Thursday, November 10, 2011

Dark Angel - Darkness Descends: Part 7 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.

Fortunately for me, Gene Hoglan has an outstanding memory. Not only did the former Dark Angel drummer remember the release date (Nov. 10, 1986) for the band's seminal album, Darkness Descends, but he even remembered the exact date they entered the studio to record it.

Hoglan joined Dark Angel in 1984 and his impact on the band was immediate -- not only as a drummer, but as a songwriter and lyricist as well. Darkness Descends has long been considered the band's masterpiece for its ridiculously fast tempos and sheer brutality. Hoglan remained in Dark Angel until the band's demise in 1992. Since then, he has attained legendary status among metal drummers, playing with such bands as Death, Testament, Fear Factory, Strapping Young Lad and Dethklok. I recently spoke with Hoglan about the 25th anniversary of Darkness Descends, his memories of thrash metal's early days, Dark Angel's reputation as one of the fastest bands alive and his new instructional DVD, The Atomic Clock.

Interview with former Dark Angel drummer Gene Hoglan

Tempe Carnivore: Darkness Descends is considered one of the fastest thrash metal albums of all time. Was that a goal you guys were consciously aiming for?

Hoglan: No, we actually slowed down in the studio big-time – like huge-time – to record it, because we were so fast, and it wasn’t intentional. The speed was never intentional, it was just always like, pushing ourselves to play as fast as we can. When you’re playing songs at a blistering pace, you sometimes don’t know that you’re playing at that blistering pace. You know you’re pushing yourself, but you have no idea, until you watch the videotape or you listen to the board tape the next day, how fast you’re actually going. We did know to slow down a bit when we recorded Darkness, ‘cause we were so fast, like twice as fast as the album. If you ever see any kind of  video – usually video from back in those days is pretty bad – but around ’86 is when I started playing super-fast. We recorded the album in April of ’86. April 14, as a matter of fact, was the first day of our recording. I remember that date because that was the day that we invaded Libya, and I was thinking “Oh my god, here we are about ready to record the soundtrack to the apocalypse, but the apocalypse is gonna be here before we get the album done. Damnit!” 

But yeah, it was actually a decided effort to play slower when we recorded that. Speed was never our intent, just heaviness was, like “Let’s make everything as heavy as possible.” That’s why, if you notice, there weren’t many rock beats in Dark Angel. There was a little bit of a breakdown in “Merciless Death,” but that had double-bass chugging through it. There weren’t a lot of straight rock beats, because we were kind of leaving that to bands like Anthrax and Metallica. Those guys played the rock beats, so let’s play the backwards, flipped, double-bass [mimics the sound of a fast double-bass drum] shit like that, rather than “Hey, let’s just play a happy rock beat there.” We always tried to make the drums as heavy as possible, the beats as heavy as possible and the riffs as heavy as possible. The speed was always like “Hey, the songs are fast. OK. If they’re heavy, perfect.”

Musically, it seems to have more in common with German thrash like Kreator and Destruction than the Bay Area thrash scene or even the LA scene that you were a part of. What were you guys listening to when you made it? Was the German thrash scene an influence?

No, because Dark Angel was around before any of those bands. I started seeing Dark Angel live after they had been around for a couple years, and I started seeing them in 1983. There was no thrash scene at the time. There was a time when there was Metallica, Slayer and Dark Angel. I think Dark Angel even predated Slayer, before I was in the band. I remember [Dark Angel guitarist] Jim Durkin explaining to me that Dark Angel and Metallica were formed at Downey [Calif.] High School in ’81. The Metallica guys, James Hetfield and [original Metallica bassist] Ron McGovney, were seniors, and Dark Angel were 10th-graders, and they both formed their bands at the same time in the same place. They both had a similar intent. Both bands were highly influenced by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Dark Angel took a larger influence from Tank than any sort of German thrash. I think probably our largest influence would’ve been Possessed. We were all big Possessed fans in ’84, when I joined, and a lot of the songs that were written in ’84 ended up being on Darkness. I joined in ’84 and I started writing for them immediately, so I guess that’s where my writing came in, but we were all fans of heavy stuff. We loved Exodus, [although] we didn’t sound like Exodus. A lot of people would call us Slayer clones, but hey man, I remember Jim Durkin telling me, “Man, I got a call from Kerry King saying ‘Hey, Jeff [Hanneman] really likes that song “Perish in Flames” by you guys and we’ve got this new song called “Angel of Death” that he based on “Perish in Flames” by you guys.’” At the time, we were like “What? Fuck! Write your own songs! Come on, dudes.” I was on the road with Slayer before I was in Dark Angel and I remember having a conversation with Hanneman where he was yelling at the rest of the Slayer guys like “Dude, we’ve gotta get faster. We’ve gotta get heavier. Dark Angel’s back at home. They’re faster than us. They’re heavier than us. We’ve gotta get heavier than that!” I’m like “Dude, you’re in Slayer! Come on. What are you worried about this band from LA for? They’re cool, but they’re not Slayer.” I remember telling him that, and then I ended up joining Dark Angel a few months later.

