Endless forms most brutish: Onslaught and Death Angel

Thrash is a fascinating intersection for studying various ideologies within metal. Aesthetically and thematically it was still closely wedded to heavy metal. The emphasis on speed, energy, living life with consistent intensity, the lyrical and musical fixation on maintaining a constant state of emergency, all had clear antecedents within NWOBHM and German speed metal. Thrash was also the metal genre that most typified the Cold War, with paranoia, nuclear warfare, and ideological dogmas all being common preoccupations. Where death metal amped these preoccupations up to the point of assuming our annihilation was a forgone conclusion, black metal retreated from the explicitly political arena entirely, and behaved as if humanity had already crossed the Rubicon of their own destruction.  

In purely ontological terms, the concoction of heavy metal and hardcore punk is still part of the text of thrash, whereas later extreme metal subgenres would supress these lineages into subliminal musical coding. The will to lift the music into universalist metaphors and allegories that make up the substantive thematic weight of extreme metal’s obsession with mythology and the occult is still grounded in street level realism within thrash. The immediate, on the ground experience of social and political urgency is explicitly worked into its DNA, with exceptions such as early Slayer and Venom being renewed sources of fascination for fans and scholars alike. It is therefore instructive to scrutinise how these facets played out at the intersection of regional styles, concerns, and national cultural identities.

Mid-1980s Onslaught is a compelling concoction of immediate punk urgency, the English weird, and urban primitivism, whereas San Francisco’s Death Angel are superficially archetypical of the technical bombast and theatre that many American acts exploited to supplement the vital realism of their ancestry with a sense of the fantastical, even if this was never explicit in the lyrical material.

Bristol’s Onslaught are something of a missing link as far as UK metal is concerned. Having changed the landscape of rock in the late 1970s with the NWOBHM movement, and producing key influences on early extreme metal with the likes of Motorhead and Venom, this damp archipelago all but skipped the mid-1980s thrash boom entirely, choosing instead to move straight onto early grindcore and the fledging death metal movement. Onslaught, although hardly the biggest name of this era, are a fine example of what British thrash would have sounded like had it gained the same traction as their North American and European cousins.

Having started life as a hardcore punk band, by the time ‘Power from Hell’ was released in 1985 we see Onslaught working with an amalgamation of British punk, NWOBHM bombast, and a rich concoction of occultist and political lyrical material, supplemented by the usual metallic fixation on force, power, energy, and movement. The follow up in the form of 1987’s ‘The Force’ would amp up this brew, evolving the Onslaught formula into a true-blue metal band. The punk framework can still be felt beneath, with an Exploited-esque directness, rhythmic monotony, and atonal apocalyptic urgency in the rhythm guitar. But these are all supplemented with metal’s penchant for rampant self-celebration. Track titles such as ‘Metal Forces’ and ‘Thrash ’til the Death’ are indicative of lyrical preoccupations that would quickly be shed once the cynicism of the 1990s took root.

Musically, both ‘Power from Hell’ and ‘The Force’ are what Venom would’ve sounded like if they weren’t irredeemably shit. The guitar tone is a fine mix of punk abrasion and throbbing NWOBHM energy, but with enough depth and nuance to flesh out more ambitious riffs when it counts. The enthralling sense of imminent destruction is maintained however, and thus situates the Onslaught formula still squarely in the arena of UK punk. Drums offer a direct barrage of fast-paced d-beats with basic but effective fills deployed to emphasise shifts in intensity as the guitar switches up and down pitches. Vocals are a mix of atonal thrash barking and high-end banshee wails.

Lyrically Onslaught took the reverse course that Slayer did at the time. ‘Power from Hell’ retained some contemporary preoccupations in the form of tracks like ‘Thermonuclear Devastation’. But the ‘The Force’ is all metal, demons, and leather, at a time when Slayer were attempting to move their material in a more grounded direction. But Onslaught’s brand of theatrical punk metal has strong precedents within the history of English rock music, where our usual reserve seems to give way entirely to unselfconscious displays of rampant melodramatic bombast. But lurking beneath this can be found a brutal cynicism melting through the cracks. The blunt simplicity of the riffing, the relentless rhythmic persistence, the uniformity of delivery, all speak of a melancholia that sits beneath the drunken celebration of steel and leather. Drink and be merry, for tomorrow, we may die.

