The Craft of Metal #1: Satanic Rites —Part I

Satanic Rites is one of the early influences that would take the heavy metal and hardcore punk of the past and transform it into Extreme metal through some groundbreaking compositional tools that were unheard of at the time. On first listens, the music can be confused for many other bands due to the impact this record had in its time, and rightfully so as it serves as an excellent introduction to what metal would have perfected on a much larger scale a decade later.

The notoriety and backlash the record generated in its time also show how incomprehensible and forward-thinking Helhammer were compared to what bands like Venom —and even legends like Judas Priest— were doing at the time. This has shamefully forced former members to reduce this work to that of a demo recorded in their youth. It seems as if  they feared that their work in Satanic Rites would destroy their reputations and would put their other offerings at risk of being compared to it. In an almost comedic twist of fate, Satanic Rites would prove to be the most celebrated piece of work that each of the members would give to the world in their long careers.

The intro perfectly prepares one for the album by just being an excessively slowed down version of the ending of ‘Triumph of Death’. A cheap trick that perfectly settles the listener for the darkness presented on this album and introduces subtly some of the themes in a more twisted manner than the typical intro that either consists of an unrelated piano segment unrelated to the music. The outro encapsulates this album with the same device but this time it is the opening segment of ‘Revelation of Doom’. Ironic how an ending serves as an introduction and an introduction serves as an outro.

Motorhead’s fuzzy sound is taken to a new extreme that surpasses what Venom did. But it iseasily audible, due to the fact that there is only one guitar and the bass is reduced to a thump that thickens that guitar. Drums are in the background and are drenched in reverb and have all the high end removed. The vocals copy that gruff rasp of Lemmy, but where the iconic front man had melody through the harshness of his voice, the vocals here are done through the distorted singing style of Tom G. Warrior, accidentally developing the first growl. Lemmy’s vocals chords were damaged due to excessive drinking and smoking, whereas Tom’s natural sung voice is much lighter. So to be able to consistently match his idol’s voice, Tom had to force upon his vocal chords, thus removing his ability to effectively control subtle variations in pitch. The album genuinely sounds as if it were recorded in a cave and gives the tools necessary for such simple compositions to really demonstrate their power.

Riffs are categorized as follows:

  1. Down-picked chugging sequences that end with dissonant note.
  2. Streams of held power chords that are either in the minor scale, chromatic or on a few occasions major.
  3. The final category consists of simple legato phrases that are almost exclusively chromatic.

Hellhammer liked to use long ascending and descending chromatic sequences in all of these riff types and succeed in creating on some songs actual narrative developments. Though on a lot of songs Hellhammer are inclined to having passages where the song title is repeated these do not constitute a chorus but rather the central motif of each song. Each composition on Satanic Rites is made of one central motif that does then interact with three or four other motifs in a myriad of ways.


On ‘Messiah’, the initial theme is introduced and then cut up with a one note power chord sequence that creates tension. Instead of releasing said tension to another riff to create more tension or to release it, they return to the initial theme and this releases all the tension unto it and allows the listener to fully enjoy this stomping apelike riff. On other tracks like Euronymos (notice how half of Mayhem took their pseudonyms from this album) the band will start with the most stereotypical major scale rock riff before a tempo change and the chord progression is derailed into minor scale territory as much as possible before being broken up by the initial happy theme that takes one last descent into madness.

Triumph of Death

‘Triumph of Death’ is really the first push into the death metal riff maze as we know it. It starts with introductory noise before moving on to a Black Sabbath like riff played at a slow grinding pace, potently demonstrating the gravity of Death. Then, it slows down even more on a chromatic progression similar to what bands like Asphyx would develop into a dramatic dirge. A new theme is introduced with a tempo change that drives the composition forward as it takes all the momentum of the previous slower section and guides us through the journey portrayed by the lyrics.

A counter melody of one note is introduced that allows Hellhammer to slow down and reintroduce the Sabbath riff, but under completely different circumstances that allow the composition to springboard into a simplistic riff that then breaks off into a solo. Afterwards, it returns to the faster section, managing to then seamlessly slip into the exceedingly slow riff and fading away like life itself.

The band creates the template that Death Metal bands all over the world would then use to express their ideas. Hellhammer accomplished this by using a very limited number of motifs that were embellished in multiple ways in accordance to their place within the narrative. These motifs were then used in different parts of the song to carry on momentum, and to convey the victory of Death over life. This composition represents the birth of death metal and the main factor that would emancipate it from the shadow of speed metal.

Final Words

Hellhammer understood their influences yet rejected their heroes tendencies to fall into rock and roll kitsch and used the grimy reality of the first Discharge albums to take thee metal lore further down into the depths than metal had seen before. The aesthetic and compositional techniques may fail to impress new listeners of metal, considering how each idea on this album has been used by countless bands and developed in infinite ways. But Hellhammer had very little material to draw influence from and it morphs its tame influences into something truly unique and mesmerizing that will still inspire countless bands to this day.

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