Heathen – The Evolution Of Chaos Review

Heathen are one of the better of the underrated Bay Area Thrash Metal bands, from their melodic and catchy 1987 debut Breaking The Silence, to their dense and slightly progressive Victims Of Deception in 1991. After a long period of inactivity with only occasional appearances, they finally returned with 2010’s The Evolution Of Chaos (or 2009, if you lived in Japan).

Their guitarist Lee Altus has been making a name for himself in Exodus in recent years, and Exodus repay the favour with guest appearances on here by singer Rob Dukes and guitarist Gary Holt.

This album is very much modern Thrash done right; catchy melodies, memorable choruses, a good mixture of tempos but not forgetting to rock out and speed up, and utterly magnificent lead guitar work.

The production, from Juan Urteaga, is absolutely top drawer and equal to any of the modern Thrash releases by the likes of Andy Sneap. It sounds so clear and smooth, highlighting Heathen’s melodic aspirations really well.

In terms of direction, they do try and balance the style of both their more direct debut and their more ambitious sophomore effort, with steps into the future in the form of a whole new approach. The balance of those three key ideas has lead to a very fine record that fans of the band, and the genre at large need to check out.

If there was a slight criticism to be levelled at the album, it is quite long (68 and a half minutes!) but to be fair, there isn’t much in the way of filler either, so I guess we should just be grateful for having a lot of high quality material, even if it is hard to find the time to listen to it all in one sitting.  

Here’s include the catchy “Arrows Of Agony,” the direct “Dying Season” and the varied “No Stone Left Unturned.”

Whereas some other heritage bands came back and their album was more of a step in the right direction (Forbidden) or a disappointment (Nuclear Assault), Heathen just nail it here. Well-written, well played and well produced. This set a standard for me against which comebacks can be judged (recently topped by Sacred Reich, but for the past decade, its definitely been one of the best).

Coroner – Grin Review

Coroner were one of the more unique Thrash Metal bands. While their earliest material was a bit more pure-Thrash, with each new release they became more technical, more progressive and more unique.

By the time of their final full-length studio album, 1993’s Grin, they had pushed the envelope so far, most of the album is hardly reminiscent of pure Thrash at all.

It opens with the hypnotic tribal “Dream Path” intro, which sounds more like Lateralus-era Tool than it does Reign In Blood or Darkness Descends. That should be the first sign this isn’t your average full-speed-ahead thrasher.

After the brief intro, the record bursts into the first full-length song, “The Lethargic Age” which has a bit of a Beg To Differ era Prong feel to it. There’s still crunch and direction to the riffs, but it also intermittently gives way to jangly post punky ringing too.

That’s followed by the faster “Internal Conflicts” which picks up the pace, but also has a bit of a Ministry-Meets-White Zombie vibe, with its stop/start song structure, bouncy chorus, samples, but tight mechanical verse riffs. That then gets capped off with a sweepy Dream Theater sounding guitar solo.

“Caveat (To The Coming)” which follows, opens with a Beatlesy psychedelic jingle jangle intro, before evolving into a sort of proto-Nu Metal groove. Very bass driven and not as fast as you’d think of when you think of the word “Thrash.”

I won’t get into a full track-by-track but you get the picture, the band are expanding their style, looking in many different directions, trying new styles. It is the 90s after all, and very few Thrash bands are keeping it simple and sounding like its still 1986.

As a bit of a Thrash nut, I’ve spent most of my teens and early ‘20s with a sort of “80s rules/90s sucks” mentality when it comes to this sort of music (aint nobody gonna tell me Green is a better album than Forbidden Evil for example), but as I grew older, I definitely began to appreciate the sometimes underrated 90s releases from 80s bands a bit more. I’m sure if I’d have heard Grin when I was younger, I’d have balked a bit when hearing it. As I didn’t discover Coroner until much later, it just seems like another excellent album from the ex-Celtic Frost roadies. Being a Prong fan first also definitely helps.

