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UK Death Metal: The 10 Greatest Old-School Albums

As a general rule, the UK’s contribution to death metal gets glossed over in favour of the output of our American cousins (who’s contribution, to be fair, was revolutionary) but to overlook the UK’s considerable input would be foolish, at worst, it’s bloody sacrilege.

So, we’ve cast our eye back to a time when old-school UK death metal was producing some truly outstanding releases but take note, we’re talking old school here, so strictly early to mid 1990’s only…. in other words, don’t go crying your self to sleep on your snot-stained pillow just because Bolt Thrower‘s 2005 classic Those Once Loyal isn’t included!

Presented in order of release as opposed to any kind of ranking….

Napalm Death – Harmony Corruption (1990)

Napalm Death – Harmony Corruption (Vinyl) - Discogs

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!

Benediction – The Grand Leveller (1991)

Benediction – The Grand Leveller (Red/Aqua Blue Swirl, Vinyl) - Discogs

Back in the early 90’s, the underground had already woken up to Benediction’s brutal output – the release of debut album Subconscious Terror took care of that – but it was only when Dave Ingram took the place of the Napalm Death bound Barney Greenway that Benediction moved swiftly up the ranks. Benediction had found their man and an iron-lunged performance from one of the busiest men in modern death metal ironically elevated The Grand Leveller onto the same playing field as the likes of Obituary and Scream Bloody Gore era Death.

Channeling ominous mid-paced groove, manic tremolo riffing and Slayer-esque dynamics, Benediction stood out from an already overcrowded scene with their dark and twisted amalgamation of the work pioneered by their US counterparts and the boundary-shattering, extreme metal experiments associated with SacrilegeCarcass and the aforementioned Napalm Death. The UK finally had a death metal band who could deliver the kind of chugging riffs and satisfying crunch to rival their transatlantic cousins and The Grand Leveller remains an apocalyptically heavy and oppressive excursion into pure evil.

While The Grand Leveller may not offer too much in the way of variety, what it continues to do is bludgeon the listener with an endless cycle of explicit violence. Dave Ingram’s vocals are as shockingly abrasive as ever and the torrent of head-bang inducing riffs conjured by Darren Brookes and Peter Rew still sound classic in construct but fresh and vital nonetheless.

Bolt Thrower – War Master (1991)

Bolt Thrower – War Master (2014, White/Red/Silver Splatter, Vinyl) - Discogs

Let’s face it, you could take your pick from any one of Bolt Thrower‘s 5 albums released between 1988 and 1994 (In Battle There Is No Law!, Realm of Chaos (Slaves to Darkness), War Master, The IVth Crusade and …for Victory) and all would sit proudly here. As it turns out, we’ve settled on 1991’s War MasterBolt Thrower’s first pure death metal release – any evidence of grindcore now all but jettisoned entirely – and a bone-fide death metal classic was born.

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!

Cancer – Death Shall Rise (1991)

Cancer – Death Shall Rise (1991, Vinyl) - Discogs

Aside from Bolt Thrower and Carcass, the UK’s death metal contribution was never particularly lauded and yet the likes of Cancer – and particularly their sophomore album, Death Shall Rise – were equal to anything arriving from the States and showcased a band whose firm grasp on death-thrash was second to none. 

It can’t be a coincidence that the arrival of ex-Obituary / ex-Death guitarist James Murphy saw Cancer taking huge strides forward from their rough and ready debut with opener “Hung, Drawn and Quartered” instantly heralding itself as an all time classic.

Roping in Deicide‘s Glen Benton also lent them a certain cache but Cancer weren’t really in need of special guests to get their point across; the frenzied thrashing of “Burning Casket” and the no-nonsense onslaught of “Corpse Fire” was convincing enough alone! 

The epitome of a cult classic. 

Carcass – Necroticism – Descanting The Insalubriuos (1991)

Carcass – Necroticism - Descanting The Insalubrious (CD) - Discogs

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 Walkers instantly recognisable growls culminating in an extreme metal masterpiece.

UK death metal perfection? Not far from it!

Desecrator – Subconscious Release (1991)

Desecrator – Subconscious Release (2011, CD) - Discogs

Dan Seagrave cover art, a raw and aggressive sound, technicality matched by brutality; Desecrator’s Subconscious Release should have been huge! Instead, this cult item is merely a footnote in death metal history but it deserves to be held in considerable high regard for delivering a focused lesson in classic death metal violence.

