Tales from the Jugular

NWOAHM - New Frontier Or Well Worn Path?

By: Eric Compton
Published: Wednesday, September 15, 2004
NWOAHM - New Frontier Or Well Worn Path?

Okay, everyone and their mother are throwing around this thing called New Wave Of American Heavy Metal. You know the formula. Take some melodic, old school metal tradition and mix in elements of the extreme. Take for instance a band like Killswitch Engage. You have a decent amount of melody with plenty of twin guitar zing-zang-wang or whatever the hell you call that thing. The twin guitar melody of say a Maiden or Priest mixed with the stomp riffing of Pantera and other notable hardcore metal bands. The frontman throws lines at you in the direction of cookie monster mumbo jumbo, but stops along the way to visit the calm, friendly confines of cleanvoice suburbia. In the firestorm of it all sits a nice dose of listenable metal, a decent heavy metal experience that at times is very hard to dismiss as a fly-by-night trend. This stuff could really go either way for a lot of folks, but nevertheless, there are enough bands playing this genre now that they have started to dominate American movie soundtracks, compilations, MTV, radio, and mainstream magazines.

So what do kids today think? Well it's obvious that they feel their generation is the innovators of this styling. They feel that their brand of metal entertainment revolves solely around this so called New Wave Of American Heavy Metal, incorporating MTV friendly bands like Shadows Fall, Killswitch Engage, Lamb Of God, and God Forbid into the fold as genre founders and leading pioneers in this new world of heavy music. Is that really the case? Well yes and no, depending on who you ask. I for one would state that those bands are indeed pioneers to an extent simply because that particular style of music hasn't been established in the United States until now. Europe has been doing this sort of thing for years, which is one of the reasons I'm writing this article to begin with. The point needs to be hammered home that Sweden can really lay claim to the throne of innovator and creator of this melodic death metal style, appropriately titled the "Gothenburg" sound, simply because the Swedish death acts in and around that area established this styling, they took elements of death from the US and made it their own.

The US and its host of teenyboppers continue to refer to this sort of music as something completely new and revolutionary. Again I preach that it is indeed a triumph that this type of music has reached the US. A lot of these bands could be considered pioneers for US melodic death metal, but calling them the founders of this particular style is ridiculous and downright absurd. The US could be mentioned as the start of death metal, with Florida's scene really catapulting the whole thing. However let's keep in mind that this brand of melodic death metal entertainment has been around since the early 90s in Europe, and dare I say that it has started to slow down over there, to be replaced with keyboard friendly pop metal that will soon rear it's ugly head here given five more years. But on to the subject at hand, let's delve into the heart of the melodic death metal scene of Europe circa the 1990s. Let's take a look at things then, and trace the roots of this so-called American creation back a decade. I'm going to spotlight important albums of the 90s that helped shape and define the current metal establishment we have here in the US, while at the same time looking at each individual year as a progressive step towards the goal of melodic death metal reaching global ramifications.

Pre 1990

I won't go into a lot of depth here. Obviously American death metal influenced the Swedish death scene, with US bands like Death, Obituary, Morbid Angel, Doctor Shrinker, etc. playing a huge role in establishing good death acts in Sweden (Fleshcrawl, Hypocrisy), and then eventually worldwide. You had basic fundamentals established that carried over from the traditional thrashers and bashers of the coasts. Slayer, Metallica, Anthrax and so forth helped to formulate a basic game plan of chaotic music, and the Floridians in particular took this game plan and tweaked it a bit to help their cause. They formed a basic, extreme sound based off of elements ranging from speedy punk to heavy thrash. The main ingredient here was chaos, plain and simple. Horror filled themes running amok among speedy, less organized riffing, all shrouded nicely under the moniker of death metal, screaming bloody gore all the way to the gallows. This was death metal, minus the melodic parts. Who was watching on, thinking of ways to alter the sound and make it catchier? Who was looking in from the keyhole of this particular metal gateway? The Europeans, mainly the Swedish, who took the main ingredients they liked from the genre and added in their own spices to make a hefty impact back home.


Entombed - Left Hand Path

This really wouldn't be regarded as melodic death metal, but I list them as an important album simply because they took American death metal and carried it back to Europe. Entombed were never a melodic band, made mostly from blues riffs, distorted and played louder than anyone else at that time. They are certainly one of the leading pioneers of Swedish death metal, but aren't really considered a pioneer of the Gothenburg sound. Credit them for bringing the extreme sound to Europe, and establishing a solid foundation from which other bands could build.


Dismember - Like An Ever Flowing Stream
Unleashed - Where No Life Dwells
Grave - Into The Grave

Here you are starting to see other Swedish bands picking up the death metal torch. Unleashed and Entombed were originally in the band Nihilist together before branching off into separate outfits. Again, none of these bands can really be called melodic death metal, but they did help establish Sweden as a more extreme metal nation, conquering regions of Europe where death metal really wasn't played or heard. This helped solidify the foundation that Entombed built a year earlier.


