An Exploration of Death Metal Scenes and Sounds

Sam Dunn

Sam Dunn

Characterised by guttural vocals, distorted and down-tuned guitars, rapid double-bass drumming, and complex song structures, death metal emerged in the mid-1980s as an extreme offshoot of the heavy metal genre.

Its lyrics and iconography (including group logos and album covers) typically depict themes of horror and gore, environmental destruction, political corruption, and social decay.

Death metal bands, particularly Tampa, Florida’s Cannibal Corpse, have sparked considerable controversy among political and religious groups and have been banned in several countries (Purcell 2003, Kahn-Harris 2003, Christie 2003).

“Scenes” have played a particularly important role in the development and evolution of death metal. Most notably, the two distant locations of Tampa, Florida and Gothenburg, Sweden, have served as the most influential scenes throughout the genre’s twenty-year history.

In 1983, Tampa became the birthplace of death metal when the group Mantas (which later changed its name to Death) released its first demo cassette. This primitive recording was circulated throughout the underground metal cassette tape trading circuit, and in turn, spawned a number of bands from the Tampa area, most importantly Morbid Angel, Obituary, and Deicide.

By the early 1990s, death metal had gained international popularity, and new scenes began to emerge. Most prominent among these were Stockholm and (especially) Gothenburg, Sweden, where bands such as Entombed, Dismember, At The Gates, and In Flames combined the aggressiveness of the “Tampa sound” with the melodic European metal of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and others.

This particular style of death metal, which has been labelled the “Gothenburg sound,” typically focuses less on themes of horror and gore and instead addresses societal and philosophical issues, including media manipulation, political corruption, and hopelessness.

The influence of the Tampa and Gothenburg death metal scenes is well supported by fan discourse and metal writers (Moynihan and Ssderlind 1998; Popoff n.d.; Christie 2003; Wasylyk 2003; Ayers 2002).

When I was growing up as an avid death metal fan and musician in the 1980s and 1990s, the Tampa scene was widely regarded as the most vibrant and important in the genre.

When I was growing up as an avid death metal fan and musician in the 1980s and 1990s, and in this pre-Internet world, news about the Tampa scene spread by word of mouth, tape trading, and small magazines and fanzines.

Through similar mechanisms and emerging online culture, the Gothenburg scene flourished in the mid-to-late-1990s, and its sound continues to have an enormous influence on metal bands in North America, Europe, and other parts of the globe. Yet, there has been no examination of why death metal thrived in these two specific localities. The Tampa scene was widely regarded as the most vibrant and important in the genre.

How did these two scenes become the most important scenes in death metal’s twenty-year history? And what does the prominence of these two scenes suggest about the relationship between place and metal?

This article draws on fifteen years of experience as a death metal fan and musician in two metal scenes in Canada (Victoria, British Columbia and Toronto, Ontario), an analysis of texts (particularly musician discourse and books and articles on heavy metal) and theoretical research (especially John Connell and Chris Gibson’s recent book, ‘Sound Tracks: Popular Music, Identity and Place’).

It critically investigates the development of the Tampa and Gothenburg death metal scenes and sounds and raises questions for future research on the relationship between music and place. It is not a comprehensive history of death metal or a detailed analysis of the wealth of theoretical literature on the scene. Instead, it focuses on the construction of the Tampa and Gothenburg scenes and sounds and the relationship of these concepts to place.

That these two scenes emerged in two distinct geographical locations has been a subject of debate among metal fans, musicians, and journalists for many years.

When asked why death metal emerged within these two disparate locations, respondents (fans, musicians, writers, record label representatives) usually provide one or more of the following simple explanations: “It is in the water” or “We have nothing else to do”, and even “It is the weather: really hot, really cold.”

One goal of this article is to move beyond these essentialist explanations and consider the social, cultural, political, economic, and technological factors that have produced and sustained these two scenes.

Building on the work of anthropologists Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, this article pays “particular attention to the way spaces and places are made, imagined, contested, and enforced” (1992, 17-18).

What are the motivations, desires, and interests that have built and maintained these two death metal scenes? Are certain motivations, desires, and interests more influential than others in giving shape to — and supporting — these scenes? Further, how did these scenes become identified as sounds, and what does this process say about how music is produced and consumed?

This article is divided into three broad sections. First, I examine a select body of theory on scenes and sounds and suggest ways in which the examples of the death metal scenes in Tampa and Gothenburg can contribute to this work.

