In a review with SkullNBones.com, Overkill’s frontman (Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth) revealed that their next studio album is intended to come out by October of 2016. This might be something for fans of old speed metal to look forwards to, especially if the band continues in their current vein. While Overkill always tended towards the earlier, more punk inflected forms of the subgenre, they pulled it off in a versatile fashion with some room for experimentation and elaboration, as evidenced by their famous work in the late 1980s. Overkill also has recently released a box set of their middle period work; entitled Historikill: 1995-2007, it showcases the band repeatedly trying to reinvent themselves for a new era by imitating the more rock-like (Pantera-like) material their genre inspired. It also stops short of the band finally succeeding in this regard with Ironbound, which proficiently built off their early work and made it onto this site’s best of 2010 list.
Death metal was born in 1983 with the unholy quartet of Sodom, Bathory, Hellhammer and Slayer, but it took many years to translate the new style into a full-fledged monster, which happened sometime in 1990-1991. In the interregnum, bands such as Possessed, Kreator, Destruction and Merciless took the speed metal approach, the broken drums of thrash, and the vocals and guitar techniques of death metal and made an intermediate style.
Dr. Shrinker comes to us from that era with this compilation of demos from its period of existence from 1987 to 1990. The tracklist breaks down as follows:
“Wedding the Grotesque” (1989)
- Tools Of The Trade
- Mesmerization (Of A Corpse)
- Rawhead Rex
- Cerebral Seizure
- Dead By Dawn
- Open-Heart Surgery
- No Way To Live
- Pronounced Dead
- Chunk Blower
- Bacterial Encroachment
- Wedding The Grotesque
- Tighten The Tourniquet
- Germ Farm
- The Command
- March Of The Undead
- Graphic Violence
- Inverted Direction
- Free At Lasssst!!!
“The Eponym” (1990)
These tracks display the conventions of that period pushing toward something more extreme: verses like the German speed metal bands, choruses like Swedish band Merciless with a bit of melody, and shifts from verse/chorus structure and fills much like later American band Nunslaughter. These songs display the holdover from 1970s metal through Venom which manifests in strong rhythm hooks to the vocal cadence of choruses balanced by driving inertia in the verses, deviating with strange fills that foreshadow future song developments. In this, part of the genesis of death metal can be seen: the transition from conventional song structures to entirely riff-driven evolution of theme as manifested itself on classics of the genre like Onward to Golgotha.
Showing the speed metal heritage, riffs are often single-picked and emphasize an internal rhythm, in contrast to the phrasal riffs to come later. Their simplicity in phrase allows the production of a basic driving rhythm which storms up against the ends of each iteration, creating a sense of a pile-up that conveys urgency to the listener. This ploughs into the chorus and creates a feeling of intensity with repetition, which is very much like the 1980s, a cross between Gordon Gekko and nuclear warfare. An interesting outlier is “March of the Undead,” which could have come off Cryptic Slaughter Convicted (and, at 1:21, has a song length to match).
While Dr. Shrinker does a great job of this style, the problem for me — and others — is that this style seems dated and the bands interchangeable at this point. You could throw on an album by Necronomicon, Merciless, Kreator, Destruction or late-80s Sodom and get the same experience and roughly the same riff archetypes. For this reason, Grotesque Wedlock remains in the purchasing domain of people who love this speed/death hybrid style and metal historians.
Nunslaughter drummer and vocalist Jim Konya, who once famous ran for a local political office with a quasi-Satanic platform, and fueled Nunslaughter through almost a dozen full-length releases and nearly infinite 7″ EPs, experienced a stroke three weeks ago and recently worsened. He will be taken off life support today, October 7, and is not expected to survive.
Konya, whose output with the band was matched by his fierce loyalty to the underground metal scene, will be remembered by many as a generous and committed persona who along with several others created one of the longest-running and most prolific bands in death metal history.
In their glory days, Megadeth was always commercially #2 to Metallica – more technically proficient by far, structurally simpler, and literally #2 on the American Billboard 200 when they made their own dumbed down Black Album equivalent in Countdown to Extinction. Post-reformation Megadeth has been somewhat inconsistent about what part of their career they want to evoke, but if “Fatal Illusion” is any indication, Dystopia may very well be full of ’80s self-worship. There are some new aesthetic tweaks, like heavily processed, harmonized vocals from Dave Mustaine, but the overall structure of the song is an adequate facsimile of previous Megadeth and ’80s speed metal for commercial purposes. The current lineup of Megadeth notably features Kiko Loureiro (of Angra) and Chris Adler (from Lamb of God) in addition to its two founding Daves (Mustaine and Ellefson), although this track in isolation doesn’t really offer enough information on what their contributions to the band will sound like.
