What Is Death Metal?

A history and profile of the death metal genre.

Morbid Angel
Morbid Angel. Earache Records

Death metal evolved from thrash metal and also took some of the extreme elements of black metal. The fast tempos of thrash were kept, but blast beats were added to make it even more brutal. The aggressive vocals of thrash became the screaming unintelligible "cookie monster" vocals of death metal.

In the mid 1980s the genre arose in the U.S., especially in Florida. Sweden was the hotbed of early European death metal with bands such as Morbid and Nihilist. It didn't take long for death metal to spread around the world. A multitude of subgenres later splintered off from death metal. Death metal and its variants are probably the most popular form of metal today.

Musical Style

In one word, brutal. Death metal is intense and fast, usually utilizing a double bass drum and dual distorted guitars that are tuned low. The songs tend to have frequent changes in tempo, key and time signature.

Vocal Style

The vocals are what make death metal distinctive. Instead of singing, death metal vocalists use a low-pitched guttural growl that is nearly impossible to understand. The lyrical content is almost always dark and/or apocalyptic.

Death Metal Subgenres

Over the years numerous subgenres have evolved from original death metal. Some of them include melodic death metal, deathcore, technical death metal, death 'n roll, blackened death metal and death/doom. 

Death Metal Pioneers

It only makes sense that a band called Death is a pioneer in death metal. They were part of the Florida scene that spawned the genre in the U.S. The band was started in 1984 by Chuck Schuldiner, a true metal pioneer. They released several demos that became popular in the underground and finally released their debut album Scream Bloody Gore in 1987. Death released seven full-lengths before Schuldiner died of cancer in 2001.

Morbid Angel

Also a part of the seminal Florida scene, Morbid Angel got together in 1983. Guitarist and songwriter Trey Azagthoth is the backbone of the band, who have gone through a few different vocalists. Their debut album was 1989's Altars Of Madness. Their signature release was 1991's Blessed Are The Sick, a classic death metal album and a must-own.


While bands like Morbid Angel and Cannibal Corpse have had long careers, Possessed were short-lived. The Bay Area band emerged on the scene with the influential Seven Churches in 1985. They only released one other studio album. Possessed have reunited periodically over the years, but no new music has thus far emerged.

Recommended Death Metal Albums

Death - Human
Morbid Angel - Covenant
Cannibal Corpse - Butchered At Birth
Deicide - Deicide
Carcass - Symphonies Of Sickness
Obituary - The End Complete
At The Gates - Terminal Spirit Disease
Arch Enemy - Burning Bridges
God Dethroned - The Grand Grimoire
Necrophagia - Season Of The Dead
Suffocation - Effigy Of The Forgotten

List of Essential Death Metal Albums