My metalhead initiation happened when I was 16 and went to my first concert. I was seeing Behemoth, Anthrax, Lamb of God, and the main act, Slayer. Thick gray clouds of cigarette smoke hung in the air over ten thousand metalheads of varied shapes and sizes. As Lamb of God began to play a circle pit formed; a large mass of people running around in a wide hollow circle, constantly shoving and smashing into each other. It’s as gross, dumb, pointless and dangerous as it sounds. So naturally, when scrawny little 16-year-old Dylan saw this circle pit of sweaty, overweight, unkempt men forming, he naturally decided to jump right in, promptly catching an elbow directly to his nose. It bled, a lot, of course. Trying to find something to clean my face off with, I walked past hordes of people just trying to listen to Lamb of God, proudly showing off my profusely bleeding face as if it were a badge of honor. Most people gave me looks of horror while I showed them thumbs-ups and nods of approval. When I finally reached an ice-cream stand some 500 feet away from where the pit had formed, the girls working there were also mortified. But I didn’t care, I was having fun! I returned to the pit later that night, leaving me with bruised aching legs and ruined ripped shoes. It was sick.
Here’s a list of some bands I’ve seen live, some that I just really like, and a few words about each. I’ll include a link to a song of theirs if you wanna take a listen. Hopefully this can serve to capture part of the wide spectrum that metal music falls under.
Slayer — Thrash Metal
Years Active: 1981–2019
Leading Members: Tom Araya, Kerry King, Jeff Hanneman (RIP)
The first metal band I saw live, Slayer has an indomitable reputation rivaled by few in the world of extreme music. Their 1986 album Reign in Blood is credited by nearly everyone in the metal scene to be the catalyst for the explosion of extreme music in the late 80s and early 90s. Featuring not only anti-Christian but also devil-worshiping themes and lyrics, it’s also largely responsible for metal’s not-so-positive reputation as a music genre. But once you look past all the satanic themes, unintelligible vocals, harsh instrumentals, massive amounts of tattoos and piercings, we’re all really kind people, I promise.
Now have a listen to Raining Blood, which is quite possibly the most evil song ever made.
Song — Raining Blood — 1986
Slayer’s tendency to write about serial killers and murder (a topic that transcends all forms of metal) has provoked specific controversy as some listeners have accused them for Nazi sympathy after songs like “Angel of Death” which detail the horrors of Josef Mengele’s experiments during the holocaust. Slayer of course denies these claims, with band members having said that it was obvious that they didn’t condone the actions of any murderers, having taken no sides in songwriting. The band was also sued for the murder of a fifteen year old girl in 1996, at what was perhaps the peak of their controversy. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2001 with the judge asserting that the band’s music was not particularly offensive or obscene.
This brought a mammoth amount of controversy to Slayer and the entire metal scene. Thankfully, other bands such as Cannibal Corpse and GWAR took the heat for them with more clearly controversial songs intended for shock value, like greats such as “From Skin to Liquid” and “America Must Be Destroyed.” Regardless, this left metal to be considered a niche genre for social outcasts, which is not the case whatsoever. There are a few sub-subcultures within metal though, usually dictated by which style of metal they prefer.
Thrashers themselves carry a stereotype of being amongst the most unkempt, drunken and dysfunctional members of society, but there’s much more to metal than that. Stereotypes are inherently harmful in every walk of life, and music is no different. There are plenty of metalheads who, quite opposite to that of the thrasher stereotype, think that they’re simply better than everyone else. And they really like Opeth.
Opeth — Progressive Death Metal
Years Active: 1989 — present
Leading Members: Mikael Åkerfeldt
Featuring super long songs laden with acoustic interludes, clean and growled vocals, incredible guitarwork and storytelling, Opeth is the favorite band of pretentious metalheads everywhere. Most fans love their album Blackwater Park and point to it as their magnum opus. However, I’m even more pretentious than them, and can only listen to their older material. And there’s nothing more metal than being pretentious!
Song — In Mist She Was Standing — 1995
Mayhem — Black Metal
Years Active — 1984 — present
Leading Members: Per Yngve Ohlin (a.k.a. Dead), Øystein Aarseth (a.k.a. Euronymous)
No band is more emblematic of black metal than Mayhem. Their singer, Dead, was one of the first to use corpse paint in the black metal scene, but not in the same way that King Diamond or KISS used face paint. Dead would use it to reflect on the ways he felt inside; he thought he was not human and had no purpose on Earth other than to die. He would cut himself on stage with broken glass and wear clothes that he buried underground for days before a show. Mayhem is one of the few bands whose imagery is actually strikingly worrying rather than being all for show. Dead committed suicide in the band’s recording space in 1991, and upon seeing the tragedy, guitarist Euronymous took pictures of Dead’s corpse with a disposable camera, later using the photo as artwork for a bootleg live recording, Dawn of the Black Hearts. After committing various other atrocities (bone fragment friendship bracelets, ties with Norweigan church burnings, etc.) guitarist Euronymous was stabbed to death by fellow bandmate Varg Virkenes in 1993. Circumstances around this time in black metal are bleak and dark, just like the music itself.
