Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Death Metal Tuesday - Mental Funeral (1991)


The fans have demanded the return of “Death Metal Tuesday,” and I am happy to oblige. I will attempt to make this a weekly blog where I celebrate the music of my adolescence, young adulthood, and yes... Currently.

Autopsy - Mental Funeral (1991)

Our first entry is an American, old school death metal (OSDM) entry from San Francisco’s Autopsy. The creative engine behind this act is drummer / vocalist, Chris Reifert. Reifert played drums on Death’s debut album, Scream Bloody Gore. That gives Autopsy some street-cred with the death metal crowd right away, because Reifert played on what many consider one of the genre’s first offerings.

Mental Funeral is the follow up to 1989’s debut, Severed Survival. The two albums are similar in that they both boost the same bare-bones production and primitive approach to songwriting. Autopsy can sound like a band jamming in their garage at times, but that truly is their charm. Their raw sound and affectionate mingling of some punk elements would prove influential in the Swedish death metal movement which was going full swing by the time 1991 came around.

Mental Funeral slows things down a bit compared to the band’s debut. There are moments when the music is so slow, you almost have to bang your head in slo-mo along with the music. The first groove of Dead is a good example of this, ditto the closing moments of In the Grip of Winter, perhaps the albums best track. Don't be mistaken though, the band hauls ass too - Hole in the Head and Destined to Fester both have some pretty blazing moments. There are also 3 songs under a minute in length which kind of sound like improvised death metal jams, but they're pretty epic, particularly Bonesaw.

Guitar duo Cutler and Coralles play with harmony a lot, and I mean, a lot. They love that fourth interval harmony - sounds very sinister in their duo leads. Reifert takes the “Cookie Monster” approach to his vocals, but there are times that he screeches and sounds truly tortured. There is also a fair amount of reverb on his vocals that give them that old school sound that is just so lovely to my ears.

This is a sludgy, doom-filled, beast of an album. You truly feel like you’ve been through something after it is all said and done. It definitely has some doom elements in there and was not doubt a key influence in that movement as well. Autopsy are held in deep regard as a vital founding member of the death metal genre. They were never a favorite of mine, but I do appreciate their approach and ethos. Mental Funeral gets 3 out 5 Skullies.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Top 20 Non-Big-Four Thrash Albums

As winter wanes every year, I seem to get into the old thrash metal music. I set about making a list of the 20 best "non big 4" thrash albums. For the uninitiated, that means no Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, or Anthrax. I only picked one album from each band - the one I consider to be their best, but I will make note of other recommended releases in each review. This only concerns the initial 2 waves of thrash metal, roughly 1983 - 1992. I also did not include bands of subgenres - like crossover (DRI, Suicidal Tendencies), pure metal (Iron Maiden, Judas Priest), death metal (Death, Morbid Angel), or first-wave black metal (Mercyful Fate, Bathory).

#20) Forbidden - Forbidden Evil

Bay Area thrashers Forbidden were a band full of potential that was never fully realized. Personnel issues after their second album would send them into obscurity, but this debut has all the energy and song writing ability of a serious contender. Russ Anderson's vocals are an immediate standout - he's a traditional metal singer with an impressive range. He can also sound pretty sinister, case-in-point, "Chalice of Blood" and "Feel No Pain" where he spews venom through the verses with haste and menace - the latter being perhaps the album's strongest track. Forbidden's twin lead guitar led by Founding member, Craig Locicero, is truly what makes this a strong debut. The riffs are plenty rocking with plenty of changes and the occasional groove. There are moments that may remind one of other Bay Area bands, this is certainly not a very original sounding record, however the execution is accomplished enough to make the list here. "March into Fire," "As Good As Dead," and "Follow Me" are all worthy of the pit. Only "Eyes of Glass" is a bit of a miss. This debut was a late arrival because by 1988, thrash had started to reach its peak. 1990's follow up, Twist into Form showed the band watering down the ferocity and trying hard to appeal to a wider audience. Though many will argue for Twist, I find the debut better developed and certainly more aggressive.

