Monday, October 31, 2011

Possessed - Beyond the Gates: Part 6 in a 10-part series looking back at the best thrash metal albums of 1986

Throughout the year, I've been looking back at some of the best thrash metal albums of 1986 -- the year thrash hit its zenith in popularity and creativity. When possible, I've tried to interview band members, producers and others associated with the original albums. I've also tried to time the blog posts to coincide with the 25th anniversary of each album's release, although accurate release dates from 25 years ago can be hard to come by.

This installment commemorates Beyond the Gates, the second and final full-length album by Bay Area thrash legends Possessed. Possessed's 1985 debut, Seven Churches, is frequently hailed as a metal milestone and was arguably the first death metal album ever released, but Beyond the Gates has always been overlooked (if not outright dismissed) by critics and fans alike.

Why all the hate for Gates? The production was -- to be kind -- a little on the muddy side, and the album didn't display the same raw aggression that Seven Churches did, but c'mon, nobody shits on Slayer for slowing things down on South of Heaven. When you release an album as fast and heavy as Reign in Blood or Seven Churches, what's the point in trying to replicate that? You're pretty much doomed to fail. Slayer recognized that, and so did Possessed.

Maybe it's because it's the first Possessed album I ever heard/owned, but I've always preferred the slightly more diverse and refined sound of Beyond the Gates to the front-to-back, pedal-to-the-metal aural assault of Seven Churches. It could use a good remaster, but you could say that of a lot of albums from that era. When it comes down to it, I'll take "Tribulation," "March to Die" and "No Will to Live" over anything on Seven Churches.

One thing I never would've expected when I concocted the idea for this project about a year ago was to land an interview with former Possessed and current Primus guitarist Larry LaLonde. If you had asked me back then, I'd have said that there's a better chance of getting one of the guys from Metallica on the phone than getting LaLonde to talk about Possessed. The general perception over the years has been that LaLonde has turned his back on metal and would rather forget that Possessed ever happened. It's a perception that I admit to buying into -- and perpetuating -- myself.

But after a series of solid interviews with numerous members of the early thrash scene, I was feeling confident. [It's also worth noting that I had tried and failed to track down Possessed vocalist Jeff Becerra for an interview back when I started this blog, so I wasn't particularly thrilled about making another run at that.] I looked up Primus's publicist online and was pleasantly surprised to see that it was someone I'd worked with in the past. I shot him an e-mail to see if he could arrange an interview with LaLonde and, much to my amazement, he came through.

Still, I was a little nervous in the days and hours leading up to the phoner. What if they hadn't told him the interview was about Possessed? Primus has a new album out, and there was a chance Larry might think he was doing another interview about Primus, only to be blindsided by some metal nerd with a blog and some stupid Possessed questions.

Then, when I finally got him on the phone, my worst fears were realized. I finished asking the first question and there was dead silence on the other end. He'd hung up on me! The publicist got back on the line and asked if I'd lost Larry. He said he'd get him back on the phone. I was thinking "Yeah, right," but sure enough, my phone rang a couple minutes later. Turns out it really was just a bad connection and the interview went off without a hitch.

So without further ado, I present the most unlikely interview in this entire series. I came away from it with an entirely different perception of LaLonde, and I hope any jaded Possessed fans reading this do the same.

Interview with former Possessed guitarist Larry LaLonde

Tempe Carnivore: According to Wikipedia, Beyond the Gates came out on Halloween, which would be an incredibly appropriate release date, but I’m a little skeptical, since Halloween fell on a Friday in 1986. Can you remember if the album did, in fact, come out on Halloween?

LaLonde: I don’t remember it being anything like that. It sounds like something we probably would’ve tried to do, but like you said, it was a Friday, so you know, probably not. Maybe it came out that week or something.

I seem to be in a pretty small minority of people who actually like Beyond the Gates better than Seven Churches. Why do you think so many critics and fans were disappointed in the album?

The fans – especially back then – metal fans were so critical of everything. It was like everything was under a microscope. I don’t really remember too much of what people thought of it then, but obviously Seven Churches was kinda like any band, [where] the songs had been kicked around and played for a while, so that was the super-crazy one. Then the second album is the one that’s written in, like, a year.

What was your mindset heading into the studio to record the album? Were there any particular albums or bands at the time that inspired you or made you feel like you had to step up your game?

Well, around that time, all that stuff was so new that it was like, I think all the bands around that time were trying to invent that music. I think Motörhead was kind of the heaviest thing most people had heard, and then it was Venom, and then Slayer. I don’t know what album Slayer was on, but it was still pretty new then. So I know that with Seven Churches, it was like, “OK, let’s try to one-up Slayer.” Then I’m sure on Beyond the Gates it was, once again... every metal band was trying to one-up the last metal band, which probably led to where the music kind of just became this, like, roar of noise. But I definitely remember at that time everyone was trying to be heavier, faster, more Satanic, which is the funny thing, ‘cause back then, who was really into Satan? Maybe some of the fans, but the bands were just like “What kind of crazy shit can we say today that will freak people out?”

I think a lot of people didn’t realize that it was kinda tongue-in-cheek. It was shock value, but I think there were some preachers and other people who thought these bands really were sacrificing goats and babies and stuff.

Yeah, that was the funny thing. It was just kinda shock value, especially then. Now it’s kind of hard to imagine it being that shocking, but back then, yeah, it was crazy. You had the PMRC. You had different talk show hosts saying “This is music about the devil, blah blah blah.” I think I was 16 when we made [Seven Churches], and I was like “What?” These crazy preachers on TV that are trying to get you to send money in, they’re getting freaked out by this? It’s like “Awesome!”

Any publicity’s good publicity, right?

