Into the Pit – Let’s Remember Some Other Bay Area Bands

So far on this column, I’ve referred to a lot of the heavy hitters of the subgenre. I personally have a lot more thoughts about them because there’s just a lot more material to go through with them. It’s the same for people who are really into Shakespeare. There’s just MOAR CONTENT. And in 2019, content is king.

But there are a lot more bands who’ve fallen by the wayside. Some more influential than others but nonetheless important to the scene and to metal as a genre. This piece is a tribute to those bands. This piece is meant to honor the That Guys of Bay Area thrash. The whole objective of this column is to shine the spotlight on bands like this, so why not do a whole piece about them? So I got a few buddies to help me out so the rest of you know-nothings can get some thrash metal deep cuts.

Blind Illusion

Definitely not the most well-known of even the That Guys, but their alumni have touched on a lot of other groups. Lead guitarist Marc Biedermann formed the progressive thrash group as a high school student in 1978 and is the only consistent member of the band. The sound is marked by the progressive songwriting, technical mastery, and a tongue-in-cheek style humor reminiscent of its former members Les Claypool and Larry LaLonde. They dabbled in a lot of different sounds that would become standards of the subgenre though never quite blazing a trail of their own.

Blind Illusion should be most noted for their heavy hitting alumni. While not remotely a thrash metal band, scene-adjacent band Primus spun off from Blind Illusion with rhythm guitarist LaLonde and bassist Claypool. You can hear that off-kilter influence in a lot of the songs off the single 80s record, 1988’s The Sane Asylum. LaLonde actually joined Blind Illusion from death antecedents Possessed. Former lead singer David Godfrey went on to form Heathen after leaving Illusion well before the release of its album. Occasional Metal Church guitarist John Marshall spent some time playing rhythm guitar in Blind Illusion. The band also rubbed elbows with Exodus, playing a number of shows in the 80s scene with them. Kirk Hammett even produced one of the band’s demos and The Sane Asylum. Biedermann also played bass on some of Heathen’s recordings and even contributed music to Blue Öyster Cult’s 1988 album, Imaginos.

The reason you probably haven’t heard of Blind Illusion is because of the constant shifts in their lineup. Before their first album was even being recorded, Illusion only had one consistent member in guitarist Biedermann. Members shifted in and out of the band so often that there’s no specific list of former members. Before their first record was released, Blind Illusion had at least 2 different lead singers, 6 different guitarists, 7 bassists, and 3 drummers. Hard to establish yourself without any kind of solid base. It came to a head during a 1989 tour when the group disbanded. Biedermann continued to gather musicians for occasional one-off shows and short tours, but Blind Illusion was effectively dead until 2009 to record 2010’s Demon Master. Allegedly, Biedermann is gathering funds to record a follow up entitled Iron Ox.

-Pete Williams

Vio-Lence

Vio-Lence are known for being the band who gave us Machine Head’s Robb Flynn and Phil Demmel, which is understandable. For all the potency they showed during their brief, original stint, from 1985–1993, Vio-Lence never quite produced anything that would justify their elevation beyond B-tier curiosities. Nevertheless, if it’s more Bay Area-style thrash metal that you’re looking for, then Vio-Lence may very well represent the cream of the underground crop.

Most profiles of the band will likely point you in the direction of their debut effort,  Eternal Nightmare (1988), which – again – is understandable. It’s by far the most traditional-sounding effort in the band’s catalogue and has become somewhat of a lightweight cult thrash classic. There’s a strong hardcore undercurrent running through the album, which often invokes the proto-crossover vibes of early Exodus. The hardcore influence is something that would carry over into Machine Head’s early work, especially on 1997’s The More Things Change, and the album garnered further cross-over appeal when soon-to-be hardcore titans Converge covered the track “Serial Killer” for their 1999 Y2K EP. Yet the album remains firmly rooted in a traditional metal aesthetic via its frenetic riffing and Sean Killian’s old-school, high-pitched delivery, which is also probably the album’s weakest aspect. In fact, if there’s one thing holding Eternal Nightmare back from the big leagues it’s probably its overly toppy mix, which robs the record of a lot of the heft associated with the more prominent thrash acts of the time, and which Flynn would later make a defining feature of his breakthrough act. For all its sonic roughness, the Converge cover really brings out the best in the material, via its bolstered low end, and it’s easy to see how – with a touch more polish – this album could have been a true contender.

Although less revered, Vio-Lence’s two other albums are arguably more interesting outings. 1990’s Oppressing the Masses represents a more refined take upon the frantic blueprint laid down by their debut. Along with the record’s increased production value, tracks like “I Profit”, “Officer Nice” and “World in a World” take the energy of Eternal Nightmare and apply it to more varied and memorable song structures. There’s also a lot more groove present on the band’s second record, which came out the same year as Pantera’s Cowboys from Hell and Exhorder’s Slaughter in the Vatican, and – sonically at least – the album fits comfortably alongside those landmark efforts, while also having more of a classic, Bay Area feel to its proceedings. 1993’s Nothing to Gain is where the Machine Head-isms really begin creeping through, however. Even though Burn My Eyes (1994) was only around the corner, what the album truly foreshadows is the later period, when Demmel joined the band and gave them a second life thanks to his and Flynn’s (once) palpable chemistry. Opener “Atrocity” looks forward to the iconic opening of “Imperium” and the lead section on “Ageless Eyes” sees Flynn and Demmel participating in a pure Blackening-style trade-off. While Vio-Lence’s first two records have become somewhat regarded as underground classics, Nothing to Gain has been all but forgotten and often even maligned. “Atrocity” is the only song the band have been playing on their most recent reunion tours but, even so, it might just be their best record and certainly the most relevant to what followed in their wake.

