Friday, February 3, 2012
Noise Records, 1988
Milo: Vocals, Bass
Sven Flügge: Guitars
Uwe Osterlehner: Guitars
Markus Hahn: Drums
Deathrow were a German thrash metal band. Their first couple of records are exactly what those interested in thrash minutia expect from German thrash metal. While the Bay Area scene created the genre through a merging of the melodic sensibilities of the British New Wave of the early '80s with the urgency and severity of hardcore punk, German initiators seemed much more obsessed with the latter half of the equation: Speed, raging savagery, an emphasis on non-sense in song structure an atmosphere of pervading dread. From that common well (sometimes referred to as 'speed metal') there came not only Sodom and Kreator, but bands that morphed quickly to different shapes, like Running Wild and Blind Guardian. The problem with calling it speed metal is not so much that it's outmoded (so are 'atmospheric metal' and 'techno-thrash' and I endorse both) but that not a lot of people seem to agree what a speed metal record is. That's never good for a definition in aesthetics. They all agree it has to be fast, but hell, half of metal music is played super fast. I have this curious feeling that what they mean is that speed metal is metal that is *only* fast and not much else of interest or important is happening in there. Anyway, for historical reasons it's useful to remember that once, there was such a thing as speed metal even if nobody exactly agreed where the lines were drawn between it and power metal and thrash metal. If you're into history. You big nerd.
But for now let's just call that German stuff thrash. Sloppy, raging evil thrash.
Although Sodom and Kreator were sloppy (Destruction, the most American sounding of their original German thrash bands, not so much), with each record they became more strict in playing and showy in technique. This is interesting because the other rival school for savage thrash metal - that of South America - really did not follow the same path, they're still drenched in reverberated chaos over there, in fact compared to a few of the Blasphemy clones in Brazil, their grandfathers in Sarcophago were veritable virtuosos just by keeping in tempo.
I theorize that the reason German savage thrash became more and more reigned in and technical with each release by the seminal bands is that the German culture is one that rewards a sense of structure and cohesion (even in atrocity), and it discourages blatant displays of emotion in art that cannot be backed up by some aesthetic achievement.
So Deathrow on their first couple of records play really fast, relatively tight but really forgettable German thrash metal. Then they grow up. There are others who enjoy juvenile raging thrash more that consider that early material to be masterful and their latter two records (the better of which we are discussing here) to be a pose and false. I understand that point of view and agree on both counts. In fact, the band also agrees to an extent. It is both a pose and false of Deathrow to switch to techno-thrash after two Sodomite records. They never grew up at all! They're just teeeenagerrssss
So as far as I know what happened was, a new guitarist, Uwe Osterlehner, joined the band and basically took over by virtue of compositional and playing prowess. Perhaps the band trusted him because techno-thrash was on its brief heyday by 1988, what with Metallica putting out their Watchtower-inspired "And Justice for All..." a year earlier and introducing many a headbanger to rhythm syncopated, an unresolved melody and a sixtyfourth. Osterlehner's songs were more technical than Metallica's effort, the rest of the band struggled to keep up. The riffs are very strictly played, alternating between the muted-chord chug of German thrash and flowing legato melodies that come from somewhere left-field. There are a lot of interesting harmonizations offered by the guitar duo, while the rhythm section barely keeps up with the density. At their best, Deathrow sound almost symphonic. And then they return to thrash monophonic and the switch is very affecting.
The original members of the band, in interviews have explained that the situation was sour and that they prefer the earlier thrash-thrash material to the modernist convolution of "Deception Ignored" and (to a lesser extent) its follow-up, "Life Beyond". But - and I know this is perverse - I view Deathrow as a vehicle for Osterlehner first. I have no emotional ties to their earlier thrash (though I had bought their sophomore 'Raging Steel' on vinyl at the time and remember having a good time with it) and perhaps more importantly, that inner strife of the band at the time actually augments the sterility and austere feeling "Deception Ignored". The band can whine all they want that an externality pressed them to create a masterpiece, the music itself is forever.
Techno-thrash is very interesting because its concern is the human condition, much like with any modernist art. However actual modernists were almost always attached to a political wave, they recognized allies in the lower classes and expected well, they expected a revolution. They believed their art was a herald to it, in fact. Some urged for smaller revolutions than others, but they all were forward-looking people. Heavy Metal music dealing with modernist themes has a blatant difference at its core in that very rarely does it sincerely profess that the solution to any problem is found in the 'We'. Instead bands such as Deathrow or Sieges Even or Megace, discuss the hopelessness of the 'I', trapped in a world of modern machination. In essence, modernist Heavy Metal like techno-thrash and progressive metal is not really primarily political.
Heavy Metal bands by 1988 were not the domain of the working class. The disaffected youth that played thrash metal were middle-class and their issues are of the middle class. The disaffected youth that played techno-thrash probably went to University too. It's very clear in the lyric found herein what the level of discourse is. Let's look at the lyric of the best song here, Machinery:
I am walking through the streets
Of my old town
Looking back on the days
Of my youth
There are factories in the fields
Where we used to play
Clouds of smoke hang in the sky
And block out the sun
God bless this house, the car and the TV
Show us our idols in magazines
They build us prisons without any walls
Money rules we can't resist
Snakes of commercial TV
Decoy with their apples
False priests spit out their lies
Because God sells
If we don't pull ourselves
Out of this mud
Our children will have to pay
For our sins
We're just wheels in a great machinery
Encircled and trapped by ourselves
We're enslaved to mass productions
Self-deception from a better life
Our behavior brings corruption
We buy a pig in a poke
And we drown ourselves in the garbage
Us their shit
We can't free ourselves
From this world of abuse
For someone to have a car and a tv and to be enraptured by money, they are being seduced by the siren song of Capitalism, they're moving upwards and outwards from their sense of self. It doesn't matter that they work in a factory or not, they do not have class identity as workers. And that's what captures my interest. The concern expressed above is one I feel completely. And I feel alone for it. I do not feel like joining the communist party. I do not feel like telling other people they should change their lives. I do not expect a revolution. I want the despair expressed, this is enough for me. That loneliness, that existential singularity is how modernist Metal is still part of the great romance of Heavy Metal itself. A revolution is an inner happening, the outside world will forever be hostile and its purpose will be to dehumanize you. That struggle of the intelligent but disconnected youth is what drives techno-thrash and also what makes this particular offering convincing. The words themselves betray a lack of political knowledge, and the pose is exposed easily if this is compared to say, a real socio-political hardcore punk record's lyric. No Marx has been read. But what is true in the core of this is what is alluring: intelligence and loneliness breed paranoia. When the most important thing you have to tell to the outside world is 'I don't trust you'. When the strength you have is yours essentially because it is not shared with others. I believe this weakness turned to strength, it is an important part of Heavy Metal. This is why whereas most of thrash is forgettable, the few techno-thrash gems I present should not be. Deathrow here, actually a little bit ahead of the curve, have created one of the best offerings in the genre and almost nobody knows of them, they hardly seem to know themselves. As apt as it is ironic.