By the late 1980s the homogenous blob that was known as extreme metal was slowly coming apart, with journalists and commentators forming and moulding the separate camps that were to define the following decades. There were artists however, that still resisted this trend, and played a form of hard thrash still lacking certain features that distinguished death metal; namely the guitars taking on the role of chief rhythm keeper, the vocals morphing into something truly inhuman, and solos rising out of the music without build or tempo change.
Washington’s N.M.E. were in many ways the true inheritors of the Venom school of primitive mid-paced thrash, not the more regal brand of black metal that was to appear out of Scandinavia. Just as Venom were in many ways the direct inheritors of Motorhead. This is probably the closest thing that underground metal had to rock ‘n’ roll at the time. Don’t be fooled by the noise interludes and excessive reverb found on every instrument on N.M.E.’s 1986 offering ‘Unholy Death’, although an extremely dark and noisy affair, this is rock at heart. N.M.E. take their punk routes seriously on ‘Unholy Death’, showcasing noisy, sloppy music apparently not capable of playing above a certain tempo and sometimes descending into an utterly chaotic cacophony of guitar feedback and symbols. Much thrash at the time, although engaged in an arms race of speed and aggression, still prided itself on fidelity of technical ability and production values on recorded material, ‘Unholy Death’ on the other hand follows directly in the footsteps of Venom and Hellhammer, very simple punky rock ‘n’roll that relies more on guile and atmosphere to sound extreme and dark, with the music itself being made up of simple three chord atonal riffs, and mid-paced simple drums played in 4/4.
There really is not much more one can say about N.M.E.’s ‘Unholy Death’. The guitar interludes of feedback and noise are certainly imposing, the fact that everything is coated in reverb lends a certain apocalyptic vibe to this album, but the music underneath amounts to nothing more than Motorhead on ket. There is joy in this music however, if for nothing else than the chorus (we’re still in verse/chorus territory mind) to opening track ‘Louder Than Hell’:
We play loud, louder than hell, fucking loud, louder than hell
Their name is an abbreviation of ‘No Mental Effort’, word.
Sweden’s Merciless, although contemporaries of N.M.E. did not get around to releasing their debut full length ‘The Awakening’ until 1990. Having said that, their music really was of a different era to N.M.E. For this brand of death/thrash, metal fans were starting to demand a certain level of musicianship from artists, even if the music was not that complex at times, precision playing was required simply because the speed this music had reached demanded it. Merciless predated the Gothenburg scene with its famous Sunlight Studies, and as a result do not sound uniquely Swedish. ‘The Awakening’ could have come out of any scene around the world that was thriving at the time, as it happens it was the first release on Euronymous’ Deathlike Silence label. That’s not to detract from this release; it was a perfect summation of the level that extreme metal had reached by the end of the decade.
In part built from powerchords, in part built from the tritone or minor chords almost akin to the proto-death metal of Slayer’s ‘Hell Awaits’ (but considerably faster), leads and solos jump out of the music without warning and add to the intensity, with rhythm guitar signalling shifts in tempo and mood and drums utilised to deliver additional chaos. Although the components are relatively simple and far from Jazz say, the rhythm section, having handed their initial duties over to the rhythm guitar, are freed up to frame the music at certain points and emphasise the intensity at others, a direct inheritance of Discharge. Vocals are a raspy growl akin to Quorthon but closer to the mid-range.
At times this is rippingly fast thrash metal that relies on a darker atmosphere to stand out, at other times it is death metal proper. This album is symptomatic of wider changes taking place within the international scene. Not for another two decades would one be able to simply call their music ‘extreme metal’ and be done with it. With the rise of Norwegian black metal and other contemporaries metalheads would become obsessed with labels and would be unable to hear metal of any stripe without immediately categorising it. If ‘The Awakening’ had been released today it would be called ‘blackened thrash’, or ‘death/black’, or ‘death/thrash’, and all of these things would be true, because to simply call something ‘extreme metal’ was becoming too broad a brush stroke. It did not simply encapsulate the early works of Bathory, Hellhammer, Sodom, and Slayer, the flowering of artists and styles across the globe led to the entropy of labels that we are still struggling to manage and catalogue today, especially in a post internet world. But at the time, Morbid Angel was different enough from Napalm death which was different enough from Darkthrone that new demarcations were demanded.
In terms of comparing these two albums there really is no contest. ‘Unholy Death’ remains a fun noisy romp in primitive punky metal, but there is only so much that noise and reverb can conceal before the basicness of this music becomes apparent. ‘The Awakening’ is a highly competent death/thrash release that was probably largely overlooked given the earthquakes that were taking place in New York, Florida, Sweden, and Norway by 1990. It remains a favourite of the underground however and is well worth your time.