Is death metal a mere patchwork of morbid-sounding riffs or is it something more? What do we mean when we say that a piece of music fails to communicate anything beyond the frivolous? For death metal to rise above simple cosmetics, it needs to be able to convey something of that irreversible momentum gathered through life on the way to eventual, inevitable cessation. This cessation is to be embraced as the end of life, yes, but also as part of life, and therefore rushed headlong into. Great death metal recognizes the decay inherent in every breathing second spent on this earth and attempts to triumph over this piecemeal, cumulative negation by giving it the middle finger and welcoming it defiantly and with open arms.
Of course, no death metal band, as a collection of individuals, would admit to such obscurantist balderdash. Creation is a spontaneous process and it would be foolish to imagine a bunch of people sitting around the fire, gathering wool over esoteric matters and translating their thoughts to music. But often, the process of creation is completely distinct from the process of reception; what may have only been a subliminal extension of the musician’s thoughts can yet be perceived in greater relief by a finely tuned sensibility in the listener. The musician sows the seed with its native DNA in the listener’s mind, the latter tends to its growth, but only within the parameters defined by that parent DNA.
Whatever be the case, there is no denying that great death metal moves us on an intuitive level that lies outside the pale of technicality, note choices and overall structure. These things are undoubtedly important to the music and even help to underline what separates death metal from other forms of metal in a superficial, exoteric manner. But if we pause and take stock, we find that they are not ends in themselves but are in fact a natural outcome of abstract ideas specific to death metal, ideas that can be realized only with said technicality and note choices and structure. Technique, overwhelming or not, serves these ideas, gives them fleshly contours, and makes them assume a life of their own.
The will to motion in great death metal may originate in some corner of the musician’s mind as a result of a chain of remote causes-and-effects. But once it catches traction, it becomes an inexorable juggernaut, hurtling without heed towards ultimate dissolution. It does not stop for a look back over its shoulder or to gather breath; it considers each transition over the course of a song as one step closer to the precipice from which it will eventually fling itself off in spite and in glee. This will to motion is a one-way gradient with no safe harbour at the end. It requires tunnel-vision and an obsessive-compulsive self-destructive streak.
All this may lead to accusations of reading too much into the subject, and of looking for justifications where none exist. This may be so, granted, but we need to find and evolve towards a methodology and a measure of quality, however tentative or prone to subjective bias it may seem at first, in order to separate the bad from the good, and the good from the great, especially in light of the glut of bands flooding the market. Cannibal Corpse sound “good” and have few rivals in the live arena, but only the naive will ever place them in the same bracket as, say, a Suffocation. Conflict, tension, and release aren’t just fancy words to be thrown around while describing death metal; we all identify with them on some buried level.
The point here isn’t to second guess oneself. Death metal can be enjoyed on many levels but in the final reckoning, a qualitative assessment can be made only through brutal honesty, and by hearing the music in context with the ideals that originally spawned it and the potential that lies waiting to be unlocked through them.
Here are ten random songs that exemplify, to me, these somewhat amorphous notions: