The last shall be the first: Demolition Hammer and Morbid Saint

Genre lifecycles are a fascinating thing. But whilst the greater part of our attention is usually fixated on the origin story, the concept of genre death remains oblique. For underground movements such as thrash or death metal, the moment when true commercialisation is at its most apparent is often cited as the point of no return, terminal decline must surely follow, Metallica employing Mötley Crüe producer Bad Rock for the Black Album, Cannibal Corpse appearing on Ace Ventura.

The revelation that popularity severs the link with artistic legitimacy creates a kind of panic within a scene, leading to a hyper-active reassessment of what the music even meant in the first place. This engenders a kind of zombie existence, lurching from bizarre progressive tangents to desperately clawing back to the roots of the genre in the hopes of finding simplicity, clarity. An entropic purgatory is often reached where common sense norms of genre and subgenre finally settle, and the happy retirement brought on by the establishment of an “old school” interpretation of the form. The death knell of legitimacy engendered by commercial success is but the passing of one phase into another. A genre never truly dies as long as there are artists willing to release material and a fanbase willing to buy it

But just before this state is reached, within the white heat of a genre’s apex, we find those releases that truly typify the music at its most powerful and compelling. 1990 is a convenient watershed for understanding both the peak of thrash metal and the seeds of its decline. It was the year when some of the finest thrash albums were released, but also the moment it was forced to secrete itself into irrelevance, as the first statements of full fat death metal began emerging from the likes of Morbid Angel, Autopsy, Obituary, and Entombed. It may be a little too convenient to place the milestone in 1990 given the fact that a new decade beckoned, and we all retrospectively know just how bizarre a decade it would turn out to be for metal, but history cannot resist its serendipities. And it was in this year that two of the final and arguably finest statements of thrash in its purest form would emerge, providing closure for the scene’s soon to be refugees.

Released back in 1990, Morbid Saint’s sole LP from their original incarnation ‘Spectrum of Death’ has achieved something of a posthumous fame in recent years. Despite forming in 1984, recorded material was too late to the party to make a splash, leaving them in danger of becoming one of histories buried treasures. But following a well chosen reissue by Relapse Records and a healthy dollop of online hype (and no small amount of meme fodder), this album has now established itself as a last gasp of the genre in its heyday.

It’s not just the moment of its release within the chronology of the genre that encourages this assessment. The music itself is a near perfect summation of the best elements of the thrash in its purest, original form. From that well known metal hub of…Wisconsin, it blends elements from the Bay Area scene, NYC, and Germany into a potent broth of high energy riffing, unbounded commitment to the moment, and some hidden subtleties secreted within its underbelly despite the directness of the delivery mechanism.  

The raw energy of Destruction and Kreator – in spite of their many cheerleaders – often lacked focus, offering a cavalcade of chaotic, fast past riffing with little to indicate a macro consciousness directing the information toward any particular end. ‘Spectrum of Death’ proves to be something of a missing link here, harnessing this rampant bombast into a more calculated, malevolent beast of premeditated violence. And here is where comparisons to ‘Reign in Blood’ become relevant. A thrash milestone that exhibited emergent meta structures despite the sheer quantity of surplus noise Slayer managed to conjure up. Morbid Saint bottle this and distil it into a purer form of considered violence owing to their ability to maintain a degree of energy and bravado supplemented by an authentically haunting undertone.

Sadus may have achieved a similar level of intensity around this time, but Morbid Saint proved more adept at distilling the power and energy of the riffs into focused, teleological shapes. They achieved this by not only returning to central refrains at reliably intervals, but also constructing the linking material of pure chaos in such a way as to draw the listener’s attention to the recapitulations.

This is demonstrative not only of an understanding of the art of contrast in this tight creative space, but also of subtle and novel ways to manipulate this central compositional tenet, thus entering the listener’s psyche at a more subconscious level. It is not simply the power and energy of this music that warrants celebration, but the organisation of these ideas into an entity striving for variation and purpose within a tightly constrictive niche. This is the reason the experience stays with us far longer than less focused but equally chaotic iterations of thrash from around this time.

One reading of Demolition Hammer’s debut ‘Tortured Existence’ is as the ultimate watershed moment for thrash. This has more to do with the circumstances surrounding the album than the music itself. Released in 1990 at the changing of the guards. A thrash album produced by Scott Burns, the harbinger of the new era. Exhibiting music somewhere between Tampa death and classic thrash of old.

