A Short History of American Death Metal

Given the lyrical themes of rage, internal conflict, dark rituals, and science fiction, one might expect that Death Metal came into existence somewhere cold and dark.

To some extent, when you look at the genre as a whole, this is accurate, with English extreme metal band Venom originating in Newcastle. A city, which any of its inhabitants will tell you, is inordinately proud of its collective ability to endure the biting cold of a northern winter.

In the US, however, Death Metal bloomed in a distinctly less challenging climate, with bands like Death and Possessed refining their musical style in the balmy weather of Florida and California.

While it might seem strange that sleepy rural America would be the birthplace of a genre as heavy as Death Metal, the reality is that the underpinnings of some of the rural US have much to offer to an aspiring Death Metal band.

Historical events like the Salem Witch Trials, the disappearance of the Rowanoak colony, and characters like H.H.Holmes appear regularly in Death Metal lyrics. Even in sleepy Vermont, the older buildings have windows that are narrow and slanted enough that a witch wouldn’t be able to get her broomstick through one.

In this article, we’ll be looking at the roots of Death Metal in the US and how the musical movement began.

Death and Death Metal

Arguably, the catalyst for the creation of Death Metal as a genre was the release of two particular albums. In 1981, Venom released Welcome to Hell, an album that combined the blistering speed, dark brooding sound, harsh vocals and lyrics concentrating on wrath, the macabre and creepy imagery that would become the inspiration for other extreme metal genres.

In 1986, Slayer released their third studio album Reign in Blood which further refined the sound of the thrash metal scene and is cited as an influence by bands like Death, Obituary, and Morbid Angel, with Possessed calling out that particular album, alongside Venom and Motörhead, as their influences.

There were, of course, other bands refining a similar style of metal out there, with the so-called Big Four of Teutonic thrash metal, Kreator, Destruction and Tankard, and Sodom adding in Europe’s contribution.

There’s a lot of argument about where the term Death Metal originated, but since, of the two pioneering bands of the genre, one was called Death and the other’s demo was literally called Death Metal the general root of the name seems pretty clear.

Death and Possessed

Death was formed in 1983, originally calling themselves Mantas, and consisted of Kam Lee, Rick Rozz and founder Chuck Schuldiner. The lineup, other than Schuldiner would change regularly over the next few years, but the band would eventually release Scream Bloody Gore in 1987 which is widely regarded as a genre template for Death Metal, even if it was heavily influenced by the work of Possessed.

Possessed, formed in 1983 in the San Francisco Bay Area, and originally formed of Mike Torrao, Mike Sus, Barry Fisk and bassist Jeff Andrews released arguably the most important early album in the burgeoning Death Metal genre called Seven Churches.

Seven Churches is widely regarded as having a huge influence on the formation of Death Metal and heavily influencing the works of Trey Azagthoth and Morbid Angel.

Further Development

As the 80s flowed into the 90s, Death Metal began to get more traction, with Florida Death Metal producing bands like Obituary, Morbid Angel and Deicide. With the genre having been influenced by Newcastle’s Venom, Death Metal was also growing in Britain with bands like Napalm Death, Bolthrower and Carcass.

In Europe, Death Metal found firm footing in Sweden with bands like Carnage, God Macabre, Entombed, Dismember, Grave and Unleashed and would eventually give rise to the Melodeath sub-genre.

In the US, record labels like Earache Records, Relativity Records and Roadrunner Records helped to propagate the genre, with Death Metal hitting its commercial peak in the early 90s.

Modern American Death Metal has gone on to split into a number of sub-genres, including Goregrind, Death ‘n’ roll, Funeral doom, and Industrial death metal, each with its own passionate following.

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