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Born In Tampa, Death Metal Making A Comeback

Adam Shaw, bass in hand, peels a sweat-soaked strip of blonde hair away from his face and steps up to the mic. He growls into the microphone as a swarm of fans, clad in black, bounce on their feet around them, screaming back at the band.

The members of the death metal band that calls themselves "Grave Ascension" throw themselves into the frenzied beats during a performance at New World Brewery in Tampa. The crowd is loving it.

After the show, Shaw sums up why he and his band mates do this night after night: "Life's tough and sucks, so play music that reflects that."

Death metal, one of many subgenres of heavy metal music,  emerged in the mid-1980s, starting in Tampa, and has made a bit of a resurgence locally in many of the same venues that played host to the founding bands originally.

Grave Ascension's members say they are drawn to the frantic, hostile beats, and to lyrics that often evoke images of death, religious blasphemy and anarchy.

Death metal enthusiast Courtney Lewis is at New World Brewery to support local music. She doesn't want to see the scene die out.

"It's just very dark and I feel like it fits most people's personalities in this scene,” Lewis said. “They want to hear really heavy stuff with so much emotion put into it."

So what sets death metal apart? It regurgitates anger and frustration with the world, and it doesn't take itself too seriously.

Brothers Jim and Tom Morris helped incubate death metal in Tampa about 30 years ago at Morrisound Recording in Temple Terrace.

"I think the original idea they had was let's do something so crazy extreme that everybody hates it,” Jim Morris said. “And let's just see what happens. And sure enough people didn't hate it."

That extremity and playfulness is reflected back on the fans. After Grave Ascension's performance at New World Brewery, I stood behind the brick building talking to the band.

A group of their drunk friends ran up beside us, shouting obscenities and dropping their pants, causing Guitarist Emilio Morira and his band members to laugh hysterically.

"This is what sets death metal apart from every other genre,” Morira said. “This is what happens."

The band is just a few years old, but they draw a lot of inspiration from bands like Obituary, one of the Tampa bands responsible for starting death metal. Three decades ago, the members of that band were just kids messing around in a garage.

The Morrises helped Obituary record their first album. The brothers say they were aiming for the musical equivalent of a Halloween haunted house attraction: equal parts alarming and disgusting.

"It's the same thing I think that attracts people to watch the most horrifying movie they can watch,” Morris said. “It's the adrenaline rush of ‘oh my God, that just either scares me or shocks me or makes me laugh.’"

Obituary is still touring. They just released their tenth studio album and celebrated in Tampa's historic Ybor City earlier this year with a performance at the Orpheum, one of many  venues that regularly hosts metal musicians.

Like the music being played that night, the Orpheum is gritty. There are no seats and the wood floors are scuffed by years of heavy combat boots. Look above the stage, and you'll see exposed metal beams that reveal lighting rigs. The bathrooms are covered in graffiti. You can expect to leave a show soaked with beer - or someone else's sweat.

Before the show, Obituary's drummer, Donald Tardy, reflected on death metal's start in Tampa. He and his brother John were inspired by bands with names like "Nasty Savage" and ""Savatage,” where some members of “Trans-Siberian Orchestra” got their start.

"Neither one of them are death metal but they showed us the light,” Tardy said. “They showed all us younger bands what it means to be metal and so it lit the flame and the next thing you know Deicide and Obituary and Death were starting to write these songs that people were taking notes to."

Obituary  actually started under the band name “Executioner,” then changed it to “Xecutioner” to avoid confusion with a thrash metal band of the same name. In 1988, they went to Morrisound to record their first album, "Slowly We Rot."

The studio had gained a reputation for working with out-of-the-box musicians, and having the skills to record and edit the brash sounds associated with heavy metal.

Musicians flocked to the studio to be recorded after Obituary's relative success, selling over 100,000 albums - pretty good for a new, niche music.

"I think it kind of was a perfect storm of this sort of underground bubbling culture in the Tampa area,” Morris said. “I think I would take a little bit of credit for it in a sense that we kind of help provide an avenue where they could get their work done."

It was in the late 1990s that death metal music started to fall out of popularity. Morris blames no single factor, but the fact is many members of the original bands were moving on to get married, have families, and work more 9 to 5 jobs.

But Don Tardy of Obituary says he's seen a recent resurgence in death metal. Music venues like the Crow bar and The Ritz also often host concerts in Tampa, which is often referred to as the "death metal capital of the world."

"It feels like it's back where metal is being paid attention to and being respected in America like it was 25 years ago,” Tardy said.

In a world where political scandals, war, and death are broadcast 24/7, metal heads like Tardy say it's a welcome retreat to grab an instrument and a mic, and vent their rage to a crowd of screaming fans.

I took my first photography class when I was 11. My stepmom begged a local group to let me into the adults-only class, and armed with a 35 mm disposable camera, I started my journey toward multimedia journalism.