Origins of Evil: The Birth of Extreme Metal
With 2015 being the 30-year anniversary of essential classics from Slayer, Sodom, Destruction, Bathory, Celtic Frost and other bands, we've decided to take a deeper look at the raw, creative spirit that forged black metal, death metal and other styles in the mid-1980s. Check out our "Origins of Evil" playlist on Spotify!
We tend to think of subgenres like death metal, black metal and grindcore as separate entities. In some cases, especially with death metal and black metal, the genres came to clash with one another, much like how hardcore punk and thrash metal had a decade earlier. But the different varieties of extreme metal have a common point of origin in the fast, abrasive sounds of the mid-1980s. Inspired by the ferocity of punk, the aggression of early thrash and the wicked aesthetic of bands like Venom and Mercyful Fate, a group of bands released several crucial albums between 1983 and 1987 that would craft the building blocks of distinct extreme metal sub-genres. In formal terms, one could call this sound “early extreme metal,” but for shorthand, think of it as “The 85’ Sound,” as many of the perfect examples of this music emerged in 1985. It's worth exploring this time for a sense of perspective as metal enthusiasts, but also for the simpler purpose of finding some solid, ferocious metal.
For extreme metal to exist, there are a few things that had to come first. Obviously there is the foundation laid by bands like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, the common points of origin for most heavy metal. But it’s with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) that the lineage begins to get tricky. Most metal bands acknowledge Iron Maiden and Motorhead as crucial to the development of thrash or “speed” metal. But it’s Newcastle’s Venom who brought the evil aesthetic: the pentagrams, the skulls and an obsession with the occult.
But it took more than visuals to make the music “extreme” – there was also an ideological shift, albeit one that was tongue-in-cheek. Whereas metal bands had long talked about hell, evil and the devil, it was Venom who shifted the lyrics to actually personify those themes. So instead of Black Sabbath’s protagonist who asks “What is this, that stands before me? Figure in black, which points at me!” – we’re told “I'm in league with Satan, I was raised in hell, I walk the streets of Salem, Amongst the living dead.” Though these lyrics sound cartoonish now, they actually present a unique challenge to the listener. No longer can you identify as the frightened every-man in the corner, no: if you want to sing along, your voice is now that of the evil one. You are the “big, black shape with eyes of fire.”
But the sound mattered quite a bit too, particularly the introduction of Cronos’ harsher vocals, as the following clip from Metal Evolution describes:
Still, as with Motorhead, there is a groove to Venom’s music that anchors it in pure heavy metal, without totally breaking the dissonance threshold to "extreme" metal. You still needed the spark of punk to help propel the speed and attitude of the music. Without Discharge, The Exploited, Amebix and the whole set of American hardcore punk bands, extreme metal would be missing the speed and song structure we’ve grown accustomed to. Discharge in particular brought a level of grit and sludge to their guitar distortion that was previously unheard of, especially on albums like Why and Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing. As Daniel Ekeroth notes in Swedish Death Metal:
Even though there were times of fiendish and narrow-minded hostility between the metal scene and the punk scene, there are of course broad similarities between the two genres. The speed, the distortion, the heaviness, and the aggression…Nobody remotely sensible can deny that the punk movement is where music originally started to get really fast and aggressive. Bands like Discharge and Black Flag were the most violent acts in the world in the late 70’s and early 80’s. When metal music started to get more brutal, it took aggression and speed from punk
And it was in Sweden that crust-punk bands like Anti-Cimex, Mob 47 and Asocial formed the scene that would later spawn Merciless and Nihilist, and thus the rest of the Swedish death metal scene. It the nascent days of Swedish death metal, with no real metal scene to turn to, the thrash and early death metal bands depended on the punk scene for gigs and support.
But back to the metal side of things, Mercyful Fate took the occult aesthetic (including corpsepaint) and introduced a level of drama and grandeur that would inspire generations of black metal bands to come. Metallica deserves a brief nod as well, especially for helping to spur on the tape-trading scene with 1982’s No Life till’ Leather and for being a beacon for metal on a grand scale. The tape-trading scene’s part in the history of extreme metal simply cannot be overstated. Without the global network of traders and collectors (and fanzines), metal’s talons would never have spread as far as they did. But the extreme metal visionaries didn’t only listen to metal and punk. Post-punk and early goth bands like Christian Death, Killing Joke and Joy Division made an impact as well, and not just in terms of eyeliner.
By 1983, a new crop of bands from several scenes began to form, play gigs and record demos, blending the influences described above into something fascinating, fresh and violent.
The Sound, the Look and Subject Matter
If original heavy metal represents a distancing from rock’s ties to the blues and various forms of pop music, then extreme metal is the complete, blood-drenched divorce (later styles like sludge and stoner metal notwithstanding). And with extreme metal, there is an inescapable air of violence, evil and chaos surrounding every note – something you don’t get as much of with other metal bands.