I think there’s enough of what makes the previous Coroner albums great. There’s the technical prowess, the willingness to explore and the ambition in general. The vocals are still the same as the early albums (don’t expect any Cobain-isms or Alice In Chains-esque harmonies). The lead guitar is excellent – in fact, I’d argue that some of the band’s best solos to date come on this album and the band in general never fail to be interesting. The only thing that’s missing really is the breakneck speed or the warm fuzzy feeling of classic Thrash charm.

If you want a taster track to see if the album is for you, try the 8-minute, multiple-time signature “Paralized, Mesmerized.”

Overall; is this an appropriate album for adding to a Thrash playlist alongside Pleasure To Kill, The Legacy and Bonded By Blood? Honestly, no, probably not. However, if you are already a fan of ‘80s Coroner, should you shun this album because it is different? No, definitely not.

Annihilator – Ballistic, Sadistic Review

If I had to describe this album in three words? Absolute. Guitar. Pornography! – Thrash fans the world over can rejoice, because on their 17th studio album, Canada’s best Thrash band (no offence to Sacrifice, Exciter and Voivod fans) are truly on top form. I don’t know what has happened in Jeff Water’s life, but he sounds absolutely super-charged. Best vocals of his career. Superb song-writing. Astounding solos. Performances like a man possessed. If the band had broken up after their second album and this was their comeback, the music press would be all over this like ants on a picnic.

As it stands; Their previous album was a step in the right direction, but this album is an Olympic sprint in the right direction. Chocked full of lead guitar that would make most of the great virtuosos blush, fast enough to make modern Megadeth albums feel like a Doom Metal band, fun enough to make it endlessly memorable, Ballistic Sadistic is quite possibly Annihilator’s best album of the modern age. Perhaps their 3rd best ever.

The production is crystal clear but with nice crunchy rhythm guitar and hard hitting drums, all the instruments are perfectly balanced, nice thick bass, vocals not too loud. Its only 10 songs, no intros, no ballads, no joke tracks, just absolute “give the people what they want” thrashing. I mean it isn’t devoid of variety (they don’t call this man the Eddie Van Halen of Thrash Metal for nothing) but it is hyper-focused and filler-free.

Highlights include the opening three songs, including the very Never, Neverland-reminiscent single “Psycho Ward” (Jeff’s lyrics were never the most progressive when it comes to mental health, but I the music is brilliant) as well as the speedy “The End Of The Lie” and “Out With The Garbage” which channel the band’s faster material from their late ‘80s style and not forgetting the brilliant “Lip Service” which carries on that fun guitars cut out, rhythm section takes over style of song that the band tried on songs like Knight Jumps Queen” and “Pastor Of Disaster” in the early ‘90s.

When Annihilator are on, they are really on, one of the best bands in the whole genre when they get it right, and this my friends, is the band on and righter than right. Do you like to headbang? Do you like your air guitar? Do like a bit of melody with your Thrash? Then this red-hot scorcher of an album is highly recommended.

Agent Steel – Unstoppable Force Review

Unstoppable Force is the classification-defying Speed/Thrash/Heavy/US Power Metal band Agent Steel’s second full-length album, following up the exciting 1985 debut album Skeptic’s Apocalypse and the 1986 stop-gap EP Mad Locust Rising.

The previous record was a blistering Priest, Maiden and NWOBHM influenced explosion of energy, that was reminiscent of a lot of the best early Thrash albums of the time and with a few Queensryche influences sprinkled on top.

This 1987 sophomore effort carries on that sound (and UFO obsessed lyrical bent), but sees the LA band lean even more heavily on the early Queensryche sound. Singer John Cryiss definitely has been listening to more Geoff Tate since the last record, and even on the speedier tracks, like the appropriately named opener “Unstoppable Force,” and the catchy “Nothin Left” you can still pick up hints of Tate in his performance. However sometimes the whole band just goes for it and full-on writes a Queensryche song, such as on the moody mid-temp “Still Searching” which comes across as the missing link between The Warning and Rage For Order, or the atmospheric album closer “Traveller” which has some delicious Metallica Fade To Black sounding lead guitar to start off with, but quickly ends up being their equivalent of Roads To Madness; derivative – maybe, delightful – unarguably!

