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!
As this set of features comes to an end it’ll become more and more important to focus on the power of disenfranchised youth energy, that inner hatred that comes when a teenaged child sees the bigger picture beyond themselves and, by chance, decides to channel that channel that violence into good drugs and furious music. When a 16 year old Kelley Shaefer founded Oblivion with his friend “Mark” in 1984 it was a formality, a first year of formative practice inspired by the aggression of thrash metal but Shaefer has always been the type to dig deeper, into music and the emotion behind it, and as a guitarist he’s had great success with an all out attack. Hanging out, getting stoned, and listening to music as a teenager naturally lead to playing music and writing songs but none of it’d clicked until drummer Steve Flynn joined in 1985. In this transition from garage-thrashing kids to Raging Atheists Vowing a Gory End or R.A.V.A.G.E. these Sarasota, Florida had found an outlet that’d (eventually) plant them as leaders amidst the explosion of extreme metal in the greater Florida area. They were a brutal thrash metal band to start, more vicious and rabid than one might expect, at least by the time they’d found the right bassist, snatching the laid-back bombast of Roger Patterson from Aggressor before he’d ever record with that band. Today Atheist are remembered and celebrated as the archetype of progressive death metal while their developmental demos and ‘Piece of Time’ album take a backseat to the larger conversation. Fuck that! They’re still one of the best examples of death/thrash ever concieved and the build up to the album is a short but brutal ride into infamy. The best part is that they put everything to tape, every song they’d meticulously wrote ended up on a demo so no documentation is lost though some songs haven’t been officially released. Hey! I’ve done my best to research as much as I can but please feel free to message me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or leave a comment if I’ve left out anything vital or gotten something horribly wrong!
|Title [Type/Year]||Rotting in Hell [Demo/1985]|
|Rating [3.5/5.0]||LISTEN on YouTube|
Shaefer and crew were never shy about their influences starting from their earliest interviews up until today. Back in 1985 they were proficient enough with their instruments that they could play somewhat in time and they’d gotten there listening to and covering Anthrax, Exodus, Slayer, and Trouble songs. They were teenaged metalheads and already great talents even on this earliest demo where you can still hear the Paul Baloff-isms in Shaefer‘s voice and some of the more melodic side of thrash influencing their overall groove. You can really see the divide between their oldest songs and the rabid Kreator-esque rip of “Kill or Be Killed”, the opener for their first demo, ‘Rotting in Hell’, that was actually from a separate recording session. The sound quality is just above that of a rehearsal recording but shouldn’t be entirely offensive if you sat through Cynic, Ripping Corpse, Insanity and Xecutioner demos from around this same time. If you listen intently enough no doubt you’ll hear hints of early Destruction and maybe even Sepultura minus their punkish Hellhammer influences. The lead guitars are particularly rudimentary at this point.
|Title [Type/Year]||On We Slay [Demo/1987]|
|Rating [3.5/5.0]||LISTEN on YouTube|
In 1986 the band would add Mark Schwartzberg on second guitar and this would not only allow them to compose for two guitars but provide a lot of bad pentatonic ‘thrash’ shredding to their sound. I know folks love to pour it on thick over this second ‘serious’ demo from the band as they sought a greater audience but it is merely solid provenance for “On They Slay” a serious highlight from the first full-length they’d manage as Atheist. In terms of extreme thrash metal they were surely contemporaries of Sadus and when set side by side this was just as extreme but also very cheaply recorded and the solos don’t help. As a piece of extreme metal history it is valuable but I’d almost rather listen to the first demo. This otherworldly version of “Undefiled Wisdom” is the highlight for me here with its oddly ‘hardcore’ verse riffs. Of course this demo was what set R.A.V.A.G.E. on the path towards greater things when the editor of Violent Noize would greet the band with such enthusiasm he’d become their manager soon enough.
|Title [Type/Year]||Raging Death Vol. 1 [Split/1987]|
|Rating [4.0/5.0]||LISTEN on YouTube!|
Borivoj Krgin of Violent Noize zine (and well, many magazines plus Blabbermouth founder later) would start up a short-lived independent label (Godly Records) and more or less expose the world to three of death metal’s most memorable and innovative early acts (Sadus, Obituary, and Atheist) in selecting a couple tracks for each of their peak demo releases for this compilation which would also feature a couple of heavier thrash acts. I’ve talked about this compilation twice before and I guess “Find the Arise” from Obituary (well, Xecutioner) was the big song here but R.A.V.A.G.E. and Sadus were notable for their speed and brutality all the same. I bought a bootleg/reproduction of this on Discogs a while back and I’m such a fan of this type of split/demo compilation because the mastering for the vinyl process often meant the versions were vastly superior to the demo tapes.