Entombed - Clandestine
Unleashed - Shadows In The Deep
Grave - You'll Never See
Hypocrisy - Penetralia
Amorphis - The Karelian Isthmus

Pretty much more of the same happening this year, with Unleashed, Grave, and Entombed proving to the world they were more than one hit wonders. They proved without a shadow of a doubt that death metal could be established on two continents. You see Hypocrisy and Amorphis venturing onto the scene, with Hypocrisy main man Peter Tagtgren admitting that he was inspired by the Floridian death metal camp, in particular Malevolent Creation. "The Karelian Isthmus" was the debut for Amorphis, who were deeply mired in death metal at this point in their career.


Carcass - Heartwork
Dark Tranquility - Skydancer
Ceremonial Oath - The Book Of Truth
Edge Of Sanity - The Spectral Sorrows
Dismember - Indecent & Obscene

After three years of death metal, you now start to see other influences come into play. England's Carcass were playing gore grind for a number of years, and then released the blockbuster "Heartwork", which showcased death metal dripping with melody. Gone were the standard death metal riffing, replaced with a more sincere approach at songwriting for hooks and catchiness. This really started the push in my opinion, combined with the sounds of Dark Tranquility. With "Skydancer", Dark Tranquility unveiled a whole new creation, forged from their hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden; many would consider this album the start of melodic death metal. The band bred a new monster, equipped with heavy twin guitar harmony and brutal death riffage. The first lineup of the band included Anders Friden, who would go on to form another founding Gothenburg act with In Flames. Ceremonial Oath were doing something a little different at the time as well, with Jesper Stromblad (In Flames, Dimension Zero) and Oscar Dronjak (Hammerfall) combining on guitar to form a melodic black metal act. Edge Of Sanity went a little more melodic on their third album, with Dismember performing rich melody on "Dreaming In Red", taken from the "Indecent & Obscene" record.


At The Gates - Terminal Spirit Disease
In Flames - Lunar Strain
Eucharist - A Velvet Creation
Edge Of Sanity - Purgatory Afterglow
Grave - Soulless
Hypocrisy - The Fourth Dimension

The gates are starting to open wider by this point. At The Gates started to go more dynamic, incorporating traditional NWOBHM melody to their sound, while In Flames released their debut, "Lunar Strain", on WAR Records. With the debut from In Flames, the band would kick start a career that would see the group release six more albums, and visit the US countless times introducing their brand of extreme metal to the Americans. At this point "Gothenburg" metal starts to become a genre name. You also see Eucharist join the fold, along with the first melodic album from Hypocrisy, who would stay away from the Gothenburg sound and stay in their own netherworld, one that really seems doomier than the other Swedish acts.


At The Gates - Slaughter Of The Soul
Dark Tranquility - The Gallery
Ceremonial Oath - Carpet

A lot of fans would state that At The Gates' "Slaughter Of The Soul" is the very first "Gothenburg" death metal album, but you can clearly see that two years earlier Dark Tranquility took that nameplate. Nevertheless, At The Gates helped establish the melodic death scene, and at this point DT chose to release their sophomore effort, another classic album of melody and harmony. Ceremonial Oath released their last album, and Jesper Stromblad chose to concentrate all efforts on the In Flames machine, thus separating himself from Ceremonial Oath, with Dronjak leaving to form Hammerfall.


In Flames - Jester Race
Carcass - Swansong
Arch Enemy - Black Earth
Sacrilege - Lost In The Beauty You Slay
Quo Vadis - Forever

Things are really starting to heat up now, with a whole slew of new contenders warming up in the bullpen. In Flames release their first commercial success, the brilliant "Jester Race" through Nuclear Blast, their first for that label. The Amott Brothers unleash the beast Arch Enemy, and their massive debut "Black Earth". Carcass screams back with another bashfest, a monster of epic proportions in "Swan Song". Sacrilege releases their debut in '96, a Dark Tranquility/In Flames inspired record called "Lost In The Beauty You Slay". Canada gets on board as well with Quo Vadis. Melodic death metal is the most talked about genre of metal right now.


In Flames - Whoracle
Dark Tranquility - The Mind's I
Armageddon - Crossing The Rubicon
Gardenian - Two Feet Stand
Dimension Zero - Penetrations From The Lost World
Eucharist - Mirrorworlds
Children Of Bodom - Something Wild
Sacrilege - The Fifth Season

You could say by this point the genre has reached an all time high. In Flames go slightly experimental with "Whoracle", but still keep the same ingredients that brought them this far. Dark Tranquility keep the faith, not really mixing it up like In Flames, but would later retool their sound and become the first band to go progressive. Arch Enemy guitarist Chris Amott unveils another Swedish melodic death metal classic via a side band called Armageddon. Gardenian step it up a notch, playing a brand of Arch Enemy crossed with In Flames. Jesper Stromblad has his own side project entitled Dimension Zero, and launches their debut "Penetrations From The Lost World". Eucharist and Sacrilege continue down the same paths, while Finland's Children Of Bodom introduce a new version of melodic death metal, a keyboard friendly affair that is indeed "Something Wild".


