The 1980s were not only the breeding ground for heavy metal and its power ballads, colourful clothing, big hair or sexual themes, but also for a few more fundamentalist strains developed in parallel, in what can be considered an underground milieu: speed, thrash, death, black metal.
The beginning of the division was partly due precisely to the expansion of metal that provoked attempts to reconfigure the relationship to the older, perhaps more prestigious original heavy metal. These fundamentalist turns express a desire to revive some cultural standards and present themselves as both an innovation and a continuation of what was before.
By the end of the decade, as Rolling Stone Magazine put it, “the genre became‚ ridiculously vague.”
Thrash metal erupted with bands like Metallica and Exodus, who for a long time resorted to independent labels and was rarely heard on commercial stations.
They bear the influence of British heavy metal and hardcore punk, which generated a faster and more aggressive sound and thematically it overcame the merely dionysian spirit of soft metal and instead tackled social issues or explored chaos, destruction and nihilism.
The genre was popularized by Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer, Kreator, Sodom, Sarcofago and Sepultura and asserted a transformation in the metal culture, by challenging the ornate images of heroic fantasy or extreme pleasure in metal and promoting a more sober and somber universe both via sound coding like guitar riffs using chromatic scales and emphasizing tritones and diminished intervals, aggressive drumming style, high-speed solos played with shredding and various techniques of picking and lyrical coding centered on realism — themes related to society, dissatisfaction with politics, corruption, injustice or to the individual, alienation, addiction, suicide, pessimism and murder.
Deena Weinstein interestingly remarks that, there is an obvious similarity between speed and thrash’s challenge to heavy metal and the contestation, initiated by Martin Luther and John Calvin, against the Catholic Church. Both movements charged that the established form had become corrupt through extravagance and both supported a return to the essential message, stripped bare of all adornment.
In their clothing, their relationship to the followers and their discourse, thrash bands and the early Protestant leaders parallel one another.
In the case of speed and thrash, fancy stage wear and elaborate props that set performers apart from their audience are replaced by street clothes (the original metal uniform) and a simple stage.
Similarly, the Protestant ministers exchanged the ornate clothing of church notables for a simple uniform and huge ornate cathedrals for smaller, simple churches. The distance between the artists and their fans was physically, emotionally, and attitudinally erased, just as the Protestants narrowed the distance between the minister and the communicants.
Speed and thrash is a movement to go back to the basics, just as Protestantism stressed a return to biblical essentials.
While confronting the mainstream, Metallica and a few other bands did fall into it, although the scene was highly enriched by the thrash genre’s cultivation of a discourse on chaos and‚ the rhetorical stance of the protest song, with a nuance of austerity and earnest.
As always, the sociopolitical context needs to be taken into account, in this case, the Richard Nixon conservative government which led youth to manifest their fantasies of destruction into an elaborate musical form involving a lot of loudness and speed.
Albums like Megadeth’s ‘Rust in Peace,’ Slayer’s ‘Seasons in the Abyss,’ Kreator’s ‘Coma of Souls’ or Testament’s ‘Souls of Black’ have become iconic for the sonic energy of thrash metal‚filled with abrupt changes of meter and tempo that model a complex, disjointed world and displaying a formidable ensemble precision for collective survival — and address violence, death and madness — angrier, more critical and apocalyptic.
Thrash metal triggered and sustained a further stylistic dispersion of metal culture into what is generically known as “extreme,” a rather loose term referring to a cluster of metal subgenres characterised by sonic, verbal and visual transgression.
Extremity became a means to delimit genres and to gain symbolic capital inside the scene, in the sense that the more extreme a band tends to be the wider recognition as an exponent of the scene it receives.
The perhaps more accurate term “transgression,” denoting a constant provocation of boundaries, can describe different types of extremity, sonic, lyrical, physical.