The real album highlight however is the six-and-a-half minute instrumental workout “The Day At Guyana” (which is not a Manowar cover, in case you were wondering, but obviously named for the same Jonestown Cool Aid massacre).

Like the previous album, clocking in at just over half an hour, this record is filler-free, to the point and great from start to finish. The playing, performance and production are all tighter and more professional than the debut, and this is a damn fine follow up and must have addition to your collection. If you like your Thrash and are also a big fan of Crimson Glory, Metal Church or especially early Queensryche, then this is essential listening.  

Exumer – Possessed By Fire Review

When you think of German Thrash Metal, chance are you think of Kreator, Sodom, Destruction or Tankard. Rightly so. One band who shouldn’t be overlooked however are Wiesbaden’s underrated Exumer.

I guess line-up troubles and label issues stopped them getting the same exposure and opportunity as some of their peers, because their sound and formula is perfect for this style of music. Its not blackened or crossover, not progressive or technical, not funky or avant guard, its by the book Thrash, done simply, but effectively. Imagine the missing link between Bonded By Blood and Hell Awaits. Exumer’s cult classic 1986 debut album Possessed By Fire is the closest thing to that missing link. Eschewing the darker, more extreme style most Teutonic thrashers usually opt for, Exumer are Germany’s answer to Californian music (kind of like how Xentrix are for Britain).

The vocals are not the most memorable in the world, but serve the songs. They’re mostly in the mid-range but with occasional high screams. Not too cheesy, not too extreme. The guitar and drums are solid. Not flashy, not virtuoso, but get the job done nicely.

The warm analogue production courtesy of Harris Johns (Voivod, Coroner, Kreator, Sodom) is decent for a Thrash debut (certainly better than Destruction’s early work, less tinny and thin for example).

Highlights include the scream-along Title Track, the more adventurous ‘Xiron Darkstar’ and album closer ‘Silent Death.’

If there was a criticism to be made, I guess lack of originality may be the one to level at this band/album. (They do seem to steal a few sections from other songs **cough** Black Magic *cough* Riot Of Violence** cough). However, no more so than any other C-Tier bands of the era.

A good rule of thumb is that if you take a look at the Jason Vorhees meets Attila The Hun looking artwork and get a nice warm feeling in your tummy, then you will kind of already know what this album sounds like. Does it exceed your expectations, probably not, no, but it does meet them. If you dig albums like Terror Squad by Artillery or Malicious Intent by Razor then you’ll know what sort of level to expect.

Agent Steel – Skeptic’s Apocalypse Review

Call it Speed Metal, Thrash Metal, US Power Metal or just plain old Heavy Metal; Agent Steel’s 1985 combat records debut album Skeptic’s Apocalypse is a frentic, buzzsaw of an album that pounds along with an almighty force.

This album is the pure flawless distillation on Metal at the time. No wonder it caused a stir back then. It rocks all the way through, from the (excluding a brief intro) meaty opening track; “Agents Of Steel,” which sounds like if someone took an early Venom song, produced it well, and then inserted insane falsetto shrieks and impressive virtuoso lead guitar work, to the catchy album closer “Back To Reign” – that mixes Iron Maiden’s gallop with some of that Show No Mercy-era Slayer tinny bounce and Feel The Fire-era Overkill vocal power,

Singer John Cryiis is incredibly diverse; sounding by turns like Katon W. De Pena of Hirax, Bobby Blitz Ellsworth of Overkill, Geoff Tate of Queensryche and strangely Philly Byrne of Gama Bomb (check out “Evil Eye/Evil Minds”). His ultra-high moments even give King Diamond a run for his money at times.

In terms of the instrumentalists; Guitarists Juan Garcia (also of Evildead) and Kurt Kilfelt are both an absolute master of the instrument, coming up with lots of memorable lead lines and solos. Drummer Chuck Profus puts in a really solid performance behind the drum kit. The production really leans into the ride cymbal and toms (almost as if the fills were recorded separately afterwards) and makes the drumming really stand out. The bass guitar, courtesy of George Robb can unfortunately be a little inaudible on some songs (or conversely almost too audible in other songs, for example the Queen Of The Reich copyist “Guilty As Charged” has quite loud bass).  