|Title [Type/Year]||Hell Hath No Mercy [Demo/1987]|
|Rating [3.0/5.0]||LISTEN on YouTube|
By late 1987 things get a bit fuzzy for the band in terms of historical documentation. The official statement on this demo was that the name change to Atheist happened in late 1987 and a somewhat plain thrasher, “Hell Hath No Mercy”, was recorded alongside a heavier version of “On They Slay” and the song “Beyond”. Most folks who have this demo tape online have the title track and two tracks from Atheist‘s infamous ‘Beyond’ demo from 1988. Don’t confuse the two, as you’ll hear in the YouTube clip I’ve posted the sound of this demo was rough compared to ‘Beyond’ and they were different sessions separated by months of rehearsal. This tape was not a breakthrough for the band but a time when they were transitioning to a new guitarist, nobody was happy with Mark Schwartzberg‘s leads. Enter guitarist Rand Burkey, who’d stick around long enough to enrich the next demo and full-length. This demo is entirely skippable, the title track is bland and they’d never use it with good reason.
|Title [Type/Year]||Beyond [Demo/1988]|
|Rating [4.5/5.0]||LISTEN on YouTube|
At this point it is important to look at what death metal was in 1988 and clarify the importance of what Atheist were doing then and there. Death had put out two records, Pestilence their first, a handful of folks had heard Watchtower‘s groundbreaking ’87 demo, and Sadus would release their sandblaster of a debut. Hell, there was a lot more going on in each respective ‘scene’ but on the east coast of the United States an arms race began between bringers of death/thrash riffs and progressive/technical methodology. There was plenty of psychotic ultra-brutal death/thrash metal bands kicking up demos around this time but nothing (in the realm of extreme metal) touched the technique and songwriting of what Atheist were doing on this ‘Beyond’ demo. The driving force for a lot of this hyper-active improvement was Roger Patterson, who might’ve been an easygoing stoner by most accounts but what he’d done with a four string bass was virtuosic in terms of extreme metal. In posthumous interviews for the 2013 remasters (all via the very capable hands of Colin Marston) series and reformation of the band they were not shy about attributing the attack and definition of the bands sound, along with their most lauded songwriting coming from Patterson around this time; He finally starts to really shine on this demo which was the bands first excursion into Morrisound Studios with Scott Burns.
|Title [Type/Year]||Piece of Time [LP/1990]|
|Rating [5.0/5.0]||LISTEN on YouTube | LISTEN on Bandcamp [Remaster]|
By the end of 1988 Atheist had signed with Mean Machine Records and jumped right back into Morrisound Studios with a budget limited enough that they’d only scheduled a week to complete what would become ‘Piece of Time’. They’ve said as much: “We got a bag of weed, a Hotel room and spent the week making our album”, to paraphrase lightly. They’d gotten Ed Repka to do the cover art and this’d fit their ‘thinking mans’ death metal ethos at the time, being one of the only extreme metal bands that drawing from a myriad of philosophical fonts towards a singular goal defiance of authority. This progressive hyper speed death/thrash metal album with heady anti-establishment themes is one of my most valued (and collected) albums and just the first step in thier transcendence of all things ‘metal’. It almost never happened, too, as Mean Machine Records fell through that year and by 1989 a deal with Active Records saw limited release until Metal Blade licensed a run for North America. It’d be 1990, nearly a full two years since the recording, when ‘Piece of Time’ was available worldwide and by then the band had toured extensively and nearly finished composing their equally classic elevation, ‘Unquestionable Presence’. The rest is ‘history’ at this point, Roger Patterson would die in a car accident before that second album would hit and the stylistic legacy built with his works essentially ended there. The CD/DVD set remasters of the first two albums do an excellent, mostly complete job documenting/archiving the bands history up through 1991, including pre-production demos for the second album featuring Patterson.
In the space of six years these southwest Florida kid-thrashers had gone from playing Exodus covers in their garage to releasing records that’d be considered a major advent in the creation of progressive/technical death metal. The evolution is stunning to witness. Are any of the R.A.V.A.G.E. tapes worthy of worship? That’ll be up to you, I’d at least contrast the original ‘On We Slay’ / ‘Beyond’ versions of songs with their album counterparts. With consideration that a year had passed in between those recordings at most.
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