This story was originally published in January 2009.
"There's a lot of motherfuckers in this world walking around with teeth missing because of me," says Deicide frontman Glen Benton, who was known for playing shows back in the late '80s while wearing homemade armor covered in spikes. "If you came up on the stage, I'd be the first one kicking the shit out of you. I had a three-second rule: You turn around, you jump back off, otherwise your ass is mine. With all the armor, spikes, and nails, I was a human meatgrinder."
Human meatgrinder wouldn't be a bad description of Benton's band itself, not to mention the other similarly punishing groups that emerged from the Florida death-metal scene of the late '80s. Relentlessly aggressive and armed with concussive blast beats, bone-scraping guitars, and demonic grunts, the music was a destructive musical force that could not be contained. The genre's lyrics were no less savage, conjuring violent and/or sacrilegious imagery that would offend just about any right-standing member of society. But as the ultimate outsiders' music, death metal united legions of otherwise misanthropic headbangers, many of whom were more than willing to risk life and limb—Benton's spiked armor was only one of the many perils—for their adopted brotherhood.
Death metal had its roots in not-so-extreme influences such as Slayer and Metallica, and in faster, more severe thrash acts like Dark Angel and Possessed (who actually recorded a 1984 demo called Death Metal). These bands inspired Mantas, a group fronted by a man who would become a death-metal legend, Chuck Schuldiner. After releasing the widely traded 1993 demo Death By Metal, Mantas changed their name to Death, and the band became the leaders of the nascent scene. Other influential death-metal acts soon surfaced, including Xecutioner (later Obituary) and Morbid Angel. From there, death metal spread. There were satanic and anti-Christian marauders (Deicide, Nocturnus), gore-worshipping sickos (New York transplants Cannibal Corpse, Six Feet Under), mortality-obsessed deviants (Malevolent Creation), and esoteric spiritualists (Cynic, Atheist).
By the early '90s, there were concerts every week all across the city of Tampa Bay (Florida death metal's ground zero), ranging from those by virtual unknowns to groups that sold 100,000 copies per record. Dozens of new bands emigrated from around the country to join the thriving community, hoping to record with producer Scott Burns, who became renowned from his work with Obituary and Sepultura. As the buzz reached overseas through tape-trading networks, tourists traveled to the Sunshine State to have their pictures taken in front of Ace's, a mom-and-pop record store where death-metal fans hung out, and Morrisound Recording Studios, the genre's recording Mecca, as though they were national monuments. Death metal even made it to Hollywood by the mid '90s, where Cannibal Corpse made a cameo in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (star Jim Carrey was a big fan).
In their heyday, Death, Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse, Obituary, and Deicide were local celebrities. But as with every musical style, new genres eventually shepherded fans away, beginning in the mid '90s. Scott Burns eventually retired, and some bands split up or went dormant. In 2001, the man who arguably single-handedly started the genre, Schuldiner, died of pneumonia at age 34 after a long battle with brain cancer. Perhaps it was due to tributes to him or shifting tides, but as the new millennium started, death metal began attracting attention again, spearheaded by young bands like the Black Dahlia Murder and Job for a Cowboy. And today, Tampa Bay isn't a bad place for a metal fan or musician to grow up. Morrisound still stands, though in a different location, and new studios such as Mana, run by Hate Eternal and ex-Morbid Angel guitarist Erik Rutan, have hosted the likes of Goatwhore and Cannibal Corpse.
To celebrate the innovation and intensity of one of metal's most influential movements—one that paved the way for grindcore, Swedish death metal, black metal, metalcore, and deathcore—Revolver tracked down many of the key players, producers, and record-label personnel to get their stories about the birth, rise, decay, and resurrection of Florida death metal.