Despite first appearances, Death Angel are far from typical for US thrash. Although one of the more technically complex bands to emerge from the Bay Area, their debut ‘The Ultra-Violence’ released in 1987 feels like something of a throwback. Slayer had already released ‘Reign in Blood’, and Sadus were about to raise the stakes even further with 1988’s ‘Illusions’. Couched within this we have Death Angel, offering a bright, bouncy, almost naïve mix of classic metal tropes, d-beat enthusiasm, and hyperactively bouncy riffing. The music is still aggressive, with plenty of bight, replete with power chord driven riffs designed to bludgeon the listener into submission. But Death Angel eschew the single minded rhythmic philosophy of Onslaught, and instead leap from tempo change to tempo change, from idea to idea, foreshadowing the riff salad ethos of the fledging death metal scene.

Such impatience with airing out any idea or refrain for more than a few measures makes ‘The Ultra-Violence’ sound almost bacchanalian. But this unabashed delirium finds itself directed toward resistance, a call to arms for listeners to organise against the tides of history. Death Angel are aware of the nihilism and violence that surrounds them, but rather than revel in humanity’s gradual decay with the maniacal joy that a Slayer deployed, they would rather create space for hope by inverting thrash into life affirming music. But Death Angel are not naïve. The fact that the vocals retain a semblance of melody is indicative of a kind of twisted logic at the heart of the death cult. Anthemic choruses are mixed with raw punk aggression, devolving music as a source of solace in the face of the harsh realities of life into something all too grimly aware of the great illusion behind it all.

It should also be noted that ‘The Ultra-Violence’ is part vehicle for rampant showmanship. This in itself is no bad thing. After all, one of key outputs of the thrash metal project was to retain the high value metal placed on virtuousity and find ways to elevate this further in the raw blender of hardcore punk, a legacy it would also bestow on death metal. But the ten minute long instrumental title track – which was essentially a vehicle for these musicians to flex their riffing and jamming muscles – was a rarity amongst thrash of the day. This album is scattered with a dense array of such musicality, tightly packed accents, guitar and drums trading blows, each riff is driven through as many variations as possible in the shortest possible space before being disposed of. The result is music that still embodies thrash’s Cold War urgency whilst imbuing it with a delight and lust for life that speaks of individuals that not only want to survive the apocalypse but maybe even stop it in its tracks.

Here we have two albums released at an important intersection for metal’s evolution, yet both present as throwbacks. They whip up the traits common to thrash at the time into compelling brews of metal and punk technique whilst maintaining metal’s agnostic lyrical pre-occupations, thus speaking of artists both deeply troubled by the world around them, yet unable to present a coherent artistic vision to articulate their disposition. This, ultimately, was the reason thrash would later fall from favour. In the face of the holistic philosophies offered by death and black metal, however fraught or troubling these visions looked to many observers, their attraction and assertiveness proved to be irresistible. Thus ‘The Force’ and ‘The Ultra-Violence’ look like the last gasp of metal that was; cynical, world weary, but still capable of putting up a fight and even making room for a dangerous form of joy in the process.

If assessed in these terms (and to the horror of many readers), we must side with ‘The Force’ as the pick of the week. It’s the more basic, probably less imaginative, and slightly more derivative of the two. But in terms of taking the temperature of metal’s relationship to the world around it at the time it is that bit more instructive, and therefore artistically speaking that bit more eccentric. For all the impressive showmanship Death Angel were capable of, it’s all too easy to present as so much noise without saying anything real on an intellectual or artistic level. Onslaught, through blunt will and clever use of theatre, managed to create room for both careless abandon and lurking dread, all the while deploying instructive and enduring metaphors to work as coded messages of humanity’s ability to endure.

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