An Introduction to Hellenic Death Metal
To any dedicated fan of underground metal, Greece undoubtedly stands as one of the most prolific and die hard countries in terms of output and fanatics. As recounted in a recent interview with Wrathblade and in this great blogpost about Greece’s fascination with heavy metal, the country remained a hotbed for traditional metal even during the style’s darkest days (mid-late 1990s).
The reverence for classic heavy metal would prove to be supremely important in the development of Greece’s own takes of other heavy metal subgenres. As many black metal devotees will know, as the scene in Norway was taking off, the same was happening in Greece. In contrast to their Northern peers, Hellenic Black Metal had a warmer, more occult sound deeply influenced by early heavy metal (for more information on the early/modern Hellenic scene, the following primer covers the bulk of the bands in the genre).
Just as traditional heavy metal melodies were infused in Greece’s black metal, so too did were they born into Greek death metal. In its genesis at the start of the ‘90s, both Septic Flesh and Horrified were starting to forge a very melodic and atmospheric take on the genre. However, the release of Paradise Lost’s iconic Gothic in 1991 would also prove to be a significant influence on the development of the Hellenic sound. Gothic’s fusion of doomy death metal with dark, ethereal melodies taken from ‘80s goth rock would serve as inspiration for the latter works of Septic Flesh/Horrified and many of the bands that came after them- this primer focuses on that ephemeral Greek styled death metal, and was co-written by myself and my friend Dan to introduce you lot to it.
Despite a tendency for fans of the early Greek death metal scene to focus on the bands with that sound, the Greek scene actually started a few years earlier. One of the most important bands to the early scene was the mighty Flames, who formed playing speed metal before growing darker and darker with some of the first thrash and then early extreme metal to come out of Greece. By their third album, Summon The Dead, Flames was playing extreme and somewhat melodic thrash, thus paving the way for extreme music in Greece. Despite little of it sounding like what we’ve come to expect from the Hellenic death metal scene, you can hear the first tinges of what would emerge just a few years later.
Even more extreme was the birth of Death Courier in 1987. Though the band was younger, they were immediately playing death metal influenced music, and a lot of it sounded more like what you’d expect from Hellenic death metal. Much of the music was still primitive and raw death/thrash on their ‘80s demo material, but melodic leads, bouncing rhythms, and more somber parts would sometimes predict the birth of the scene. This would only grow more pronounced with the band’s Necrorgasm 7”, which despite still being rooted firmly in thrash showcased a lot more of the mid-paced chugging heavy metal riffs and leadwork of the Hellenic death metal sound. Also worth mentioning is that a couple of the Death Courier guys helped out Varathron in their earliest days, hence the appearance of Theo and Bill on the Live At The Swamp demo; another connection to the Greek black metal scene comes from Nigel playing briefly in Vomit, a short-lived band containing members that would go on to join bands like Varathron, Necromantia, and Sarcastic Terror..
Hot on Death Courier’s heels were more musically accomplished death/thrashing masters Septicemia. Though the material is not even remotely in the vein of the Hellenic sound, it has an almost unparalleled aggression among the early Greek scene alongside some great technical leadwork, and, more importantly, served as the first band (as far as I can tell from my research) of a couple of prominent members of the early scene. From Septicemia came the roots of both Horrified as well as Nightfall.
Around the same time that Septicemia was coming together, Necromantia formed under the moniker of Necromancy (after a name change from an earlier version of the band which never released anything). Though they’re by far better known for their dual-bass approach to black metal, they originally played ripping primordial death/thrash which contained some early leanings towards the Greek death metal sound. The early Necromantia / Necromancy material was unearthed a couple of years ago and released by Soulseller Records as a double CD / double LP, and is well worth picking up.
The early Hellenic death metal scene ran roughly from around 1990 up until 1996, before the sound ultimately died and Greek bands became more vested in producing death metal of other kinds. While most old school death metal scenes have met with some kind of revival in recent years, the Hellenic scene still largely remains unknown and in the shadow of their black metal counterparts. Very few bands still remain keeping this old sound alive and the intent of this primer is to shine some light on both the originators and the small bands that played a part in this miniscule scene.