There’s also the Torture Tactics EP (1991) and a slew of demos out there, should you need more Vio-Lence in your life. Demmel and bassist Den Dell formed the short-lived Torque out of a re-vamped Vio-Lence line-up, following Flynn and Killian’s departure. The band put out a single self-titled album in 1996, which is worth checking out if you’re curious, but it’s certainly no Burn My Eyes or The More Things Change. Since departing Machine Head and Flynn for a second time last year, Demmel has since re-joined the other members of Vio-Lence’s classic line-up, for a number of seemingly well-received reunion shows. They could be just one-off events, but – who knows – for the first time in twenty-five years, we may be looking at the prospect of new Vio-Lence material.

-Joshua Bulleid

Possessed

Some folks might split hairs on this band, but Possessed was very important to the Bay Area scene. I’d argue they were very important since thrash metal came of age just as death metal exploded, and it was hard to separate the two subgenres in those early years since they were marked by the same kinds of sounds. They touched all the same bands in the scene, having connections with Blind Illusion and Primus through Larry LaLonde. They also touch outside of the genre with the eventual inclusion of Static-X bassist Tony Campos.

What also shouldn’t be discounted is their connection to longtime metal band manager Debbie Abono. She was a highly influential person in the scene though fairly disconnected from it only being introduced to it via her daughter’s then-boyfriend LaLonde. She reportedly was very offended by Possessed’s lyric sheets for Seven Churches but decided to manage them anyway as long as LaLonde and vocalist Jeff Becerra agreed to complete high school commitments. She would go on to manage Exodus, Vio-Lence, and Forbidden Evil, along with bands outside the Bay Area scene like Cynic, Obituary, and Broken Hope.

To get back to the sound, Possessed occupy a unique position in the scene. At the time, death and thrash were so close in sound that it would be difficult to completely separate the two. Their debut album is considered the first death metal record by most accounts, but it still hangs on to a lot of hallmarks of the thrash sound. It completely removes any kind of blues or rock influence on the record and is a heavy distortion and minor keys only kind of band. No blues riffs or licks of any kind on Seven Churches. The following year’s Beyond the Gates was considered a failure by most fans, dialing back on the heaviness and much of the blasphemous rhetoric and imagery. But Seven Churches is such a landmark record that most discussions of Possessed focus on it and not the second failing record.

Despite the critical success of Seven Churches, Possessed weren’t able to really live outside of the scene for the bona fides they deserve. Though they had released 2 full length albums and an EP by 1987, they weren’t able to avoid tragedy when Becerra was shot during a robbery and was left paralyzed from the chest down. Becerra still worked on releases with a few compilation releases, a live album in 2004, and an EP release in 2006. He also essentially reformed the band in 2007 for random tours and one-off shows. There is also a rumor there will be a new full-length release from Possessed in 2019. I sincerely hope that’s the case.

PW

Death Angel

The quintet of Rob Cavestany, Mark Osegueda, Dennis Pepa, Gus Pepa, and Andy Galeon formed Death Angel while in their teens and went on to create some of the more inventive thrash of the Bay Area’s late 1980s and early 1990s heyday. Releases such as The Ultra-Violence, Frolic Through the Park, and Act III cemented the band’s legacy. It could be argued that they didn’t need another 25 years worth of work to be considered one of the best to emerge from this scene but there are several albums that came along after culminating in 2016’s The Evil Divide which sees the band return to the form that made them thrash stalwarts so many years ago.

The band’s developmental arc is easily heard when listening to each of the first three albums. The Ultra-Violence was extremely raw and featured solid riffs backed up by a substantially talented rhythm section. The instrumental title track and “Voracious Souls” highlighted the promise of the band that would be built upon by their follow-up, Frolic Through the Park.

On Frolic… the band became more focused and made a mark with raw but outstanding tracks such as “Bored”, “Confused”, “Road Mutants”, and “3rd Floor” showing off a continuing maturation in how they approached their music. It was during this period that the band drew international attention as they mounted a worldwide tour following the album’s release. Eventually, built on the successes of the tour and the way that “Bored” was presented to the public via MTV the band would see themselves scooped up by a major label for the their third album.

Act III was released to a warm reception in the metal community. Their brand of thrash had become infused with hints of funk and other elements in the build-up to this album. They were then invited to tour with a number of leading acts in the genre including getting the coveted opening slot on the Clash of the Titans tour that featured Anthrax, Megadeth, and Slayer. However, a bus crash ended up dashing the band’s hopes just as they stood on the cusp of achieving some measure of success. The album’s standout tracks, though, stood as a testament to the band’s potential fulfilled with “Seemingly Endless Time”, “Stop”, and “The Organization” leading the way.