There are several elements the bands described here share in common, even with their different origins in the United States, Brazil, Germany and elsewhere, along with with the more distinguishable sounds associated with their later careers:
- Fast, almost frantic drumming
- Loud, heavily-distorted guitars with the use of notes at “evil” or dissonant-sounding intervals
- Yelled or shrieked vocals with lots of reverb (to give it that dungeon-like demonic sound)
- Perhaps some overdriven bass
- You feel like they kind-of, sort-of don’t know what they’re doing, but it somehow comes together
And like Venom, they did not just talk about the devil, they dared to take his side and bring the listener into his world. It’s as if while reading Dante’s Inferno, Paradise Lost or Faust, the work suddenly turns on the reader and makes the devil the protagonist. And it’s through this imagery and extremity that the music gets its character, along with the increased reliance on the guitar (not the vocals) to play they key narrative role.
This also fed into the look – upside-down crosses, eyeliner and early corpsepaint, spikes, studs, bullet belts and all-black clothing – and made it into a uniform.
In one sense, this is all a bit ridiculous and over-the-top – why take things so far? Because it’s precisely this willingness to push further into the darkness that makes the music so timeless. When you listen to more orthodox thrash like Exodus, Nuclear Assault and Testament, the power and ferocity of the music is undeniable, but the subject matter and the style is unavoidably tied up with the 1980s and the last gasps of the Cold War. Though the threat hasn’t completely disappeared, the world is significantly less likely to perish in a thermonuclear exchange than it was 30 years ago. This keeps peak-era thrash somewhat stuck in time, making it difficult to bring back without the aura of nostalgia (see: the ~2007-2011 neo-thrash movement).
But due to their place in myth, legend and metaphysics – the mystical and occult themes of extreme metal can more easily transcend time and place. And because there’s the air of fear, hatred, foreboding and the conflict between good and evil, it allows the music to be taken (at least somewhat) more seriously than the fantastical output of power metal and pagan metal. It’s the combination of these themes, plus the bewildering aggression of the music, that’s allowed eventual offspring such as black metal and death metal to live on, evolve further and absorb innumerable other styles in the process.
The Bands and Key Records
Though Sodom would be the first band to release a demo (Witching Metal in 1982), Hellhammer is arguably the first band to take metal on the dark path and get noticed. Not that they were well-received of course. In fact, they were absolutely brutalized in the music press, so much so that the band’s progenitors Thomas Gabriel “Warrior” and Martin Erin Ann renamed the band Celtic Frost only a couple years into their career. Still, the band’s few releases would prove influential once the sting of critical scorn wore off (there’s even a modern band called Apokalyptic Raids, named after one of Hellhammer’s EPs). And it makes perfect sense, as Warrior and company began to take the harsh vocals and dissonant arrangements and pick up where Venom had left off. The chord progressions on albums like Morbid Tales sound weird and perhaps improvised (or even pulled together by mistake), but this willingness to experiment and wrap strange sounds together would help frame the contours of extreme metal to come.
While bands like Slayer, Sepultura, Sodom, Destruction and Kreator are known as masters of straightforward thrash metal, each band’s origins are inextricably linked to the history of black metal. When you listen to songs like Slayer’s “Black Magic” or Sodom’s “Deathlike Silence,” you hear some hidden shades and hints of what would appear later in places like Norway, Greece and elsewhere. But this was in many ways unintentional, a consequence of the equipment available to the fledgling bands at the time, along with their still-developing musical skills. But what the bands lacked in surgical precision, they more than made up for in darkness and barbarity. Compare for instance, Sepulura’s raw, demonic Morbid Visions to their more-refined and precise death/thrash-attack on Arise. In the first case, there are moments where you feel Max and Igor just cobbled together whatever came naturally sounded evil. In the second, the band that knew exactly what it was doing. But where Arise is impressive because of its organization, Morbid Visions holds up for the opposite reason: it's fantastic because it's so chaotic.
Slayer of course were more refined from the very beginning. And there’s a very apparent shift from Show no Mercy to Hell Awaits. Show no Mercy still has a Venom-like swagger to it, with chord progressions that could easily have made it on to a Judas Priest album without anyone noticing. But once you pass through Haunting the Chapel to Hell Awaits, the band had truly come into its own, stripping out the more melodic tendencies for a frightening and dissonant sound perfectly suited its subject-matter. And though the band had ditched the eyeliner rather early, the band still had an occult-fixation that separated it from other LA and Bay Area thrash bands.
