Deathcore: The Black Sheep Of Heavy Metal

Bring Me The Horizon - TIAHBMISITIAHLKIAS

A run through of essential albums from one of rock’s most despised and misunderstood sub-genres.

For as long as it’s existed, Deathcore has been a controversial subgenre of metal. It gained popularity over MySpace, exploding onto the international festival circuit in the mid-2000s and was immediately derided. Genre critics and fans dismissed it as juvenile, simplistic and uncool; “false metal” as the loinclothed oil-chested beefcakes of Manowar might say.

Mixing metal and punk is nothing new – a thread can be drawn all the way back to NWOBHM, speed/thrash, and crossover bands like DRI in the 1980s – but deathcore added its own twist to the recipe. Its focus was not just on combining two primary styles (death metal and hardcore) but distilling them into their most brutal elements to create the heaviest, most irrationally aggressive sound possible.

Of course, it was divisive. For the angry, disaffected youth on MySpace, searching for something to channel their angst into, deathcore was an almost religious experience. It offered a heavier alternative to emo, its equally maligned cousin on the punk side of the family – which also grew through social networks and actively encouraged black hair dye, neck tattoos and songs about intensely negative emotions.

Maybe both genres were ridiculed because they were so rooted in youth. It’s a common trait of the aging subculture fan to dismiss anything next generation as being a diluted idiotic copy of the more sophisticated version from back in the day. Plus, it was just obnoxious. Deathcore was in-your-face brutal enough to bug not just your parents but even your cool uncle who has a vintage Metallica t-shirt in his cupboard.

And yet, deathcore blossomed…

Despite many of its key bands’ efforts to dissociate themselves from the tag; despite its continual absence from Best Of lists in even extreme metal publications; despite its perennial status as a dirty word, it not only endured but evolved. The majority of those bands from the original scene grew up and became stalwarts of the genre. To look at their collective work over the past 15 years is to see 21st century metal at its absolute finest.

So let’s do just that.

This isn’t a list of the most important or influential deathcore albums, nor is it necessarily the best (as that’s entirely subjective). It’s an overview of nine personal favourites that demonstrate the genre’s capabilities, a nostalgic journey for deathcore fans and hopefully a primer for newcomers to this endlessly underrated genre.

Job For A Cowboy – Doom (2005)

Job For A Cowboy Doom

If there’s one record that encapsulates the spirit of first wave deathcore it’s Doom. Half an hour of solid brutality with all the fat trimmed off, it’s just bludgeoning riff after bludgeoning riff, bassy breakdowns so heavy you’ll feel your chest tighten and Jonny Davy’s unhinged vocals veering wildly from guttural growl to high-pitched squeal. You can hear the influence of 90s US death metal like Suffocation in this, as well as deathcore pioneers like All Shall Perish, but it’s surprising how far apart this stands from what came before. It’s clearly a new breed of metal being violently ejected from the womb.

More crucially, Doom was an indie release and it spread through the band’s MySpace profile. Since the band themselves were all teenagers, it felt like the music really belonged to the audience. It was kids making music for other kids and there’s a power in that kind of connection, a sincerity that can never be manufactured. While Job For A Cowboy were one of the first bands to panic and backpedal away from the deathcore tag – shifting their musical style to straight-ahead death – the unpretentious passion of Doom can’t be denied, and it’s hard not to start banging your head with those first shrieks of “IT BLEEDS! IT BREATHES!” as Entombment Of A Machine kicks in.

The Red Chord – Clients (2005)

The Red Chord Clients

If there’s one album that ‘proves’ deathcore as a viable genre, it’s Clients, the Red Chord’s sophomore offering. In fact, it’s a strong contender for the greatest metal album of the 2000s and sounds as vital, as confounding and as powerful now as it did in 2005. The closest comparison is something like Angel Dust by Faith No More. A dense, unclassifiable and deeply personal piece of work that blends black humour with deep themes, wilful inaccessibility with catchy hooks.

Vocalist Guy Kozowyck was inspired to write the lyrics for this album around his experiences working in a pharmacy next to a psychiatric hospital. The ‘clients’ in question represent the various people he encountered and their respective mental health conditions but, ultimately, as he screams on the title track “we’re all clients”. The lyrical style is predominantly stream-of-consciousness, a Burroughs-esque cut-up of overheard madness, paranoia and scatology that remains disturbing, funny and compelling no matter how many times you listen.

