Know Your Death Metal

Roadrunner's new re-releases are a Who's Who of vintage thrashers.

Obituary: A genuinely frightening band.
Obituary: A genuinely frightening band.

Back in the late 1980s, New York's Roadrunner Records was one of the best metal labels in America. At the time, Metal Blade had a few good bands, Earache was just getting started, and Relapse and Century Media barely existed. Roadrunner made a name for itself by signing up some of the best, most uncompromising bands in what was a new death-metal scene.

In the last few years, that legacy of greatness has fallen by the wayside as the label pursued nü-metal down a blind alley. Solid acts, such as Slipknot and Chimaira, are the exceptions; such also-rans as 36 Crazyfists and Downthesun are more representative of the current roster. That's why the label's latest move is so welcome. Dipping into its archives, Roadrunner is re-releasing albums by some of the best acts of its early years. Each CD features two albums (plus bonus tracks), a double shot of vintage metal that lets today's young metalheads hear the bands that started it all.

One of the most important of them is Florida's Obituary. It emerged in the late 1980s alongside bands like Death, Deicide, and Morbid Angel, though Obituary was arguably more brutal than any of them. The band's debut disc, Slowly We Rot (now paired with its follow-up, Cause of Death), didn't even have lyrics most of the time -- vocalist John Tardy just growled and roared like a blood-drunk werewolf. Obituary was heavier than most of its peers, too, sacrificing speed for a grimy sound that was equal parts Black Sabbath and My War-era Black Flag. The combination of grinding riffs and Tardy's homeless-guy-ranting-on-the-bus vocals made Obituary practically avant-garde. It was one of the few genuinely frightening bands of the first wave of death metal, and these two albums encapsulate its gut-churning appeal.

Canadian thrashers Annihilator were a little more mainstream than Obituary, more concerned with lightning speed and an intricate, melodic guitar attack than with sounding as if they'd been spewed out of hell. They were one of the first bands to develop what could be called a "thinking man's metal" sound, particularly on their debut album, Alice in Hell. Its follow-up, Never Neverland, was almost as strong, one of the best metal records of 1990. Annihilator managed to straddle the chasm between the guttural fury of the all-out death-metal merchants and the fluffy, ballad-happy pop-metal that was peaking at the time. These two albums make for a single-disc one-two punch that brings back headbanging memories of thrash metal at its finest, played with real instrumental skill and a genuine love for the form.

The two best records of the Dutch prog-thrash outfit Pestilence -- Consuming Impulse and Testimony of the Ancients -- have also been combined into one amazing CD. On its debut, Malleus Maleficarum, Pestilence was a rough, pounding thrash band in the vein of Venom and Sodom. By its second disc, the band was exploring wildly intricate riff structures worthy of Megadeth's most advanced material. Eventually, Pestilence would pursue an enthusiasm for jazz fusion into some decidedly weird and unsuccessful territory, and it's possible to hear the beginnings of that shift on Testimony, a concept album even more convoluted than Iron Maiden's Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, if that's possible. But no matter how baroque Pestilence's tunes later became, these two albums always kept audiences moshing furiously.

Exhorder debuted on Roadrunner with the hilariously titled Slaughter in the Vatican. The Louisiana band was locally famous for being one of the fastest around -- indeed, its velocity was a direct influence on fellow Bayou brawlers Eyehategod, who decided to go in exactly the opposite direction, playing as slowly as possible. Speed wasn't Exhorder's only claim to fame, though; its ultra-disciplined, repetitive riffing is an audible influence on the work of bands from Pantera to Helmet. The band's sense of humor went beyond the record title too: There's a great story in Henry Rollins's Black Flag tour diary, Get in the Van, about a gig the two bands played, at which Exhorder, noticing general audience apathy, sat down onstage and played its furious, lightning-speed thrash without any of the hair-spinning or other choreography. It was their way of looking as bored with the audience as the audience apparently was with them. Slaughter in the Vatican has been paired with the band's second, slightly less important album, The Law, for a solid 80-minute blast of thrash.

Suffocation, from New York, is probably the most stereotypical death-metal band among Roadrunner's reissues. It's also the only one that's still active. The band's debut, Effigy of the Forgotten, is paired with the 1995 effort Pierced From Within. (Suffocation's second album, Breeding the Spawn, has been wisely passed over.) While songs like "Involuntary Slaughter," "Mass Obliteration," and "Suspended in Tribulation" seem to mark Suffocation as one-dimensional grind, the quality of musicianship, particularly on Pierced From Within, sets it well apart. Suffocation played precise, hardcore-inflected death metal, inserting weird time signatures where necessary, but always making sure to bring the pain first and foremost. There's plenty of growl here, plenty of blast beats, plenty of everything that made mid-1990s death metal great.

All five of these CDs are important metal documents, not only because the music contained on them is so great, but because metal is one of the most history-conscious of rock genres (only hip-hop's Tupac/Biggie death cult seems more obsessed with those who've gone before). Today's metal kids need to know that these bands once strode the earth, grinding and growling and pummeling their older brothers into grateful submission. With this batch of reissues (and there are more to follow, by both King Diamond and Mercyful Fate, among others), Roadrunner has not only done the metal public a service; it's burnished its own reputation a little. Now, if they would just stop signing all those rap-metal bands.