Thrash ‘Til Death #24: Merciless (Sweden) 1986-1994

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


The blast radius surrounding Stockholm, Sweden after Slayer‘s heaviest records dropped and Bathory‘s entrance into the peripheral vision of the heavy metal space was large enough to reach the incurably inspired kids an hour west in Strängnäs, who’d eventually form a definitive Merciless line-up after the collapse of short-lived but heavy-assed Hellfire. 1986 had been the year to set the death and extreme thrash metal scene on fire throughout Sweden and demos from Mefisto, Obscurity, and Pentagram (pre-Tribulation, the thrash metal one) would all drop just months before younger fellows in Sorcery, Nihilist and Morbid would have their say in 1987. There were two savage outliers melting minds in the distance, the first was (pre-Grave) project Corpse who were arguably the most ‘death metal’ band circa 1986 (at least on tape) and Merciless who were definitely more of a brutal thrash metal band taking clear influences from both local ripper Bathory but with an even more pronounced influence from Kreator. Their style could be interpreted a number of ways early on but Merciless would unarguably become exemplar death/thrash legend thanks to their status as the first band signed and released through infamous black metal label Deathlike Silence Productions. Because of this connection they’re often remembered as a black/thrash metal band and while that distinction was reasonably fuzzy in the late 80’s they were a the archetypal Swedish death/thrash metal band by any standard. These guys put out a couple of my favorite albums of all time and one of the better ‘comeback’ records we’ve seen from an old progenitor death/thrash band so, I figured it’d be worthwhile to take a microscope to their place in history and enjoy their incredible discography along the way. Swedish death metal origins are well documented and most every demo (or record of) has been made available somewhere so… Hey! I’ve done my best to research as much as I can 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 Hellfire
Title [Type/Year] Death Revenge [Demo/1986]
Rating [3.25/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube [Playlist]

Hellfire was one of three names this brutal thrash metal band would use before their founding members would form Chronic Decay. After this demo they would change their name to Morbid Sin as vocalist Roger Petterson and bassist Fredrik Karlén left to join Merciless. It didn’t happen exactly in that order as I think Karlén stuck with Hellfire a bit longer but it was a matter of months. As often as folks see this as a precursor to Merciless, it isn’t, and ultimately including it only shows what some of the band members were doing before Merciless released their first demo in 1987. German thrash and Slayer influences are very clear here with some Destruction-esque riffs driving the experience.


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Artist Merciless
Title [Type/Year] Behind the Black Door [Demo/1987]
Rating [3.5/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube

Having snatched the vocalist away from Hellfire after the recording, this first demo from Merciless is the only release to feature original vocalist Kåle. From what I understand the bassist also provides some vocals but if you’re like me you’re not going to see a great deal of distinction in their unintelligible snarling teenaged grunts. Drummer Stefan Carlsson has always been the standout performance for my own taste when it comes to Merciless‘ demo days and his ability to break into Slayer-esque grooves and transition smoothly between different pacing gives Merciless a huge edge over many early Swedish death metal bands. These guys clearly had their hands full of great thrash metal at the time and an eye out for the rise of more extreme metal through zines and tape trading. Many interviews exist from the demo era of this band and most of them are completely off the wall stuff. I feel like this demo era of the band is very well covered by Daniel Ekeroth‘s book so, definitely check out his summary of the band. In terms of how valuable it is to even listen to this demo? Not at all honestly, it isn’t great and just digs through many German thrash cliches and barks over them. Sure, it sounds reductive but they didn’t have anything remotely original in hand until the second demo.


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Artist Merciless
Title [Type/Year] Realm of the Dark [Demo/1988]
Rating [3.75/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube

Fuck! Here is where Merciless became an absolutely ferocious band that’d differentiated themselves entirely from most of their peers. Morbid had lost vocalist Dead to Mayhem and went in a more pure thrash direction and everyone else in Stockholm had already been hard at work focusing on pure death metal. It’d be easy to put this demo on and say well, didn’t ‘Premature Autopsy’ come out that same year? But you’d truly miss the point of Merciless thinking that way because this is an equally extremist take on what albums like ‘Pleasure to Kill’ had done, a rabid and incredibly dark rip into the void that I never felt like any band topped until Massacra‘s first album, even that was buttoned up by comparison. I’ll let some of that praise spill over onto the band’s debut, which wouldn’t have been possible if this tape hadn’t landed in the hands of Euronymous, undoubtedly through some level of acquaintance with Dead. There are memorable and just plain bad-ass riffs all over this demo and a level of grimy fury that’d make Hellhammer and Slaughter crawl in a hole and hide. Also this was the first release with vocalist Rogga.


