Say what you will about where San Francisco, California thrashers Death Angel were musically in 1991 as their nearly decade-long transformation from enthusiastic and talented speed metal kids into a thoughtful band of young men on a major label remains an inspiring story that would seem nigh impossible to recreate today. The decade beyond that initial split up a year after their third album, ‘Act III’ (1990), would see a lot of that youthful momentum somewhat squandered within the realm of accessible hard rock. Well, this is a blessing in many respects because unlike most recognizable classic thrash names that’d made it to the majors, Death Angel had experimented with accessible music under a different brand and not sullied their good name. With The Organization and later Swarm under their belts it was only a matter of waiting ’til thrash metal came back into fashion and by chance a tribute to keep Chuck Billy alive and kicking in 2001 was the catalyst for that return. Since 2004 they’ve release six full-lengths of generally high quality and solidified themselves as a consistent arena metal band that’d never stray from pure thrash metal since. On this their fourth full-length in a row with producer Jason Suecof and sixth with Nuclear Blast it’d seem that the roll Death Angel have been on still persists at maximum momentum.
Though I’d concede that ‘The Ultra-Violence’ (1987) is enough of a classic to warrant good vibes towards Death Angel as a ‘legacy’ artist their early run of albums cannot be considered as important for their actual legacy with fans as their run of good will since 2004. Well spoke, intelligent, tirelessly professional, amicably connective with fans, and always a strong stage presence it becomes difficult to find any reason not to respect how well maintained Death Angel have been these last fifteen years. I’m not going to pretend ‘Killing Season’ (2008) was any good, it wasn’t, nor would I suggest that I’d personally bought any of their comeback records beyond ‘The Art of Dying’ (2004) which I still consider one of their best albums. I would say that a fan of old school thrash metal and a modern arena metal fan could find some reasonable compromise in any of their last six records, particularly the signal boost they received since working with Suecof. ‘The Evil Divide’ (2016) was just on the cusp of leaning all the way back to a completely ‘classic’ thrash metal sound and as frustratingly close as it was then today we’re gifted ‘Humanicide’ and album that is easily their most exemplar outing since 2004.
It might seem like I’d been a longtime fan of this band but honestly I think I was about ten years old (circa ’92-’93ish) when my older brother first showed me his early collection of classic and modern heavy metal records and Death Angel were admittedly a joke to both of us. Why? He had a busted copy of ‘Frolic in the Park’ (1988) and the whole idea of prancing through the park only to have metal swoop in had me rolling on the floor. ‘The Ultra-Violence’ was something to hold onto otherwise but I probably wouldn’t give it a chance until the late 90’s at best. Nostalgia for classic thrash does admittedly attract me to the sonic aesthetic ‘style’ of this record whereas the sound is pretty standard headphone boom that is mixed comfortably loud for the modern Overkill (or perhaps Nevermore) crowd. In terms of fidelity and dry ambiance much of the weight and muscle of the record is given directly to the overblown rhythm guitars. In this sense it is immediately reminiscent of modern arena metal bands but thankfully several of the ten songs within come with an accessible style of thrash metal riffing in hand. “Humanicide” is the centerpiece of the album and we’re given it as quickly as possible, for many this song alone will hold much (or all) of the value to be found on this ninth Death Angel record and surely the song earns it with a tightly wound “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” riffs and jogging Havok-esque refrains. From that point on there are a couple of ripping thrashers (“Divine Defector”, “Alive and Screaming”) but the rest of the tracklist is a bit all over the place in terms of style with some funk, some arena rock, a near ballad, and a fan anthem rounding out the rest of the listen. Style points aside, the best tracks on ‘Humanicide’ aren’t necessarily the most ripping thrashers so, if you’re just an old school die-hard you’re only going to vibe with about third of the goings-on here.
The sleepy fade-outs and spiraling basslines of the otherwise punchy “Aggressor” is just left-of-center enough to stand out in the jumbled tracklist. The alt-metal arena stomps and awkward fusion break of “Revelation Song” begins to feel like Flotsam and Jetsam‘s inadvisable ‘Drift’ era experimentation yet breaks up the otherwise fairly uninspired verve of the latter half of the album with some unusual energy. What more or less saves the second half of the album will depend which version you get as the bonus track “The Day I Walked Away”, which I believe was unreleased from the previous album session, is easily one of the strongest pieces on the whole record. The full listen is certainly uneven in hindsight and especially as I picked through each song for closer analysis. As a casual spin it felt more varied and expressive than expected but tracks like “Immortal Behated” really start to grate for their length and style. If you’re not shaken by an overtly accessible thrash metal record in 2019 this is undoubtedly one of the best released in recent memory. As for my own admittedly ‘underground’ and traditional metal leaning taste, I felt ‘Humanicide’ was a heavy and entertaining record that was perhaps self-consciously mixed as loud as possible and it became a bit of a headache to focus on beyond first impressions. I liked what I was hearing with an open mind but the absolute thunder of the record did become tiresome when attempting successive listens.
Without question ‘Humanicide’ is one of the best records Death Angel have produced since reforming. In building upon the ambitions of the previous album but also amping up the archetypal Bay Area thrash metal approach to rhythm guitar work this ninth record from the band feels energized and right back to their point of origin. Don’t jump into it expecting straight thrash, though. A good mix of their modern arena metal sounds and the intricate sort of heavy metal songwriting the band have become known for makes up at least half of the roughly 45 minute album. Don’t let the heavy first impression overshadow all of the smaller improvements that’ve been made in tweaking their sound across these last four collaborations with Suecof, who continues to be a wise choice. My recommendation for ‘Humanicide’ is mid-to-high depending upon what you’re looking for in an ninth Death Angel album, I went in thinking it was a pure Bay Area thrash record and ended up with a strong modern metal album with nods to the era the band was birthed into. For preview I’d suggest “Humanicide” is the unavoidable anchor for the album with the two tracks after it providing great accompaniment, otherwise I’d point to “Divine Defector” and “Revelation Song” as my personal favorites.
Pieces left to fall. 3.5/5.0
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