Thrash ‘Til Death #18: Num Skull (United States) 1985-1996

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 band appearance is arbitrarily chosen. E-mail me if you want to suggest any relevant bands!


Smack dab in between Milwaukee and Chicago the tumultuous reign of Midwest brutal thrash metal legends Num Skull would begin in Northrop Harbor, Illinois in 1985 as guitarist Tom Brandner teamed up with local townie friends drummer Jeff McGullam and vocalist Skip McGullam to form the core membership of the bands first four years. The stylistic approach for those early gigs and rehearsals revolved around the popular Los Angeles/Bay Area names of the time (Slayer, Exodus, Metallica) and their more traditional heavy metal influences as Brandner had been inspired to form a band after attending an Accept show in ’85. The story of Num Skull begins to stray in a few directions beyond the release of their lauded debut full-length and it’d seem that the coming of death metal and an inability to maintain a steady line-up would find the band struggling to maintain consistent focus due to their day jobs and a lack of dedicated membership.

The evolution towards a death metal sound was slow and steady but they’d missed out on the peak trend of that style and as such an unreleased second album and a third death metal record remain unjustly quiet side-notes beneath to their celebrated debut, ‘Ritually Abused’ (1988). This time around we’re following the full history of the band all the way out to 1996 so that the full transformation into a death metal band can be witnessed, and because ‘When Suffering Comes’ (1996) deserves a second look despite its very untimely release. As always I’ve done my research to the best of my ability here but, please feel free to message me or leave a comment if I’ve left out anything vital or gotten something horribly wrong!


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Artist Num Skull
Title [Type/Year] Num’s the Word [Demo/1986]
Rating [3.5/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube

From their start Num Skull would bring complete and well composed thrash metal to the table and their preference for Slayer‘s menacing song structures was evident from the very start. ‘Nums the Word’ makes a bit more sense with context from Brandner in the sense that they weren’t throwing out any ideas at this point, that isn’t to say that they were leaving bad ideas on this 34 minute demo but that they tried to make the best of every idea between childhood friends Brandner/McGullam. They weren’t yet aiming for a ‘brutal’ thrash sound and their more extreme side wouldn’t show up fully until ‘Ritually Abused’, the result is a tape that often leans towards a thrash metal sound but with a NWOBHM influenced sort of speed metal style. “Pirate’s Night” sounds as if it were ripped from the second Running Wild album and given a Metal Church-esque polish. Their sound was great, they could write a decent metal song, and they already appeared very dedicated as they’d rehearse four days a week. It was only a matter of time before a record label swooped in and it’d be the Culver City, California trashbag Medusa Records (Angus, Wrath, Hellion, etc. that’d sign them. If you’re familiar with that label, who were a dead-end for many great metal bands, you can already assume they’d gotten a decent advance and no support after the record was out.


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Artist Num Skull
Title [Type/Year] Ritually Abused [Full-length/1988]
Rating [4.5/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube | Remaster (Relapse, 2014)

Num Skull‘s debut full-length ‘Ritually Abused’ is number 42 on my 50 favorite thrash metal albums of all time because it so capably finds a brutal way forward for thrash metal (that wasn’t quite death metal, yet) without losing sight of the true heavy metal roots. Much to the gasps of many death metal maniacs I place it alongside Pestilence‘s ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ in terms of style and intensity. That isn’t to say that it was entirely novel but rather than they were doing this about a year before anyone else had gotten an official full-length out and right around the time folks in the states really started to notice what bands like Sepultura and Kreator were doing on a broader scale. Gammacide, Epidemic, and Demolition Hammer were all compatriots at this point but the key influence here is absolutely Dark Angel because this album goes fuckin’ hard around the fourth track and hardly lets up beyond. ‘Ritually Abused’ is unnaturally visceral, a rabid thrashing beast that’d been attempted in North American thrash but nowhere near as brutally unhinged.

