If only for the benefit of those who have never had the pleasure/displeasure of being subjected to the aural assaults that Black Metal and Death Metal music constitute, it will be helpful to begin by attempting to delineate audible definitions of, and distinctions between, both Black Metal and Death Metal.
That is, definitions and distinctions based on the perceptible differences exhibited between their respective sounds. However, before doing so, we must pause to stress that no such attempt can ever pretend to amount to anything more than a rough approximation.
For any attempt to delineate what might be considered definitive or immutable audible definitions of, or distinctions between, these two sub-genres are invariably problematised by at least three general facts.
The first of these, as most people who for one reason or another have acquainted themselves with the closely interrelated forms/styles of Extreme Metal are aware, is that Black Metal and Death Metal are both extreme sub-genres of the Heavy Metal genre in music, which, along with Doom Metal, Thrash Metal and Grindcore, “have radicalised certain features of heavy metal, in particular tempo, timbre and vocal styling…”
Concomitantly, while any one of these radicalised features might be considered to be a more characteristic feature of a particular sub-genre, overlaps between their various forms, features and styles of playing largely negate the possibility of portraying any individual stylistic element as the exclusive property of any Extreme Metal sub-genre.
In a certain sense, the second general fact is the polar opposite of the first problem. That is, despite the fact that none of the Extreme Metal sub-genres can claim any particular form, feature or style of playing to be altogether exclusively theirs, most bands, both inside and outside of the same sub-genre, have their own unique sound.
Thus, even within the confines of a single sub-genre, we are prevented from making any immutable assertions about its sound, for we are ultimately presented with the equally difficult task of trying to accommodate what Deena Weinstein identified in the course of her treatment of Heavy Metal as “a multitude of ‘signature sounds.’”
Finally, the last, but by no means least, of our three general problematic facts is embodied in the trite truism that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” That is, to gain a true appreciation and understanding of any genre “requires comprehending its sound,” and thus, in the case of Black Metal and Death Metal, ultimately acquiring a few albums and braving those migraines oft complained of by “Metal virgins.”
Although there certainly exist some Death Metal songs, and parts of songs, which exhibit what might be considered comparatively moderate or slow tempos, Death Metal is predominantly an extremely fast and aggressive style of music.
Setting this often exhausting pace, and thus providing the foundation on which every band’s musical superstructures are built, is percussion. For this reason, we will begin with the drums, which, as Natalie Purcell confirms and elaborates, “[i]n Death Metal… are often very dominant and very fast. Hyper double-bass blast beats, which mimic the sound of machine gun firing, are common and are utilized frequently.”
Often breaking up the monotonous prevalence of the rapid double bass drumming, however, are rolls and fills as apt and elaborate as the individual drummer’s feel for music and technical ability will permit.
And, of course, when occasion permits, it is not unknown for Death Metal drumming to slow to beats dominated by such distinct timed blows to the high-hats that the machine-like-effect/sound generated almost borders on being able to be described as industrial — recalling as it does visions of factories and inhuman machinery.
Falling in line with the drums, much of the guitar playing in Death Metal is also extremely fast.
Often played on down-tuned guitars, Death Metal riffs are customarily of a very complex, and thus seemingly even chaotic, nature; with more adept guitarists even managing to work spurts of the rapid trilling and finger tapping usually reserved for guitar solos by Thrash Metal, 1980’s Glam Rock, and accomplished lead guitarists like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, into them.
It will come as no surprise, then, that the effect produced is frequently such an amazing density of sound that it renders the riffs almost wholly unintelligible to the casual listener.
All is not lost, however, when the pace of the riffs deigns to slacken to a slow grind. For during these instances the chaos routinely gives way to low churning riffs whose menacing tone can be quite arresting.
Turning our attention to Death Metal’s vocals, it is worth noting, as Purcell has done, that it is they “which would strike the casual listener before anything else,” and that “[t]hose who are outside of the scene typically classify it [Death Metal] according to the vocals, ignoring the definite trends in the instrumental music itself.”
Succinctly, the reason for this is that they are spewed forth in an assortment of primal/bestial tones that ranges from low guttural growls (which often sound as though they are being produced by someone who has just “gargled with hydrochloric acid”) at one end of the spectrum, through to maniacal, screeching screams and shrieks at the other.
Thus, making them the aptest and primal vocalization of Death Metal’s inherent aggression.
Describing the lyrical focus of Extreme Metal bands in general, Keith Kahn-Harris averred that they “focus largely on death, mutilation, the occult and misanthropic denunciations of humanity.”
And when looking at Purcell’s more specific attempt to formulate general lyrical categorizations for Death Metal, we can see that they fall largely within this compass: gore/horror/porn; Satanism/occultism/anti-Christian; sociopolitical commentary; independence themes; and war/apocalypse themes.”
Of these diverse themes, however, it is the gore/horror/porn categorization that is by far the most dominant, with the Satanism/occultism/anti-Christian categorization coming in a somewhat distant second.
Beginning with bands and lyrics belonging to the more dominant gore/horror/porn categorisation, it will probably come as no surprise to learn that they draw much of their subject matter and inspiration from the “slasher movie violence of the 70s and 80s” and the exploits of real-life serial killers, cannibals and sadists.
Consequently, they have been able to serve up “songs detailing infinite varieties of murder, torture, rape, and dismemberment” in a never-ending rotation; wherein fact and fiction are unreservedly combined and distorted in what appears to be a conscious, albeit unstructured, effort to give voice to every conceivable act of human depravity and degradation.
Thus, we find songs with such self-explanatory titles as Cannibal Corpse’s ‘Stripped, Raped and Strangled,’ ‘Fucked with a Knife,’ ‘Devoured by Vermin,’ ‘Mummified in Barbed Wire’ and “Dismembered and Molested;’ Devourment’s ‘Baby Killer,’ ‘Molesting the Decapitated,’ and ‘Self-Disembowelment;’ and Disgorge’s ‘Exhuming the Disemboweled’ and ‘Sodomize the Bleeding.’
Turning our attention to the small minority of Death Metal bands whose lyrics fall into the Satanism/occultism/anti-Christian categorisation, we find little evidence of attempts articulate what might be considered coherent and consistent philosophies; nor are there to be found any note-worthy attempts to draw on the wealth of amenable material extant in the works of such seemingly obvious sources of inspiration as Nietzsche, Crowley, Rand and LaVey.
Instead, what we find are an assortment of blasphemous tirades, and attempts to “convey deep criticisms of Christianity,” casually interspersed by occult themes extracted from several of the fake Necronomicon’s inspired by the fictional writings of Howard Phillip Lovecraft.
On Deicide’s album ‘Once Upon the Cross’, for instance, we find the blasphemous critique of God’s supposed double standards in “Christ Denied,” wherein, upon his death, Christ ascends to the gates of heaven only to be denied access because he is the bastard son of Mary born of her infidelity with God.
Then, only four tracks later we find “They are the Children of the Underworld,” whose demonic subject-matter is extracted not from Judeo-Christian sources as we might suspect, but from the Lovecraftian and Mesopotamian mythological hybrid popularly known as the Simon edition Necronomicon.
Likewise, Morbid Angel’s album ‘Altars of Madness’ finds such self-explanatorily titled songs as ‘Blasphemy’ in the company of a track entitled ‘Lord of all Fevers and Plague,’ whose contents have also been pieced together from Simon’s edition, and in which the Mesopotamian demon Pazuzu is enjoined to rise and spread disease.