The clock is nearing midnight and the smoke inside Ybor's Crowbar is rolling like thick fog.
It's the night of the Brutal BBQ, a gathering of local metal bands from Tampa Bay. There is no shortage of beards, black shirts and long hair. Bands on the bill include Unkempt, Tug, Party Time, Murderous Rampage and Must ... Not ... Kill.
A mostly male contingency is down in the pit, in the middle of the floor, throwing their fists with their entire body as if possessed by something sinister. The lyrics are gory, the levels are loud and ear plugs are recommended (though not often utilized).
The bands onstage at Crowbar may not know it, but some of their death metal heroes started the genre only a few miles away.
Seattle has grunge, and the Bronx has hip-hop but Tampa lays claim to the cradle of hardcore death metal.
Iconic bands like Death, Deicide, Morbid Angel and Obituary — all of whom rank among the world's top-selling death metal bands — came out of the Tampa Bay area in the early 1980s. Cannibal Corpse moved their home base from New York to Tampa just to be part of the emerging scene. Worldwide, the style born here pushed the limits lyrically, vocally and musically, directly influencing artists like Slipknot, Marilyn Manson, Hatebreed and Korn.
If the Tampa Bay area has one signature musical legacy, this dark, devilish sound may be it.
"We basically were putting chaos into music," said founding Morbid Angel drummer Mike Browning. "We wanted to be chaotic and evil."
Recipe for death
The allure of death metal, which often references blood, gore, murder and animal sacrifice, can be difficult for outsiders to understand. Metalheads understand that their music is something of an acquired taste.
A good death metal song requires several key ingredients:
•A well-versed drummer who can execute "blast beats," fast-paced alternations from snare to bass amount to a full attack on the entire kit.
• Lyrics that are often dark, morbid and off-putting. For example, from Obituary's Infection: "Killing / Send you to your grave / Dying / Soon the one to save / Tearing, rip apart the limbs / Infection soon sets in / Peeling, rid you of your skin / Infection."
• Growling, screaming vocals designed to sound as brutal, heavy and insane as possible. "It sounds like a demonic, growling voice coming out of something possessed in a horror movie," said Cannibal Corpse bassist Alex Webster. (Whatever you do, don't call it "Cookie Monster singing." No one in the metal community likes that.)
By the late 1970s, a fast, aggressive type of metal, dubbed thrash, was being played in Scandanavia and in California's Bay Area. In Tampa, something darker was brewing.
Origins of a scene
It was the summer of 1982 when Nasty Savage booked their first show on piece of property on Harney and Williams Road in Brandon.
Ben Meyer, the band's guitarist, said they only printed about 50 fliers and charged $1 to get it in. Bring your own bottle, of course.
"We stirred up quite a bit of interest in that show, and we made 400 bucks," Meyer said. "It was all word of mouth."
In their shows, Nasty Savage started covering songs by Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Venom. But when they added a second guitarist, Dave Austin, their sound began to change.
"We started developing intricate and unusual time changes, signature riffs and using diminished scales," Meyer said. "We tried to make it so that each guitar was doing some different."
Then there was frontman Ronnie Galletti. Meyer says he wasn't the best singer, but his stage performances became legendary. He'd smash television sets onstage, ending shows covered in blood.
Nasty Savage paid for a recorded demo in early 1983, then they started sending tapes all over the world. Meyer recalls Galletti recording pretend interviews on cassette, doing a different one for each magazine.
"Next thing you know, we are in magazines all over the world," Meyer said. "That tape created a huge buzz."
Metal Blade, a fledgling independent label out of Los Angeles, took notice and signed the band. The label — which at the time was also working with a couple of young California bands called Metallica and Slayer — released three Nasty Savage albums that sold an estimated 100,000 copies.
"Those albums had heavy production, and we were like, 'We should try that,'" said Tom Morris of Tampa's Morrisound Studios, which recorded Nasty Savage's first three albums. "We started getting metal bands from around the country after that."
The music grows
For young Tampa musicians that congregated at Nasty Savage shows, the band's success was a huge deal.
Among them were a group of kids who called themselves Death. The Tampa band, which formed in 1983 as Mantas, took Nasty Savage's sound and made it deeper and more sinister. Singer Chuck Schuldiner is often referred to as the "father of death metal" by those in the metal community. A Death demo called Death by Metal is held up as a signature recording of the Tampa scene.
"Death was influencing the Tampa death metal scene with these killer demo tapes that Chuck was making — always faster, heavier and darker," said Brandon native Terry Butler, who was playing in a band called Massacre when Schuldiner asked him to join Death. (Schuldiner died in 2001.)
