Death metal crawled out of the swamps of Florida in the second half of the 80s and instantly exploded like a festering corpse. This was heavy metal taken to its extreme: a barrage of buzzsaw guitars, blastbeats and gargled, guttural vocals that spat out macabre and frequently incomprehensible lyrics which sounded like they’d been ripped straight from a video nasty.
Death metal swiftly replaced thrash as the sound of the metal underground. Early pioneers Death, Morbid Angel and Obituary became cult heroes, pushing the boundaries of the genre. Mainstream metal fans were baffled and appalled in equal measure - this wasn't the kind of thing you got on MTV. Which was exactly the point.
Over the next few years, the death metal scene grew in size and ambition. While the likes of Cannibal Corpse stuck close to its original M.O. of unvarnished noise and NSFW imagery, others began to push the sound forward, showing that ‘brutal’ and ‘progessive’ weren’t mutually exclusive terms. By the mid-90s, death metal suddenly found itself being taken seriously, thanks in part to the influx of bands such as Entombed and At The Gates, who brought a distinctly European flavour to this American art form.
Like every musical movement, death metal has had its ups and downs over the last 30 years. But like an especially tenacious zombie, it refuses to stop. Today, the scene is as big, brutal and mind-blowing as ever - a testament to the enduring power of extremity.
We asked you to vote for the 50 best death metal albums ever, and you responded in your thousands. So here are the results in all their grisly glory. Keep on rotting in the free world…
50. Macabre – Sinister Slaughter (1993)
Standard bearers for death metal’s horror-obsessed, drug-addled contingent, Macabre dedicated the songs on Sinister Slaughter to a variety of serial killers, from Richard Ramirez (Nightstalker) to Jeffrey Dahmer (What’s That Smell?). The music was every bit as gruesome and unsettling as you might imagine. A horror metal milestone.
49. Pestilence – Consuming Impulse (1989)
Later albums would push death metal into alien territory, but Consuming Impulse was Pestilence’s most lethal moment of genre purity. The Dutch band always had a slightly different vibe to their US and European peers, and on the frenzied likes of Suspended Animation and Echoes Of Death, Patrick Mameli’s crew were audibly going their own, wicked way.
48. Amon Amarth –Twilight Of The Thunder God (2008)
Still rising in popularity more than two decades into their career, Amon Amarth represent melodic death metal’s epic and bombastic wing and Twilight Of The Thunder God was the album that turned them into a global concern. Never mind all the Viking-related stuff, this band’s sound has always been rooted in (a) crushing death metal and (b) the irresistible catchiness of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. This, incidentally, is the kind of recipe we can definitely get behind. Raise your horns!
47. Vader – De Profundis (1995)
Long before Behemoth became metal’s enfants terrible, Vader were busy putting Polish metal on the map. Already decade-old veterans by the time of De Profundis, this monstrous and profane second album bore the DNA of the thrash band they once were. But its nailed-on precision was matched by blunt-force brutality. It set the bar high not just for Eastern European death metal, but for death metal as a whole.
46. Cattle Decapitation – Monolith Of Inhumanity (2012)
Consistently one of the most inventive and twisted bands in all of extreme metal, Cattle Decapitation have become increasingly ambitious over their lengthy lifespan. Monolith Of Inhumanity set a new standard for warped, progressive deathgrind, Travis Ryan’s atmospheric sensibilities and mischievous spirit colliding across some truly wild and adventurous brutality.
45. Dying Fetus – Reign Supreme (2012)
Long-standing brutal death metal heavyweights, Dying Fetus straddle the divide between all-out technicality and lobotomised, pit-friendly slam riffs and they reached a particularly potent sweet spot on Reign Supreme. From the absurd sweep-picking mayhem of Invert The Idols onwards, this was a master class in uncompromising barbarity.
44. Dissection – Storm Of The Light’s Bane (1995)
While Sweden’s Dissection were very much black metal in terms of ideology and atmosphere, they also featured noticeable elements of the melodic death metal movement exploding in their home country, as well as classic ‘80s heavy metal. This, their second album, is a melodic, majestic and gloriously epic listen that features a measured, bombastic tone yet also makes use of furious, high-paced delivery when necessary.
43. Decapitated – Nihility (2002)
Decapitated’s latterday career has been marked by tragedy (the 2007 tourbus crash which killed drummer Vitek and left singer Covan paralysed) and controversy (rape charges were brought against all four members in 2017, before being droopped). But that can’t overshadow the fact that they’ve made some of the 21st century’s finest death metal albums, chief among them Nihility. Reshaping the rules of the game while retaining the genre’s original spirit, the machine-tooled power of Eternity Too Short and Nihility (Anti-Human Manifesto) helped define death metal in the new millennioum.
42. Bolt Thrower – War Master (1991)
After ambushing everyone with 1989’s classic Realm Of Chaos, Bolt Thrower proved their deathly credentials by repeating the trick. War Master was more of the same – this is Bolt Thrower, after all – but it was better produced, noticeably more precise and even more overburdened with world-class riffs than its predecessor. Easy, really.
41. Autopsy – Mental Funeral (1991)
Masters of the grotesque, purveyors of filth, lords of gore and THC-ravaged servants of hellish disgust, Autopsy sounded like no-one else when they slithered from the grubby Californian shadows into the death metal spotlight at the tail-end of the 80s. Their second album, Mental Funeral, is a masterpiece – a repulsive onslaught of clattering aggression and lumbering doom that tapped intuitively into metalheads’ love of horror, inspiring a whole generation of red-eyed miscreants to strap on guitars and unleash hell.