Darkthrone drummer and composer Fenriz introduces a new series of Peaceville Records podcasts with a retrospective on classic underground metal and influences on his own style. As usual, expect Fenriz’ unique sense of humor and eclectic but visionary taste in metal.
Named after a fictional work of occult literature in the Cthulhu mythos by H.P. Lovecraft, the “nameless cults” give their name also to this band who create modern death metal that remains true to the death metal style. Like Immolation circa 2000, carefully tuned guitars and use of odd diminished melodies create a suspension of reality that a rhythmic approach like that of the Deathspell Omega era “progressive” black metal complements and expands.
Baphomet Pan Shub-Niggurath cites from fully four generations of metal, mixing speed metal riffs with modern black metal and the aforementioned dissonant and complex death metal, but sometimes slides in old school death metal riffs and transitions reminiscent of the hybrid era of underground metal in the early 1980s. The tendency to offset rhythms to insert additional riffs comes from the newer style of black metal, which permits groove so long as it is disturbingly detached from consistent expectations, but the core of this album comes from the streamlining of death metal in the early years of this century that brought different chord shapes and dramatic conclusions to the genre.
Other influences work their way in here including a use of plodding cadences that would have fit onto a God Macabre or Afflicted album. Songs work riffs into a circular pattern that always returns to familiar themes for choruses but splits verses across multiple riffs using a Slayer-inspired pattern of working in a precursor riff, then changing riff, and then altering its texture and tempo with layers of drums, bass and vocals. Then the song culminates much like later black metal in a kind of revelation which melts down into the soup of primordial riff ideas that earlier served to introduce or complement themes.
For contemporary metal, Baphomet Pan Shub-Niggurath keeps its focus more firmly in the continuance of past traditions into the future than bands like Immolation managed. It does carry the tendency to be too emotive on its surface like Deathspell Omega, which leads to technique replacing content, but keeps this in line. This work impresses with the first couple listens and while it will undoubtedly socket itself into the secondary tier of death metal bands, crushes most of its contemporaries handily and displays a blueprint for death metal to get out of the metalcore funk and back to a newer version of its roots.
- Unaussprechlichen Kulten – Baphomet Pan Shub-Niggurath CD (Dark Descent)
- Unaussprechlichen Kulten – Baphomet Pan Shub-Niggurath LP (Iron Bonehead)
Helvete: A Journal of Black Metal Theory occupies a distinct niche in the publishing world. Inspired by academia, it nonetheless attempts to construct theory around the motivations of black metal, instead of trying to fit metal into existing academic theories as most publications tend to do. While it missteps somewhat by included adulterated post-collapse black metal in the genre such as Wolves in the Throne Room and Liturgy, the journal digs into topics that neither metal underworld nor academic hierarchy can address.
Anticipating its third and fourth issues, Helvete: A Journal of Black Metal Theory calls for papers and art for those forthcoming issues. You can download the first issue of Helvete: A Journal of Black Metal Theory from the Punctum Books website; a donation is optional. The journal seeks the following:
- This third issue of Helvete focuses on the sonic aspects of black metal, specifically noise music’s interactions with black metal—the interruptions, creations, and destructions of signals as black metal. Proposals are welcomed that discuss and experimentally demonstrate not only musical feedback but conceptual feedback as well, and the way that black metal works through feedback as a process. Experimentation, fiction, and speculation in contributions are encouraged, including writing and art that resonates as a background hum, drone, or cascades in a foregrounded scream. Preference will be given to proposals that move beyond a position of reflecting black metal towards creating black metal noise themselves.