#19) Laaz Rockit - Annihilation Principle

San Francisco's Laaz Rockit started as a more traditional metal band with 1984's City's Gonna Burn and 1985's No Stranger to Danger. After that, the Bay Area scene must've been contagious because 87's Know Your Enemy was a abrupt shift to thrash metal, though still a bit clunky. It is their 4th full length, Annihilation Principle, that deserves the nod here. Michael Croons changed his vocal approach from a subpar Rob Halford to a more traditional thrash bark on this album, which makes things much more tolerable. The music and production have also been refined to sound positively Bay Area thrash, but with enough attitude and ingenuity to stand out from the crowd. Their traditional heavy metal roots no doubt contribute to a heavier sense of groove than the other speed mongers in San Fran. "Mob Justice" is a mid-tempo thrash classic with a beautifully chunky breakdown in the middle. Rockit shows they can be effective without relying on speed - also evident in "Chain of Fools" and "Shadow Company." They still thrash with the best of them, showing plenty of fury in "Fire in the Hole," "Mirror to Madness," and "Chasin' Charlie." Even the album closer ballad, "The Omen" is effective. The band is known for their lyrical themes of warfare, but it doesn't feel quite so restrictive here as they open the album up to other concepts as well. The only criticism is the misplaced Dead Kennedys' cover which feels a bit forced and subdued when compared to the original. Additionally, we all know these guys grew up worshiping Priest and Maiden, the punk cover almost feels like pandering to the thrash audience.

#18) Coroner - No More Color

Coroner are the only metal band from Switzerland that I can think of, other than Celtic Frost. And though Coroner's contribution to metal may pale in comparison to their Swiss counterparts, they are still a worthy mention and a huge influence on anyone playing heavy progressive music today. Coroner's first two outings were admirable displays of speed and technical proficiency - similar to Megadeth's early work. 1989's No More Color was a daring departure, slowing things down and experimenting with time signatures and irregular rhythms. This was a ballsy move for a fairly unknown thrash act, but maybe they had nothing to lose. At any rate, No More Color is a badass thrash metal album with great riffs and a forward-thinking approach. Opening track, "Die By My Hand" is full of transitions, stop-start riffs, and complete with a shout-along chorus. "Read My Scars" is just as infectious, and hangs together with a slamming main riff that makes it the album's centerpiece. "Mistress of Deception" and "Tunnel of Pain" continue along these lines, catchy refrains and plenty of guitar flourishes. Though No More Color may seem scaled back on the technical scale, there is still plenty to marvel at. Coroner are fantastic musicians, namely Tommy Baron on guitar, hitting break-neck solo runs and intricate riffs throughout. This is one if those albums that is dense enough to discover something new each listen. Only the production is lacking - treble heavy and thin like so many of its thrash brethren.

#17) Heathen - Victims of Deception

1991 brought this Bay Area band's sophomore effort, 4 full years after the mediocre debut. Though this album is clearly motivated by the success of Metallica, And Justice for All, the production is obviously aimed at sounding just like it. That, and all of the songs are that "epic" length of 6 or 7 minutes or so. Unlike Metallica, Heathen vocalist David White brings a souped-up Joey Belladonna type attack that gives it a more unique sound. The presence of two guitar shredders in Altus and Piercy also gives Victims a bit of an edge over its competition. Hypnotized opens the album with 7+ minutes of tightly executed thrash, blasting the easy target of corrupted evangelical churches. Heathen's Song sounds like an attempt at a power ballad that eventually falls into a standard thrasher. Though their sound is derivative, Heathen sound like a band that could've been much more. Personnel problems caused this album to be so delayed, that it hit during Thrash Metal's rapid decline in late 91. Had it been sooner, perhaps they would've become real contenders. The talent is clearly there. This is well-produced, tightly executed thrash metal. The album favorite for me is Morbid Curiosity, a solid thrash anthem with a plodding punk beat and seriously cool main riff. My only complaint is the length - it's a bit long, and some tracks could've been cut to B-sides (Timeless Cell of Prophecy comes to mind).