It’s kind of rare for a drummer to be as involved in the lyrics and songwriting process as you were. Can you talk about your songwriting process as a drummer? Do you play a little guitar as well?

Well, I’d been playing guitar for only a couple years when I joined Dark Angel. I started playing guitar in about 1983, I would say, and I had been playing drums since 1981. I got my first kit for Christmas of 1980, so I guess you could count the last week of 1980 as I started playing in 1980. I picked up the guitar afterwards, really just because all my friends who were guitarists would say “Hey, come over to the house and watch me play guitar.” I’d be like “Yeah, great. Awesome.” I’d be asking them “Hey, can you play, like, an Egyptian-type scale or something?” They would just keep noodling and doing their thing, and then 10 minutes later, they’d be like “Hey, what was that you were asking me to do?” I was like “Aw, fuck. Maybe I’ll just pick it up myself and play it myself.” That’s how I started playing guitar.

When I joined Dark Angel, I was already writing for my band at the time – a band called Wargod – and I had even written lyric for We Have Arrived before I was in Dark Angel. Six months before I ever joined Dark Angel, I wrote some lyrics for them because I was in the studio with them, just being a buddy, hanging out at the studio while they recorded. They didn’t have the last verse for the song “No Tomorrow.” [Former vocalist] Don Doty was like “Dude, I’m capped. I can’t think of anything” and Jim Durkin was kinda the same way. So I was like “Hey, give me 10 minutes and I’ll get you four lines. It sounds like you need four lines right here. I can write something for you in five minutes.” So that was that. I think I ended up writing the lyrics for Dark Angel because nobody else wanted to. I guess I was in the band for about three months or so, and I asked Don “Hey man, what are the lyrics for ‘The Burning of Sodom’? I can tell the chorus, but I can’t tell what else you’re singing.” He’s like “Uhhh, there are no lyrics. I’m not singing anything. I’m singing a vocal line as fast as I can, but there are no lyrics.” I’m like, “OK, well, I guess we need lyrics for the song.” Doing the whole Obituary thing was completely unheard of at the time. It’s like “Well, we’ve gotta have lyrics for this” so I pretty much got elected. Since I played guitar and I had a very similar approach to Jim Durkin -- I mean, Jim Durkin was a major influence on my guitar playing -- so I watched what Jim was doing and I just tried to emulate what he was doing. So we had Jim, and then you had a Jim-attempting clone. We had kind of a like mind as towards what we wanted the riffs to sound like. I had riffs, so I just kinda tossed them out, and they would get used. So there you go.

My lyrics, I was still in high school when I joined Dark Angel, so in my creative writing class, we had a poetry assignment once every couple weeks, so whatever my poetry assignment would be, I would then turn in to Dark Angel saying “Hey, do you want these lyrics for the latest song?”

How do you think Darkness Descends holds up 25 years later? Where would you rank it among the other albums you’ve played on and the other great thrash albums of 1986?

I think Darkness holds up a little better for a lot of people because it was so focused and so visceral. I’ll tell you that, for the longest time, I don’t think I ever got a better drum sound than on Darkness. I tried for a lot of years to get a better drum sound. We recorded Darkness for, like, $7,500. I think we went a little over budget, and we ended up – after artwork and everything – we recorded Darkness for $11,000, which, at that time, was still not a lot of money. So our guitar tones might not have been as pristine and awesome as Metallica or Anthrax. Both those guys had really cool guitar tones at the time. But I think the weaker the guitar tone, the better the drum sound. I’ve worked with a lot of guitarists since those days that had a really strong tone, therefore my drums weren’t as loud. There was just something about the tone on Darkness, like listening to “Black Prophecies,” you crank that up on a big stereo and those drums still sound massive. They’re very organic, very natural. There was no triggering. There was no Pro Tools back in those days. In that regard, I’m pretty fortunate that I do come from that era of “Hey, you got people to play these songs, man.” You can’t just play half of them and let the computer take over for the fast double-bass parts. I’d like to think they hold up pretty well, but I’m not gonna fool myself and say “Yes, this is still the all-time heaviest record.” I thought at the time “Hey, this ranks with everybody else putting out albums.” Slayer had Reign in Blood coming out, Megadeth had Peace Sells and Metallica had just released Master of Puppets just a few months before. I knew Kreator had a new one coming out, and Possessed had Beyond the Gates that was coming out right around the same time. I listened to everybody’s records as well as ours, and I thought ours kicked ass. But I was 18 years old. What did I know?

Are there any plans to commemorate the album’s 25th anniversary? Is there any chance of a reunion of the Darkness Descends-era lineup?

