Saturday, August 30, 2014

Thoughts after reading Extremity Retained

As I read through Extremity Retained,the excellent collection of Death Metal interviews compiled, edited, and given context by my friend Jason Netherton, it brings back a lot of memories and thoughts on the Death Metal scene and my now two-plus decade long involvement in it (yup, feeling old here!). It's full of great reminiscences from many of my peers and as well as from guys I looked up to in the early days of Exhumed. I can't help but feel a bit reflective and look back on the changes and course of the genre in general. The thing that still strikes me the most was the transformation in the sound of the genre between '90 and '95. I thought I'd use my band's blog as a place to spout off a few ideas about how and why the genre went out of fashion in the mid 1990s, much like Thrash Metal did in 1991. I suppose these reflections would have fit in better with my (generously included) contributions in the book, but reading it as a whole kind of spurred me into thinking about all of this and writing this all out.

If you don't have this book yet, fucking buy it!!

I don't remember exactly who I was talking to, but I was looking back on my days as a rabid Death Metaller from '90-'94 or so, and I was saying that after around '94 I lost interest in the Death Metal scene and got heavily into Thrash Metal and Crossover from the '80s. They responded, with a healthy degree of good natured ribbing, that '93-'94 was when I “gave up on Death Metal.” That sentence kind of hit me like a glass of cold water in the face. I would say I've done many things in my life, but one thing I never felt that I did was “give up on Death Metal.” I felt like by '93 and '94 Death Metal had lost the vast majority of what made it interesting to me. The bands that intrigued me the most (Carcass, Entombed, Repulsion, Carnage, Terrorizer, Napalm Death, Death) had either moved on creatively to other styles of music or hadn't existed for a few years at that point (except for Autopsy, who were on the verge of splitting up by then). I felt like Death Metal had given up on me. With the rise to prominence of Cannibal Corpse, Morbid Angel (I suppose they had always been prominent), and Suffocation – who, by '95 represented the last high-speed bands standing (Obituary had become quasi-groove metal by the time World Demise hit and Napalm Death was dabbling heavily in industrial metal), the punk-infused, loose and nasty form of Death Metal was in short supply. Unleashed and Grave had both slowed their sounds down by the mid-90s, and even Slaughter of the Soul, one of my favorite albums of the period, owes more to Dark Angel than it does to the obscure Death Metal of the band's earlier period. Certainly record labels had given up on Death Metal – with the exception (mostly) of Relapse, but even they were well on their way to creating an aesthetic that would enable them to sign a band like Neurosis (which was sincere, as well as a savvy business move). Not the best time to be a Massacre and Necrovore fan.

So, this begs the question – what happened between '88 and '93 that contributed to the genre's downturn in popularity in the mid '90s and its subsequent stylistic permutations? How did “the end of music as we know it” become such an over-saturated sub-genre ready to be supplanted as the de rigueur underground Metal style? Like any question covering an international artistic movement, there are a lot of answers.

- Part I: The “real musicians”

One thing that I think is often ignored, that still grates me to this day is that around '91-'92, we saw the the introduction of “real musicians” into the Death Metal genre. In 1988, every guitar nerd with a flourescent Ibanez guitar with a handle in it was in a Thrash Metal band of some iteration or other - funk-thrash was gaining a lot of traction around '91. Seriously. That was a thing.

When I was growing up, these were very popular rock and metal guitars. Yeah, it's not all "glory days" this and "good old days" that, let me tell you.

Why were they playing Thrash? Because it had the virtue of being intense and affording musicians more room to show off their chops but was still comparatively mainstream and had a wide enough audience that you would be showing off your chops to someone. Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Antrhrax were selling records by the truck-load and even Coroner, Voivod and Kreator had videos on MTV. 

If you had cable TV and nothing to do on a Saturday night in 1989, you could see this. It was fucking awesome.

But, as with anything, the popularity of Thrash Metal faded with its novelty – what was innovative in 1983 was trite by 1989. When Thrash Metal died out in about '91 or so (the “Clash of the Titans” tour effectively capped the end of the Thrash Metal era) fans were divided. Of course, some people no longer cared about music and became accountants that listened to the radio, but those who continued as members of a “scene” or avid record-buyers / concert-goes tended to split in two directions. Firstly, many younger males moved on from Thrash to Death Metal as Roadrunner and Earache began to gobble up record store rack space previously occupied by Noise Records and Combat. Older males and females across the age-spectrum of thrash fandom however, moved toward grunge – the logical endpoint of crossover. Grunge provided the volume and bombast of mainstream metal with the simplification and lack of pretension of punk, and succeeded in becoming a watered-down, commercially appealing equivalent of both. While Death Metal absorbed the far smaller portion of recently displaced music fans, that influx of audience members was a massive growth spurt for the previously super-underground genre.

