Bleed for the devil
Impious mortal lives
Feel the enticing power
Fill the chasm of your soul
– “Bleed for the Devil,” Morbid Angel (Altars of Madness 1989)
Florida death metal is one of the most important and influential scenes to ever disgrace the heavy metal pantheon. It’s been immortalized to the point that a mere mention to one of the faithful immediately conjures up an image of Morbid Angel pentagrams, Cannibal Corpse album covers, lovingly depicted scenes of depravity and gore, cut-off shorts, and dearly departed Death founder Chuck Schuldiner‘s sad eyes.
The sonic elements of Florida death have also infiltrated every corner of the metalverse, its aesthetics dripping down into scores of new bands’ album covers, song titles, merchandise, and stage presence like freshly spilled blood. Death’s morbid imagery and Cannibal Corpse’s impossibly violent, bloody artwork in particular clawed their way into young artistic minds and took root. Morbid Angel’s lead guitarist and resident video-game nerd Trey Azagthoth revolutionized the art of shred with his dive-bombing, straight-from-the-gut wailing solos, and complex fingertapping. That alone leaves the entire genre in Florida’s debt, without even mentioning the swampy, groovy tones on records like Domination that simply ooze midnight menace. Where the slime live, indeed. The beach-metal uniform of camo shorts, grimy sneakers, and occasional Hawaiian shirt grace countless early promo photos of the Tampa hordes, and even a certain backwoods, Panhandle mentality creeps into songs like Obituary’s “Redneck Stomp.”
Personally, death metal got me through high school – Florida bands always struck the greatest chord – and is still one of my great loves as a metal fan and writer. When I was 15, I got detention for wearing a pentagram-emblazoned Morbid Angel shirt and bullet belt to school. One of the first bar shows I ever snuck into was Angelcorpse. My most memorable in-person interview to date was with Cannibal Corpse vocalist George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher (who got downright giddy describing his love for World of Warcraft and Star Wars). The first time I shot a gun was in former Death/Obituary member James Murphy’s backyard.
Still, whenever the topic of Florida death metal comes up, in the back of my head I can’t help but think of my gangly teenage self bringing a copy of Cannibal Corpse’s Gore Obsessed into a high school writing class and explaining, in front of everyone, just why it matters so very much.
Memory fails me now as to what I actually blurted out, but I’m sure I made mention of how much I loved the darkness and aggression of the music, and, since I was so massively enamored of death metal itself, that I, too, was “gore obsessed.” I wasn’t as articulate as I could have been, but I was as honest as only a teenager in love can be.
Such things mattered then, and they matter now. Plus, can you imagine how impressed my parents were when I brought home a “Butchered At Birth” shirt?
The Tampa trifecta (Cannibal Corpse, Deicide, Morbid Angel) always hit me hardest, but I had plenty of time for other genre greats like At the Gates, Autopsy, Entombed, and Incantation. All of these bands are the blueprints, the bedrock, of all that came after, and their most masterful compositions still stand up today.
While death metal was made in the ’80s, it hit hardest in the early to mid-’90s — when metal itself seemed in danger of extermination by way of hair-spray fumes billowing out from the Sunset Strip like nuclear fallout, and the rise of that dread specter: grunge. Florida’s contribution came by way of Death (originally Mantas), the aforementioned trifecta, Obituary, and more, who unleashed classic albums, toured like beasts of burden, and burned their mark into a scene that many had left for dead.
To put things in perspective, Morbid Angel’s third album, Covenant, is widely acknowledged to be the best-selling death metal album of all time, having shifted over 127,000 units since its 1993 release on Earache Records. Compared to sales figures for the Beatles or even a band like Slipknot, it sounds like chump change. But when you stop to consider the absolute manic brutality, guttural screams, and technical wizardry entombed in those little slices of plastic, it starts sounding a lot more impressive.
The genre’s heyday likewise came in the late ’80s and early ’90s, as classic after classic album was released and media scrutiny catapulted bands like the lyrically violent Cannibal Corpse and the morbidly Satanic Deicide into the international spotlight. They were banned in Germany, hassled by the Parent’s Music Resource Center, condemned by politicians, cast in movies (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective), decried as delinquents, moral vacuums, and worse — and the kids loved it.
And from the swampy roots of the South Florida vanguard grew other iconic regional scenes. New York death metal and Swedish death metal in particular have reached almost mythical status and influence, and nearly every country in the world boasts at least a handful of death metallers.
The genre has splintered since the mid-’90s, and evolved arm-in-arm with rock ’n’ roll’s other bastard progeny: grindcore and black metal, both of which surfaced a year or two before death metal first reared its ugly head. Now, in 2012, death metal has become a many-headed hydra of subgenres and sub-subgenres, and comes in every conceivable combination.
But, as they say, you never forget your first love, and Florida death metal will always hold a special place within many a black heart. It’s definitely wormed its way into mine. Like death metal, I, too, was made in the ’80s. But it took me a bit longer to get going. I had to grow up and catch sight of the left-hand path before slipping on my combat boots and dancing with the devil. Fast-forward to today, death metal has never been more popular with both the newer generation and the lifers, and extreme metal in general has gained the kind of mainstream acceptance that its forbears never even dreamed of (like accolades from NPR and the New York Times and gigs sponsored by auto giants Scion). Hell, even my little sister knows who Cannibal Corpse is!
So, thirty-odd years since its inception, the old guard of the Florida scene are not only proving their vitality with new tours and albums, but directly influencing scores of newer bands. Lightning speed riffs, heavy distortion, inhumanly fast blastbeats, gleeful atonality, and demonic grunts screaming bloody blasphemy overtop it all — this is death metal. This is Florida.