There was a time in the not too distant past when death metal seemed content to revel in its own obscurity. Despite endless debates concerning its mainstream appeal or aspirations of success, it was ultimately the scene’s lack of ambition which saw an inevitable creative slump, with the grand contribution made by its late eighties/early nineties heyday all but forgotten. Sure, a number of underground stalwarts continued to do their thing and exist away from the prying eyes of the uninitiated, yet death metal’s impact on the evolution of heavy music looked to be done.
Of recent years, however, an explosion in interest has seen death metal not only in an insanely rude state of health, but currently never as popular. Attendant sub-genres such as the much-maligned deathcore may have contributed to the resurgence somewhat, and notwithstanding a myriad of disparate factors which have assisted and influenced its glorious rebirth, the genre’s renaissance has conjured many great things.
Much has been said about the significance of bands such as Portal or Ulcerate, whose often impenetrable atmospherics seem to have infiltrated the new breed in such a way that traditional songs are abandoned in favour of crafting new worlds of hellish sound, popularising an approach that is equally scoffed at as overvalued noise and celebrated as a newfound link to death metal’s ancient subversion.
It is easy to see why many may enjoy the idea of these bands more than the difficult reality, although of late the underground is literally teeming with new-school death metallers who are, crucially, informed by both a nose-diving experimentation, lust for invention and the immortal songwriting of the scene’s forefathers. And so, as we find ourselves living in a golden age of underground death metal, we present a veritable feast of excellent bands tirelessly propagating its reputation around the world, and pouring their visionary bile into the scene’s mesmerising, contemporary brew of nasty ideas.
Aligning the heady netherworlds of sprawling prog-atmospherics and quasi tech-death bluster, Colorado four-piece Blood Incantation are perhaps the most exciting outfit to emerge from the scene’s shadowy underbelly so far this decade. Following a series of deliriously impressive EPs, the band unleashed debut LP Starspawn in 2016, an inter-dimensional trip which harks back to the otherworldly atmosphere and occult vibes of early Morbid Angel or prime-era Gorguts, all warped riffing and transcendental flair. Blood Incantation are a unique, compelling and convincing proposition, and harness the arcane spirit of unfiltered death metal better than most genre gods still in the game.
Québécois trio Chthe’ilist deal in the kind of hellish mutant extremity which balances stridently old-school filth with the grand ambition of some of the contemporary scene’s more high-minded death-pedallers. Firmly tethered to that traditional death metal depravity whilst spiralling into realms of cosmic bombast and cavernous atmospheric horror, their first full-length foray Le Dernier Crépuscule is often hailed as a modern classic by underground devotees, and correctly so.
Bewilderingly complex and thoroughly fucking unpleasant, Artificial Brain pull off the rather difficult feat of sounding utterly distinctive among a post-Cynic/Gorguts world of tech-death pretenders. Indeed, the churning sci-fi sorcery of 2014’s Labyrinth Constellation and recent follow-up Infrared Horizon is as willfully dense and intricate as anything spewed from the extreme metal underground in recent memory, an underlying strain of cosmic disquiet bringing to mind a sort of H.R. Giger strangeness filtered through the band’s visceral, swirling attack.
Pitched somewhere between the grotesque power of Incantation and the revelatory dirge of monstrous Aussies Disembowelment, Spectral Voice‘s thundering take on the death-doom template rejoices in all things desolate and destructive. Double-dunked in Lovecraftian dread, the band share three-fourths of their membership with the aforementioned Blood Incantation, and whilst both outfits match up in terms of their formidable song-smithery, the glacial creep and tooth-rattling bludgeon of this suffocating colossus opts for a wholly different approach. Just check out last year’s Eroded Corridors Of Unbeing for an experience somewhat akin to being slowly submerged in a boiling sulphuric lake.
A roiling cesspool of sonic depravity, Pissgrave aren’t ones to fuck about. With only a self-titled EP and 2015’s Suicide Euphoria to their name thus far, the Philadelphian trio scale new peaks of extremity with a sound so drenched in blood-caked filth that they remain both startlingly violent and curiously unique, their gloriously sickening tone, raging animalistic clatter and an almost slack-jawed assault meaning they sound totally unlike and stand miles apart from any of their deathly peers. Executed with unflappable conviction, Pissgrave deliver utterly barbaric, red-blooded death metal delights.
Stripping away any conceptual trimmings and revealing the pulsing heart of death metal’s bloodthirsty essence, Gatecreeper revel in the simple pleasure of jaw-shattering brutality. Shades of Bolt Thrower, Obituary and Suffocation are certainly present in the band’s blunt-force stomp, yet this Arizonian quintet represent far more than a tribute to time-honoured ideas, their sound imbued with a songwriting focus and sand-blasted intensity that makes for a singular flavour of mid-paced ultra violence.
