An Introduction to Death Metal in 8 Classic Albums

If you’re a modern metal fanatic and you’re looking for acutely polished metal tunes, these picks below may seem overly raw. But I ask you to take a moment and think back to what you were doing in the early 1990s. I was attending my first year of elementary school, lucky enough to care about music to the point where I could jam “Rockin’ Robin” from a children’s sing-along cassette tape. Keeping in mind the recording technology available at the time—and, for that matter, the disdain and animosity most of the public had toward extreme metalheads—it’s amazing that these punishing sounds were able to be recorded to begin with.

There are elders out there to this very day still making crushing records, but learning about where all of this originates is a crucial part of the metal repertoire every fan should know. With all of these bands, you’ll hear the evolution from thrash metal—adding ever-faster and more technical playing, screaming harder and lower, pushing the envelope not just musically but lyrically as well, by including elements of gore and horror movies. These albums of yesteryear have influenced many of the modern death metal artists in today’s scene, heard in the output of bands like Artificial Brain, Decapitated, Defeated Sanity, Hour of Penance, Revocation, Rivers of Nihil, and Wormed.

Gorguts - Obscura
Gorguts, Obscura

Canada’s Gorguts are one the most important pioneers of technical death metal (also called dissonant death metal). The dizzying time signatures, the incredibly hard-to-decipher chord shapes, the darkened tones of the guitars, the barrage of flurries from the drums—it resonates as a mix of contemporary classical composers like György Ligeti and even jazz greats like Charles Mingus, yet stays drenched in the heaviness of death metal’s aggression.

Obscura in particular, which features the late Steeve Hurdle, was the start of something that still has an impact on the current death metal scene some 20 years later. It’s safe to say if you come across early Gorguts on any type of medium, especially vinyl, you’ve landed a piece of death metal history.

Gorguts - "The Art of Sombre Ecstasy"
Suffocation - Breeding the Spawn
Suffocation, Breeding the Spawn

Suffocation has been on an unrelenting streak of creating some of the grooviest death metal that has ever come to be. Breeding the Spawn showcases a level of ferocity that Suffocation still exerts 25 years later. Much like the other artists we’re talking about today, Suffocation has managed to create a very recognizable sound within death metal by lacing tracks with groove-oriented elements that push slower tempos. One of the most notable traits of the band is Frank Mullen’s incredibly discernable lyrical death growls.

Of all of the groups mentioned here, Frank has a firm solution to a persistent criticism of metal from non-metal listeners: “I can’t understand what they’re saying.” Frank’s noticeable Long Island accent screams through the reverb-soaked guttural vocals, and he lends such incredible personality to the delivery of his lyrics. It’s also important to note that former drummer Mike Smith is also credited as a pioneer of his own style of blast beat on this 25-year-old record, proclaimed as the “Suffo-Blast.”

Cryptopsy - None So Vile
Cryptopsy, None So Vile

I’m listening to None So Vile as I type and I still can’t believe how insane the musicianship is on this—not to mention the aggressiveness—on an album that’s 22 years old. Flo Mounier’s drumming on this album is something to marvel at, with an almost jazz-fusion-meets-thrash-metal feel to it. Oh, and it’s fast technical death metal, which is a whole other ballpark for metal in the ‘90s.

As a Canadian group, it’s safe to say that being from up north like their dissonant cousins in Gorguts had an influence on their very different take on death metal. This album features a rather unorthodox approach to an already unorthodox style of screaming/singing: a mumble of sorts from legendary frontman, Lord Worm. While it’s almost impossible to understand what’s being said, it still lends to the aggressiveness that makes Cryptopsy one of the most important bands in the technical death metal genre.

Cryptopsy - "Crown of Horns"
Death - Symbolic
Death, Symbolic

The year is 1995, and Death has officially mastered the art of mixing progressive music with melodic death/thrash metal with Symbolic. Death put out five albums prior to Symbolic—and their debut Scream Bloody Gore is seen by many as the first true death metal album—but Symbolic stands out to me as the album that created the real pathway of influence for today’s brightest metal artists. Death was famously led by the late great singer and guitarist Chuck Schuldiner but also included, at various times, Paul Masvidal of Cynic, Andy LaRocque of King Diamond, the late Ralph Santolla, James Murphy, Sean Reinert, Steve Di Giorgio, and Richard Christy.