You can never say never, but I can’t see us getting something together. Wow, this has been 25 years. It’s just gone by so quick. Hey, that means we’re eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! [laughs] No, I would say probably not. It’s just kind of logistically impossible, because Don Doty has pretty much disappeared off the face of the Earth. Through some mutual friends over the years, I’ve heard that Don has pretty much completely turned his back on being the guy that he was back then. He did some time in the joint, and I think he came out of that a changed man. I understand he’s quite Christian now. Ron Rinehart [Doty’s successor on vocals] is a Christian as well, but Ron was cool. He’s like “Dude, I would do some more Dark Angel stuff.” However, since Ron said that, Ron has been kind of forced to retire from the music industry, so we couldn’t even do it with Ron. In about 1999 or 2000, somewhere around then, he broke his neck. He survived it, obviously, but he’s had some issues since then. His doctor told him “Dude, you basically have to give up singing.” He was onstage with his other band – his Christian band called Oil – and he went for a high note. He popped something in his neck and he passed out onstage. They got him to the emergency room and the next morning, his doctor came in and said “Dude, I hate to tell you this, but you have retired. You’re lucky that you can walk now. We don’t know what you did, but it’s not good.” He was bummed. So trying to do something with the Darkness Descends lineup is kind of logistically impossible. I know a couple of the ex-members aren’t on super-friendly terms. We’re all on friendly terms, at least I am with everybody, but I haven’t spoken to Don Doty since 1987. I haven’t seen him since 1987. All the other members, I’m still tight with. We all give shouts to each other every once in a while, give a call to see how everybody’s doing. I have to admit, I don’t mind it that much, not being able to do a Dark Angel reunion, because if it’s attained any sort of legendary status or whatever, I don’t know that we would be able to be that legendary band onstage. I don’t know that people wouldn’t come to the show and just not be disappointed for whatever reason. I figure if it takes people back to an awesome time in their lives, maybe it’s just best that we leave it at that, rather than be the wizard coming out from behind the screen, showing all the shortcomings. I just don’t know how badass it would be.

You recently released an instructional DVD, The Atomic Clock. What’s the one piece of advice you'd give new drummers just getting started behind the skins?

Buy the DVD. [laughs] Buy The Atomic Clock. That’s what I would tell ya. Well, drumming to me was something that I was born with the desire. I’ve been good at two things: one was playing drums and the other was playing baseball, of all things. I was a really good baseball player when I was growing up. I hit that crossroads of “Do you wanna play drums for a living, or do wanna play baseball for a living? ‘Cause you can do either, but you can’t do both.” So I chose drums. I chose metal. I chose being in a band. I knew that it wasn’t gonna be… we were playing underground thrash metal. We knew that it wasn’t Quiet Riot or Mötley Crüe or Ratt or Poison or one of those bands. We knew it was underground, so we kept it underground. Money was always tight. We never made a whole ton of money doing Dark Angel, and that’s OK, but it instilled the desire in me to just keep at it.

I always give young musicians this same advice. I’ve said it a million times: find guys that you get along with to play with. Say with Dark Angel, it ended up becoming my band, because when Jim Durkin left, somebody had to write all the stuff. I was the other songwriter in the band, and Jim left, and there wasn’t a lot of ideas – nobody’s at fault – but there wasn’t a lot of ideas coming from any of the other guys, ideas that were usable anyway. It then became myself and Bret Eriksen, and we did the Time Does Not Heal record together. Then after Bret left, our next guitarist was named Cris McCarthy, and the album that we put together was going to eventually be called Atrocity Exhibition, just like the Exodus album of a couple years ago. We were going to release that in about 1992, but we just couldn’t keep it together as a band. But that’s one piece of advice I would give any young musician -- whether they’re a drummer, a guitarist, a singer, a bassist, whatever – is just find other guys that you get along with, that you enjoy their company, rather than finding the hottest guitarist in town or the baddest vocalist in town who is a nutcase. Find dudes that you get along with. Everybody talks about [how] a band is a family, a band is a marriage, but a band is also a team. So if you’ve got guys that are puling for the same team, then chances are you’re gonna get along pretty good, and you’re all for the team, as opposed to “No, I’m the guitarist, I’m the focal point” or “I’m the singer, I’m the focal point.” You know, singers with their LSD – Lead Singer’s Disease – those guys can get on your nerves. So for any young musician, find guys that you get along with, that you enjoy each other’s company, because you’re gonna be spending a lot of time together as a band. Maybe your bassist isn’t the best bassist, but he’s a great guy and he’s always there and he’s a solid dude, so cool.

Read about the other great thrash albums of 1986:
Part 1: Metallica - Master of Puppets
Part 2: Destruction - Eternal Devastation
Part 3: Flotsam and Jetsam - Doomsday for the Deceiver
Part 4: Slayer - Reign in Blood
Part 5: Nuclear Assault - Game Over
Part 6: Possessed - Beyond the Gates


  1. Only just discovered this! Great interview - thanks Mike.

  2. Give us the Atrocity Exhibition demo Gene!