The Art of Reuniting

Once upon a time, S.F.'s Death Angel was poised to bring thrash metal to the mainstream. Then its bus crashed. Now the band is back to finish the job.

Meanwhile, in another corner of the zeitgeist, rock fans were achieving Nirvana. When that Seattle threesome hit big with Nevermind, a flannel steamroller flattened metal. Before you could say, "And Justice for All," the two-fingered devil-hand sign became the ironic gesture of choice for metal's malcontents; radio stations such as KROQ in L.A. proudly pledged never to play the music; black jean jackets were hung up like retired baseball jerseys. Metalheads, unable to weather the growing scorn, sold their shiny airbrushed axes and got junky, more "independent"-looking guitars. The end had come.

When grunge begat nü-metal in the late '90s, many of us now-closeted metalheads were unimpressed. Rip-off riffs, auto-tuned vocals, and automated drumming replaced the hard-earned standard of virtuosity adhered to in the '80s. Like cockroaches fleeing a flooding storm drain, bands from the Midwest and Florida infested MTV and radio with unabashed idiocy. Strictly-business enterprises like Limp Bizkit, Slipknot, and Creed set new precedents for separating American kids from their allowances.

But the one good thing to emerge from this was a renewed interest in the bands that had "influenced" all these knockoff acts. A benefit concert in 2001 titled "Thrash of the Titans" featured '80s groups like Exodus, Anthrax, Testament, Vio-lence, and a reunited Death Angel. The event kindled so much yearning for the old days, amongst both the musicians and the crowd, that the re-formed band -- with new guitarist Ted Aguilar taking over for former rhythm guitarist Gus Pepa -- decided to make more appearances. Its long dispersal had allowed the pressure that precipitated the original collapse to subside, and the music flowed forth like never before. In 2003, the members of Death Angel announced they had a new record deal and a new album in the works. Once-stilled heads would soon be banging anew.

Back in Black: The men of Death Angel.
Back in Black: The men of Death Angel.

I jumped at the chance to see Death Angel play a sold-out show with the Deftones in Sacramento in February. The more seasoned metal fans in the crowd, myself included, immediately bonded as the band opened with a poignant choice: "Seemingly Endless Time." Though it had been nearly 14 years since Death Angel disappeared from the scene, its set remained consistent with thrash metal's timeless code: The shredding guitars, shredding double bass, and shredding vocals shredded the crowd's faces right off. That night, the hour's rapture propelled me into the whirling blades of the slam pit for the first time in a decade. Getting kicked in the back never felt so good.

The real treat, however, is Death Angel's new release, The Art of Dying. Recorded at a SOMA studio by a veteran metal producer, Bryan Dobbs, the band's latest offers a strong retort to the maleficent banditry of nü-metal. The opening fanfare of "Thrown to the Wolves" boldly announces Death Angel's uncompromising embrace of staccato "chugga chugga" bursts, as opposed to rap-metal's half-timed "jun-jun" sounds; the Promethean guitar riffs coming out of Cavestany's complex rig of three Marshall stacks are, by way of contrast, a sad reminder of just how mundane metal guitar has become. Likewise, Osegueda's voice puts to shame the strained yelps of alternative radio's "youth gone wild"; on lines like "Rip the bars that hold my mind," it grabs your collar and sends phantom spittle flying into your eyes.

The Art of Dyingpresents a sound unfettered by new studio gadgets; there is no synthetic state-of-the-art editing or tuning, no rapping or record scratching, no insane clown overdubs. What you hear on this album is grinding, stampeding thrash metal, made lovingly by human hands. Listening to it gives you the strange, exhilarating sense that it's around what would've been 1992 and Death Angel hasn't missed a beat and heavy metal rules the radio and the world hasn't yet gone to hell.

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