Some believe it all took off in October 1985, from one moment to the next, with the release of Possessed’s timeless first album, Seven Churches, genre-defying and genre-defining all at once. Others stubbornly insist that it did not actually congeal until the early nineties, with a continent-wide boom of hitherto unheard-of extreme music, typified by guttural vocals, excessively distorted and down-tuned guitars, blastbeats galore, as well as lyrics so horrifically horrifying they would make Jeffrey Dahmer blush harder than a teenage nun at a pay-per-view option whorehouse. Others, again, point toward a variable number of demo tapes, rehearsals, 7-inches, split releases, and various compilation tracks launched sometime after Welcome to Hell, before Scream Bloody Gore … and so on and so forth!
That mythical quest, to unearth and pigeonhole the very earliest specimen of death metal proper, will doubtless continue for as long as there are bands supplying the goods in neat merchandisable plastic. Fact is that every possible subgenre of heavy metal, or music style in general, has not materialized from just one isolated source, but is a concentrated extract of sundry ground-breaking, avant-garde, cutting-edge bits of sound. Or put differently: no one genius caveman invented antediluvian grind-jazz-funk singlehandedly (even if his shaggy next-door neighbour may inadvertently have drummed the opening section of “Raining Blood” on an exceptionally troublesome piece of flint).
So why kick-start a series of features on death metal in the year 1989 precisely? For the banal reason that it is not really feasible to compile a list of ten outstanding, much less decidedly ‘favourite’, DM albums before that. One year earlier, although the genre was by then a crazily bubbling force in the underground, waiting to erupt like a tenderly ripened zit on a polaroid-pretty forehead, there would be roughly a dozen full-length albums to pick from – counting death/thrash hybrids with little death and much thrash, mind you.
Moreover, in order to single out ten essential long-players in death metal history 1989, it is necessary to lump grindcore, thrash and death metal itself into one giant fuming cauldron, and occasionally flout whatever ingredients and seasonings that would formally tip a certain full-length release into an adjacent stewpot. It was in 1989 that death metal progressed from being a nasty, noxious subgenre oddity to become a worldwide earsore – and one that would develop into a much more extreme, many-tentacled and controversial fucking thing than anyone would have guessed just a few years earlier.
If thrash metal is the oily-haired, fag-flipping, expletive-throwing street delinquent of the 80s, carrying jack-knife and brass knucks, death metal is his wildly salivating, roadkill-sniffing younger brother, chuckling insanely and incessantly, disproportioned, with ghoulish skin and a milky-white, randomly rolling left eye. That creepy freak who spends most of his afternoons in the neglected, overgrown southernmost periphery of the local boneyard, and whom the lapdogs of the neighbourhood – for reasons unknown – always try to steer clear of, whimpering piteously …
With that charming little analogy as a kind of springboard, here are the ten most excellent death metal releases of 1989, supplemented with another ten albums from the grimy, slimy vault of extreme music.
Altars Of Madness
[Tampa, Florida, USA]
9/13 tracks – 34:59/51.14 (vinyl/CD)
Release date: May 12th
(Earache Records/Combat Records – re-released several times, e.g. in 2006 on dualdisc with a live show on the DVD side, and in 2016 on limited edition vinyl in four different colours)
It can seem outright bizarre that something like death metal found its arguably best growth conditions amidst postcard-perfect beaches and lush orange orchards in the state of Florida, sunshiny top destination for approx. 100 million gaily-dressed tourists each year. Florida, a name that evokes images of Disneyland, conch-style villas and hand-rolled cigars, Miami Vice, backyards infested with dozing alligators, and whatever multiculturally multicoloured. As early as 1989, the underground of the Sunshine State had long bustled with demo and/or live activity from pioneering bands such as Hellwitch, Massacre, R.A.V.A.G.E., Xecutioner, Amon and Brutality, all the while Chuck Schuldiner and Death were touring extensively in support of Leprosy and putting the finishing touches to their upcoming third full-length release.