Firstly, we should probably address the Scott Burns of it all, because the album really suffers at his hands. The clicky drums, the murky guitars, the attempt to fence off this chaos ends by simply placing the music in a straightjacket, leaving one feeling like Demolition Hammer are holding back. A similar effect is achieved on Napalm Death’s ‘Harmony Corruption’, which smothered the rampant energy of the Brummie grinders into a similar wet blanket slap, a sonic experience more comparable to fluffing cushions than to metal albums.

All the tricks that worked so well on ‘Cause of Death’ fail here precisely because thrash and grind bands were not aiming for the swirling, brooding death-drone of Obituary, but a sharper, jagged adrenaline shot of speed riffage. Burns was capable of delivering this, we see it on Sepultura’s ‘Beneath the Remains’ released the year before for example. But here he compresses Demolition Hammer into the mould of the Burns Fordist production line, and it simply does not work for them.

With that out of the way, what of the Demolition Hammer that remains behind the murk? Musically – despite the huge crossover in populaces – this poses as thrash for death metal fans, or death metal for thrash fans. Excluding the Burns aesthetic, Demolition Hammer trade more on violence and aggression than they do speed. Even at their fastest and densest, these tracks eke out space for the rhythm section to flex its muscles, articulate more elaborate fills and transitions that actually become the centrepiece of the music. This is unlike more traditional thrash that often behaves as if it can barely get past the transitions fast enough, practically falling over itself to move to the next burst of speed.

Equally many of the riffs pivot on a rhythmic bounce, adopting groove like tempos, providing ample space for a conventional melodic character to shine through. This point could equally apply to many of the guitar solos, which eschew blunt fretboard murder in favour of more considered melodic development, the beginnings of a catchy lick.

Whilst such a description could leave us with the impression that ‘Tortured Existence’ represents a step into a softer iteration of thrash, these aspects actually bring this album more in line with death metal. The music is still violent, aggressive, uncompromising, the vocals lifted straight from the hardcore punk lineage of the genre, offering a strained, humanist bark of street level urgency. But Demolition Hammer display a conscious desire to place the ethos of thrash in the proving draw and allow some air to circulate. This gives them access to new and more complex creative corridors that their overexcited forbears were barred from entering. It retains an amoral power and unquestioning loyalty to the hallmarks of thrash, the virtues of speed, violence, muscularity. Further, it avoids the “evil” or macabre aspects that death metal was attempting to develop at the time, instead opting for the sparse realism that defines much of the thrash genre.

Weighing up these albums against each other therefore presents something of a contradiction. ‘Spectrum of Death’ is almost undeniably the superior album. But I find ‘Tortured Existence’ by far the more interesting listen, and gladly spin it more often than Morbid Saint’s crowning achievement. As with many albums that are injected with historical import, ‘Tortured Existence’ suffers from a tentativeness, a lack of clarity that prevents it from being worthy of the “seminal” brand. But it remains ripe with curiosities and fascinating musical intersectional crossroads that unravel in both artistic and historically fascinating ways.

‘Spectrum of Death’ suffers from no such short comings. Barrelling out of speakers with uncaring aplomb, totally self-assured in its own magnificence. This makes for an enjoyable experience no doubt, but also a predictable one. The apex of high energy thrash is also the moment at which we come to realise that we know exactly how the thing will play out. It is for that reason – and perhaps to the horror of the faithful – that we are siding with Demolition Hammer in this instance, for providing – even if by complete happenstance – the more enduring, complex document of a genre on the point of collapsing under its own inertia. 

Despite this, these two albums only provide visibility of a mere microcosm of the thrash story that would play out in the decade to come. Sure, some would throw in their lot with a death metal audience like Demolition Hammer, or doggedly stick to the rigidity of pure thrash as it was at the summit of 1990. But most gave up completely. Those that didn’t and wanted to retain a shred of dignity in the face of the leaps and bounds the genre made into pop metal territory turned to progressive metal for help and instruction. And thus a key piece of the carnival bizarre chessboard that was metal in the 1990s was positioned, ready to embrace the surrealist phantasmagoria to come.

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