Death metal is sort of the dubstep of heavy rock genres: You either “get it” or you don’t, and if you don’t, the music can appear to be little more than unbearable noise. In the case of death metal, that noise comes in the form of chugging guitars, lightning-fast riffing, hard drumming and vocals that are often described as “Cookie Monster–like” by critics.
But a little effort in trying to appreciate death metal can result in great rewards. The technical musicianship is, in many cases, staggering. It can be cathartic in the live environment to go crazy with like-minded souls to this stuff. And the genre's much-maligned lyrics, which frequently deal with death, decay, violence and other dark themes, are fun when taken in the same spirit as horror movies. It’s not real life, kids.
Here are 10 songs that we feel represent the genre perfectly. There are important bands not included, such as Nile, At the Gates and Entombed. Early Sepultura could have been on here, too. But there can be only 10.
1. Cannibal Corpse, “Hammer Smashed Face”
To many people, Cannibal Corpse are the archetypal death metal band. The vocals of first Chris Barnes and, later, George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher could be the blueprint — guttural, rumbling, incomprehensible and practically inhuman. On a musical level, the instrumentalists are technically dazzling, but it’s the lyrical subject matter and the album artwork where Cannibal Corpse really raised the bar. The Tomb of the Mutilated album cover features corpses, some reanimated and some not, engaged in cunnilingus; song titles include “I Cum Blood” and “Split Wide Open.” In fact, some publicists have refused to work with the band over “Entrails Ripped From a Virgin’s Cunt.” The aim of the horror-themed work is to shock, and the Buffalo, New York, band succeed regularly. But all of that wouldn’t count for shit if the music wasn’t brutally wonderful. “Hammer Smashed Face” is the band’s best-known song and it’s typical in its unrelenting and groove-based onslaught.
2. Death, “Pull the Plug”
While the Bay Area was ground zero for the thrash metal scene, Florida spawned a whole lot of death metal groups around the same time. Most important was the band simply called Death (not to be confused with the Detroit proto-punk band), led by the sadly deceased Chuck Schuldiner. The frontman’s voice could operate at a higher pitch than many vocalists of the genre, though he never sounded anything less than pure evil. The early Death albums are vital — Scream Bloody Gore and Leprosy in particular. But right up until the final release, 1998’s The Sound of Perseverance, the band were pushing the boundaries, both of the genre confines and also of good taste. Schuldiner died from brain cancer at the end of 2001, and he remains a revered figure in the scene.
3. Deicide, “Satan Spawn, The Caco-Daemon”
Another Florida band, Deicide feature a frontman in Glen Benton who is quite the character. Over the years, he’s been vocal with his satanist beliefs, though how serious he was being has always been open to debate. What we do know is that he spent a great many years repeatedly branding an inverted cross onto his forehead, which pretty much restricted his employment options to “death metal musician” or “Walmart greeter.” Additionally, he once said that he would kill himself at the age of 33 in order to live a life opposite to Jesus. He’s now 50. Cartoonish devil worship aside, though, Deicide have produced some magnificent and genuinely creepy work over the years, and ’92’s Legion is arguably the masterpiece. There’s melody to be found under the pummeling ax-work, even recognizable choruses, and on “Satan Spawn, the Caco-Daemon,” there are goats bleating before Benton goes for the throat. Listen to it with the lights off, just for giggles.
4. Morbid Angel, “Blessed Are the Sick”
Back to Florida for Morbid Angel, the band led by beautifully named guitarist Trey Azagthoth (real name: George Emmanuel III) since 1984. Classic lineup singer David Vincent of North Carolina relocated to Florida, claiming that he wanted to get used to the heat of Hell. That’s not Glen Benton–level commitment, but it’s OK by us. Morbid Angel have released some excellent albums, and their ’89 debut, Altars of Madness, is a classic. We’ve gone for the title track from the sophomore Blessed Are the Sick, though, because it showcases just how brutal the band could be, even when it slowed things down. The song is a terrifying, swampy beast.
5. Obituary, “Don't Care”
Seriously, what is it about Florida, and Tampa in particular, that inspired this sort of music in the 1980s and ’90s? Obituary are still active, and they’ve always been known for John Tardy’s distinctive vocals. Growly, sure, but there’s an insane warble in his timbre that, frankly, is kind of uncomfortable to listen to. The first four albums, between ’89 and ’94, are essential. On the fourth, World Demise, the band got a little sociopolitical and, with “Don’t Care,” downright rabble-rousing.
6. Decapitated, “Earth Scar”
Polish band Decapitated have been metaphorically smashing fans in the ears with a sledgehammer since 1996, putting out seven uncompromisingly heavy albums in the process. There’s really not a dud among them — you know what you’re going to get from a Decapitated record. So what the hell, we’ve pulled the monstrous “Earth Scar” from the most recent effort, Anticult.
7. Necrophagia, “Embalmed Yet I Breathe”
Some fans of extreme metal might be familiar with Necrophagia (a name that literally means “corpse eating”) because of the fact that Pantera/Down frontman Phil Anselmo was in the band for a few years in the late ’90s/early ’00s, under the pseudonym Anton Crowley. Fans of extreme horror films might remember them from the low-budget gore-fests that were the August Underground movies; the second of them, Mordum, was co-directed by and stars Necrophagia founder and frontman Killjoy. But not so many actually listen to the band’s music, and they should. Favorites on the tape-trading scene for years before they actually recorded an album, the band formed in 1983 and are considered by many to be among the first bona fide death metal bands. Gore-obsessed and perfectly offensive, they certainly tick all of the boxes. The violently unforgettable “Embalmed Yet I Breathe” is from the excellent Holocausto de la Morta album, one of those that featured Anselmo on guitar.
8. Gutrot, “Gorging on Menstrual Chunks”
Detroit’s Gutrot are the most obscure band on this list — there are certainly other groups not included who have contributed more to the genre. But on the other hand, nobody has a voice quite like Gutrot’s Brian Forgue. When the guy’s in full flow, as he is on “Gorging on Menstrual Chunks” (not a ballad, by the way), he sounds like a room full of hogs doing the dirty. A human mouth isn’t supposed to be able to make noises like this, and it’s quite a joy to behold. As a marker to how extreme and dizzyingly heavy death metal can get, Gutrot are ideal. Also, these guys have some of the most nauseating T-shirts in existence — so incredibly, comically vile that you’ll wonder where the hell you could wear them outside of a Gutrot gig. For your own sake, don’t Google “Gutrot Port-O-Potty Pervert.”
9. Vomitory, “Regorge in the Morgue”
Sweden has long had a thriving death metal scene, with the likes of Entombed, God Macabre and Visceral Bleeding just a few of the bands to have emerged from the Scandinavian country (neighboring Norway, meanwhile, is black metal country — whatever you do, don't confuse the two when speaking to a metal fan). Vomitory were active between 1989 and 2013, putting out eight awesome albums on Metal Blade Records before calling it quits. We still miss them, but like the cadaver in this “Regorge in the Morgue” video, perhaps they’ll be back.
10. Ribspreader, “Dead Forever”
The brainchild of Swedish musician Roger “Rogga” Johansson (the only remaining original member), Ribspreader formed in 2003, making it one of the youngest bands on this list. It also split in 2014, but Johansson reanimated the project last year with a new lineup. “Dead Forever” is from the debut Bolted to the Cross album, and it’s a brutal, blasphemous gem.