Old School Death Metal – Fall, Rise, Cynicism (With Ken of Ken’s Death Metal Crypt)

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When death metal got its start in the late ’80s, I’d be surprised if bands like Possessed, Necrophagia, and Death knew that the genre would grow to be one of the most celebrated and worshiped styles in all of extreme metal. Of course, we know now that this brand of “old school death metal” would reign supreme in the ’90s, with countless huge releases and underground classics coming out every year. Labels like Earache, Century Media, and Nuclear Blast were working with major labels to spread this visceral, murky evolution from thrash and speed metal to the mainstream. At the same time, the underbelly of death metal was growing through tape trading and word of mouth, creating a long-staying subculture of a genre.

In the effort of seeing this build up through the eyes of someone with more knowledge and experience on the topic, I contacted Ken from Ken’s Death Metal Crypt. He’s a great dude with an outstandingly great knowledge of the genre and an insanely impressive archive of so many demos and albums.

“It was glorious and frightening,” Ken tells me, “Bands were taking the realms of heavy metal and thrash to a new level of extremity and brutality.” This was an exciting time that, as with any form of transgressive and aggressive art, is a lot to take in for many. Despite airtime on MTV and countless college radio stations, the growth of these bands was only going to be within the niche pocket of people who could handle it. This didn’t stop groups like Entombed and Gorefest from making concessions to prevailing trends and/or altering their sound to make it more appealing to more people. While this isn’t necessarily a horrible thing (we got our fair share of Wolverine Blues-esque albums that were still plenty of fun), it served to be the death knell for this golden age. Suddenly in the latter half of the ’90s, fair-weather fans of death metal rolled onto the next thing, while true-blooded death-heads seemed to try to find ways to inject new life into the genre.

Death doom, deathgrind, technical death metal, brutal death metal, so on and so forth; there weren’t nearly as many bands willing to stick harshly to the definitive death metal sound formed earlier that decade. By the time the 2000s rolled around, many had moved onto new bandwagons (deathcore/metalcore, slam, etc.). However, it was clear with acts like Nunslaughter, Vital Remains, Immolation and even the tech-ier Decapitated were fighting the good fight for death metal—taking or leaving the extra bells and whistles.

This is all to say, many still kept the scene alive, even as genre-stewards faded into groove metal and mediocrity. Ken is a perfect example of someone who stuck with the genre, even during its appeal lows. On the topic of what kept him locked in for so long, he said it’s “[t]he extremity, the brutality, the imagery, the whole 9 yards. Going back to the old school is always great medicine, at least for me.” This is something that rings true for many, the style that the bands of yore developed is one that is so enveloping and strong that many have no choice but to be hooked for life.

I can’t remember exact words from what artists sparked this thought process for me, but I do distinctly remember reading the newer chapters added to the fantastic Choosing Death, written by Decibel’s very own Albert Mudrian. In said chapters, numerous bands (Asphyx, Carcass, and At the Gates come to mind) discuss their shock that so many fans, new and old, were desperate for more death metal in the styles they fostered. This brings us to old school death metal revival. Of course, there were plenty of bands kicking ass in between 2000 and 2008, but it’s the ushering in of the 2010s that brought us newfound interest in the old school. This goes further back than the angular black metal and death metal mixes of Portal or the more slick, melodic and/or brutal modern-death. I’m talking death metal that sounds like it was made back in the ’90s. Groups like Drawn and Quartered, Obliteration, Tomb Mold, Blood Incantation, and way, way more carried the banner of groups like Incantation and Dismembered better than the original bands could at the time.

And, as far as I’m concerned, this not only ushered in new life to the death metal scene, it gave old acts a kick in the pants to start realizing what people want—overwhelmingly sinister sounding riffs that kick ass in a way that few metal genres can. It’s clear these “…younger bands that are waving the banner of [d]eath [m]etal high today are in it for life,” as Ken puts it. To see so many bands that are passionate about such a niche style of art brings a twisted sense of wholesome joy to my heart. There is, however, a bit of a slight problem:

You can only make so many tribute albums before it starts to get old for some.

Maybe I seem a bit cynical when I say this, but there’s a valid argument to be made about the dangers of genre-wide homogeneity. There are numerous bands who, despite playing their brand of worship well, aren’t doing much to push this style forward. It’s a case where bands are satisfying in the moment, but tend to blend into one another. I guess what I mean to say is this: I can only hear so many cavernous Incantation send ups before they all start to sound like a less genre-defining Onward to Golgotha.

This has made me fear a potential burnout situation. It’s not any band’s fault (most of the “loving send-up” groups are fine artists and I support them doing what they love), it’s just that I’ve started to notice a worrying trend, one that will find general metal fans growing tired of the specific trend of this murky ’90s-style. In some respects, it’s a fad—one that rejuvenated an entire subculture to the point of booming relevancy, but a fad nonetheless. Yet, at the same time—it definitely feels disingenuous to lump anyone inspired by the classics into a “fad,” which, as a word, has a super negative connotation.

As I wrestle with my own thoughts on whether or not this brand of old school death metal revival is starting to wear out its welcome, it becomes clear that I’m thinking about this too hard. There will always be bands that want to relive the glory days or have fun sounding like their heroes just as there will always be bands trying to further the reach and possibilities an art form has. Even still, not every band needs to reinvent the wheel.

When I asked Ken what modern bands are doing that made them stand tall, this is what he said to me:

“There are several bands that come to mind who I feel are continuing to take [d]eath [m]etal to a more extreme and brutal place. Like [Cosmic Putrefaction] who are infusing technicality with atmosphere to create a delightfully dark alchemy. [Disrotter] who are taking the old school grind sound down a more grinding road. [Thorn] are putting the [d]eath in [d]oom!!! Just to name a few. Just give these bands a listen and you’ll hear what they’re doing to stand tall.”

This specific blurb, as well as how passionate Ken is about the genre, inspired the fuck out me. Sure, hipsters and cynics (such as yours truly) will try to make it seem like death metal is on a down-slope, but, even if it is, who cares? Going back to the late ’90s to early/mid 2000s, there were so many bands doing so many interesting things. Prevailing trends and shared ideas on how things should be will always come and go, but true quality and enjoyment will always be there as long as someone is playing death metal in a way I can get down with. So, yeah, death metal got its groove back, at least in the sense that it’s doing interesting stuff that appeals to those outside of the genre walls. It may lose favor with the band-wagoners, but, at the end of the day, I don’t think that matters all too much.

I shouldn’t be afraid of the possibility of burnout, because, in many ways, death metal and metal in general are a part of who I am. It’s why I care so acutely about the trajectory of inspiration of the genre. It’s why I fear burnout so bad. Ken put it well, though; “Death [m]etal isn’t a hobby for me; it’s a way of life. It’s in my blood. It’s not something I could ever get “Burned Out” on as it’s my life line.” I think I need to follow in his footsteps on this one and just enjoy death metal.

As far as the future goes, Ken put it fantastically:

“I don’t have a crystal ball. I haven’t the foggiest [idea]. I can tell you this though; I have seen the future of Death Metal in the releases I receive from bands and labels. ( Including the advances of some releases) The future is darkly bright for Death Metal!!!!”

Couldn’t agree more…

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