Symbolic is the last album to feature drumming wizard Gene Hoglan, who’d go on to play drums on a countless amount of records, ranging from Devin Townsend (as well as Strapping Young Lad), to Dark Angel, Dethklok, Testament, and Fear Factory. Where this album goes that really reaches its furthest depths is the cohesiveness in the overall performance of all of the instruments.

Morbid Angel - Domination
Morbid Angel, Domination

Domination is an example of profound influence on a genre—take a listen to Gojira’s From Mars to Sirius. While at different sides of the metal universe, it’s pretty amazing to hear how far ahead of the game Morbid Angel was. This album shows the extent of extreme drumming in the 1990s, with double bass drumming that reaches daunting speeds and for long periods of time.

The guitar work is noticeably unique with Morbid Angel on this album, as Trey Azagthoth employs techniques that are still finding their place in metal music today. Along with second guitarist Erik Rutan of Hate Eternal fame, the guitars are dissonant yet dreary and gloomy—and reach levels of otherworldliness. This is a death metal album that sold over 100,000 albums. Can you imagine that today?

Entombed - Left Hand Path
Entombed, Left Hand Path

The influence Entombed’s Left Hand Path has had on the current metal world is unbelievable, having been released originally in 1990. Twenty-eight years later and not only are bands still using dimed-out Boss HM2 Heavy Metal pedals, as Entombed famously did for this album, but boutique pedal companies are making their own versions of it (one is fittingly named the Left Hand Wrath).

Another unique facet to this album is the use of low tuning, going as low as B. This album also features artwork from Dan Seagrave, who has done artwork for fellow bands mentioned above, Gorguts, Morbid Angel, and Suffocation. There’s a reason Entombed is one of the Big Four for Swedish Death Metal, and this album is proof that the band was carving their place in metal history with their buzzsaw sound.

Entombed - "Left Hand Path"
Carcass - Heartwork
Carcass, Heartwork

Heartwork by Carcass is one of those albums that has its own amazing history just because of the people involved alone. H. R. Giger, the artist who made the album cover art, also won an Academy Award for his work on Alien. Colin Richardson, Heartwork’s producer, has made more than 100 albums for acts like Behemoth and Bolt Thrower, and later Slipknot, Fear Factory, and Dååth. And Heartwork is also the last Carcass album to feature Michael Amott—the lead guitarist of Carnage, Spiritual Beggars, and Arch Enemy.

To this very day Amott still applies the same wah technique to his lead guitar playing. Bill Steer’s riffing mixed with Jeff Walker’s graveling voice and note-for-note bass playing glue the entire record together. The drumming of Ken Owens earns a black belt in frenetic drum fills and creative grooves, which appropriately lace throughout the album. Something very noticeable in the production itself is the drum tones, which, for its time, is much more polished and refined than many of their peers.

Cannibal Corpse - Tomb of the Mutilated
Cannibal Corpse, Tomb of the Mutilated

Tomb of the Mutilated certainly pushed the boundaries of metal. The song titles on this album alone were enough to challenge the moral compass. (Just holding a Cannibal Corpse release in your hands at a record store made you question yourself.) Scott Burns lends his death metal expertise with the album production, later working with bands bands like Gorguts, Deicide, Death, Obituary, and Suffocation. Now, I’m going to have to refrain from talking about most of the songs on this album for clean language’s sake, but we can talk about one of the most famous Cannibal Corpse songs of all time: “Hammer Smashed Face.”

The beginning of this song starts like a scene from Apocalypse Now, with gunfire-like drumming, mechanical and clanky bass guitar, berserk guitar playing, and gurgly swamp growls. It’s important to note Jim Carrey moshed around the crowd during a scene at a metal club in Ace Ventura (1994) and eventually gets on stage for a deleted scene. Jim Carrey specifically asked for Cannibal Corpse to be in the movie, and almost missed out on having one of his favorite death metal bands in the fold because they feared they'd lose some street cred in the metal scene.