Forlorn Skies: An Introduction to Melodic Death Metal

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Everyone knows how death metal started, more or less, even if the details can be a bit hazy to those who haven’t done their due diligence. But what about melodic death metal? What about the innovators, bands that played an in between of the commercial sounds of later days and the classics, or the rare bands that eschewed all trends to just do their own thing?

In an epoch where fans are very familiar with all the different subgenres and regional scenes within Death Metal, it is sometimes forgotten all those distinctions were not present during the genre’s early era (1985-1993). Sure, there were bands described in zines/magazines as Brutal/Technical/Melodic, but those sound distinctions weren’t engraved into specific sub-subgenres…yet. In that same manner, Melodic Death Metal began as a valid offshoot of Death Metal. Reading zines from the genesis of the genre (91-95 roughly), many were praising this new direction and re-invention of the genre by bands like Dark Tranquillity, In Flames, Eucharist, etc. Early Melodic Death Metal got attention primarily through the releases of Wrong Again Records who put out some of the seminal early releases in the genre and issued the now famous W.A.R compilation Volume 1 in 1995 which gave the world a taste of this new emerging sound that was here to stay.

Pointing out when the schism between “Melodic” Death Metal and the Melodic Death Metal pioneered in Gothenburg happened is difficult, but a good contender would be 1995/1996. These years saw the releases of Slaughter of the Soul, The Jester Race and The Gallery—important and great albums but ones that saw a further departure from their death metal roots into something completely different, more akin to Heavy/Power Metal with harsh vocals.

Bands pop up with the occasional pretty part here and there, but melodic death metal—with an emphasis on DEATH—is a lost art. Many people who can’t stand modern melodic death metal would probably dig melodic bands that tend more towards classic death metal with melodies than towards Children of Bodom, and that’s what this article is about; not stuff that’s a step removed from metalcore, not power metal with harsher vocals, and certainly not goth with an extra level of crunch.

For the purpose of having a firm distinction, anything that is as melodic or more than the earliest full-lengths from In Flames and Dark Tranquility will be considered outside of the scope of this piece. Leaving a band out doesn’t mean that they suck, but if they have even remotely modern production, a lot of synths, or started after the early ‘90s and have managed to get some level of mainstream popularity, well, they probably wouldn’t fit here. The scope of this also doesn’t really discuss modern bands at all, so while the authors would appreciate getting recommendations for old-school melodic death metal bands from the ‘00s and ‘10s, the primer does not focus on that era, and their exclusion is not a slight.

This article is divided by special mentions and by tiers. Special mentions are bands that don’t quite fit in the very limited scope of discussion but still need, for one reason or another, to be talked about. Tiers are first, second, third and fourth, and will be explained before each section. Each tier is in rough chronological order, focusing on debut albums rather than on formation date, demos, or EPs. Recommended listening is based not necessarily on what is best, but on what fits the article the best, so don’t get annoyed if seminal goregrind or crust releases from bands that went melodic a little later on are left off, or when a really influential death metal band is in the third tier because they did a melodic album after their most defining material.

Article co-written by myself and Dzorr.

First tier essentials: 

The most popular and influential bands in the genre, as well as the most historically significant ones. Not necessarily favorites or the best in the genre, but the ones that need to be talked about first.

Dismember

To many, this is it—the beginning and the end of melodic death metal’s best-of, the king of the Swedish death metal scene, and possibly the best death metal band to ever exist. Even if they’re not the best, they’re certainly one of them, and one of the more innovative.

Though they formed in 1988, the earliest demos have more in common with the Nihilist material or with Carnage (in some ways the same band, for a little bit) than with anything in the scope of this article. However, much like Entombed, Dismember had started to incorporate melody as they geared up for a full-length album. Unlike Entombed, Dismember focused on incorporating these as main sections of songs rather than as flavors, even beginning their debut, Like an Everflowing Stream, with a long tremolo melody on the now-legendary “Override of the Overture.”

Over time, Dismember upped their melodicism, becoming eventually an outright melodic death metal band, but they never lost the fire and aggression of their early years. Nothing in their earliest material can be truly said to be melodic death metal, but to me, they’ve always been a sort of dividing line, and one of the first death metal bands to truly embrace melody.

Recommended listening: Like an Everflowing Stream, Pieces, Indecent and Obscene

Carcass

A name that needs no introduction, Carcass were never content with playing the same album twice and innovated constantly throughout the course of their career. Reek of Putrefaction is the first de facto Goregrind album, Symphonies of Sickness was one of the pioneering Death/Grind records and Necroticism was a unique death metal record that tastefully incorporated significant portions of groove into their sound. Yet Carcass genuinely caught everyone by surprise with the release of Heartwork—one of the founding albums of Melodic Death Metal.

The inception of Melodic Death Metal was largely concentrated within Scandinavia/Northern Europe—a stark contrast to Carcass’s upbringing in Liverpool. This geographical difference is quite noticeable when one listens to Heartwork, as there is a stronger Hard Rock/late 70’s HM vibe within the melodies and a groovier sound than what bands like At The Gates or Eucharist were writing at the time. Carcass explored this sound further on Swansong, but in the process lost the qualities that made Heartwork such an emblematic album.