Highlights include the speedy/thrashy “Bleed For The Gods” and the more dynamic and versatile “Children Of The Sun” which has a sort of Warning-Era Queensryche feel meets the vibe of Metal Church’s debut (a Seattle-sound if you will – but not in the flannel shirt meaning of that phrase!) and the slightly darker “144,000 Gone” which sounds like a mixture of Anvil and Iron Maiden but more depressing.  

If you like Iron Saviour or Gamma Ray’s sci-fi lyrics with Judas Priest influences this is worth checking out, or if you like the production, music and vocals on debut albums by Anthrax, Exciter or Armoured Saint this is really worth checking out. If you want something Thrashy but clean, familiar but distinct, well-produced for the time but still charming and unmistakably 80s, then this is the perfect meeting point. It also helps that its just 30 minutes with absolutely no filler, so it doesn’t get old or outstay its welcome. Don’t overlook it for too long, I can’t believe I never tried this when I was younger.

Sacred Reich – The American Way Review (2)

(I wrote this review several years ago, but noticed it was missing from the reviews menu, and it was quicker to post it again here than scroll through years of post to find the origional to fix the menu)

Sacred Reich are a brilliant thrash metal band from Phoenix, Arizona. They play groove centered breakdowns mixed with chunky speed metal segments and have an awesome singer called Phil Rind, who belongs more to the Phil Anselmo School of singing than to the Death Metal or Iron Maiden-copycat styles that were common among many non-Bay Area Thrash bands.

The American Way, is a bona fide metal classic, containing many of the band’s greatest songs, for example ‘Who’s to Blame,’ and the famous Title Track (which you may remember from the early 90’s Brendan Frasier Cave man Movie ‘California Man.’)

The American Way is possibly Sacred Reich’s career highlight; capitalizing on the success of their previous EP and signature tune ‘Surf Nicaragua,’ the band further mix Hardcore Punk and a little taste of Groove Metal into their classic Thrash sound to create the perhaps ultimate Sacred Reich album. Don’t get me wrong, its still classic Thrash, but with enough variety to make every song distinct, memorable and catchy.

This album contains everything you want from a metal album; complex drumming, speedy riffs, groovy breakdowns, flashy guitar solos and interesting lyrics. The lyrics are socially conscious and political like many of their peers, but less ham-fisted than some of the worse thrash lyricists of the time were. Topics of discussion include everything from backwards messages and politics to metal elitism.

The production is punchy and chunky, with a clarity between the instruments and overall it is generally one of the better produced albums of the era.

The remastered edition comes in a beautiful digipak, and contains raw demos of 6 of the album’s songs along with the music video for ‘The American Way.’

In summary; This is a highly recommended album to any fan of thrash metal. If you like Nuclear Assault or Anthrax in particular then you’re going to love ‘The American Way.

Sacred Reich – Still Ignorant Live 1987-1997 Review (2)

(I wrote this review several years ago, but noticed it was missing from the reviews menu, and it was quicker to post it again here than scroll through years of post to find the origional to fix the menu)

Sacred Reich deliver the goods on this live effort, with a career spanning track listing, energetic performance and a great sound. The live album, recorded before the group disbanded sounds awesome, with a really chunky guitar sound and a good mix altogether.

Vocalist Phil Rind can really perform live, and doesn’t fall short live like some other singers. Highlights include a storming rendition of ‘Who’s To Blame,’ a surprisingly bouncy version of ‘Independent,’ as well as all the classics like ‘Surf Nicaragua,’ and ‘Death Squad.’

The Crowd are mix low enough to still be heard but not ruin the sound, and the whole sound gives off a really good concert vibe, it seems like it would’ve been amazing to have been there like all the best live albums do.

The concert mixes in a few numbers from the band’s underrated final album ‘Heal,’ and the songs sound amazing and are welcome next to the classic material.

Good grooves, melodic solos, chunky riffs and a solid production. What more could you ask for ? If you like Sacred Reich you really owe it to yourself to buy this, if you’re new to the band this is a great place to start.