Which brings us back to our Funk-Thrashing, Guitar-Center frequenting friends I mentioned earlier, eager for an intense form of music to show off their diligently practiced chops. They were a different breed than the original generation of Death Metal musicians, who never got into the genre with traditional ideas of musical development as instrumentalists, simply because Death Metal was beyond underground, and borderline unacceptable in the mid-80s. People that wanted to pursue "musicality" just weren't into Death Metal. When Death, Massacre, Xecutioner, Morbid Angel, Master, Autopsy, Carcass and Napalm Death were honing their craft, “real musicians” were just beginning to admit that Metallica wasn't a bunch of racket – but the sounds cranked out by the aforementioned bands? That was pure noise, bad comedy. Every Death or Black Metal band from the early 80s (Sodom, Kreator, Possessed, Bathory, Sacrifice, Possessed, et al) moved as quickly towards Thrash Metal as their musical prowess would allow. However, by '91-'92, these legions of Guitar for the Practicing Musician readers were joining, or worse, forming, Death Metal bands. By 1993, Headbanger's Ball (at least in America) was on its way out. But videos from Carcass, Morbid Angel, Death, and Napalm Death were part of its last gasp. So the genre was as close to mass-exposed as it would ever be in the states. The result was very similar to what happened to Thrash Metal around '87 or '88 – there was a glut of extremely competent, utterly uninspiring bands releasing EP's and albums cluttering up the scene. The terrible paradox was that the records were performed more competently than ever, but with very little identity and real passion for the genre.
I can't say Nocturnus wasn't original, but I can say they did not have cool hair.
Certainly many of the members of the innovative Death Metal bands mentioned above grew to become excellent musicians in their own right – but the distinction here is that Death Metal was the primary drive, not showing off their chops. As the '90s wore on, the speed and “extremity” of Death Metal increasingly attracted “musician” types who were out to prove that they were the fastest or most technical - which were substituted for intensity and individuality, spawning legions of extremely skilled and marginally listenable tech-death bands. The musically reckless, punk-infused side of Death Metal was waning by '93, so I retreated to pastures that more closely reflected my personal flavor of choice: raw 80s Metal - be it Death, Thrash, Crossover or just plain Heavy Metal, I spent the second half of the '90s obsessing over records like Incubus' Serpent Temptation, Razor's Violent Restitution, and Money Talks by Cryptic Slaughter. As much as I wasn't much of a black metal fan (although there were a considerable number of those records I liked at the time) I essentially sympathized with the Black Metal scene's attitude toward what Death Metal had become by the mid-'90s – safe, sterile, over-produced and over-saturated.

The classic "Anti-Scott Burns" graphic from Mayhem's Deathcrush EP. Even the catalog number of the release hates Earache Records.
Interestingly enough, the same bands that helped to push the genre's musical athleticism to new heights were also responsible for spawning it's most knuckle-dragger-friendly cliches. Suffocation balanced incredibly nimble, nuanced guitar-work with the simplest, heaviest riffing the genre had see with Effigy of the Forgotten, not only contributing to the technical prowess of the genre as a whole, but also providing the seeds for what would become “Slam” - probably the most rhythmically simplistic form of Death Metal out there, which seems to be incomprehensibly, yet intrinsically linked to the subject matter of pot-smoking and pornography. Cannibal Corpse arrived as a musical force with Tomb of the Mutilated, but simultaneously dragged the genre's obsession with gore and violence into a brand of petulant misogyny that only got more embarrassing with their next album, The Bleeding. Luckily, the band has eschewed that sort of cheap sensationalism as time has progressed and focused on horror and gore without overtly sexist themes after the departure of original vocalist Chris Barnes.

Although this song is admittedly very fucking badass.

- Part II: The labels

Of course, the host of mediocre, uninspired and uninspiring musicians playing Death Metal were far from the only culprits in the demise of the genre's brief commercial peak. Equally culpable (possibly more so) are record labels, with Roadrunner and Earache being the most egregious offenders. Labels, like any other business, were in a race to produce the most predictable return on their investment – a business practice that quickly leads to artistic stagnation. Roadrunner seemed eager to give all of the Death Metal projects to (the admittedly great) engineer / producer Scott Burns, who faced with decreasing recording artist talent, increasing workload, and decreasing budgets, spawned the “Morrisound Sound,” which while it was a good sound (probably because it was a good sound), was subsequently beaten into the ground. Between Dan Seagrave's ubiquitous artwork and Scott Burns' increasingly homogenous production, Death Metal albums were beginning to sound and look frightfully predictable. Your Monstrosity became not too unlike your Resurrection which wasn't that different from your Brutality. The problem with these albums isn't that they're awful – in fact they're actually pretty decent, and these records honestly sound better today than they did 20 years ago - simply because not every new album that you hear sounds like this anymore. The problem is that these bands simply aren't remarkable. None of them will ever have a Slowly We Rot or a Symphonies of Sickness in their catalogs. And in all fairness, I don't know that my band ever will either. I can live with that, but just saying... And if my band had gotten signed in 1991, we would have JUMPED at the chance to record at Morrisound and have Dan Seagrave cover art. Which is one of the many reasons we weren't ready to be signed in 1991. Also, we sounded like crap. 

Like I said... Pretty much crap. 

Exhibits A, B, and C. Not exactly sure what's going on in any of these ambiguously spooky album covers or how they relate to the album titles at all. And 20 years later, I still can't quite muster up the energy to care.

By 1991, even a marginally savvy record-buyer like myself (age 15/16) could tell that if it was a Death Metal album on Roadrunner, it would have the same production, the same artwork and it would be reliably decent. A genre can't grow and can't remain relevant on “reliably decent.” Thrash Metal lasted nearly 10 years because every year you would get a significant, “future classic” sort of record, Show No Mercy to The Legacy to ...And Justice For All to Beneath The Remains (and those are just a few of only the “commercially successful” thrash classics). Sure, there are tons of clunkers from tons of bands in the Thrash genre, but many of the best Death Metal bands with the most to say only made two or three albums in the genre before abandoning it for something less aesthetically constrictive. Heartwork is more closely aligned with Kreator or Megadeth than with Extreme Noise Terror or S.O.B. Wolverine Blues is I guess, sort of Death Metal? I dunno...

Still on the fence about this album 20 years later.

Equally as damaging was that by '95-'96, Nuclear Blast, Century Media, and Roadrunner had dropped most of their Death Metal bands. As soon as the genre's comparative popularity waned, most of the bands found themselves unsigned very quickly. Roadrunner even dropped Immolation for fuck's sake, so it wasn't just mediocre 2nd and 3rd generation bands getting the axe. Just as Death Metal had gotten musically complacent, the sensationalism of Black Metal came along and grabbed headlines with tales of arson and murder and a different (let's be honest - predominantly way shittier) sound. Soon treble-knob loving Scandinavians made Death Metal obsolete and the '90s iteration of Black Metal became the "extreme metal" of choice of the (truly awful) mid to late '90s, giving fat / really skinny dudes from Orange County a reason to either wear capes and buy drinking horns. That really sucked. 

