This is my third entry in this series. Intended primarily for new listeners who are looking for the right place to start exploring a variety of metal, these posts will focus on a description of a single sub-genre along with links to 5-10 songs and explanations for why those tracks are a good introduction to the style.
Since death metal is possibly the most over-stuffed sub-genre in the extreme metal world, this list took a lot of thought. I wanted to include sufficient material to demonstrate both American and Swedish death metal while still leaving room for a wide variety of styles and entries from other countries.
Some of the loudest, angriest, heaviest, most abrasive music on the planet; old school death metal is the auditory equivalent of movies like Saw or maybe The Human Centipede. The lyrics of many songs reinforce that comparison. Fast drumming, big crunchy riffs, chaotic guitar solos, and guttural growling vocals are the hallmarks of this sub-genre. The biggest scenes emerged in the mid-to-late 1980s and the early 1990s, and they were primarily centered in Florida, New York, and Sweden.
Owing to its popularity within the metal world, death metal has been successfully fused with just about every other type of metal, giving it an extremely broad range. As such there are relatively few universal rules, though brutal aggression and heaviness tend to be a central concern for most death metal bands.
Born Dead -by- Death
Go look up any ten lists of the greatest death metal bands of all time. You'll probably see Death on every one, and I'm guessing they will be at the very top of about seven of them. Arguably the first true death metal band, and at least partially the namesake of the style, Death were a phenomenally talented and productive group who lead the prolific Florida scene in the 80s and 90s. There are droves of other strong bands from that scene, but the most highly recommended would be Obituary and Morbid Angel. As for Death, their sole constant member was the late Chuck Schuldiner, who has become something like the patron saint of death metal since his death in 2001. Their 1987 release Scream Bloody Gore was amongst the very first full-length death metal albums, but the band continued to grow and improve for years afterward. This track comes from their sophomore full-length, 1988's excellent Leprosy.
Left Hand Path -by- Entombed
A couple years behind the Floridians, Europe's most significant death metal scene emerged in Sweden. Introducing the "buzz-saw" guitar tone which has come to proliferate in death metal to an absurd degree, the central groups from this new scene were Entombed, Dismember, and Grave. In addition to the distinct guitar tone, these bands featured a slightly more melodic approach to the music. Entombed's full-length debut Left Hand Path, released in 1990, is the flagship album of this style. It easily ranks amongst the greatest death metal albums ever released. This is the title track.
World Eater -by- Bolt Thrower
Outside of the USA and Sweden, other countries also began to produce some very good death metal in those early years. Hailing from England, Bolt Thrower emerged in the late 1980s with a series of very strong albums. Rather that the more typical horror themes embraced by most of these bands, Bolt Thrower went with a Conan-like approach to fantasy warfare as the center of their image. The band's name was taken from the game Warhammer, which is a solid illustration of their vibe. This track, from 1989's powerhouse album Realm of Chaos, is my personal favorite from their catalog.
Pierced From Within -by- Suffocation
Back in the United States, an even heavier branch of death metal was forming in New York. Lead by Suffocation, the early 90s saw the development of "brutal death metal" in a scene which also played host to the bands Incantation and Immolation. These bands had a fuller, even more aggressive sound. The deep bellows of the vocalists hit even lower registers, the riffs were faster and more intricate. Basically the entire sound was death metal, plus steroids. This is a style that continues to grow today, and at this point there is a good case for calling Suffocation the most imitated band in death metal. Their 1991 record Effigy of the Forgotten is probably the most important album in this style, but I've always preferred their 1995 release Pierced From Within, of which this is the title track.
Litany -by- Vader
Poland has a strong death metal scene, lead by the colossal pair of bands Behemoth and Vader. Choosing which of these two should represent Polish death metal was tough, but I settled on the title track from Vader's 2000 album Litany for three reasons. First, Behemoth has tended to incorporate more black metal in their sound, while Vader has leaned closer to thrash territory. I just wrote about black metal, so I wanted to talk about something further from that subject today. Second, in my experience more Polish death metal tends to imitate Vader than Behemoth, so that makes them more representative of that country's output. Third, and most important, I just like Vader better.
Ein Meer aus Tränen -by- Apophis
Another European country with some excellent metal output is Germany. Known primarily for its thrash scene, Germany has also produced good music in other sub-genres, including death metal. Apophis are a highly underrated German group who released four albums between 1993 and 2005. They were the earliest death metal band (as far as I know) to adopt the ancient Egyptian themes later popularized by Nile. Their sound is a little bit mellower and less aggressive than most death metal, making them an excellent band for those who can't quite get into the really intense stuff. This is my favorite track by them, taken off the album Heliopolis, from 1998.
Night Comes, Blood Black -by- At The Gates
Following directly on the heels of Swedish death metal, another variant emerged in Sweden, this time centered specifically around the city of Gothenburg. This new style, dubbed "melodic death metal" or "melodeath", took the traces of smooth melody found in other Swedish death metal and expanded on it. In Flames, Dark Tranquillity, and At The Gates formed the backbone of this new scene, which would later inspire popular bands like Amon Amarth. While I would love to include material by all four of those bands, there simply isn't room. Additionally, some people don't really consider melodeath to be "real" death metal. Thus, I've selected a track from The Red in the Sky is Ours, the fantastic debut by At The Gates, which came at the very start of the movement and was clearly still firmly rooted in death metal soil.
In the Grip of Winter -by- Autopsy
San Francisco's death metal masters Autopsy were pioneers in the field of death-doom. Essentially, this music is death metal, but with the slower tempos and discernible grooves of traditional doom metal. The crushingly heavy results are often rather gloomy, making this the moodiest of all the major death metal variants. They can also be tempered by an occasional mellowness, depending on how much doom is injected in the mix. This track, from the group's 1991 sophomore release Mental Funeral, is my favorite Autopsy cut.
Bleed -by- Meshuggah
The highly technical side of death metal has many members. In terms of quality and impact, though, it is dominated by the monstrous Swedish powerhouse Meshuggah. Rapid tempo changes, bizarrely discordant riffs executed with flawless precision, and a totally alien sense of mechanical dis-compassion mark their sound. If I'm being totally honest, this vein of death metal has never particularly appealed to me, and I would easily rank Meshuggah as the greatest death metal band that I don't like. But that's just the thing: they are a great death metal band. Given that an entire style, djent, has developed around the core approach "let's try to sound like Meshuggah", I felt obligated to include them as an essential band that any developing death metal fan really needs to hear so they can decide for themselves what they think. This is the track of theirs that I like the most, from their 2008 album ObZen.
Fiery Rebirth -by- The Chasm
On the more progressive side of death metal, possibly the strongest band currently in operation is the criminally unknown group The Chasm. Originally from Mexico, these guys have put out a string of unique and consistently excellent albums since the mid-90s. Their songs are often longer and more involved than those of most death metal bands. This track comes from their newest album, 2009's utterly brilliant Farseeing the Paranormal Abysm, which may be the best death metal album released in the past ten years.