- Issue 4 is tentatively titled Black Metal and Politics, and seeks to give a concentrated platform to the conversations that have been happening alongside our theoretical work, regarding black metal’s complicated and diverse relationships to politics. The complex subject of politics and black metal, directly and para-musically, has long been brushed up against within black metal theory work, but rarely unfolded at length. We would like to reserve this issue of Helvete as a forum to begin to address and perhaps even articulate some of these discussions. While some may insist that black metal (as a diverse field of culture and music) exists outside of politics or cannot be described politically, it frequently sparks political repercussions, and its history courts political controversy. These include headline grabbing moments such as Varg Vikernes’s arrest in 2013 by the French government on accounts of suspicion of planning a terrorist attack; Norway’s implementation in 2011 of black metal education within its foreign diplomats; Nachtmystium’s forced cancellation in 2009 of a concert at Scion Rock Fest in Atlanta, Georgia; Inquisition’s forced cancellation in 2014 of their Vienna, Austria concert due to alleged connections to NSBM; and the complete ban on black metal in Malaysia in 2006. Most recently, Behemoth‘s recent encounter with Polish and Russian authorities has been well documented in the mainstream press. It may seem that the proposition that black metal is apolitical is itself a (privileged) political position. The editors of Helvete are accepting proposals for essays that focus on politics and black metal. Contributors are encouraged to suggest topics such as Black Metal’s interactions with nation, race, linguistic, gender, religion, and culture. Special consideration will be given to the explorations of the negotiations that the individual makes within the city or community, using black metal as a verb rather than a noun.
For more information, see the website for Helvete: A Journal of Black Metal Theory. The deadline for both proposals is August 1, 2014 but may be extended to accommodate late notice for many people of this call for papers. The next two issues will be edited by Amelia Ishmael and Niall Scott.
International news contains few joys and even fewer for those of us who see the State as a criminal enterprise and morality as human pretense. And yet we read it out of a hazy sense of duty to be informed or maybe just boredom with the other half of news, which seems to focus on a race of people from Star Trek (Kardassians) and their sartorial difficulties.
Recently one story in international news caught my eye. In a search for metaphor to describe the tendencies of the diffierent political parties, our tea-drinking cousins overseas produced an interesting reference to the nature of heavy metal yesterday:
Tory “extremists” – or “head bangers” – had won out over moderates like Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve, sacked in this week’s reshuffle, he claimed.
Depending on who you talk to the Tory party are either liberals, conservatives or anarchists. The idea of “extremists” and “head bangers” sharing a definition however stimulates the imagination. Are metalheads extremists? And if so are we extremists against what is de rigeur now in politics and society, or are we pushing it further?
In my view, metal is post-political or meta-political. Few metalheads I know believe that human answers come from voting for the right party or having safe opinions. Equally few trust a group of people assembled — usually referred to as “the herd” — to come up with anything but self-flattering answers based in self-pleasing pretense. Politics is to metal a dead issue.
But philosophy and the question of human futures still lives. We read H.P. Lovecraft and J.R.R. Tolkien; we watch Conan and Apocalypse Now. Metalheads tend to ignore school with slightly more attention paid in history class and often literature class. We see our society as a ruin, a failed empire like Rome. But we aspire to more, like medievalists dreaming of Viking battle and English jousting competitions.
If you scratch a metalhead, you might find a different kind of extremist. He or she is not a political extremist, but someone who totally rejects society as it is now. We dream of days when life is significant again instead of a competition to see how many hours you can attend your utilitarian job or indoctrination school without going postal and murdering your family. We long for a life of significance, an epic battle of good versus evil, and something to actually stand for.
So by the lights of the article mentioned, no, head bangers are not extremists. That was just one group of vote-collecting rent-seekers beating up on the other. But in the metalhead soul, there is something more extreme than extreme: we want to make this society perish in fire because it has no spirit and no purpose, and we want to encounter instead a life of meaning, purpose and conflict. We are more Nietzscheans than Tories, more Lovecraftians than moralists, and we see honor as more important than money or flattery.
Does this make us extremists? Probably not; we are simply off the scale. Unlike most extremists, we do not spent our days launching rockets at civilians or blowing up works of antiquity because they are from the wrong religion. We do not form little cults. But we are united in our dislike of society and our realization that it is a dead man walking because it lacks any feelings real enough to be extreme, or motivate it to save itself.
Being a squeaky clean pop country starlet has its advantages. Taylor Swift launched her own critique of the music industry by suggesting recently that customers will buy albums that “hit them like an arrow through the heart.” This implies by converse that they will buy only albums that hit this raised standard.
Her statement echoes what underground musicians have said for years: mass pop becomes popular more for being a phenomenon than for any music quality or profundity as art. People buzz around it because, like most hive mind activities, popular music gives them a space to socialize. Its popularity is its attraction, for those who feel happiest when they are doing what a million other people are doing at the same time.