The Greek Sound: Elder Gods
Septic Flesh is quite possibly the single most important death metal band to the Hellenic sound, and the only one to ever truly break out of Greece from the original crop of bands. By 1991 they were already using a heavy amount of synths to add to the atmosphere of their music, complementing their stellar lead guitar usage. The early material combines repetitive black metal-esque gorgeous tremolo picked lines with aggressive rhythms and huge bass to form an assault as catchy as it is heavy, and through the years they would add more and more influence from symphonic music (with an interest in the field growing deep enough for the band’s guitarist and orchestration master Christos even picked up a degree in composition) and early Paradise Lost. By their third album heavier than ever keyboard sections, female guest vocals, and clean vocals from lead guitarist Sotiris flitted in and out of the brutal rhythm work to form some truly unique Hellenic death metal. Though by now Septic Flesh has rebranded themselves as “SepticFlesh” and abandoned their early death metal roots, the early Septic Flesh material is some of the best and most influential to the scene, and they stayed true to their core sound long past the point where most Greek death metal bands had abandoned theirs.
Recommended listening: Forgotten Path, Temple of the Lost Race, Mystic Places of Dawn
Horrified’s classic Hellenic death metal period runs through The Prophecy of Gore demo, released in 1990, through the release of their debut full length In the Garden of Unearthly Delights. Even from the outset, in their muffled sounding demo days, Horrified had a good penchant for eerie leads and the odd haunting synth (Eternal God and The Ancient Whisper of Wisdom). But Horrified’s full potential was realized with their first album, wherein the Hellenic sound came to its full fruition. Unafraid to combine copious amounts of melody and synth and spruced slightly with acoustic interludes, flutes and female vocals – In the Garden of Unearthly Delights is not an orthodox death metal album, but one that has such a great sense of harmony that it elevates you to a different realm. A completely unique death metal album for 1993, a time when “melodic” death metal was still in its infancy.
Recommended listening: Eternal God, The Ancient Whisper of Wisdom, In the Garden of Unearthly Delights
Some people reduce the Hellenic sound to the description of “Doomy Death Metal with keyboards and goth influence”. In that respect, Obsecration are definitely cut from this mold. Obsecration had been releasing this brand of death metal since at least 1991, but didn’t release a full length until 1996 – a time when the Hellenic scene was way past its productive days. Nonetheless, Inheritors of Pain remains a great textbook example of the slower side of the genre. From the get go, the gothic influences are most abundant when the synths come up, roping you in with a haunting and uncanny atmosphere that is very Lovecraftian in nature. Obsecration have continued to release output over the years that bears some similarities to their debut, but never living up to the standards set by it. It remains one of the best examples of the sound.
Recommended listening: Oblivious…, The Inheritors of Pain
Nightfall is one of Greece’s most enduring extreme metal acts, having been active since 1991. It’s not easy pigeonholing their sound, as their first three classic albums (Parade into Centuries, Macabre Sunsets and Athenian Echoes) are essentially what would happen if you took Gothic, added a folky touch on top and embedded some elements from the nascent Greek BM scene. After Athenian Echoes, the band diverged significantly and followed a more gothic metal direction akin to other bands like Paradise Lost, Sentenced and Amorphis.
Recommended listening: Parade Into Centuries, Macabre Sunsets, Athenian Echoes
Second Tier Bands
Funeral Revolt are definitely a unique band in the Greek DM spectrum, opting for a much thrashier direction than their peers but still laden with tasteful harmonious leads, sparse synths and well-crafted ambience. This is a good pickup for those that want their death metal a bit more fast paced and with a good dose of melody. Though they later would abandon the Greek sound to play more industrial music, the early demos and Burial EP are great. Burial remains one of the most affordable and available Black Power Records (a cult record label that pushed several of the early Greek bands, putting out Horrified, Septicemia, Septic Flesh, and more) releases because it unfortunately never got much of the attention it deserves.