Recommended listening: Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious, Heartwork

At The Gates

The intro of this article promised no modern-style melodic death metal, and certainly nothing that’s just a step removed from metalcore (though in fairness, that’s because people copied At The Gates some years after the fact). However, the assumption that At the Gates is synonymous with that later style ignores the earlier material, which is far removed from the modern melodic death tendencies of Slaughter of the Soul.

At The Gates sprung up from the ashes of the significantly more aggressive Grotesque in 1990, and quickly pioneered their own sound that had some of the terror of the early Grotesque material but a hell of a lot more complicated songwriting and a much more melodic bent. The key distinction between the earlier stuff and the later albums is that the earliest material was written by Alf Svensson, a master of the bizarre with very different goals than the band would eventually move onto.

Strange rhythms, guitar layering, incredible tremolo melodies, advanced songwriting, session violin, and blistering vocals were once the hallmark of At The Gates. The Red In The Sky Is Ours has been called Sweden’s Nespithe by more than one reviewer, and the comparison isn’t too far off. Unfortunately for lovers of this style, with the departure of Alf the band moved into a much more simple and commercial direction, abandoning death metal entirely just a few years later.

Recommended listening: Gardens of Grief, The Red in the Sky Is Ours

Amorphis

The early Finnish death metal scene was known for a lot of things, including the use of melody, but not many bands took it as far as Amorphis. Formed in the wake of the breakups of a minor thrash band called Violent Solution and Finnish death metal legends Abhorrence, Amorphis quickly went beyond the primitivism of their earliest material to explore non-standard rhythms, interesting song structures, and a sense of class that most death metal before or after has never been able to emulate. The Karelian Isthmus is sophisticated and doom-laden death metal full of killer melodies and harmonies without ever losing sight of death metal.

Just an album later a lot of that death metal had been lost, to be replaced by folk melodies, keyboards, and catchiness, and the death metal was pretty much completely gone forever after that. For fans of the macabre, Amorphis’s pre-album material is the way to go, but the debut and to some extent its followup are well worth anyone’s time. Today, Amorphis is one of the most popular bands from the early Finnish death metal scene, though for much different reasons than the ones fans of the early material would hope.

Recommended listening: The Karelian Isthmus, Privilege of Evil, Tales from the Thousand Lakes

Sentenced

Much like Amorphis, Sentenced was leaning more towards melodicism than most of their contemporaries even as early as their first album. Unlike Amorphis, Sentenced shared a lot in common with bands such as Dismember and Death rather than sounding like a real part of the early Finnish scene, though that was certainly there as well. Sentenced’s debut album, Shadows of the Past, is a great mix of creepy chords, brutal thrash rhythms, haunting melodies, and monstrous vocals that’ll satisfy any classic death metal fan, even the ones that aren’t interested in most of the bands in this article.

North From Here is where the band forged their true melodic death metal masterpiece and became a necessary inclusion to any discussion on the subject. Though it’s debatable if it’s as good from a neutral standpoint as Shadows, it’s certainly where the band came into their own as unique songwriters, and even now there’s nothing truly comparable to North From Here.

Recommended listening: Shadows of the Past, North From Here

Septic Flesh

As much of a legend and innovator as any other band on this list, Septic Flesh (nowadays, Septicflesh) often draws derision from death metal fans who are not fans of the band’s current orchestra-centric and fairly riffless approach. However, as with many other very popular symphonic or gothic bands that go back to the early ‘90s (including several others mentioned in this article), Septic Flesh got started with much more traditional death metal.

Septic Flesh are quite possibly the single most important death metal band to the Hellenic sound, and they are the only one from the original wave to break out of Greece. Even as early as 1991 they were already incorporating a heavy amount of synths into their sound, originally using them as an atmospheric enhancement rather than to carry songs as they would later on. Guitars were focused on an interplay of repetitive atmospheric riffs and gorgeous melodies, with a drum machine keeping the overall sound squarely in line with the rest of the early Greek scene.

It took until the band’s fourth album for them to really move away from riff-centric death metal, with each release becoming increasingly melodic and orchestrated. Fans of both death metal and melodic death alike should be able to find plenty to delve into from the demo era up through the first album, and the adventurous can find killer songwriting through Ophidian Wheel.

Recommended listening: Temple of the Lost Race, Mystic Places of Dawn, Ophidian Wheel

Special Mention: Dissection

No discussion about melodic extreme metal is complete without Dissection, a band who proved to be extremely influential both in death metal and black metal. While the band is nowadays associated more with the Melodic Black Metal sound, their early material including The Somberlain was considered to be within the Death Metal pantheon. This was at a time when melody in extreme metal was only just starting to become more prevalent, and the lines between Melodic Death Metal and Melodic Black Metal were still somewhat blurry.

