One of the pioneers that shaped the sound of death metal, and one of many legendary bands in that genre to come from Florida, Obituary first began in 1984 – making them one of the first death metal bands to be formed – as Executioner, releasing two demos and ending up on a compilation with the band who would later become Atheist before changing their name twice and finally releasing an album five years later. The genre had already made an impact by the end of the decade, but nothing sounded quite like the stripped down and savage Slowly We Rot.
After a dark, eerie intro, Internal Bleeding comes to (un)life in the most spectacular way possible – with a hideously guttural moan from John Tardy, whose growls were far deeper and more brutal than anything else at the time, and one of the most simple yet effective riffs in death metal, which stands out by being in standard tuning instead of one of the many lower ones that act as a trademark of the genre’s sound. One particular rumour that floats around this album is that Tardy made up a large amount of the lyrics as he was recording them…which, between the parts which are almost certainly just him growling wordless noises and the word-salad lyrics (which make sure to feature the words “rotting”, “souls” and “Hell” at least once a song, if the intelligible parts are anything to go by) is completely believable. This doesn’t take anything away from the album, however; it actually adds to the filthy, grimy feel of it along with making Tardy sound less like a living person and more like a zombie that was chained up in the studio in front of a microphone. Godly Beings ups the pace of the album massively, going from the shambling opening track to a ferocious, Slayer-inspired burst of speed before gradually slowing down to a crawl with pitch-shifted vocals, which gives the song – and album – a truly unsettling atmosphere, as though the music itself is rotting away. Most of the songs here feature slower sections like this, which up until then was a rarity in the largely thrash-influenced genre that put more focus on speed and aggression instead. ‘Til Death is one of the best examples of the constantly-changing dynamics, going from a heavy drum intro and a ridiculous verse that almost certainly features more weird mouth sounds than it does actual lyrics, to the slowest and most grinding section on the album – Allen West’s soloing cutting through the decaying riffs and drumming with more focus on adding to the atmosphere than showing off with fast runs for a change. One of the most “out there” songs, starting off by continuing the crushing and doomy sound with some of the most tortured vocals on the record and then switching to straight-up crossover thrash a minute and a half into the song, the title track Slowly We Rot is arguably the best highlight on an album stacked from start to finish with them and features the best songwriting too – the transition from the screaming, squealing guitar solo to the faster hardcore punk-inspired half of the song is almost guaranteed to start a mosh pit anywhere it’s played. Immortal Visions is a blast of furious energy, putting the focus on the drums for the most part as it lashes back and forth between a frantic intro and odd riffs throughout the song.
Despite the dark atmosphere and brutal vocals Slowly We Rot has a strange sense of fun running through it – during the faster moments and the more complicated ones the band sounds as though they’re playing for their own amusement rather than trying to sound evil, Tardy’s growls constantly walking the line between disturbing and deliberately overdone until the pace slows down again. Opening with a riff later (mostly) lifted by Entombed for a song on the equally classic Left Hand Path, Gates of Hell is a short and sharp burst of aggression that distinguishes itself with some of Tardy’s most passionate vocals, going from his usual guttural grunts to a strangled shriek that sounds genuinely pained. Although it’s so consistently good the album does have filler moments; some songs don’t stand out as much as others due to how it’s laid out, and it works best listened to as one whole piece instead of picking individual songs out – with the exception of the best tracks. The second half of the album is far from filler though, with Suffocation almost achieving catchiness (the opening “rotting, beneath, beLOWWWW” verse is hard to dislike) along with wildly shredding but still somewhat melodic guitar solos, and Intoxicated – by and far the longest song on the album at 4:41, when most of the songs don’t even break three minutes – which is largely a long instrumental jam that allows the band to show off and play around with riffs without ever losing the simplistic, infectious energy they’ve built up, or turning it into a self-indulgent workout. Deadly Intentions, by contrast, barely reaches two minutes long and drags things straight back down into the gutter, framing itself around one of the best solos on the album with a murky and slower pace; almost like the musical equivalent of the album cover. The final two tracks feel as though the album is slowly winding down, going from the atmospheric and drum fill-heavy Bloodsoaked to the bizarrely named and grinding Stinkupuss before ending with another rarity in death metal (both at the time and to this day) – a long fade-out.
At times both crushingly brutal and relentlessly energetic, Obituary’s debut is just as potent as it was back in ’89 – and despite modern death metal mostly going for speed and heaviness and losing the punk and thrash influences, its impact can still be felt in the increasingly low growls used in the genre along with being a perfect introduction to extreme metal as a whole.
Genre… death metal
Best tracks… Internal Bleeding, ‘Til Death, Slowly We Rot, Suffocation, Intoxicated, Deadly Intentions