Everybody had THAT friend in 1996.
- Part III: The inherent limitations of the Death Metal genre

Which brings us to the third, and probably most fatal problem preventing Death Metal from having any breakthrough or sustainable commercial success or aesthetic longevity (as a creative and innovative medium). When your goal is to put out the most extreme, horrifying and over-the-top record and you succeed (even if only in your eyes), there's no place to artistically go from there. You can either a) broaden your style, b) repeat yourself or c) simply quit, like Repulsion did. When you begin at the musical end of the line, with no melody, the fastest tempos your musicianship will allow and the most evil, frightening riffs you can compose, anything else you do is going to be either a slight variation on a theme or a watering down of your sound.

The best example of quitting while you're ahead in the history of rock and roll.
For this reason, to me, Death Metal represents the ultimate endpoint of the entire genre of Rock Music. We have to be realistic and concede that Rock and Roll is a 20th century phenomenon. Lemmy is in his late 60s, and most of the genre's originators are either dead or old enough to be great-grandparents. Current successful rock bands do little more than parrot genre cliches and Death Metal is no different. Taking Heavy Metal and punk to their logical endpoints of gratuitous volume, speed, and power, the genre effectively killed underground metal as a marketable commodity in the United States for decade or more. Certainly its intensity resonated on a larger scale and paved the way for bands like Slipknot and Deftones to bring heavier (still extremely shitty if we're being honest) sounds to larger audiences later on in the 90s, but that's hardly a mark of success. But realistically, Death Metal was never designed to be listenable or sonically acceptable. In fact, it's just the opposite. Not that it isn't musical or doesn't require talent (even though it really doesn't sometimes), but it's supposed to be abrasive, unlistenable and horrifying. It's fucking Death Metal after all.

That's one of the many reasons I have a difficult time listening to the “Death Metal” of the late '90s and beyond. Much of it is simply treading water on innovative ideas that had long since been thoroughly explored by more inspired practitioners (my band's records probably fall into that category) - or it's played by capable, well-meaning, but ultimately boring musicians who have confused “intensity” and “brutality” with the number of beats per minute in their drummer can quietly double-stroke his kick drums at or how many riffs they can cram into one “song.” Or, even worse, it's played by capable and well-meaning musicians who think that Death Metal would sound better if only it were blended with Jazz/Fusion or polyrhythms or dubstep or video-game sound effects or whatever the fuck kind of stuff musician types like to play. 

As far as younger musicians, they have always been competitively minded. Today, we live in a world that, via widely available technology, is more and more quantified and quantifiable. The competitive approach to playing at higher and higher beats-per-minute, does follow a specific type of logic (if a dreadful lack of imagination). In the 21st century, everything has become calculable – from how many people click on the links in your press release and how many fans your band has, to the music itself. Also, everything has become edited - from photo shoots to movies that are more CGI than film, to auto-tune to quantized bass-drum tracks on "death metal" albums. Younger people see the world in more quantified terms, and view and create art with these standards in mind - and rightfully so. They are a new generation that has never experienced life without the internet and cell phones, and they are the youth and should be making youth music. But the way they play “Death Metal” bears little resemblance to albums I grew up with like Consuming Impulse or War Master. Furthermore, is Death Metal or any kind of Rock and Roll really "youth music" at this point? After all, Seven Churches came out in 1985 - almost thirty years ago at this point. 

Please don't tell me this is "thrash" - it's literally called "Death Metal." How much clearer can it be?? So yeah - roto-toms are Death Metal as fuck.

I'm not saying that's bad, but I'm saying that it misses out on something intrinsic to the genre as I know it. That's why a band like Nunslaughter or Asphyx will always be more Death Metal than a band with tons of super-fast blast beats or the “lowest” vocals. The quantifying of everything reduces art to something measurable and cheapens the expression. Of course, younger people won't see it that way, because they've grown up with a different set of aesthetic values than I have, and that's okay. I'm not saying that there's only one “true” way of Death Metal for everyone, but I know that there is for me. And I'm fine with that.

However... if there was only one "true" way of Death Metal, this would definitely be it.

- Part IV: “Classic Rock Syndrome”

Which brings me to my last point. If someone had told me when I was sixteen I would be pushing forty and still playing in Exhumed and that Morbid Angel and Carcass would still be touring playing “Chapel of Ghouls” and “Corporeal Jigsore Quandary” every night, I would have laughed them out of the room. Because really, how long is any kind of rock and roll movement supposed to last? The majority of the punk movement sputtered out within five years, Thrash Metal went from a regional curiosity in San Francisco, Germany and Los Angeles to a global phenomenon and then to a virtually dead style within eight years or so. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal went from about '77-'82. The superstars of the sixties rock world (Hendrix, The Beatles, The Doors) became permanently enshrined precisely because they didn't last.
No reunion tours currently in the works, at least according to Bandsintown. Sorry - too soon?
And yet here we have Death Metal bands whose creative peaks are long since behind them trotting out the hits night after night on the tour circuit. Like all bastard sons, Death Metal killed its father (or at least gave it the old college try) – mainstream rock and metal – and then proceeded to take on his most repugnant attributes – greatest hits tours, creative water-treading and, worst of all, artists giving the people precisely what they want - whether it's reunions, creatively stagnant but reliably consistent albums, or just more Altars of Madness shirts.
I can't wait for the reissue with "40 Years of Madness" on the back.

Ultimately it's bittersweet. Because, besides playing this music, first and foremost, I'm a fan of the genre and I enjoy reunion tours and Altars of Madness t-shirts. Being an optimist, I have to find it encouraging that all of the hellish racket captured on demo tapes, LPs, 7 inches and CDs in the 80s and 90s has created something that's still with us today. We live in a capitalist, commercial society, and those avenues ultimately become the litmus test for an artistic statement's viability. If there's a market for it, it's still around. And surprisingly enough, there is still a market for Death Metal, though not as booming or on the upswing as it was 22 years ago. But it couldn't be any other way.

