“Demon Entrails” 3xLP (Century Media)
It’s truly a sign of the times that I’m even able to write this review today. As music is moving further away from the realm of physical product and into the world of binary, digital representations of physical products (your mp3 collection, dummy), there seems to be an increased emphasis, at least by record labels, on preserving the physical products of yesterday in lavish and elaborate repackaging, if for no other reason than to be able to sell something that can’t simply be copied onto your iPod. The most miniscule legacies are now magnified to levels far exceeding what they were in their own time and place. And so came to be this large and deluxe boxset that, when you boil it down into its simplest form, is basically two Hellhammer demo recordings in a very nice box, with a very extensive booklet. Before breaking down the “is it worth it?” (spoiler warning: it is) and “what do you get?” let me make sure you are up to speed.
Hellhammer were a peculiar band because they never actually played a gig but existed for two years, managed three fairly substantial recording sessions, took innumerable promotional photos, and at least indirectly influenced nearly every death, black, and thrash metal band to exist since 1984, not to mention a shit-ton of hardcore, punk, crust, etc., bands. Hellhammer’s country of origin is Switzerland, not one particularly known for a formidable rock scene, but their story is pretty typical of a cult band, and could easily be set anywhere. A bunch of youths—with some crude ability, loud amps (Marshall noize), a vacant bomb shelter (for rehearsal), and a few records between them to try to emulate (Venom, Raven, Motörhead)—start banging it out every day, writing letters to people, and sending out tapes of their songs to other youths like themselves. Hellhammer’s lineup consisted of Thomas Gabriel Fischer Warrior on the guitar and vocals, Steve Patton Warrior taking bass and vocals (later to be replaced by Martin Ain, leaving all vocal duties to Fischer), and Bruce Day on the drums, each a fresh-faced metal maniac with the dirt-lip mustache appropriate for the time period.
By 1984 they would issue two vinyl releases: a four-song 12", “Apocalyptic Raids,” and two songs on the “Death Metal” compilation (both on Germany’s Noise records), before Fischer and Ain agreed to disband and take up a new banner, Celtic Frost. That band became well known for their sludgy stripped down variation on 80s thrash metal, eventually taking on some gothic and doom metal conventions, before totally selling the farm for a failed shot at stardom. As such, Hellhammer was elevated to a posthumous notoriety for being basically the rawer (and uncorrupted by “the industry”) precursor to Frost’s high-minded bombast. The Skitslickers to Frost’s Cimex if you must.
Fischer and Ain, for most of the 80s and 90s, and at least part of the aughts, made no secret of their disdain for Hellhammer’s “legacy.” Fischer in particular became something like the Al Barile of death metal in his autobiography (yes, he wrote a book about himself), basically dismissing Hellhammer’s existence as amateur, untalented, teenaged racket. Of course these are the very things the seasoned Shit-Fi-er treasures the most, and nowhere in Hellhammer’s “catalog” are they in more ample supply than these demo recordings, which until now were only available sporadically on unreliable, overpriced bootlegs.
If you’re not familiar with Hellhammer’s sound, it’s really not difficult to describe. Take “Realities Of War,” play it at half speed in your left ear, now in your right ear, play “Master Of Reality” (Master Of Realities Of War). I don’t think those were necessarily the bands that Hellhammer aimed to emulate or combine, but part of why their demo recordings are historically important, and fun to listen to, is that they played with the kind of doomy haze that early Sabbath had and at the same time the complete caveman bashing atonality that early Discharge became infamous for. This stuff is too metal to be punk, but so gutter and uncompromised (especially for the time) that it’s hard not to think of it in those terms.
The first recording, dating from summer 1983, was split into two demos initially, one entitled “Death Fiend,” the other “Triumph of Death” (ahem, somewhat redundant), and amounts basically, to a glorified rehearsal tape. Thanks to the wonderfully informative liner notes, I was able to glean a truly classic anecdote regarding its birthing process. Apparently Hellhammer had a friend with a simple reel-to-reel 8-track machine for recording but a limited supply of tape. In order to get all of their songs (17!) on tape during the session, they recorded on only 4 tracks at a time so that they could essentially double the available length of tape. Truly the kind of thing the finest shit-fi legends are made of. Not surprisingly, the session itself represents a band still finding its sound, drawing very heavily from Venom in a very obvious way, with sloppy punky energy, and not so subtle song titles like “Chainsaw,” “Sweet Torment,” and of course “Bloody Pussies.” The bar that Venom had already lowered so far from where Black Sabbath and Motörhead had set it surely touches the ground on some of these numbers. The mix is bass- and vocal-heavy, with the drums and guitar sometimes feeling like background noise meant to fill in the gaps. Steve Warrior takes vocal lead on a number of the songs, which distances things even further from the eventual Hellhammer/Celtic Frost legacy (as Tom Warrior is the vocalist on all other recordings by both) and seals this as more of a historical curiosity than anything else. It’s good fun, although at 17 songs, pretty long and frankly the less important of the 2 recordings found in this set.
