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.