Underground music on the other hand derives its authenticity from its artistic representation of reality as people prefer not to see it. Whether that is Slayer showing us the dark and seemingly demonic motivations behind history and social decay, or Burzum attempting to inspire in us a vision of a “Dungeons and Dragons” style medieval revival, underground metal peels back the layers of gloss and warm fuzzy feelings and shows us the bare reality underneath the patina of appearance. Its power is not only the revelation of reality but an emotional drive to make us want to accept this situation and make something greater out of it.
The music industry has been in a cycle of contraction or getting smaller as the mass audience drops out. When pop music provides a passing phenomenon that fascinates people for only a few weeks, the point of paying for it is lost on most. Its status more resembles that of television shows or movies than pieces of sonic art to be taken out of the rack and enjoyed for years on end. The phenomenon defines the music: its novelty and popularity make it, like other fads and trends, a temporary distraction from the pressures of life but not a sustaining or interest-stirring event.
For a half-century the music industry made fortunes by finding roughly interchangeable bands, shaping them around some unique appearance, and selling basically the same music time and again to an audience who outgrew the music rapidly and eventually stopped buying. Its business plan emerged from producing lots of new hits and hyping them to attract an audience, rather than building some kind of lasting relationship between artists and fans. When people said that the music industry was bad for artists in the long run, this is what they had in mind. Temporary and dramatic mediocrity was rewarded and talent marginalized.
The Recording Industry Association of America tracks music industry statistics. Where industry revenue totaled $15 billion in 2003, by 2013 it had fallen to only $7 billion. Even digital sales are in decline as people turn to other options. With the falling prices in movies through Red Box, Netflix and other on-demand services, music also falls. As a result the artists who inspire their fans to a longer term relationship are the ones who prevail.
As a music industry source cited in the above article says:
“What we’ve seen is fans will pay for stuff whether it’s Jack White’s record club or Nine Inch Nails doing limited releases,” remarked Light. “Albums at this point need to be souvenirs. They need to be experiental. We see it now with the phenomenon around ‘Frozen.’ This is selling albums through the roof because kids want to retain that relationship, sing the songs over and over, have that souvenir.”
When the music industry shrinks, the pop trends that crowd out quality music decline and artists benefit as a result. The demand for quality now outpaces that for quantity, and the future of the industry becomes not only niche genres like underground metal, but the artists within them who attract lifelong audiences. Although we had to hear this from the mouth of a cowboy diva, this alert to the profound change in the industry heralds a brighter future for metal, or at least metal which hits its fans “like an arrow through the heart.”
When the new genre of death metal emerged, no one knew what to call it at first. It grew out of a time when metal was just managing to break out of its last assimilation by rock, the late 1970s and early 1980s glam, through speed metal bands like Metallica. As soon as those broke through, others followed with an even more alienated and disturbing sound with what came to be called “death metal.”
Since that time, advertisers and marketers have descended on the phrase. Outsiderness means authenticity and authenticity sells products. Every product that wants to tag itself with rebellious, “fun” and nonconformist would benefit from using the term. But before it became another media tag-line, death metal constituted the most vital genre that existed outside that form of social control.
Its origins remain in murky obscurity, but can be tracked through the bands that innovated the sound. Read on for the five albums that invented this sound.
1. Sepultura – Morbid Visions/Bestial Devastation
Way back in 1985, Sepultura released Bestial Devastation as a fully mature death metal album including unorthodox song form that fit to content and Slayer-style introductions with related motifs to new riffs. Fast and furious in the style that Morbid Angel, Massacra and Vader later developed, this tremolo-picked fury joined Morbid Visions on a release to commemorate these early and massively influential works. Notably this band also spun off guitarist Wagner Antichrist to Sarcofago who later kept black metal alive in the intermediate years between Hellhammer/Bathory/Sodom and Mayhem. Although this early release was recorded with borrowed instruments in what sounds like a dungeon with DC power, many of the elements that became central to death metal presented themselves here: complex riff changes fit together by theme, abrupt breaks, layering by repeating at double speed, use of chaotic guitar highlights, and vocal drops over transitional riffs. For its primitive origins, Morbid Visions/Bestial Devastation demonstrates death metal entering its maturation process after early years of using loan-techniques from related metal and punk genres.