Yeah. Well, we didn’t even know about publicity. We just liked the idea that people were scared of it.

The album artwork was pretty elaborate, with a gatefold cover for the vinyl version. Whose idea was that?

I can’t really remember exactly whose idea it was. I remember coming together and this whole thing of “Oh, it’s gonna be this thing that looks totally different from any other album cover and it’s gonna cost a fortune to make, but it’s gonna be cool” and I was like “Alright.” I remember at the time, I was kinda like “Well, I hope that’s cool.” We didn’t really care about much more beyond the music, so the idea of the whole fold-out thing, we were hoping that there was some reason to it. But looking back, it was kind of an interesting idea.

You’re in a pretty elite fraternity along with Kirk Hammett [Metallica], Alex Skolnick [Testament] and Rick Hunolt [Exodus] -- all former Joe Satriani students who went on to make a big impact in the Bay Area thrash scene. Satriani also produced your Eyes of Horror EP. Why do you think he had such a huge impact on the scene despite the fact that his solo work bears very little resemblance to thrash metal?

Well I think back then, I remember as far as all the guitar players around the Bay Area in my age group, we all had our sort of local guitar teachers. But then all of our guitar teachers took lessons from Joe, so he was just like this mythical guitar player guy that we all just heard about, but none of us were old enough to go to a club to see him play. He was in a band called the Squares. So he was kinda known around as this amazing teacher. I had finally saved enough to buy this amp, and I went in to buy the amp, and it turned out to be the store where he taught, so I signed up for lessons. But I think the thing is just that he already had that name as this amazing teacher. Everyone that wanted to progress more just kinda gravitated more towards him. I mean, besides being an amazing guitar player, he’s an amazing teacher too, so I think those guys that you mentioned got a lot out of it and used a lot of that to get where they are now.

Yeah, I’m sure it’s one thing to be able to play all that amazing stuff, but another thing entirely to be able to teach someone else how to do it.

I think for him it was awesome, ‘cause he was going over all this stuff all day long and getting better himself. Another amazing aspect of it was just actually to be sitting in an 8-by-8 room and seeing someone physically play like that. It was just “Whoa!” Otherwise, the only place you’d see something like that was maybe going to see Yngwie [Malmsteen] or Van Halen. To see it right in front of you was like, “Whoa, this can actually be done.”

There’s a perception among some die-hard Possessed fans that you’re embarrassed by your past with the band, or at least try to downplay it. Is there any truth to that at all? Was it just a situation where you wanted to distance yourself from that scene when Primus was first starting out?

Not really. I hear that all the time too, and it’s definitely not the case. I got a call the other day from my friend Harald O. -- who’s a big photographer and he’s putting out a book -- and he was like “Oh yeah, I know you’re not really that into that time.” But honestly, I think that time was awesome. Especially just for me looking back, it was really part of a music movement and trying to invent a new kind of music and pushing the stuff. Back then, trying to get something like that out to people was not easy at all. There was no internet. There was really nothing to go on besides fanzines and word-of-mouth and actually getting out there and playing. I look at that time as an awesome time for me and for music. I thought there was a lot of really cool stuff going on then.

We’ve all done some embarrassing shit in our teenage years, but you could do a lot worse than inventing death metal.

The giant spikes and stuff, it’s not something you necessarily wanna show your wife – “Hey, check me out when I was a kid!” She’s like “Holy shit, who’s that guy?” That was funny stuff. If it was up to me, definitely the whole spikes and things probably wouldn’t have been a part of it, but I wasn’t the leader of that band, so I kinda had to go along with it.

Do you still keep in touch with any of the former members of Possessed? How do you feel about Jeff Becerra continuing to use the Possessed name with a completely different lineup?

I guess it’s cool. It’s cool that he’s out doing it. I wanted to go see it. They were coming through LA and I didn’t get a chance. I hadn’t really heard much from any of those guys lately, then just the other day in Toronto, an old friend of mine who still kinda keeps in touch with everybody in that scene was telling me about running into some of the guys and what they’re up to. I haven’t really talked to any of them. I’d love to go see Possessed with Jeff playing in it. He was a friend of mine since I was 12 years old, so I think it’s cool that he’s doing it. It’d be cool if all the other guys were doing it too, but I don’t really know what they’re doing or how much they’re into it.

Is there any circumstance that’d make you consider doing a Possessed reunion, even if it was just a one-off show? Let’s say Metallica scheduled a Bay Area thrash “supershow” at Candlestick Park and everyone else was on board – Exodus, Testament, Death Angel, even Lääz Rockit. Would you be game?

[Laughs] You’re reachin’ deep. You know, I’ve never thought about it, but yeah, that’d probably be something I’d consider. It’d probably be a bummer to find out how hard the music was to play. I remember the music being very difficult to play.

Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. Do you have any final thoughts on Beyond the Gates or the 1986 thrash explosion in general?

Not really too much. It’s one of those eras that it’s funny that you don’t hear a lot about, as far as just what it was and what it took to sort of get it out there to the world. It’s cool that you’re writing about it and it’s interesting to see, like, Testament out there touring and stuff. Hopefully, that era will kinda get its due as far as what it influenced in metal.

Well I think it means a lot to a lot of people. Maybe not millions of people, but the people that it means a lot to are certainly passionate about it.

Yeah, it’s funny, after all these years. We had the song “Death Metal” and we never really thought much about it. Years and years went by, and just in the last few years, people keep telling me “Oh yeah, Possessed invented death metal.” I’m like “What do you mean we invented death metal?” They’re like “Well, no one ever used the term before you guys had the song ‘Death Metal.’” I was like “God, well I hope that’s true, ‘cause that’s pretty cool then.”
Part 5: Nuclear Assault - Game Over

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