It’s matched by music so fast, hard and complex it feels like just listening to it could cause an injury, never mind trying to figure it all out. Yet Clients offers listeners chantalong choruses and memorable riffs to ease the pain of the whiplash key changes and relentless speed. It’s an album that only gets stronger over time, as it reveals more of its secrets. Maybe by 2025, the world might be ready… just in time for the 20th anniversary reissue.

Bring Me The Horizon – There Is A Hell, Believe Me I’ve Seen It, There Is A Heaven, Let’s Keep It A Secret (2010)

Bring Me The Horizon - TIAHBMISITIAHLKIAS

By 2010, most of the first wave deathcore bands were introducing new sounds and carving unique identities for themselves. Bring Me The Horizon were one of the few credible British bands in the scene and, while it could be said they’ve evolved a step too far now, becoming essentially a stadium-bothering Britpop band, in 2011 they dropped a masterpiece of second wave deathcore.

There Is A Hell hit the perfect balance of their deathcore roots, their progressive ambitions and their riotous pop sensibilities. It opens with Crucify Me, one of the most outright epic songs the genre has produced. With orchestral samples, glitchy electronic interludes from Skrillex and female vocals from Lights you’d think it would feel inauthentic but the continual thunder of distortion and drums provide an undeniably brutal backdrop for Oli Sykes’s lunatic screams.

Every song on here offers anthemic choruses and high-anxiety lyrics to shout along with (“Put a gun to my head and paint the walls with my brains!” / “Get the fuck up! This is it! The end of everything!” etc) but beneath the accessible teenage rage is a technicality and a flair for invention that still sounds exciting. You can just hear them throwing everything at this and it’s that kind of genre-bending enthusiasm that has since come to define the spirit of modern metal. And if Blessed With A Curse doesn’t prove the phrase ‘deathcore ballad’ isn’t actually an oxymoron, I don’t know what will.

The Black Dahila Murder – Ritual (2011)

Black Dahlia Murder Ritual

The Black Dahlia Murder had always leaned further than most deathcore bands into the dark side, but by their fifth album, Ritual, they had fully embraced the abyss. The most obvious influence is here is the Gothenburg style of bands like At The Gates but TBDM take it to even heavier and more aggressive territory.

Ritual plays like 12 short horror stories. Trevor Strnad’s lyrics form a loose concept with each song being a ritual of its own different kind. At times, there’s a genuine eeriness, a gleeful channelling of a darkness that feels so extreme you could believe it came from beyond. The Window, a song about child abductor with a unique methodical approach, has to be the single most death metal lyric ever written and there’s no shortage of competition. The fact that it’s accompanied by such an incongruously spectral, haunting melody only adds to the otherworldly nastiness.

Musically, Ritual owes a lot to recently recruited lead guitarist Ryan Knight who adds layers of dissonant beauty to the stalwart riffery of rhythm guitarist Brian Eschbach. On the standout track, Conspiring With The Damned, Knight’s unusual style comes to the fore, telling the story of a séance gone wrong with creepy, ectoplasmic sounds as Strnad shrieks over the top like King Diamond on bath salts.

While arguably a straight melodeath album, Ritual maintains its deathcore spirit by sheer force of will. There’s not a moment’s respite from the horror, from the fury and from the energy. It’s like being roughed up by a gang of demons for 45 minutes.

Suicide Silence – The Black Crown (2011)

Suicide Silence Black Crown

Suicide Silence tore deathcore a new one with their 2007 debut album, The Cleansing, a whirlwind of breakdowns, blastbeats and savage vocals. Unanswered, a blunt force rallying cry against organised religion, is perhaps the ultimate deathcore anthem. But by 2011, vocalist Mitch Lucker had perhaps lightened his outlook a little. The Black Crown tackles some of the same subject matter but rather than looking inward at the hopelessness of it all, it drives home an outward positivity that’s uncommon to deathcore. Rebellion, but as a force for change rather than a last-ditch middle finger on your way to the grave.