2. Possessed – Seven Churches
Like many early albums attempting to forge a death metal path, Seven Churches borrows much of its technique from earlier styles of metal. In particular, much of speed metal persists here in song structure and rhythmic sensibility, but Possessed nailed the infernal voice that would become an easily noticed characteristic of the genre and gave it its name. This album slashes through songs that mostly follow riff-chorus song format but interrupt it with discursive passages such as the famous melodic riff on “The Exorcist.” Riff shifts generally occur at significant points in the song rather than as extensions of the standard format, which gives this release a chaotic and uneven feel fitting its subject matter. Its song titles embraced outright positive feelings about Satan, which in the 1980s was enough to cause a listener social problems. The lyrics no longer warned of the possibility of evil, but the certainty of it and the necessity of embracing it to avoid the rotted and calcified lies of the “good.” Its pacing and riff forms often resemble those of speed metal as well as its tendency toward bouncing rhythms which favor the offbeat, where later death metal bands might have adopted a more downbeat approach. Despite spanning these genres, Seven Churches lent so much to the new death metal genre that it forever seems appropriate to associate it with death metal.
3. Death Strike – Fuckin’ Death
Paul Speckmann contributed much to the rising death metal movement under a bevy of different names: Master, Death Strike, Funeral Bitch, Abomination and Speckmann Project. His basic approach took 1960s protest rock, violent punk, and early dark heavy metal and mixed them into what basically sounded like rudimentary metal with punk rhythms. Death Strike emerged in 1985 with death vocals and grinding riffs but Speckmann’s demos had exemplified these attributes for at least two years at that point. While the result sounds spacious for modern death metal ears and uses variants on standard song format almost exclusively, this early embrace of the aesthetics of violent chaos and radically simplified riffing set many on their path down to the fiery depths of death metal.
4. Morbid Angel – Abominations of Desolation
The first Morbid Angel album made it to a limited release only on a small label in Tampa, Florida, and so was lost to time until Earache re-issued it in 1991 as a full release. Featuring the drum and vocal talents of Mike Browning (Nocturnus, After Death) this early powerhouse showed the unique and progressive rock influenced songwriting that would appear on later Morbid Angel but without the similarity of aesthetic. Abundant lead guitar spills out all over, songs vary tempo widely, and riffs span many more forms than the solidified final Altars of Madness — which shares most of its songs with this album after three years of refinement while band members worked at a car wash — would demonstrate. Some of lead guitarist Trey Azagthoth’s most creative and psychedelic playing adorns this release, as well as songs that stray into doom metal and progressive metal territory. While this album followed a battered and twisted path to release, it made itself known to the tape-traders who were the backbone of non-mainstream metal in the 1980s, and from there influenced the entire genre.
5. Necrovore – “Divus de Mortuus” demo
Speaking of demos, some of death metal’s most profound work never made it to vinyl or polycarbonate. Traders passed around demos and most band members were traders or had zines and got copies of demos in for review. “Divus de Mortuus” appeared in 1987 after some years of rehearsal and live tapes circulated among the demo circuit and immediately galvanized many. In particular, its influence can be felt on Morbid Angel, whose David Vincent adopted the more aggressive vocals and warlike posturing of vocalist Jon DePlachett. While the riffs on this demo focus more on abrasiveness and less on phrase, many of the elements inherited through Hellhammer and Slayer shine through here on what might be described as the first atmospheric death metal release. While this demo may never make it into stores, its influence spread outward from Texas to Florida and Europe beyond and it lives on in the death metal that followed it.
It happened in the mid-1970s, then the early 1980s, then the early 1990s, and now it’s happening again: underground metal is splitting away from what the mainstream will tolerate. Except that now the window has moved so that mainstream metal includes many things once reserved to the underground.
The rise of “cute metal” exemplifies this condition. “Cute metal” is any metal that you cannot admit in public that you do not like, because to do so would violate an assumption of its innocence or moral defensibility. Cute metal does not make you like it because of the music. Cute metal makes you “like” it because of the social focus on it, and because not liking it would appear to others to be cruel on the level of kicking kittens.