Although drawing heavily from a classic-yet-familiar strain of Swedish death metal, Philadelphia’s Horrendous refuse to be restricted by genre clichés. Reaching spine-tingling fruition with their latest masterwork Anareta, this virtuoso trio harness all the untamed imagination of latter-day Death, albeit with their exuberant prog sensibilities and instrumental detours stepped up tenfold. By turns beautifully melodic and startlingly vicious, Horrendous bring depth, daring, and more importantly a devotion to nudging death metal into unexplored territories.
With their highly-regarded debut Charnel Passages offering the perfect combination of Morbid Angel-style chaos and the woozy, malevolent power of Immolation, it speaks volumes that after only a handful of splits, EPs and one full-length record, Cruciamentum are already considered a seminal band in underground circles. Indeed, their vintage early nineties aesthetic is tailor-made to send extreme metal aficionados into fits of frothing euphoria, yet the abyss-conjuring darkness Cruciamentum invoke proves to trump the majority of their peers in its thrillingly potent and emblematic otherness.
Resolutely old-school in both approach and atmosphere, Greek quartet Dead Congregation have garnered a special place in the heart of death metal connoisseurs. Whilst in many ways their barrelling onslaught provides more than enough jolting muscularly to satisfy even the most insatiable of metallic appetites, a penchant for harrowing slo-mo comedowns, a mutant variant on the death-doom blueprint, means that records such as career highlight Promulgation of the Fall are as epic, grandiose and cataclysmically heavy as anything that has come before or since.
Turning heads with 2016’s stellar Primordial Malignity, Tomb Mold have become perhaps the most celebrated extreme metal newcomers of recent times, their markedly Finnish-style weirdness and oozing, liquiform aura (think Demilich) striking a chord with fans of all things warped and repulsive. Indeed, the delirious reaction to this year’s sophomore effort Manor Of Infinite Forms comes as the band step further towards a uniquely singular sonic vision, all gut-churning dynamic leaps and uncoiling riffage akin to the dripping limbs of some subterranean oddity.
Arguably the modern day standard bearers for aural blasphemy, these obscure Londoners inhabit an esoteric middle ground between brute-force ferocity and a textural ungodliness aglow with rampaging hellfire. Having said this, although Grave Miasma‘s artistic devilry is enough to send most of their posturing quasi-Satanist peers fleeing to the local clergyman, the band do not hide behind atmosphere in lieu of songs, and the fearsome one-two punch of 2013’s Odori Sepulcrocrum and follow-up EP Endless Pilgrimage are still spilling over with both an intangible sense of Luciferian individualism and the unerring precision of tried and true, fire ‘n’ brimstone extremity.
Unsullied by both modern death metal’s arty atmospherics and clinical technicality, Necrot deal in the sort of unapologetic, primitive brutality which, when handled with the sort of metallic know-how of these veteran fret wranglers, is still as irresistible as its early nineties heyday. Shades of Asphyx and Obituary abound here, and whilst 2017’s Blood Offerings delivers a gleefully unaltered dose of classic savagery, the concise sonic impact of these songs makes for a retread of (un)hallowed ground more than worth your time.
Delivering their squalid Autopsy-isms with the mournful, snails-pace dismay of Cathedral or Paradise Lost, these Helsinki-based purveyors of pummeling, bowel-rattling death/doom have remained unremittingly devoted to their own languorous blueprint for well over a decade. Although deftly tuneful with the shared DNA and grandiloquent trimmings of early My Dying Bride, the almost implausibly guttural vocals and a deeply entrenched despondency mean that Hooded Menace‘s down-tempo excursions are seldom anything other than gruesomely, horrifically heavy.
As unpretentious and authentically brutal as death metal can be, this Danish four-piece are a timely reminder that the classic template still has the capacity to horrify and thrill. Channelling their morbid fury through incisive grooves and skin-flaying riffs, the band sound absolutely colossal throughout their debut album Desolate Endscape, a head-long stampede of nose-flattening extremity all executed with the swivel-eyed fervour of war-torn veterans.
Those who enjoy their death metal neatly constructed and polished should look elsewhere, as Triumvir Foul deliver the sort of blackened, abyss-delving anti-songs built more on churning dissonance than succinct anthems. Bridging the gap between early Deicide‘s bestial onslaught and the gloriously hellish sounds of black metal’s bleak and feral spirit, this filth-encrusted duo emerged from the Portland underground with their militant force and surreal violence fully formed into a deliciously unholy whole.
Words: Tony Bliss