- Epilog: Is music that big of a deal anymore anyway?

I'm going to end this on a question... Certainly in the 80s and early 90s there were large portions of teenagers that identified specifically as a social group based around music preferences - metal, goth, punk, rap, whatever. Whether that's the case now, I have no idea. And if it is the case, does the music mean as much to the audience when they get it for free from the comfort of their own computer desk? Or directly to their cell phone? To me – from an old curmudgeon's point of view – it's difficult to see how a musical movement can be as personal or mean as much to a teenager today when they haven't invested nearly as much time, effort and money into finding and purchasing the music. Or maybe it will mean a lot, but will it mean a lot for twenty years? They'll never have to ride their bike an extra five miles because the record store down the street doesn't stock Napalm Death. They'll never need to make mix-tapes in real time (they're lucky – that shit is tedious). I don't want to get into the whole “younger people have shorter attention spans” bullshit, because every generation says that and I heard it about Atari 2600 and music videos, so fuck that – but without the effort of spending your hard-earned money on music, having to actually turn up to gigs to see bands, needing to memorize information about bands or hold onto zines and mags, is it really as personal? I hope so, but the experience is so different today from what I grew up with that I really don't know.
I'm pretty sure these chicks were feeling it!
The entire attitude toward music in our society has shifted. It was always seen as financially tenuous and a bad risk, but now it's degraded to something that's nice, but ultimately valueless. It's something people give away for free. It's something that is so easy to steal, it's not even a crime to steal it. I've illegally downloaded stuff too, so I'm not putting myself above anyone here. I just think that the way technology has evolved, pop music (which includes rock, metal, punk, R&B, hip-hop, oldies, country, and anything else you might hear on FM radio) has become a disposable, public-domain type commodity. That change may open up a host of new business opportunities for music to someone far more creative and foresighted than myself, but as it stands now, it has created a culture that severely devalues music. Even streaming services like Pandora and Spotify are struggling from what I've read.

All of that said, one of the greatest things about being a “genre” fan and musician (it's the same in film, books, television, probably other arts as well) is that people who are really into the genre are lifers. Go to any Star Trek convention or ask a nerd about the Serenity TV show and you will see a tremendous outpouring of passion. People into metal – the more underground the truer this holds – have that same kind of Trekkie-level excitement about stuff like the Thyabhorrent Death Rides At Dawn 7” EP. They live for this shit and are the reason that Death Metal has never completely gone away. 

Pretty much the same thing.

This is a pretty good EP though.
The fact that Thrash got pretty damn popular in the 80s (I used to guilt my mom into buying me the magazine Thrash Metal at the grocery store for fuck's sake) meant that it's fade from the spotlight in the US was more pronounced - finding an American High Schooler into Exodus in 1996 was a virtually impossible task. Death Metal's comparative share of the lime-light was much smaller, so it didn't vanish the same degree that Thrash's did during the nineties. Instead, it mutated in different ways, many of which I may not have been too personally excited about, but at least it was kept alive. And ultimately, wouldn't it sound weird if the Death Metal of 2002 sounded just like the Death Metal of 1992, which sounded just like the Death Metal 2012? A genre can't stagnate and survive.

All those retro-thrash kids with puffy white high-tops nailed the color scheme, anyway.
And now, with our nostalgia-obsessed and (re)cyclical pop-culture, things have come full-circle. The summer Metal tour circuit looks more and more like 1992 – Obituary, Carcass, Morbid Angel and many more (including Exodus, Slayer, Megadeth, Kreator and their influences like Venom, Angel Witch, and Motorhead as well as a host of 2nd and 3rd generation bands influenced by any of the aforementioned) are on tour and playing to great turnouts. It may actually be the best time to be a metal fan in the history of the genre – the originators are still playing, and bands from every generation and style are active and touring. You can see NWOBHM, Thrash, Death Metal, Black Metal, and Grindcore at the same festival. With all of that happening, I can't see how any metal fan isn't excited in 2014. Especially with 40+ years of history and sub-genres to explore right at their fingertips. If I could have gotten the Thy Kingdom Come demo just by typing some shit into a computer when I was a kid, I would have literally shit my pants with glee. I just hope that in twenty years, the kids of today will still be as passionate about whatever shit they're listening to today as I still am about World Without God by Convulse.

Never, ever gets old.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The stories behind, and transcriptions for, "Open The Abscess" and "Sickened"

Hello, guitar nerds. Here's some more tablature for you, and for those of you not so guitardedly inclined... Here's a little background info on the tunes.

Open The Abscess

When we were writing "Gore Metal" Col and I were deeply obsessed with German Thrash, constantly blasting Sodom, Destruction, Assassin, Protector, and Kreator and shaming anyone who wasn't as excited about wearing multiple bullet-belts as we were. We were zealots, and like all zealots, we were kind of dicks about the whole thing, but our enthusiasm shone through in the record - our "musicianship" definitely didn't. When we were working on "Open The Abscess" I envisioned it being our "Bestial Devastation," which I suppose is sort of Destruction's "Whiplash."

In the spirit of the Death Metal / Thrash crossover we were embracing, I stole the title from a lyric in "Out of the Body" by Pestilence - "No time to waste, just open the abscess, will you please help me?" Ross and I split the lyrics on this one, like most of the songs on "Gore Metal," although my memory is a bit hazy on who did more of it (probably Ross?). From the get-go, this was my favorite song on the album and we've played it live countless times throughout the varying incarnations of the band that have ensued since '98.

Here's a blast (beat) from the past. "Open The Abscess" live from our tour with Mortician back in 2001. Warts and all. Actually more warts than anything else.


