ERA 1: ORIGINS ( 1988 - 1998 )

Story online since:  22.03.2008 / 08:26:41

This article will attempt to shed some light on one of the most vibrant and original metal the planet has ever seen. For ease of discussion, a wide spectrum of bands and sounds have been grouped under the umbrella term of Technical-Progressive Death Metal, whereas in reality there is no single genre that can cater to the variety of the bands mentioned here. I will also touch on a number of bands that helped shape the trends and sounds of the metal scene as a whole and thus affected the tech-death phenomena as well.

First, there was metal and hardcore, and metalheads saw it was good. Then there was the need for speed and evilness. Metalheads found it was great. Then came a seasoned breed of metal players who attempted to combine the speed and ferocity of speed metal/hardcore (Venom, Discharge, Motorhead etc) with the technical dexterity and odd structures of progressive and experimental rock (Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd etc). Thus was born thrash, and more precisely technical thrash metal (Metallica, Sadus, Voivod, Forbidden , Infernal Majesty, Rigor Mortis etc).

As the thrash scene morphed into the crushing sonics of death metal (Obituary, Entombed, Morbid Angel, Death, Carcass), it was inevitable that a new generation of metal musicians would infuse it with the same proficiency of technical chops and bizarre time signatures. This signaled the true birth of technical/progressive death metal.

The first warriors of this 'advance guard' were real innovators and brave musicians, who played against the grain, and had to withstand a ton of critical and commercial backlash for their headier leanings. But as the maturity and appreciation of the musical aspects of the death metal scene grew, they found a devoted but small following. The above description applies rather aptly to Atheist (who were doing their own technical and savage metal bombast from the beginning) as well as Death (who evolved from a more proto-typical death metal outfit to a efficient killing machine of beauty and grace) along with the short lived Cynic (who nailed their cosmic metal sound in matter of a couple of demos and 1 album, setting a standard that remains till today). There was Nocturnus, a monstrous outfit combining great lead playing and synthesizers in their metal of death. Though each of these bands sounded different from each other, they all had some features in common : a love of hypnotic morphing riffs with melodic leads galore, odd non-typical time signatures, fantastic playing by all musicians involved, hints of jazz and progressive rock, strange ambiences and non-conventional (for death metal) topics and to top it all off, a decimating heaviness of sound. Bands like Pestilence joined the club with winning albums (that lost more fans than they gained). A darker breed of the chop heavy death metal was inaugurated by the one and only Morbid Angel that allied frenetic odd playing, with positively diabolical imagery showing that there was room for technicality in traditional death metal.

There were other bands who walked paths all their own. Mindrot combined sludgy apocalyptic death metal with gothic melodicism and progressive tendencies to devastating effect but went under the metal radar and disbanded after three releases. Disharmonic Orchestra developed their sound to a surreal death/grind hybrid with an arty bizarre touch over numerous demos and EPs as well as three excellent albums before disapearing into obscurity.

Bands like Cannibal Corpse and Suffocation (though not technical or progressive) took the brutality and speed of death metal to ridiculous levels thus in turn making the second wave of tech-death do the same, except injecting it with the properties of technicality.

There was the Canadian abomination called Kataklysm, who in their enthusiastic mixing of spiritual and bizarre themes and love of chaos, unintentionally created two masterpeices of proto-tech death insanity. It is technical and progressive in its attempts to cross metaphysical barriers and sound limits as well as structural restrictions. Gorguts came onto the scene with a unique sound all their own, and were not afraid to experiment in song-writing and riffing. Their experimentation peaked on Obscura , possibly the ugliest most bizarre death metal album ever. Meshuggah upped the technical thrash ante with their early groundbreaking work (stop start riffing galore and bizarre timing with odd leads) and that along with Cryptopsy albums like None So Vile and Whisper Supremacy (frentically fast,technical and brutal death metal) ushered a new era of technical death metal, one where the brutality and speed was upped by notches, structures were all over the place and the sound became an all-encompassing sonic insanity.

Meanwhile the elements of melody and traditional as well as progressive metal took on a new context in the maiden worshipping death metal of Europe (particularly Sweden). The harmonized melodic leads, thrashy riffing, raspy vocals and pounding attacks were not vey progressive in themselves but influenced a plethora of bands of the second era who took a step further to combine it with jazz tonalities and the non-traditional time signatures for some vigorous new sounds.

In summary, as the 90's came to an end the brutal and fast got even uglier and faster (Deeds of the Flesh, Disgorge etc as a well a barrage of grindcore), the melodic got even more so (In Flames, Soil Work etc to the point of no longer being remotely extreme metal), the progressive got even more so (Opeth almost starting a 70's prog rock revival, and Edge of Sanity attempting Yes influenced concept albums). All of this profoundly affected the developement of technical progressive death metal.

Enter Nile, Necrophagist, Origin.......

The second era will be covered in part 2 of this article.

To illustrate the sequence of sonic terrorism that defined the movement, below is a simple timeline diagram representing the bands and albums for the period 1988 - 1998. Notice the releases in grey are technical / progressive death metal albums while the white ones are big influences on the genre without coming into it themselves.

Note: The diagram or the article is in no way exhaustive and I would appreciate any feedback in terms of inclusions, exclusions or criticism. Click on the diagram to enlarge.


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