Technical Death Metal

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Technical/progressive (or tech/prog) death metal is considered a legitimate genre by some (or even two legitimate genres), while others argue that it is a pseudo-genre. Bands included in this genre take emphasize technicality in their music, in the form of complex riffs and/or complex song structures, while others apply the ethos of progressive music more broadly without straying from their basic death metal sound. Death, Cynic and Atheist are considered central bands in the establishment of tech/prog death metal. Some bands, like Necrophagist, Obscura, and Braindrill, emphasize technique in their style and are considered technical death metal acts, while others, such as Opeth, Neuraxis, Sectu, and Nocturnus are considered primarily progressive death metal. Sometimes, jazz death metal is listed as a separate subgenre and comprises artists who incorporate elements from fusion jazz into their death metal style, such as Atheist, Cynic and Pestilence on “Spheres”. Given that brutal death metal bands tend to emphasize technique and compositional complexity, many brutal death metal bands, such as Suffocation and Hate Eternal, are also categorized as technical death metal bands. Some tech/prog death metal bands are so progressive on some releases that these are considered progressive metal rather than death metal, as is the case of some Atheist, Opeth and Cynic releases, that they are filed under progressive metal in the MMA rather than under death metal.

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DEATH Symbolic Album Cover Symbolic
DEATH
4.39 | 151 ratings
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DEATH The Sound of Perseverance Album Cover The Sound of Perseverance
DEATH
4.40 | 110 ratings
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GORGUTS Colored Sands Album Cover Colored Sands
GORGUTS
4.42 | 23 ratings
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DEATH Individual Thought Patterns Album Cover Individual Thought Patterns
DEATH
4.29 | 100 ratings
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DEATH Human Album Cover Human
DEATH
4.27 | 102 ratings
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NILE What Should Not be Unearthed Album Cover What Should Not be Unearthed
NILE
4.50 | 12 ratings
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ATHEIST Unquestionable Presence Album Cover Unquestionable Presence
ATHEIST
4.27 | 61 ratings
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OBSCURA Omnivium Album Cover Omnivium
OBSCURA
4.31 | 32 ratings
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BEYOND CREATION The Aura Album Cover The Aura
BEYOND CREATION
4.42 | 14 ratings
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CRYPTOPSY None So Vile Album Cover None So Vile
CRYPTOPSY
4.31 | 28 ratings
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AUGURY Fragmentary Evidence Album Cover Fragmentary Evidence
AUGURY
4.31 | 18 ratings
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NILE Annihilation of the Wicked Album Cover Annihilation of the Wicked
NILE
4.22 | 38 ratings
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technical death metal Music Reviews

ATHEIST Elements

Album · 1993 · Technical Death Metal
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"Elements" is the 3rd full-length studio album by US, Florida based technical/progressive metal act Atheist. The album was released through Music for Nations in Europe and through Metal Blade Records in the US in August 1993. It´s the successor to "Unquestionable Presence" from 1991 and features some lineup changes since the predecessor as original drummer Steve Flynn has been replaced by session drummer Josh Greenbaum. Lead vocalist/guitarist Kelly Shaefer had problems with carpal tunnel syndrome (and could therefore only perform rhythm guitars) and as guitarist Rand Burkey had quit, new guitarist Frank Emmi was brought in. Burkey ended up changing his mind though and returned to the fold for the recording of "Elements". "Elements" was therefore recorded with three guitarists in the lineup.

The many lineup changes, the death of bassist Roger Patterson in early 1991 (who was an integral part of the songwriting process on the first two albums), and financial issues actually meant that Atheist had planned to disband after touring in support of "Unquestionable Presence (1991)" but they were bound by their record contract to deliver one more album. Not exactly the most fruitful conditions under which to write and record material for a full-length release but the band soldiered on and delivered "Elements" and even ended up touring in support of the album.