Sacred Reich – Heal Review

The 1990s were not kind to a lot of Thrash Metal bands. Some broke up. Some went soft or tried new styles. Some went too progressive or too extreme. Some just ran out of good ideas.

There are of course, always exceptions to every trend. Heal by Sacred Reich is one such exception. This album is an underrated gem. Now; They may have moved into a Pantera-influenced Groove Metal style for half the album, which could be off-putting to die hard Thrashers, but half the record is still aggressive speedy Thrash and the songs that aren’t are way better than you’d expect from anything in 1996 anyway.

Part of what makes it work so well is Phil Rind’s vocals are perhaps the best of his career. He really developed over the years since Ignorance. Another thing that makes it work so well are that the songs are just so damn catchy and memorable. Finally; The slower moments really help the band’s trademark political and socially aware lyrical content easier to get across. When its not constantly all 1,000mph then you get to take it on board a bit more.

As described above, its an album of two halves. Highlights from the faster stuff includes “Break Through” and “Don’t” which are punchy and energetic, and perhaps best of all the furious album closer “The Power Of The Written Word” which is perhaps the band’s most pissed off song since their debut. (Talk about going out with a bang).

Highlights from the slower stuff include the Sabbathy grooving Title Track, the memorable anti-racist “Blue Suit, Brown Shirt” and the very fun “I Don’t Care.”

Even the Oingo Boingo cover works. The only thing that doesn’t quite do it for me is “Low” which is a bit too Alice In Chains for even my tastes. People who thought that tracks like “A Question” from the previous EP or “Crawling” from the last album weren’t Thrashy enough may want to avoid that one track in particular. (Don’t let it put you off trying the whole record though).

After this album, drummer Dave McClain would go on to join Machine Head for around two decades and Sacred Reich would break up and only play intermittently over the years. (Although things have come full circle now, with the band back full steam ahead with their superb new album, Awakening, and guess who’s behind the kit?).

Although their comeback record is superb, for the last two decades this was a fine ending to the Sacred Reich story. It may not be all fast, all the time, but it is all entertaining, all the time.

Toxik – World Circus Review

Toxik’s 1987 Roadrunner Records debut, World Circus is a lot less technical or progressive than their sophomore album, Think This, and much more in keeping with a traditional Thrash sound. That being said they are rather adventurous, dynamic and technically proficient a that sound.  

Some bands sound raw, rough and nasty, but this is utter professionalism, precise and dynamic from start to finish. More for fans of Heathen than Hirax if you know what I mean. The production is clean and the playing is flashy in an effortless sounding way. I also has one of my all time favourite Thrash tunes on it. There’s some nice melodic falsetto (almost Power Metal) vocals, some very impressive virtuosic lead guitar wizardry with all sorts of fancy sweeping and trickery, and of course, oodles and oodles of speed.

Why isn’t it a bigger album then? If I had  to guess, the two biggest flaws with the album, are firstly that some of the material can be a bit forgettable after the record has stopped playing, and secondly that the opening track, “Heart Attack” is an absolutely brilliant, catchy, unbelievably fun gem and nothing on the rest of the album can live up to that level or entertainment. If someone asked me “what is Thrash Metal?” its one of the first songs I would play them. Its just a shame the rest of the record doesn’t live up to that unfairly high standard.

That being said, it is not a one hit wonder situation. Anti-drug track “Pain And Misery” has a memorable staccato opening and is one of the most rhythmic Thrash songs released before the 90s. I guess the album is probably most famous for the Title Track having a Thrash recreation of the circus theme tune (do-do, doodoo do do, doo doo) but make no mistake, this is not gimmick band. They are deadly serious, with excellent musicianship and thoughtful lyrics (Eg. “Count Your Blessings” covers the topic of homelessness and not taking what you have for granted).

I love the Ed Repka cover art too. Soooooo Thrash. This is the kinds of thing modern bands like Haydes, Municipal Waste and Havok worship.

Overall; Not the most even record in the world, but definitely worth a look for Thrash fans.