It wouldn’t be long before Devastation (Texas) and Epidemic‘s ‘Decameron’ would catch up in terms of heaviness but I’d say each stopped at a ‘Beneath the Remains’ level of intensity while Num Skull had set the bar for speed right up there with early Sadus and that ripping approach helped solidify this record in some of the right minds at the time despite the shit label they were on. It fucked them over. Imagine this ultra-serious, brutal assed band that practiced four days a week, wrote and demoed the full album before entering the studio, and could play circles around anyone within a 500 mile radius, they commissioned a great sounding record with awesome cover art and… The label spelled their names wrong on the album, the lyrics were printed on the tray insert, and there was no support put towards taking the band to Europe, South America or Asia. Hey, maybe that was their deal, and none of this will seem like such a raw shit deal until you realize how it directly affected their will to continue and the momentum that’d stop them in their tracks recording a second full-length that’d have put them on the map as a timeless Midwest death metal entry. Sound familiar? Remember Morbid Saint, Viogression, and Transmetal? Each worked with Eric Grief in some way (usually producer) and ended up in the wrong hands along the way. Fuck that raw deal and fuck, this is a great album. Relapse Records did a fantastic job remastering, repackaging and reissuing the record and you’re fine seeking either version as the original sounded great as well.


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Artist Num Skull
Title [Type/Year] Thrash to the Bone [Demo/1988]
Rating [3.25/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube [“D.E.A.D.”]

There isn’t any good information on this 1988 demo or the 1989 demo other than a few bootlegs (I believe the cover art here is from a bootleg version of ‘Thrash to the Bone’ put to CD) but around this time the band would dissolve to a three piece with the two McGullam brothers and Brandner troubled by finding serious and dedicated replacements. At some point they’d thought they had a stable line-up that included Dave Matrise, who’d go on to form Jungle Rot a few years later. As for ‘Thrash to the Bone’ it is notable for its Motörhead cover and a strong version of the song “D.E.A.D.” but otherwise these are either re-recorded songs from ‘Ritually Abused’ or as I suspect, it might’ve been wrongly placed before the album in most online databases.


Artist Num Skull / Masada / Disorder / Firing Squad / Necromacy
Title [Type/Year] At the Foot of Brutality [Compilation/1989]
Rating [3.5/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube [Disorder‘s song]

‘At the Foot of Brutality’ was a compilation of Midwest US death/thrash metal bands released by legendary underground Mexican label Avanzada Metálica (later bought by Discos y Cintas Denver) and this is only notable because Dave Matrise of Jungle Rot provided guitar tracks on this, and presumably their 1989 demo. I’ve included the artwork for the CD version because the LP version only included Midwest US bands whereas the CD version included tracks from Eric Grief‘s Renegade as well as brutal upstarts Transmetal. I’ve included the track from Disorder because both Num Skull tracks had already been included on ‘Ritually Abused’.


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Artist Num Skull
Title [Type/Year] Promo ’91 aka ‘Future: Our Terror’ [Demo/1991]
Rating [4.5/5.0] YouTube: McGullam Version | YouTube: Charrier Version

Ripping Corpse, Massacre, Doom Formation, Ritual Sacrifice, Morbid Saint, and countless other bands are joined by an equally valuable and solid “What if…” in the form of this 1991 promo tape made in preparation for the second Num Skull album, ‘Future – Our Terror’. These songs were recorded in early 1990 as a quintet with Skip McGallum on vocals. That original version of the tape featuring McGallum is essentially the death metal follow-up to ‘Ritually Abused’ in every sense as the band take on a style of death metal influenced by both the brutality of the Chicago death metal scene, their thrash metal past, and the inescapable rise of Florida death metal at the time. As winter approached that same year both McGallum brothers left the band leaving Brandner to reform a trio adding Scott Creekmore on drums and bassist Rob Charrier (ex-Fatal Violence, ex-Enforcer) would also overdub the vocals with his pure death metal style. I’ve included both versions just so you can choose between whichever one appeals most, the transfer of the McGullam version is a bit cleaner and appears more related to ‘Ritually Abused’ but the version with Charrier on vocals is just a hair more brutal.

