Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Ten Greatest Death Metal Albums of the 1990s

A countdown of the absolute best extreme metal albums from the genre’s golden decade


Both black metal and death metal came to prominence in the 1980s, but I think we can all agree that it wasn’t until the 1990s that both genres hit their respective peaks. While the pioneering efforts of bands like Venom, Bathory and Possessed remain fun little relics of yesteryear, it’s hard to deny that even masterpieces like “Black Metal” and “Seven Churches" don't sound just a tad outdated today. The 1990s, as such, represented the maturation of death metal as musical genre, with titans like Death, Cynic and Emperor releasing innovative albums that completely expanded -- and in some cases, totally obliterated -- musical boundaries.

While ‘80s death and black metal was all about the Satanic imagery and gore rock -- complete with squealing solos that, beyond the guttural vocals, could’ve been lifted off any Grim Reaper track -- the genres grew both musically and lyrically in the 1990s. With the unlikely injection of fusion jazz techniques into the genres, what started off as slightly heavier riff-raff turned into sonic marvels, with blast beats and symphonic guitar wails accompanying the incomparable growls of such iconic heavyweights as Lord Worm and Chuck Schulinder. And structurally, the 1990s saw death and black metal poetry shift away from the over-the-top blood and guts of the decade prior, instead focusing on more introspective issues, and even making some legit commentary on contemporary society and politics.

Today, I’ve taken it upon myself to countdown what I (and I alone) consider to be the ten absolute best death metal albums of the 1990s. Of course, with such a major overlap between black and death metal (not to mention emerging subgenres like grindcore and Gothenburg melodic metal), the countdown interprets “death metal” as a genre rather liberally. For the sake of the article, I’m more or less clumping all of the extreme, technical skill-driven metal genres under the umbrella here, so if you’re a super hardcore purist or genre traditionalist -- well, honestly, I don’t care what you think, anyway.

Before we hop into the main countdown, I would like to take some time to address a couple of albums that, for various reasons, almost made the final cut, but ultimately wound up eliminated from competition.

Honorable Mentions:

Slaughter of the Soul” by At the Gates (1995) -- This is an album that’s worthy of the top 10 for its impact on the genre alone. Even now, “pop” extreme metal acts like Meshuggah owe more than a bit of gratitude to ATTG, and in particular, this album, which was really way ahead of its time in terms of production techniques. And even now, wannabe “metal core” bands continue to rip off the album’s innovative sound, sometimes copying riffs from the CD nearly note-for-note. Alas, the album did come out relatively late in the decade, and there are quite a few albums that I think were even more pioneering than this one -- hence, “Slaughter of the Soul’s” position as this countdown’s unofficial number 11 entrant.

40 More Reasons to Hate Us” by Anal Cunt (1996) -- The “Weird” Al Yankovichs of extreme metal, shock-maestros A.C. were undoubtedly one of the most appealing grindcore acts of the decade -- if nothing else, for the utter absurdity of their lyrics. It’s hard to pick just one album to represent their impressive oeuvre as a whole, but if I had to make a snap decision, I would probably go with “40 More Reasons to Hate Us,” as it contains some of the band’s absolute best/most offensive lyrics (“Van Full of Retards”  and “I Hope You Get Deported” being personal favorites of mine) as well as two legitimately amazing cover tunes -- one being a sludgy re-do of “Gloves of Metal” by Manowar and a downright amazing rendition of the “Three’s Company” theme song.

Venereology” by Merzbow (1994) -- Easily the heaviest album I have ever heard, but since it’s technically an electronic/noise album (despite its obvious death metal inspirations), I had to reluctantly cut it from the list. It’s still worth a play at your next family get-together, though -- and at full volume, of course.

Morningrise” by Opeth (1996) -- It would be pretty stupid to have a countdown of the best death metal albums of the 1990s and NOT have an appearance by Opeth, but while doing my homework for the list, it quickly dawned upon me that the group’s finest recording from the decade is hardly a death metal album at all. Although “Morningrise” is undoubtedly a beautiful work of art (with “To Bid You Farewell” remaining my favorite track from the band), it’s kind of hard to lump this one in with the heavier hitters of the decade. It’s arguably the finest Gothenburg-tinged album ever produced, but to consider it a true death metal album is just stretching it too far.