History will record the progenitors of “cute metal” as saccharine concoction Babymetal (which you must like or you hate preteen girls). With the rise of Unlocking the Truth, cute metal goes into overdrive (and you must like it or you hate black preteens). The term “cute metal” and the picture come from the second article.
This situation occurs any time metal becomes popular enough that there is financial incentive to turn it into a product. Speed metal like Metallica originally shocked and offended plans, but once people saw their girlfriends toe-tapping along to “One,” a new market formed. Next stop: “Enter Sandman,” which is so mellow that you can play it at your high school and adults will say how cute it is and how it reminds them of their own youths in the turbulent 1960s. Old people music.
Cute metal takes the same position. Wouldn’t it be nice to have underground metal that you could play at your desk at work, or show around at the neighborhood watch meeting? Cute metal offends no one; in fact, it is offensive to dislike it. You must join the herd and buzz with the hive about how precious it is, how unique it is, and how different it is… in fact, you can buzz about anything except its musical qualities, which are forgettable.
Emerging from this will be a new notion of what it is to be underground. It will operate on the converse idea of cute metal: the underground distrusts whatever “most people” think is a good idea, because most people are always wrong. They indulge in fantasies and look at the surface instead of the underlying structure, and use those visions to socialize instead of experiencing a more intense vision of reality. But in the meantime, cute metal presents another twee abomination to dodge when it comes on the radio.
Before there were names for styles like death metal and black metal, and before anyone beyond a handful of people knew of these genres, pioneers created the groundwork for both genres and influences on several others. They had little at their disposal besides primitive recording and photocopied zines, but somehow these founders established the basis of new styles.
The media eventually adopted the term “extreme metal” but originally this music went by the appellation “underground metal” because you could not find it in stores, magazines, on TV or in academia. Eventually the genres within underground metal gained recognition and you could find them in record stores starting in 1997 when the distribution model changed.
But years before that the groundwork was laid by a few dissident artists. Let us look at the albums that set up the groundwork for both styles of underground metal, death metal and black metal:
1. Discharge – Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing
By the time Discharge emerged, punk and metal both had large followings. Discharge birthed itself from within the movement called “hardcore punk” that assembled itself when punk fans felt like their music had been co-opted by the very radio industry it hoped to alienate. Hardcore punk bands lived in squats, recorded with whatever was handy, and promoted themselves with zines and 45 RPM singles (the origin of today’s 7″ records). They made their music deliberately abrasive and their themes beyond anarchistic into pure nihilism and rejection of all social thinking so that radio could not co-opt them. For the most part, they were successful, but then the genre became inundated with imitators who saw the simplicity of the music and the power of the social scene and entered for their own purposes, like marketers and advertisers would do years later. Discharge struck back with the ultimate anti-rock album. Drums did not coordinate with guitars, instead keeping time while streams of power chords flowed over them and changed at will. Vocals repeated short cryptic koans that entirely rejected the idea of society itself. Taking a cue from Motorhead, Discharge also added organic distortion to the vocals, creating a sound like an unearthly howl from a place collapsing into hell. Released in 1982, Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing launched a wave of others who used these techniques, including all of underground metal.
2. Hellhammer – Apocalyptic Raids
In sunny, peaceful and socially engineered to perfection Switzerland, discontent arose with this occult and anti-social release. Turning up the intensity on distorted vocals, drawing influence from both Venom and Motorhead, Hellhammer wrote slower riffs than Discharge but added in the sense of dark finality that bands like Black Sabbath successfully captured a decade before. In addition, Hellhammer contributed a style of songwriting that probably derived from progressive rock records, who themselves borrowed it from classical: song structure followed the content of the song and not a standard song format. This caused the band to spend a great deal of energy matching up riffs so that they “talked” to one another with a type of internal dialogue. Heard best on the epic 9-minute “Triumph of Death,” this technique allowed Hellhammer to fuse the alienation of punk with the dramatic theological imagery of Black Sabbath into a mini-Wagnerian opus. These techniques came to live on in radically different forms in both the rising death metal and black metal genres.
