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A History Of ... Early Death Metal

The 'A History Of ...' series provides a written and musical journey through many of the sub-genres of heavy metal. This time we tackle ... early death metal!

What is early death metal?

High speed heavy metal made brutal through the use of aggressive drumming, distorted/down-tuned guitars, guttural vocals and extreme lyrical content (focused on death, violence, occultism, etc.).

And on the first day Black Sabbath created heavy metal. On the second day Raven took the heavy metal blueprint and sped it up, thus birthing speed metal. Then on the third day, Venom were belched from Hell, taking speed metal and courting it outright with Satan. Subsequently, on the fourth day Metallica took speed metal and meshed it with hardcore punk, thus creating thrash metal. On the fifth day Possessed looked upon early thrash and black metal, deciding to add guttural vocals and speeding up the drums, thus conceiving death metal. On the sixth day, from on high, Lemmy looked over all the sub-genres of metal that Motorhead had inspired, and said it was good.

Note: Differs from early black metal through its use of more guttural vocals, lyrics not necessarily only focused on Satanism and increased technical playing abilities.

What are the bands that kick-started death metal (ie. proto bands)?


No Sabbath = no heavy metal in any of its forms.


The band that influenced almost all extreme forms of heavy metal.


The band that introduced the extreme imagery and lyrics, as well as expanding on Motorhead's roughshod musical approach.


Possessed have pointed to Exodus as one of their main initial influences.

Early death metal album history:

Obviously not a complete list, rather, this is a catalog of important/high quality full length releases from the early era (1985 through 1990).

October, 1985: POSSESSED - Seven Churches

The first death metal album ever set the blueprint. And it still kicks ass today.

Note: The second album to include a track entitled 'Death Metal' in 1985, six months after Onslaught's Power From Hell early thrash metal opus.

October, 1986: POSSESSED - Beyond The Gates

Let down by an inferior production job which takes away some of the band's power, the sophomore album is often overlooked despite still having some strong tracks.

May, 1987: DEATH - Scream Bloody Gore

This debut introduced Death to the world. Lyrically focusing on horror themes, made more horrific by Chuck Schuldiner's brutal roar, the band is often considered as the godfathers of death metal.

August, 1988: DEATH - Leprosy

Cleaning up their sound from the unruly debut, this is unquestionably the band's masterpiece. 'Born Dead', 'Pull The Plug', 'Left To Die' and 'Open Casket' are classics of the sub-genre.

May, 1989: MORBID ANGEL - Altars Of Madness

Remember getting this as a new release and being taken aback by the distorted riffing, technical prowess and the overall evil vibe. 'Maze Of Torment' remains the band's best song to this day.

April, 1989: AUTOPSY - Severed Survival

Similar to early Death, the bass lines on this are truly sick blubberings.

May, 1989: OBITUARY - Slowly We Rot

Speeding up Death velocities, Obituary then unleashed its secret weapon in the form of vocalist John Tardy's incomparable zombie roar. Our ears have been rotting ever since.

February, 1990: DEATH - Spiritual Healing

Lyrically moving away from horror into societal themes (including evangelism as per the album art), the music is a tad more melodic, but still undeniably Death. Their second-best album, it says here.

June, 1990: ENTOMBED - Left Hand Path

Entombed detuned guitars until they sounded like a buzzsaw, then let 'er fly with D-Beat and punk abandon. Hail Swedish death metal!

August 17, 1990: CANNIBAL CORPSE - Eaten Back To Life

This debut courted controversy through its way over-the-top artwork and lyrics. Now the band are the biggest selling death metal band in history (two million blood-soaked records and counting).

September, 1990: OBITUARY - Cause Of Death

Slowing down in parts, letting the pummeling groove set in, this is seen by some as the band's classic release.

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