Possessed’s “Seven Churches”: The Birth of Death Metal

Before Death or Morbid Angel, there was Possessed. Their 1985 album “Seven Churches” cemented their status as death metal pioneers, influencing generations of artists with its musical aggression and confrontational lyrics.

Possessed- Seven Churches [[Full Album]]
Key Takeaways
  • Possessed’s 1985 album “Seven Churches” is widely considered the foundation of death metal, featuring raw production, relentless speed, guttural vocals, and blasphemous themes.
  • Their sound deliberately rejected the polished style of thrash metal, embracing distortion, chromatic riffs, and faster drum beats to create a uniquely dark and dissonant atmosphere.
  • “Seven Churches” inspired key figures in the death metal scene (like Death, Morbid Angel, Obituary), paving the way for the genre’s evolution.

The Birth of Death Metal

Death metal is a dark and intense subgenre of heavy metal that emerged in the mid-1980s. And within this world stands a single album that many cite as the true foundation of death metal: Possessed’s “Seven Churches,” released in 1985. This album stands as a significant turning point in the history of heavy music.

While pioneering acts like Venom and Celtic Frost had flirted with darker imagery and heavier sonic elements, Possessed’s debut arrived with an unmatched brutality. From its raw, unpolished production to its relentless speed and blasphemous themes, “Seven Churches” forged a new path for metal music.

Possessed’s sound was a deliberate rejection of polished metal. Their raw, distorted energy became the blueprint for the sonic aggression of death metal.

The production style of the album was intentionally rough. This contrasted sharply with the clean, polished sound of thrash metal at the time. Possessed embraced a DIY attitude that seethed with distortion and a primal, unrefined power. Deliberately rejecting the polished sheen of commercial metal, they laid the groundwork for death metal’s focus on pure sonic aggression.

Musically, the album pulsed with relentless thrashing speed that even pushed into early blast-beat territory. This drumming intensity would become a signature of the death metal style. Further deviating from standard thrash, Possessed’s heavy use of chromatic riffs and dissonant harmonies created a uniquely dark atmosphere. Unlike the often melodic thrash songwriting, these elements gave “Seven Churches” a disquieting, atonal edge—a feeling that death metal would further develop into a sonic language of unease.

Beyond Thrash, Into the Dark

While thrash metal bands like Exodus, Metallica, Slayer or Megadeth were laying foundations, “Seven Churches” possessed (no pun intended) a rawness and sonic brutality that foreshadowed the full-fledged death metal explosion. It didn’t merely amp up the aggression of thrash metal; instead, Possessed took the core elements and distorted them into something entirely new and disturbing.

Where thrash metal riffs often had a melodic base, Possessed’s riffs were deliberately less melodic. They centered on chromatic patterns and diminished intervals, creating a dissonant, unsettling feel. This departure contributed to death metal’s darker and more menacing atmosphere. Additionally, the drumming pushed past the boundaries of thrash. While still relentlessly fast, it ventured into full-on blast beat territory, emphasizing chaotic aggression over rhythmic tightness. This style would become a staple of death metal drumming.

Possessed didn’t just play faster; they played darker. Their riffs were dissonant, their drumming chaotic, and their production raw—a deliberate shift from thrash into the birth of death metal.

Unlike thrash metal, where the bass guitar typically follows the root notes of the chords, Possessed’s bass ventured beyond this traditional role. They employed a distinct, distorted tone, often playing more intricate and independent lines that weaved in and out of the guitar riffs. This approach not only added depth and low-end heaviness to the music but also created a more dynamic and unpredictable listening experience.

The production on “Seven Churches” differed significantly from the polished sound of many contemporary thrash albums. Instead of aiming for a clean and clinical sound, the album embraced a raw, almost lo-fi aesthetic. The guitars were heavily distorted with a buzzy, almost chainsaw-like quality, while the drums sounded loose and unrefined. This rough production aesthetic not only reflected the band’s DIY ethos but also contributed to the overall sense of unhinged extremity. It gave listeners a visceral sense of a band creating something raw and dangerous.

The Voice of Death Metal

Jeff Becerra’s guttural growls became a staple of death metal, pushing vocal boundaries past the thrash metal style prominent at the time. His raw, guttural vocal approach was as groundbreaking as the album’s distorted guitars and unrelenting drumming.

While thrash vocalists like Tom Araya typically relied on high-pitched screams and aggressive shouts to convey their message, Becerra delved into a much lower and more guttural register. This low-end growl, bordering on inhuman at times, was a radical departure from the established norms of thrash metal vocals. It created a sense of pure sonic aggression unlike anything heard before.

Becerra’s vocals weren’t just about brutality; they were a primal expression of anger and darkness. This set the standard for the guttural growls that became synonymous with death metal.

Becerra’s innovative approach not only pushed the boundaries of what was considered acceptable in metal at the time but also perfectly complemented the dark and often blasphemous themes explored in “Seven Churches.” The sheer brutality of his vocals helped establish a new standard for metal singing and continues to inspire countless vocalists across the death metal spectrum.

Becerra’s growls were not only brutal but incredibly expressive, conveying anger, pain, and a sense of uncontrolled fury. This raw delivery stood out from the more technically focused singing of some other metal subgenres. The focus was on visceral power over melodic precision.

Death metal luminaries like Chuck Schuldiner, John Tardy, and countless others acknowledged Becerra’s influence on their own styles. The guttural growl would become a defining element of the death metal sound, carrying the darkness and extremity of the genre’s music directly into the listener’s ears.