A lot has also been made of this reissue being transferred from “original master tapes,” and this seems as good a place as any to note that, though I’ve never actually heard the “original master tapes,” I can say this sounds about as good as one could expect. In reality it’s probably taken from an original-run copy of the demo (or demos), and other than the expected tape wrinkles and minimal hiss, it sounds about as clear as most basement demos from 1983 sound. Anyway, have no fear: you’ll be able to kill a lot of brain cells listening to this stuff.
On to the other half of this package: the “Satanic Rites” demo, dating from around December 1983. Referring again to the wonderful booklet that’s included with this set, this recording was paid for by Noise records in order to determine if they were interested in releasing a record by the band. Although it was produced in an actual studio, “Satanic Rites” is only a hair cleaner than the previous “Triumph Of Death” recordings. To me, this is the quintessential Hellhammer recording, more so even, than their vinyl releases. With 10 songs in all (four of which were later rerecorded for those two vinyl releases), it could have just as easily been released as a full album itself (maybe with some added guitar in a few spots). Here is Tom Warrior for the first time really finding his voice as a songwriter and singer. It’s still extremely crude, but there is a distinct connection to nearly all of his work thereafter (okay maybe not Celtic Frost circa “Cold Lake,” or his post-Frost band, Apollyon’s Sun), but at all of his significant work anyway.
Part of what has made “Satanic Rites” a key document in early “cult metal” is the way you hear a band reconfiguring a genre to fit their vision of it, rather than simply haphazardly emulating its already established conventions. It’s this distinction that sets “Satanic Rites” apart from the earlier “Death Fiend/Triumph of Death” session, and really everything else happening at the time. The lyrical delivery is grim, verbose, and esoteric: a self-conscious move toward being “serious” that abandons the Venom-ish couplets that dominated the band’s early days. In the same way the music takes on a relatively more ambitious slant, with longer running times and more complex arrangements. You can feel the ripple effect rolling off the songs within the first few minutes. The dark atmospherics and stripped to the bone production struck as much of a chord with punks and squatters in the UK as metalheads in Norway and Sweden, leaving as much of a mark on the fledging crust scene as on the embryonic black and death metal scenes.
“Satanic Rites” is such a giant, filth-caked monolith of a recording that it’s almost futile trying to analyze on a song-by-song basis. It’s not that the songs can’t stand on their own—there’s no doubt they can—but for whatever reason they just seem to stand even better as a whole. Everything blends together in a kind of grey gloom and haze, tumbling along at times like Venom after taking a pocketful of sleeping pills, and at other times lurching like a devolved 70s-phase Judas Priest that’s been stripped of all melody and (stained) class. This is a landmark. There was nothing as comparably grim and degraded in the metal world at this time, and the same could be argued for the punk world (hardcore or otherwise).
Much as I suspect with the “Triumph of Death” transfer, I’m pretty sure “Satanic Rites” was transferred from an original demo cassette. It sounds fairly clean, but with a bit of hiss and some tape wrinkling, neither of which really detract from the experience.
Beyond the impact of the music, there is the issue of packaging for this set. Having purchased both the deluxe 2xCD and the 3xLP version, I can say with confidence that this is as good as it gets. The vinyl set has “Triumph of Death split over two LPs, with the third lp dedicated to “Satanic Rites,” each in a cardboard inner sleeve inside a nice-looking gatefold. In addition, there’s an A4-sized booklet with every imaginable piece of ephemera included, laid out beautifully on full-bleed, black pages. Lyrics, photos, and drawings are accompanied by a couple of essays by the involved parties, leaving pretty much nothing unaccounted for. The same content is included in a smaller, but no less impressive hardcover book that comes with the CD set, and fits into a high-gloss O-Card sleeve. To put it simply, this exceeded my packaging expectations by a mile. For those who are mostly interested in hearing the music, there’s also a regular digi-pack edition of the CDs that retails for about $10, as opposed to the $20 for the deluxe CD set, or $30 for the 3xLP. By the way, $30 for a 3XLP seems awesomely reasonable in this day and age, and I was thrilled to notice the vinyl was NOT pressed at the much maligned GZ/Pirates Press plant.
Please check out Chris Corry's blog: www.bidhardcore.com.