Outside of the realm of radio airplay and mass consumption, metal bands struggle to distinguish themselves while subjected to ever-shifting standards set by short-lived trends. All groups with media presence seem to have something to prove, and Florida native Chuck Schuldiner was no exception. When denounced by the other members of his band Death, Schuldiner arrived at a creative waypoint; he knew that he wanted something cleaner, and to “move forward musically.”
In 1991, Death released Human, and Schuldiner claimed "this is much more than a record to me, […] it’s revenge,” in a 1991 interview. Though the trademark style of Death was called Floridian death metal at the time, listeners would later recognize Human as one of the first albums of technical death metal. Long before the term became accepted, Chuck Schuldiner and few other contemporaries maintained the sentiment of the subgenre, seeking analytical complexity over the basic stereotype of incomprehensibly growled vocals and satanic or gory lyrics.
In just over a decade, metal fans would define their favorite bands on a technicality alone – like Schuldiner, musicians drastically revitalized their sound to distinguish themselves from a genre quickly becoming rife with monotony. This subgenre label has proved significant to the music, the listeners, and death metal musicians, as technical death metal has now become an established metal subgenre.
Technical death metal has been codified similarly to traditional death metal as a genre firmly entrenched in a specific value set: proving instrumental skill and composing in an analytically complex style.
HISTORY OF TECHNICAL DEATH METAL
With the release of Human (1991), as well as later jazz-influenced death metal albums like Unquestionable Time (1991) by Atheist and Focus (1993) by Cynic, specific stylistic shifts began to distinguish this music from its predecessors in the 1980s.
While listeners have associated advanced performance techniques with metal music since its creation, these bands sought to achieve a higher degree of instrumental and songwriting complexity. Drawing in part from the virtuosic solos of famous 1970s/80s guitarists like Eddie Van Halen, death metal musicians fused concepts of composition and technical displays into the now-established death metal tradition, many pushing the boundary as far as their label company executives would allow.
In the book Death Metal Music: The Passion and Politics of a Subculture, author Natalie Purcell uses the term “Floridian Death Metal” to describe all bands in the early stages of technical death metal, but this label initially described the music scene of influential Florida bands like Death, Morbid Angel, and Obituary. These bands had immense popularity in underground fanzines, but by the 90s, Floridian death metal was one of the most dominant subgenres, as noted in popular metal magazines.
Clearer production and lyrics, relatively melodic guitar work, and triggered metronomic drums characterize the music of most early Floridian death metal musicians.
The official term for this genre emerged somewhere around the popularity peak that flooded the 2000s with bands labeled as “technical death metal.”
The Pennsylvanian record label company Willowtip Records was one significant force in supporting forward-thinking metal, signing and promoting metal bands from around the world for U.S. audiences – examples of these include Necrophagist, Neuraxis, Gorod, and later Spawn of Possession. Other independent labels like Earache Records (England), Relapse Records (Pennsylvania), and Unique Leader Records (Florida) signed technical death metal bands such as Decapitated, Origin, and Decrepit Birth despite their initial association with other genres.
Like Schuldiner, the main songwriters of these groups found far more interest in innovation rather than copying original death metal styles. Necrophagist guitarist and creator Muhammed Suiçmez believed there were “certain elements of [death metal] that I would have liked better if executed differently.”
Early progenitors of technical death metal, especially those working almost or entirely alone, struck a balance between technicality and tradition within their genre – their efforts to improve and codify the genre’s sound soon led to thousands of technical death metal records being sold throughout the U.S. and Europe.
Once fans and record companies established the subgenre label, the bands that followed had the same options that technical death metal musicians had in the 1990s and 2000s: to invent something new, to add on to the established formula, or to copy their favorite bands.
The most relevant bands augment technical death metal by incorporating other genres like thrash metal (Revocation) and progressive metal (Obscura). Guitarist/frontman Steffen Kummerer, the sole consistent member of Obscura, recognizes the influence of Necrophagist on his music, but his increased emphasis on melody and thematic continuity on his 2011 album Omnivium notably distinguishes from 2000s metal music.