Both of their ‘90s albums are worth hitting, but The Somberlain would appeal more to fans of Death Metal. Jon was certainly a master of songwriting, capable of embedding his deep love for traditional metal (particularly Iron Maiden) in an extreme metal framework. What The Somberlain offers is a 45-minute romp replete with beautiful, cold-sounding melodies plucked from the depths of Scandinavia. Not much more needs to be said about such a celebrated band other than the reverence for their music is understandable.

Recommended listening: Into Infinite Obscurity, The Somberlain, Storm of the Light’s Bane

Special Mention: Paradise Lost

Though the intro made a point of saying that goth was not going to be covered in this article, it would be remiss to leave out Paradise Lost. Starting off as a fairly standard death/doom band, Paradise Lost vaulted into the exceptional with 1991’s Gothic, which fused powerful death/doom riffs with goth rock melodies and sensibility. In spite of the fact that they’d quickly move away from metal and not really return for another decade, Gothic was a milestone that would change much of extreme metal, for better or worse, and some of the best melodic bands of the ‘90s (particularly Greek ones) wore the influences they took from Paradise Lost proudly on their sleeves.

Recommended listening: Gothic

Special Mention: Bolt Thrower

Much like their countrymen in Carcass, Bolt Thrower started off in the punk scene and became increasingly tied to death metal over their first couple of albums. Unlike Carcass, Bolt Thrower stayed there, and right up until their last album played groovy death metal—but they did it with the twist that was an increasingly melodic approach. Bolt Thrower never even came close to putting out something that could be called melodic death metal, but they’ve remained one of the biggest influences on death metal bands that put melody into their sound.

Though in fitting with the theme of the article the “recommended listening” list focuses on their more melodic material, don’t skip early Bolt Thrower. In Battle There Is No Law! and Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness are easily as good if not better than the best of the later Bolt Thrower material.

Recommended listening: War Master, The IVth Crusade, …For Victory, Those Once Loyal

Special Mention: Dark Tranquility / In Flames

Both bands are stalwarts and pioneers of the Gothenburg sound, so it might seem odd to include them both when their later albums were responsible with the associated schism between Death Metal and Melodic Death Metal. Yet IF’s and DT’s early material circa 91-94 were important contributions to the Melodic Death Metal canon, at a time when the genre was in its infancy and there were no guidelines on what the style should sound like.

This was particularly true for DT, whose early demos Trail of Life Decayed and A Moonclad Reflection combined the more frantic nature of technical death/thrash like Atheist with chromatic riffing that their national peers Eucharist and At The Gates were writing at the time. These ideas were further explored on their debut, Skydancer, an early melodic death metal effort that was certainly amateurish in its desire to sound innovative but had a certain regal aspect to it at the time of its release. Gorgeous harmonized riffs, (bad) poetical lyrics and female vocals were still fairly new in 1993 for DM, so it was certainly a very interesting record both then and now.

In Flames were somewhat similar with Lunar Strain and the Subterranean EP, albeit with a slightly folkier take as evidenced by the inclusion of violin interludes. This is not surprising considering that in those early days, the line-up between IF and DT was fairly fluid and they were practically sister bands. With the release of The Gallery by DT and The Jester Race by IF, it was obvious both acts were veering further away from their death metal roots and embracing their traditional/power metal influences more—albeit with different results that can be seen through the evolution of their discography. Regardless of how you might feel about either act now, they were certainly considered Death Metal within the early years of their existence.

Recommended listening (DT): Trail of Life Decayed, A Moonclad Reflection, Skydancer

Recommended listening (IF): Lunar Strain, Subterranean

Special mention: Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy is obviously well known nowadays for their very melodic-infused take on Death Metal with sci-fi themes. Yet at their outset they were just another Swedish Death Metal band trying to carve a niche within their national sound (Penetralia and Osculum Obscenum). This changed abruptly with the release of The Fourth Dimension, an album that marked the introduction of sci-fi themes and a new direction.

While later Hypocrisy albums are much more fast-paced and frenetic, The Fourth Dimension is much doomier and mid-paced death metal with melancholic leads—something not exactly common in 1994. While Hypocrisy kept veering more into melodic territory with subsequent albums, The Fourth Dimension marks a juncture point in their discography when both elements were best balanced.

Recommended listening: The Fourth Dimension

Special mention: Katatonia

At its inception, death/doom was a genre that took strongly from Hellhammer and Celtic Frost as evidenced by the early works of Paradise Lost, Sempiternal Deathreign, Delirium, and a mountain of others. However, Katatonia was instrumental in drenching the subgenre with a much more melodic flair. The end result was two albums, Dance of December Souls and Brave Murder Day, that retained the hopeless and bleak nature of the sound while giving it a melodic flair. Regardless of the musical path they later took, both albums remain important staples of this small genre.

Recommended listening: Dance of December Souls, Brave Murder Day

Second tier recommendations: 

Influential and possibly popular bands in their own right, but not trend setters, venue fillers, or legends outside of their niche. As before, this is based as much as possible on objective metrics and not on how much the bands rule.

