Thrash ‘Til Death #04: Mortification (Australia) 1985-1993

THRASH ‘TIL DEATH is a 50 week long set of features exploring the legends who crossed over between thrash and death metal between 1983-1993. The focus is primarily on under-served, unknown, and exemplar bands/releases. The selection is comprehensive but the numbering is not indicative of any type of rank or value: The order of appearance is arbitrarily chosen. E-mail me if you want to suggest any relevant bands!


Formed as a Christian heavy metal band on a proverbial mission in 1985 Melbourne, Australia’s Light Force would spread the word of their God within two self-released demos (‘Blue Demo’, ‘Yellow Demo’) in 1986 then disband before the end of that year. The reformation of Light Force in 1987 saw the bands worship of God equaled only by their love of Iron Maiden and the fairly soft edges of post-NWOBHM heavy metal. This new line-up would essentially follow bassist, songwriter and founding member Steve Rowe into his rabid death/thrash project Mortification which would become a full-bore death metal band by 1993. Infamous as they might’ve been as one of the only ‘good’ and reasonably consistent Christian metal bands, the history of Mortification has long been difficult to ascertain outside of the fiercely protective Christian metal underground. After stints with larger labels like Nuclear Blast, Rowe would become increasingly independent over the ensuing decades; Although I am not a Christian, Rowe‘s life and trials are inspiring as his greater body of work remains a treasure chest of obscure gems, especially early on.

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Artist Light Force
Title [Type/Year] Battlezone [Full-length/1987]
Rating [2.0/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube!

Although those 1986 demos from the original Mark I line-up of Light Force are impossible to find ‘Battlezone’ is at least archived in several places on the internet. I really want to downplay the importance and the general value of Light Force beyond the legacy of Rowe because it really is very derivative and bland heavy/speed metal with an ultra-aggressive message of conversion to Christianity. Musically speaking this is a decent recording with competent performances and a very, very flat sense of melody. ‘Battlezone’ is almost frightening for its dead-eyed delivery and militant insistence of God’s love. It really gives the feeling of a strange cult attempting to invade popular culture several years too late. If you’re really interested in where the band were at in this point of history here is a short interview with Rowe and vocalist Steve Johnson who would leave the band (and metal) after their second album. [Click/Tap HERE to watch on YouTube] 


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Artist Light Force
Title [Type/Year] Mystical Thieves [Full-length/1989]
Rating [2.5/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube!

This was a nice leap towards speed/thrash metal from Light Force in terms of sound though the style here is more evocative of mid-80’s power metal with a verifiable tone deaf vocalist. If you’re not too turned off by the Christian lyrics you might find his delivery akin to a terrible crossover band of the time, at least compared to the top tier proggy Maiden-obsessed speed metal bands of the time. There are some decent, admittedly basic, Mortal Sin-esque speed/heavy metal tracks here and I actually like the album art quite a bit. None of this really adds up to anything worthy of note or fandom and unfortunately Light Force kind of belongs where it ended up, as a side note to the already fairly obscure Mortification. From this point it was clear that Rowe had felt the need for a change of direction as he’d developed some unique bass voicing on this record that would really help his next project stand out in its later years.


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Artist Light Force / Mortification
Title [Type/Year] Break the Curse [Demo/1990]
Rating [3.0/5.0] “Blood Sacrifice” on Spotify! | YT: “New Beginnings”

For the Christian metal world, which was admittedly very small, the first two Light Force records were inspiring, if not basic. The group were on the verge of actual popularity within their limited sphere when two members decided to drop off. Perhaps inspired by Los Angeles Christian death/thrashers Vengeance Rising, Rowe recruited the line-up from ‘Mystical Thieves’ sans Steve Johnson and took up vocals himself in an attempt to create an extreme metal project in the wake of Light Force‘s failstate. The original version of ‘Break the Curse’ was released as a Light Force demo and shelved until 1994 when Nuclear Blast would release it as a Mortification demo/compilation. This is the first spike of true genius from Rowe as he clearly appreciated the early works of Morbid Angel, Sepultura, and Possessed and the result is a demo that almost felt like a lost Insanity pre-‘Death after Death’ tape.

This is probably the most frustrating part of putting together this retrospective in the sense that Mortification would release a 20 year anniversary remaster of this compilation, without the original bonus tracks, that remastered the re-recordings of the demo and at the time they made sure no copies of this demo/compilation (1990 or 1994 editions) could stay up on YouTube or other streaming sites in full since. Basically you have to steal this recording to hear it and even though many of these songs were on ‘Mortification’ (1991) the entire idea that Mortification came from thrash and became death metal hinges on the 1994 version of this 1990 demo. I personally prefer many of the versions on ‘Break the Curse’ and I think for many people this will be the best release from anything Mortification related. North Americans deserve ‘Break the Curse’ streaming, put it on Bandcamp or whatever! Also worth noting is that by 1994 the band would begin to curiously focus on ‘tribal groove metal’ sounds influenced by Sepultura, the release of ‘Break the Curse’ always felt like an apology for the strange shift in style.


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Artist Mortification
Title [Type/Year] Mortification [Full-length/1991]
Rating [3.75/5.0] LISTEN on Spotify!