However, many bands like Spawn of Possession, Psycroptic, Beyond Creation, and Archspire choose to remain entrenched within the boundaries set by Necrophagist and its contemporaries. For Suiçmez, the clear division comes from the music listening choices of modern metal bands – while the original creators of death metal came from various punk, rock, and metal backgrounds, current death metal bands rely solely on the influence of other death metal bands. Whether or not this caused the narrower mindset of modern death metal, Suiçmez chose to retire after one major-label release instead of recycling his old material in new albums.
TECHNICAL DEATH METAL COMPOSITION
As alluded above, the development of technical death metal has revolved around two specific compositional masterminds: Chuck Schuldiner, of the Florida band Death, and Muhammed Suiçmez, of the German band Necrophagist. Fans recognize Death’s Human (1991) as a definitive early release for the genre, and the band followed this release with three more albums in the 90s, all of which have become essential to defining this genre’s sound.
Necrophagist only had two total full-length releases, entitled Onset of Putrefaction (1999, U.S. release 2004) and Epitaph (2004), but both are of roughly equal status as to their vitality for the genre.
While many of the guitar riffs and drum patterns on Human approximate the traditional death metal sound, Schuldiner’s compositional approach shows a newly discovered complexity that extends beyond atonality (the complete abandonment of the classical understanding of harmony). The opening track “Flattening of Emotions” extensively uses tritone dissonances, harmonic emphasis, and complex rhythmic and motivic structure that would later define technical death metal.
After a solo-like drum introduction that divides the beat into eighth notes, the guitar introduces the riff with triplet eighth notes at the same pulse, using the pitches D-G-C# twice followed by the tritone F#-C. This figure sounds highly dissonant, despite its use of primarily consonant notes – the tritone focus and irregular metric grouping prevent the riff from fully relieving the tension. Further, a perfect fifth interval almost immediately complements this figure to flesh out the sound (riffs shown below, appearing at [0:21] and [0:27] in “Flattening of Emotions”).
Schuldiner’s riff harmonization re-contextualizes the perfect fifth, the “power chord” in heavy metal music, to a new harmonic setting. By layering this interval and adding another fifth to the chord (a ninth from the lowest note), Schuldiner augments his style in “Flattening of Emotions” (and much of the rest of Human) by rethinking how he has previously approached death metal composition.
The song continues with a similar focus on classical approaches to dissonance, including scalar motion, major and minor chromatic alterations, and diminished chords, which can easily create extreme discordance.
Necrophagist, coming to fame in the early 2000s, takes this approach to its most extreme for the first time in history. The band’s performances demonstrated meticulous preparation, striving to play their songs flawlessly rather than perform in the typically raucous manner of their musical peers. Working on Onset of Putrefaction almost entirely alone, guitarist and vocalist Muhammed Suiçmez’s complex music recalls a classical influence as well as intentional motivic structure.
The final track from Onset of Putrefaction, entitled “Fermented Offal Discharge,” exemplifies Suiçmez’s ability to create a structure that is complex while demonstrating his instrumental skill. In the solo section of this song, Necrophagist contrasts the brutal intensity of the majority of the song by quickly shifting to a half-time feel, marked by an easily perceptible chord progression and melodic soloing.
The solo splits into three distinct sections containing different chords rhythms and intense guitar and drum motives, progressing from a simple structure to a chaotic ending.
The first section [3:02] begins with the most pared-down passage yet – the sharp, half-time breakdown leads to whole note chords in the rhythm guitar, a simple three-chord pattern of A (with no third), Dm, BbM, and return to an A chord.
Over these repeating chords, Suiçmez’s guitar solo begins with melodic phrasing and interspersed arpeggios, a relatively restrained style compared to the main sections of the song. With each repetition, the arpeggiation becomes more frequent and intense, adding an overdub on the last repetition, increasing the density.
In the second and third sections of the solo, Suiçmez’s solo becomes less melodic and more intricate in composition and performance. The opening moments show direct references to the beginning of the song, demonstrating the precise analytical complexity of Suiçmez’s composition style. Once simultaneously condensing the harmonic pattern of the solo section and starting the double-time feel in the drums, the rhythm guitar plays a one-measure solo borrowed from the main guitar riff.