Desultory

Desultory was a “latecomer” to the game, releasing demos in 91/92 and only managing to release their first full length Into Eternity by 1993—the year Daniel Ekeroth considered the death of Swedish Death Metal (or at least the beginning of the decline). However, Desultory were a cut above other dime-a-dozen HM2 acts and took the national Entombed/Dismember sound in a more melodic and sullen path. While Into Eternity hints at it, this style became more refined with their follow-up, Bitterness.

Bitterness may have arrived a tad late to make a dent, but it is certainly a very unique and morose sounding Death Metal effort. The aggression inherent in death metal is there, but it is also accompanied by strong melodic undercurrents—evident in songs like the opener “Life Shatters” and others (“Among Mortals,” “Winter,” “Bleeding”). If you dislike the Swedish Death Metal sound or find it pretty flat, I would still recommend hitting this record/band as they were sadly overlooked in their day. After this, they recorded a Death’n’Roll album and promptly broke up. Yet with their reunion, they recorded a further two records with a similar sound to their early material.

Recommended listening: Into Eternity, Bitterness, Counting Our Scars, Through Aching Aeons

Eucharist

Much like countrymen At The Gates, In Flames, and Dark Tranquility, Eucharist was an early adopter of both melancholy, melodic riffage and of more reflective subjects than what more straightforward death metal bands at the time were doing; their entire aesthetic screamed an inclusion in early melodic death metal, and so it’s to be expected that the band sounded much like the early works of those bands.

This isn’t entirely inaccurate, but Eucharist at all times maintained some separation from other early melodic death pioneers. A Velvet Creation made a decent start for the band as a hybrid of some of the mood and aesthetic of early melodic death metal with a far more aggressive edge, but quickly became surpassed by legions of bands doing more or less what they were, and usually better. The album is still pretty good and worth listening to for the extra aggression that’s paired with the melody, which is not a style many bands went for, but the quality just isn’t as high as you’d want. Still, they were pioneers along with At The Gates and Dark Tranquility in a sort of highly chromatic and aggressive melodic death metal that has long since gone extinct, and their early contributions deserve some accolades.

Their true masterpiece and talking point is 1997’s Mirrorworlds, which was a masterclass in ethereal melodic death metal the Swedish way; every sound that was being done similar bands in the country is to be found here, but Eucharist just did them better. The melodies are amazing without being too sugary, the writing is aggressive without feeling out of place with the aesthetic and music, the vocals are raw shrieks of pain and sorrow, and the songwriting is just stellar. While not really a “unique” album in the sense that many in this article are, it cannot be mistaken for any other band at any point, and stands for me near the pinnacle of this particular branch of melodic death metal.

Recommended listening: A Velvet Creation, Mirrorworlds

Gorement

Like many of the other bands mentioned here, Gorement cannot be said to be a melodic death metal band in any honest sense. They played death metal of the highest order, and were one of the best bands of the Swedish scene. Low tunings, a lot of doom influence, spectacular lead guitar, and a heavy focus on atmosphere differentiate Gorement from a lot of their contemporaries—and it’s the lead guitar in particular that makes them worth mentioning here. Gorement specialized in leads, with unusual center-panned melodies often taking the stage over doom riffs in a way that I haven’t really heard another death metal band (or many bands in general) do. They sound almost more Finnish at times than Swedish, blending a variety of sounds together to create one of death metal’s most unique and killer offerings. Highly recommended.

As a little side note, those picking up the demos should avoid the compilation with the Unisound remaster. It’s almost hard to believe how badly Dan Swanö fucked it up, to the point where in his complete apathy towards the project he managed to leave in a Microsoft Windows system alert noise on one of the tracks.

Recommended listening: The Ending Quest

Gates of Ishtar

As was discussed with Dissection, there wasn’t always a clear delineation between Melodic Death and Melodic Black Metal. Gates of Ishtar was one of those bands that straddled this line both on their debut, A Bloodred Path and the follow-up The Dawn of Flames. Both albums might be on the limit of saccharine melodies for some, but Gates of Ishtar always exceeded at crafting catchy and aggressive guitar leads into their sound. At Dusk and Forever is also worth checking out, although by this point they were veering much more into the Gothenburg direction.

Recommended listening: A Bloodred Path, The Dawn of Flames, At Dusk and Forever

A Canorous Quintet

A Canorous Quintet are known nowadays for serving as a springboard for Fredrik Andersson who went on to drum for Amon Amarth for many years. Yet A Canorous Quintet deserved much more attention for their 90s output, a band that combined fast and rapid percussion with melodic death metal that had a sullen and mournful tone.

This style was first seen with the As Tears EP, which soon gave way to the two full lengths: Silence of the World Beyond and The Only Pure Hate. Both are great in their own way, although the former is a better representative of the style they excelled at whereas their swansong was even more aggressive—a rare trait at a time when most bands were opting to take the Melodic Death Metal sound into softer realms. A Canorous Quintet soon broke up and reformed as The Ending, playing fairly standard Gothenburg-styled DM.