Soilwork - Steel Bath Suicide
Arch Enemy - Stigmata
Shadows Fall - Somber Eyes To The Sky
The Haunted - ST
Carnal Forge - Who's Gonna Burn
Gandalf - Deadly Fairytales

I believe at this point the genre started to paint itself into a corner. Where do you go from here? Established acts like In Flames and Dark Tranquility were busy resketching their designs, while other bands continued on the same path. Soilwork emerged playing the same familiar style as DT, early In Flames, Arch Enemy, and Armageddon. At The Gates' Bjorler brothers released their new vehicle called The Haunted, which was really the first record to incorporate hardcore stylings. They took elements of Biohazard, Propane, Crowbar, and Pantera, and mixed it with the fine Swedish melody of At The Gates. Canada's Carnal Forge didn't really do anything new, but did manage to get the Maple Leaf to take notice of this new sound (bands like Quo Vadis). Finland's Gandalf took the Sentenced sound and crossed it with the Gothenburg recipe, creating something a little different. The US got involved to a degree, as you saw Shadows Fall release their debut, which at this point in their career was nothing more than a few good songs.


In Flames - Colony
Dark Tranquility - Projector
Gardenian - Soul Burner
Arch Enemy - Burning Bridges
In Thy Dreams - The Gate Of Pleasure
Soilwork - The Chainheart Machine

In Flames and Dark Tranquility are considered the leading pioneers for the Gothenburg death metal sound. How appropriate for those two bands to create something completely new and different in 1999, six years from the start of it all. With "Colony", In Flames go more commercial, being one of the first bands to add a good amount of clean vocals to their songs. You can almost look at "Colony" as a more accessible piece of ear candy for Americans. While In Flames was getting catchier, Dark Tranquility was starting to stretch the boundaries more and more. With "Projector", the band's first release for Century Media, the Swedish act went gothic, emphasizing a more progressive feel, but still keeping the heavier aspect of the group's signature sound. Gardenian released a masterpiece, "Soul Burner", which also incorporated clean vocals into the songs. Arch Enemy started to streamline their songs, adding more catchy hooks and soaring leads. Soilwork pretty much kept the same vibe from their previous record, while new band In Thy Dreams emerged with their solid debut, "The Gate Of Pleasure".

So there you have it. These albums laid the groundwork for this current crop of stars. From here the scene spilled into the US. If you look at DT's "Skydancer" as the first album of this style, then this scene is eleven years old. Eleven years old! In that time the scene was created, grown, and peaked in Europe. Now that particular style is a dying art, while in the US it has just begun. With many bands taking what they have learned from the 90s European acts, and combining the hardcore elements of American groups like Pantera, Crowbar, and New York's hardcore scene, the NWOAHM becomes a more aggressive approach in my opinion. Gone are the black metal elements that intensified the Euro scene, to be replaced with screams of another kind here in America. Hardcore meets melodic death metal is basically what you have in this day and age. This is what it has become, but the basic foundation is indeed the melodic death metal style of the 90s Euro scene.

You can see how the US took things over after 1999 by glancing at this list:

Killswitch Engage-ST 2000
Shadows Fall-Of One Blood 2000
Every Time I Die-Burial Plot Wedding War 2000
Lamb Of God-New American Gospel 2000*
God Forbid-Determination 2001*
Avenged Sevenfold-Sounding The Seventh Trumpet 2001
Atreyu-Suicide Notes & Butterfly Kisses 2002
Unearth-Above The Fall Of Man 2002
Black Dahlia Murder-Unhallowed 2003
Avenged Sevenfold-Awaking The Fallen 2003
God Forbid-Gone Forever 2004
Martyr A.D-On Earth As It Is In Hell 2004
Lilitu-The Delores Lesion 2004

* Denotes First Major Release

So to recap, melodic death metal was born in 1993. For six solid years it became a growing force worldwide, but really contained itself to the European shores. With the help of those bands, the scene slowly spilled into the US at the turn of the new millennium. In Flames and Arch Enemy have made huge strides stateside, touring with bigger bands like Slayer and Iron Maiden. This has really helped turn the tide, with many fans leaving nu-metal behind to catch a ride on the faster, more ironclad bullet train known as New Wave Of American Heavy Metal. This is a good thing I guess, with many fans really starting to discover the heavier side of metal through the headphones of these US acts. But hopefully they won't forget who brought those bands to the airwaves, who worked hard for six years to get this type of music accepted globally. The US can claim their own piece of the pie, but hopefully they will stop and thank the baker.

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