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Between proto-death metal and actual death metal - 87%

Hellish_Torture, December 28th, 2014

1987 is often considered as the year when the very first death metal full-lengths were released, after some years of demos and EPs. There’s still a strong debate around this matter: most people consider Death’s “Scream Bloody Gore” as the first “pure” death metal album of all times, but some other people claim the primacy of other bands. One of these bands is Necrophagia, whose debut “Season of the Dead” came out few months before “Scream Bloody Gore”. Actually, Necrophagia had recorded in 1986 a first full-length, “Ready for Death” which saw the light only in 1990, and the style offered by this album was clearly death metal. But “Season of the Dead”, which is theoretically considered as the first death metal album of all times by some people, actually needs some more caution about genre labels.

Well... this album, in my ears, doesn’t sound exactly like pure death metal, but calling it just a proto-death metal album on the par with Possessed, Kreator, Sepultura and similar names would be extremely reductive. I’d almost define it as the final bridge between proto-death metal (consisting in all those extreme thrash bands of that time) and actual death metal (“Scream Bloody Gore”). This band clearly took much inspiration from horror movies, contributing a lot to influence the whole death metal imagery; the horror element, beyond the gory lyrics and the awesome zombie-like artwork, is findable also in the numerous samples from cult movies and the massive organ parts put here and there to accentuate the creepy atmosphere, in a perfect “vintage horror” fashion: it’s the case of the gloomy intro track “Season of the Dead”.

The music is far less raw and fast in comparison to that of “Ready for Death”. Most of these compositions are very complex and developed, featuring tons of various ideas, riffs and tempo changes. First of all, forget to find hyper-fast blast-beats on this record: on the contrary, there’s a strong tendency to double-bass-driven cavalcades and doomy parts, and even most of the up-tempos/blast-beats have a pretty “moderated” pace in comparison to other contemporary stuff; it’s clear that the band, at that time, was aiming for a different approach, balancing brutality and creepy atmospheres in a perfect equilibrium. Both these components are mostly dominated by the guitar parts, making this a very varied album.

Remember an important factor: the riffs, structurally speaking, have way more in common with thrash, rather than with death metal. Even “Pleasure to Kill” and “Bestial Devastation”, two supposed proto-death metal records, sound closer to death metal than this in some points. However, I still have to admit that the band places its own trademark style on these riffs, sounding different from common thrash metal (even from those thrash bands that, in those years, were considered to be pretty extreme): regardless of the speed and the techniques of the riffs, all of them possess a very dark, gloomy and morbid feeling which sounds completely unusual: the riffs of songs like “Ancient Slumber” manage to come up with some of the most horrific atmospheres ever heard until then, and on “Mental Decay” you will even find a mid-paced riff that reminds vaguely to what Schizo was doing in the same period with songs like “Psycho Terror”. However, fast parts aren’t absent: listen to the awesome sharp break of “Bleeding Torment”, the diabolical and technical riff of “Painful Discharge”, the brutal riffage of “Abomination” and “Terminal Visions”, the spine-chilling high-pitched riffs of “Mental Decay” or the wicked assault of “Beyond and Back” (where you will even find a riff that almost seems to anticipate Merciless’ riffing style).

Despite the riffs being already pretty fucking morbid, one of the main forces of the album is the use of excellent melodies and solos. Rather than opting for a dissonant style (which, however, is still present in some parts), the band decides to stick mostly to a melodic style, but also adapting it to the horror nature of the record in a creative and genial way. And so, the guitar melodies play a very important role on this record, often empowering the riffs (see the effectiveness of the solos put over some riffs of “Ancient Slumber”). Right from the first proper song, “Forbidden Pleasure”, you notice the importance of high-pitched guitar phrasings to increase the feeling of these compositions. The solos sound fucking sick throughout the whole record, whatever they have an accentuated melodic edge or not; but it’s when the songs slow down that the morbid atmosphere is perfectly expressed. The absolutely creepy intros of “Terminal Visions” and “Mental Decay”, or the incredible slow section of “Insane for Blood” (which continues in an even slower and creepier part filled with spine-chilling evil voices), are perfect examples of this formula.

A factor that brings this album definitely closer to death metal is Killjoy’s vocal performance. It’s definitely a growl, and a very personal one: it sounds absolutely sick, diabolical and inhuman, in a total different way than how Chuck Schuldiner’s or John Tardy’s growls do. Killjoy is one of those vocalists you can’t perfectly classify in a precise and definite style: suffice it to say that his vocals fit perfectly in the horror context of this record, and bring the horrific vibe coveted by the band to a higher level.

In conclusion, I’m really upset about how to collocate “Season of the Dead” in the “proto-death metal/old school death metal” spectrum. It seems to stay in the middle of the road, though being an excellent work on its own. So, we better don’t argue about the categorization and just enjoy this record for what it is: a brilliant piece of horrific late-80s extreme metal, created by a band which possessed a unique vision about horror imagery, and brought it to life in a very elegant, consistent and personal way, influencing tons of future death metal bands. However, if you’d like to hear the absolute peak of Necrophagia’s fascination with gloomy horror atmospheres, you should purchase “Holocausto de la Morte”, while if you want to hear the band at its rawest, fastest and sickest performance ever, “Ready for Death” is what you need.