Let’s ruminate on the also-rans: Sarcofago and Blasphemy

In the 1980s heavy metal in all its weird and wonderful forms morphed into a genuinely international phenomenon. This was true of artists making inroads into mainstream charts and hearts, and of the underground movement, which propagated itself through tape-trading and word of mouth.

Sarcofago, a little known metal outfit from Brazil were to gain international fame partly thanks to the plugging of Euronymous, who had started to see himself as something of a mover and shaker of Norwegian metal through his Deathlike Silence label in the early 1990s. Some note that they were one of the first of the early black metal artists to wear corpse-paint, make up that made them look genuinely ghoulish as oppose to the clownish variant championed by Kind Diamond. All well and good, but what of the music? In many ways their debut album ‘I.N.R.I.’ of 1987 was a perfect summation of extreme metal at the time. There are hyper fast numbers along the lines of what Bathory were doing at around the same time. Unlike much extreme thrash of that era, when Sarcafago played at the very fastest limits that their talents would allow, they made full use of the tremolo strum. Although not underpinned by the blast-beat characteristic of the Norwegian style, it serves to add an almost neoclassical flare to this otherwise primitive thrash.

There are of course slower numbers, slower than anything Bathory were doing at the time. The track ‘Nightmare’ is structured along the same lines as the rest of the album, but the plodding tempo affords a chance to glimpse how these riffs are constructed. Simple power-chord passages are contrasted with riffs built around the tritone, which bare rhythmic similarities to a military marching band. Played atonally, or in a minor key, with understated distortion, all this lends the music a ghoulish quality, calling to mind legions of the dead sounding our doom rather than the triumphalism of a major key. Of course the vocals contribute to this effect, showcasing a mid-range growl from the back of the throat, slightly deeper than Quorthon’s high pitched rasp, one step further along the road to monstrosity after the likes of Possessed and Celtic Frost. They are set distantly in the mix, with plenty of reverb giving them an almost whispered quality, somehow accentuating the intensity of the music, as if the vocals have to fight for their spot in the listener’s mind. Drums play as fast as possible along with the riffs without descending into a blast-beat, and do not signal changes in tempo or mood, relying on the guitars to perform this rhythmic function; techniques innovated by Discharge and later by Slayer.

Blasphemy, although contemporaries of Sarcofago, did not get round to releasing their debut EP ‘Blood Upon the Altar’ until 1989, and their first full length of the following year, ‘Fallen Angel of Doom’, was to prove a fresh benchmark of just how abrasive some of this music could sound.

This, along with Sarcofago’s ‘INRI’, were released back when brevity was a virtue, as both these albums barely clock in at half an hour. Albums by equivalent artists of the present often stretch to nearly an hour in length. The fact that recording and releasing music today is significantly easier than it was thirty years ago has raised the bar for the level technical proficiency an artist has to display to stand out. An unwarranted side effect of this has been a reluctance to trim down the runtime of some albums, with the virtue of self-editing gradually becoming a thing of the past. Leave people wanting more! One listen to Blasphemy’s ‘Fallen Angel of Doom’ of 1990 however, and it is clear that the length is perfect for these musicians were trying to portray. What we have here is half an hour of almost incomprehensible micro-songs.

The drums rarely veer from a mid-paced blast-beat, riffs are largely constructed from tremolo strummed power-chords, but lacking the harmony and melody of much black metal brings this music closer to dark grindcore than anything else, and just as limiting. This style, combined with the darker aesthetic and lo-fi production values, has often dubbed ‘war metal’. The vocals are a deep, guttural death metal growl, sometimes barely distinguishable from the overly distorted guitars, sometimes overpowering everything in the mix. Unpredictable volume on highly distorted vocals was to prove a favourite among a certain flavour of grindcore-infused black metal championed outside of Norway by the likes of Profanatica, Beherit, Impaled Nazarene, and Antaeus, sometimes known as ritual metal, sometimes war metal depending on the commentator. For an album that consists of static noise, ambient interludes, alienating growls, punctuated by the occasional thrash riff, it became surprisingly notorious.

This marked a new benchmark in obscurity at the dawn of a new decade. This was music that was not just extreme for the sake of outdoing peers; every aspect of it seemed to be designed to alienate the listener, this was music that did not want to be listened to. There is nothing charming about it. But this philosophy was taken up by black metal in particular and taken to heart by scenes in France, Sweden, Finland, the USA, and Norway.

The three years chronological distance between these two releases may make a rigorous comparison unfair, but their standing in the catalogue of our history is roughly similar. Many artists of the next decade cited Blasphemy and Sarcofago as a key influence, but maybe not quite on the same standing as Bathory and Celtic Frost. It is not clear how much geography comes into play here. South America boasts a proud history of extreme metal, but in the late 1980s it was something of a rarity; did this add to the obscurity of Sarcofago’s music, turning them into a more visceral, more intense Celtic Frost? Did Blaspehmy’s isolation in Canada from any specific scene akin to Bay Area thrash or Tampa death metal drive these musicians to go beyond the bounds of what was acceptable in order to get noticed?

In terms of choosing the superior release, it has to be Sarcofago. This album is intensely fast and filled with emotion, but they dialled the music back at the point where Blasphemy were just getting started. This point turned out to be where music intersects with statement, the former retains at least some creative virtues that tempt a listener back for repeated listens, the latter is an interesting artistic experience, but is grounded in a need to alienate the listener to the point where they are discouraged from returning to the music at all. ‘Fallen Angel of Doom’ is afflicted with the short lifespan common to all novelties; nevertheless it proved to be a bomb, a catalyst that would explode on more developed artists and drive them to push the boundaries of alienating music whilst maintaining structure, a semblance of melody, of small olive branches to keep the listener coming back. There is no such respite in the music of Blasphemy. And if that’s not enough to convince one of the more enduring appeal of ‘INRI’ then the immortal lyrics of Deathrash’ should serve to sway the unconvinced:

If you area false don’t entry, the nuclear drums will crush your brain, because you will be burned and died, slaughtering all with intense pain

That’s not to say that Blasphemy were without their comedic appeal however.

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