Destroyer” by Gorgoroth (1998) -- I SO wanted this one to make the cut, but at the end of the day, I had to let objectivity trump subjectivity. The first time I heard this album, in particular the track “Om Kristen Og Jodisk Tru,” my jaw just hit the floor. So heavy, so fast, so distorted, and at the same time, so eerily melodic -- this was a truly amazing death/black metal fusion recording, but alas, I wouldn’t feel comfortable calling it a truly iconic or innovative release -- let alone one that genuinely deserves to stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the upcoming master works of metal glory.

And with those also-rans out of the equation, who is ready to jump head first into what I deem the ten best death metal offerings of the 1990s? Put in your earplugs and throw up the horns, folks…it’s about to get all kinds of LOUD up in here momentarily.

Number Ten: 
“Heartwork” by Carcass (1993)


From the first time I heard the title track on an episode of “Beavis and Butt-Head,” I was absolutely floored by “Heartwork.” Traditionalists may scoff at the album’s inclusion, and to be fair, a bit of subjectivity may be creeping into my ranking selections here, but this, at least, is unmistakable: Carcass’s 1993 album, in every sense of the word, kicks ass.

The fourth release from the U.K. noise merchants is a tremendous thrash/technical death metal fusion album, and easily the best record in the band’s discography. Tracks like opener “Buried Dreams” and “No Love Lost” have an almost sludgy, “groove metal” tempo, which of course, is complemented quite nicely by Jeff Walker’s prickly vocals, while “Carnal Forge” and “Blind Bleeding the Blind” just roll with blistering guitar work from Bill Steer and Michael Amott. And of course, how could we forget about drummer Ken Owen’s thundering performances on “Death Certificate” and “This Mortal Coil,” either?

All in all, this is simply a terrific album, the sort of ahead-of-its-time, technique -driven metal offering that’s equal parts pounding and proficient. It may not have re-invented the wheel, so to speak, but when an album sounds this excellent from start to finish, how could I possibly discount its inherent greatness?

Number Nine:
“Pierced from Within” by Suffocation (1995)


Just pure technical brutality -- that’s how I’d describe Suffocation’s mid ‘90s masterpiece. Frank Mullen has to have one of the absolute best growls in all of death metal, and never have his guttural vocals sound as crisp and haunting as they do on “Pierced from Within.” Not only is this album the band’s undisputed magum opus, it’s easily one of the best metal releases of the entire decade.

You can really feel the Atheist and Death impact on this album, and that isn’t a negative at in the slightest. Whereas so many bands from the era felt the need to sound as “brootal” as possible, Suffocation was a rare act that placed actual technique above sonic viscosity. That unique cross-pollination of sheer impact and sheer talent is what makes Suffocation, and this album in particular, stand out from oh so many Morbid Angel and Cannibal Corpse facsimiles from the era.

With tracks like “Suspended in Tribulation” and “Thrones of Blood,” you’re getting the best of both worlds: super heavy, skull-crushing power AND unquestionable technical excellence. If you’re looking for an album that combines serious fretwork with pure intensity, you won’t do much better than this excellently produced offering.

Number Eight:
“Blasphemy Made Flesh” by Cryptopsy (1994)


It was a tough call deciding between this album and “None So Vile,” but at the end of the day, I think this one is not only the better of the two, but ultimately, the more dynamic.

Sure, sure, you could easily say that the follow up to this, the iconic Canadian band's debut album, is the more technical offering, but at the same time, I think you would also be discounting the uniqueness, and certainly the genre impact, of "Blasphemy Made Flesh." The technical death metal genre was well established when the record was originally released, but it sounded nothing at all like anything that had come before it. It was like Atheist on methamphetamine -- an incredibly skillful, well-produced album, only FAST as all hell.