Cast of Characters:
Trey Azagthoth (Morbid Angel)
Chris Barnes (Cannibal Corpse, Six Feet Under)
Glen Benton (Deicide)
Scott Burns (former death-metal producer)
Richard Christy (Death, current Howard Stern sidekick)
Monte Connor (A&R, Roadrunner Records)
Phil Fasciana (Malevolent Creation)
Paul Masvidal (Death, Cynic)
Tom Morris (co-founder Morrisound Studios)
James Murphy (Death, Obituary, Disincarnate, music producer)
Erik Rutan (Morbid Angel, Hate Eternal, music producer)
Kelly Shaefer (Atheist)
John Tardy (Obituary)
David Vincent (Morbid Angel)
Alex Webster (Cannibal Corpse)
DEATH IS JUST THE BEGINNING
As with thrash, which was heavily influenced by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, death metal was the spawn of a slew of European bands, including Hellhammer, Sodom, Destruction, Kreator, Venom, and early Bathory. But it was two Florida groups—Tarpon Springs' traditional metal band Savatage and Tampa thrash group Nasty Savage—that impacted the first wave of death metal most.
John Tardy (Obituary) We moved from Miami to Tampa when we were young, and the first people we came in contact with in our neighborhood were the guys in Nasty Savage and Savatage. Those were the two bands that even got us interested in playing music.
James Murphy (Death, Obituary, Disincarnate) They really got the Florida bands going because they were making records, playing clubs, and going to Europe, and they showed us, "Hey, you, too, can make a band and get signed."
Glen Benton (Deicide) [Nasty Savage's singer] Ronnie Galetti used to have all these TV sets onstage that he'd smash, and I remember putting my fist through some of them. Talk about a show, the guy used to roll around in the glass from the TVs, and one night I saw his old lady pulling broken glass out of his back after the gig and I thought, Holy shit, this is the real deal.
Murphy As great as those bands were, they were far from death metal. [Death frontman] Chuck Schuldiner was the first one who played that kind of music. He was an avid record collector and was very into obscure European bands like Demon Eyes, Sortilège, H-Bomb, Torch, Trance, and Picture, as well as the really early German stuff like Sodom, Kreator, and Destruction, and that really helped shape his sound, but he wasn't copying anything. Even in 1983 when he made the Mantas demo, he was doing something unique.
Tardy We started Xecutioner in 1984 just as something to have fun with in our garage. The stuff we were doing back then, as silly as it was, happened because of the early Nasty Savage stuff. We had no idea what we were doing, but it didn't take us long to really develop the sound that we wanted.
Alex Webster (Cannibal Corpse) Today, you go to a person's MySpace page, and bam, you can hear their music. But back then everything was word of mouth and instead of the Internet, everything was spread through, like, fifth-generation demo tapes.
David Vincent (Morbid Angel) We heard some of the other bands from tape trading, but we were more about our inner spirituality. We never saw ourselves as being a part of any scene, and I gotta tell you, some of these other bands, I don't really think that much of them.
Kelly Shaefer (Atheist) Tampa never really got the shows coming through town that New York or the West Coast got, and that created a real hunger for good music. We kind of had to create our own scene.
Paul Masvidal (Death, Cynic) Central Florida is a really hyper-conservative, religious, retirement community. So, it's a weird place to begin with, and then you have these kids with no place to go. So maybe death metal happened as a reaction to that or maybe it's just some energetic physics thing—a spirit that's in the air and kids tune into it if they have an artistic bone in their bodies.
Benton Florida is a melting pot of degenerates. I used to say we were all kidnapped by our folks and brought down and that created a camaraderie of angry kids.
Phil Fasciana (Malevolent Creation) I think the heat played a major role. It makes you fucking crazy, man. And between all the old people, tourists, and the fucking drunks, no wonder everyone wanted to make really extreme music.
Vincent The letters of rejection that we got from various labels from our first few demos were amazing. One label went so far as to write us a letter back saying that we do for music what King Herod did for babysitting.
