Why Is Death Metal Called Death Metal? Birth, Pioneers

by Patria

In the world of heavy music, few genres are as polarizing and iconic as death metal. The term “death metal” conjures images of aggressive guitar riffs, thunderous drumming, and guttural growls. But why is this genre called “death metal”? What lies behind this enigmatic label that has become synonymous with extreme music? In this comprehensive exploration, we will delve into the history, evolution, and cultural context of death metal, shedding light on the origins of its ominous name.

A Prelude to Brutality: The Birth of Death Metal

Death metal emerged in the early 1980s as an evolution of the broader heavy metal genre. While its roots can be traced back to bands like Venom and Slayer, it was in the mid-1980s that death metal truly began to take shape. However, during its inception, it wasn’t referred to as “death metal” just yet.

The term “death metal” itself is believed to have originated from a fusion of two distinct sources. The first source is often attributed to the influential American band Possessed. In 1984, Possessed released their debut album, “Seven Churches,” which featured a raw and aggressive sound that laid the foundation for what would become death metal. The album prominently displayed lyrics and themes centered around the occult, Satanism, and, crucially, death. Possessed’s lyrics, combined with their ferocious musical style, contributed to the early conceptualization of death metal.

The second source of inspiration for the term “death metal” came from the British band Venom. Venom had been using the term “black metal” to describe their own brand of extreme metal, characterized by dark themes and aggressive music. This genre name gave rise to the need for a contrasting label for the emerging sound that would become death metal. “Death” was chosen as a fitting antithesis to “black,” signifying the genre’s darker, more brutal, and aggressive nature.

Shaping the Soundscape: Death Metal’s Early Pioneers

As the 1980s progressed, the death metal scene began to coalesce around a few key bands, with each contributing to the genre’s development and solidifying the label “death metal.” Bands like Death, Morbid Angel, and Obituary played pivotal roles in shaping the genre’s signature sound. The music they created was characterized by rapid tempos, intricate guitar work, and lyrics that often explored themes of mortality, violence, and the macabre.

Chuck Schuldiner, the mastermind behind Death (the band), is often hailed as the “godfather of death metal.” Death’s debut album, “Scream Bloody Gore” (1987), showcased Schuldiner’s musical prowess and set a new standard for the genre. The combination of relentless aggression and lyrical themes revolving around death solidified the association of the term “death metal” with this emerging style of music.

Morbid Angel, led by guitarist and vocalist Trey Azagthoth, further cemented the genre’s identity with their debut album, “Altars of Madness” (1989). The album’s blistering speed and Azagthoth’s intricate guitar solos marked a significant milestone in the development of death metal. It also prominently featured lyrics that delved into the realms of chaos and darkness, perfectly aligning with the genre’s growing identity.

Obituary, with their 1989 debut “Slowly We Rot,” contributed to the genre’s expansion by introducing a slower, more churning style of death metal. Their music was a visceral, plodding onslaught that resonated with fans, further diversifying the death metal landscape.

These bands, among others, began to gain recognition and a growing fanbase, leading to the widespread adoption of the term “death metal” to describe their music. The label not only captured the sonic brutality of the genre but also hinted at the lyrical and thematic content that would become synonymous with death metal.

The Global Phenomenon: Death Metal Spreads Its Wings

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, death metal had transcended its underground roots and begun to spread worldwide. As the genre gained popularity, so did the label “death metal.” Bands from diverse corners of the globe adopted the term, embracing both its musical and thematic aspects.

In Sweden, bands like Entombed, Dismember, and Unleashed took death metal in a new direction, pioneering what would be called “Swedish death metal.” While these bands retained the genre’s core elements, they introduced a distinct guitar tone characterized by a buzzsaw-like quality, giving their music a unique sonic identity. Despite this divergence in sound, the label “death metal” remained firmly attached to their work.

In Florida, the death metal scene exploded with bands like Cannibal Corpse, Deicide, and Morbid Angel continuing to push the boundaries of brutality. Cannibal Corpse, in particular, gained notoriety for their graphic and visceral lyrics, further reinforcing the connection between death and the genre.

Meanwhile, in Europe, bands like Carcass and Bolt Thrower contributed to the evolution of death metal by incorporating elements of grindcore and creating a more technical and melodic approach. Yet, the term “death metal” remained the overarching descriptor for these various substyles and approaches.

Beyond the Music: The Influence of Death Metal’s Themes

The label “death metal” not only encapsulates the music but also the themes and imagery associated with the genre. From its inception, death metal has been characterized by a fascination with death, violence, and the macabre. These themes are not merely superficial; they are deeply intertwined with the genre’s identity and artistic expression.

The exploration of death in death metal lyrics often extends beyond the physical realm. It delves into the psychological and existential aspects of mortality, inviting listeners to confront the darker aspects of human existence. In doing so, death metal provides a cathartic release for both musicians and fans, allowing them to grapple with the inevitable and the unknown.

The lyrical themes of death metal are a reflection of the broader cultural and societal context in which the genre emerged. The 1980s were marked by a growing awareness of mortality due to the AIDS epidemic, the specter of nuclear war, and the rise of serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer. These real-world horrors seeped into the music, serving as a mirror to the anxieties and fears of the time.

Evolution and Innovation: Death Metal’s Ongoing Legacy

While death metal’s roots are firmly planted in the 1980s and early 1990s, the genre has continued to evolve and diversify over the decades. Subgenres such as technical death metal, progressive death metal, and melodic death metal have emerged, each bringing its own unique twist to the core elements of the genre.

Technical death metal, exemplified by bands like Necrophagist and Obscura, places a strong emphasis on virtuosic musicianship and complex song structures. The term “death metal” still applies, as these bands maintain the genre’s ferocity and lyrical themes.

Progressive death metal, as explored by groups like Opeth and Between the Buried and Me, combines the aggression of death metal with elements of progressive rock and jazz. Despite these stylistic departures, the term “death metal” remains integral to their classification.

Melodic death metal, popularized by bands such as In Flames and At the Gates, infuses death metal with harmonious melodies and intricate guitar work. Here, the label “death metal” serves as a bridge between the genre’s heaviness and its melodic elements.

In each of these subgenres, the term “death metal” continues to play a defining role in shaping their identity. It serves as a reminder of the genre’s roots and its ongoing legacy.


In the world of music, genre labels often serve as shorthand for describing a particular sound or style. “Death metal” is no exception, and its origins are rooted in a combination of musical innovation and thematic exploration. It is a term that encapsulates not only the sonic brutality of the genre but also the dark and thought-provoking themes that have been an integral part of death metal since its inception.

From its humble beginnings in the early 1980s to its global impact today, death metal has proven to be a resilient and enduring genre. Its name, “death metal,” has become a symbol of the genre’s ability to confront the darkest aspects of human existence and transform them into art.

In answering the question of why death metal is called “death metal,” we discover a rich tapestry of musical evolution, cultural context, and thematic exploration. The label may have been born out of necessity, but it has since grown to encompass a vast and diverse spectrum of sounds and ideas. In the end, the name “death metal” serves as a testament to the genre’s enduring resonance and its unrelenting commitment to pushing the boundaries of artistic expression.

As long as there are musicians and fans who are drawn to the cathartic power of extreme music, the term “death metal” will continue to echo through the ages, reminding us of our mortality and our capacity to transform darkness into art.

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