On the intrinsic worth of ‘proto death’: Deceased and Abomination

In pontificating on that foggy area between thrash and death metal, ‘missing the wood for the trees’ occasionally comes to mind. Who is death metal, and who is thrash? Sadus? Master? Thanatos? Possessed? Why does it matter? Well, as with so many debates that appear nonsensical to outsiders, it matters to us because as metalheads we’re fascinated by our own history. The how, why, and whats of a genre’s genesis. But in discussing these obscure spaces between genres, either prefixed with an ‘x/y’ or the ‘proto’ fudge of a tagline, it’s all to easy to dispense with an analysis of a work’s actual quality. Sure ‘Seven Churches’ is considered a classic, and sure this is in part based on the worth of the album itself. But was an ‘Altars of Madness’ the inevitable next step, or was there more to be found in this obscure and narrow mid-space between the past and the future? there may yet be more to be said. Or – to anticipate my conclusion – there is more to be said, because I’ll be arguing that the two albums I’ll be looking at this week prove just that.

Deceased are members of a small but proud club in metal. They sit alongside some very well respected names; Darkthrone, Autopsy, Absu, Nocturnas (or Nocturnas A.D. now that they’ve passed their exams). Do they have anything in common beyond being led by drummers? Despite being a diverse little selection, I would say they all embody a sloppy authenticity that is imprinted on the music, making it unmistakably them. And this is no less true of Virginia’s Deceased, despite their sound evolving from primitive death/thrash to a more polished heavy metal vibe on later releases. Back in 1991 however, we have the satisfying ‘Luck of the Corpse’ LP to make sense of.

Although this strikes one first and foremost as one of those early renderings of a death metal yet to be, Deceased were a little late to the party by 1991. Production is fairly standard for the time, with the snare being given that 80s sheen that does not allow the sound to decay fully, and bass drums not properly sunk in the mix. This gives the illusion that the guitars are a little muddy, an illusion that is shattered the moment the lead work becomes audible or when the drums do calm down some. The same goes for the bass, which would be remarkably clear were it not for that double bass. This assessment is a little unfair however. ‘Luck of the Corpse’ is a work that more than surpasses these limited means and stands head and shoulders above many of its contemporaries. The unintentional eccentricities in the mix only add to this.

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There are few branches of metal (and punk) left untouched by the end of this LP, and all are channelled through Deceased’s as yet unrefined but idiosyncratic and playful approach to metal. All musicians are given a chance to shine, as the music never rests on one idea for long. But far from coming across as sloppy and unfocused, the effect is the opposite. They try and focus disparate styles of metal through the same primitive thrash filter. This approach breathes an irresistible charm and life into what is often regarded as a rather limited genre.

No account of Deceased’s ability to find creativity on ground that many have all but abandoned is complete with mentioning Fowley’s unmistakable vocals. Much like the music itself, he travels through many styles throughout the course of this LP. But whether it’s shouting or bawling, he sounds genuinely distressed by the grim events he is narrating. Nay, he’s not merely narrating them as so many extreme vocalists do, he’s living them. This emotive style would become one of Deceased’s calling cards over the years, even as the music took on a more streamlined heavy metal sheen. But its marriage with this primitive yet ambitious thrash metal was never bettered in my book.

For fans of Paul Speckman and Master, the short lived (although recently reformed?) death/thrash project known as Abomination should be very familiar. Cracking out two solid albums back in the early 1990s; let’s take their self-titled debut from the dawn of said decade for a spin and decide if it’s a buy. To the fury of Master fans I’m just gonna go ahead and straight up compare it to Master of the same era (or any era, as Master seem hellbent on releasing the same album over and over, more power to em’ I say), but this is an infinitely more interesting release than any of Master’s output, much as I love the latter. Ok, opener ‘The Choice’ is no ‘Control and Resistance’, but it’s a surprisingly high-fidelity tour through the musicality of thrash metal. And the pace is kept up throughout this tight and focused LP.

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A rather flat guitar tone proved to be no barrier to producing energetic no-nonsense thrash metal. This is bolstered by a curious little drum track. I say little, I mean massive. A monstrous snare is swept along with bass and toms that are all but drained of anything resembling what we commonly call ‘bass’. Usually a recipe for a hot mess, here it elevates what was already some pretty invigorating riffs with a machine gun like barrage of ear pounding noise. Speckman works a more punky flair into his vocal stylings, allowing for subtle nods to the predominant melody, with lyrics coming through crystal clear.

So let’s get round to the real question, have Abomination carved out an intrinsically worthy creative space for death/thrash, the value of which can be argued for without appealing to its role as a stepping stone on the way to fully formed death metal? Well, yes and no. No, because follow up ‘Tragedy Strikes’ (1991) does little to develop on this sound. But yes, because this self-titled release is a boundless cornucopia of exciting riffage, technical prowess, and actual fun (yes, I said it, fun). The serious ideas at the heart of the album however – the musicality if you will – is a little underdeveloped in places, but it is nevertheless interesting. This amounts to a release that won’t necessarily blow your mind with its originality, but it makes for a good barometer by which to judge this half formed genre, so oft mischaracterised as ‘limiting’ or ‘incomplete’.

Taken objectively, this week is all about comparing a sloppy if enthusiastic album with a more streamlined and slicker affair. A brand-new BMW compared to the family’s old-banger. Both have value of different kinds. And I don’t wish to play down the character of ‘Abomination’ when I draw this analogy, but there’s no getting around the fact that when compared with ‘Luck of Corpse’, it is just not as interesting. This need not be a slight on Speckman and the gang, who were onto something with this release. But ‘Luck of Corpse’ has a passion and daring that was apparent even at this early stage of Deceased’s career. Although apparently sitting fairly comfortably in with many similar releases of the time, as its many eccentricities unfold, it is clear that this is a unique little gem of the past.

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