Trey Azagthoth (Morbid Angel) We knew we had to tour to spread the word, so we gutted out a school bus and made a cargo area in the back and put in heating in front. It didn't have any air conditioning. We didn't have any money, so a lot of times we could only buy either food or gas. We slept in the bus in the heat, and I remember looking at it almost as thought we were a Special Forces unit going into enemy territory. It definitely wasn't easy but we knew nothing was going to get in our way.
Richard Christy (Death) Around the country, not a lot of people knew about death metal, so some promoters would book death-metal bands opening up for popular nationwide acts. When I was in Public Assassin we got booked to open for Molly Hatchet in Springfield, Missouri. We went up to do a soundcheck and the club owner goes, "I'll pay you guys $100 not to play." We were like, "Screw that, we're gonna open for Molly Hatchet."
Murphy One of the first bands I heard about getting signed was Morbid Angel, but it was not [for their first album] Altars of Madness, it was Abomination of Desolation with their old singer Dave Browning [which the band chose not to release because they didn't feel it represented them; Earache records later issued it in 1991]. We were totally amazed. Death was already signed, but Chuck had gone to San Francisco. I had thought he had to leave here to get signed.
Tom Morris (co-founder Morrisound Studios) Obituary was the first death-metal band that came to us at our studio, Morrisound, and that's when they were kids in high school going by the name Xecutioner. They cut a demo in a little 8-track studio we have and that's what got them signed. But when John and Donald [Tardy] first came in, I almost told them just to go home. I had never heard death-metal prior to that and I thought they were just wasting their time and money. But they were pretty insistent and went ahead and finished it and, obviously, they proved me wrong.
Tardy At the time, I really wasn't interested in writing lyrics. I just liked making sounds that went along with the music. So, the low growling thing really wasn't planned, it just happened. There were so many vocal parts on [our first album, 1989's] Slowly We Rot that just went from a couple of real words to a jumbled mess of screams and growls that I couldn't have written out if I wanted to.
Morris My brother and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to record heavy drums. For death metal, you gotta have a drum kit that can cut through a wall of guitars. So it was important to have good acoustic space and solid engineering technique. For a while there, we were doing wall-to-wall death-metal sessions.
Scott Burns (former death-metal producer) Tom and Jim hired me as an assistant engineer and I got to know the Obituary guys and started doing some live sound for them. So when [their producer] Rick Miller was in an accident, I finished up their record. Then, somewhere around the end of 1989, Roadrunner needed someone to do Sepultura's Beneath the Remains. They tried to get some big producer, but nobody knew who Sepultura was and nobody gave a shit about death metal. Plus, it was over Christmas in Brazil. So, the label asked me and I went over there and did it and the rest is history.
Benton Everybody wanted to record with Scott. He's the George Martin of fuckin' death metal. He was good at getting the right sounds and he was also dealing with a lot of record labels, so he helped get a lot of bands signed.
Azagthoth We did Altars of Madness in Morrisound [With Tom Morris], but the record was all about the elements and the timing. It had nothing to do with me writing the music in Florida or working at Morrisound. We could have been living anywhere and recorded at any studio.
Fasciana Bands like Atheist, Morbid Angel and Obituary were all coming out with their first albums and all the bands just worked together to create a scene. There was no competition back then, it was just cool to be playing with bands that were thinking along the same lines as us and wanted to play as fast as possible.
Masvidal I guess Atheist and Cynic were the prog bands in the scene. We were the nerdier kids and we had been into all kinds of music since we were really young. In late high school and early college, I was really getting into jazz and fusion, and inevitably this came out in the work. But everyone seemed pretty supportive in the early days. It wasn't until bands entered the world market that things got funky.
Murphy To be honest, my memory of the early Tampa scene was it was very divisive and competitive. No one knew that literally every one of their bands was going to get signed. There was an overall feeling that there were just so many deals to be had.
Shaefer Chuck Schuldiner was a really competitive guy who was very protective of anybody being trendy. And one of the main reasons Atheist ended up being such a strange band was we were trying so hard not to sound like anybody else that we went way overboard. We were outsiders within an outsider's scene so we made it doubly hard for ourselves.