Lucker tackles topics like substance abuse, racism and environmental destruction but always with a focus on overcoming rather than submitting to them. Musically, The Black Crown pays homage to its roots with some guest vocals from Jonathan Davis (KoRn) and Frank Mullen (Suffocation), but offers a curiously fresh twist on the genre. Its upbeat catchiness matches the lyrics without ever losing the ferocity the band were known for. If anything, with fist-in-the-air anthems like You Only Live Once and Fuck Everything, The Black Crown is the closest thing to a deathcore party album.

Tragically, Lucker died in a motorcycle accident shortly after its release and Suicide Silence hit some seriously dark times, leading to a monumental fan backlash. It’s unlikely they’ll ever come close to these heights again but The Black Crown remains a triumph. A moment frozen in time and maybe the closest deathcore ever came to bothering the mainstream.

Fit For An Autopsy – The Process of Human Extermination (2011)

Fit For An Autopsy Process of Human Extermination

Maybe the outright heaviest album on this list, The Process of Human Extermination is a bona fide metal juggernaut. Before you’ve even had chance to draw breath, Nate Johnson bellows “We’ll tear this whole fucking world apart!!!” and the whole band explodes into cacophonous opener The Conqueror. 32 minutes of undulated brutality later, you can finally exhale a lungful of grit and emerge stronger.

Assembled from a group of underground hardcore/metal veterans, Fit For An Autopsy almost felt like a cult supergroup but this is a statement of intent that feels like one coherent vision, rather than the fragmented clash of styles that usually implies. The vision in question is unadulterated aural violence; breakdown after breakdown piled on riff after riff, with lyrics so nihilistic and misanthropic, it’s a perfect soundtrack to the apocalypse (“This is the harvest of the human seed / The earth is a corpse field”).

Mainstream music in 2011 was at its most party-centric since the Eighties, with EDM dominating the charts, and The Process of Human Extermination was a black-hearted antidote to the fun. Listening to it through the darker, anxiety-ridden lens of 2019, it worryingly fits the times. A depressingly prophetic look at humanity’s worst instincts destroying them, with a musical accompaniment guaranteed to alienate the faint of heart. The Process of Human Extermination is undiluted deathcore at its strongest.

Carnifex – Slow Death (2016)

Carnifex Slow Death

Speaking of the apocalypse, if the metal universe exploded and everything got wiped out, I swear the last band standing would be Carnifex, still slaying it for an audience of mutants and cockroaches.

They first gained prominence in the mid-2000s with a series of self-released EPs and the deathcore classic Dead In My Arms, and have fought to retain integrity against the odds, doggedly amassing the kind of hardcore devoted fanbase that few bands achieve. They went on hiatus in 2012 after the appropriately named Until I Feel Nothing album (a bleak swansong if ever there was one) but bounced back just over a year later with a new guitarist and a whole new lease on life.

Slow Death, their sixth album, is a late-era deathcore masterstroke and encapsulates everything that earned Carnifex their devotion. Musically, they draw as much from Scandinavian black metal as they do from US death, mixing breakdown chugs with tremolo picking, heavy riffs with atmospheric synths. Six Feet Closer To Hell evokes Pantera; Dark Heart Ceremony summons Cradle Of Filth; and Drown Me In Blood has echoes of Slayer; but all of Slow Death is intensely, passionately Carnifex, punctuated by Scott Ian Lewis’s unique and personal lyrics.

In a genre that could be construed as macho, Lewis’s words are uncharacteristically sensitive. He lets his guard down, frankly pouring his heart out about depression, anxiety and self-harm in a way that offers hope and connection. “I know you want to die but just hang on” he screams in the title track and the naked sincerity of this is a reminder of how important metal can be to those who love it. Despite the irony of something called deathcore saving lives, there’s no doubt that an album like this is invaluable catharsis.

When Lewis roars “Dead children in a dead fucking world, we are hell born!” in Servants To The Horde, it’s a modern take on a classic metalhead call-to-arms like Manowar’s Army of the Immortal. The message is essentially the same – that metal has the power to unite and to strengthen. That you’re not alone. And that’s something we all need to hear.

