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.
Presented in no particular order…..
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
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!
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. The band 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.