Death metal was alive, oozing its gooey goo, not to dry up anytime soon. It was not until Morbid Angel’s unworldly, underworldly first album, however, that it all went kablooey. With its riskily harnessed chaos of twisted and twisting riffwork, whirlwind blastbeats and horrisonant growls, Altars of Madness became next-decade canon right off the bat. High-speed cuts like the credo-curse “Blasphemy” and “Bleed for the Devil”, alongside the tangled mess of “Visions from the Dark Side” and “Chapel of Ghouls”, make manifest the vehemence, originality and songwriting talent of this poodle-haired, cartoonishly scowling foursome. And what a line-up it was … Richard Brunelle and Trey Azagthoth – a.k.a. George Michel Emmanuel III – wring out a billion squealing, screeching guitar leads/fills, perpetually giving the listener an impression of mentally gatecrashing some nuthouse rave party. Pete “Commando” Sandoval, human drum machine, recruited from a fledgling Terrorizer, brings a carpet bombing of unprecedentedly fast blastbeats, manic tom rolls and kick-drum salvos, made all the more admirable by the fact that he had been using two kick drums only for a few months prior to the album recordings. Rumbling atop this evilly seething madness are the sardonic grunts and snarls of frontman David “Evil D” Vincent (who, according to rumours, was struggling with a cold during studio time) as an ultra-blasphemous denouncement of all things holy in this world: “Chant the blasphemy // Mockery of the messiah // We curse the holy ghost // Enslaver of the weak”. One could well imagine Vincent’s gravel-throated execrations being the auditory materialization of the blubbing, glowering, smirking, giggling demonic visages on the then 18-year-old Dan Seagrave’s iconic artwork, which encompasses all seven deadly sins plus an extra few thrown in for good measure. Altars Of Madness came to be a mountainous monolith just left of the borderline between the thrashy and the deathly, with a vicious rawness yet unsurpassed and a lyrical platform so drenched in malice that it made most bubble-gummy, tongue-in-cheek, gore-infatuated storytelling of other death metal originators seem toothless and ho-hum. With their sublime debut album, Morbid Angel placed themselves at the very pinnacle of the genre – and were only really getting started …
Slowly We Rot
[Brandon, Florida, USA]
12 tracks – 35:09
Release date: June 14th
(Roadracer Records – re-released in 1998 on a so-called ‘gold disc’ with the first Xecutioner demo as bonus; also re-released in 2003 on 2CD with Cause of Death as part of Roadrunner’s ‘Two from the Vault’ series)
A good 10 kilometres east of Morbid Angel’s practice pad in Tampa, something was rotting grossly at an alarming pace in the sultry midsummer heat. Two curly-haired brothers by the names of John and Donald Tardy and their trusty chum, skull-faced guitarist Trevor Peres, had been jamming cover songs of divers thrash/speed metal icons under the moniker of Executioner since sometime in the mid-eighties. They had even managed to disgorge a two-track 7" by the title Metal Up Your Ass, distinctly thrashy and not quite indicative of things to come. Following various line-up changes, the subtly renamed Xecutioner recorded a second demo in 1986 – lasting merely five minutes! – which immediately created a stir in the neighbourhood and a wide distance beyond it. A year later, the newly established record company Godly Records eagerly included the Florida combo’s two demo tracks on the legendary Raging Death five-band compilation. In next to no time, thanks to the hype in the local metal community, Xecutioner found themselves in a music studio to record their debut full-length on a puny 8-track, with some Rick Miller as producer. Due to serious illness in his close family, Miller was replaced midway through the process by the then unknown Scott Burns, hired to play the role as ‘studio technician’ – and the rest is foul-reeking history. Roadrunner Records quickly caught the putrid scent of the underground sensation, funded the recording of another four songs (this time on 24 tracks), enforced a name change to Obituary – even though the cover artwork had been nicely adorned with the Xecutioner logo already – and on June 14th, a month after Morbid Angel’s debut, Slowly We Rot was finally released. EEEUUUAAARGH!!! Upon a massive