Winds of Plague – Blood of my Enemy (2017)

Winds of Plague Blood of my Enemy

One of the best things about modern metal is its lack of constraints when it comes to blurring genre lines. In the 1980s, even something as simple a heavy band adding a single keyboard flourish could get them ostracised but kids these days have no such insecurities. So it was only a matter of time before hybrid deathcore bands started springing up. Winds Of Plague call themselves “symphonic deathcore”, pouring the unlikely ingredient of symphonic metal into the mix like metal Heston Blumenthals. Frontman Johnny Plague cites Hatebreed, Nile and Danny Eflman as his primary influences and that’s as good a way as any to start describing their sound.

Blood Of My Enemy is their fifth proper album but is the point where they most successfully nail the ambitious task they’ve set themselves. There’s grandiosity of Dimmu Borgir proportions in the gigantic wall of synths that dominate tracks like Nameless Walker and it slickly blends with the downtuned riffage and Johnny Plague’s hardcore-style barking vocals. The gentle piano tones and the female singing on the title track (both courtesy of keyboardist Adrienne Cowan) feel like they should jar but instead just swathes of unexpected gorgeousness to what’s essentially a hardcore war anthem (“I will give my life on the battlefield, drowning in the blood of my enemies!”).

Still, it’s not just this audaciousness that makes Blood Of My Enemy a compelling record. It’s rich with quality metal songwriting, huge hooks and great sound. For an album primarily about conflict and destruction, it’s ironic that it could work as an olive branch from deathcore to trad metal, a reminder that at heart, they’re not really as different as they appear.

Whitechapel – The Valley (2019)

Whitechapel The Valley

Of all the first wave deathcore bands, Whitechapel have had one of the most difficult evolutions. They produced one of the most confrontational, gleefully offensive debuts in Somatic Defilement, and dropped This Is Exile in 2008, an album that secured their place as deathcore royalty. From there, they perhaps felt like a band struggling to find exactly what the right next step was, producing a series of albums that, while always enjoyable, didn’t live up to the massive potential clearly right there in the band.

The Valley changes all that. It was worth the wait and is inarguably the next level of deathcore. Vocalist Phil Bozeman used his childhood as inspiration for the lyrics, writing frankly about his mother’s schizophrenia and drug addiction, the abuse he suffered at the hands of his stepfather and the effect this had on him. By opening up so much, the band is able to get away with slowing the tempo at times. Lead single Hickory Creek is entirely sung and mid-tempo, sounding almost like peak period Tool, but the rawness of the words means it still feels brutal in its own way.

As for the deathcore elements, they’re very much present in tracks like Brimstone – a migraine-inducing breakdown powerhouse – and Forgiveness Is Weakness – an ode to Bozeman’s stepfather with a fearsome spite that wouldn’t be out of place on This Is Exile (it opens with “He is finally dead / Come celebrate this day / It was slow and full of pain / Good riddance” and only gets more intense from there).

Essentially, no one can deny this is a record of unashamed brutality but mixing that with lyrical and musical vulnerability makes it feel like a deep and rewarding listen, guaranteed to provoke an emotional response. Complex tracks like When A Demon Defiles A Witch or the epic closer Doom Woods feel like something new and something powerful. The Valley is the sound of deathcore finally coming of age, of dealing (in this case literally) with its childhood demons and coming out even stronger than before.

***

Will the 2020s be the decade that deathcore gets the critical reappraisal it deserves? It certainly could happen. There’s no doubt that recent efforts by some of the bands above have enjoyed kinder reviews than their old albums. However, there’s still a long way to go before even an offhand mention of deathcore on a metal site doesn’t ignite a comments section Royal Rumble.

Either way, it shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, perhaps it’s not in spite of abject criticism that deathcore has endured but because of it. Metal, at its heart, is an outsider genre and deathcore – through nearly two decades of kicking against the pricks – is the ultimate outsider music. Once you’ve been accepted, it’s hard to stay truly angry and rebellious, hence so many offshoots of punk and metal eventually neutering themselves. Deathcore, by always being as the problem child, keeps its fire burning, and its small but loyal circle of friends remain fiercely faithful.

C.J. LINES

SURROUND YOURSELF WITH DEATHCORE

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