So does "Elements" sound like a rushed swansong album? The answer to that is a resounding no. Nothing could be further from the truth, and "Elements" is another bold and adventurous technical/progressive extreme metal release by Atheist. The jazz/fusion influences have increased and Atheist have also opted to include latin/samba rhythms to their already unique extreme metal sound (most prominently on the fully fledged instrumental latin/fusion track "Samba Briza"). The music still features death- and thrash metal riffs and rhythms, but those are just elements in the soundscape, and it´s almost impossible to correctly label the sonic experience of "Elements". It´s slightly more atmospheric and varied than the material on "Unquestionable Presence (1991)" and less frantic and technically less complex too. The last statement should of course not be read as if this isn´t very technically well played and complex music, but just that the music is a bit slower, a little more vers/chorus oriented, and not as relentlessly fast-paced and energetic as the case was on the predecessor.

Atheist are a very well playing act, and handles everything from multible tempo- and time signature changes, to breaks, to different rhythm styles, and seamlessly combine all stylistic elements into a sound that despite not sounding much like the first two releases, still sound unmistakably like Atheist. Shaefer still has a pretty raw high pitched vocal style, which is probably a bit of an aquired taste, but his performance is strong and unique, suiting the instrumental part of the music perfectly.

Another aquired taste is probably the sound production, which is also a bit different sounding. The band chose producer Mark Pinske (who worked as engineer for Frank Zappa in the 80s) to co-produce the album with them and the result is raw and organic, and sometimes the volumes in the mix on some of the instruments and especially the vocals, mean that the sound is a bit distorted, which is quite odd to hear on a professional sound production. Pinske also produced "Stillborn (1993)" by Malevolent Creation and "Promises Impure (1993)" by Demented Ted, and both of those albums feature a similiar sound production to the production on "Elements". In other words the odd sounding production job isn´t a mistake. The album is intentionally produced this way, which will probably not be to the tastes of all listeners, but on the other hand it´s arguably an unique sound production which go hand and hand with the uniqueness of the music.

"Elements" features 12 tracks and a full playing of 41:40 minutes, and all tracks are well written and intriguing. The above mentioned "Samba Briza", "Displacement", "Fractal Point", and "See You Again" are all shorter interlude tracks, while the remaining tracks are full-on Atheist style technical/progressive metal. I can mention "Green", "Mineral", and the title track as some of the highlights, but there´s not a weak track in sight on "Elements", which just reeks class and high quality in the songwriting department. If the story is true that the album was written, recorded, and mixed in just forty days, it´s a massive achievement by all involved. A 5 star (100%) rating is deserved.

ATHEIST Unquestionable Presence

Album · 1991 · Technical Death Metal
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"Unquestionable Presence" is the 2nd full-length studio album by US, Florida based technical/progressive metal act Atheist. The album was released through Active Records in August 1991. It´s the successor to "Piece of Time" from 1989 and features one lineup change since the predecessor as bassist Roger Patterson sadly died in a car crash in February 1991 while on tour with the band. Patterson was not "only" the bassist in Atheist, but an integral part of the songwriting team in the band and most of the material on "Unquestionable Presence" was co-written by Patterson before his untimely death. He was replaced by former Cynic bassist Tony Choy, who recorded all bass parts on "Unquestionable Presence".

"Piece of Time (1989)" was a technical death/thrash metal release and definitely ahead of its time, but "Unquestionable Presence" makes "Piece of Time (1989)" sound like a pretty "normal" release, as Atheist experiment heavily here with jazz/fusion drumming and notes/chords, unconventional song structures, and loads of tempo- and time signature changes...all delivered with great technical skill at a predominantly frantic pace. "Unquestionable Presence" blasts the senses of the listener from the opening notes of "Mother Man" to the closing notes of "And the Psychic Saw". There´s not a second wasted and even the few mellow moments on the album are spend building up to another climax of technical wizardry.

There´s great flow in the music and despite of the focus on technical playing, there are still many catchy moments and even hooks and melodic sections on the album (and example of that is the opening to "And the Psychic Saw"). Not in the form of easy to sing along to choruses or melodic vocal lines, but in the form of killer riff sections, blistering yet memorable guitar solos, recognisable drum patterns, and catchy vocal phrases. Kelly Shaefer has a raw high pitched and almost hysterical vocal style, which is very unique and probably very much an aquired taste, but no one can argue the fact that his vocal approach is original and passionate too.

