Death Metal Underground

5 thrash albums that you must hear

July 11, 2014 –

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Jeff Hanneman demos from 1985 released as Seeds of Horror

December 4, 2013 –

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With the tragic early death of Slayer’s Jeff Hanneman earlier this year, it was inevitable that artifacts would unearth themselves, as has happened with the Seeds of Horror release. This album contains both demos for an unreleased concept album by Slayer and a demo from Hanneman’s side hardcore project Papsmear.

The Slayer demos involve material that mostly made it on to later albums but also contain some unreleased and unrealized material. Generally recorded with Hanneman on guitar and vocals and a drum machine for percussion, the demos include some conceptual material like the title track from which this CD/LP takes its name.

Seeds of Horror also contains extensive liner notes introducing each track as it was mentioned by the band in interviews and tracking the lineage of each song, many of which appeared in fragmentary form elsewhere (riffs and other concepts were recycled). Two of the Papsmear tracks will be familiar to any who have Slayer’s Undisputed Attitude. The full demo features Dave Lombardo as well as Rocky George from Suicidal Tendencies fleshing out the mix.

For more information, check out the Seeds of Horror page on Hell’s Headbangers.

Tracklist:

  1. Angel of Death
  2. Seeds of Horror
  3. Raining Blood
  4. South of Heaven
  5. Spill the Blood
  6. Untitled (213)
  7. Untitled
  8. Untitled
  9. Living Just To Die
  10. DDAMM
  11. Abretions Asshole
  12. Can’t Stand You

Suicidal Tendencies – 13

April 20, 2013 –

suicidal_tendencies-13The problem with success is that it can become a cage: you get known for doing something that meant a lot to you at the time, but time goes on. You want new horizons. It’s hard to express them, and you see others succeed for doing a lot less.

Suicidal Tendencies launches 13 into a time where metal and punk have both decided to commit suicide by melding so extensively with other genres as to lose their own identities. Melding itself isn’t bad, but when a whole genre does it, it essentially obliterates its unique voice and makes itself another flavor of rock music.

13 escapes Suicidal Tendencies’ past by mixing in a number of alternative, improvisational and extrinsic styles. In particular, you’ll hear island-based world music, Rage Againsst the Machine, and even the keg-party reggae-influenced rock of bands like Sublime, all mixed into what’s essentially a punk band playing metal. The locus of the action has changed: where the original Suicidal Tendencies want to make a point with its songs, these songs want to set up a convivial atmosphere and into that speak some ideas with lyrics. The original songs resembled their content; these songs are a mixture of fun and diverse elements, and expression occurs in the lyrics.

With this album, Suicidal Tendencies demonstrate how an album can be quite good and not satisfy its original audience. I think this will be a huge hit among the alt-rock and nu-metal crowds because it’s more musically interesting than most of the kiddie music. It’s based on firm grooves, catchy melodic vocal hooks, and an insanely over-the-top constant lead guitar jam that gives this music a breadth that is rarely found in music you hear on the radio.

However, for metal fans this one is going to be a failure. It has lost the metal spirit, and it essentially party rock with some metal riffs. The cool guitar work and occasional shredding give this some power, but it doesn’t switch it to the viewpoint a metal fan will appreciate.

Repo Man re-issued on Blu Ray

March 6, 2013 –


Repo Man
dir. Alex Cox
92 minutes, Criterion, $28 (Blu Ray)

alex_cox-repo_man_blu_rayImagine yourself in 1984. No, not the anti-totalitarian novel 1984, but the year. Ronald Reagan is president; the economy is struggling. It’s uncertain whether at any minute the US and USSR will exchange nuclear weapons with one another, annihilating life on earth.

They’ve stopped doing the nuclear drills in schools because even the dimwitted teachers have finally realized what ICBM means. Intercontinental Ballistic Missile: it gets here so fast they won’t tell you it’s coming. There will be no warning, only an artificial sun eating your cities, evaporating your friends and family, obliterating your memories.

