Thrash ‘Til Death #09: Dragon (Poland) 1984-1994

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 in Katowice, Poland in 1984 by the adept hands of guitarist Jarek Gronowski, Dragon would not receive recognition for their live presence until around 1986 when the original line-up would gain a couple of new members. The band would soon receive invite to perform at the very first of now legendary Metalmania festivals in 1986. Though their popularity would skyrocket within Poland from this point on the sensibilities of the band would consistently focus on Gronowski‘s dark taste and increasingly complex sensibilites as a guitarist. As with last week there will be a bit of live jank to start as these Polish extreme thrashers would not fully hone their traditional heavy metal influences into extreme metal music until they arrived into the 1990’s. No doubt fans of early Coroner, Venom, and Polish cult bands like Turbo and Kat will quickly understand the ‘scene’ that Dragon formed within but you may not expect how successfully they would shift towards technical thrash metal unto a twisted form of death/thrash madness in the highly competitive European climate of the early 90’s.

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Artist Dragon / Stos / Wilczy Pająk / Destroyer
Title [Type/Year] Metal Invasion [Compilation/1987]
Rating [3.5/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube!

Polton records would serve as one of the earlier Polish metal labels in the country serving true heavy metal in the early 80’s and after they introduced the world to Turbo, TSA and Mech they’d release this one off split/compilation album featuring the up-and-coming thrashers Stos, Wilczy pająk (pre-Wolf Spider), Destroyer, and Dragon. The label would late be absorbed into Warner Music‘s greater umbrella but not after they’d give the world their first taste of Dragon. The somewhat memorable “Demony Wojny”  (later re-recorded for ‘Scream of Death’) should quickly cue you into the earlier Coroner reference but “Siedem czasz gniewu” (also on ‘Horda Goga’) has more of an early Destruction vibe. I would say it is fairly clear that they were going for more of a witching metal feeling with some interest in the more technical side of thrash metal and not really arriving within either territory fully. Dragon‘s tracks start around the 21 minute mark of the recording.


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Artist Dragon / Wilczy Pająk
Title [Type/Year] Metalmania ’87 [Split LP/1987]
Rating [3.75/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube!

Polish vinyl only label Pronit would allow a closer look at both Dragon‘s raw, meandering thrash metal and Wilczy Pająk‘s technical-but-traditional thrash flair on this first of three split 12″ LPs documenting six of the more promising Polish thrashers that’d perform at the second annual Metalmania festival. Can you tell the two bands apart? The official tracklisting has Wolf Spider up first but in the vinyl rip I’ve linked to places Dragon first, as such you’ll notice many reviewers over the years have mistaken one band for another because they cannot decipher any of the Polish language. Listening to this performance from Dragon it would seem that they had this performative zeal, a sort of Accept-like panache to their more traditional early Metallica meets Coroner-esque speed metal. At this point I found myself much more interested in the early days of Wolf Spider as they were just about to release their solid self-titled debut under their untranslated name.


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Artist Dragon / Wolf Spider / Turbo / Destroyers / Hamer / Cydhie Genoside
Title [Type/Year] Metalmania ’88 [Split LP/1988]
Rating [3.5/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube

Polish rock, prog and jazz label Poljazz would release the annual set of live recordings from the Metalmania festival as the third round hit and this time we’d see Dragon finally sounding dead serious in their thrash metal boots with a ripping, Kreator-like performance of “Horda Goga” and a wild eight minute trek through “Planeta śmierci” to tie things up. This had to have blown many minds back then with these Dark Angel-esque ripping thrashers with extended lengths, proggy jolts of riff, and maniac vocals yet, when you hear ‘Horda Goga’ you might wonder if you’d missed something. The band had clearly improved in every aspect after a few line-up changes but you’ll undoubtedly begin to hear Dragon’s musical personality breaking through at this point.


 

Artist Dragon
Title [Type/Year] Horda Goga [Full-length/1989]
Rating [3.75/5.0] LISTEN on YT! [Polish] | LISTEN on YT [English]

‘Horda Goga’ happens to be one of very few occasions where both the original language and the (re-recorded) English version of and album are both worth a listen. Why? Because Marek Wojcieski‘s polish version is dark, brutal and insane in a Don Doty (Dark Angel) sort of way that is perfectly fitting for Dragon‘s raw and ambitious debut full-length; Likewise Grzegorz Kupczyk (Turbo, Ceti) deserves acclaim because he was absolutely at top form in 1989 coming off of Turbo‘s ‘Epidemie’ and Ceti‘s debut and his version (titled ‘Horde of Gog’) is entirely worthy. Sure, lets say you don’t give a shit about those bands and want the highest fidelity? The English version was also remixed and cleaned up with a more muscular guitar tone and louder bass presence, so if you lean towards late 80’s technical/progressive thrash metal quality that version will be much more appealing. Raw thrashers should definitely take their pick between versions.