Obviously, the pairing of vocalist Lord Worm and drummer virtuoso Flo Mounier is one of the greatest tandems in metal history, but I think due credit should also be reserved for Jon Levasseur, Martin Fergusson and especially Steve Thibault. With tracks like "Defenestration," "Mutant Christ" and "Pathological Frolic," this is a blistering, unexpectedly groovy offering that ramrods its way past the 40 minute mark like it was nothing; it may not be the band's most impressive overall work, but there is no denying that it's still a landmark -- and incredibly ass-kicking -- recording, worthy of all genre fans' reverence.

Number Seven:
“The Erosion of Sanity” by Gorguts (1993)


Speaking of awesome technical Canadian death metal, “The Erosion of Sanity,” note-for-note, might just be the single most impressive genre offering of the decade. While it may not have the overall impact of some of the higher-ranking albums on the countdown, there is NO denying the technical excellence on display here, which remains far and away the finest recording in the Gorguts discography.

Luc Lemay undoubtedly had one of the most possessed-sounding voices in all of death metal, and never has his trademark yelps and growls sounded so pristine and abrasive. On tracks like "With Their Flesh He'll Create" and "Orphans of Sickness," he unleashes some of the best death metal vocals you'll ever hear, an almost inimitable mixture of pure sonic power and surprising clarity. A lot of death metal frontmen could growl, no doubt about it, but very, very few had the ability to blast Cookie Monster vocals that sound as crisp, clear and shockingly decipherable as Lemay on this album.

Of course, you really can't talk about the album's inherent excellence without talking about Stephane Provencher's booming drumming and Sylvain Marcoux's skillful guitar work -- talk about two instrumentalists who really deserve more recognition when discussing the genre's heavyweights. Making the album even more impressive is the occasional drift away from traditional death metal leanings, such as the haunting piano into at the beginning of "Condemned to Obscurity" and the downright jazzy bass interludes in "A Path Beyond Premonition." Without question, this is one of the absolute finest death metals of the 1990s, and one of the best produced metal albums you'll hear from any decade.

Number Six: 
“Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk” by Emperor (1997)


Yeah, yeah, you could argue that this is more of a black metal offering than a death metal release, but what the hell ever. The important thing to note is that “Anthems” is one of the best-sounding, best-polished, best-produced recordings not only of the 1990s, but quite possibly throughout the history of extreme metal. It’s one thing for an album to sound brutal and symphonic, but for an album to sound as crisply brutal and symphonic as this release is a true feat of sound mixing and engineering greatness.

As soon as "Alsvartr" starts up, you just know you're in for anything but your typical black metal offering. As the super atmospheric intro track bleeds into high-speed ass-kicker "Ye Entrancemperium," the true glory of "Anthems" makes itself known: not only is this a aurally mesmerizing album, it's indeed one of the best track-by-track metal albums of any subcategory produced over the decade.

With standout tracks like "Thus Spake the Nightspirit," "Ensorcelled by Khaos," and "With Strength I Burn," there's nary a squandered second on the album, which to this day, remains more or less the blueprint for all modern black metal releases. Part symphonic power metal opus and part blistering technical death metal clinic, Ihsahn and the boys have never sounded as savage -- or as beautiful -- as they do on this unquestionable masterpiece.

Number Five: 
“Symbolic” by Death (1995)


Death may not have invented death metal music, per se, but they certainly reinvented it in the 1990s. The group released five full length albums in the decade, and each one represented not only a major evolutionary step for the band, but in many ways, the entire death metal genre.

With the trifecta of Chuck S, Gene Hoglan and Steve DiGiorgio, this is an album that sounds heavy beyond words. Each track rolls forward with the sonic equivalent of monster truck force and the graceful speed of a suicidal roller pigeon. And Schulinder's unbelievable fretwork on tracks like "Symbolic" and "Crystal Mountain" just begs the question of why this dude isn't routinely ranked alongside titans like Mustaine and Dimebag Darrell when it comes to talking about the absolute best metal guitarists of the Clinton and Bush One Years.