Only one can lead: guitars, voice, bass or drums. Whatever takes the lead will compel others to follow because lead means sketching out the structure of the song. The classic metal albums all lead with guitars and vocals catch up while drums provide accents and bass does whatever it feels necessary.
Repentless reverses this formula. It is built around Tom Araya’s mostly fast-spoken or chanted vocals, and guitar keeps up and drums frame the whole thing. The bass doubles the low notes and does little else, but Slayer has always used that technique. The problem is that in a desire to make catchy choruses and compelling verses, Slayer has relegated its most powerful aspect — the lead rhythm guitar — to a supporting role.
Despite a number of good riffs that call to mind material from the Seasons in the Abyss era, on this album Slayer has had to contort itself to fit around the vocals like a rock song, which de-emphasizes guitar and consequently cramps it and, in its reduced role, forces it to show off and simultaneously keep itself restrained. This keeps the worst of metal guitar and throws out the best. In addition, this reduces songs to minimal song structure based more around a lyrical narrative (or topic of a video) than development of melodies or patterns in the riffs.
This is far from a bad album. The problem is that it is the wrong sort of album. Metal escaped from rock by minimizing the human, especially vocals and feelings, to create a gritty realistic confrontation with the nihilism of existence — the knowledge that events do not depend on feelings or mythological beings, but cause and effect. Slayer expanded its audience in the 1990s to the present by being more centered on vocal hooks and foot-tapping rhythms, and does well at this, but at the expense of what made this band great.
A good legacy and a promising single can do much to build up expectations for any album. Atom by Atom was shaping up to be a textbook example of this axiom back in September, when I first became aware of it. Having listened to the end result, I can confidently say that the band’s reformation continues to pay dividends to those who pay attention (and/or cash).
The general formula hasn’t changed since Life Sentence – Satan plays the same sort of NWOBHM/early speed metal style that they became famous for, but in a more musically adventurous fashion than they favored 30 years ago. This sort of path leads many a band to neglect the coherence and intelligibility of their songwriting, but that doesn’t turn out to be the case here. The guitarists are particularly inventive here – the melodic and consonant style they perform in belies the wide variety of riff construction techniques they’ve incorporated into these tracks. They’re particularly good at the harmonized ‘dueling leads’ that so many similar bands have adopted; lesser bands would find their musical language shackled by overuse of one mode or otherwise limited.
This power would be strong enough to draw in many a listener, but Satan’s strengths on Atom by Atom go beyond mere creative guitar wizardry, although they are still unified by an emphasis on mastering a subgenre. For instance, the vocals (which are pseudo-operatic in style) remind me somewhat of James Rivera’s contributions to Helstar in their sonority and dynamic range, although Brian Ross sings closer to the guitar lines than many similar vocalists. However, this applies most to the song structures – while Atom by Atom tends towards typical pop verse-chorus structures like so many albums before it, these songs notably don’t rely on any one specific technique to cloak this or elaborate on their musical ideas. It should not escape your notice that in doing this, Satan otherwise consistently sticks to the limits of their musical language; while the way they vary it suggests to me that they could successfully execute a major genre shift if they so desired, I find their success within a genre to be a good outcome as well.
Musically skilled, technically proficient metal may be the norm these days, but Atom by Atom also succeeds on the organizational, structural level that is lacking and often completely ignored in so many of its contemporaries. This makes it a highly worthy acquisition.
Malevolent Creation has been in my listening backlog for many, many years on the strength of a few tracks from Retribution. I never got to them, because I was constantly distracted by trendier bands (brands). When I first acquired Dead Man’s Path, I theorized that since the band’s been around for nearly 30 years and retains some of its original members, this was not going to be a major stylistic departure from those past works lest long-time fans abandon them in droves. The flipside of this, as evidenced by my experience with similar types of recent releases such as Repentless, is that I expected that regardless of the final quality, I expected a streamlined version of MC’s past style.
My listening throws this into question. Malevolent Creation’s early works tended towards the ancestral end of death metal, with obvious speed/thrash metal roots poking out of an otherwise standard monophonic, dissonant approach. Dead Man’s Path recalls something of this, but as predicted, it turned out more conventionally musical, with more consonant melody and a denser production (out with Scott Burns and in with Dan Swanö). Add in a somber march of an intro, and a renewed emphasis on vocal patterns, and you have a release that has definitely streamlined itself. It doesn’t rock the boat much, and it does still pass the aesthetic litmus tests that define death metal, but the production and packaging isn’t particularly interesting to write about beyond its most basic qualities.