Song: Freezing Moon — 1994
I only have one friend who listens to death metal. His name is Caleb, and we’ve gone to a few live shows together. After elbowing me in the nose at the Slayer show, our next major band that we had the pleasure of seeing was Obituary. I distinctly remember saying to Caleb that I’d much rather see a band like Morbid Angel or Cannibal Corpse than Obituary, as I simply wasn’t a huge fan of them. That all changed when they came to Erie.
Obituary — Death metal
Years Active: 1984 — present
Leading Members: John Tardy, Donald Tardy
Delivering absolutely brain-crushing riffs with easily the loudest show I’ve heard at the local venue, Obituary live is a very pleasant experience. Well, pleasant if you want to fight for you life in the pit. I recall hearing the opening notes of “Find the Arise” and promptly being slammed into some dude three times my size. The same thing happened again with their next song. After that show, I had a persistent ringing in my left ear for about three days and figured that I just acquired tinnitus from the set. I was fine with that. Turns out everything coming through my left ear is now quieter than my right. Probably should’ve worn those earplugs like Caleb told me to…
Obituary are one of the biggest bands from the legendary late 80s / early 90s Florida Death Metal scene, epitomizing the mammoth chunky riffs more than any other Floridian band. While Death and Cynic would focus more on intricate jazz rhythms with death metal flair, Obituary just wanted to make the thickest riffs possible. They’re also veterans of the scene, releasing nine consistently solid albums since the genre’s first steps.
Song — Chopped in Half — 1990
Death — Death Metal / Progressive Death Metal
Years Active: 1984–2001
Leading Members: Chuck Schuldiner (RIP)
While I just mentioned that Death used some jazz rhythms in their later works, they began as a lowly tongue-in-cheek thrash band wanting to make some extreme lyrics. This is heard best on their first work, 1987’s Scream Bloody Gore, which sounds like how a slasher film looks. It’s no secret that some of Death’s early lyrics and songs were based heavily upon 80s horror films. One of the songs on the album is literally called “Evil Dead.” Have yourself a double feature of Scream Bloody Gore and The Thing, you’ll know what I mean.
Their leading guitarist, songwriter, and vocalist Chuck Schuldiner is seen by many to be the godfather of death metal, just as Elvis and Michael Jackson are the kings of pop music. Except, y’know, just with a lot more blood and guts involved.
Songs: Zombie Ritual — 1987, Voice of the Soul — 1998
Candlemass — Doom metal
Years Active: 1984 — present
Leading Members: Leif Edling, Messiah Marcolin
On the other end of the spectrum from Death and Obituary, we have Candlemass. Candlemass is epic. They literally created a new genre of doom metal (y’know, subgenres within subgenres) called Epic Doom Metal with their album, Epicus Doomicus Metallus, which might be the worst album name of all time.
Doom Metal, especially that of the epic variety is generally much more listenable than other extreme subgenres as it lacks the harsher vocals. Not that everything is clean here. I mean just look at these guys. Gross.
Song: Solitude — 1986
Sometime between the Obituary show in Erie and the present, Caleb and I took a trip to Buffalo in March to see Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel, two of death metal’s most famous bands. The former being the name you’ve likely heard before (with such hits as “Hammer Smashed Face” and “Fucked With A Knife”) and Morbid Angel with the best-selling death metal album of Covenant. Touring in support of these legends were two bands I had never heard of before; Necrot and Blood Incantation. Despite having funny names, they were pretty sick. Necrot plays thrash-inspired fast-paced straightforward death metal with a tinge of nihilism in the lyrics, while Blood Incantation played the most nerdy metal I’ve ever heard, talking about aliens from space who enslaved humanity. They would go on to be the spearhead for the new school death metal movement.
Blood Incantation — New School Death Metal
Years Active: 2011 — present
Leading Members: Paul Riedl
Blood Incantation combines incredibly technical metal prowess with psychedelic concepts of outer space and ancient aliens. Not like you would know that by listening to their music.
Their 2019 album Hidden History of the Human Race was revered by nearly all year-end lists as one of the most innovative death metal albums in the past decade. You will think it sounds like nonsense, and it does. But it’s pretty sick. If you do some acid or something you might understand what they’re talking about.
Song: Slave Species of the Gods — 2019
Suffocation — Brutal Death Metal
Years Active: 1988 — present
Leading Members: Terrence Hobbs, Frank Mullen
Suffocation is what I’d imagine non-metal listeners think all metal sounds like. Just some dude unintelligibly growling over incredibly heavy riffs creating a crazy brutal POSER KILLING sound. And that’s precisely why people don’t listen to them.