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Artist Merciless
Title [Type/Year] The Awakening [Full-length/1990]
Rating [4.0/5.0] LISTEN on Bandcamp!

First album, first professional recording, first release on a new label and they’d managed to put together a 26+ minute all killer death/thrash ripper that was extreme in every aspect. Loud rasping vocals, constantly blasting drums, lightning speed German thrash riffs buzzed out as fast as possible… It is an imposing burst of at first glance until “Dreadful Fate” slows down and begins to ease upon the hyper-riff salad of it all. I’m not a jackass elitist about which version you might choose to listen to but I found the original CD master has been poorly reproduced in many cases. I personally like the Osmose Productions version so I’ve linked it here. Is ‘The Awakening’ a completely unsung classic? In many respects yes, it absolutely is not only for its rough-edged ultimate extremity and speed but for its maniacal take on Kreator‘s ‘Terrible Certainty’ cranked up and I always felt like there was some love for Insanity (or Sepultura?) in there too, at least some of the same vibes from similar influences. The great majority of ‘The Awakening’ features some of the most brutal, tightly performed brutal thrash ever recorded and the crossover into death metal is just as striking when they slow down (“Dying World”, “Dreadful Fate” etc.) What I no longer hear in Merciless‘ sound is the Bathory influence beyond the vocals. A lot of folks stop here as ‘The Treasures Within’ was a tormented release and ‘Unbound’ changed their style in a somewhat drastic fashion but… I’d say this album gets over-hyped due to its allegiance with a dead musician’s well-curated label, much of it was nigh plagiarist of Kreator‘s work. Bigger and better things would follow.


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Artist Unanimated
Title [Type/Year] Rehearsal Demo I [Demo/1990]
Rating [2.5/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube

Why have I included the murky-assed, choppy death metal rehearsal demo from Unanimated in an article about Merciless? Unanimated drummer Peter Stjärnvind would soon become a vital part of Merciless‘ continuation after troubles with their second album would cause drummer Stefan Carlsson to become impatient prompting his exit to join punk/folk rock band Dia Psalma and Stjärnvind would replace him. Stjärnvind was also very active in other projects during the early 90’s with popular releases from Regurgitate and the first two legendary Unanimated albums. You’ll get nothing redeeming from this demo unless you want truly filthy sub-basement level tape recording. Still, it gives some context on who they’d choose for their next drummer. The ‘Fire Storm’ demo from 1991 is a bit more impressive but, not much.


Artist Merciless
Title [Type/Year] The Treasures Within [Full-length/1992]
Rating [4.0/5.0] LISTEN on Bandcamp

An equally effective introduction to Merciless‘ sound and style as ‘The Awakening’ but admittedly more brutal ‘The Treasures Within’ is unfairly lost in time because of the extra delay that’d set it in the wrong place and time. Music For Nations thrash imprint Active Records last recorded fuck-up before dissolution would see them delaying the release of ‘The Treasures Within’ for a full year after completion. Almost every release on Active Records was either underrated, under-served or lost to history. It was an unfair turn of events considering Merciless had achieved a fantastically crunchy sound from their sessions with Tomas Skogsberg in Sunlight Studios. It is one of the few records of the time that hadn’t yet adopted the silly thunder-chunk distortion Stockholm would become infested with. With their drummer fed up and off in a non-metal band by February of 1992 they’d gain Unanimated‘s Peter Stjärnvind who’d play on their next album ‘Unbound’. Don’t just skim past this album! If you love stuff like Demolition Hammer, Sadistic Ritual, Incubus‘ second album, or Messiah‘s ‘Choir of Horrors’ then you must add this record to your collection. They incorporated a lot more ‘slow’ parts with big huge riffs that make this a much more memorable album than the first. Which version should you get? This one has been handled much better than ‘The Awakening’ in terms of respectful licenses and we’d get a definitive version around 2003 from Black Lodge Records, which is owned by the founder of melodic death metal band Hypocrite. All of the new covers for reissues of Merciless albums are ugly as fuck! Floga Records put out a nice vinyl version of this, though.


