinations was a strong indication of the genius to come!
Polluted Inheritance – Ecocide (1992)
Largely forgotten and sorely underrated, Dutch death masters Polluted Inheritance arrived fully formed in 1992 with a debut album that, arguably, could stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Death’s Human!
That’s quite the statement but Ecocide is quite the album. With comprehensible growls (although, admittedly, not always great lyrics) backed up by sterling musicians navigating their way through complex, yet catchy, structures, this album is easily the equal of any album presenting itself as technical death metal in the early 90’s.
To be fair, Ecocide lacked the finesse of Chuck Schuldner’s greatest achievement but what Polluted Inheritance may have lacked in subtlety they more than made up for in brute force.
A blisteringly fast lesson in aggression, speed, progression, dynamics and fantastically crafted death metal, Ecocide may not be as well-known as many of the albums on this list…..but it’s equally as worthy!
Afflicted – Prodigal Sun (1992)
Swedish technical death metal by way of the Middle East anyone?
For reasons beknown only to them, Sweden’s Afflicted took Entombed’s blueprint and flayed it over a subtle Egyptian concept which snaked its way through Prodigal Sun‘s 47 minutes of unpredictable mayhem.
Fortunately, the results were absurdly addictive and while Afflicted remained identifiably part of the early 1990s Swedish death metal scene – the Sunlight Studio production being an immediate giveaway – their fearless attitude and technical skill clearly separated them from Entombed, Dismember, Grave etc.
So much potential, sadly unfulfilled.
Also recommended: In technical death metal terms, Prodigal Sun was ostensibly a one and you’re done scenario as 1994’s Dawn Of Glory mysteriously found the band morphing into a power metal band with, unsurprisingly, diminishing returns!
Cynic – Focus (1993)
Cynic may have emerged from the murky swamps of late 80’s Floridian death metal scene but to compare their progressively minded excursions into unexplored realms to the bludgeoning of gore-hounds Cannibal Corpse and religion-baiting Deicide, is akin to comparing caviar to rice pudding!
Wildly experimental, Cynic inadvertently followed a similar path to Holland’s Pestilence and crafted a death metal take on jazz-fusion (Focus was released just 4 months after Pestilence’s Spheres), eschewing the brutality of old-school death metal in favour of complex rhythms, moments of ambient calm and synthesised vocals to accompany the de rigueur guttural growls.
Focus was death metal but not as we knew it.
It still sounds utterly unique to this day, a sound few bands would dare to emulate in the intervening years, and this once in a lifetime convergence of such talent and tenacity leaves Focus standing tall as one of technical/progressive death metal’s finest ever moments.
Demilich – Nespithe (1993)
A true oddity and an album that sounds like no other, Demilich‘s Nespithe took the world completely by surprise when its cavernous compositions and Antti Boman’s ultra, ultra low gutturals instantly marked them out as technical death metal innovators!
The sounds that emanated from these crazy Finns were otherworldly; tentacled and slimy like a Lovecraftian nightmare made audibly flesh with bass lines and riffs slithering amongst each other without ever actually making contact. The result was an altogether alien experience that shouldn’t have worked but somehow came together to deliver one of the most unique moments in death metal history.
Surrealistic and as bewildering as it was on release, Nespithe may be the only album released by Demilich but it sure as hell left an indelible mark on the technical death metal landscape.
The finest thing to ever emerge from Finland? We certainly think so!
Cryptopsy – Blasphemy Made Flesh (1994)
None So Vile will always be Cryptopsy‘s masterpiece but, as it came out in 1996, it’s excluded from this paticular list….so you get their outstanding debut, Blasphemy Made Flesh, instead!
Already teetering on the edge of brutal death metal, Blasphemy Made Flesh instantly marked out Cryptopsy’s stall as ultra aggressive, technically gifted madman. With Lord Worm’s vocals and Flo Mounier’s drumming already tailor made to impress, this devastating double act carried much of Blasphemy Made Flesh‘s considerable weight.
A relentless barrage of inhuman noises, percussive cacophony, sinister groove and brutality incarnate awaits the uninitiated, while those in the know fully understand what a devastatingly effective and impressive debut this album was!
Oppressor – Solstice Of Oppression (1994)
Perfectly balancing brutality with technical audacity and pioneering verve, Oppressor‘s Solstice Of Oppression remains an early to mid 90’s milestone of technical death metal without ever receiving the accolades afforded to Death’s Human, Cynic’s Focus and Atheist’s Unquestionable Presence etc.
An accomplishment easily equal to all the classic albums listed above, Solstice of Oppression carved its own particular niche with ultra low gutturals, unyielding brutality and the melodic, experimental, progressive and jazzy influences expected of a 90’s progressive / technical death metal album.
Once you get over the fact that this band eventually became nu-metal chart-botherers Soil (with Oppressor’s Tim King, Tom Schofield and Adam Zadel recruiting Broken Hope’s Shaun Glass in the late 90’s), you’ll be confronted by an album which defines the very nature of 90’s tech death metal – a shining example of metal evolving at an alarming rate without forsaking its core principles!