Sickened went through a weird process before making its way onto Necrocracy. Original Exhumed drummer Col Jones and I have a Thrash Metal band called Dekapitator and at different times, we've talked about taking the band in various tangential directions. In fact, after we did the first album "We Will Destroy... You Will Obey" in '99, we wanted to become a vicious, hyperspeed Sadus / Kreator hybrid, but then Hypnosia came out with their debut EP that was in that vein and impossibly great, so we scrapped that. At another point, we were considering getting a melodic vocalist and heading in a more Power / Thrash direction a la early Helloween.

Anyway, I was thinking of taking the band in a more dark Death / Thrash direction when I wrote what would eventually become "Sickened" for Dekapitator. After it became clear that nothing was really going on with that band (Col's busy with Cretin and Repulsion as well as adult stuff like a marriage and a career), I brought it to Gravehill when Rob and I were still in the band and we were writing for When All Roads Lead To Hell. We learned the song, with a different bridge and no blast beats, but Rhett "Thorgrimm" Davis decided the arrangement wasn't particularly Gravehill, which I suppose is true in hindsight.

I always liked the riffs for the song, and when I was listening back through my old pre-production recordings while writing Necrocracy I rediscovered this tune. After replacing a few polka beats with blast beats and re-tooling the bridge, I had a "new" Exhumed song. Like a lot of our more recent songs that seem to catch on, I thought this was kind of a throwaway tune that would be relegated to being a bonus track or something. Rob immediately pegged it as his favorite song on the album, and it's become a staple of our live set. It also got some nice mentions in reviews, which was cool, and more importantly, it's become one of the key "circle-pit" moments of our whole set, which is very satisfying.

Here's a cool video someone crafted for "Sickened" using clips from the new Evil Dead movie. And yes, I thoroughly enjoyed the remake. Certainly the goriest theatrical release movie I've seen in years. If I was 14 and seeing that, I'd want to start a Death Metal band all over again.
So here are the transcriptions for these. I use Guitar Pro 6 to transcribe well, pretty much everything at this point. I've posted the .gpx files from that program and .pdfs of the tab for those who don't have it. 
So here are the Guitar Pro files first.
And here are the .pdf files.
As far as playing these tunes, they're far from our most technical, Open The Abscess is really just difficult to hear on the recording, which I suppose is why folks have requested the transcription. The tempo shifts are very, ahem... "organic" on the record so don't pay too much attention to the tempos on the transcription.
Sickened is a pretty straightforward Death / Thrash kind of thing, lots of speed-picking going on. I've included the tapping sequence that's my "solo" and the harmony for it. When we recorded Necrocracy, this was the first song Bud recorded a lead for, and what you hear on the album is literally his first take. I have no idea what he did (and he probably doesn't either) but it's definitely beyond my ability to play or transcribe, so... good luck on that one, haha!  Anyway, enjoy.
Harvey and the usual gang of idiots

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Let's talk about Leprosy

So, full disclosure, this post isn't about Exhumed really at all. If you wanna read about Exhumed, I'm working on some new posts, I swear. 

After getting the deluxe reissue of “Leprosy” in the mail, I immediately headed for the liner notes. What can I say, I'm a liner notes guy, and I've heard the album hundreds and hundreds of times by this point, so this was something new to dig into (I did enjoy the rehearsal disc quite a bit though). I liked them, but I felt like I didn't quite get what I was looking for out of them, so I decided to write my own. That may seem unnecessary, or pompous, or both (probably both), but hey, it's my blog, so fuck it. I'm going to reitereate some thoughts that I shared with Death / Schuldiner intellectual property manager / lawyer (also Relapse's lawyer) Eric Grief when I met him the first time in Calgary. Eric booked our show there, and we chatted for quite a while about his involvement with bands like Morbid Saint, Viogression, Morta Skuld, Num Skull, and the early days of the Milwaukee Metalfest, but his management of Death was the topic I was the most interested in. The reason this is noteworthy is that my conversation with Eric is (I think?) one of the things that eventually led to my getting contacted to be part of the initial incarnation of the Death To All tour – I'd like to think that that was in part due to the thoughts on Chuck and the band's legacy in general, and Leprosy in particular that I shared with Eric that night. At any rate, let's talk Leprosy.

I got this flyer outside my first metal show, Anthrax, Exodus, and Helloween at the Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium in April 1989. Although my parents didn't let me go see Dark Angel and Death, I had the foresight to hold onto the flyer. I also unfortunately colored it in with crayons - because I was 13 years old. Kids. Sheesh.
When Leprosy came out in 1988, Death Metal was still predominantly a tape-trading phenomenon. With the dissolution of the genre's originators Possessed the preceding year, there was definitely a sort of Death Metal “Power Vacuum.” Up to that point, Possessed (along with Celtic Frost) had been the most visible Death Metal band, even though their swansong “The Eyes Of Horror” was more Thrash than Death Metal and their sophomore album “Beyond The Gates” was hampered by terrible production. Other (signed) bands that were arguably part of the seminal generation of Death Metal acts like Celtic Frost, Onslaught, Sodom, Kreator, and Sacrifice (yes, I know they're all considered “Thrash” now, but I'm talking about 1987 “Death Metal”) had unilaterally moved on to less extreme pastures by 1988. Thrash Metal had successfully broken through to a much wider audience in 1986, and people were waking up to seek out sounds heavier than Metallica.

