Shortly after being founded by Digby “Dig” Pearson in 1985, Earache Records earned a reputation as being at the forefront of extreme metal’s ever-shifting landscape. Some of its earliest releases, like Napalm Death’s Scum and Carcass’s Reek Of Putrefaction, pioneered and popularised the grindcore genre. From there, the label had the prescient ability to sign game-changing death metal, melodeath and post-metal bands before they got big, making its albums a fixture of any metalhead’s shelf in the 90s and 2000s.
Earache has since shifted gears to signing everything from new wave nu metal bands to nostalgic rock ’n’ roll act. Here’s the essential guide to its history in just five albums.
Napalm Death – Scum (1987)
The grindcore big bang. Although Napalm Death didn’t invent the genre, their debut album is what pulled its erratic sound out of the grotty midlands underground and into prominence. Scum is anarchy incarnate, manifesting the insanity of Napalm Death’s adolescence and nonstop lineup changes at the time, as well as the wider anger of working-class, Thatcher-era Birmingham. It’s a bludgeoning of two equally nasty parts, its first half channelling lightspeed hardcore before the B-side integrates some slower, hulking grooves à la death metal.
Despite their ferocity, Napalm Death became a household name. Radio 1 DJ John Peel held the Brummies in particularly high esteem and, as mainstream listeners marvelled at their brutality, they started making appearances on BBC TV. At 1.316 seconds, signature track You Suffer still holds the Guinness World Record for the shortest song ever recorded, as well. The band continue to perform and record 35-plus years after Scum, despite sadly containing none of the members that appeared on this tornado of blast beats and fury. Some of them went on to form Carcass and Godflesh, though, so are still bludgeoning unready ears.
Morbid Angel – Altars Of Madness (1989)
Similar to Scum, Morbid Angel’s debut album didn’t necessarily invent death metal (it’s still being disputed as to who that honour goes to). However, Altars Of Madness most certainly perfected the genre. It was a manifesto for a new, grown-up death metal, incorporating the same characteristics as Possessed’s Seven Churches and Death’s Scream Bloody Gore while making them sound so much more consistent and technical. Even in 2023, there’s no sloppiness or wasted space between the machine-gun drumming and intricate riffing, and there continue to be new bands trying to ape its sound and impact.
Upon release, Altars Of Madness was immediately lauded and, together with Death, Morbid Angel legitimised Tampa as America’s death metal hotbed. Local boys from Obituary to Deicide all emerged and got major label deals in the aftermath, leading the scene to become so fertile that bands who were states away, such as New Yorkers Cannibal Corpse, upped sticks to be part of it. Morbid Angel still haven’t made anything as special as Altars… 30-plus years later, but when your debut single-handedly raised the bar of your genre, do you really need to?
Carcass – Heartwork (1993)
The great chameleons of British metal, Carcass have been at the crest of the wave for three different heavy music subgenres. Bill Steer and Jeff Walker both had a hand in Napalm Death’s seismic Scum, respectively playing guitar on the debut and providing its manic artwork. With Carcass, early albums Reek Of Putrefaction and Symphonies Of Sickness made them favourites in the still-fresh grindcore sound. Then Necroticism: Descanting The Insalubrious was a preeminent technical death metal disc and, most famously, Heartwork pioneered melodic death metal.
On Carcass’s fourth album, Bill affirmed his status as a guitar hero by simplifying yet diversifying his playing. Sturdy rhythm riffs were cast against slicing, NWOBHM-style lead lines. Along with the snarled but accessible choruses, it was a display quickly mimicked by leaders of the Gothenburg sound, like In Flames. In Jeff’s own words, “We set things up very nicely for a bunch of Swedish bands to come in and clean up on.” Heartwork ensured Carcass’s legacy as trailblazers, and today remains a superbly listenable extreme metal masterpiece.
At The Gates – Slaughter Of The Soul (1995)
In the early 90s, At The Gates were known for making weird, meandering death metal with, like, violins and shit. Then, on 1994’s Terminal Spirit Disease, the Swedes took a sharp left turn. They handed the songwriting reins to the Björler brothers and released a much more concise, anthemic melodeath record. A subsequent UK tour going disastrously wrong pushed the band even further into focus, fury and intent – and the end result, just one year later, was a classic.
Slaughter Of The Soul is extreme metal at its most accessible, but never dumbed down. At The Gates sought to make it a “classic metal album”, taking influence from the speed and simplicity of thrash, as well as the flamboyant anthems of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. With Tomas Lindberg’s distinctly agonised screaming, every lyric and riff became an inescapable earworm. The no-holds-barred 34 minutes became a key influence on the later New Wave Of American Heavy Metal, despite At The Gates splitting from 1996 to 2008, greatly delaying their ability to relish in the triumph of making a master work.
Rival Sons – Pressure & Time (2011)
When Earache put the second album by hard rockers Rival Sons out in 2011, it was received with incredulity. Why was a label who largely lived in the most extreme ends of heavy metal suddenly releasing music by some Led Zeppelin-inspired melody-makers? However, a decade later, The Temperance Movement, Scarlet Rebels and The White Buffalo are on the roster, making 70s nostalgia Earache’s new bread and butter.
Despite some scepticism from Earache’s keen-eyed observers, Pressure & Time struck as a welcome throwback to big-chorus, classic rock ’n’ roll. For many in the label’s native UK – at a time when burgeoning rockers like Black Veil Brides, You Me at Six and Twin Atlantic were pushing forward with teenager-friendly emo – it felt refreshing. The album reached number 19 in the country’s independent album chart, then Rival Sons kept commercially climbing for almost a decade. With Blackberry Smoke and Scarlet Rebels now routinely cracking the UK Top 40, the switch to throwback rock has clearly been a lucrative one for Digby and co.