Webster It was more competitive in Florida than in Buffalo, which is where we were originally from. But I don't know if it was a completely negative thing because sometimes that competitive spirit helps bands better themselves. Everyone wants to be the fastest and the heaviest, and that kept the scene moving forward in a faster, heavier direction.
Azagthoth To make it fun and exciting, we kind of looked at it like wrestling. You know how in wrestling you've got these big guys and it's all competition and they've got something to say about this or that guy, but it's all in fun? The idea was to write songs that blew everybody else away and pull off the most wicked, fucking beats. But it was only in fun, and it was a motivational tool.
CARNAGE IN THE TEMPLE OF THE DAMNED
For some, Florida death metal was a creative outlet with virtually no limitations, including as a vehicle for their sociopathic or sacrilegious beliefs. Morbid Angel and Deicide wore their upside-down crosses on their sleeves (Deicide frontman Glen Benton actually branded his into his forehead). And while the members of the former band were infamous for immolating themselves, Benton used metal as an excuse to justify outwardly-directed violence, as did many other death-metal musicians and fans, turning mosh pits into orgies of human and animal blood and body parts. Not surprisingly, the law felt compelled to intercede.
Shaefer I remember walking backstage in the early days and seeing the guys from Morbid Angel sitting around a chalice, cutting themselves and bleeding into the cup. I thought, That's fuckin' nuts. We played crazy music, but we didn't roll like that.
Vincent We do various things to prepare to go into battle, and it involves some meditation and other practices that we feel like expressing from time to time. We've always been a very spiritual band, and we remain that way.
Azagthoth It was a period of time for tearing down. For me, that's the only thing that satanism is, and what it's useful for—to break down the dilapidated paradigms that we're conditioned with. Many of us are raised in America as Christians with all the rules and belief systems that draw from such principles. Some of that [ritualistic] stuff is part of my personal life and development.
Benton I think I put a little bit more into it than [Morbid Angel]. They used to slice themselves up and shit, but so do teenage little girls. I've got a cross branded in my forehead. I'm pierced on every part of my body and tattooed all over. Yeah, I was into the whole pain thing, but to sit there and slice myself up? I just wasn't interested in that shit.
Vincent I don't feel that there was any competition between us and Deicide. But if they look at it in a competition way, and it fuels them and makes them stronger, that's probably healthy for them.
Benton I didn't really see them as competition. I just saw it as someone who was shit-talking who was gonna get pounded. But after a confrontation at an airport, that came to an end. We got on a plane with them and I went, "Hey man, what the fuck is this shit about?" And there was an about-face. "Oh, we didn't say that, man." But we have some mutual friends and shit, so we know what was said. And it was like, "OK, you know what, if you want to take it to the next level, we're ready." We made peace after that and realized we were all on the same team.
Webster We saw that a lot of bands in Florida seemed to have more of a darker, anti-religion thing going on, so we decided to do the gore thing with the art and lyrics.
Chris Barnes (Cannibal Corpse, Six Feet Under) I really wasn't doing it to shock people. I just thought it was exciting and interesting and it went along with what I gained from listening to the music. When those guys wrote, it presented such a violent image to me, I felt like I had to match it with the lyrics. And I was able to pull from my imagination some sick qualities of mankind and put it down to paper. For example, "Entrails Ripped From a Virgin's Cunt" was based on a true story my friend told me and I just kind of twisted the story and filled in the blanks.
Fasciana Our lyrics have always been about death. That was our thing. When you have music that heavy, the lyrics have to be heavy, too. And the lyrics that were the most off-the-wall and over-the-top—that was the shit to check out.
Barnes It actually almost got me killed at gunpoint in 1994 before a show in East L.A. Some gang members came on the bus and told me they didn't like my lyrics. One of them had just got out of San Quentin, and he had a .38 stuffed into his belt lining. He said, "We're gonna kill you if you keep writing about this stuff." I just tried to talk to him calmly and say, "Hey, I respect your opinion," but it was pretty scary. Luckily, we had a really good tour manager, who somehow got those guys off the bus.
