Emergence and early history
English heavy metal band Venom, from Newcastle, crystallized the elements of what later became known as thrash metal, death metal and black metal, with their 1981 album Welcome to Hell. Their dark, blistering sound, harsh vocals, and macabre, proudly Satanic imagery proved a major inspiration for extreme metal bands. Another highly influential band, Slayer, formed in 1981. Although the band was a thrash metal act, Slayer's music was more violent than their thrash contemporaries Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax. Their breakneck speed and instrumental prowess combined with lyrics about death, violence, war, and Satanism won Slayer a rabid cult following. According to Mike McPadden, Hell Awaits, Slayer's sophomore album, "largely invent[ed] much of the sound and fury that would evolve into death metal." According to AllMusic, their third album Reign in Blood inspired the entire death metal genre. It had a big impact on genre leaders such as Death, Obituary, and Morbid Angel.
Possessed, a band that formed in the San Francisco Bay Area during 1983, is described by Allmusic as "connecting the dots" between thrash metal and death metal with their 1985 debut album, Seven Churches. While attributed as having a Slayer influence, current and former members of the band had actually cited Venom and Motörhead, as well as early work by Exodus, as the main influences on their sound. Although the group had released only two studio albums and an EP in their formative years, they have been described by music journalists and musicians as either being "monumental" in developing the death metal style, or as being the first death metal band. Earache Records noted that "the likes of Trey Azagthoth and Morbid Angel based what they were doing in their formative years on the Possessed blueprint laid down on the legendary Seven Churches recording. Possessed arguably did more to further the cause of 'Death Metal' than any of the early acts on the scene back in the mid-late 80's."
During the same period as the dawn of Possessed, a second influential metal band was formed in Orlando, Florida: Death. Originally called Mantas, Death was formed in 1983 by Chuck Schuldiner, Kam Lee, and Rick Rozz. In 1984 they released their first demo entitled Death by Metal, followed by several more. The tapes circulated through the tape trader world, quickly establishing the band's name. With Death guitarist Schuldiner adopting vocal duties, the band made a major impact on the scene. The fast minor-key riffs and solos were complemented with fast drumming, creating a style that would catch on in tape trading circles. Schuldiner has been credited by Allmusic's Eduardo Rivadavia for being widely recognized as the "Father of Death Metal". Death's 1987 debut release, Scream Bloody Gore, has been described by About.com's Chad Bowar as being the "evolution from thrash metal to death metal", and "the first true death metal record" by the San Francisco Chronicle. Along with Possessed and Death, other pioneers of death metal in the United States include Macabre, Master, Massacre, Immolation, Cannibal Corpse, Obituary, and Post Mortem.
By 1989, many bands had been signed by eager record labels wanting to cash in on the subgenre, including Florida's Obituary, Morbid Angel and Deicide. This collective of death metal bands hailing from Florida are often labeled as "Florida death metal". Morbid Angel pushed the genre's limits both musically and lyrically, with the release of their debut album Altars of Madness in 1989. The album "redefined what it meant to be heavy while influencing an upcoming class of brutal death metal." Death metal spread to Sweden in the late 1980s, flourishing with pioneers such as Carnage, God Macabre, Entombed, Dismember and Unleashed. In the early 1990s, the rise of melodic death metal was recognized, with bands such as Dark Tranquillity, At the Gates, and In Flames.
Following the original death metal innovators, new subgenres began by the end of the decade. British band Napalm Death became increasingly associated with death metal, in particular, on their 1990 album Harmony Corruption. This album displays aggressive and fairly technical guitar riffing, complex rhythmics, a sophisticated growling vocal delivery by Mark "Barney" Greenway, and socially aware lyrical subjects, merging death metal with the "grindcore" subgenre. Other bands contributing significantly to this early movement include Britain's Bolt Thrower and Carcass and New York's Suffocation.
To close the circle, Death released their fourth album Human in 1991. Death's founder Schuldiner helped push the boundaries of uncompromising speed and technical virtuosity, mixing technical and intricate rhythm guitar work with complex arrangements and emotive guitar solos.
Earache Records, Relativity Records and Roadrunner Records became the genre's most important labels, with Earache releasing albums by Carcass, Napalm Death, Morbid Angel, and Entombed, and Roadrunner releasing albums by Obituary, and Pestilence. Although these labels had not been death metal labels, initially, they became the genre's flagship labels in the beginning of the 1990s. In addition to these, other labels formed as well, such as Nuclear Blast, Century Media, and Peaceville. Many of these labels would go on to achieve successes in other genres of metal throughout the 1990s.
In September 1990, Death's manager Eric Greif held one of the first North American death metal festivals, Day of Death, in Milwaukee suburb Waukesha, Wisconsin, and featured 26 bands including Autopsy, Broken Hope, Hellwitch, Obliveon, Revenant, Viogression, Immolation, Atheist, and Cynic.
Death metal's popularity achieved its initial peak during 1992–1993, with some bands such as Morbid Angel and Cannibal Corpse enjoying mild commercial success. However, the genre as a whole never broke into the mainstream. The genre's mounting popularity may have been partly responsible for a strong rivalry between Norwegian black metal and Swedish death metal scenes. Fenriz of Darkthrone has noted that Norwegian black metal musicians were "fed up with the whole death metal scene" at the time. Death metal diversified in the 1990s, spawning a rich variety of subgenres that still have a large "underground" following at the present.