Recommended listening: Brutality Domain, Burial, Γαία υπερφιάλων αθεμιστών
Nordor are one of the lesser known acts of the Greek DM scene despite playing with Gore of Horrified fame and, later, with Blind Priest of Disharmony. After a rather unremarkable first demo, Nordor stepped it up a bit on His Fictitious Grandeur. The demo was a marked improvement, sounding like Lost Paradise with the odd Rotting Christ-esque riff thrown in – but still somewhat lacking in identity. Their final demo, The Semen of Satan, was a step in that direction, with two full songs that would have not sounded out of place on Horrified’s debut. After this, Nordor took a lengthy hiatus, coming back towards the end of the noughties with an EP and a full length. Both of these still had remnants of the original Hellenic sound, but with a more conventional DM sound.
Recommended: His Fictitious Grandeur, The Semen of Satan
Formed in 1990, Selefice provided an interesting blend of significantly more primal early death metal and the typical early Greek mysticism and atmosphere. Sections of pounding death/thrash or Mortuary Drape-esque black/death alternate with atmospheric leads, doom sections, and both chanted and choral vocals to give a unique effect that set Selefice apart from the pack; unsurprisingly Selefice never broke out of Greece and indeed broke up only a year after putting out their first and only full length album. Said album was recently reissued by Floga Records, and all fans of both Greek death metal as well as more occult black/death a la Mortuary Drape or Necromass should make note of this one. Even people not as into the Greek sound might like Selefice because while there’s certainly some of that in there, it’s not as prominent as it is in most of the other bands on this primer.
Recommended listening: Where Is the Heaven
Little is known about this short-lived project, but in the brief existence, the band revelled in playing a synth heavy version of death/doom similar to their compatriots Phlebotomy most present in their first demo, Nothingness. And just like Phlebotomy, there is a sense that Condemned wanted to increasingly depart from a pure death metal sound and venture elsewhere. This is most notable in the Promo ‘94 demo in which Condemned take the mild saccharine elements of their sound and put them on full blast. If you’re into heavy synths, dramatic clean vocals and sullen guitar passages, it might be for you, but not for me.
Recommended listening: Nothingness
Prior to becoming The Elysian Fields, the band released a short demo under the name Desulphurize typical of what was coming out of the Greek DM scene at the time – doomy death with some synths and a healthy leaning on traditional metal melodies. However, with the name change, The Elysian Fields unleashed one of the more interesting debuts of the extreme metal scene. Their debut, Adelain, while still taking influence from the Peaceville 3 (particularly in its slow-paced, spoken word passages) was notable for combining Greek BM riffage with that of the rapidly expanding Scandinavian scene. This is equal parts Paradise Lost, Rotting Christ and Dissection thrown together to deliver a very versatile album that should be a required listen for anyone who wants an alternative take on the melodic black/death sound. While their latter work was still good, it is the debut that remains the closest to the traditional Hellenic sound
Recommended listening: Nihilistic Era, Adelain
Before On Thorns I Lay settled on that name and started playing very melodic and atmospheric death/doom a la Katatonia or Paradise Lost, they used two other names were more squarely in the vein of the early Greek death metal bands. Forming originally as Paralysis in 1992, they immediately captured some of the Hellenic glory with their first demo, Beyond the Chaos. That demo features tasteful synths, mesmerizing repetitive rhythms, and some black metal riffs for a very moody and fun listen. Almost immediately after putting it out they changed names and identities to become the significantly more gothic Phlebetomy. The synths remain, but now it’s almost like listening to The Sisters of Mercy try and write Greek death metal- which sounds like a criticism but is actually the exact opposite. The end result is a very unique 7” titled Dawn of Grief.
Recommended listening: Beyond the Chaos, Dawn of Grief
Like many in the scene, Dismaed were confined to a number of demos, both during their lifetime and under their previous incarnation – Moribund. Their early demos showed promise, but they fulfilled their potential with their final output, Messages from the Place of the Dead. In it, Dismaed play a fairly standard style of brutalish death metal that strays from time to time into more atmospheric realms with the standard Hellenic flair (keyboards, heavy tremolo picking and even clean vocals!). Their previous demos were decent, but sadly they never managed to take it to the next level (i.e. a full length).