Following a similar path travelled by Death (Leprosy-era) and Sweden’s DismemberDesecrator’s groove heavy onslaught revelled in muscular, lengthy and, above all, catchy songwriting. While a slight sense of repetition sneaks in when absorbing Subconscious Release in its entirety, the same accusation can be made of many a death metal album that bludgeoned the listener with ostensibly the same sound – Deicide being one of them – and nobody gave two shits!

Desecrator’s one and only album should have been enough to endear them to the masses as it’s an outstanding moment of UK death metal mastery; backed by a collection of expertly delivered death metal songs. Haven’t heard it? Go discover!

Impaler – Charnel Deity (1992)

Impaler – Charnel Deity (1991, CD) - Discogs

Another band with just the one full-length album to their name, Impaler’s primitive blast of down-tuned riffing was ‘just’ another album in a sea of quality death metal releases in 1992; making the fact it sunk virtually without trace not particularly surprising.

That aside, Charnel Deity had much to offer including a deathly thrash attack that was second to none, oodles of shred, demonic vokills and a penchant for short sharp songs that were over and done with way before they outstayed their welcome. Not groundbreaking but efficient, effective and ebullient nonetheless!

Charnel Deity was simply old-school brutal UK death metal done right and belongs in the collection of anyone who digs the early albums of DeathPestilence & Possessed.

Also, if the idea of hearing the main riff from Exodus’ “Impaler” ‘deathed’ up fills you with joy…then wrap your lugholes around “Total Carnage”. No one say plagiarism, right!

Necrosanct – Incarnate (1992)

Proof that the UK did have bands that could deliver the filthiest sound of purist evil imaginable, Necrosanct’s Incarnate still sounds shockingly abrasive today.

Veering dangerously close to total pandemonium, Necrosanct fashioned a death metal album that made up in violence what it lacked in finesse. Brutal, in the strongest sense of the word, and designed for those who feasted on the sounds of hell made flesh, Incarnate is possibly the most timeless album on this listas ferocious and unpredictable now as it was in 1992.

There’s something so utterly unhinged about the Martin Van Dunen (Pestilence) meets John Tardy (Obituary) vocals that sends Incarnate rushing headlong into the realms of madness. Somehow, frontman Ant Ryan managed to take the tonality of Van Drunen and the unintelligible nature of Tardy’s animalistic gurgles and vomit up something even more disturbing. The result, when layered over Necrosanct’s blurred riffing, was nothing less than hell incarnate!

Decomposed – Hope Finally Dies (1993)

Decomposed – Hope Finally Died... (1992, CD) - Discogs

Admittedly, we’re in death-doom territory here but Decomposed‘s Hope Finally Died is the most absurdly overlooked album in death-doom history, and UK metal in general, and deserves to be highlighted at every given opportunity!

Deceptively simple, the beauty of this staggering release lay not in its musicality, nor its vocal prowess or even its songwriting nous. At face value, all these facets seemed relatively generic but the true reason this savagely under-appreciated cornerstone of death-doom deserved higher praise, is down to the almost unparalleled way in which Decomposed blended the mournful melancholy of doom with the caustic and cathartic blur of death metal aggression; each song unearthing a new spin on an already standard formula and expertly fusing sorrowful soliloquy’s with neck-breaking riffs.

Whether primitive old-school death metal savagery or shuffling excursions into doom metal’s swampy territory peels your onions, Decomposed’s one and only full length should be mandatory listening. Unearth its treasures and discover why Hope Finally Died… is not only a hidden gem but also a defining moment in UK death-doom metal history!

Dark Heresy – Abstract Principles Taken to Their Logical Extremes (1995)

Dark Heresy – Abstract Principles Taken To Their Logical Extremes (2018,  Vinyl) - Discogs

Like the death metal version of UK thrashers Sabbat, these anti-Christian pagans were a complete anomaly in their respective genre but, sadly, Dark Heresy’s lasting legacy boils down to just this one album.

But, what an album it is! With concepts as complex as their compositions, these avant-garde, progressive death metallers seemed to throw every single idea into the mix, culminating in a bewildering experience that managed to be both beautiful and brutal in the same breath.

Basically, Dark Heresy sounded like an unholy union between Carcass and Testimony Of The Ancients-era Pestilence (by way of The Mahavishnu Orchestra!), their approach to songwriting proving difficult to pin down but proving utterly unique nonetheless.

About Chris Jennings (1985 Articles)
I love metal. Always have. Always will. As editor of Worship Metal - a site dedicated to being as positive about metal and its myriad of sub-genres as possible - my aim is to 'worship' metal through honest reviews, current news and a wide variety of features; offering the same exposure to underground bands as we do to mainstream/well known acts. Our mantra; the bands are partners and we exist to serve the bands \m/

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