Even more, American society is in free-fall. 1968 brought a huge upheaval and now it’s hippies versus people in suits every day but the hippies are more popular. The media generally takes their side; industry sides with the suits. Average people are squeezed in the middle, just trying to find food and lodging in a world that now thanks to technology demands more of them and costs more just to survive.

Those are the obvious challenges. Underneath the skin, there’s a great deal of doubt. We fought wars to end wars; we got a Cold War. Society seems to be falling apart. People in general seem to lack a reason to live except a fear of poverty and death. As a result, the nervousness grows and people become more slavelike to jobs, ideologies, religions, drugs, sex, alcohol, corporations and lifestyle justifications. It’s a Nietzschean feast of schadenfreude and a vast fear and trembling.

Into this mess explodes the hardcore and thrash movements. The formative elements of hardcore punk floated around in the late 1970s between Motorhead, the Sex Pistols, and thousands of nameless two-chord bands, but the genre really blew up in the early 1980s with Discharge, the Exploited, and Amebix in the UK and Black Flag, the Cro-Mags, and Minor Threat in the USA. Riding that wave came the punk rock bands, like Circle Jerks and Dead Kennedys, who offered a softer and funnier version of the same. Following as well were the thrash bands, like Suicidal Tendencies and DRI, who mixed hardcore songs with metal riffs to make short fast bursts of fury and discontent with society.

The best way to chronicle this punk scene would not be to focus on the music, because then you end with a standard rockumentary in which musicians reveal that, if articulating things were their real skill, they wouldn’t be musicians. Instead they express themselves through sound, which is generally more reliable in that it’s harder to cleverly re-define its root terms and subvert it. To chronicle this scene, you have to show what they see, and then play the music so that the two join in the middle.

If any movie showed hardcore for what it was, and also explained the era to those who were not aware of it, Repo Man is that movie. Like its inspiration Naked Lunch, it is a collage of nihilism and post-modern boredom, mixed with the terror of a new kind of totalitarian society based on consumer choice (more like 1984‘s inspiration, Brave New World). The fundamental vapidity of the people around you is what dooms you to conform yourself, or be smashed beneath the grinding wheels of the industrial apparatus. It is a paranoid, unstable time. Repo Man shows us this world through the eyes of a teenage Otto, who is an everyman of the era in that he has connected to fundamentally nothing. His parents are aliens, jobs are pointless and ruled by petty tyrants, school was a blow-out, and even his fellow punks let him down with their selfishness and lack of vision. Adrift, he wanders through the rusted mechanical ruins of L.A. until he is rescued by a mercenary-minded repossessor.

“Repossessor” was a dirty world back then, much like we might view organ harvesters now. Repo men were the people who took your car when you couldn’t afford the payments, and this happened to a good number of people. It could happen in front of your friends and family, announcing to the world your failure. In a society basing itself on capitalism as a means of differentiating itself from the socialist East, this type of failure was emotionally crushing. As you can imagine, a repo man was not the sort of person anyone looked up to. Society’s lepers, they fed off the scraps in the dump of society’s excesses. You can imagine how for most people, a transition to repo man is like living death. But to a punk, society is already a dead man walking and existing in it is already offensively zombie-like. So what’s to lose?

Otto joins the repo team with his mentor, Bud, who is outwardly selfish but ultimately more dedicated to expression of his own frustrated emotions. Together, they raid the L.A. basin for overdue car notes and in the process, encounter a prize beyond their wildest dreams — a car worth $20,000 (now probably $80k). Like the white whale in Moby-Dick, or the holy grail, this car divides people against one another and reveals what characters are really made of. In a world dedicated to self-interest, the question is whether self-interest will win out, or whether a higher (or lower) principle will be found to save the day.

Splashed throughout with energetic punk music from Suicidal Tendencies, the Circle Jerks, The Plugz, Black Flag and Iggy Pop, Repo Man brings punk culture to a wider audience by showing us the absurdity of our time and the helplessness of the characters within it, so long as they adopt its values and behave in the ways it teaches them to. Disturbing, funny, nuanced and accurate in its portrayal of a society that has lost the path to health, Repo Man will explain to you why you walk on the other side of the street from mainstream society, and suggest an esoteric path that will lead you all of the way away.