Artist Merciless
Title [Type/Year] Unbound [Full-length/1994]
Rating [5.0/5.0] LISTEN on Bandcamp

With the addition of Peter Stjärnvind and enough money recuperated from their second album, Merciless would focus on a shared influence that would unite them for what is undoubtedly their biggest, best and most savagely underrated record to date. ‘Unbound’ is more or less a death/thrash metal band creating Bathory influenced melodic black/death metal on the level of Dissection‘s ‘The Somberlain’ with Tomas Nyqvist of No Fashion Records (and later Maze of Torment) producing and Dan Swanö engineering/mixing the process. This is still that blasting Kreator influenced death/thrash metal band you’ve just begun to warm up to but they’ve put together an epic career-defining classic that still has never gotten the credit due for being the slick-assed work of art that it is. You have the fire of ‘Blood Fire Death’ era Quorthon and ‘Extreme Agression’ era Kreator blazing through hyper speed semi-melodic death/thrash songs that break into what can only be described as ‘norse’ metal melodies? Yeah, there’s no way to convince you how cool that is without pointing towards “Unbound” and the unforgettable Bolt Thrower-meets-‘Coma of Souls’-meets-Bathory trip that is “Back to the North”. Ah well, as you might suspect I am a fanatic for this album as it is one of many unsung classics hidden in No Fashion Records‘ brief discography. Look at the Necrolord cover art! The Bathory invoking press photo! It is a shame the label really didn’t give Merciless what they wanted and they’d decide to split up soon after the release because it’d been the second blunder in a row, third if you count their first album’s rights being sold after Deathlike Silence Productions was killed by Varg Vikernes. Absolutely go buy this album and enjoy it, any version is fine. I prefer the non-remastered sound but it isn’t a big difference… Swanö ‘s treatment of the drums was too loud to begin with.


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Artist Damnation
Title [Type/Year] Divine Darkness [Demo/1994]
Rating [3.75/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube [Playlist]

Here’s a bit of trivia that most folks rarely come across, a Bathory influenced melodic black metal project from members of Unanimated, Celestial Pain and General Surgery that was first concieved back in 1989 and then on hold as each member was involved in various popular death metal projects. Each was in a hiatus of sorts by 1994 and Stjärnvind was included. If you’re familiar with Unanimated‘s second album, which leans heavier towards Dissection‘s finesse, you can certainly hear some of that ideology bleeding through on this. I’ve included this as a bridge towards the final Merciless album, which made sense to include only because I do not particularly enjoy any of the projects that’d popped up in between 1994 and 2001 when they reformed officially after the Osmose Productions reissue of their debut album proved very popular. Definitely check this out of you’re a fan of the early Swedish melodic black metal sound and well, Bathory too.


Artist Merciless
Title [Type/Year] Merciless [Full-length/2002]
Rating [4.0/5.0] LISTEN on Bandcamp!

I would normally fill in with all the projects the band members have done since (Entombed, Trash Amigos, Under the Church, Murder Squad, Nifelheim, Dreadful Fate, etc.) but I figured this ‘comeback’ album from 2002 is the best possible place to end with even if Merciless never produce another recording. The obtuse speed and savagery aren’t lost upon this slightly more modern take on Merciless‘ classic sound but I think they understood a lot of folks bought that first album’s reissue in 1999 for good reason and they didn’t expand upon ‘Unbound’. If anything this is a direct sequel to ‘The Treasures Within’ that finds the band using a tone that is just a shade darker than say The Haunted at the time, so it doesn’t feel particularly old school and instead just stripped down and hammered death/thrash that finds a heavy groove once in a while without going moshcore. That’d be my only complaint is that the whole thing feels like raging riff salad that doesn’t do anything to stand out until the final track “In Your Blood”. Explosive and ripping stuff, worthy of and related to their legacy. And hey, they’re still going! Back to touring since at least 2016 and with the full original line-up with Stjärnvind on second guitars instead of drums. [Click/Tap here to watch “Cleansed By Fire” Live 2018]. Keep tabs on the band, buy all three of their full-lengths, and follow them on Facebook so you’ll know if they ever record a new album! If nothing else, go give ‘Unbound’ a chance as I consider it a completely unsung classic.


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