Heavy Month

Spotlight: Death metal

If I had to choose just one general type of metal and it’s sub-genres, it would likely be death metal. The sub-genres from death metal are vast and all very strong in their own right so I would have to lean that way. Death metal almost has a menu of options for listeners to feast on. Swedish, old school, melodic, blackened, technical, modern, slam, brutal and many other varying approaches to death metal exist today with more variations coming all the time.

My introduction to death metal came somewhere around 1992. Prior to that, I’d been listening to thrash and NWOBHM bands etc for a few years already, otherwise I think death metal might have scared me away haha. I believe death metal and more extreme metal genres need some sort of gateway period to acclimate the listener to the coming assault of the senses. Death metal in early 1993 was gaining popularity but it was still very much an underground thing for more experienced metal fans. Hell, many metal fans never develop a taste to listen to anything that heavy.

I met a dude named Jan that lived near me. We talked metal and when he asked if I’d heard any death metal, I just sort of shrugged my shoulders. I’d heard of it but I was still busy discovering new thrash bands so I figured the time would come when it came. This was that time and the next day, Jan showed up at my front door with a couple mixed tapes that changed my life. I will never forget the first song on the first tape, “Corporal Jigsore Quandary” by Carcass. The drums that start that song still give me the same feeling to this day and in 1993 it shattered my belief of what was “heavy”. The tapes featured Death, Carcass, Morbid Angel, Athiest, Cannibal Corpse, Suffocation and Obituary; all bands that have stayed with me since then.

Much lower tunings, gutteral vocals, distorted bass, double kicks and many other things about this fascinating new genre had me obsessed very quickly but there was one thing about the tape that created a love that remains firmly in tact even right at this moment. It was instant, the second I heard Morbid Angel’s Pete Sandoval play a blast beat, I was hooked. I remember thinking “how in the world is that possible?” and by today’s standards, the blast beats in 1993 were nothing to get too excited about but in that era, it was warp speed.

Since the early days of the genre, many sub-genres have been forged and while the musicianship required to play proper death metal has always been quite advanced, things have progressed and evolved at a brisk pace. The blast beats got faster, the vocals got more gutteral and the tunings got lower. I think today, we are almost at a point that death metal has started to become a touch robotic but the musicianship is stellar and otherworldly nonetheless. Some bands are returning to more organic sounds but others push forward to try and raise the bar even higher. Eventually we are going to hit a point where musicians just cannot go any faster, in fact that time for drumming may have already come but who knows what the future will bring.

One such sub-genre is Swedish death metal. We then split into sub-genres for the Stockholm and Gothenburg sounds. The majority of the “Stockholm sound” bands utilized and immortalized the Boss HM2. This is a pedal that is about as unique as it gets and it became the trademark tone of a whole genre. This side of Swedish metal is darker, heavier, more raw but still melodic when necessary. Notables include; Bloodbath, Entombed, Grave, Vomitory, Dismember, LIK, Hypocrisy, Then on the Gothenburg side you had a more melodic brand of death metal created by bands like In Flames, Soilwork, Opeth, Dark Tranquility, Edge Of Sanity, Darkane and Ebony Tears. Some bands stuck with their original sound and others began to blend the best of both sounds.

Chuck Schuldiner is the Godfather of tech-death in my opinion. Death was so far ahead of their time in so many ways, it’s quite remarkable. Spawn of Possession, Necrophagist, Obscura, Psycroptic, Beyond Creation and a few other bands got the tech-death ball rolling with a modern style inspired by Death, Control Denied and Cynic type bands. Fretless basses and elements of prog can usually be heard throughout. Another style of technical death metal came from the evolution of mathcore acts like The Dillinger Escape Plan. This incredibly hectic side of tech-death has been shaped and defined by bands like Cryptopsy, Archspire, Origin, Beneath The Massacre and Gorguts.

Slam or Slam death metal is a blend of hardcore, death metal, tech death and djent. Dying Fetus have always done a pretty damn good job at mixing death metal and hardcore. I also see Aborted, Despised Icon, Devourment and Disgorge as being early slam pioneers as well though that could be up for debate. Both bands always bring that mosh type stuff with hardcore type breakdowns to be added to technical death metal. Slam evolved quickly with the addition of extended range guitars. Many of the bands use 7 or 8 strings, the gear and settings are almost identical to the gear used by djent guitarists. The tones are a little more scooped and designed for more trem picking than djent type picking but the settings and gear is pretty similar between the two styles. You’ll hear basically blast beats and breakdowns with bass drops and crowd vocal backups. Abnormality, Devourment, Ingested, Wormed and Skinless can get you started here.