"Unquestionable Presence" is a demanding release, and it´s loaded with clever compositional details most listeners probably won´t discover unless they give the album many spins. So while it´s an instantly enjoyable listen because of the raw energetic power load unleashed upon your ears when you put it on, it´s also a rewarding listen in the long run. It´s the kind of release where you always hear new details with every spin. While the 8 tracks on the 32:25 minutes long album at first may appear almost linear in structure, most tracks on the album do feature some sort of vers/chorus formula...or at least returning elements, which means that there are recognisable hooks to hold on too in the midst of the busy ever changing technical riffs and rhythms.

While "Unquestionable Presence" was recorded and mixed at Morrisound in Tampa, Florida, and definitely features some of the similar type ultra heavy sound, which came out of that studio in those years, the album features a more detailed/defined sound production than many other contemporary Morrisound productions. It´s a very well sounding release with a perfect balance between heaviness and details in the mix. All instruments and vocals are heard very clear in the mix and every playing detail is audible.

Upon conclusion "Unquestionable Presence" is a high quality release in every way possible. The musicianship is strong/virtuosic, the sound production powerful and well sounding, and the songwriting intriguing and unique. Add to that some pretty interesting lyrics which span all the way from social/enviromental issues ("Mother Man" is a prime example of the latter) to the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and you have the whole package. Atheist are clearly influenced by other mid- late eighties fusion oriented metal acts like Watchtower and Voivod, but adding an extreme metal element to that sound was something new at the time (Death, Cynic, and Pestilence would soon follow with other fusion influenced extreme metal releases, but Atheist were the first true pioneers). It was a bold move and could possibly have sunk their career, had it not been well executed and promoted, but this is a shining example of not being able to deny quality. I can´t think of many other releases deserving a 5 star (100%) rating more than this one.

NOCTURNUS Thresholds

Album · 1992 · Technical Death Metal
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The Tampa, FL based NOCTURNUS made its mark on the extreme metal scene all the way back in the 80s after former Morbid Angel drummer / vocalist Mike Browning created a new variety of technical death metal that included a keyboardist as well as exhibiting heavily fortified sci-fi themes with overarching concepts. After a couple of demos hitting the market, NOCTURNUS cranked out one of the most unique metal albums of the 90s with its lauded debut “The Key” which adopted a Terminator movie theme of a cyborg sent back in time to kill Jesus Christ as well as fusing the Morbid Angel styled death metal riff attacks with wickedly wild neoclassical solo tradeoffs which made NOCTURNUS one of the most technical infused death metal bands of the early 90s long before Necrophagist.

While Browning served as both drummer and vocalist on “The Key,” for the band’s second album THRESHOLDS which came out two years later, Dan Izzo joined the team as lead vocalist and Browning focused exclusively on drums and percussion. While the debut had a complete album concept, THRESHOLDS on the other hand tackled a wide range of topics that included climate change on “Climate Controller,” indigenous issues on “Tribal Vodoun,” underwater species on “Aquatica,” the Metal Gear video game series on “Subterranean Infiltrator” and extraterrestrial life on “Gridzone.” Musically the band expanded its sound into an even more progressive nature with more complex time signatures, more experimental compositions and even more exquisite displays of virtuosic technicalities without sacrificing the melodic hooks and thrash laden sensibilities of “The Key.”

While the band stuck out from the death metal pack early on with the inclusion of the keyboard, on THRESHOLDS, the music is more varied and bolder in its displays of the usual suspects of tremolo picked riffs and pounding rhythmic drive. The keyboard contributions also continued the role of atmospheric generator taking the doom laden darkness to even more mysteriously gloomy heights but also found moments as lead instrument with equally frenetic roles that would make Keith Emerson take notice as the keyboards take on even more ambitious roles in constructing a wider range than “The Key.” One of the most dynamic use of the keys is on the superb “Aquatica” which delivers underwater sounds as well as the proper extensions of ambience. Tracks like “Subterranean Infiltrator” on the other hand are all about the guitars and showcases one of the most dynamic twin guitar attacks with clever trade-offs in both the riffing as well as mind numbing soloing.