Recommended listening: As Tears, Silence of the World Beyond, The Only Pure Hate

Sacrilege

Sacrilege were very squarely in the middle of the classic Gothenburg melodeath sound. Mixing in the sound of early Dark Tranquility and In Flames with some of Dissection’s bouncy black metal charm, Sacrilege did nothing new, but did everything well. The band formed in 1993 and made it through two great albums before breaking up when vocalist/drummer Daniel Svensson left Sacrilege to pursue larger paychecks with In Flames, who he played drums in until 2015.

Though they were not particularly original style-wise, the band did a great job with merging thrash and heavy metal rhythms (some of this stuff could fit into a Running Wild album) with killer melodies, aggressive shrieked vocals, and melodies that are both dark and gorgeous. Sacrilege will never be the first recommendation that comes to mind for this sound because of how late they came to it, but they’ll always make it onto the list. This is a good listen for those seeking something more “typical” of the Swedish melodic death sound without wanting mediocrity.

Recommended listening: Lost in the Beauty You Slay, The Fifth Season

Intestine Baalism

Don’t be fooled by the fact that Intestine Baalism is Japanese—until the later albums you can barely hear it, and their best stuff sounds like nothing so much as classic Swedish death metal with a healthy influx of In Flames influence and general melodicism.

Formed in Toyko in 1991 under the name Euthanasia, the closest comparison to early Intestine Baalism is definitely Dismember; long-form tremolo riffs, brutal vocals, and an unrelenting pace are delivered with the characteristic fury of the Swedish, and the use of chainsaw distortion (either an HM2 or a clone) solidifies the comparisons. Unlike the Swedes, however, Intestine Baalism mostly bring in melody on An Anatomy of the Beast by doing entire melodic sections that are distinct from the death metal ones, almost as a sort of macabre verse-chorus song structure in which gorgeous leads and atmospheric breaks take the place of some of the choruses. The way that the band offsets these sections is incredibly well done, and the songwriting is superb; while on paper the whole thing reads as being potentially ineffective, Intestine Baalism brought their best material and made it work.

Over time, a lot of the ratio of In Flames to Dismember would swap, and the melodies would become increasingly saccharine and similar to what some countrymen were doing. Their best material, and most fitting for the scope of this primer, remains the first album and demo.

Recommended listening: The Energumenus, An Anatomy of the Beast

Special Mention: Unanimated

Pioneering a similar style to Dissection, Unanimated were at the perfect intersection of Death Metal and Black Metal on their debut, In the Forest of the Dreaming Dead. By the time their follow up, Ancient God of Evil came out, Unanimated were much closer to Death Metal but with a strong undercurrent of Black Metal. What distinguished them from Dissection was their almost bluesy-sounding melodies, which gave them a very unique flair and attitude. They broke up during the recording of Ancient and came back in ’09 with an album that was essentially Melodic Black Metal in its entirety. I would also recommend this record, although it falls out of the scope of what is discussed here.

Recommended listening: In the Forest of the Dreaming Dead, Ancient God of Evil

Third tier recommendations: 

Favorites and historically important albums that need to be talked about, but that just aren’t that popular or influential—or, if they are now, it’s because of the internet age rather than because of any sort of influence back in the day. As before, being in this tier is not a mark against the quality of the bands, and some of our favorites are in here.

Ceremonial Oath

More well known for their lineup of musicians that went on to more famous acts (In Flames, Dark Tranquillity, Hammerfall), Ceremonial Oath was nonetheless one of the first acts to try out their hand at the nascent melodic death sound. They were definitely not one of the most defining acts from that scene, but they have the distinct honour of writing a riff that anyone who lived through the melodic metalcore era will remember (“Dreamsong”).

Worth a spin for fans of early In Flames and Dark Tranquillity.

Recommended listening: The Book of Truth, Carpet

Dawn

Dawn is best known for their melodic black metal, which is some of the best that was ever made. What’s less known is that before they played melodic black metal, they played more typical Swedish style death metal with just as much melody and quality as they brought to their black metal. The origins of their black metal material can be heard in the long tremolo riffs and melodies that make up the bulk of their songwriting even in the demo years. Alternating between pounding and melodic at the drop of a hat, Dawn’s demos are some of the best in the genre and, despite being demos, are shockingly well produced.

As a fun historical fact, Dawn’s vocalist, Henke Forss, did the vocals on In Flames’ Subterranean EP.

Recommended listening: The Eternal Forest – Demo Years 91-93

Horrified

A sister band to Septic Flesh and one that never obtained the same level of fame, Horrified was nevertheless as essential to the Hellenic sound as Septic Flesh by crafting a very unique and atmospheric take on Death Metal best represented by their early demos/EPs (Prophecy of Gore, Eternal Gore) and their first full length, In the Garden of Unearthly Delights. Lovers of Hellenic Death Metal or those looking to get started would not do themselves a disservice by checking out this band.

