"I probably would have been a killer or a murderer or something," says Obituary bassist Frank Watkins. "Who knows? I had a lot of aggression when I was younger. I got in a lot of fights and stuff, but I found a way to channel that through my music." He's been channeling that aggression through his bass for the past 20 years as a part of the influential death metal band Obituary, who finish their latest tour behind the four-song EP, Left to Die, Tuesday at the Music Farm.
Obituary first made its name when its landmark 1989 debut, Slowly We Rot (which sees a re-recording of its title track on Left to Die) shook up the metal scene by blending post-Slayer speed metal with an ever-important nod to the slower, heavier sounds of European metal bands like Celtic Frost (whose "Dethroned Emperor" is covered on Left to Die). What resulted is a sound as complementary to late-'80s thrash (think Metallica) as it is to the bellowing, dirgy metal of bands like Black Sabbath. For metalheads in the early-'90s, Obituary proved to be a standard-bearer for the next generations of American death metal.
Watkins doesn't see the Floridian quintet's career as such a grand gesture, though. "Something evolved because of other bands we kind of worshipped as kids," he says, citing metal bands like Celtic Frost, Possessed, Kreator, and Slayer, but also noting the influence of hardcore punk bands like Agnostic Front, and a lyrical influence from The Misfits' gore-splattered hardcore. (The Misfits' Earth A.D. LP is a veritable thrash metal manifesto). "Our main goal is just to be heavier than those bands," he adds.
Obituary brands itself as "the heaviest band in the world."
That sacred heaviness breeds in the band's down-tuned, chugging guitars and gut-churning low-end. Double-kick bass drums batter against the stringed maelstrom, while John Tardy growls above it all. Aerobatic guitar solos — long metal's trademark — tear through the songs, but instead of soaring free must battle against the rumbling tumult, struggling as if they're fighting for their very lives. It's high-strung, desperate music. And that's precisely what makes it exciting. It's brutal, and totally unapologetic about it. While Obituary's early peers were blistering their fingers to play even faster than the almighty Slayer, Obituary was experimenting with dynamics, learning the exact way to manipulate a listener with a slow, chugging breakdown that whips itself into a breakneck thrash movement without a moment's warning.
In the almost 20 years since Slowly We Rot sucker punched the American metal scene, not much has changed about Obituary's sound. "We're older obviously," says Watkins. "And we're a little smarter business-wise. We're a little more thought-out, experiment with our riffs a little more."
But the template is more or less the same. Twenty years ago, it was the newest of the new. By today's standards, it's old school. The band has left a heavy footprint on the sound of metal, opening the gateway for the sludgy sound of many other southern metal outfits (see Mastodon, Baroness). After 20 years in death metal, Frank Watkins still isn't a murderer — but his band still slays.