That was the overall climate that greeted Leprosy – a golden opportunity for the right band to step up and put the burgeoning Death Metal scene on the map. There were thousands of rabid headbangers slinging demo tapes through the mail from Necrovore, Slaughter, Morbid Angel, Desecration, Necrophagia, Insanity, Genocide / Repulsion, Master / Deathstrike, Devastation (Chicago), Sadus and Autopsy, but Death had a serious leg up on the rest of the genre – a record deal. That may not sound like much in 2014, but this was the 80s, and to get out of the tape-trading scene and into the underground proper, a deal on a label like Combat Records (Metal Blade or Noise Records would have done as well) was essential. With all of those factors in place, Chuck and the recently co-opted Massacre line-up (minus vocalist and former Death drummer / vocalist Kam Lee) made what is referred to in the biz as “the right record at the right time.”
Press clipping from "Power Metal," sometime in 1988. "Power Metal" was Hit Parader's Thrash Metal magazine, and every issue featured Metallica, Megadeth or some combination thereof. The "writing" was terrible, but you could find out about new albums and get neat pictures to keep in a box for 26 years and then post on your blog later. Also, Chuck's quote there is endearing. 
Scream Bloody Gore had been comprised mostly of marginally re-worked (see the no-longer-Satanic lyrics to “Infernal Death”) tunes from the band's demo days, but newer tunes like “Denial of Life” and the title hinted at Chuck's musical ambition. Those tendencies were prominently displayed on Leprosy - the album was easily the band's most “musical” record. It represented, for all intents and purposes, a quantum leap forward in musicality for Death, with articulate solos (and also solos by Rick Rozz), novel drum parts, occasional unorthodox time signatures, and sophisticated (for 1988) production values. That the album sounds so grimy and old-school in hindsight is a testament to the level of sophistication that (for better or for worse) has made its way into the genre in the ensuing years. This was the first widely available Death Metal album that was difficult for Thrash Metal fans to laugh off as noise – not only due to the album's comparative refinement, but also thanks to Slayer's Reign In Blood, which had readied the Thrash Metal audience's ears for harsher sounds.

A couple of observations regarding musicality and extremity in Death Metal circa 1988 are helpful to keep things in perspective, lest we start to laud Leprosy with unrealistic levels of praise. One thing that's disturbing is the cult of posthumous "Chuck-worship" that now clouds serious analysis of the band's musical catalog - I love Death, but crediting them with the "invention" or "revolution" of Death Metal in the 1980's is at it's most accurate, a drastic oversimplification. They were certainly the breakthrough band of the genre, but it's worth noting that None Shall Defy by Infernal Majesty pre-dates Leprosy by a year and boasts a level of musical sophistication and clarity well beyond Death and Possessed albums of the same time (in fact, their demo sounds much better production-wise than Scream Bloody Gore or Seven Churches). For whatever reasons, be it bad promotion / distribution, line-up problems, atrocious cover art, a stupid-looking logo, goofy band photos, or just being a Canadian band, they never caught on the way Death did. I've often wondered if some of the riffs on Leprosy and Spiritual Healing are indebted to Infernal Majesty. Furthermore, by the time Leprosy was released, Napalm Death (on their way to co-opting the Death Metal scene that would shortly return the favor) and Carcass were already cranking out far heavier, harsher sounds across the Atlantic, but wouldn't resonate with American Thrash Metal audiences for a couple more years (Carcass' tour supporting Death didn't hurt in that regard). Ultimately, Death was extreme enough to be musically shocking and something "new" to the larger Thrash Metal audience, but was still within the average Slayer fan's musical "comfort zone."
Let's be honest, this cover totally sucks. Great record, but... damn. 
Not only was the album sonically in the right spot, it featured professional cover art and an extensive cassette j-card, that even featured the logos of the band's instrument endorsers. There was no doubt from top to bottom that this wasn't just another tape-trading basement racket (as much as the aforementioned Leprosy-era rehearsals might put that statement to the lie at the songs' core) – this was a real band. 

Leprosy and Scream Bloody Gore J-cards compared. 
Leprosy (above) and Scream Bloody Gore (below)
J-cards, interior comparison
To be fair, I suppose both of the Death J-Cards are nicer than most Death Metal cassettes of the era, which looked like this - a thumbnail of the square LP cover with the logo and album title below.
That perception was cemented by their inclusion on the Ultimate Revenge II video tape. At the time, music videos for Thrash Metal bands, even those on major labels, were scarce, so a music video for a Death Metal band would be unthinkable. Now, not only were Death included on a video, which was rare enough, their performance was actually moderately competent in comparison with the other, more ostensibly "accessible" bands featured (certainly tighter than Dark Angel's, although they lacked the polish and flash of Forbidden). Most importantly they certainly stood out as the heaviest footage on offering. Again, all of these factors, along with positive press coverage at a time when most Death Metal bands' demos were mercilessly slagged by the press, were telltale signs that this was a legitimate band to be taken seriously by Metal fans, a feat as yet unaccomplished by a pure Death Metal band at the time.

Ultimate Revenge 2 in all its analog glory, on VHS and Cassette. And yes, I just happen to have this crap lying around after 25 years. Don't fuckin' worry about it.

"Forgotten Past" from the Ultimate Revenge 2
Leprosy era article in Metal Mania from sometime in 1988. I had this on the wall at our rehearsal room when we were practicing for Anatomy is Destiny. We practiced so often I used to literally read the article while we were jamming.
The lyrics also had achieved a level of comparative "maturity" – gone were Scream Bloody Gore's lurid nursery rhymes about “Vomit for a mind, maggots for a cock.” In their place were cautionary (but still morbid - see what I did there?) tales about deadly disease, death by misadventure, and the inevitability of death and it's impact on life. Okay, well “Choke On It” may not have had much depth, but the fact that any of the lyrics had any depth was something in and of itself. Until Leprosy, the entire Death Metal genre's lyrics (except for Master's quasi-political, apocalyptic material) had consisted of two topics: Satanism (or occultism in general) and horror movies. Here was somebody at least saying something. Sure, the nursery rhyme aspect was still there, but lines like:

Life will never be the same
Death can never be explained
It's their time to go beyond
Empty feeling when they're gone”
(From "Open Casket")
had more to say than:

Trying to escape
They torture you by cutting off your cock
When you're dead, Upon your bones they'll feast
Your brains they'll eat and chop.”
(From "Torn To Pieces")