backcloth of rolling kick drums and wobbling E-strings, John Tardy growled, gargled and groaned forth vomit-simulating vocals of proportions impossible in any living being outside of a warthog suffering from pharyngeal catarrh. Before the listeners could digest what had struck them, the opening track, “Internal Bleeding”, morphed into its follow-up, “Godly Beings”, trailed by ten additional tracks, just as punchy and in-your-face. Further augmented by lead-guitarist Allen West’s whammy-bar solos and little brother Donald’s clockwork drumming, Obituary went straight from the gunk-dripping underground into death metal legendry forever, and according to unofficial sales figures, Slowly We Rot went on to sell 75,000 copies in the US alone. Ironically, the Brandon five-piece never got around to formally tour with the album because of their high-school studies, further complicated by bassist Daniel Tucker’s sudden mysterious disappearance. Not until September later that year did the local authorities manage to locate the missing four-stringer, who had temporarily lost his memory due to a serious car accident – and, fatefully for him, the inclination to pursue a career in death metal
[Los Angeles, California, USA]
16 tracks – 36:14
Release date: November 13th
(Earache Records – re-released in 1995 on CD; again re-released in 2013 on limited edition vinyl)
While the ND grinders from Birmingham were touring in the wake of their vinyl birth Scum, and the boys in Repulsion were taking a hiatus from grindcore altogether, four longhaired adolescents of Latin-American descent grouped up with the intention of breaking all tempo records in extreme music. They plucked the name for the band from an instrumental track off Master’s 1985 rehearsal demo, besides a hearty dosage of inspiration (just take a listen to “Infestation” from World Downfall for some genuine Speckmann-esque riffwork). Under sunny Californian skies, drummer Pete Sandoval, guitarist Jesse Pintado, vocalist/guitarist Oscar Garcia and bass player Alfred “Garvey” Estrada were sweating profusely in their rehearsal pad, which ultimately gave birth to the six-track demo Nightmares from July 1987, as the highlight in a pile of adrenaline-pumped rehearsal recordings. Terrorizer straightaway established themselves as dear darlings in the global tapetrading network, but following a spur-of-the-moment phone call in early 1988, Sandoval unexpectedly faced the enticing prospect of becoming Morbid Angel’s next drummer … and that meant the end of Terrorizer – chapter one, in any case. After the split-up, Garcia reactivated his old band Nausea, Pintado was hired by Napalm Death, and Garvey (nicknamed so after a professional baseball player) was incarcerated for gang activities. However, thanks to the untiring lobbyism of a certain Shane Embury, the metal community would soon hear more from Terrorizer and the band’s hefty mix of death metal and grindcore. Napalm Death’s curly-haired bass player, who was drooling enthusiastically over the combo’s demo cassettes, persuaded Earache boss Digby Pearson to cough up the necessary shillings for the recordings of a full-length release. All of this ultimately led to the short-term reunion of Terrorizer in the fall of 1989, with David Vincent at the mixing board as well as on the four strings, and with Scott Burns as studio engineer. In just eight hours, this squad recorded as well as mixed the 16 songs that became World Downfall, at a location still infused with the rank odour from Morbid Angel’s debut album six months earlier. Terrorizer’s artillery consisted of Garcia’s raspy hellhound bark, Pintado’s razor-edge tremolo riffs and Sandoval’s metronomic blastbeats, and with that, the band hurtled through 70 percent original material, coupled with some hastily selected Nausea tracks, such as “Corporation Pull-In”, “Need to Live”, “Condemned System” and the title track, in the process creating an all-time death/grind classic. Nigh on three decades later, World Downfall still stands as one of the most intense, well-trimmed and damnably catchy recordings in extreme metal, wholly sanitized of guitar leads and suchlike ornamental bullcrap. Indeed, few modern-day death/grind purveyors hold a candle to what the godfathers in Terrorizer accomplished in a mere eight hours, on a fanboy impulse, long after their official disbandment.
