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.

Is it not possible that popular music is about to die and is seeing its life flash before its eyes? In the past year alone we've witnessed a parade of hot new bands reanimate the old sounds of classic soul, '70s arena rock, gnarly punk, '80s electro, and vintage rock, folk, and country. Not surprisingly, the legends of yesterday are doing well for themselves piggybacking these groups that have revived their aesthetic for modern ears. The Sex Pistols have returned; Earth, Wind & Fire re-formed; Iggy Pop went low-carb and hit the road; Kraftwerk, Mission of Burma, Urge Overkill, the Pixies -- all of them back, resurrected, wandering the pop-culture village like so many half-conscious Frankensteins. And now you can add one more name to that list: San Francisco's Death Angel, the teen titans of '80s thrash metal.

Haven't heard of them? Well, that figures. Unlike those aforementioned acts, Death Angel never had its day in the sun. Eighteen years ago its members blew the minds of metalheads far and wide with their youthful exuberance and unique sonic departure from metal's easily-parodied style; their sole major-label release, Act III, with its single "I'm Bored," is still considered a classic among metal circles to this day.

But if your world was not rocked by this group -- if you can't recall seeing its album in a Kmart or your grandma wearing a Death Angel T-shirt -- it is because fate, in the form of a heartbreaking bus crash that occurred on the eve of its big break, prevented Death Angel from bringing its scathing music to mainstream ears. Now, much to the joy of a legion of metal fans -- those of us who scoff at so-called nü-metal's interpretation of our once-sacred genre -- the band is back. And if its new release, The Art of Dying, its first album since 1990, is any indication, Death Angel may finally find the spotlight that eluded it so many years ago.


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

Journey back with me to the late '80s. If you'll recall, heavy metal was pretty big back then. Glam groups had usurped the airwaves with their witless behavior and attire. This was the age of the power ballad, when Poison's "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" could be heard just about everywhere, even on Spanish radio. And while glam metal was shameless and indulgent, professing no allegiance but to itself, on the periphery there rose the specter of thrash metal, distinct in its fusion of an anti-pretty boy image with woofing, crusty vocals and bludgeoning rhythms. Bands like Slayer, Metallica, and Megadeth were attracting international throngs of headbangers with little radio play and only a morsel of MTV's support. At this time, Death Angel, one of the youngest, most idealistic groups of the lot, was rising up from the Bay Area's thrash scene -- which remains the equivalent of biblical-age Palestine to believers -- and embarking on a trip that would become as fantastic as its quick, tragic end.

Not to be confused with acts like Morbid Angel or Death, Death Angel easily carved itself out as a band devoted to innovation as well as to a technical mastery of thrash's rudiments: churning double bass, incomprehensibly fast guitar solos, and heavier-than-lead riffage. The group's ferocious rhythm section, led by drummer Andy Galeon (who was 14 when the band released its debut, Ultra-Violence), coupled with the frontman/lead guitarist attack of Mark Osegueda and Rob Cavestany, respectively, provided an original, earnest sound that sent menacing metal insects out of your home stereo. Rounded out by rhythm guitarist Gus Pepa and bassist Dennis Pepa, the group consisted entirely of teenagers.

The dawn of Death Angel reads like the script to every aspiring rocker's wet dream. In 1986, metal mastermind Kirk Hammett, guitarist for Metallica, records the group's demo, which catches the ear of Enigma Records, which releases 1987's Ultra-Violenceand 1988's Frolic Through the Park. The band then starts receiving late-night MTV exposure, ultimately inking a deal with Geffen Records, which puts out 1990's Act III, among the most important metal albums of all time.

With its combination of acoustic guitars, funk, and droning backup vocals, Act III is a clear antecedent to the sound made popular today by bands like Incubus. On the strength of that album, Death Angel travels the world in the late '80s, with two sold-out tours of Japan and sold-out appearances at illustrious venues like the Warfield here, the Hammersmith Odeon in England, and the Ritz in New York. Enamored with its incisive tunes and vernal spirit, many of us peg Death Angel as the band that can take thrash all the way to the top.

These suspicions are confirmed when, in 1991, the group is selected to open the "Clash of the Titans" tour featuring Anthrax, Megadeth, and Slayer. Had it embarked on those dates, Death Angel would have surely joined those bands in reaching a wider U.S. audience. But that never happened. Shortly before the tour, a bus accident in the Arizona desert ruined drummer Galeon's playability and forced him into a year of recovery. During that time, Death Angel's management's legal misdeeds became apparent, and infighting and lack of guidance prompted frontman Osegueda to leave the band. Suddenly, as quickly as it had started, Death Angel was no more. In a twist of fate, the tour's opening slot went to a then-unknown Alice in Chains, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs of grunge.

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.

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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