In the end, I suppose terms like “listenablity” or “maturity” are all academic if the album sucks. And Leprosy categorically does not suck. Front to back, it's all killer and no filler. Every tune oozes aggression and maintains a gloomy, morbid vibe. In short, it sounds the way Death Metal is supposed to sound, but clear. And the clarity of the recording only makes it heavier and more authentic. Where Scream Bloody Gore sounded like it was recorded in a warehouse in between bong hits (mostly because it was), Leprosy boasts a clear, balanced and powerful mix. Bill Andrews' precise and creative (at least in terms of where Death Metal was in 1988) drumming and Terry Butler's dutifully clanking bass-lines fall seamlessly into alignment with Chuck's cranked Marshall. Songs like “Leprosy” and “Pull The Plug” exercise a degree of restraint absent in most Death Metal up to that point, allowing riffs to develop and build effectively (effectively being the operative word) rather than plunging hell-for-leather into chaos. Sure, speed was still there, but the band's sound had filled out and found a heaviness that hadn't been as prevalent since the Mantas days of bludgeoning Hellhammer-esque riffs. Was Scream Bloody Gore more deranged? Absolutely. Was it more evil? Sure, in fact it's still my all-time favorite Death album. But was it as good as Leprosy? Objectively, no fucking way. 

To top it all off, Chuck's leads were downright classy for a Death or even Thrash Metal band of the day (and were certainly miles ahead of leads by Slayer and Kreator at the time in terms of being “musical”). But just in case things were threatening to get "pretty" or overtly "melodic," Chuck was counterbalanced by Rick Rozz's frenzied divebombs and whammy bar abuse. A quick word about Rick Rozz's oft-maligned guitar-work: the guy knows how to phrase a catchy, memorable solo, which is no mean feat when 90% of his stuff is just tremelo bar pull-ups and dives. His absence on subsequent albums helped cement the band's reputation for musicality and guitar heroics, but at the cost of aggression in the leads. Rick Rozz fucking rules, end of story. And no, I'm not gonna call him DeLilo. To me, he will always be Rick Rozz. At any rate, the songs managed to tick all the musical boxes: heaviness; speed; skill; and they even managed the Death Metal genre's first real vocal hook with perennial crowd-pleaser “Pull The Plug.” My personal favorite track is still “Left To Die” which features my favorite Chuck vocals of all time and the best kick-snare beat turnaround since “Battery.”
So basically, what I'm saying is: "Nice job, these guys"
Now, twenty-six years later (Holy shit! I'm old!) it's painfully clear that Leprosy was the album that not only cemented Death's reputation, but put the entire genre of Death Metal, the Florida Death Metal scene, and Morrisound Studios on the map. Two years later, as Thrash Metal largely dried up creatively (and soon after commercially) the Death Metal genre was moving from strength to strength. A host of bands emerged from the same tape-trading scene that had devoured Death's “Back From The Dead” and “Mutilation” demos, and the whole movement had finally gained serious traction among underground Metal labels and fans alike.

By 1990, Thrash Metal had been rendered completely irrelevant to my circle of friends and I, and to many other like-minded kids around the world. New and more commercial albums from bands like Metallica, Slayer, Kreator and Testament were met by a collective shrug - our fandom had been wholly subsumed by the Death Metal movement that began taking the underground by storm with the release of Leprosy

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Fresh Blood - (Some of) Exhumed's favorite opening bands

As a guy that plays in a heavy metal band, I hear a lot of heavy metal. Because Exhumed is always on the road, I'm attending about 150 shows a year. So one thing that I don't really do is track down new heavy shit to listen to because I just get to be totally saturated with it – just like the guy that works at the Twinkie factory probably doesn't eat that many Twinkies. Okay, who am I kidding? That guy probably eats Twinkies morning noon and night – I know I would. Anyway, to balance out the heavy shit I'm bombarded by day after day, I listen to a bunch of different music – some of it sentimental, some of it funny, some of it atmospheric, some of it funky, whatever. That said, I always love listening to the classics, many of which I covered a couple of blogs ago, and every so often I come across a new band that really catches my ear. I've decided to dedicate a blog to spreading the love for some of the coolest regional openers (not bands we're touring with, you should hopefully know who they are by now) we've come across that are unsigned, marginally signed, or just not that well known. Hopefully I've talked enough about our original drummer's band with our old guitarist Mike Beams Mortuous enough that some of you have checked them out and the Decibel review for my buddies in P.O.O.R. should have nudged you in their direction (I also did a couple solos on their record), so I kept this to bands that we've played with since last summer. There are always more that I could mention, but I thought 11 was good for the sake of readability, and I'm sure I'm forgetting some of my faves, so please don't think this list is totally comprehensive. One of the questions I get a lot is, "what new bands are you into?" so here's the answer(s). If any of these guys tickle your fancy, please support 'em. They're all good dudes making good music, so whatever my endorsement is worth, these bands have it.
- Matt and the usual gang of idiots

Angelust – we played with Angelust in the unlikely locale of Peoria, IL – yes, Exhumed plays all the hotspots! Anyway, these dudes were a lot of fun live with their punky Black Thrash. Their demo is a bit lopsided, but the first track “Rock and Roll Funeral” was on heavy rotation in our van after the show for a couple weeks, which is pretty unusual - in a good way. If they can keep writing songs this good, Midnight may have some competition on their hands. Let's hope so, cos I can't really get enough of rock-infused Black Thrash.

Bastard Deceiver – I'm pretty sure this band broke up, which is too bad. If not, please let me know and I'll edit this post. This Tampa-based Grind band fused a lot of early Bolt Thrower into their sound, which was a cool contrast to the Terrorizer and D-Beat stuff that comprises most of their sound. Their “Normal Life Provides Nothing” EP is a fucking ripper. You can check it out at their Bandcamp page and download it for free (or pay if you're a nice person). We played with them twice in 2012, once in Tampa and once in Houston, and both times, they totally ruled. Yes, they have a female singer, does it really fucking matter? It's 2014 people. Anyway, check these guys (and girl) out.