3. Bathory – The Return…
An entirely homebrew project, Bathory took what metal bands were doing to its logical conclusion and starting in 1984 recorded a series of albums using heavy distortion, occult themes, distorted vocals and fast chromatic riffs. While much of this material stuck closer to standard song format, quite a bit deviated with inventive songwriting that suggested a power of theater in the presentation of metal riffs. “The Return Of Darkness and Evil,” the title track from the second Bathory LP, demonstrated this power with its soundtrack-like thematic composition. Although this band derived no influence from Venom, its distorted vocals took a higher path toward a harsh shriek like one might find in a horror movie soundtrack. As a result, not only death metal but all black metal bands derived influence from this founding act.
4. Slayer – Hell Awaits
Starting the year after the release of the Discharge album, Slayer crafted a new kind of heavy metal using the chaotic rhythms and chromatic composition of hardcore punk but the elegant and theatrical structures of heavy metal. The result shifted from social awareness lyrics to mythology that revealed a dark future for humanity, and stitched together songs of multiple contrasting riffs which shifted to support content instead of content supporting song form as most pop bands did. This created albums in which listeners could lose themselves entirely and made Slayer one of the biggest and most respected metal bands in history. The tremolo-picking used to create fast flowing riffs that kept energy high, unlike the muted-picking used by most speed metal bands of the time, formed the basis of the technique used by all death metal and black metal bands since. If a band falls within the underground umbrella, it undoubtedly takes influence from the first four Slayer records and most likely has at least one die-hard Slayer fan among its members.
5. Sodom – Obsessed by Cruelty
Inspired by Venom, Sodom combined the energy of hardcore punk and the new techniques of Slayer and speed metal bands to come up with its own primitive version of this new style. These shorter songs resembled the thrash which was rising as a style at the time but instead picked dark and morbid occult topics. Despite the basic instrumentation, Sodom gave its songs serious themes and pulled off epic melodies which fit an archetypal pattern much like those of horror soundtracks do. The resulting concentrated bursts of fury gave rise to much of the viciousness of underground metal as well as its twilight atmosphere and fiery sense of destruction for all that occupied positions of social acceptance. While many of these songs fit standard song format, Sodom interrupted that to present concluding material in a style like that of Black Sabbath. As time went on, this band verged closer to death metal but kept the searing emptiness which lived on in black metal.
Image from Thrasher Magazine.
Thrasher music deserves its own category. It spans three genres and gave its name to one. It also plays by entirely distinct rules that place it in both metal and punk camps, but not exclusively in either. Despite the attempts of both genres to claim it, it has weaseled free by refusing to fully adopt the conventions of either. It’s too punk for punk and too metal to be metal, but it lives on to this day through those who want a different path.
Hop on your board and skate back into 1985. Heart of the Reagan years, themselves a recovery period from the turbulent 1960s and somewhat crass and vapid 1970s. The suburbs had finally outpaced the city as everyone who could escape fled, which left millions of teenagers stranded in planned communities that were essentially marooned on anonymous patches of land connected by freeways. Divorce and latch-key kids were at epidemic height and most people barely had anything to call a family. To make things worse, Soviet missiles threatened the homeland and spread a kind of daily paranoia that people both accepted and in their quietest moments, feared to confront. No one knew if tomorrow would even come and if it did, whether it would be worth it.
Kids did what just about anyone would do: get out of the house, escape the conformist collective-consciousness zombie robot schools, avoid the television, and produce culture. Skateboards started as a fad but became a lifestyle because they provided a means of getting around, an activity, and most importantly, a type of place the activity could occur. Even more vitally they gave kids an identity and purpose outside of mainstream culture which as far as anyone could tell was a vapid disaster. Cyndi Lauper? Madonna? Bruce Springsteen? Music connected this culture but it evolved to fit it instead of the other way around. Thrasher music took its attributes from the thrasher lifestyle.