In many ways, THRESHOLDS sounds a lot different than “The Key” even though much of the stylistic approach is in tact. This album in contrast is slightly less aggressive and delves into more diverse styles of expression with quieter sections and takes license to find more experimental instrumental interplay and progressive off-kilter time signature delivers. While the production has been cited as horrendous by many, my 2013 remastered version sounds pretty good actually although the vocals sound further back in the mix than on “The Key” and although Browning’s decision to add a new vocalist so that he could focus exclusively on the drums, it seems there are many segments of the album where the drums are significantly less dynamic with many moments where he is simply keeping a rather unexciting beat much like a garage band which raises the question of what may have been the true cause of his exodus from the band after this album. Was he really injured and just unable to play with the same ferocity?

This was pretty much the last true album of the original NOCTURNUS lineup. The story goes that the band members secured the trademark to the band name and kicked the founder, Browning out like an old pair of shoes. Rumor has it that it was all about which direction the band wanted to take. Browning wanted to include more occult lyrics whereas the rest of the band wanted to keep it in the sci-fi universe but like all messy relationships that take place behind closed doors, this will probably remain a secret until someone spills the beans about the actually events that unfolded. As far as occult lyrics go, it’s particularly interesting how the opening “Climate Controller” refers to Kakodammu which is the word of Addu, the forty-seventh name of Marduk, defeater of the ancient ones. I find the references are directed toward the man-made climate control technologies admitted by NASA and other institutions to be of particular interest.

In many ways i love THRESHOLDS even more than “The Key.” The tracks are much more interesting as individual slices tech death metal magic however the album lacks the overall cohesiveness of the debut. Add to that the drum parts are by far the biggest disappointment but despite the elements that could’ve used some more work, this is an excellent album that stands out not only from pretty much every other metal album that has been released but from the band’s debut itself. While Browning was kicked out of his own band, the rest of the team only managed to squeak out a pathetic little EP before disbanding the following year and although there was an attempt to revive the band several years later, the album “Ethereal Tomb’ didn’t come close to capturing the creativity cranked out in the first two NOCTURNUS albums so as far as i’m concerned this is the end of the road for one fo the most creative metal bands of the 90s. While not quite as perfect as the debut, THRESHOLDS is still an outstanding slice of 90s extreme metal that shouldn’t be missed.

NOCTURNUS The Key

Album · 1990 · Technical Death Metal
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While forever destined to go down in metal history as the ugly stepchild of Morbid Angel, one of the Tampa scene’s most enduring legacies and possible greatest product of the thriving Florida death metal scene, NOCTURNUS was a very strange extreme metal band that despite being lumped into the technical death metal crowds, really existed in its own little world. The band was started by ex-Morbid Angel drummer (1983-86) and vocalist Mike Browning in 1987 after the breakup of his short-lived band Incubus (no, not that one!) however guitarist Gino Marino tagged along for a short while and after many lineup changes the band found stability with the team of Browning (vocals, drums), Mike Davis (guitar, bass), Sean McNenney (guitar), Jeff Estes (bass) and Louis Panzer (keyboards). The band cut a couple demos and then set out to create one of the most unique extreme albums of the entire era.

In the nascent years when death metal was just taking its first steps with the likes of Death, Morbid Angel, Obituary, Atheist and Autopsy introducing the world to a ramped up unforgiving style of relentless heavy metal run amok, NOCTURNUS were looking way ahead to the next level. The band stood out like a sore thumb with one of the earliest uses of an atmospheric keyboard player in the midst of a brutal guitar, bass and drum orotundity that was all the stranger for developing highly sophisticated sci-fi concepts about an evil overlord from the future sending a cyborg back in time to assassinate Jesus Christ so that the tenets of Christianity would never be allowed to take root and thus allowing the seeds of evil to gain the upper hand on a much earlier timeline. Sounds like someone was watching the Terminator movie just a wee bit much, huh?

