In the Pocket

Death-metal pioneers Obituary are content to crush eardrums at mediumspeed

The name Obituary means something to even the most casual metalhead.

Way back before death metal was even called, well, death metal, teenagers in Tampa, Fla., were down-tuning guitars, stripping away melodies and fashioning heavy rhythms to create a new and fetid strain of extreme rock that had less in common with Black Sabbath and more to do with the sound of giant prehistoric alligators crashing into a boiling-hot swamp. Lyrics tended to be violent and blasphemous, while the guitarmanship retained a musical sensibility (at least during solos) despite an ever-escalating barrage of evil riffs.

That raw, sulfuric riffage is on full display on Obituary's latest album, Darkest Day, released in June by Candlelight Records. Songs like the surging "Forces Realign" possess a moss-encrusted groove and a menacing, manatee-carved-by-a-boat-propeller amp tone that only an old-school Florida death-metal band can produce. Indeed, while listening to a thunderous track like "Truth Be Told," you'll experience the sonic equivalent of being locked in the punishing grip of a bloodthirsty skunk ape (Florida's answer to Bigfoot).

Formed in 1985 under the name of Xecutioner, brothers John and Donald Tardy (vocals and drums respectively) weren't old enough to vote when they recorded their songs for the Raging Death compilation, released in 1987. In 1989, the band released a genre-setting full-length, Slowly We Rot, which stands among the most important and influential death-metal albums ever recorded. Together with Death, Deicide and Morbid Angel, Obituary founded the "Florida death metal scene," with Tampa as its epicenter.

Which leads us to an obvious question: How did a band as dark as Obituary spring from sunny Tampa Bay?

"It just happened," says Donald, waiting at Tampa International Airport for a British Airways flight to London, where he and his band were slated to connect to their destination, a festival in Portugal. "Florida was the beginning of death metal. This state just had all the greatest bands when I was a teenager—Nasty Savage, Savatage. Growing up, we got to see these bands live. Then Slayer entered the picture and really turned our gears. We and these other Florida bands you're talking about were competitive. So we had to take what we did seriously, and get as good as each other or better."

Tardy admits the phrase "death metal" came later, after his band had already settled on an approach. To him, the music he played was always just metal, but taken to its logical, inevitable conclusion. "All we did was take (death metal) to a new level," he says. "John's voice got heavier, and it went from there."

He has fond memories of Morrisound Recording in Tampa, where legendary producer Scott Burns documented noises generated by Florida's most infamous bands. Tardy recalls laying down tracks in Morrisound for Obituary's demo, financed by the Tardys' parents. As a teen, he didn't own a complete drum set and had to borrow from Burns.

Still, Obituary's last two CDs were recorded at his brother's house with Pro Tools, which means an engineering board as long as a runway is no longer necessary. "We spent a lot of money to get the computer and a lot of time on Pro Tools figuring out the program."

The results are remarkable. After an eight-year studio hiatus (1997-2005), Obituary fashioned a well-received comeback album, 2005's Frozen in Time. Darkest Day, meanwhile, hasn't earned any negative reviews of note. Is metal more accepted, or is Darkest Day simply that awesome?

"It's both," Tardy admits. "The acceptance is here, sure, as old Metallica fans open up to bands like Lamb of God. But there's something about our album we recognized immediately during the recording. Every song was natural and classic-sounding."

Critics have other descriptors, too: "Chugging. Midtempo. Groove-oriented."

"We're a band that's not afraid to stay in the pocket; it's where we're comfortable," Tardy says. "Heavy doesn't mean 100 miles an hour. We have a tempo our fans love and know to expect."

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