The one sin in thrasher culture was to fall into mainstream thinking. It defined itself in opposition to that entire vein of thought. Thrashers made the assumption that if someone with a position in society validated an idea, the idea was manipulation. This paranoia arose from disciplinarian schools, crafty public image creation by parents during divorces, and distrust of the kind of promises that advertised the suburbs. “Come to Shady Acres,” the sign would say, and you would find a house that was on nothing as big as an acre with no shade because all the trees had been planted during the last week when construction finished. And then your parents who spent too much time at their jobs would make all sorts of great promises about how school would be great, other kids would be great, and then those parents would disappear into jobs, divorces, swingers’ clubs, you name it, and you would be left alone. With nothing but your skateboard. Jump on and roll away… and never trust anything like those promises again.
Thrasher culture shaped the lyrics of its music. They show most of all a critique of a society that does not function. Imagine a broken microwave: you turn it on, and it flickers and makes noise but doesn’t really heat your food, or burns it to a crisp within ten seconds, or roasts the center and leaves the outside cold. This was the impression thrasher kids had of the society around them. It was on, but it was not working in the sense designed. Even worse, parents were oblivious and drugged on religion and money and social prestige and refused to notice at all when society didn’t work. Kids had to re-invent politics, society and philosophy from the ground up, and it had to fit between turns on the half-pipe.
While arguably the first music adopted by thrashers was punk, including a latent influence from the surf rock that may have inspired punk, and bands like Iron Maiden were perpetual favorites, the fusion of the three burst forth in the early 1980s as a genre called thrash. Avoiding dramatic titles like “5 thrash bands you must hear before you die,” where “die” could be defined as feeling that your job is more important than your soul, here are five thrash bands you must experience simply because they are amazing:
1. Dirty Rotten Imbeciles (DRI) – Dealing With It
This album despite being the second release by DRI defined the archetypal thrash sound. Short songs used punk tempi and metal riffs, fit their song structures around the words to the song, worked in some oi/surf rock lead guitars, but mostly focused on raging bursts of concise energy. DRI packed a bookshelf worth of ideas into a single album which meant that if you were a kid with a skateboard and ten bucks a week to your name, this was the album you saved up for. In addition, DRI expanded the lyrical oeuvre of thrash to include not just “socially conscious” lyrics but lyrics critical of society itself, including the process of socializing with other people. These lyrics struck out for the lone Nietzschean person isolated from the herd by the complete vapidity and deceitfulness of mainstream tastes. In addition, DRI rebelled — using metal bands such as Iron Maiden as its guide — against the punk tendency to destroy melody. Both vocals and guitars carry an actual tune which combined with the unique rhythms and song structures makes each song stand out but also, makes the whole album work together. Some songs had nothing more to offer than 18 seconds of fury, others stitch a mood, and the whole of Dealing With It thus becomes a map of the emotions of a skater trying to survive the 1980s while observing that society was in a state of advanced collapse and headed for the end.
2. Cryptic Slaughter – Convicted
Convicted got less attention than it should have because of its rough production and refusal to stick to any one template. Riffs on this album range from raw punk to death metal, which is sort of difficult because that genre was barely in formation itself in 1985 when this was released. Songs follow more of a punk template and vary structure less often which makes this band shy over toward punk, but use of vocal rhythms and inventive riffing distinguishes each. Many of the concepts of the next decade of death metal came from this album as well as most of grindcore. The ragged intensity of its vocal and guitar assault made Cryptic Slaughter the fastest band on the planet, and while it leaned toward punk, its ability to make metal-style riffs that thundered with finality pushed it into the thrash genre.
3. Corrosion of Conformity (COC) – Eye for an Eye + Six Songs With Mike Singing
Arguably the most popular band in thrash, Corrosion of Conformity combined Black Sabbath and hardcore punk and came up with short attacks of creative songwriting that used traditional pieces from both heavy metal and hardcore punk genres. Every thrasher back in the day owned the tshirt with the COC alien skull on it and combined with DRI, this band essentially defined the genre. Songs are tiny atmosphere pieces that use punk energy and abrupt delivery to sneak in metal riffs and bounding punk choruses. Unlike punks however COC strayed into the minor key and chromatic world of metal where energy is crushed and turned into dark opposition instead of keeping the last aspects of rock ‘n’ roll’s happy-go-lucky “good times” sound. Inside of the anthemic punk with metal riffing on this album lurks a deep inner despair for society and self that made Eye for an Eye the more melancholic and existential side of thrash.