Benton There was a lot of violence, and I had a good time with it. I was into the whole making of the armor thing. One night I made this armband with .308 Spitzer head [bullets] on it, and went through the crowd sticking that thing into people's backs. At the end of the night there were just a bunch of screws sticking out of the thing where all the bullet heads fell off the armbands. And there were all these people walking around with big blood spike marks on their backs. You could get away with a lot more shit back then. Now, a kid comes home from a show and he's all fucked up and mom and dad call the cops and the club gets closed down. The metal scene kind of got pussified over the years.
Shaefer I saw someone get their eye poked out of the socket. The eyeball wasn't hanging out, it was pushed out to the side and the guy stayed in the pit with that fucked-up eye. I saw another guy get his ear half ripped off from the top. The whole top of it was flopping down from his head. That's when I was like, Shit, I'll never get back into the pit.
Benton Back then I really liked filling mannequins up with raw meat. I packed one teenage mannequin full of $60 worth of chitlins and beef livers and brought it onstage. And this wasn't fresh meat. I left that shit outside in the sun to rot. A few of my friends attacked it while we were playing. Next thing you know, there was a slaughterfest of meat going everywhere. One girl started screaming, "You're killing him!" She thought it was actually a person. The next day, the sheriff's department was in there taking samples and checking to see if they were human remains. Another time at the Ritz Theater in Tampa, I had three five-gallon buckets full of rotten pig guts and they had the most ungodly stench, like raw sewage. I iced them all down before the gig and I remember dumping them on this one kid, and he just collapsed from being so hot. After that, the health department started sending people to my shows so I had to tone that shit down.
Azagthoth On one of our school bus tours, we got pulled over in New Jersey and thrown in jail because they didn't like our appearance and they found guns, a human skull, and occult stuff on the bus. I think they were wondering if we had killed this person and were carrying around his skull.
Fasciana We've been cursed with Johnny Law since before the band even fuckin' started. In 1999, we got pulled over at 8 a.m. by six cop cars in Little Rock, Arkansas. They searched the bus and found three ounces of weed, and we went to jail for four days. They charged us with drug trafficking and took all our merch money, saying it was drug money. Our bail was 12 grand and we couldn't pay it.
BLESSED ARE THE SICK
By the early '90s, Florida death metal was threatening to infiltrate the mainstream. Morbid Angel released 1993's Covenant via major label Giant and their music videos, as well as those by other death-metal heavyweights, were winning regular play on MTV's Headbangers Ball and Beavis and Butt-head. With the media excited by their scandalous subject matter and violent exploits, the Florida bands' reach extended far outside of their home state and even their home country.
But while the groups were riding high, they were exactly living the sex-and-drugs rock-star dream. Death metal didn't draw in many female fans, and the dudes who were into it weren't usually ladykillers. As for drugs, when it came to drinking and smoking weed, death-metal musicians could hold their own, but there wasn't much abuse of the hard shit, which might partially explain why the only real death-metal casualties came from disease (Schuldiner, in 2001) or accident (Atheist bassist Roger Patterson passed away when the band's van flipped in 1991).
Monte Connor (A&R, Roadrunner Records) For me, death metal really peaked in 1992 when we put out Obituary's The End Complete and Deicide's Legion. You could sell between 100,000 and 125,000 records at that time.
Shaefer Obituary, Morbid Angel, and Atheist were playing Masquerade in Tampa in 1987 or 1988, and it was the first time we had all played since we got our record deals. And people were flying all the way over from Europe just to see it. We still just considered it our scene, but that was the first sign to me that it was international. And it just really grew from there.
Webster It got to the point where it entered global politics. That's something I never imagined, and I never heard [Senator] Joe Lieberman actually say these words, but he said this about us: "[Cannibal Corpse] is deplorable. They have a song about having sex with a severed head." I wish I could have heard him say that shit. I'd love that sound bite.
