The death metal genre of music is a sub-genre of heavy metal. Typically, death metal contains all of the familiar characteristics of heavy metal, but with a few differences. Perhaps most notably, the vocals in death metal almost always utilize growling/screaming techniques, whereas traditional heavy metal tends to lean towards clean singing. Heavily distorted guitar tones are standard fare, and clean guitar passages are few and far between. Guitar parts typically make use of chromatic, minor, and harmonic-more scales in song writing. Death metal drumming is usually very fast paced, with a large emphasis on double-bass work, and frequent “blast beat” snare patterns.
Death metal has the majority of its origins in America, with such bands as Death, Suffocation, Morbid Angel, Slayer, and Venom creating the original sounds of the genre. The popularity of death metal rose in the 1990s as the sound spread to Europe, leading to an entire wave of European tweaks to the traditional death metal sound; in particular the Gothenburg sound. Bands such as In Flames and At The Gates introduced melodic tones into death metal, and sowed the seeds of what would eventually become the entire sub-genre of melodic death metal. The reoccurring lyrical themes combined with the harsh sounds produced by these founding bands gave birth to the title of the genre.
Imagery of death, gore, violence, and war make up much of the lyrical landscape found in the works of both founding and current death metal bands. Satanic and anti-religious themes are also prevalent in death metal. However, the vast majority of artists say that they do not actually embrace or support the messages within their lyrics, but rather they are for the purposes of shock-entertainment, much like frightening films and literature. Death metal lyrics can also branch into more socially/politically conscious territory.
While death metal is itself a sub-genre, it has also spawned sub-genres of its own. The most rapidly growing death metal sub-genre may be “deathcore”, a blend of traditional death metal sounds with particular elements of hardcore music. The result is a wider variety of tempos, and the centerpiece of deathcore, the “breakdown”. Breakdowns consist of sparse, half-time drumming, with bass drum patterns typically following the rhythm of the guitars. Guitars, meanwhile, play low chords with an emphasis purely upon rhythm. “Shots” of guitar chords contrasted with stark silences make for a primitive, pummeling sound which defines the breakdown. Some key bands in the deathcore genre include Whitechapel, Suicide Silence, Despised Icon, and Winds of Plague.
The vastness of heavy metal subgenres can be dizzying, but straight forward death metal is relatively simple to identify. Fans can be quite passionate about the correct labeling of metal bands, and rarely are agreements made over a band’s true genre.