4. Fearless Iranians From Hell – Die For Allah
Not as many people heard of this band because in the 1980s, when Beirut embassies exploded and the Iranian hostage situation was fresh in many minds, adopting even a satyrical pro-Iranian position struck most people as going too far, like endorsing Hitler or Stalin. Combining this potent imagery with marijuana humor and cynicism about the American war and money machine, Fearless Iranians From Hell bashed out fast punkish songs with metallic riffing that emphasized a constant turbulent, restless energy. In that way, this band put their finger on the utter abyss fermenting beneath the world of laws, dollars, numbers and hard data. This revealed the conflict between a culture of goody two-shoes and the underlying desire to put things right according to some absolute law not based in what suburban parents used to allay their fears. The humorous aspect of this band caused many to neglect the fusion of late hardcore and indie metal that powered this band.
5. Dead Horse – Horsecore
Another band that at first got little airplay, Dead Horse emerged in the late 1980s and got enmired in the Texas metal scene which tended to reward those who scratched everyone else’s back even if their bands were forgettable. The band finally broke out with their second album Peaceful Death and Pretty Flowers in 1991 which turned more toward a progressive death metal direction alongside other acts of a similar nature like Disharmonic Orchestra and Demilich. The earlier material of this band used the same song structures shaped around the content of each song that DRI did but added more vicious, metal-infused riffs that had the hallmark of soundtrack style epic figurative melodies. Where other bands relied on humor of absurdity, Dead Horse fused its own internal language and riffed off that, pushing together a cynicism toward the adult world with a sense of breakaway culture.
6. Suicidal Tendencies – Suicidal Tendencies
The title says five albums, not six. Yes: official numbers lie. Suicidal Tendencies perfected a style of thrash that invoked more of the guitar traditions of 1970s metal and overlaid its longer songs with extensive lead guitar, including bluesy and melodic sections. It also adopted the habit of using slower sections to build up to the explosion of faster raging riffing, which gave the album space from which sudden attacks became even more powerful. Outright references to skateboarding and life as a suburban teenager colored the lyrics and outlook of this self-titled release which won over many fans for its essentially punk nature with the interesting instrumentalism of metal. That and its self-mocking and self-distrusting humor which saw the world exclusively from the experience of the individual lost within it made this release a cross-over between skaters, punks and metalheads.
Thrash created a generation of music that turned up the intensity of metal and gave punk new room to grow in. This drew extensive influence from later hardcore of the Discharge, Black Flag, Minor Threat, GBH, the Exploited and Cro-Mags variety and in turn influenced the first generation of grindcore such as Repulsion Horrified, Napalm Death Scum, Carcass Reek of Putrefaction and Blood Impulse to Destroy. Thrashers also took heavy influence from melodic punk bands like Misfits and eccentric acts such as the Minutemen, all the way through pop-punk like Descendents and Dayglo Abortions. With the rise of thrash, punk and metal both felt pressure to turn up the intensity, which drove metal into the cryptic realms of death metal and punk into its progressive years.
Indonesia has elected the first presidential candidate to openly endorse heavy metal music in a heavily contested election. The candidate, Joko Widodo or “Jokowi” to his fans, lists Napalm Death, Lamb of God and Megadeth among his favorite metal acts. Widodo, who grew up poor and ended up in politics after starting his own furniture factory and having to work with regulators, represents a more moderate choice than Prabowo Subianto, a former general and son-in-law of former strongman Suharto.
At this juncture, it makes sense to ask whether metal really has underground status anymore. You can find it in record stores; it shows up in mainstream media; and now, a sitting head of state endorses it as his favorite form of music, having been photographed at numerous metal events and frequently wearing his Napalm Death and other metal-related tshirts. If there was a last barrier for humanity to face in regards to metal, it was the election of our first metal president.
No rumors have yet reached us as to whether American politicians will also adopt this outlook. Surely in the desperate rush for votes, Hilary Clinton or Mitt Romney can admit to at least owning one AC/DC album. Now that metal is no longer perceived as music of total outsiders, the social acceptance may spread and include it among normal social activities.