Second, drawing on key sources on heavy metal music and culture, I provide a very brief history of death metal and situate it within the broader genre of heavy metal.

Third, I pose questions about the connections between music and place and encourage researchers to examine the subtle yet powerful ways in which texts shape the formation of scenes and sounds.

“Scene” is a common concept used to explain the link between music and place in local settings. In everyday talk, the term is usually used to describe the connection between a locality, a group of people, and a form or style of music (e.g., “The Detroit Scene,” “The Seattle Grunge Scene,” “Bay Area Thrash Metal Scene,” etc.). “Scene connotes a […] flexible, loose kind of space within which music is produced; a kind of ‘context’ for musical practice” (Harris 2000).

For example, as Mark Olson (1998) describes in the paper ‘Everybody Loves Our Town; the indie rock scene in Chapel Hill, North Carolina’ (often referred to as “the next Seattle” by the music press) features a critical mass of young people who have aligned themselves with (and migrated to) “where all the action is.”

The Chapel Hill scene is characterised by several bands exhibiting a particular style and sharing venues for performance, radio programs, and record labels. Scenes such as Chapel Hill also commonly involve local “hang-outs,” rehearsal or jam rooms, fanzines and magazines, music shops, and recording studios (Connell and Gibson 2003,101-102).

It is probably impossible to estimate the total number of local music scenes across the globe. Any village, town, or city with any number of music groups and artists-and people aligned and associated with those groups and artists-could be called a local scene.

Indeed, as a heavy metal fan growing up in Victoria, Canada (population roughly 335,000) in the 1980s, we had a small scene of local bands, venues, fanzines, and a radio show.

The scene may also be used in a broader sense. According to Harris (2000, 14), scenes are also “decentralised, global and diffuse networks of producers and consumers” of a particular (sub-)genre of music.

The Extreme Metal Scene,” for example, is a global music scene, but it also contains quasi-autonomous local scenes within it (Harris n.d.).

Death metal fans, musicians, and the music press speak of a generalized, global death metal scene that is not perceived as rooted in any particular place (Purcell 2003), but rather described as a network and infrastructure for producing, distributing, and consuming death metal.

In this article, although I situate the Tampa and Gothenburg death metal scenes within a global social, cultural, economic, and technological context, I concentrate primarily on how they are produced, maintained, and contested as globally recognized local scenes through the discourses of fans, musicians, and the music press and how these scenes have been credited with producing particular sounds.

The sound is another concept adopted by the music press, music industry (record labels, management companies, booking agents, etc.), and researchers to capture — and in some cases promote the relationship between particular styles of music and a particular locality.

John Connell and Chris Gibson point out (2003, 14) that “many sites, or wider geographical regions in which musical production and consumption occur, become linked with particular sounds, styles or musical approaches (such as the ‘Motown’ sound, New Orleans jazz).” But beyond this theoretical work, there has been little critical attention paid to specific examples of how sounds are constructed and how sounds relate to scenes (if at all). The sound is often assumed to be synonymous with a scene.

The “Tampa scene” and “Tampa sound,” for example, are typically used interchangeably in the music press and promotional materials.

I would suggest, however, that there is a conceptual move from scene to sound that seems to denote a “dis-placing” of musical production, consumption, and exchange. That is, while one has to travel to Gothenburg to be part of “its” scene you can access “its” sound through (among other formats) recordings, live performances, and Internet radio.

By listening to In Flames, for example, who are arguably the most widely known Gothenburg death metal band, the listener instantly accesses the sound of Gothenburg.

Through this construction of the Gothenburg sound, the city becomes a “mythologised place in which unique, locally-experienced social, economic and political circumstances are somehow ‘captured’ within music” (John Connell and Chris Gibson 2003, 14).

The term “Gothenburg sound” thus suggests that there is some natural, essential connection between the city of Gothenburg and a particular style of death metal (distorted guitars, guttural vocals, and double-bass drumming, but with “conventional” song structures, melodic and harmonizing guitars, and in some cases clean vocals). But how do scenes become sounds? And what elements or discourses contribute to the construction of sounds and their promotion?

Before we begin to explore these questions in relation to the death metal scenes/sounds of Tampa and Gothenburg, we will take a brief look at the history of death metal and its place within the broader genre of heavy metal.

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