Why hasn’t this ever been reissued, licensed, or included on an officially sanctioned compilation? It was co-written between two folks who’d parted ways, to start, and it is entirely possible that they not only didn’t love the material but they had to move on with new artists and new songs to suit their increasingly brutal style. Num Skull would be asked why they switched from thrash metal towards death/thrash in every interview afterwards (including recent retrospectives) and the answer Brandner gives is always the same “It was a natural progression.” and the missing link for that answer lies within ‘Future – Our Terror’ (1991) never being finished and released. I’ve been listening to the original version for about fifteen years and wouldn’t discover the change in vocals until several years later. I’ve come to love both versions and if it was ever released, I think the version with Charrier‘s vocals would be just as revelatory for old fans.


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Artist Agamas
Title [Type/Year] Agamas [Demo/1992]
Rating [3.25/5.0] Listen on YouTube

Beyond the missing link and towards a future unclear, we look into the past of vocalist Paul Benigno who would enter Curved Air Studios in Crystal Lake, Illinois to work with Num Skull‘s go-to demo studio and producer Al Purvey to record the first and only demo from Waukegan, Illinois death metal band Agamas in early 1992. Benigno would join Num Skull in 1994 after the dissolution of Agamas and provide vocals on all of their releases starting with ‘Demo #1’ in 1994. Pretty good demo but nothing worth remembering, I’ve included it just to give a sense where the new members were coming from as Brandner tried to keep the band going.


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Artist Num Skull
Title [Type/Year] Demo #1 [Demo/1995]
Rating [3.0/5.0] LISTEN on Bandcamp!

A few of the tracks from ‘Future – Our Terror’ are included on this promo demo that features new second guitarist Dave Harrington, new vocalist Paul Benigno, and bass/lead guitar from from Brandner. As far as I know only the first three songs are new and each would be included on Num Skull‘s second full-length ‘When Suffering Comes’. This style isn’t groove metal but rather sluggish and generic death metal typical of Midwest death metal from the Chicago area around this time. It has a weird groove metal affect that is rarely satisfying and the drum performances are almost hardcorish in their simplicity.


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Artist Num Skull
Title [Type/Year] When Suffering Comes [Full-length/1996]
Rating [4.25/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube

The second Num Skull album gets shit upon mercilessly in hindsight because so many folks jump straight from ‘Ritually Abused’ towards this pure, and very plain, death metal album recorded almost a full decade later. It isn’t a style of death metal you’d expect from a classic thrash band and it is unfortunate that most of the people who’ll ever bother to listen to it are die-hard thrashers who might not care for the brutal, groove-driven style of death metal attempted here. In fact, this is a fantastic and very orthodox United States death metal record that compares well with early Vital Remains, Krabathor, Deicide, and the groove metal side of Korpse‘s ‘Pull the Flood’. This was a personal triumph for the long and probably soul-fucking journey Brandner had taken from 1988 until then; According to him they didn’t tour the record, they didn’t give a shit if anyone liked it, and well shit, they didn’t make any money off of it. The newer folks involved thought they might hit it big and rake in the cash but, without the commitment to the rehearsal studio and toughing it out self-financing records they’d all fall away by 2001.

Bassist Mike Eisenhauer would focus more on his Evil Incarnate project (see: ‘Blackest Hymns of God’s Disgrace’) starting in ’97. Drummer Scott Creekmore started Mercenary Digital Studios and serve as engineer/producer for bands like Lividity, Morta Skuld, Putrid Pile, and Waco Jesus since. Brandner would go on to help out with the short lived groove/death metal project Lupara while Broken Hope founder Jeremy Wagner had the band on hiatus beyond 2000. I suppose looking back at the history of this band I’d found myself wondering why they didn’t fight a bit harder for ‘Future – Our Terror’ to become a reality but, it becomes clear with posthumous interviews the reality of independent music and financing the way forward involves the right crew on hand before anything else. Without the right choice of staff or enough interested parties the core of Num Skull had really died by 1991 and while ‘When Suffering Comes’ is a fantastic death metal record it wasn’t at all related to the original formation of the band. There is no way to fault anyone for this natural lifespan of a band but I would say, choosing the right label and representation could absolutely could have lead this fantastic band down a different path. ‘Ritually Abused’ is the clear and most important release involved but I would encourage death metal fans to give both versions of ‘Future – Our Terror’ a chance and give some honest consideration towards the fact that I’d posit ‘When Suffering Comes’ as a true classic of Midwest death metal.


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