Unlike most of the bands that take this approach, however, Malevolent Creation does a good job of applying their musical practice to write better songs. To my understanding, they were never a particularly complex act, and most of these songs rely at least in part on obvious verses and choruses. However, good use of tempo and rhythm shifts in particular keep things from getting too skull-crushingly obvious and predictable. The band members also showcase enough compositional awareness to move integral song elements around between tracks to obfuscate the formulas a bit. I would personally have liked to hear more variation in riff styles, as some of the songs here (“Corporate Weaponry” in particular) suggest that such could be successfully incorporated while retaining the strong points of the band’s approach. That, however, is a small flaw in an otherwise very solid package.
To be fair, I was not expecting the strengths of Dead Man’s Path to be so covert, but they are the sort of elements that take some time to properly dissect and understand. However, this makes it a more valuable and perhaps integral work than most of what passes through the review queue here.
Since we quite enjoyed Satan’s previous album (Life Sentence), it only makes sense to give their latest a mention as well. Satan’s musical style is understandably descended from the popular NWOBHM styles of the late ’70s and ’80s, but also showcases some musical techniques that would become influential in the speed and power metal camps, and their most recent albums adopt a similar style with understandably better studio polish. While this followup is not set to officially release for a few weeks, the band has released a track for promotional purposes. “The Devil’s Infantry” changes little if anything from Satan’s recent past, and hopefully the rest of the album will live up to the high standards it and the previous album set for the band.
It probably bears mentioning that I consider Hell Awaits to be Slayer’s peak. While it could’ve used a larger recording budget, it showcased some of the band’s most elaborate and well-written compositions. The band didn’t generally follow up on this approach on later albums, but you can hear the lessons applied on the rest of Slayer’s classic ’80s material, and therein lies a lesson. At their peak, Slayer had obvious songwriting formulas, but were able to go build more elaborate and memorable works due to their solid understanding of song structure.
Repentless is Slayer’s 3rd attempt to recapture something else of that era. The production standards are admittedly better (although Slayer generally had good producers working for them in the past as well), but everything else is the stereotypical speed/death assault that the band helped pioneer. Paul Bostaph and Gary Holt serve as adequate substitutes for the departed Dave Lombardo and the deceased Jeff Hanneman (R.I.P), carrying on general stylistic trends without rocking the boat too much. That this is a commercially viable endgame for popular metal bands is something I expect to be one of the major themes of my tenure here at DMU. Even now, though, cracks are showing in the war ensemble – Tom Araya’s vocals are a major stylistic weak point on Repentless. His shouts have become more “extreme” and insistent in recent years, but his ability to vary his vocal techniques has all but collapsed. This album’s prosody is the worst casualty yet, as he delivers these monotonous shouts in unvarying rhythms; the effect is essentially the same as shouting nursery rhymes into a megaphone from your neighborhood rooftops.
Araya’s weaknesses are particularly damning on an album that relies so heavily on vocals to retain the listener’s attention, especially when everyone else on the recording is so competently unremarkable. We live in the age of self-referential Slayer, a long darkness that our learned scholars perhaps debate the duration of in their moments of distraction. Repentless is essentially a more formulaic version of previous Slayer albums that themselves were a simplification of their own predecessors. It’s very likely that the songs here sound marginally more like classic Slayer than those on Christ Illusion or World Painted Blood, but their unwillingness (or inability) to expand on basics renders them ultimately pointless. I can’t fault the band for continuing, though; previous recordings, while underwhelming, more than satiate an omnivorous fanbase who will probably go back to Reign in Blood after a while.
Mercyful Fate Don’t Break the Oath was released on September 7, 1984. Back then, you most likely purchased the album on vinyl or cassette. King Diamond, the vocalist of Mercyful Fate, expanded on the image that Kiss and Alice Cooper had adopted years earlier, but he backed it up with powerful speed/heavy metal with melodic vocals and lyrics informed by more than a passing acquaintance with the occult.
If you ask me, Don’t Break the Oath was the peak of his career. The band picked up on the speed metal techniques of rhythm and used them to expand heavy metal with more fluid tempo and riff styles, then built epic songs out of that which did not over-emphasize the vocals but let them aid the songs, much like on the second Iron Maiden album. In the 1980s, just about every metal band listened to this classic.