I’ve worked through a fair bit of my earlier memories in terms of music in earlier posts. These “memories” posts are piling up now so I won’t back-reference every one, but the “Memories” tab in Categories on the sidebar will direct you to any older ones you may wish to peruse. For today, I’ll pick back up in the early 1990’s and get into the really heavy shit, as the title suggests.
Even as I was taking in everything in 1991 I was presented with even heavier sounds. I first hit on Sepultura back then and also picked up Slayer right around that time. As my classmates and friends were pouring obsessively over the Black Album day and night I was discovering German thrash like Kreator and Destruction.
I kept wanting to push the envelope. I got bored shitless with the Black Album and with Metallica in general after 1991. All of my friends were still playing it over and over again. They released a live box set in late 1993 and everyone would play it, even skipping over the older songs to hear the same selection of Black Album tracks. Like come on, man.
Well, all of my friends except one. One dude, a few years older than me, had a monstrous CD and tape collection. His coffers were stuffed to the brim with every kind of rock and metal you can think of, including a fair bit of stuff a lot of people had never heard of. Finally one day I left his house with a selection of tapes to check out and see if I was ready for the heaviest of the heavy.
The stuff I borrowed was a who’s who of early 90’s death metal – Morbid Angel, Death, Cannibal Corpse, Obituary, Deicide. It all hit like a ton of bricks for me. It was a whole other level from what I’d been listening to – this was heavy as literal Hell, aggressive, mean, blasphemous, evil, the whole nine yards.
I wasn’t totally unfamiliar with this stuff. Like I said, I’d heard Sepultura, which were not far removed from many of their Roadrunner label-mates. I also very vaguely remember Kurt Loder reporting on MTV News that a Florida band named Obituary had won a battle of the bands thing, probably just before they hit with their debut Slowly We Rot. But that was before I took the plunge – it was just a tidbit I have this recollection of when I was still forming my musical tastes.
I copied off all the tapes my buddy had given me and I went quickly further underground. I didn’t stop with the top-shelf of death metal. I found mail-order forms for Relapse Records, Nuclear Blast and other underground distributors and I went whole hog into it.
My first order from Relapse was for two bands – Incantation and Amorphis. I got Incantation’s debut album Onward To Golgotha and from Amorphis The Karelian Isthmus. I also ordered a few 7-inch records of each band as well as an Amorphis EP on tape. Those two albums would have a huge impact on me and are still massively important to me to this day. Incantation would remain a staple of my death metal diet while Amorphis would move in directions beyond the scope of my taste, but both were huge parts of my early days of this extreme metal exploration.
Other stuff would come. Pungent Stench was a favorite of all of us dumb, bored teenage boys. Hypocrisy would capture our attention. They would be one of the few to endure into the late 90’s, when many of these bands would fall by the wayside. But many others were abundant – Carcass, Bolt Thrower, Vader, Kataklysm, Pestilence, Asphyx, Gorefest … shit, this list could go on for hours. There were so many worthy bands cranking out badass shit in the early ’90’s underground scene. I was in hook, line and sinker.
One that really stood out to me was Suffocation. There’s a joke about the -tion bands, one that Carcass even clowned on in a song off their 2013 reunion album Surgical Steel in the song Thrasher’s Abbatior.
But Suffocation? That shit was real. This intersection between brutality and technicality was unparalleled at a time when bands were often finding their sound in one space or another. Their influence on death metal afterwards was as sweeping as their arpeggios. Brutal death metal, technical death metal, slam, core, whatever you do today – your ass owes a debt to Suffocation. For me, and for many others, they stand as the masters of the craft.
Death metal would come quickly and not always from the U.S. Sweden got into the game in a big way, leading a few charges that would shape the extreme metal landscape forever. The first wave would emerge from Stockholm, with Grave, Dismember and Entombed providing headache-inducing soundtracks shaped in large part by the Boss HM2 guitar pedal. That disgusting tone coupled with nihilistic lyrics and a buzzsaw edge would have its own profound mark on the scene as a whole and especially on my ears.