#16) Voivod - Dimension Hatross

Evolving from a sound similar to Slayer, Voivod's 4th LP was a dramatic shift to a more progressive and "thinking man's" thrash. Vocalist Snake changed his attack from screaming to singing melodies seemingly unrelated to the music underneath. It takes a bit to get used to, but this would become Voivod's most recognized work. Appropriately titled, Experiment starts off the album with broken rhythms, multiple tempo shifts, and Voivod's trademark sci-fi themed lyrics. As the album progresses, Voivod offer up an unique brand of thrash that is progressive and discordant while, at the same time, strangely catchy and accessible. Both Chaos Mongers and Technocratic Manipulations are upbeat, rocking tracks with choruses worthy of singalong. Brain Scan features the album's best riffs and a vocal cadence reminiscent of nursery rhymes - a strangely appealing track. In the end, Dimension Hatross is a unique thrash album that would heavily influence the budding progressive metal genre. The band would water down their sound with each release after this, eventually sounding miles away from this release and boarding on the dreading "alternative metal" sub-genre. After the band dissolved and then came back, it was not surprising to hear them rocking the "Hatross" sound once again, because it was their finest moment.

#15) Annihilator - Alice in Hell

From north of the border, Canadian Jeff Waters composed and performed all but vocals on this, Annihilator's debut. From opening instrumental, Crystal Ann, it is clear this is an elite musician and composer with a background in classical music. The tight production shines throughout, showcasing Waters' clear guitar proficiency and songwriting skills. The solos are epic and there are numerous head banging riffs throughout. Thematically, the album is almost exclusively bent in a psychological direction, exploring nightmares, sexual obsession, and schizophrenia. Randy Rampage sounds like a pirate on vocals, but its amusing and he does a competent job. The true star is Waters and his guitar-playing, he is a master. His leads are dynamic and even his riffs have that virtuoso quality that is somewhat rare in thrash metal. Standout tracks include, the title track, the Poe-inspired Ligeia, and the blazing fast Human Insecticide. The drums are a bit thin in the mix, and the rhythm guitar has always lacked power in my mind, but these are minor complaints. It is a pity that this is the only album that I can stomach - the remainder of their career was plagued with uninspired, thrown-together, second-rate thrash. I guess Waters only had one album in him, but a worthy album it is.

14) Sodom - Agent Orange

One of the elite German three, Sodom's early work would be a key influence in the development of Norwegian Black Metal, years later. Their first album, "In the Sign of Evil" is pure raw aggression. As they matured and became more competent in their musicianship, they produced some solid thrash metal. Of the three major German thrash exports though, Sodom is the most straightforward - rarely troubling themselves with experimentation or anything particularly progressive. Their 1989 offering is a well-produced slab of German speed, covering thrash metal's comfortable topic of warfare. The title track and opener is a 6 minute epic with killer riffs peppered throughout. Tired and Red is as solid as track one with Witch Hunter's vocals shredding through the mix and a fist-pumping middle section that just kicks ass. Sodom are not particularly flashy, but they're efficient and fast-as-hell, and this album cooks. Incest, Magic Dragon, and Exhibition Bout are all smoking thrashers, so when punk anthem Ausgebombt hits at track 7, it's an unexpected breath of fresh air; combining the best elements of punk and thrash delivered in a thick German accent. Side 2 is a mixed bag, but as a whole, Agent Orange is a solid outing and still a favorite among their core fan-base. The band is still kicking today, but this was clearly their peak.

13) Helloween - Walls of Jericho

These Germans would go on to single-handedly create the sub-genre of Power Metal, but this first full length is pure Thrash. A Trapped Under Ice soundalike riff opens Ride the Sky which combines traditional thrash metal with a German-folk music inspired chorus. In fact, this album sounds very German, if that's a thing - it might be Kai Hansen's thick accent. He would be replaced after this album, by the much more accomplished Michael Kiske, but it's Hansen's slightly off-key wailing that really kicks this album to the top of their catalog for me. Guardians is a crazily catchy tune with a hook primarily delivered by the bass guitar, a true standout. But the album's centerpiece is the closer, How Many Tears, a left wing political tune with a truly inspired chorus. The dual guitars are fantastic throughout this album, occasionally dipping into more classic sounding metal territory, the rhythm section gets things thundering ahead. Check out the double-bass pre chorus of Phantoms of Death, the band sounds downright heavy. After the addition of Kiske at vocals, Helloween would slow things down and really embrace a more approachable and positive sound. As power metal grew in popularity towards the end of the nineties, Helloween would reinvent themselves with completely new personnel and a renewed appreciation for the speed and technical riffing of this debut. 