Years later, the band would reunite in 2001 and issue a number of albums leading up to the present day with The Evil Divide being a welcome return to everything that made the band exceptional during their initial stint in the thrash world 25 years prior. Today, it’s easy to see that Death Angel are an exceptional addition to the firmament of thrash giants.

-Bill Fetty

Lååz Rockit

Here’s a real deep cut Bay Area band! Lååz Rockit were a little more tight-knit as a group than some of the others in the scene having few alumni connections to any other group. They still did tour with the likes of the Big 4, Exodus, Dark Angel, and Suicidal Tendencies. Their sound evolved over the course of a decade, starting with a more widely palatable 80s hair metal sound and evolving into a heavier thrash sound.

The band began with then-high school senior Michael Coons and guitarist Aaron Jellum. The rest of the lineup was rounded out by guitarist Phil Kettner, drummer Victor Agnello, and bassist Willy Lange. They released City’s Gonna Burn in 1984 which had a darker hair metal quality to it, a sound that followed them on 1985’s No Stranger to Danger. However, the band embraced a heavier thrash style tone with 1987’s Know Your Enemy. The album featured a lot of war imagery, establishing their war imagery on album covers and even their custom painted guitars. This imagery would continue on 1989’s Annihilation Principle and 1991’s Nothing Sacred. The band then split up until 2005 to play some live shows and release a new record, Left for Dead, in 2008. Since then, they’ve opened for a few tours of Metallica but have been quiet since 2011.

Prior to researching this article, I had never heard of the group and I’m not entirely sure why. They have an awesome 80s thrash metal sound that’s just as fast and riffy as the rest of them. There is the most delicious crunch on all of their guitars that just grabs my attention immediately, and a lot of the songs and imagery is really fun stuff. They never had any real turmoil within the band, no nasty fights, and no public controversies. They simply ceased to exist for 17 years, came back for one final go around, and go back into the darkness again. Hopefully I’ve just sparked a lot of interest in a band I believe has a very enjoyable sound for metal fans.

-PW

Forbidden

Forbidden (originally Forbidden Evil) debuted in the late 1980s to relative acclaim. Their debut album, Forbidden Evil, was well received by the thrash community but it was their follow-up that garnered more attention beyond their home base of the Bay Area. The band’s seminal tech-thrash extravaganza, Twisted Into Form, highlighted a precision sound that elevated the band to be amongst the upper echelon of their more well known peers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The combined efforts of Russ Anderson (vocals), Craig Locicero (guitar), Tim Calvert (guitar), Matt Camacho (bass), and Paul Bostaph (drums) create a swirling storm of sounds that rivaled anything released by their contemporaries.

Their second album featured a shift to include more progressive elements than their debut which even saw them provide acoustic interludes that showed off the skills of Calvert and Locicero. More than anything else, though, the album showcased one of the more underrated drummers in metal, Bostaph, who would wind up joining Slayer as a replacement for the legendary Dave Lombardo in 1992. They would end up supporting the album by going on tour with Death Angel opening for their fellow Bay Area thrashers.

One of the remarkable things about this particular album is that it’s sequenced in such a way as to seamlessly flow from track to track making it difficult to pick out any one particular track as remarkably better than its greater peers. That said, the type of thrash this band performs on “Step by Step”, “Out of Body (Out of Mind)”, and “One Foot in Hell” stand out as excellent examples of the band at the height of their powers.

Ultimately, the band would break up in 1998 after a couple more albums were released that saw them spin off in a new direction. They would re-unite periodically for one-off shows or tours in the late 2000s that would lead to the release of 2010’s Omega Wave. The album would wind up being the band’s swansong.

BF

Attitude Adjustment

You knew you weren’t going to get through a discussion of thrash metal without talking about some crossover. Thankfully, the Bay Area scene gave us a great deep cut crossover band with Attitude Adjustment. The band isn’t the most widely known ever but definitely has some connections to the rest of the scene and was influential in its own way. Former members went on to play with Vio-Lence, Death Angel, D.R.I., Death, and Machine Head.

Not a whole lot is really documented about that band. They were originally formed in 1985 by drummer Chris Kontos, guitarist Eric Smith, and bassist Rick Strahl. They eventually invited Nick Koljian as vocalist, but he was soon replaced by longtime vocalist Kevin Reed who left the band and soon came back himself. There were a number of lineup changes throughout their brief history from 1985-1993 when Kontos went on to form Machine Head. Reed held onto the name and eventually brought the band back with a new lineup in 2007. They released 2 full lengths and 2 EPs while active and have come back with another of each since reforming.

Their sound is definitely crossover. Raucous guitars and riffs along with shouted vocals and thrashing drums leave no room for other interpretations. Municipal Waste counts them among their main influences, and there’s a pretty good reason why that seems so obvious. That chaotic sound has only been built up in recent years, but Attitude Adjustment definitely set the scene for that kind of half metal/half punk sound that lets you rage both musically and emotionally.

PW

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