ASSASSIN – Holy Terror/The Saga of Nemesis (2021)REVIEW

The “resource with an opinion” weighted optimism of early 2000’s music journalism certainly had its high-honorable mutants and lowly opportunistic nerds yet today we can look back upon the last twenty years with a clearest sorting of who’d had their own novel documentarian ideas and who’d simply been sourcing a demographic to “sell” a nostalgic lifestyle brand to. One of the major sources of brutally objective yet informative point of view upon classic thrash metal hierarchy starting around 2003 was and for a decade one fellow’s set of opinions on hundreds of thrash metal albums maintained what I’d consider a fanzine level of comfort that doubles as a “guide” and/or resource. Going from A to Z and making sure I’d filled in every possible gap in my own knowledge meant discovering bands that’d blow my mind (Deathrow, Target) and become favorites as well as others that’ve grown on me for their outlier qualities (Living Death) and in this process an appreciation for what are largely considered typical or generic traits of a scene developed. The general “in hindsight” thrash metal zeitgeist sets these bands into tiers of perceived originality and when that point becomes moot by the boon of 1987 the subjective elitism of the thrash metal riff appreciation society becomes key to identifying chaff from germ. I might love an album like Deathwish‘s ‘Demon Preacher’ ’til death yet the armchair historians of the internet, some earnest and others simply parroting another’s work to create a salable resource, might sway what scant documentation of that artifact as subpar in whatever sense. This is certainly similar to a case study of Germany’s Assassin, an fireplug force outta early 80’s Düsseldorf that’d taken a few years to blow up as they put in their dues in clubs and on tape in the rehearsal room. Though their brilliant Kalle Trapp (Drifter, Pestilence, Blind Guardian) produced debut ‘The Upcoming Terror‘ (1987) deserves its day of appreciation at some point their rehearsals are our main concern here; Not only to gain some insight from the clarified documentation of these artifacts but to suggest that a band you might’ve been inclined to overlook within a glut of information may be a far more interesting gem that instinct would dictate.

Set and setting matter here as demonstration tapes weren’t just functional items circa 1985 they were mission statements meant to find like-eared artists, artistic intent encapsulated within a networking device meant to showcase camaraderie, capability and style. In most cases you could tell exactly what bands they were listening to, what bands they’d played with, which zines they’d been supported by and whatnot for the sake of their liner notes and whatever riffs you could make out. I feel like the suggestion should be obvious but tape trading was at some point a social medium beyond the “brand development” obssessed self-propagandizing faux underground of today. If you had a thrash tape in 1986 you were duplicating it by hand and attempting to tour Europe to catch a savvy label’s ears and that was exactly what Mayhem (Norway) were doing in December that year when they’d caught up with the folks in Assassin while supporting ‘Pure Fucking Armageddon‘. They must’ve hit it off on some level because members of both bands would record a demo under the name Checker Patrol (see: ‘Metalian in the Park‘) as a joke, a good time. That is where I’d like to frame these two demos from Assassin, they were serious to some degree but they were still kids having fun while rising to the high standards of the thrash metal artform as the second half of the decade demanded profound skill, speed and songwriting.

If you are grabbing the compact disc ‘Holy Terror / The Saga of Nemesis’ consists of a two item set in chronological order; If you are getting the vinyl versions each demo receives its own separate plate and packaging. Each demo tape was transferred from its original source by Patrick W. Engel at his Temple of Disharmony studio before he’d restored the audio and mastered each tape. For the mp3 era folks who’ve been streaming old tape rips on YouTube the difference in quality will be staggering for ‘The Saga of Nemesis’ yet ‘Holy Terror’ has its own busted charm in terms of a truly necro single microphone recording. As a carefully restored and undistorted document this is a museum, er, collection worthy feat largely reserved for folks who appreciate the vital nuances between various smaller thrash metal scenes in Germany. Düsseldorf certainly had its smaller hubs but beyond a few single demo bands it was more or less Samhain (pre-Deathrow) and Assassin who’d leave a pre-1990 mark that holds up strong in peoples minds today. Without properly illustrating why ‘Holy Terror’ was important at the time it’ll probably come across as brutal, primitive thrash metal with some strong hardcore punk influence in its transitional moments. What provenance adds to the manic, wild energy of this demo tape is cursory in some sense yet knowing their sound comes via a single mic circa 1985 and without much thought given to their desert island of peers… the performances are considerably tight and songs remarkably composed. There is a hint of style I’d associate with Holy Moses, Onslaught and even (late 80’s) English Dogs as songs like “Bullet” and “Holy Terror” shriek, riff and collapse in nigh metalpunk shocks but these guys were already reaching for a sophisticated standard, even at their wildest. The riffcraft shared between guitarists Jürgen Scholz and Dinko Vekić is exceptionally dark and extreme compared to their later work and I can see why certain Norse folks would appreciate Assassin just as much as Kreator or Sodom at the time, for my own taste it hits a similar spot that the second Messiah record does.

‘The Saga of Nemesis’ is much more obviously indicative of a band ready to be signed to Steamhammer in the late 80’s as we see a few key pieces on the first tape reworked (“Holy Terror”, “Speed of Light”) into much tighter, typically lightspeed versions as well as some new pieces that fit this new sound (“Nemesis”), which share traits with both Metallica and Dark Angel schools of though on thrash metal riffing circa 1986. Raw vocals, jagged beats, and a tendency to mold melodies around riffs will perk the ears of folks who love Hallow’s Eve and I suppose my train of thought is headed towards suggesting Assassin‘s sound fit into some of the more gruff, hardcorish and maniac riff-heavy German thrash metal of the era but their sound certainly wasn’t average when taking stock of the entire country, not on this tape; If anything it wasn’t until 1988 when a lot of bands would arrive with a similar level of songwriting while borrowing more theatrics from the early Bay Area sound. Most every song excepting “Religion” would feature on ‘The Upcoming Terror’ and though I personally would rather celebrate that album as their true gem I do have to admit I love the vocals on both of these tapes. The mania of the vocalist is a major thrill but he’d aimed for more intelligible enunciation, less shrieking, and a bit of reverb I’ve never liked on their debut. The way I see it I’d loved ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ enough that ‘The Penance’ is an essential additional document of that process and this is the same way I’d approach ‘Holy Terror/The Saga of Nemesis’ in terms of having loved ‘The Upcoming Terror’, the context is interesting but the experience of the raw recordings illuminates all from the best, unhindered angle.

A restored Assassin demo compilation/vinyl release sells itself to me for the sake of keeping this sort of vital archive alive and well yet it is no small bonus that these demos still rule. They’re darker than expected, far more feral than remembered and restored into something entirely listenable. The recommendation for this is yet moderate, I honestly think ‘Holy Terror’ is raw enough that a lot of folks won’t give it the due ear-scouring immersion it needs to speak its brutal piece of mind yet for my own taste, it rules and ‘The Saga of Nemesis’ is just as brilliant as the album if not far more tough. Now if they could only get Herr Engel to remaster their debut as well, the 2011 version is just ok. A moderately high recommendation.

Moderately high recommendation. (75/100)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
TITLE:Holy Terror / The Saga of Nemesis
TYPE:Compilation [CD]
12″ Vinyl LP [Separate]
LABEL(S):High Roller Records
RELEASE DATE:March 12th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:High Roller Records
GENRE(S):Thrash Metal

Help Support Grizzly Butts’ goals with a donation:

Please consider donating directly to site costs and project funding using PayPal.