Even as early as 1991, Horrified was codifying a sound that would be attributed to other, more popular bands—synths, massive melodies, and a penchant for the epic were their hallmark, and though they reached their peak with the full length, every Horrified release before it is worth picking up. It’s a shame that they’re dismissed by so many as a Septic Flesh clone because they were recording just as early, debuted their full length earlier, and had plenty of their own sound.

Recommended listening: Prophecy of Gore, Eternal God, In the Garden of Unearthly Delights

Merciless

Merciless are the greatest Swedish death/thrash band to ever exist. Though they were better known for their insane partying early on in the Swedish scene and were playing too regressive a style when they were active to achieve the popularity of other local innovators, Merciless has in later years achieved cult status as one of the greats.

After their first album, The Awakening, Merciless was left wondering where to go from there, and began to experiment to try and find their path. 1992’s The Treasures Within found the band experimenting with the HM2 pedal, and 1994’s Unbound found them once again HM2-less and significantly more melodic, presumably as a result of influence from other Swedes at the time as well as due to the new inclusion of drummer Peter Stjärnvind of Unanimated.

Raging thrash riffs counter huge melodies on what would become a relative footnote in their discography—which is a shame, because from any other band, Unbound would be hailed as the killer album that it is. That isn’t to say that Unbound is an entirely melodic album, as it has several straightforward thrashing ragers, including a re-recorded demo track, but it should appeal to most of the target audience of this primer.

Though they broke up years ago, Merciless has reformed and are playing live again with great effect.

Recommended listening: Unbound

Cenotaph

Before beginning his life long career as frontman for The Chasm, Daniel Corchado formed this putrid and evocative death/doom project. While some might find death/doom and its melodic cousin to be two different beasts, Corchado was able to merge the two masterfully on the debut The Gloomy Reflection of Our Hidden Sorrows—an album replete with sick and twisted melodies that will make your stomach churn.

Even with his departure, Cenotaph was not done evolving their sound further. On Riding Our Black Oceans, the band opted to continue exploring the still fresh melodic death metal sound and producing the Mexican equivalent to The Red in the Sky is Ours—a bizarre and proggy album that is rightly heralded as a classic in its category. On Epic Rites (9 Epic Tales and Death Rites), the band opted for a more streamlined approach to the genre—but it’s still fantastic.

Recommended listening: The Gloomy Reflection of Our Hidden Sorrows, Riding Our Black Oceans, Epic Rites (9 Epic Tales and Death Rites).

Sarcasm

Sarcasm is one of those bands that raises the question of how much killer material is out there lost to the sands of time. Always ahead of the melodic death metal curve, Sarcasm formed in Sweden in 1990; they quickly started putting out surprisingly well-formed demos (given the time) that toed the line between Dissection’s early black metal-influenced sound and the gorgeous style that Eucharist adopted towards the end of their career, but broke up before their debut album could be released—a real shame because said debut was already completely recorded.

Some decades later, Burial Dimensions, recorded in 1994, was finally released posthumously and crushes just as much as most of the best comparable albums it would have been released alongside. Shortly after, Sarcasm reformed and put out what would be their first original material written in twenty years; shockingly enough in spite of the gap, the new stuff slays just as much as the old, and Sarcasm proved once again that sometimes a comeback can be triumphant. They’ve now put out two albums after reforming and show no signs so far of slowing down, much to the satisfaction of savvy old school melodic death fans.

Recommended albums: Burial Dimensions, Within the Sphere of Ethereal Minds, Esoteric Tales of the Unserene

Molested

In spite of the band name, Molested played extremely twisted, unique, and melodic death metal rather than something that could be called brutal death or any of the other genres that come to mind. One of the authors of this article already wrote a longer review of Blod-Draum, so there will not be a full section on them here. In short, Molested released a blistering and sophisticated death metal assault that should appeal to all fans of heavy music willing to give them a proper chance.

Recommended listening: Blod-Draum, Stormvold

A Mind Confused

A Mind Confused is one of those bands that came at just the wrong time to really make it. They formed in 1993, putting them too late to do much in the Swedish death metal trend, and they didn’t demo until 1995, after melodic death metal’s seminal albums were already being used to springboard the genre into more commercial territories. By the time Anarchos came out in 1997 the band was a dinosaur without previous laurels to rest upon, and the band broke up shortly afterwards.

On Anarchos, A Mind Confused played melodic death metal very much akin to Mirrorworlds and to what Sarcasm was doing a few years earlier, but with a much heavier amount of polyphony. Amazing drumming, stellar melodies, unusual song structures, and pained shrieks were the order of the day, and the quality level was just through the roof. It’s a shame that they were unable to carry forward into a second album because A Mind Confused represents one of the best bands in their scene.

As a fun tidbit, most of this band carried forward to form Kaamos, who remain a peak of post-’90s Swedish death metal—though, much like with A Mind Confused, Kaamos came at the wrong time to capitalize on any sort of scene interest in their sound, and broke up far more obscure than they should have been.