For all its seemingly cheesified subject matter, the band’s debut album THE KEY released in 1990 is a stunning powerhouse of highly developed technical extreme metal that was not only looking ahead by incorporating new aspects of metal yet to be accepted by a wider audience but was also mining the past, thus THE KEY not only fits in that awkward moment when the difference between the thrash and death metal sub-genera was a bit fuzzy but also displayed moments of neoclassical power metal as well as highly complex elements from progressive rock that were only recently finding their way into the metal paradigm. The results of this unusual for the time amalgamation of sounds is that NOCTURNUS created an unrivaled style that has scarcely been replicated even several decades after this album’s initial release. Likewise the occult themes and atmospheric accoutrements portended the evolution of the black metal scene that would find its heyday in the 90s and beyond.

While the keyboard sounds which are used for intros and subdued atmospheric grounding rods of sort get the most attention as this was unprecedented at the time, the true strength of THE KEY is the dual technical guitar attacks of Davis and McNenney who combined a hefty Morbid Angel styled barrage of riffing coupled with thrash metal techniques introduced by both Metallica and Megadeth. Add to that the exquisite virtuosity of the many different sections of neoclassical soloing and it doesn’t take long to realize that the guitar aspects of the album are by far the dominant features. With a very few exceptions such as the clean guitar arpeggiated intro of “BC-AD,” the album provides a ferocious stampede of pummeling percussive drive and high octane guitar orotundity all glazed over by the lush ethereal keyboards that more often than not fade into the background but at key moments provide the main rhythmic stomp as the soloing frenzies are let off the leash. The only instrument that seems to be buried for the most part is the bass but there are moments when it finds their own voice and emerge from the deafening din.

NOCTURNUS’ debut album may not be one that sinks into your skin instantly. It certainly didn’t for me. This album took quite a few spins before its magic really grabbed me and pulled me into its idiosyncratic sci-fi imbued extreme metal soundscape and really smacked me in the face. While superficially existing in the early 90s timeline with the heavy extreme guitar riffage and Marty Friedman-esque guitar solo workouts, the intricate constructs of the progressively infused compositions takes THE KEY to an entirely new level of sophistication. This was a case where the band was a little bit ahead of its time and although NOCTURNUS released a sophomore album titled “Thresholds” in 1992 and an eponymously titled EP the following year, the band would call it quits in 93 but would reform for a third album several years later. THE KEY dishes out everything i love about old school death metal but with progressive and atmospheric twists that use the sci-fi narrative as their guide. The album is exquisitely performed and there are literally no weak tracks on this magnum opus. A slow burner for sure but one that has been gaining more steam over the ensuing decades.

FALLUJAH Undying Light

Album · 2019 · Technical Death Metal
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"Undying Light" is the 4th full-length studio album by US, California based metal act Fallujah. The album was released through Nuclear Blast Records in March 2019. It´s the successor to "Dreamless" from 2016 and features two lineup changes since the predecessor as guitarist Brian James has left (and hasn´t been replaced making Fallujah a four-piece on this release), and lead vocalist Alex Hofmann who has been replaced by Antonio Palermo.

Fallujah have changed their style a lot over the years, starting out a technical deathcore act and later shifting to an atmospheric technical/progressive death metal style, and "Undying Light" sees Fallujah changing things again. With Palermo on board the vocal style is now fully fledged aggressive metalcore screaming, and there are no traces of the band´s deathcore/death metal past in the vocals anymore. While the music still features heavy riffs and rhythms, there is also very little in the instrumental department of the album which reveal Fallujah´s deathcore/death metal beginnings. The music is now best described as atmospheric metalcore with heavy angular riffs. The only trace of death metal is the melodic death metal riff featured on "Sanctuary".

The band are well playing and the sound production is clear, professional, and detailed, so on most parameters "Undying Light" is a quality release. The songwriting is very generic though. There´s nothing on this album you haven´t heard before, and unfortunately also heard better. Some of Fallujah´s past releases have been pretty intriguing combinations of atmosphere and heaviness, but this time around the band haven´t managed to produce enough memorable riffs and vocal hooks for the material to stick. Upon conclusion "Undying Light" isn´t a terrible release, but it´s not a particularly remarkable one either. A 3 star (60%) rating is warranted.

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