Gear wise, it really depends on what style you are going for. Old school death metal was typically played on solid-state amps with all of the mids scooped out of pretty well everything as that was the trend in the 90s for most death metal outfits in those days. Marshall, Ampeg, Randall and a few other companies started making affordable solid-state amps capable of hi-gain so many musicians of the era turned to them. These were really the first affordable “stacks” that came out period so it was more so being able to have a louder amp for cheap than it was the sound quality drawing them in.

For any other type of death metal outside of the early days, the gear starts to crossover with a lot of other genres and styles but one amp changed all of metal and punk rock at about the same moment. The Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier came on the scene and suddenly, it seemed like every band I went to see was being backed by the diamond plate armored beast and it became one of the first amps that ever really caused substantial drooling. Nothing else sounded like it or came close. The dual rectifier changed everything even though thrash bands had been using the Mark series of amps to kick ass for years already. As we all know, the dual rectifier is almost overly well represented in the plugin world. There are many to seek out.

The next amps to change the whole game in metal were the Peavey 5150 and 5150 II. This changed things even more dramatically because these amps were/still are much more affordable than Mesa Boogie. Today, EVH/Peavy products whether in hardware or software form are designed to supply tons of compressed and saturated tones for literally any style or genre required mid to high gain. Sure there are tons of incredible amps out there that can full excel with any type of death metal but for me, you just can’t miss with Mesa Boogie, EVH and Peavey. Other great and well represented options include; Engl, Diezel, Fortin, Randall and many others but I wanted to focus on the well known can’t-miss options.

Mesa Boogie also changed the death metal game with their 412 Oversized cabinets. They are big, heavy, loud and they can take a shit-kicking on the road as well. Krank, Vader, Marshall, Soldano and a metric ton of other companies make great cabinets for metal but if I had to pick just one, I would choose the Mesa Boogie 412 Oversized. Those looking for impulses for death metal will be glad to know that this cabinet is probably the most common cabinet in the industry. Every impulses developer seems to have one or more offerings based on the cab so it won’t be hard to find one for your preferences. There are also multiple free offerings for the cab as well from Wilkinson Audio and of course, Seacow Cabs! The Shure SM57 is the also once again the mic of choice here.

When a Mesa Boogie amp is involved, I personally like using a boost out front of the amp to tighten things up. The dual rectifier has a low end that can get loose and flubby with lower tunings so a tube screamer or overdrive in the pre-FX area helps to make sure you aren’t trying to drag your riffs though the mud when they should be tight and focused. I like the drive on 1, tone between 5-7 and the level at 10 for boosting a dual or triple rectifier. These are almost endlessly tweakable amps but they really do need some help to stay in their lane as they can tend to take over a mix when not checked with at least a HP filter. Lead wise, a little delay is pretty common to see in the board of most death metal lead players, especially if there’s whammy bar wankery…er, I mean whammy bar wizardry (nice save) in play.

In death metal, everything needs to be punchy and it can be a real challenge to mix because every instrument is trying to be the lead. When mixing, utilize limiters and EQ properly and you should have an easier time of wrangling the various instruments together. When you are dialing in your guitar tone, remember more gain isn’t always best when you are trying to provide clarity for the high level of musicianship to show through the chaotic mix. Turning your gain to 10 is only going to give you a headache during mixing.

That’s about all the time we have for this one but I hope I have shared along some level of wisdom or understanding. The various types of death metal aren’t for everyone, some of them aren’t for me either but I think all types of death metal deserve respect.

Research Albums – Death metal & Subgenres

  • Cannibal Corpse – “The bleeding”
  • Suffocation – “Pierced from within”
  • Carcass – “Heartwork”
  • At The Gates – “Slaughter the soul”
  • Morbid Angel – “Covenant”
  • Obituary – “World demise”
  • Death – “Human”
  • Death – “Individual though patterns”
  • Vital Remains – “Dechristianize”
  • Decapitated – “The negation”
  • The Crown – “Crowned in terror”
  • Origin – “Antithesis”
  • Obscura – “Omnivium”
  • Macabre – “Dahmer”
  • Bloodbath – “Nightmares made flesh”
  • Entombed – “Left hand path”
  • In Flames – “Colony”
  • Necrophagist – “Epitaph”
  • Cryptopsy – “None so vile”

(this list could be a mile long with just my favorite albums)