The album itself is fantastic in its balance of complexity, heaviness and generally fuckin’ vicious attack. Sure, for 1989 it wasn’t a barn-burner considering the wider thrash landscape but it is a fast and extreme classic thrash album that holds up great whichever version you prefer. It fits very well alongside records from Turbo and Wolf Spider that year. It was a definite bummer that we would not get any more pure thrash records from Dragon after vocalist (former drummer) Wojcieski and second guitarist Leszek Jakubowski would leave to West Germany to escape communist military service but, there was no question that Gronowski was demanding more skill and heavier range of his band mates as the band continued. He would return from his mandatory military service with one of the most important/formative Polish extreme metal albums stirring in his brain.


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Artist Dragon
Title [Type/Year] Fallen Angel [Full-length/1990]
Rating [4.25/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube! | LISTEN on YT [Polish]

If you consider the incredible underground Polish death metal scene active in the late 80’s and early 90’s and how heavily influenced it was by early Deicide and Morbid Angel releases it would be easily to overlook the influence of a band like Dragon, but you’d be remiss. ‘Fallen Angel’ is best known for its English version released by Under One Flag Records but I strongly encourage you to get the Polish-sung version as Adrian “Fred” Frelich is far more effective in his native tongue and much of the intensity is lost in the English version (the Metal Mind version sucks too!). The difference really is night and day as this heavy thrashing death metal record should recall ‘Dawn of Possesion’ as much as it does something like Ripping Corpse, if not from a more Teutonic thrash perspective. The guitar performances from Gronowski are really the star of the show here with their high speed technical flair as he reaches a peak of Disciples of Power-like effortlessness. The slower sections come dangerously close to ‘Urm the Mad’ territory at times, but never reach quite as much of a plodding pace. Fans of technical thrash metal as well as death/thrash should be right at home with this one especially if you end up finding ‘Scream of Death’ (1991) either too challenging or too ‘death metal’. This album would really be Dragon‘s first true highlight in terms of studio recordings, just make sure you give the Polish version a chance.


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Artist Dragon
Title [Type/Year] Scream of Death [Full-length/1991]
Rating [4.0/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube! | LISTEN on Spotify!

Dragon would once again work with Metal Mind Productions‘ founder and producer Tomasz Dziubiński for the thier third album while retaining the exact same line-up as that of ‘Fallen Angel’. The style of ‘Scream of Death’ might not be what you’re expecting as ‘Fallen Angel’ had been pushing their sound in a traditional death metal direction whereas ‘Scream of Death’ is a Voivod-esque maze of riffs aiming for a technical death/thrash metal style. Considering that they were on the same label (Under One Flag) as Dark Angel, Ripping Corpse, Nuclear Assault etc. ‘Scream of Death’ was not an accessible or expected turn from Dragon as it was a raw, belabored experience with sustained discordant jets of riff and challenging rhythms compared to any peers of the time. For my own taste this is where Dragon truly struck upon the ambitions of Gronowski and I always loved that this wasn’t an accessible or ‘easy’ listen, very few things sound like this. That said the record as a whole suffers from tunnel vision and a fairly thin production sound, some of that odd feeling is actually exacerbated with the  unbalanced Metal Mind remaster which accounts for too much bass, so you might want to try a few different versions to see which sits with you best.


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Artist Dragon
Title [Type/Year] Sacrifice [Full-length/1994]
Rating [3.75/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube [CD] | LISTEN on YT [Cassette]

Why did Dragon take a three year break between albums? It wasn’t on purpose, it was by force of legal action as they decided that breaking contract with Metal Mind Productions was warranted after ‘Scream of Death’ hadn’t received any reasonable promotion. ‘Sacrifice’ is exactly that, an album finished and released only after they had gotten out of past obligations with their former label. Released on the incredibly underrated Polish underground extreme metal label Baron Records ‘Sacrifice’ saw Dragon experimenting far too much and producing an odd mix of ‘Scream of Death’ and a style that seems heavily influenced by German progressive metal of the early 90’s, I wouldn’t say it is as adventurous as Thought Industry or whatever but Frelich‘s vocals are a weird moaning mess and the production from former basisst Krzysztof Nowak (Kruk) is a thing, wobbly mush. If you think this album is a mess, tread carefully in approaching their industrial rock/metal album ‘Twarze’ (1999) which will make the goofy ballad in the middle of ‘Sacrifice’ sound like brutal death by comparison.

Though it might not seem like it at cursory glance, and some reductive afterthought, but open-minded speed metal influenced bands like Dragon were fundamental to the rise of extreme thrash and death metal behind the iron curtain in the 80’s. They might not be as well remembered as Vader but there is no doubt their increasingly heavy output left a huge impression upon the Polish musicians who’d eventually spark the country’s rise to prominence in death metal in the 90’s and beyond. There were surely more extreme demo-only bands, and even a few heavier thrashers in the mix but few drew such a steady line in their rise from thrashers to prog-death thrashers. Well worthy of some attention and I’d say ‘Horda Goga’, ‘Fallen Angel’ and perhaps the wobbly twisted freakout of ‘Scream of Death’ all warrant some serious consideration.


 

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