Recommended listening: Messages from the Place of the Dead
Natural Fear’s one and only two-song demo is a short lived affair, but one that would satisfy the needs of any Hellas fanatic. Like Funeral Revolt, they practice an atmospheric brand of thrashier DM that contains all the standard material found in the national Greek scene at the time. As with most one demo bands, the sound is very subdued from the poor production, but still manages to shine through. In fact, some of the leads in the second song strongly resemble the material later put out by The Chasm. Most likely a coincidence more than anything else.
Recommended listening: Beyond Eternity
Another short lived band that only managed to put out a demo, Sanctorum distinguish themselves from the pack not just by the length of said demo (long enough with added an intro and outro on the b-side to be a LP) but by the extreme recording and production quality that they had. Crystal Tears of Silence sounds like a lost album from a death metal band that never had a chance to show the world what it could do; immense atmosphere, incredible songwriting (good enough to support the entire release being made up of just three long songs!), and great performance from the musicians involved puts this up there with my favorite demos from the Greek scene. Like many bands, Sanctorum shared members with other notable Greek projects, forming from the ashes of Natural Fear and Sephiroth. Crystal Tears of Silence was recently re-released by the band on vinyl and I highly recommend picking it up- the reissue is very well done and well worth the cost of exporting it from Hellas.
Recommended listening: Crystal Tears of Silence
A relative latecomer to the scene, Aimoptysi recorded a number of demos (most impossible to find) and a full length before fading forever. From the first demo, Aimoptysi managed to distinguish themselves with a masterful command of flashy guitar solos – sounding straight out of a ’80s heavy metal record. What they lacked in songwriting, they made up with potential. Unfortunately their only record did not really achieve that, sounding like generic sluggish death/doom with an odd nod to the Hellenic sound and horrible mixing. Only for complete diehards.
Recommended listening: Dark Aimolith, Searching for the Myths of the Past (for those curious)
By the end of the ‘90s the Greek sound was all but dead in death metal, though it lived on (and continues to live on) with the country’s black metal scene. Vanity proved to be very much the exception to this rule by putting out their first and only full length in 1999, not only at a time when the Hellenic sound was at an all time low but when the old school sound in general was at its least popular- though given that this is Christian Adamou’s band following Nightfall, this may still be less than surprising. Bucking most of the trends of the time (unfortunately, some stuff- like Katatonia or Opeth-esque interludes- remains) Vanity doubled down on their love for Paradise Lost, Varathron, and old Septic Flesh to create an album full of majestic melodies, mesmerizing rhythms, and haunting leadwork which even now has continued to go mostly unappreciated.
Recommended listening: Enslaved
While still playing in Vanity, guitarist Vasilis Zobolas formed a new band alongside Necromantia’s Baron Blood and Thou Art Lord’s Gothmog. By the time that they debuted their first full length album under the Terra Tenebrae name, Greece had largely moved away from the classic sound; less and less black metal bands were doing it, and aside from Vanity and Obsecration, not many death metal bands in the style were left. Terra Tenebrae initially did a bit of both, merging black metal and death metal; though the sound on their debut album, Subconscious, wasn’t dead on with the traditional Hellenic sound that the members were doing with their other bands, a keen sense of Hellenic melody remains, and the album is well worth listening to. After changing names to Soulskinner in 2000, the band would drop most of the black metal influence and a good amount of the Hellenic sound (though enough remains to be worth mentioning them!) and go on to play something more akin to Bolt Thrower crossed with Obsecration; lots of big, aggressive rhythms interspersed with sections of Greek beauty. Even up to today Soulskinner has remained an extremely consistent band, and I honestly think their new record might be their best one- shocking for a band that’s been around for twenty years now.
Recommended listening: Subconscious, Crypts of Ancient Wisdom, Descent to Abaddon