With haunting tracks like "Empty Words" and lighting-fast virtuoso showcases like "Without Judgement," this album is yet another reason why Death is remembered as pretty much the definitive technical death metal band of the 1990s. While this album may not have been as influential or innovative as some of the group's previous releases, it's sheer technical excellence and incredible production values more than makes up for it. This is just outstanding metal, at its purest, most uncomplicated best -- if this one isn't a prized piece in your collection, I have serious doubts regarding your sincerity as a death metal enthusiast.

Number Four:
“Individual Thought Patterns” by Death (1993)


I fought with myself for what seemed like hours to pick between “Symbolic” and this album, and at the end of the day, I decided both albums were awesome and innovative enough to earn spots on the countdown.

Following up "Human" is about as unenviable a task as I can imagine any band staring down, but somehow, the fearsome foursome of Schulinder, Hoglan, DiGiorgio and LaRocque managed to craft an album that not only lived up to its vaunted predecessor standards, but actually managed to improve upon the pioneering jazz fusion implementations that made the landmark 1991 release so revolutionary.

This is a thinking metal fan's album, through and through. Tracks like "Overactive Imagination," "Destiny" and "The Philosopher" are not only technical achievements (featuring some of the best basslines and dueling guitars you'll ever hear), but contain lyrics that are actually intellectually stimulating, to boot. Death was never a band to dumb itself down for the masses, and "Individual Thought Patterns" is, arguably, the band at its absolute creative zenith. From "Mentally Blind" to "Trapped in a Corner," the band's fifth album is an absolute maelstrom of lyrical intellectualism, musical dexterity and sheer virtuosity. The fact that this album, and the band as a whole, isn't recognized as a decades-defining cultural institution is simply beyond me, folks.

Number Three: 
“Elements” by Atheist (1993)


In many ways, Atheist is sort of the great grandfather of the technical death metal genre. While pale Death and Possessed imitators were busy singing about entrails and doing their best Dave Lombardo double bass stomp impersonations, the boys in Atheist were more or less molding the subgenre together with their bare hands, crafting 1989's landmark "Piece of Time" when most extreme metal acts still sounded like Mercyful Fate and Slayer cover bands.

While the band's 1991 release "Unquestionable Presence" is probably Atheist's most celebrated work, I would actually call "Elements" the better overall album, as it featured more experimental recording techniques and time signatures. Even more amazing is just how great the album sounds from start to finish despite the fact that the band was more or less forced to record the album due to contractual obligations and their lead guitarist was sidelined with carpal tunnel syndrome throughout the production process.

If you're looking for complex, cerebral metal, you're not going to find many genre recordings as nuanced and impressive as this one. From the dizzying opener "Green" to the album's concluding title track, this is just a technically mesmerizing album that feels worlds apart from its death metal contemporaries. Songs like "Samba Briza" and "Earth" are the kinds of counter-intuitive, genre-deconstructing tracks that were a good thirty years ahead of their time, and sound just as fresh and cutting edge now as they did back in the heyday of Pepsi Crystal and "Jurassic Park." If you ever wondered where bands like Strapping Young Lad and In Flames culled their stylistic leanings, this album is more or less the two-decades-old Rosetta Stone from which practically all progressive-death metal bands since have stemmed.

Number Two:
“Focus” by Cynic (1993)


Very few albums, within any genre, had the kind of widespread impact that “Focus” had. The release completely reinvented what we thought was possible with the death metal genre, paring back the ostentatious aggression for a more nuanced, cerebral, and stylistically diverse sound that’s STILL being imitated by metal up-starts the world over.

"Focus" did so many things new with the death metal genre that it might as well get full credit for kick-starting the prog-metal revolution that more or less is responsible for bands like At the Gates, Opeth and Meshuggah even existing at all. Production-wise, the stuff Cynic did on this album truly was a good decade ahead of its time, incorporating digital voice box manipulation, clean female vocals and abstruse instrumentals (at one point, even breaking out the Chapman stick) at a time when death metal, as a genre, was still synonymous with Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel. From "Veil of Maya" to "How Could I," the record is a half-hour whirlwind that genuinely feels like an audio adventure -- you have no idea where the album is going to take you next, but wherever that place is, you know it's going to be awesome.