Then the second Swedish wave came from their second biggest city. The Gothenburg Sound pioneered by At The Gates, Dark Tranquillity, In Flames, The Crown and … yes, Great Britain’s Carcass, would lay a foundation used to this day by kids who weren’t even alive when we were listening to this shit. A more melodic, thrash-based approach that owed equally to Slayer and Iron Maiden would give younger metalheads plenty of homework to do in the coming decades.
This is where I was in the early and mid 1990’s. I was on the vanguard of heavy metal’s most extreme movement to date. But just as I found all of this, something else was going on.
It wasn’t just the music – we had to find this shit through the underground. Tape trading was big, but who did you trade tapes with? You had to find people to do that with. And I quickly got into more stuff from Europe, the American scene was pretty easy to buy at a music store. Even the piss ant “metropolis” of Rolla, Missouri had a CD shop in 1994 and they would gladly order me whatever I wanted. But getting a hold of some stuff wasn’t possible through conventional music distribution means.
The information currency just before the advent of the Internet was called the ‘zine. It was a magazine, just in a Kinko’s (now FedEx Office) mass-printed form. Most ‘zines were truly passion projects copied off in office stores and mailed to rabid metal fans.
I got a bit lucky, though. I grew up not far from St. Louis and a very professional ‘zine came from a die-hard metalhead in the area. Sounds Of Death was published for a few years in the mid-90’s , at the exact same time I was getting into this scene. SOD was a far superior publication to the Kinko’s-printed staple-in-the-top-left ‘zine – it was a full magazine, with a brutal cover and a ton of content within.
I remember that the main honcho of SOD had a huge hate hard-on for My Dying Bride. I would crack up when he would review them. Years later I would get into MDB’s stuff but back then that caustic kind of review struck a chord with me. But the content wasn’t all negative – he had plenty good to say about the most brutal offerings of the day.
I’d end my high school “career” still being very hard into death metal, even as I still entertained other scenes, like the burgeoning alternative radio rock that came of age in 1995. My musical adventures would go in a whole other direction, a much more tourist-oriented state as I grew into adulthood and cared about a lot of things other than having some diehard metal collection. I’d develop this recurring theme of watching what I got into being left behind, just as I watched hair metal perish in 1991 and as I watched death metal suffer in the late 1990’s. A future post about my forays into alternative rock and being more of a music tourist, which thankfully covers an 11-year period of my musical formation and can be summed up rather briefly, is on the horizon.
But there is one other strain of extreme metal to talk about. It’s one that jumps years for me and one I didn’t initially take to. It, for me and many like me, started with the crazy story of betrayal and murder I first saw covered in the pages of Sounds Of Death and elsewhere in 1994. And it is also another story for another time.
I remember when I first got into metal in 1990 – more like Ozzy, Megadeth, Metallica, and the like – my family would go on about how it was “just a phase.” I think that’s been a theme with more than one person in my life over the decades since. It’s something that would go away, to be replaced by figuring out how to put meals on the table for kids, family functions, the mundane yet profound aspects of life that would come as people truly grew up. What I found in extreme metal was just a thing to fill a hole – other stuff would supersede it as time wore on, at least in the eyes of others.
Well folks, this phase is now almost 30 years strong. And, just like many who put food on tables, who go to piano recitals and soccer games, Carcass and Morbid Angel are the soundtrack along the way. I myself may not have kids and other grandiose stuff to do, which just gave me more time to explore the various strains of underground metal that would come.
But I know plenty of people who do have families, businesses and careers, and many of these people would be the same people I’d see at death metal shows and other extreme metal shows over the ensuing decades. I know me and many like me who have lived this phase for 30 years, 40 years. And today it keeps going – kids are still throwing down, looking for the heaviest, harshest sounds they can find. It doesn’t end. Metal just keeps going, and still keeps mutating into new forms. It often now joins with other lesser explored genres of rock to shape new sounds for the coming age.
I’ll see this phase through to my end complete. Extreme metal was, and is, something that could be shared between the few – it turns off the normies, the Karens, the suburban couples walking their dogs on multi-use trails as I fly by them on my bicycle with Bolt Thrower blaring from my Bluetooth speaker. But those of us who get it? Yeah, this shit is for life. And it isn’t to be explained – you either get it, or you don’t. And I think plenty of people today still get it just fine.