Recommended listening: Anarchos

Armoured Angel

If there were a country one wouldn’t have expected Melodic Death Metal from in its early days, Australia would certainly be high on that list. Armoured Angel did just that, being a band that through its years of existence saw numerous changes in sounds. From their early beginnings as a Heavy/Speed Metal act (Baptism in Blood) to really aggressive thrash a la Slayer/Infernal Majesty (Wings of Death and Communion). However, the band began honing their trademark style with the launch of the Stigmartyr EP.

Armoured Angel played a brand of Melodic Death Metal that can best be described as “chunky.” Clearly influenced by Bolt Thrower, their output throughout the 90s was very groovy and mid-paced Death Metal with a low end sound that was very different to how the scene was developing elsewhere (e.g. Scandinavia). The band was certainly adept at crafting a very pummeling sound that was juxtaposed by brilliant guitar leads and solos, no doubt remnants of their earlier days.

The band broke up shortly after the release of their only full length, Angel of the Sixth Order, which has made them unfortunately overlooked for many in the new generation.

Recommended listening: Stigmartyr, Mysterium, Angel of the Sixth Order

Special Mention: Deceased

If asked what the best intersection of quality and longevity in death metal is, the answer should be easy. Deceased formed in 1984, before death metal even really existed, and has been going strong ever since. Though they started off as a much rougher death/thrash band more akin to Ripping Corpse or a more morbid Rigor Mortis, by their second album Deceased was starting to add in copious amounts of heavy metal influence. By the third, Fearless Undead Machines, the transformation to their current sound was complete.

Fearless Undead Machines is a masterclass in creative song structures, huge choruses, destructive rhythms, and inventive drumming. It’s more than an hour of worship at the altar of horror and death, but the death metal comes through almost more in the mood than in the music because most of the guitars are just constant heavy metal melodies, gallops, and thrash rhythms. Fearless Undead Machines is quite possibly the finest extreme metal concept album of all time, and if it’s not, it’s at least up there.

Having arrived at their sound with album number three, Deceased has been a consistent machine for the last couple of decades. They don’t release much, but when they do, it’s always incredible.

Some extra notes: frontman King Fowley loves heavy metal so much that he has a side project titled October 31 which he fronts that sounds more or less like Deceased without the crazy drumming and heavier riffage, and Deceased was the first band to ever sign to Relapse Records.

Recommended listening: Fearless Undead Machines, Supernatural Addiction, all of it you coward

Special Mention: The Chasm

Though The Chasm has never been similar sonically to any of the other bands listed in this article (excepting in their earlier years Cenotaph and, squinting a bit, Deceased), they need to at least be mentioned. Starting off as a unique and bizarre form of nearly progressive death metal in Mexico in 1992 when Daniel Corchado quit Cenotaph, The Chasm quickly developed a signature sound characterized by increasingly long instrumental sections, a ton of heavy metal influence, and insane technical guitar playing. Guitars play different riffs entirely as often as they come together in harmony or unison, and the songwriting has over the years only gotten more complex and interesting.

Unlike most most death metal bands formed in the early ‘90s, The Chasm has never stopped playing, never dropped quality, and has always been a flagbearer for unique, interesting death metal. Like Deceased, they merit a mention in the scope of this article for the heavy use of heavy metal melody in their songwriting, and, much like how King Fowley started October 31 to channel that heavy metal influence in a more pure way, Daniel Corchado has a fantastic heavy metal side-project titled Acerus that is more than worth checking out. Additionally, Daniel played on (and helped write) what’s arguably the best and probably the most melodic Incantation album, Diabolical Conquest, which is also more than worth checking out for any death metal fan.

An entire article could easily be written just about Daniel’s contributions to metal in The Chasm and beyond. For this article there is just not the time or space to do that, unfortunately.

Recommended listening: The Spell of Retribution, Procession to the Infraworld, all of it you coward

Fourth tier recommendations: 

For quality reasons, obscurity, or just a lack of space as this primer gets to be a bit excessively long, each of the following bands is just going to get a short description and a list of recommended releases. None of these are as essential as the higher up bands, but they’re all fun and worth checking out. A couple could easily have slotted into tier three, and while some of this is just outright less good than the bands in the bulk of the article, some of it’s better than most of the more popular bands that had longer writeups.

Unlike the previous sections, this tier is sorted alphabetically.

Abominant: Long-running American band that was one of the first to fuse FLDM with the sounds of Dissection and the Gothenburg scene. Good stuff.

Recommended listening: The Way After

Amorbital: Somewhere between the rhythmic and heavy metal influenced approach of Armoured Angel and the tremolo-melody heavy Swedish bands. Extremely killer and underrated stuff from Slovakia.

Recommended listening: Invidia

Cromlech (Swe): While they only had a few demos to their name, their first demo is a lost treasure of chromatic melodic death metal. Imagine if Eucharist mixed with Black Metal, this would be the result.

Recommended listening: …And Darkness Fell.

Crystal Age: Fun sci-fi themed death metal band formed by former members of Ceremonial Oath and Liers in Wait, and future members of Hammerfall. Yes, that IS a sample of Darth Vader you’re hearing!