Lyrics From the Abyss

“Seven Churches” boldly embraced anti-Christian imagery, satanism, and horror-themed lyrics—all topics that would become central to death metal. The album’s lyrics directly attacked Christian beliefs and iconography. Songs like “Burning in Hell” and “The Exorcist” painted vivid images of demonic possession, blasphemy, and the rejection of organized religion. This open rebellion reflected a cultural shift in metal away from mere social commentary towards more shocking, confrontational imagery.

Death metal wasn’t about being polite. Possessed’s lyrics directly challenged religious authority and went dark and scary, paving the way for death metal’s love of all things macabre (gruesome and disturbing).

The album delved into themes of Satanism, witchcraft, and the supernatural. This fascination with the occult would continue to feature prominently in death metal lyrics, often with a focus on its darker aspects as a metaphor for exploring human evil. Additionally, several tracks drew inspiration from classic horror films like “The Exorcist” and explicitly referenced themes of violence, gore, and death. This embrace of horror imagery would become key to the death metal aesthetic, visually and lyrically.

The lyrical content of “Seven Churches” was intentionally crafted to be provocative and disturbing. This pushed against societal norms and contributed to the aura of danger and extremity associated with early death metal. It wasn’t merely rebellion for rebellion’s sake; it became part of establishing death metal as a sonic and thematic space where the darkest extremes could be explored.

The Seeds of a Death Metal

The impact of “Seven Churches” extended far beyond its initial underground circulation. Key figures in the burgeoning death metal scene, including members of Death, Morbid Angel, and Obituary, cite the album as a seminal influence on their musical development. The legacy of “Seven Churches” is evident not only in its groundbreaking sound but also in how it ignited the creative spark within the next generation of death metal pioneers.

Possessed didn’t just create a great album; they laid the groundwork for death metal. Their sound and themes inspired countless musicians, leading to the full blossoming of the genre.

Chuck Schuldiner, widely regarded as a godfather of death metal, frequently credited “Seven Churches” for inspiring the raw power and aggression he sought with Death. He was particularly drawn to its relentless speed and intensity, viewing it as a sonic threshold to be exceeded. Additionally, Schuldiner noted the impact of the album’s lyrical content on his songwriting. Possessed’s blasphemous themes set a precedent that Schuldiner expanded within his own work.

Trey Azagthoth, the visionary guitarist behind Morbid Angel, cites Possessed’s riffs on “Seven Churches” as a major influence on his intricate and often dissonant style, a hallmark of Morbid Angel’s sound. Azagthoth took cues from the album’s untamed energy, pushing it further into complex and disorienting musical territory.

Similarly, John Tardy of Obituary found Jeff Becerra’s guttural growls on “Seven Churches” pivotal in shaping his distinctive vocal approach. Tardy consistently mentions “Seven Churches” as one of the releases that cemented his passion for death metal and informed Obituary’s direction.

These examples highlight how “Seven Churches” served as a catalyst for the death metal explosion. Numerous musicians and bands from the earliest wave of death metal and across subsequent generations have acknowledged Possessed as a vital inspiration, influencing both their musical execution and thematic explorations.

Branching into Diverse Sounds

While “Seven Churches” helped define the death metal sound, it’s crucial to acknowledge that the development of this genre was gradual. Bands like Death, Morbid Angel, and others would further refine and expand death metal’s sonic identity in the years to follow, building upon the groundwork laid by Possessed.

Death metal didn’t stop with Possessed. Their raw power inspired bands to push further, some with more technical precision, others with darker atmospheres, and slower tempos.

Where Possessed’s emphasis was on raw power, Chuck Schuldiner and Death introduced a new level of technical precision and complexity to death metal. Their intricate riffing and virtuosic solos, particularly on later albums, pushed the genre’s musical boundaries. They were unafraid to incorporate elements of progressive music, experimenting with complex time signatures, unusual song structures, and melodic interludes. This expanded death metal’s sonic palette beyond the initial focus on pure aggression.

Morbid Angel emphasized dark, unsettling atmospheres within their music. Their use of dissonant harmonies, unconventional song structures, and eerie soundscapes created a sense of dread and unease. The band delved deep into occult and religious imagery, adding depth to death metal’s lyrical focus and creating a link between the music and esoteric symbolism.

Obituary took a different turn, pioneering a slower, groove-oriented approach to death metal. Their focus on heavy breakdowns and sludgy tempos contrasted with the relentless speed of bands like Possessed, adding another dimension to the sound of the genre.

Bands like Deicide emerged with overtly blasphemous lyrics and imagery, pushing boundaries of shock value and focusing on anti-Christian themes with unmatched intensity.

It’s important to remember that the evolution of death metal involved an entire network of bands. Many underground groups contributed throughout the late 80s and early 90s. Their work further broadened the scope and definition of the genre, demonstrating the immense creative potential unleashed by the sonic and thematic explorations Possessed began with “Seven Churches.”

Twisted Opinion

Why is Possessed’s “Seven Churches” considered an important album in the history of death metal?

Well, clearly, it’s because they were really committed to spreading the good news! With song titles like “Burning in Hell” and “The Exorcist,” these guys were practically evangelists for a happy, wholesome lifestyle. And what’s more heartwarming than lyrics about Satanic rituals and demonic possession? It’s the kind of music that makes you want to bake cookies for the neighbors and volunteer at a soup kitchen. Bless their little hearts!