Coffin Dust – We've become pretty good friends with Coffin Dust guitarist / vocalist Matt “Slime” Ferri. We prevailed upon him to design our recent “Ravening” shirt, as well as to tattoo Bud, Rob and myself with the Ghostbusters logo, which capped off one of the funnest nights in memory. But even if I didn't know him, I'd still think his band was awesome. Taking thrashy Goregrind into weird arrangements with killer melodies, their debut “This Cemetery, My Kingdom” is a kickass Death Metal album that you can actually sink your teeth into and get some repeated listens out of. Check it out for a measly $5 here. The songs are kind of long, but in a good way, each riff and melody gets some time to develop and be enjoyed. Very fucking cool stuff. If you meet Matt, ask him to show you his epic Slayer tramp stamp. Seriously.

Kaliya – I actually gave Kaliya guitarist Ben Cooper some guitar lessons and the more he told me about his band, the more I figured they must be pretty good. I was right. Metalized D-Beat with a nice touch of melody is what these guys are all about, and they do it really well. We played with them in Dallas on the Dying Fetus tour, and they were killer live as well. I was grinning with pride like I had something to do with it all night, saying “that guy took a couple guitar lessons from me, his band is awesome!” To clear the air, they were awesome before I had ever heard of 'em. If this sound is something you're into, give these dudes a listen.

Madrost – from a bit closer to home, these guys are an up and coming Orange County Death / Thrash band well worth checking out. After chatting with a couple of the guys before our show at Chain Reaction with Iron Reagan, they asked me to check out some of their set. They were really nice, sincere dudes, so I agreed just to be polite. To be honest, I get so burnt on checking out bands, I have a hard time getting the motivation to watch the locals, especially in an alcohol-free venue like the Chain Reaction in Anaheim. Anyway, I made sure to check them out and not be a totally jaded dick, and ended up being really impressed. The demo / EP CD they gave me was also killer, with nods to SBG / Leprosy era Death and mid-period Kreator, stuff I still listen to like it was brand new, 25 years later.  You can check out their "Maleficent" (wasn't the villain chick in "Sleeping Beauty?" Why do I know that?!?) here. Their riffs are nice and simple, which keeps things catchy and makes it easy to get into these guys right away. Killer stuff.

Mangled (Atlanta) – Not to be confused with the Dutch band of the same name - We ended up partying with these guys all day before the show we did with them in Atlanta in December of 2013, and they were great dudes. We all got along really well and they had killer taste in music, so I was really hoping I liked their band. It's always awkward when you get along with someone but don't like their band. Anyway, I didn't have to worry about that in this case at all. Their “Sewer Metal” EP is killer – shades of Engorged are present, as well as early (like, really early) Cannibal Corpse that make this the kind of crossover-infused, horror-obsessed Death Metal that I really like. Check out their demo for free (or pay for it if you're a nice person) here. These guys should be making a lot of noise, literally and figuratively in the scene very soon.

Maniac – We played a gig with these guys in Madrid in 2013, and we ended up enjoying the shit out of them. These guys (and girl drummer!) churn out Black / Thrash with a serious “Kill 'em All” edge, employing a barrage of killer riffs. Open A string grinding with power chords and tons of attitude always sound great. After their set, I had to pick up their “Black Legion” 12” at the show and I think you should too. Not sure where you can find it, but you can listen to it here. I have no idea what they're up to next, but I bet it's gonna be awesome.

Necrot - Our original drummer, Col Jones, is notoriously picky and pretty much hates every band that's not Repulsion, Iron Maiden, or Sodom. He introduced these guys to me as "the best Death Metal band in the Bay Area." Needless to say, that set the bar pretty high in my mind. These guys undeniably fucking rule and they're one of my favorite new Death Metal acts. Down-tuned, Swedish / Finnish early 90s style darkness that you can pick up for a mere $3 here

Seprevation – this Bristol, UK based Death / Thrash hybrid played all the UK dates with us on our 2013 tour, which were several – London, Newcastle, Bristol, Derby, Glasgow, Dublin, and Cork if memory serves, so we got a chance to see them a bunch of times and I enjoyed every one of their shows. Evoking all the right stuff – early Sadus, Death, Atheist, Kreator, MassacraDead Head (with occasional tinges of Megadeth and even Morbid Angel) and the like, while managing just the right touch of occasionally 'progressive' bits to keep things interesting, these guys are a great updated take on the most vicious thrash sounds of 1989, which is right up my alley. They have a great EP called "Ritual Abuse" (not to be confused with the classic Num Skull album of the same name, although I bet Num Skull fans would LOVE these guys) that you can get here, and a new album called “Consumed” coming out very soon that I would urge anyone into aggressive, energetic Thrash / Death metal to check out. The EP is really fucking good and the album is even better. If there's any justice, these guys should be a lot more well-known in a year from now. They even made a nifty official video you can watch below.

Teething – we did a couple shows with these guys in Spain in 2013 and they blew me away with their ferocious, hardcore (not like Hatebreed, the old, fast kind) infused Grind. Filtered through the notorious HM-2 pedal, Teething push everything into the red and keep it there. They brought a ton of energy to the stage and their records are just as good. Highly recommended grind, and you can download their excellent split for free with Ravage Ritual at their bandcamp page! It's fucking free, check it out! They also have some of the best shirt designs I've seen in years and are really good dudes, so win-win-win. 

Xingaia – We partied with these guys in Spokane after our show there with Suffocation and had a great time. They kind of remind me of Mangled (or vice versa, since I heard Xingaia first), but they're a bit more brutal, with some pretty blistering tempos and some quirky, non-typical technical riffs here and there. Again, I got a bit of an Engorged vibe from their kickass self-released full-length (not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination) from these dudes, especially with the samples between songs and shit (the Aqua Teen Hunger Force sample here is genius) but they're definitely doing their own thing, and ruling the shit out of it. You can preview the record here.