In his interview for Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult, Darkthrone’s Fenriz described his impressions of these bands’ early works, and how he knew there was something different about them:
as a kid I was thinking, Hmmm this is strange thrash
It’s about extraction; you almost have to search for the black metal in the albums. That was when it was interesting, it was not labeled, you had to find it for yourself
Likewise, it’s only in retrospect that I can really pull these bands together into a style, but the commonalities are undeniable. And at the time, it was thought of as part of the wider underground metal ecosystem, rather than a separate, unified movement that everyone knew about.
And his remark about “strange thrash” perfectly describes a band like Possessed. Are they the first death metal band? Or are they just really, really harsh, evil-sounding thrash? Indeed, the band straddles the edge of both musical continents, but it’s quite possible that death metal would not have developed the way it did without Possessed. In Choosing Death, Albert Mudrian describes the importance of the band’s debut album:
In 1984, Possessed signed a recording contract with the fledgling Combat Records label, and a year later set out to Prairie Sun Studios in Cotati, California to record their debut LP, Seven Churches.
The results was an overly and violent thrash-paced album, which was the first proper LP to feature what would become the standard growling death metal vocals for the genre.
Again, there are some weird, chaotic moments on songs like “Burning in Hell” and “The Exorcist,” particularly with the drums. But it’s this chaos that produced the atmosphere essential to classic death metal. Thrash became very formulaic very quickly. A band who wanted to stand out had to do some weird things, while still maintaining the same level of aggression. And while many bands would perfect this style after Seven Churches, this first instance of death metal’s stylistic hallmarks has a purity that only comes once.
Speaking of purity, any discussion about metal in the mid-1980s has to include Sweden’s Bathory. To quote Daniel Ekeroth again, this time speaking about Bathory’s development between their first and second albums,
There were no fixed death metal or black metal genres at this point, just an unlabeled corpus of new, violent music
By this point Quorthon had realized that an extreme “scene” had evolved around bands like Hellhammer/Celtic Frost and Sodom, and he knew he had to compete. So Bathory went beyond them all.
Few albums typify this essential period of extreme metal’s development better than Bathory’s The Return of Darkness and Evil. Like Show No Mercy, Bathory’s self-titled debut was rooted in the NWOBHM and the sound of bands like Motorhread and Venom (though Quorthon always denied any devotion to them). But the album also contained a sneak preview of what was to come in songs like “Raise the Dead” which sounds like an early ancestor of “Call From the Grave” (from In the Sign of the Black Mark), and there's an ugliness to the production and vocals that prefaces albums like Worship Him and Under a Funeral Moon. But the second album shows a clear progression and maturation of this sound into more brutal territory. Where you could say the first album still “rocked” in a black metal sort of way, The Return… simply burns, rips and tears through songs like “Total Destruction,” “The Winds of Mayhem” and “Reap of Evil.”
And when you think of burning, ripping and tearing, the round of Brazilian bands that came around the same time as Sepultura continued to push extreme metal forward to the edges of its proper sub-genres. There are many bands, like those featured on the Warfare Noise compilation, that came out of this scene, but Sarcofago and Vulcano stand out the most in terms of influence. The blistering energy and bestial ferocity is still eye-opening, even to modern ears (turn on "Satanas" or "Dominoes of Death" and try not to think "Holy…"). At the very edge of this primordial era stand Vulcano’s Bloody Vengeance and Sarcofago’s INRI. These two fantastic, over-the-top albums are basically as "extreme" as extreme thrash can get before the terms “Black Metal” or “Death Metal” must apply. Though for many good reasons, both bands are now considered part of the black metal canon, partially due to Euronymous citing them as such.
As you can see, this primitive iteration of extreme metal impacted many scenes, even though this impact wouldn't be felt or realized till a few years later. And I haven’t even gone into detail about other bands from Sweden like proto-death outfits Obscurity and Mefisto. There’s also the hardcore-punk-turned-metal of UK-act Onslaught’s early albums (Fun fact: both Onslaught and Possessed came out with an album in 1985 which contained a song called “Death Metal,” try and resolve that one). Even Italy’s Bulldozer put out an album in the early extreme metal style, the under-recognized classic, The Day of Wrath.
But it’s worth focusing on another Swedish band. Stockholm’s Morbid formed in 1985, and after playing some gigs and releasing some rehearsal tapes, put out the December Moon demo in late 1987. The band’s sound was similar to that of Sarcofago and had some shades of Bathory as well. Though songs like “My Dark Subconscious” have their own sense of spooky weirdness and are well-worth exploring, perhaps more interesting is where the members went afterward. When the band collapsed in 1988 after recording one last demo (the aptly-named Last Supper), Drummer LG Petrov and Ulf “Uffe” Cederlund went on to form Nihilist, the groundbreaking death metal act which would later become Entombed. As for Morbid’s eccentric frontman, he would be recruited to join a Norwegian band who, after just releasing a mini-album called Deathcrush, needed a new singer. The band of course, was Mayhem, and the singer’s name was Per Yngve Ohlin, better known as “Dead.”
