For a genre obsessed with corpses and morgues, death metal is showing some pretty encouraging signs of life. It’s nothing compared to the genre’s 1990s heyday of Cannibal Corpse having a cameo in ‘Ace Ventura: Pet Detective’ or Napalm Death performing on ‘TFI Friday’, but in 2023 the scene is reaching a peak of critical engagement and popular respect it hasn’t seen for a long, long time. It’s impressive, considering its mix of guttural vocals, blastbeat drums, noise, atonality, morbidity and vast walls of distortion.
American bands like psychedelic alien-obsessives Blood Incantation and death metal labels like 20 Buck Spin are lauded and loved way beyond metal circles; the likes of Undeath and Gatecreeper are crossing genre boundaries; gigs and festivals are selling out; Cannibal Corpse T-shirts are being worn by Kardashians: it’s all kicking off.
And in among this rising international tide of death metal popularity, British bands are carving out their own identity, reducing the genre to its barest, bleakest elements. Some are even calling it the New Wave of British Death Metal, in a nod to both the 1970s denim-and-leather pomp of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Saxon (known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal), and to the UK’s place in the history of death metal itself, thanks to 1980s originators like Bolt Thrower, Carcass and Napalm Death.
Rising from the grave
As you’d guess from the name, the New Wave of British Death Metal is a uniquely British take on the genre. In just the past few years, bands like Mortuary Spawn, Vacuous and Celestial Sanctuary have pared death metal back, shaved off the fat and left behind only the good meat. And when I say good meat, I mean really vile, rotten, disgusting heavy metal meat.
‘Calling it the New Wave of British Death Metal was just a way to set us apart from what had come before: a sort of reset button,’ says Celestial Sanctuary’s singer and guitarist Tom Cronin, who came up with the term. ‘And knowing that there were a few other projects beginning to bubble under the surface, it made sense that we had this banner to unite under. It just boils down to supporting each other.’
Breaking with the past and setting yourself apart is a smart move, because death metal isn’t a simple, linear thing: it’s filled with subgenres and micro-scenes. There’s the virtuosic wizardry of tech death, the mosh brutality and caveman idiocy of slam, the speed and lyrical absurdity of goregrind, and on and on. But this new crop of UK bands forgoes most of that, focusing instead on creeping atmosphere, lo-fi aesthetics, DIY mindsets, dizzying riffs and crushing, doom-laden passages.
And it’s a genuinely nationwide scene. Manchester’s Sewer Fiend are brutally slow and atmospheric; Bristol’s Cryptworm are gross and detuned; London’s Vacuous are frantic and visceral; ATVM are angular and technical; Leeds’s Slimelord are cavernous and terrifying. Mortuary Spawn are morbid and lurchingly dense, while Glasgow’s Penny Coffin do intricate, groove-laden brutality and Coffin Mulch write songs about animal cruelty. It’s varied, wild and always, always suffocatingly heavy.
‘There were [British] bands like Grave Miasma and Cruciamentum who were playing proper death metal well before it was fashionable, and should be acknowledged,’ says Vacuous guitarist Michael Brodsky. ‘I don’t want to promote the narrative that the scene was crap before and is great now that we’re here.’
But British death metal still has its own unique aura that sets it apart from the sounds oozing out of Scandinavia or America. ‘The one thing that always characterised the UK was that a lot of the original bands were in some way connected to the punk and hardcore scenes,’ says Brodsky. ‘That identity got a little lost when death metal became more “brutal”, technical and rigid in the late 1990s and 2000s, and somewhat painted itself into a corner. I feel like that punk element is returning to death metal with this current crop of bands.’
In the UK we do things with more grit and less polish, but it’s the attitude that makes it unique more than anything
It’s a sentiment echoed by Celestial Sanctuary’s Cronin. ‘By nature, in the UK we do things with more grit and less polish,’ he says. ‘But it’s the attitude that makes it unique more than anything, taking the genre back to its roots where things were more DIY, where there were remnants of punk and hardcore in the mindset, and bands actively looked out for each other.’
It’s that combination of hardcore ethos with death metal’s malleability that’s making it feel so vital right now. ‘People have this idea that death metal is this insular and impenetrable thing that’s all about gore and violence with robotic drumming and over-the-top technical riffing, but it doesn’t have to be like that,’ says Brodsky. ‘You can play as fast or as slow as you want, be beautifully melodic or completely dissonant, you can bring in any of your influences, from doom and heavy metal to industrial, goth and even dad rock. There really are very few rules.’
Brodsky says there are no rules, but actually, there is one: metal has to be brutal. There are three main labels giving a platform to that brutality – Dry Cough Records in Manchester, FHED in Cardiff and Me Saco Un Ojo in the capital – as well as London record shop/label Crypt of the Wizard.
Andy is the head of Dry Cough, and he’s been watching UK death metal grow from the inside. ‘The special thing about it is the number of new bands that have emerged that are genuinely brilliant – it’s not a case of two or three really good bands appearing at once and then a slew of poorer imitations following in their wake,’ he says. ‘And then there’s the fact that it feels like a nationwide thing rather than a number of small isolated scenes – there feels like a real connection and camaraderie between the bands, labels, zines and fans, more reminiscent of what you would expect from maybe the 1990s DIY hardcore scene. Whatever the magic ingredient is, it’s certainly working.’
If all this has whetted your appetite for a taste of the genre in the flesh, you’ll be able to sink your teeth into Necropolis, an all-day gig at London’s New Cross Inn on May 20 that will see performances by the likes of Vacuous, Mortuary Spawn and Slimelord alongside Danish headliners Undergang, one of the best death metal bands in the world today (there’s also a free a pre-show gig the night before at The Dev in Camden featuring Liquid Shit – full disclosure, that is my band – and Mutagenic Host). Then, in September, Edinburgh’s Sonic Dissonances extreme metal festival will feature appearances by Penny Coffin, Coffin Mulch and Brainbath. And if you want to buy records from these sorts of bands in the flesh, London’s Crypt of The Wizard is the best heavy metal shop in the country. Dry Cough and Me Saco Un Ojo are your best bets for online shopping, both stocking not just their own releases but excellent death metal from around the world too.
It might be violently unlistenable to most, but deep in the metaphorical morgues and sewers and swamps of Britain, death metal is creeping worryingly to life.