Building from the musical structure of thrash metal and early black metal, death metal emerged during the mid 1980s. Metal acts such as Slayer, Kreator, Celtic Frost, and Venom were very important influences to the crafting of the genre. Along with the band Death and its frontman Chuck Schuldiner, who is often referred to as “the father of death metal”, bands such as Possessed, Obituary, Carcass, Deicide, Suffocation and Morbid Angel are often considered pioneers of the genre. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, death metal gained more media attention as popular genre niche record labels like Combat, Earache and Roadrunner began to sign death metal bands at a rapid rate. Since then, death metal has diversified, spawning a variety of subgenres.
The setup most frequently used within the death metal genre is two guitarists, a bass player, a vocalist and a drummer often using “double bass blast beats”. Although this is the standard setup, bands have been known to occasionally incorporate other instruments such as electronic keyboards.
The genre is often identified by fast, highly distorted and downtuned guitars, played with techniques such as palm muting and tremolo picking. The percussion is usually aggressive, and powerful; blast beats, double bass and exceedingly fast drum patterns frequently add to the complexity of the genre.
Death metal is known for its abrupt tempo, key, and time signature changes, as well as fast and complex guitar and drumwork. Death metal may include chromatic chord progressions and a varied song structure, rarely employing the standard verse-chorus arrangement. These compositions tend to emphasize an ongoing development of themes and motifs.
Death metal vocals are often guttural roars, grunts, snarls, and low gurles colloquially known as death growls. Death growling is mistakenly thought to be a form of using the lowest vocal register known as vocal fry, however vocal fry is actually a form of overtone screaming and true death growling is in fact created by an altogether different technique. Attempting to growl using a screaming technique will result in massive damage to the vocal cords.[specify] The style is sometimes referred to as Cookie Monster vocals, tongue-in-cheek, due to the vocal similarity to the voice of the popular Sesame Street character of the same name. Although often criticized, death growls serve the aesthetic purpose of matching death metal’s agressive lyrical content. High-pitched screaming is also commonly utilized in death metal, being heard in songs by Death, Exhumed, Dying Fetus, Cannibal Corpse, and Deicide. Often death metal singers will alternate between shrieks and growls in order to create a contrasting effect.
The lyrical themes of death metal often invoke slasher film-stylized violence, but may also extend to topics like Satanism, anti-religion, occultism, mysticism, philosophy, and Politics. Although violence may be explored in various other genres as well, death metal elaborates on the details of extreme acts, including mutilation, dissection, torture, rape and necrophilia. Sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris commented this apparent glamorization of violence may be attributed to a “fascination” with the human body that all people share to some degree, a fascination which mixes desire and disgust. Heavy metal author Gavin Baddeley also stated there does seem to be a connection between “how acquainted one is with their own mortality” and “how much they crave images of death and violence” via the media. Additionally, contributing artists to the genre often defend death metal as little more than an extreme form of art and entertainment, similar to horror films in the motion picture industry. This explanation has brought such musicians under fire from activists internationally, who claim that this is often lost on a large number of adolescents, who are left with the glamorization of such violence without social context or awareness of why such imagery is stimulating.
According to Alex Webster, bassist of Cannibal Corpse, “The gory lyrics are probably not, as much as people say, [what’s keeping us] from being mainstream. Like, ‘death metal would never go into the mainstream because the lyrics are too gory?’ I think it’s really the music, because violent entertainment is totally mainstream.”
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