Death started gigging with Nasty Savage in 1985 at Ruby's, a bar on Fowler Avenue, then a club on Fletcher called the Sunset Club. Hand-drawn fliers and homemade demos began to circulate for artists like Death and younger groups like Deicide and Morbid Angel. Fans traded demo tapes with fans overseas.
By the end of the decade, the 200-capacity Sunset Club was regularly selling out on metal nights. "It was such fertile ground for extreme music," said drummer Steve Asheim of Deicide, which formed in 1987.
Death metal's sometimes satanic image is as important as its sound. Deicide, which signed with pioneering metal label Roadrunner Records, was abrasive about denying Christianity through its music. Frontman Glen Benton often claimed theistic Satanism in interviews, and burned an upside-down cross into his forehead. At a 1992 gig in Sweden, a bomb was set off at a show, causing chaos in the crowd of 1,200.
Pushing the religious right's buttons alongside Deicide was Morbid Angel. Guitarist Trey Azagthoth has a fascination with the Necronomicon, a fictional book often affiliated with the dark arts, and fans claimed Morbid Angel often participated in ritual animal slaughter as part of satanic worship.
"A lot of it is an image," said Death's Butler. "It's kinda sexy to play death metal, in black, with paint on your face, with flames onstage."
The message apparently worked; in 1993, Morbid Angel created one of the best-selling death metal albums of all time, Covenant, which sold 125,000 copies in the United States alone. Singer John Tardy of Obituary, which formed in Brandon in the mid- to late-'80s, credits Death, Morbid Angel and Nasty Savage for spurring his interest in the genre.
"They really got me into it, got our band started," he said. "They made us want to be as heavy as we possibly could."
That deadly sound
"We were both blown away when the scene exploded like it did," said Tom Morris of Morrisound Studios.
Along with his brother Jim and engineer Scott Burns, Morris took on the task of learning to record death metal demos, because, at the time, few studios fully understood how to record such loud and aggressive music.
"Neither one of us were really familiar with death metal, to tell the truth," Tom Morris said. "It was a unique sound at the time that these bands were creating. It was fast everything and loud everything ,which is different from a pop record where everything has its own place. In a fast thrash, blast beat, there is no space, notes are everywhere. It was and still is a challenge."
For the Buffalo, N.Y.-based Cannibal Corpse, the value of production quality and a thriving metal scene prompted a move to Tampa in 1990, four years after their first album Eaten Back To Life. "Morrisound was the first studio in the United States — well, the world, really — that had a handle on what to do," said Alex Webster, bassist for Cannibal Corpse.
Today, Cannibal Corpse is the top-selling death metal band of all time, according to Nielsen SoundScan. They appeared recently on this summer's Rockstar Energy Mayhem Festival tour alongside Slayer and Marilyn Manson, and are coming to the State Theatre on Nov. 15 with Hatebreed.
Not every band has enjoyed such longevity.
Death dies ... and lives again
The scene stayed strong until the '90s, when the rise of grunge, coupled with a splintering of death metal into various subgenres, led to the music going back underground. Some shows still draw crowds, but few, if any, are considered must-see.
"It's a different kind of music now," said Death's Butler. "Its not as good as it was; nothing will ever be. But I am a lifer. I've been doing it since 1985, since I was 17. It's in my soul and in my blood."
Deicide's Steve Asheim — who boasts that he's the only band member not battling premature balding — says his band is as brutal as ever. A little over a month ago, Asheim says the band played a short tour in Mexico to crowds of thousands.
"Everything is one obstacle at a time, but death metal has to keep us going because it's worth our while," he said. "I mean what else are we going to do, get jobs? Where am I going to get a job? I've been drumming and touring in a death metal band for 20 years. So we keep fighting."
James Murphy's experience has come full circle. After recording only one album as Death's guitarist, Murphy is working with up-and-coming Tampa bands like the Absence. He mastered their demos at Morrisound, and the band signed with Metal Blade Records in 2005.
"He even came to band practice to give us notes," said the Absence's singer, Jamie Stewart. "It was like, Oh my God, that's James Murphy."
On the phone from Santa Monica, Calif. — where Obituary was about to play for 800 hardcore fans — John Tardy says he, too, sees an appreciation for Tampa's old-school metal bands in his younger fans.
"It's not a whole lot different than it used to be," says Tardy. "No doubt about it, they all used to be younger kids about our age. You see guys that are our age now, but they have their sons with them. Which is kinda cool."