Recommended listening: Far Beyond Divine Horizons

Cyanotic: Their first demo The Chasm Within is one of the first instances of early Melodic Death Metal (from 1992!). A few years later they recorded one full length which was more standard Blackened Death Metal.

Recommended listening: The Chasm Within

Depresy: Good Septic Flesh worship from Slovakia that took the Greek legend’s rhythmic approach and mixed it with a more personal approach to melody.

Recommended listening: A Grand Magnificence, Sighting

Evocation: Virtually unknown during their demo era, they played Swedish Death Metal with a nice melodic touch. Though they weren’t totally consistent quality-wise, the best of the demo material is just mind-blowing. Later regrouped and played more straightforward Melodic Death.

Recommended listening: The Ancient Gate, Promo 1992

Excretion: An early Wrong Again band, Excretion was already blending melody into their sound since the demos days but this was fully explored with their only album—Voice of Harmony.

Recommended listening: The Dream of Blood, Suicide Silence, Voice of Harmony

Maltum: Shared members with Depresy. Much more conventional melodeath in line stylistically with what bands like Eucharist and A Mind Confused were doing in Sweden.

Recommended listening: The Thing of Beauty Is a Joy Forever

Sanctorum: One of the best demo bands from Greece, Sanctorum released a masterful half hour long “demo” in 1994 that was recently reissued properly on wax for the first time by the band. Soaring leads, massive and reflective sections of death/doom, and the brutal Greek style rhythm that Septic Flesh and Horrified pioneered are all on great display here, and it’d be foolish to dismiss them.

Recommended listening: Crystal Tears of Silence

Scum: Finnish band that carried on the sound of The Karelian Isthmus once Amorphis went to other pastures.

Recommended listening: Mother Nature, Purple Dreams & Magic Poems

Thorium: Danish band that sounds like a mixture of early Deicide with At The Gates. More the former than the latter.

Recommended listening: Ocean of Blasphemy

Uncanny: As their names indicates, very unorthodox and melodic Swedeath. A good band to recommend those not interested in the traditional Swedish style.

Recommended listening: Splenium for Nyktophobia

Vanity: Greek band with significant members that put out a single album mixing the early Hellenic death metal style with a more conventional melodic death metal approach.

Recommended listening: Enslaved

Special Mention – Garden of Shadows: Far more melodic than any other band on this list, but too good to not at least mention. Garden of Shadows took from the Hellenic death metal scene, the Swedes, and the nascent modern scene to create a unique pillar of melodic death metal.

Recommended listening: Heart of the Corona, Oracle Moon

Conclusion, and after the ‘90s

The type of old school melodic death metal that this article has been talking about is, frankly, pretty much dead. There’s a wealth of material to dive into for interested fans from the ‘90s that far surpasses what was talked about here—after all, this is a primer, not a book—but the very tail end of the original movement was around 1998 or 1999.

There are more than a few reasons that this can be ascribed to; perhaps the biggest one was that death metal following its initial wave became very divided fanbase-wise. Modern styled brutal and technical death metal became the new underground, and modern-styled melodic death metal took the commercial lead. There was little in between or cross-development, and as classic styled death metal started to take off again in the mid-’00s, the third fanbase ignored both of the more brutal and the more melodic crowds nearly entirely. It can’t be stated enough that death metal and melodic death metal, despite sharing the words “death metal,” completely diverged and had almost no crossover in fanbases, with death metal fans deriding melodic death metal (often shortened to “melodeath” as a way of differentiating the scenes) for being “wimpy,” or stronger slurs that don’t merit mentioning here. Often there was almost no crossover in the music either, as melodic death metal increasingly formed its own musical identity with very little to do with the death metal that spawned it.

Very few bands that crossed more organic and ancient-minded death metal with heavy amounts of melody surfaced or continued in that style after the brief heyday of the sound, and fewer managed to get any sort of label support or anything but a cult fanbase. In spite of that, heroes such as The Chasm and Deceased who had gotten an earlier start kept doing what they were doing while merging heavy metal with more extreme sounds. Ares Kingdom formed from the ashes of Order From Chaos and brought some of their love of heavy metal to the band. Mi’Gauss had a short-lived but riffy existence, and though they formed in the ‘90s, they didn’t debut til 2003. Helcaraxë formed in New Jersey in 2003 and are still going remarkably strong, and for a brief time, Deathevokation from California were flagbearers for days long past. Hooded Menace was formed by Finnish veterans to simultaneously channel their love of death/doom and classic doom such as Candlemass, and recently, classic Swedish melodeath masters Sarcasm has reformed with shocking success.

Though the sounds that this primer discusses are pretty much dead and forgotten, their legacy lives on. Floga Records deserves a special mention as well for all of the work they’ve put into reissuing forgotten classics from the Swedish and Greek scenes in particular, and melody in death metal seems to be making a slow comeback in the last few years—with any luck, it’ll find its place once again, this time without falling apart into trends, commercialism, and rock stars.

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