Death metal as a distinct genre dates back to about 1985 or so, and the sheer number of albums that have been released since is staggering. Aficionados of the genre will argue endlessly about which albums deserve to be placed on a list of the absolute best of the best that the genre has to offer. In an effort to avoid such arguments, the purpose of this list is to inform listeners new to the genre; that is, given the enormous number of albums released in the name of death metal, how does a fan new to the genre find where to begin? I’ll also state that, with a few exceptions, the albums are not intended to be listed in order of quality, and I’m going to largely focus upon early genre landmarks.
Possessed - Seven Churches (1985)
We might as well begin with the first album that can be called death metal and nothing else. Albums and EPs such as Hell Awaits by Slayer, In The Sign Of Evil by Sodom, and Morbid Tales by Celtic Frost predate Seven Churches, but the swirling chaos and, at the time, what was once considered all out speed of Seven Churches was unprecedented. Arguments can be made that Scream Bloody Gore by Death, which was released a few months after Seven Churches, has had a longer lasting impact, but, at the time, Seven Churches was something completely new and went well beyond any of the borderline releases listed above, releases with one foot still planted in thrash metal.
Morbid Angel - Altars Of Madness (1989)
A direct descendant of Seven Churches, Altars Of Madness is the first official album from Morbid Angel, an emerging giant in the exploding Tampa Bay, Florida scene of death metal. The swirling chaos of Seven Churches would receive a huge upgrade in musicianship, largely the responsibility of guitarists Trey Azagtoth and Richard Brunelle, and drummer Pete Sandoval, recognized as one of the best drummers in extreme metal. Vocalist/ bassist David Vincent is no slouch, either, and his deep seated vocals gave this album an evil vibe that would have a lasting effect.
Deicide - Deicide (1990)
Entombed - Left Hand Path (1990)
Events in death metal were not confined to America as genre defining moments were happening in Scandinavia, as well. Sweden’s Entombed were at the forefront of a slightly different take on death metal anchored by a particular guitar sound and production, a sound that would be forever linked with now legendary Sunlight Studios. The sheer density of Left Hand Path would take on a life of its own with hordes of albums released from an unbelievable number of Swedish bands that would soon follow. Swedish death metal would soon easily rival, and in some cases surpass, the American scene. This legacy cements Left Hand Path’s status as an album that is equally as important as Seven Churches.
Cannibal Corpse - Tomb Of The Mutilated (1992)
The best selling death metal band of all time, Cannibal Corpse would tread different lyrical themes by fully embracing an obsession with gore. Somewhat strangely, the infatuation with gore would resonate with the more conservative elements of American society, with Cannibal Corpse being cited in 1996 by presidential candidate Bob Dole as an example of a battle in the culture wars being waged. This album, Tomb Of The Mutilated, is probably the reason with outrageous album artwork, song titles, and lyrics. This album is no gimmick, however, and is an absolute monster of well played, well produced, unbelievably heavy, death metal.
Suffocation - Effigy Of The Forgotten (1991)
New York’s Suffocation raised the bar for all out brutality in death metal, all the while retaining a firm grip on solid musicianship and songwriting skills. Outrageously, and simultaneously, fast, brutal, and technical, Effigy Of The Forgotten would spawn hordes of imitators and serve as the obvious progenitor to the subgenres of death metal of the brutal and slam variety. Through travails involving lineup changes and a long hiatus, Suffocation still reside at, or very near, the top of the death metal heap.
Death - Human (1991)
An argument can be made for the inclusion of just about any album from Death on this list, but, for my money, Human is the most distinctive. Human marks a transition in the artistic output of band, and nearly genre, founder Chuck Schuldiner, as he began to move his work from plodding brutality to a more progressive, seamless style of semi-technical death metal. The change required the enlistment of the very best musicians that death metal had to offer at the time, and the result is a landmark album that jump started technical death metal as a subgenre.
Immolation - Close To A World Below (2000)
New York’s Immolation are considered a founder of what is sometimes loosely described as New York-style death metal, but the band’s early albums were plagued by muddy production, an endless source of frustration for myself in the early going. However, all of that changed with the seamless Close To A World Below, a masterpiece of Immolation’s peculiar style of quirky time changes and atypical guitar riffing. Back up the unique approach to death metal with intelligent critiques of religion, particularly Catholicism, and the understandable, yet guttural, vocals of band founder/ bassist Ross Dolan, and Close To A World Below is the keystone of a very impressive discography from Immolation.
Incantation - Onward To Golgotha (1992)
Pennsylvania’s Incantation jump started a new form of death metal with Onward To Golgotha, a style only vaguely described as dark death metal. Incantation, anchored early on by the brutal guitar work of John McEntee and the absolutely deep vocals of Craig Pillard, were able to convey a sense of dark, foreboding evil with a very deep, bottom heavy sound. A revolving door of lineup changes over the years has not stopped Incantation, a genre giant still going strong to this day. McEntee himself has taken on a bigger role in death metal with his very own label, Ibex Moon Records, a label devoted to the promotion of old school death metal (OSDM) as an artistic, dynamic force.
Nile - Annihilation Of The Wicked (2005)
Death metal is an evolving, dynamic art form with landmark albums appearing to this day as the genre moves forwards and splinters into different forms. At the forefront of today’s bands, South Carolina’s Nile is characterized by a flawless blend of technical wizardry, all out speed, and a solid, brutal sound. Aiding the cause is an intelligent approach to lyrical and thematic elements, usually death metal’s weak points, centered on a fascination with Ancient Egyptian civilizations. Annihilation Of The Wicked is a near perfect example of the powerful synergy of musicianship, songwriting, and production in death metal, all at the pinnacle of the genre on this album.