12) Exodus - Bonded by Blood

I suppose its almost mandatory to put Exodus on the "Non Big Four" thrash list, as many consider them #5. Somehow, they always missed the mark. Their debut makes the list as it has a rawness and aggression that the Souza-era albums seemed to lack, but I'm not sure it was the vocalist's fault. This album is chock-full of $100 riffs the title track, And Then There Were None, Metal Command, and highlight track Strike of the Beast are all bay-area staples. Paul Baloff is an absolute maniac on the mic, and he truly captures the magic of this music. Don't get me wrong, he's not a particularly strong vocalist and no one can blame the band for seeking a replacement, but he is absolutely essential to this debut. The band is in full force here, I'll never understand why they seemed to tame down so much after this one, but it could possibly be the production. Bonded by Blood has a nice rawness to it, with a nice low-heavy kick drum and biting guitars. The next few albums would feel thin in comparison, and Souza's more restrained approach to the vocals is a noticeable contrast to Baloff's madman bellowing on this debut.

11) Destruction - Infernal Overkill

Number two of the famous "German Three," Destruction's full length debut is a fantastically ambitious album. The riffs are so involved, Sifringer was scarcely able to play them up to speed, but its that looseness that gives this album it's true charm. It's almost got a punk feel to it at points, but the guitars are distinctly metal. This has the sound of a band playing just outside their range - making even the early Megadeth sound conservative in comparison. The second riff of Bestial Invasion is a good example of this - all over the guitar neck, sounding more like a solo than rhythm part. Death Trap is possibly the best German thrash song ever, and that's saying quite a bit, but their is no beating that main riff. Schimer's croak-style vocals are instantly unique, and strangely effective for a stripped-down, treble-heavy production. As a threesome though, these guys make an impressive racket and Sifringer is one of the most impressive live guitarists I've ever seen. Shortly after this, they would acquire a second guitarist and clean up things in both writing and performance, but this debut remains the essential piece in their catalog for me. This is European thrash circa 1985, at its finest, revel in its glory. 

10) Death Angel - The Ultra-Violence

The ambition continues at number 10, this Bay Area debut by a band with a 15 year-old drummer. These youngsters were discovered and their debut financed by Kirk Hammet who thankfully used his rising stardom to bolster up-and-comers. These songs are literally stuffed with every cool riff these guys could think of. This is a beautiful debut album, because it smacks of a young band hoping to conquer the world in 40 minutes. The epic Thrashers features musical acrobatics, change-ups, and sheer endurance for 7+ minutes. Mistress of Pain's opening is something else altogether. I listened to the opening 30 seconds of this track over and over as a young, impressionable youth, it is amazing. This debut is probably the only slab of pure thrash metal that these guys put out during their initial run - only quoting the genre in there following 2, tamer and slower albums. Check out that title track, 10 minute plus instrumental, thrash to the purest extent. Death Angel are definitely a top ten band, a group of youngsters incredibly accomplished and ahead of their time - an epic album.

9) Sanctuary - Refuge Denied

1987 brought this bizarre entry from Seattle, Washington - a well-produced debut financially backed by Megadeth's Dave Mustaine, featuring a vocalist that rivals Halford for sheer shrillness. Warrel Dane would find continued success as frontman for the successful Nevermore years later, but in 1987, he is the primary reason "Refuge Denied" rises to number 9 on the "Non Big Four" list. His vocals are truly impressive, not to mention the songwriting, which makes it possible to enjoy such ridiculously high singing. In a more perfect world, Die for My Sins would've been a giant hit on Headbanger's Ball, it is a catchy tune that is truly fun to scream along with. There are plenty of great tracks: Battle Angels, the eponymous Sanctuary, and Soldiers of Steel. But it is the album's closer, Veil of Disguise, where the band truly shines - a mellow intro leads into a surprising explosion with a passionate and impressively evil-sounding chorus. This is a fabulously original sounding album. The band would only produce one more LP, 3 years later, before disbanding, but this debut is an obscure gem that's worth searching for.