Their vocalist until 2019, Frank Mullen, is known for his move on stage, the death chop, in which he would just kinda do a little vertical karate chop? Is that supposed to scare people?
Their sound, affectionately named Brutal Death Metal, has spawned a subgenre of other cutely named bands, like Mortician, Cattle Decapitation and Dying Fetus. These employ the most guttural growls and screams one can conjure, and heavy riffs which lead into breakdowns, slow passages that encourage people in the pit to mosh as hard as possible.
Song: Infecting the Crypts (Human Waste version) — 1991
System of a Down — Nu-Metal / Whatever the hell system of a down is
Years Active: 1994 — present
Leading Members: Serj Tankian, Daron Malakian
System of a Down, somehow combining groundbreaking innovation in technicality / song structure, political fervor, psychedelically goofy lyrical delivery of both clean vocals and death growls, is one of a kind. There’s just nothing in the world that sounds even remotely close. Rick Rubin described a SOAD show as “the funniest thing [he’s] ever seen” and “Armenian folk dancing with heavy metal riffs”. Some of my favorite songs of theirs include Prison Song, whose lyrics include spoken-word facts about the corruption of our failed government, Aerials, a delightfully haunting song that doesn’t mean anything, and Chic ’N’ Stu, which humorously details the horrors of consumerism.
Serj Tankian, the bands vocalist (on the far right in the photo) has a wide range of other artistical ventures, from his own, more experimental and less-metal solo albums, to physical artworks, all of which he pairs with a soundtrack. As a leading songwriter for the band, he has written anti-police anthems (Mr. Jack), anti-establishment songs like Fuck the System, anti-war songs such as B.Y.O.B. and Genocidal Humanoidz, and a lot of songs about drugs (Sugar, This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I’m On This Song).
SOAD has personally had a massive impact on the way I view the world politically, and I hope their music makes an equally lasting effect on you. Or you can think they’re stupid and move on.
Songs: Prison Song, Aerials, (2001), Chic ’N’ Stu (2002)
Dungeon Weed — Stoner Metal / Sludge
Years Active: 2020 — present
Leading Members: Dimitri Mavra
Metalheads like weed so much they decided to make a genre about it; probably while they were really high. Some bands and albums in this genre include: Dopethrone by Electric Wizard, Dopesmoker by Sleep, and Amerijuanican by Bongzilla. Real original. Originally stemming from Black Sabbath’s incredibly subtle ode to marijuana “Sweet Leaf,” the typical stoner metal song features low-tuned guitars, droning vocals, and the occasional bong rip sample, and goes on for way too long. It’s music made by people who do too many drugs for people to listen to while they’re doing too many drugs.
A very recently formed band, Dungeon Weed take the stoner metal formula and turn the instrumentals to psychedelic levels, with floating synth sounds alongside heavy head-squishing riffs. Have a listen!
Song: Beholder Gonna Fuck You Up — 2020
The most recent show I’ve been to with Caleb was a GWAR concert in Buffalo in February of 2020. Going to a GWAR show can really only be described as… formative. You will be sprayed with copious amounts of fake blood, urine, and other assorted liquids. The crowd will ebb and flow like waves and probably toss you to the ground. You might even crowd surf. I did. It was sick.
GWAR — Theatrical Metal
Years Active: 1984 — present
Leading Members: Dave Brockie (RIP), Michael Bishop
Known for featuring an entire fictional universe behind their characters, Gwar began as a punk-oriented thrash band with members such as Oderus Urungus, Balsac the Jaws of Death, Jizmak da Gusha, and Beefcake the Mighty, all hailing from space and being banished to Antarctica, naturally. Their lyrical content includes satirical takes on commercialism and censorship in the media, as well as stories of how Oderus’s bastard son Gor-Gor (a mutant T-Rex, of course) annihilates the United States on their album “America Must Be Destroyed.”
GWAR don’t fit neatly into any musical category. Their music has evolved since their crossover thrash days, and while not necessarily renowned for their instrumental prowess, some of their songs do feature creative medleys and rhythms, like the few I have listed below. Watching a live video of GWAR is essential to the experience, studio recordings do them no justice.
Metal has had quite the stigma of being a tired old genre with little more experimentation left in its years. While it’s certainly past its heyday of 90s death metal mania and 2000s nu-metal fame, the genre has plenty more years left. Some of my favorite current innovators in the death metal scene are some weirdos from Ohio named Sanguisugabogg, Texans fascinated with the cold who go by the name Frozen Soul, and the aforementioned Blood Incantation. Also fantastic in the thrash sphere is Toxic Holocaust, especially with their release Primal Future: 2019. With live shows coming back in the next few years, it might be possible to see another explosion in the popularity of extreme metal. I hope.