Murphy I was playing in Paris with Obituary in 1991 and as we tried to walk through the crowd, people were diving for us and ripping hunks out of our clothes and hair just to get a piece of us. I just thought, This is like death-metal Beatlemania.
Fasciana In the beginning, there were girls there, but they were scarier looking than the guys. As death metal got to be a lot more popular I started noticing there'd be more girls, but they were with their boyfriends. I mean, I wouldn't want my girlfriend going to death-metal shows alone.
Barnes At one show I saw some guy fucking his girlfriend in the front row up against the barricade. I was like, Is he really doing that? So I looked again. Shit, man, yes, he is.
Christy The only death-metal groupie I remember was this real muscular woman who used to come to lots of shows, and one of my old band members banged her and he said afterwards she was throwing him around like a ragdoll. It was pretty much a sausage fest and I knew if I was at a death-metal show, I was going home with my right hand.
BACK FROM THE DEAD
Artists like Suffocation, Nile, and Hate Eternal, among others, kept death metal pumping through the late '90s. But grunge and black metal forced the music back to the grave, where it remained for much of the next decade. Then, in the early 2000s, Vincent rejoined Morbid Angel, Obituary and Cynic re-formed, and old-school death-metal bands started popping up at European festivals. Around the same time, new bands began combining elements of metalcore and hardcore with brutal death metal.
Connor After 1992, the bands started stagnating and repeating themselves and ran out of ideas. Between 1994 and 1995 the whole scene started to crash.
Fasciana It was just like any other trend. Almost every fuckin' band had someone growling behind a microphone. All kinds of record labels were poppin' up and so many albums were being released. There was a lot of shitty quality bands that were basically just copying the Florida bands. And everybody was just trying to have the goriest album covers and most satanic titles.
Murphy I can tell you exactly what happened: Seattle. I was working at a record store, and I witnessed it firsthand. Over the course of a couple years, all kinds of guys I knew from the death-metal scene came into the store wearing flannel and selling off all their death-metal CDs.
Webster The attention started shifting to a lot of the black metal that was coming out of Norway, and by the late '90s, you didn't hear about anybody local getting signed. A lot of the bands that got big down here were still the ones that came out 20 years ago.
Erik Rutan (Morbid Angel, Hate Eternal) When I started Hate Eternal I had labels telling me there was no market for extreme death metal anymore and that this would never sell. We were trying to bring the music to a new level of extremity and a lot of that was out of frustration and rage of hearing, "Oh, death metal's dead." I just thought that was a bunch of bullshit. You don't kill a whole genre of music if it's good. But I knew death metal would come around.
Benton I think kids got tired of this fuckin' emo-metal bullshit. They wanted something a lot heavier, so they've made hybrids that incorporate death metal. They've learned their lessons from what we did 15 years ago from their uncles or parents and they want to capture that brutality.
Masvidal Bands like Killswitch Engage and Meshuggah came out saying, "Yeah, we like Cynic," and that spoke volumes to numerous kids who started researching the older bands like us.
Fasciana People are realizing that the heaviest music was definitely when death metal started. And today there are kids picking up instruments who really want to be good musicians, and death metal requires good musicianship. Kids are finally learning how to play goddamn fucking solos again.
Vincent We just got back from Europe and it's as strong as ever. I can hear people have found some elements of what we've done useful and they've amalgamated it into what they're doing, and now they've done really well for themselves. I take that as a compliment.
Murphy I'm just concerned right now about the power of [the internet]. Music can't be solely propagated upon what a socially networking site can offer. Also, there's a lot of value placed on image. I do a lot of production work, and some of the labels I work for will flat-out say, "Well, what do they look like? Are any of them over 25 or overweight?" That's worrying. But then I sit back and think, Man, a lot of new bands are adding to what we did 20 years ago, and that's awesome.