In a sense, the fate of Morbid is a microcosm of the sound covered in this essay. For many of the albums released from 1983 to 1987, they all lean or hint toward one genre or another, but it all still falls neatly enough into simply “extreme metal.” But 1987 was a turning point, where black metal and death metal began to diverge. It’s not unlike the story of Green River, the influential grunge band whose breakup would point to the diverging fates of many within the Seattle music scene (i.e. one more underground, and another willing to go further into the mainstream).
New Styles Blossom
Just as punk bands began to change as their musicianship increased, the bands who played "the 85’ sound" eventually coalesced around different, more refined versions of their previous selves. By 1987, most of these bands wound up playing more standard variations of thrash, dropping the occult in favor of topics more akin to Megadeth and Metallica, rather than Venom and Mercyful Fate.
In 1986, Slayer created one of the finest metal albums of all time. Reign in Blood has a few key aspects that separate it from Hell Awaits. The reverb which gave Slayer it’s haunting sound is ditched in favor of a punishing, direct approach that makes “Angel of Death” and “Jesus Saves” more cutting and brutal, rather than spooky and atmospheric. The same could be said for the German bands as well, who would go on to release classics like Release from Agony and Persecution Mania (Kreator’s Pleasure to Kill rides the line, so I’ve included it in the chart below). Sepultura moved on rather quickly as well. Though Schizophrenia bears some traces of their previous work, Beneath the Remains is an obvious thrash/death metal album. In the late 80s, thrash metal grew from an underground movement to an almost mainstream force, peaking artistically in 1986/87 and then commercially in 1991 with Metallica’s “Black Album” and the Clash of the Titans Tour.
But as thrash metal was reaching the pinnacle of its artistic legacy, the primitive style left behind by these bands began to split and evolve as well.
Though Possessed’s aforementioned Seven Churches is often cited as the first death metal album, it wasn’t until Death’s Scream Bloody Gore that the scene in Florida kicked off as its own, discrete artistic force. Likewise, though Venom, Mercyful Fate, Hellhammer/Celtic Frost and early Bathory play an important role in the development of black metal, the last band’s Under the Sign of the Black Mark would chart the course for the genre’s future. From there, the style’s contours were further shaped by Samael, Master’s Hammer, Blasphemy and Mayhem – who would lead the sound into its more well-known chapter. As for grindcore, its development remains more indebted to the crust-punk and thrash scenes than to any devilish persuasion. During the mid-80s metal was also impacted by early grind acts like Repulsion and Terrorizer. And after years making their name in the UK crust-punk scene, influenced by bands like Siege and Deep Wound, Napalm Death released the earsplitting Scum.
From 1987 onward, death metal, black metal and grindcore would all see their respective highs and lows, and would even splinter into their own series of sub-genres, a musical genome that continues to develop today. Still, no one can deny the power of the sound forged from 1983-1987, and not just for its outsized influence. Few records are as haunting as Hell Awaits. The raw, creative risk-taking of Hellhammer and Celtic Frost has never been replicated. And the menacing terror of Seven Churches and The Return of Darkness and Evil is unmatched. If a listener wanted to hear the beginnings of metal at it’s darkest and most powerful, early extreme metal would be the place to look.
Origins of Evil: Essential Discography
Author's note: I've put a list together here of the essential albums, EPs or demos played in the early extreme metal style. Yes, I know these bands made other records, but I've limited the list to the recordings that best exemplify the pre-death/black metal split. Logically, I've set the limits to 1983-1987, which is why certain, somewhat related bands didn't make it on here (Merciless probably being the closest example).
The Return of Darkness and Evil (1985)
The Day of Wrath (1985)
Morbid Tales (1984)
Emperor’s Return (1985)
To Mega Therion (1985)
Bestial Invasion of Hell (1984)
Sentence of Death (1984)
Infernal Overkill (1985)
Triumph of Death (1983)
Satanic Rites (1983)
Apocalyptic Raids (1984)
Endless Pain (1985)
Pleasure to Kill (1986)
The Puzzle (1986)
December Moon (1987)
Ovations to Death (1986)
Damnation's Pride (1987)
Power From Hell (1985)
The Force (1986)
Seven Churches (1985)
Satanic Lust (1986)
The Black Vomit (1986)
Bestial Devastation (1985)
Morbid Visions (1986)
Show No Mercy (1983)
Haunting the Chapel (1984)
Hell Awaits (1985)
In the Sign of Evil (1984)
Obsessed by Cruelty (1985)
Bloody Vengeance (1986)