In the mid-1980s, in the United States of America, particularly in Florida, an even more aggressive style evolved, employing heavily distorted and low-tuned guitars, strong drumming with blast beat techniques, abrupt tempo and screaming, growling vocals. Lyrical extremism translated into engaging in themes related to horror, mythology, occultism, philosophy or politics, but also to forms of stylised violence including torture, mutilation, dissection, cannibalism and (pornographic) gore.
The evolution of death metal, but also of black metal, is partly due to the pioneering work of band Venom and its scorching harsh sound and Satanic imagery, as crystallised in their 1981 album ‘Welcome to Hell.’
The style further developed by Possessed and Death gained popularity with two major regional scenes, Florida’s Deicide, Morbid Angel and Obituary and Sweden’s Dismember, Entombed and Unleashed, followed by a further fragmentation of the genre in melodic, technical, deathcore and others.
Death or killing have actually always been part of the metal thematic core, but in this case, the images of human misery and decay become much more vivid and explicit, creating sinister fantasies which can be regarded as artistic confrontations with contemporary angst. Such “extreme,” gory topics can be associated with a tension between disgust and desire, between‚ how acquainted one is with their own mortality and‚ how much they crave images of death and violence in the media.
Keith Kahn-Harris notices something that will also be valid for black metal, namely that this kind of brutality represents an obsession with fantasies of control and on the other hand‚ demonstrates one of the ways in which extreme metal discourse has systematically transgressed the boundaries of the acceptable in art. Death metal borders horror films, which in the early days did directly influence the scene (movies like ‘Evil dead’ or ‘Gates of Hell’) rejoicing in explicit and gratuitous depictions of gruesome acts, as many song titles suggest: ‘Hacked up for Barbecue’ (Mortician), ‘Fucked with a Knife,’ ‘Hammer-smashed Face’ (Cannibal Corpse), sometimes even introducing medical terminology: ‘Excoriating Abdominal Emanation,’ ‘Mucupurulence Excretor’ (Carcass), or turning to misogyny and porn.
Grander storylines feature the already well-established preoccupation with themes of warfare and military: ‘Extinction of Mankind,’ ‘Mutilation of the Human Race’ (Angelcorpse).
As Natalie Purcell rightfully notices, the effect of such approaches are bizarrely comical, and I might add that the sense of remote irony is generated precisely by the unrestrained exaggerations in the scene.
The lyrical universe denotes an obsession with the apocalyptic and macabre, often with a take on “psychological horror” which together with gore fall into a realm of evil reverie, the hostile anti-religious or anti-political themes also‚ reveal a muddled mixture of fantasy and reality.
Visions of the occult ranged from simply inverting Christian images to incorporating the horror stories of Howard Phillips Lovecraft as Celtic Frost did, yet more critical, straightforward comments on the church as a political organisation and on Christianity as an ideology are quite common if we have a look at the blasphemously nuanced lyrics penned by Deicide or Immolation.
Some bands explored more complex attitudes, trying to present themselves as advocates of certain philosophies or occult movements like the Church of Satan or the Temple of Set (the case of Acheron). Linked to these are flirtations with fascism, at least on the level of an image, for instance; Angelcorpse’s repeated use of the sun wheel.
As I briefly tried to show, the discursive coding in death metal utilises different forms of transgressive representations in order to form an identity.
The spectrum of themes creates a mythology of evil that has been commodified and offered as a means of escapism. While thrash metal reacted to the popularity and excesses in heavy metal, death metal expanded the core of transgression, that is the angry image of violence and alienation and crystallised its own sub-scene within the extreme fundamentalist trend.
Its identity is further increased by means of the ritualistic behaviours favoured by the incredible speed and loudness: moshing, head banging in whirlwind motion, frantic movements that enforce communal solidarity and fix conventions of the scene.
Death metal entered the golden age after 1990 and with it came commercial success and predictably enough, the fall from grace. Predictable because the trend started as very anti-mainstream and counter-cultural and its growth, accompanied by thematic oversaturation, alienated consumers and cast a shadow on the “extreme” prestige.
Nevertheless, at the end of the 1990s, death and its subgenres took another turn for the underground, perhaps struggling to regain its original identity.