At times sounding like the bastard fusion of Atheist, Obituary, Tool and Black Sabbath, "Focus" is one of those watershed releases that completely changed an entire genre's trajectory. Needless to say, Cynic's grand experiment paid off big time, becoming one of the most beloved (and imitated) genre releases of the last 25 years. In fact, it might just be the single most important death metal release of the 1990s; barring one extremely noteworthy exception, of course....

Number One:
“Human” by Death


Simply put, “Human” is the single most important death metal album of all-time, and in my personal opinion, the single best ever pressed to vinyl, cassette or compact disc. Even before the release of this 1991 masterpiece, Death were already genre titans, having released undeniable classics “Scream Bloody Gore” and “Leprosy” in the late 1980s. However, “Human” absolutely shattered the group’s own hand-sculpted mold, eschewing the horror dressings and on-the-nose political symbolism for an experimental musical undertaking that instead sought to peer inside the until-then-untapped cerebral elements of the genre. Instead of being fast, heavy and vicious for the sake of being fast, heavy and vicious, “Human” instead focuses on technical proficiency, complex song structures and introspective lyrics, representing a gargantuan step forward in the maturation process of death metal.

Sean Reinert's fade-in drumming on "Flattening of Emotions" might as well be the death metal equivalent of the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" opening bass line; an instantly iconic introductory salvo that represented an overnight pole shift in genre style. With Chuck Schulinder, Steve DiGiorgio and Paul Masvidal rounding out the quartet, "Human" has arguably the greatest line-up for any death metal album released in the 1990s, and every single song on the album has a unique sound of its own. "Suicide Machine" has a certain power that is wholly different than the force of "Lack of Comprehension," and the sonic pull of "Cosmic Sea" is something altogether different from the aural assault of "Vacant Planets." As technically amazing and pioneering as the album is, I still think even the most hardcore of death metal enthusiasts have a tendency to discount just how versatile "Human" is as a record.

At a little under 40 minutes, "Human" is a tour de force that, to me at least, comes to symbolize everything that was great about death metal in the 1990s. It was rich, and well-produced, and powerful, and experimental and technically marvelous. It had raw force and sheer power, but it also had an underlying beauty and grace to its structure that was largely lost on all of those snobby music critics who are unable to hear past Schulinder's beastly growls. While "Human," Death and the extreme metal genre as a whole will likely never receive the accolades and acclaim that they individually deserve, the true believers require little convincing at this point: not only is this revolutionary 1991 offering the definitive death metal album of the decade, it's easily one of the greatest recordings ever...regardless of genre, and regardless of the timeframe.

2 comments:

  1. Not that I list this as if you've made any grand mistakes in your life but there are some tragic omissions here. Not that you have had to have heard every obscure DM album from the 90s, but there are some classic bands with some seminal 90s albums I hope you've heard of:

    Autopsy - Mental Funeral
    Deicide - Legion
    Immolation - Dawn of Possession
    Demilich - Nesphite
    Incantation - Onward To Golgotha
    Morbid Angel - Altars of Madness (89 but close enough)
    Asphyx - Last One On Earth
    Merciless - The Awakening
    Blasphemy - Fallen Angel of Doom
    Timeghoul - (grab the demo collection, you will not be disappointed by this journey to the outer realms mind fuck of a band)

    to keep it short, those are some damn fine death metal albums with an intense variety in styles and somewhat darker tones than most of what you've listed, having three Death albums on your list shows the one problem I have with many Death fans in that they don't really listen to much else but Death, insist it is the only band worth listening to, and will automatically hate anything you recommend to them, with a more curious and open ear you might find I have listed some fucking killer albums

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  2. No Cannibal Corpse. Come on guy...

    ReplyDelete