Because I’d had the luck of discovering the 1994 issuing of ‘Break the Curse’ before ever hearing ‘Mortification’, I tend to favor the more thrash oriented arrangements of those demo versions. This is a personal quirk driven by nostalgia and as I revisit this album for the first time since 1998 I realize that this debut is a natural and much needed point of progression for the musicians involved. Drummer Jayson Sherlock (Revulsed, ex-Horde) really cut his teeth on these first three Mortification full-lengths before playing a key role in the early works of underrated death/doom weirdos Paramæcium; His  double bass work here isn’t perfect but it really did jet Mortification into credibility beyond expectation with a varied and brutal performance. Guitarist Michael Carlisle is perhaps the most memorable talent on display here as his sharp, semi-technical death-grinding style would perfectly complete this trio, which would persist until 1994. Everything from Napalm Death, Sepultura, and even a hint of Master would permeate this highly repeatable and cumulative death/thrash record in 1991. Though I do not consider it a classic ‘Mortification’ is a great spin that I probably should have given more attention in the past.


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Artist Mortification
Title [Type/Year] Scrolls of the Megilloth [Full-length/1992]
Rating [4.0/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube!

The second full-length from Mortification would prove to be a peak in their widespread popularity as Nuclear Blast had full begun to introduce their masses to a greater spread of worldwide metal releases. Rowe’s vocals take a turn for the worse on this recording with multi-tracked and slightly artificial growls, with some help from Paramæcium and Vengeance Rising members) scoring the record an oddly cheesy vocal affect. It definitely sounded huge and incredibly dark for 1992 and still holds up fairly well for its brutal style and oddly bounding rhythms, driven by Rowe‘s aggressive bass presence. I’ve always felt weird describing this record as atmospheric and evil solely because that wasn’t really what was in their minds in conceiving it. I know for sure that this is a huge blindspot in a lot of old school death metal collections and it shouldn’t prove wildly difficult to find. The remastered version from Metal Mind is not a reasonable improvement, as with many of thier ‘remasters’, but it is the version I would personally recommend if not looking for vinyl. If there is any real testament to Carlisle‘s guitar work in Mortification this is absolutely it; As his oeuvre begins to expand towards technicality it almost feels like the base rhythms that Rowe provides begin to constrain his work. “Lymphosarcoma” just floors me every time I hear it and I would suggest that track if you’re only moderately interested in this bands legacy. This biggest moment from Mortification is definitely flawed but also criminally overlooked and it should be up there with debuts from bands like Krabathor, Vital Remains, Sinister and Cenotaph as underrated pre-’93 old school bruisers. You could pretty much duck out here and still leave happy, this is pure death metal incarnate, but I wanted to take a look at their third album and give some perspective to how ‘big’ this band would get.


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Artist Mortification
Title [Type/Year] Post Momentary Affliction [Full-length/1993]
Rating [3.75/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube!

The third album from Mortification comes as a standardized death metal offering that loses some of its ‘edge’ due to a growing disinterest from drummer Jayson Sherlock, who had previously done artwork, additional guitars, and appeared fully invested into the first two records; When asked about his exit from Mortification after ‘Post Momentary Affliction’ in a 2015 interview for his band Revulsed, Sherlock suggested that he didn’t even play on the album and this comes as less of a surprise when comparing this to his performance on the previous album, which was admittedly a more inspired composition. Rowe thankfully steps up his bass performances here while easing up in his vocals, creating a  powerful bass driven death/doom sound that began to incorporate classic heavy metal rhythms into Mortification‘s semi-technical sound. The impending live album (and later videos) would show Rowe for far more of a virtuoso than this album would suggest at the time. Pestilence must have been a big influence at this time because the fifteen tracks here are padded out with separate interludes a la ‘Testimony of the Ancients’. The non-intro tracks began to stretch into the 7-8 minute range and this is the point where I personally see Rowe coming into his own while the rest of the band might’ve felt like the sound of the band had lost its way. To this day I think ‘Distarnish Priest’ is probably one of the best songs Mortification released in their heyday and really have to recommend it above all else on this album. This will likely hold up best compared to the previous two records, especially if you are a fan of ‘old school’ progressive death metal style.

By 1994 Mortification did what the rest of the metal world would and go groove metal. Sure enough it was a unique approach, something akin to Alchemist‘s transition from psychedelic death towards progressive groove metal unto alt rock. Bassists, progressive metal fans, and anyone made curious by the prog-death ideas on ‘Post Momentary Affliction’ should follow this thread up to ‘Triumph of Mercy’ (1998) as Rowe resurfaced in good form after surviving cancer. Overall the crossover between Light Force‘s traditional heavy metal unto Mortification‘s progressive death metal would collide in interesting ways in the last several decades but the ‘formative’ years of this the ‘only good Christian metal band’ remain the most compelling. While I don’t think any of this bands work really exists for the ages, each release from Mortification listed should prove a hidden gem that belongs on the radar of any ‘old school’ death/thrash metal fan. Most all of Mortification‘s post-1990 discography is on Spotify if you’re additionally curious, or if my links to YouTube end up dying.


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