8) Pantera - Vulgar Display of Power

Pantera managed to be cool in a climate when metal was particularly uncool. They are possibly responsible for all that "macho metal" bullshit that hit in the mid-90's, but I'm sure that wasn't their intent. Dimebag's masterpiece is Pantera's second(?) proper album which takes Cowboys and adds focus and magnified aggression. Mouth for War became a third-wave thrash anthem with its rambling hook full of chord slides. Phil Anselmo sounds particularly pissed off here, but not as forced and contrived as he would eventually sound later. Where Pantera really shine is their approach to unique rhythmic structures which makes their hooks truly unique. Check out the drum and guitar play on New Level, it's almost like a Rhumba, but somehow it works. Dimebag had something that the aging thrash metal genre sorely needed in the early nineties - a fresh approach and an unique writing style. Pantera is one of those bands that are hard to draw a comparison to (at least, back then they certainly were). This album would propel Pantera to god status and like most bands that achieve that, they didn't handle it well. Far Beyond Driven ain't bad, but then the egos started to get in the way (probably just one ego).

7) Kreator - Coma of Souls

The third, and perhaps most accomplished of the German three, Kreator's early work is again more appropriate for a discussion about early Black Metal. 1990's Coma of Souls sees the band fully embracing the thrash metal genre with a well-polished and executed slab of technical German metal. After a brief intro, When the Sun Burns Red fires into a impossibly catchy and complicated riff, flowing into a steady thrash groove. Mille's voice is incredibly sinister this time out, with that German accent making everything sound a little cooler. People of the Lie, a song that remains the centerpiece of the band's catalog, embodies every standard of early nineties thrash: a mid-tempo groove, a rocking solo, and politically charged lyrics begging for everyone to "just get along." The consistency of Coma of Souls is really what puts it at the top of the list. There are no real duds here. The band was firing on all cylinders and the production is fantastic. After this, Kreator would enter a bizarre experimental phase and try taming down their sound. It took almost a decade before they were back and thrashing properly. 

6) Sadus - Illusions

This 2nd wave band's truly finest hour is their Death to Poseurs demo, but in the interest of sticking to legitimate albums, their debut makes the list. Sadus were a pinch late for the thrash party, so their label erroneously marketed them towards the growing death metal audience, which is a shame because I think it caused Sadus to go in creative directions they would not have otherwise gone. On Illusions Sadus putting forth their most honest effort - intense, brutal, and executed at breakneck speeds. Bass god Steve D'Angelo combines with the ferocious drumming of Jon Allen to back a blisteringly scream-filled good time. Darren Travis literally squeals like a stuck pig, blood-curdling, and insanely horrific. This is a rough and raw thrash band churning out tracks that truly rival Slayer in terms of intensity and full-on speed. Like I said, their timing was unfortunate as they were never able to reach their target audience with this unique, yet refreshingly retro thrash album. All the elements that made Sadus great here, would be incrimentally diluted with each subsequent release. They would eventually sound more progressive metal than thrash, but those who understand hold this debut in very high regard.

5) Testament - The New Order

Testament is one of those bands that narrowly missed the success of the big four. They tried desperately in the late eighties and early nineties, to be the next Metallica, but they never quite made it. It's a shame too, as Alex Scholnick is possibly the best lead guitar player of this genre. It might be due to being stuck in the shadow of the more instantly recognized big four (Chuck Billy's voice immediately brings James Hetfield to mind), but they probably deserved just as many props - they were there at the beginning after all. The recommended album for these guys is a difficult choice as the debut album, The Legacy is likely a more consistent album than this one. That being said, set aside the two instrumentals and the Aerosmith cover, and the seven remaining tunes are absolute classics. Into the Pit, Trial By Fire, the title track, and the untouchable Disciples of the Watch are straight up trash metal gold. A satisfyingly muddy, yet decipherable mix gives the band a hint of mystique. The quality of the guitarists cannot be overstated either, both the riffs and solos are top notch (the drummer being somewhat less impressive, but adequate). This is a product of a special time, when Bay Area bands were churning out great tunes without the pressure or delusion of "making it big." The following years saw them trying to make the next big hit, throwing a power ballad on 3 straight albums after this.

