Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Death metal turns 25 (why do I suddenly feel old?)

Could there possibly be a better day to launch my new blog, Tempe Carnivore, than on the 25th anniversary of death metal?

Okay, so the title of this inaugural post might be a little deceptive, since the "official" origin of death metal is still a topic of debate. Some have argued that death metal actually began in the early '80s, when Venom was pushing the boundaries of music (and good taste) with albums like Welcome to Hell and At War With Satan. Others would insist that "true" death metal didn't really come into being until the late '80s, when Florida bands such as Death, Morbid Angel and Obituary rose to prominence. Indeed, Chuck Schuldiner, the late founder of Death, is often referred to as the "father of death metal." But the first band to actually embrace the term was Possessed, who released their debut album, Seven Churches, 25 years ago today.

Possessed had actually named their 1984 demo Death Metal, but the term didn't reach the masses until the 1985 release of Seven Churches, which featured a song of the same name.

As much as I'd like to say that I have been on board since 1985, the truth is that I didn't get into Possessed until a bit later, after their second album, Beyond the Gates, was released in 1986. Maybe it's because it's the first album I heard by them, or maybe it's because it's more in the thrash metal vein, but I think I'm one of the few people who actually prefers Beyond the Gates to Seven Churches. Still, there's no denying that Seven Churches was the more groundbreaking and influential album. You didn't even have to listen to the album to know what Possessed was all about. From the simple cover art that featured only the album title and the band's logo superimposed over a stark white inverted crucifix to song titles like "Burning in Hell" and "Satan's Curse," Possessed was clearly not a band for whom subtlety was a strong suit. It all might seem a bit corny now, but back in 1985, before bands started burning down churches to prove their "eviler-than-thou" street cred, this was pretty edgy stuff.

The author with his vintage cassette copy of Seven Churches.
The music itself was also boundary-pushing and genre-defying for its day. After a brief, eerie intro (an uncredited interpretation of Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" a.k.a. the Exorcist theme), Possessed puts the pedal to the metal (pun intended) for a solid 40 minutes of unbridled speed and fury. Guitarist Larry LaLonde, an early student of Joe Satriani, puts his virtuosity on display early and often with breakneck riffs and hyperspeed solos, but it's the vocal delivery of singer/bassist Jeff Becerra that truly qualifies Possessed as the originators of death metal. Becerra's guttural growl would prove to be the vocal template that death metal was built upon.

Possessed would go on to release the aforementioned follow-up, Beyond the Gates, in 1986 and a five-song EP, The Eyes of Horror, in 1987 before disbanding later that year. Drummer Mike Sus reportedly retired from music in the early '90s and became a psychologist. Guitarist Mike Torrao started a landscaping business and played briefly in Bay Area band INaCAGE. LaLonde, of course, went on to form popular alt-rock act Primus with bassist Les Claypool and has spent much of the past 20-plus years pretending that Possessed never happened. Becerra was paralyzed from the chest down following a 1989 shooting. He reformed Possessed in 2007 with members of Sadistic Intent and still occasionally performs under the Possessed name, much to Torrao's chagrin.

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of Seven Churches, I thought it would be cool to ask members of current metal bands about the album - how they first heard it and how it has influenced them. Here are their thoughts:

Makoto Mizoguchi (Abraxas, ex-Hate Eternal)
"POSSESSED is one of my all time FAV bands in death/thrash genre. I love Possessed - Seven Churches and all other CDs. I think one of my friends showed it to me long time ago and I was like 'holy shit.' It was great moment that I found that band. I have a lot of Possessed collection tees as well. Haha. I'm huge old school death/thrash a fan. I wish all those deathcore kids knew those legendary bands. hahaha

I think bands like Venom, Possessed…those bands influenced most of '90s Black/Death to Thrash bands in general. Sadistic Intent is also a GREAT band too, all their members are playing in Possessed now, which is great! I love old school Thrash/Death like I said before, so people who like those bands, I think would not be disappointed by our upcoming Abraxas album. I love technical death metal bands like Necrophagist, but when it's overwhelmed by technique the song’s feelings are lost. Ya know. It has to be catchy to catch people's attention."

Chris Reifert (Abscess, Autopsy, ex-Death)
"When it first came out, I had already heard the demo and seen them live so I was eagerly awaiting that slab of ripping brutality. It definitely delivered, to say the least. Don’t know if it influenced me as a musician, but I always liked Mike Sus’s weird drumming. Some very strange rolls in there and I dig that stuff a lot! Unique and sick as hell. Seven Churches still sounds fresh and vicious. You can’t beat that barrage of distorted evil bliss!"

Fenriz (Darkthrone)
"As a MUSICIAN, this shouldn't inspire anyone. Musicians being the type of people who play session for STEELY DAN (which I am listening to right now!). Raw metal people should engage in FEELING, not mere musicianship. I first bought the second Possessed album, and then very soon thereafter I invested in Seven Churches. At this time (the 80s) it wasn't sterile genres, an album I have started to use as example of this in interviews is actually Seven Churches, as it is both a death metal AND a black metal album, it also harbours thrash.

"What was exciting for me in ‘86 was that most of the USA bands were VERY tight, but this album had the maniacal force of European tötal darkness around it, it is chaotic and a very EARLY album of it's kind. It stands out in so many ways. This album was mandatory for the understanding of black metal for us Norwegians of the 85-91 crew. And Jeff Becerra’s vocals remain one of Darkthrone’s fave vocalists."

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