This measure is used many times throughout the song, shifting the attention of the listener beyond the technical display of the solo guitar to the song’s construction. As well, he uses this tritone callback to reference a previous harmonic pattern of Abm and Dm, shown in the third bar of the above figure and the opening seconds of the song. From this point on through the rest of the second section of the solo, one can audibly detect a string of similar references to other points of the song.
MODERN TECHNICAL DEATH METAL
Since the mid-2000s, technical death metal bands have continued to release new albums. However, their balance of innovation and homage vastly differs between each release. For those bands solely retaining the “technical death metal” label, the results are frequently the latter.
In the time since the labeling of technical death metal, technical death metal musicians and listeners tend to resist any change to the genre's original values. Many metal bands borrowed from the technicality of death metal to suit new styles, such as metalcore (death metal/hardcore punk), groove metal (thrash/death metal), as well as the many qualifiers like blackened, melodic, brutal, or symphonic death metal. With so much competition for a dominant style, technical death metal understandably leans towards rigidity rather than inclusion.
Of the popular metal bands following Necrophagist, Swedish band Spawn of Possession remains one of the top referenced for best modern technical death metal bands. The group has recorded on the three main record labels friendly to the subgenre (Unique Leader, Willowtip, and Relapse), producing three albums of progressively more intricate technical death metal. With guitarist Jonas Bryssling taking the role of the obsessively precise technical death metal composer, the band fits both sonically and archetypally into the fully established genre qualities.
Rather than relying on advanced harmonic techniques found in other forms of intellectually engaging music, Spawn of Possession only use the reference of other technical death metal groups to inform their approach. Fans frequently cite their final album, Incurso (2012), as one of the greatest technical death metal releases ever, albeit one requiring “multiple, concentrated listens” to fully grasp.
The complexity of the band’s music is only understandable to its composers, moving blindingly fast with little grounded material to catch the listener’s attention.
The notable additions that augment the sound of Incurso, such as short orchestral introductions or concluding moments of repose, represent only a few minutes of the album, despite being one of few novel elements. While most songs are too rapid to discern non-random song structure, some songs like “The Evangelist” have a few moments of notable repetition to unite each riff.
With no less than nine tempo changes and about thirty-six different riff sections with two extended guitar solos, this song occasionally demonstrates compositional intentions through a noticeable return of the opening virtuosic section at [5:04], as well as the mid-tempo muted passages at [2:36] which accompany the solo at [4:36].
In a particularly lucid interview on the subject of new death metal, Muhammed Suiçmez reveals his ambivalence towards the Florida band Hate Eternal, a group lacking the diversity of previous death metal bands and requiring attentive listening to understand each track.
This inherent problem in technical death metal stems from the fundamental agreement that any further innovation becomes labeled as something else entirely. Once band members introduce any extra element, the music can transcend from its set boundaries to become more individual and unique, but in this process fans no longer label the music as technical death metal.
Technical death metal has evolved, like many extreme metal genres, from a few sets of individual trends to its own sub-subgenre. With such specific sets of qualifiers for this genre, the music produced under the term, while often musically engaging and analytically complex, is frequently only comprehensive to the creators themselves.
Some metal fans disregard the music and concerts due to their pretentious complexity and rigid performances; however, musicians who can comprehend the scope of the music are content watching bands perform difficult music with near-perfect precision, even if that detracts from the band’s ability to engage with the audience.
Fans who enjoy the analytical intricacy of technical death metal look no further since it is the only genre that consistently features all of these specific qualities. The modern creators of death metal tend to continue on these two divergent paths, either by expanding their codified boundaries past technical death metal or staying within their lane and writing more difficult parts for their bands to play. Those that have remained define the universal goal of technical death metal music: choosing alienation over the appeal.
- John Peel; Albert Mudrian, Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal and Grindcore, (Feral House, 2004).
- Natalie Purcell, Death Metal Music: The Passion and Politics of a Subculture, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003).
- Robert Walser, Running with the Devil: Power, gender, and madness in heavy metal music, (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1993).