Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Hellhammer—Demon Entrails (Century Media/PDR)

Now that I’ve reviewed Tom Warrior’s latest project, let’s go way, way back to his first recordings with Hellhammer. He documented this era in Only Death is Real, THE metal book of 2010 so far. The only thing that remarkable compendium didn’t include was a soundtrack. Fortunately, Century Media released just such a thing in 2008.

At the time of their first release, most bands are like teenagers—reckless, ill-groomed, and pumped up with new possibilities. When Swiss legends Hellhammer put out the Apocalyptic Raids EP, they were toddlers, artistically—apt to fall down, smear peanut butter on the cat, and forget to use their “inside voice.” After the EP’s release, critics gave them a unanimous “time out,” during which Tom Warrior and Martin Eric Ain’s balls dropped and they emerged kicking and screaming with the mighty Celtic Frost.

But even before Apocalyptic Raids, Hellhammer took their first baby steps via the demos compiled on this two-disc archival release, Demon Entrails. If you’ve heard Apocalyptic Raids, you can imagine what the Hellhammer demos must sound like. The sonics are indeed grim. Yet, some promise seeps out of the murk. Hellhammer knew what they were going for, even if their ambitions far outstripped their abilities.

Disc one contains the entire Satanic Rites demo from December 1983. This was the band’s first session in a real studio, an occasion tainted by the last-minute loss of their bassist. Described in one of the funnier episodes in Only Death is Real, the band learned that Stephen “Evoked Damnator” Priestly had gone shopping with his mother the morning of the session. “In our view, he had dishonored the name Evoked Damnator,” rues Warrior, who had to record the bass parts himself. They’re pretty much inaudible. With the production being a write-off, the band still manages to upchuck some interesting material. The ambitious “Buried and Forgotten” is an early version of “Necromantical Screams” from Celtic Frost’s To Mega Therion, one of their most grandiose tracks. “Triumph of Death” is another gnarled masterpiece—probably Hellhammer’s greatest achievement. Here it’s a couple minutes shorter than the agonizing Apocalyptic Raids version, and better for it. The riffs carry more headbanging momentum. The rest of the tracks reflect Hellhammer’s speedy punk-metal sound. “Maniac” even verges on rock ‘n’ roll, and stands out along with “Euronymos” and “Messiah” as the best of the blackened polkas.

Disc two steps back six months in time for the Triumph of Death and Death Fiend demos, both recorded in one session at the band’s rehearsal space (the latter title was never released). Intoxicated with the idea of recording, they laid down their entire 17-song repertoire. The sound is truly noxious, but better balanced than the Satanic Rites demo, with Steve Warrior’s Cronos-inspired bass sound holding it own against Warrior’s guitar slop. The band bulldozes through everything with little attention to quality control. Were it not for their zeal to release everything, they could have tossed out at least half this material from the outset. Some of the important elements are in place, like Warrior’s biting guitar sound. The rest of the good stuff seems to happen by accident: “Death Fiend”’s punkish energy and the (hobbled) stoner rock groove of “Bloody Pussies,” for example. The band’s first thrash at “Triumph of Death” is even shorter and faster than the version on disc one. Blinded by metal, leather and hell, Hellhammer were still scrambling for control over their material in terms of performance and songwriting.

While none of this was acceptable to the metal establishment at the time, hearing it now that "raw, primitive BM" is an accepted subgenre underlines Hellhammer's unwitting influence. It’s interesting to hear their sound develop from elements of the NWOBHM (especially Venom) along with a more cruel approach using Sabbathian power chords in semitone clusters. Demon Entrails demonstrates that Hellhammer were a departure point where metal took a stern, uncompromising direction that led to the second wave of black metal. Demon Entrails isn’t exactly a listening pleasure, but it is an undeniable piece of metal history.

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