4) Nuclear Assault - Survive

This is the sole east coast entry in this list, New York's Nuclear Assault play a special kind of thrash metal, tinged with a punk ethos, akin to Jersey's Anthrax (original bassist, Danny Lilker actually left the band to start Nuclear Assault). The second full length from this quartet gets the nod for a raw and energetic assault starting with the excellent Rise From the Ashes, followed by mid-tempo raging Brainwashed, and the anthemic F#. Vocalist Jon Connelly is probably the reason this band never broke it big - his scream/sing style is an acquired taste, but once you acquire it, they're a kickass band. Survive is cleaner than the debut, but still raw enough to feel like a band jamming live in the studio. The album plays consistently from start to finish, with only the Zeppelin cover feeling unnecessary. The follow up Handle with Care is worth mentioning as well, it's solid, but perhaps not as consistent as this one is. Head banging riffs aplenty and a cool raw drum mix make Survive a true classic.

3) Sepultura - Beneath the Remains

Evolving from an almost proto-death metal sound, Sepultura would eventually become perhaps the best recognized foreign thrash metal band. Both Chaos A.D. and Arise will likely make more lists than this earlier, somewhat more derivative album, but originality is not what makes Beneath the Remains a great album. It's absolute ferocity and intensity that makes it good, that, and the lack of refinement that came later to really soften the Brazilians' blow. Igor Cavalera's drum attack is truly special, and it fuels the title track with a Slayer-like speed. In fact, Slayer is probably a fair comparison for this album. Drums combined with some stellar riffs makes this album a real slammer from start to finish. There is not really any filler to speak of, but highlight tracks include the title track, Inner Self, Stronger than Hate, Lobotomy, and Primitive Future. Sepultura's third outing is simply a fantastic, pure, thrash album with all the enthusiasm of a band ready to go international. Great riffs, great songs, from a solid band, south of the border.

2) Vio-Lence - Eternal Nightmare

Those that love Vio-lence, credit Sean Killian's voice. Those that hate Vio-Lence, blame Sean Killian's voice. What's lost in this debate is the four other incredible musicians backing up one of thrash metal's truly unique and talented bands. Both this album and the follow up, Oppressing the Masses, are chock-full of superb Bay Area thrash riffs and the controlled fury on a drum seat that is Perry Strickland. He may very well be in the running for best thrash drummer with Charlie Benante and Dave Lombardo. Eternal Nightmare is a true classic in the thrash metal catalogue, and only Killian's voice keeps it from reaching the mass appeal status it deserves. And what about Killian? He screams a unrelated melody over the chaos, focusing on a bizarre cadence that is what gives Vio-Lence their unique feel. Their riffs are decidedly "Bay Area," instantly bringing Testament to mind, but their songwriting is more complex. And while everyone was singing about dark, evil subjects, Vio-Lence took a "true crime" approach that fits the music perfectly. Speed, groove, and constant changes; Eternal Nightmare is well thought out, well written, and supremely executed.

1) Flotsam and Jetsam - Doomsday for the Deceiver

Jason Newsted founded and played bass for this band on this, their 1986 debut, before jumping ship and playing for Metallica where they would mix him completely out of their next 2 albums. Flotsam and Jetsam are an Arizona band that play a fast and heavy thrash with a dynamic vocalist in Eric A. K. He sings contrasting melodies over a well put together arsenal of heavy riffs and guitar shredding. What makes Doomsday for the Deceiver the number one album is its replayability. These songs are fantastic with the right amount of aggression and a punk rawness to carry it through. Hammerhead is an epic album opener - shredding along for over 6 minutes. The title track, Iron Tears, and the coincidental Fade to Black are fantastic tracks of pure Thrash. Doomsday is a flawless debut and an incredible album. The band would come close with their follow up, but they would never top this debut. Flotsam and Jetsam remain a rather obscure thrash band from this period (getting mentioned for their original bass player, but never getting enough attention for what they had to offer). They continued releasing albums throughout the nineties and beyond, but they're miles away from this gem. Funny though, I still see a few songs from this on their recent live albums / videos.