[Enschede, Twente, Overijssel, Holland]
10 tracks – 36:57
Release date: December 25th
(Roadrunner Records – re-released in 2003 on 2CD with Testimony of the Ancients as part of Roadrunner’s ‘Two from the Vault’ series; again re-released in 2007 on CD)
On Christmas Day 1989, Pestilence issued the follow-up to their debut album, Malleus Maleficarum, sporting one of the most unintentionally funny record covers in the death metal hall of fame. At the very last moment, just before the album was shipped off to the printer’s office, Roadrunner scrapped the band’s initially chosen artwork for a simplistic drawing of a panic-stricken face overrun with red ants, inside a lime-green picture frame. In a nutshell, the label bosses reckoned that Pestilence’s own choice of motif, a vulgar pile of cannibalistic zombies (which was later hauled out of oblivion and used on the live album Chronicles of the Scourge from 2006), was a teeny bit too much. Stuffed in behind the laughable and shoddy artwork, though, was a record anything but laughable and shoddy. Consuming Impulse marked Pestilence’s delicate shift from high-paced, aggressive thrash metal to a more brutal and much heavier, yet still dynamic, technically proficient kind of songwriting. The guitar work of bandleader Patrick Mameli and ‘new kid’ Patrick Uterwijk overflows with badass riffs and nifty leads, pepped up by multiple harmonics, whammy-bar dives and even some wah-wah pedal for a little extra flavouring. Even with all that instrumental brilliance, Marco Foddis’ tasteful drumming not to mention, the most conspicuous feature on Consuming Impulse is maybe the delightfully agonized howls of frontman Martin van Drunen, vocally mimicking the aforementioned horrified phiz on the cover art. Owing to its all-killer-no-filler track list, from the crushing opener “Dehydrated” across the überclassic “Out of the Body” to the virtuously composed finisher “Reduced to Ashes”, it is no mystery why Consuming Impulse has reportedly sold 150,000 copies worldwide thus far. Notwithstanding its commercial success, Roadrunner only handed out four copies of the album to their recording artists, one per band member … Adding injury to insult, van Drunen (who still today remains lukewarm about his contributions to Consuming Impulse) said “bye-bye” right after the completion of a US tour with Death and Carcass. Subsequently, the remaining musicians in Pestilence managed, by way of hard cash, to soft-soap bassist Tony Choy into the line-up – straight from Atheist’s rehearsal room – and were thus able to noticeably crank up the progressive, technical elements on their subsequent effort. More about that classic record in a perhaps future 1991 feature!
[Flint, Michigan, USA]
18 tracks – 29:18
Release date: May 29th
(Necrosis Records – re-released by Relapse Records in 2003 on 2CD with a bonus disc containing all of the band’s officially released material; again re-released by Southern Lord Recordings in 2006 on a limited edition two-vinyl set containing various demo outtakes as bonus)
Roughly seven months before the Bullen/Harris/Broadrick incarnation of Napalm Death spent £50.00 on recording what would nearly a year later become Side A on the Scum album, four teenagers hailing from the industrial hotbed of Flint, Michigan, made quite a buzz with the demo tape The Stench of Burning Death in their local tapetrading circuit – if not several leagues outside and beyond it. The chronometer display on our DM Time Machine © reads January 26th, 1986. Thus, we are back in an era when the first sparks of the 90s megaboom can only just be felt as a delicate disturbance in the atmosphere, as a brief foreshock in the underground. After a short-term detour to the Floridian coastlines to try their luck in a premature Death line-up, where they performed on a handful of rehearsals, gurgler/vocalist Scott Carlson and guitarist Matt Olivo returned to their home turf in the fall of 1985 to reactivate their own juvenile demo outfit. With a name change to Repulsion (after having previously used the monikers Tempter, then Ultraviolence, then Genocide), as well as the recruitment of Dave “Grave” Hollingshead and guitarist Aaron Freeman, things made a change to the faster, heavier and br00taller. Right after the launch of The Stench of Burning Death, Repulsion booked additional studio time for the extravagant amount of 300 dollars to record 10 old and 8 new cuts for a debut album. The ending product in b/w cassette format, which was entitled Slaughter of the Innocent, remained unreleased, though, due to lack of interest from record companies, and in September that same year, Repulsion called it quits after a string of live concerts. Fast forward to 1989! Due to the fanboying efforts of the Carcass blokes – and with cover artwork provided from the same domain – the album was finally pressed and printed three years later, now bearing the title Horrified, and the record buyers gulped it down like a starved Rottweiler would a deep-fried baby rabbit. Barely 30 minutes of fucking simple, fucking intense grindcore with a mind-boggling catchiness factor and with lyrical inspiration from classic horror movies, the apocalypse itself, Lord of the Rings, and hordes of zombies, zombies, zombies … What especially made Repulsion fans slaver and slobber in rapt delight were the almost nonstop spin-dryer blastbeats of drummer Dave “Grave”, whose nickname he had aptly earned on account of being convicted for tomb raiding, pilfering among other charnel-house objects a female skull from a random crypt. By the end of 1990, Repulsion joined forces once more and immortalised said graveyard excursion on the track “Helga (Lost Her Head)” from the two-track demo Excruciation, yet – unfortunately – the band would never deliver a sophomore full-length in the wake of their game-changing masterwork from the summer of 1986.
To be continued...
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