Retrospective: Horrified, Chemical Exposure, Altars of Madness, and I.N.R.I.

A fine test of whether you take yourself altogether too seriously is to stay locked up in a room and play the four titles mentioned in this post’s header. If you can’t contain yourself from running around with mad abandon at the risk of serious whiplash a few hours later, you’re good to go. And to live. Don’t let the child inside grow up may seem too trite a cliche; it may even appear inappropriate for music as innately “negative” as this. But hold on, is this music really negative? Is it cynical? After all, it does shine a mirror on the ugly face of reality; Horrified and Chemical Exposure/Illusions recount graphically the aftermath of nuclear fallout and the very frail nature of human life, so easily dismembered and strewn about like inanimate hunks of meat. Altars of Madness and I.N.R.I., on the other hand, carry a Biblical sense of proportion about them, conjuring the perennial conflict between good and evil in death/black metal form.

This is heady, heavy subject matter to be sure, deserving of serious contemplation for after-hours; to the neutral bystander it must seem silly that we spend so much time conjecturing and philosophizing over music so brash and abrasive. My old landlord, a journalist of some repute, once read an entry on this blog and told me – without guile, I must add in his defense – he never knew you could get so much out of this music. His opinion is one you can ascribe to virtually everybody unhessian around you, and it is a perfectly understandable sentiment, too; it comes from a fundamental inability or unwillingness to connect sign with signified. Music is the sign, what it aims to express is the signified; most popular music is overloaded symbolically but criminally neglects to cultivate a world-view, instead relying on lyrical-consonant manipulation to build ultimately only an ephemeral state of mind. Metal, however, insinuates, it uses music of a suitably dark and virile character to suggest the germ of an idea, an idea of strength, confrontation, triumph, but, above all else, honesty. The truth is always beautiful but it is rarely pretty; real metal understands this profound shading, and strives to approximate it, always.

The four albums mentioned all play by different rules, too. Altars of Madness is of course the most technically and compositionally nuanced of the lot, one of the finest representations of the call-response dialectic in metal. Morbid Angel‘s great skill in their early period was in painting startlingly realized musical images; this achievement becomes all the more astounding considering the breakneck, instinctive nature of Altars of Madness. Many of these songs had been in gestation for years before official release on record, and therefore must have seen forethought in terms of arrangement, but the vibe for these forty minutes is still one of emanation and fulfillment of raw will in the moment, almost omnipotent in its implication: they thought and therefore it was.

Sarcofago‘s I.N.R.I. brought together nascent grindcore with the primitive rumblings of compatriots Sepultura, and created the template for much black metal and what would come to be called war metal. Sarcofago being a band rooted in the 80s, I.N.R.I. also carries the dark melodic sensibility of a Melissa and genre forerunners Bulldozer. Often slighted for its lack of narrative pretension, I.N.R.I. in fact excels in that very department by building ascending cycles of intensity, a songwriting trope which would soon become the trademark of an entire sub-genre.

Illusions, or Chemical Exposure, as rechristened by Roadrunner, is speed/thrash metal (take your pick as you please. I think I’ll call this thrash today) through and through. It’s unfortunate that that genre denomination has become a bit of a cuss word in recent times; one can only try something on what it purports to achieve. Metallica on Ride The Lightning aimed for scope and grandeur, and they succeeded beyond all compare despite the label of speed metal they carried. Mustaine cared more about getting his and that viciousness knives through Killing Is My Business…to this day, long after both parties to the conflict have become shriveled versions of their young selves. Swallowed In Black would see Sadus evolve their craft, ever so imperceptibly, into something verging on the lateral, narrative dexterity of death metal, but on their debut, Sadus had one and one mission only: Death To Posers (D.T.P.)

The eldest of these four albums (song-wise, a toss-up between the Morbid Angel demos and the Genocide version of Repulsion) is still the most exhilarating, more than thirty years after its release. Death metal would not exist, not the way it does, without Repulsion and Horrified. It’s really as simple as that. Horrified is traditionally accepted as the greatest grindcore album ever; it’s hard to dispute this, but a more nuanced interpretation reveals Horrified to be composed out of metal riffs arranged in grindcore fashion. In other words, instead of letting those riffs branch out and develop in the manner of death metal or black metal, Repulsion rein them in like a frothing-at-the-mouth Cerberus, and inject them with unparalleled amounts of speed and conviction. Frighteningly tunnel-visioned and entirely life-affirming, Horrified remains in a class of its own, a true touchstone for genuine extreme music cutting across all partisan divides.

That life-affirming bit…I’m sure I’ve used that term before and it brings me back to the premise phrased in the opening of this post. Such rough, abrasive music, articulating such a pessimistic view of the world, what can possibly be life-affirming about it? I don’t know if there’s a ready answer to this; I do know that I never feel as alive as when I hear it, the rush of blood it actuates is almost on par with great sex, and what greater life force exists? I also know that the mental extension it facilitates is a powerful and enriching stimulant in itself. Maybe in achieving this psychosomatic union, it overcomes an artificial mind vs body dichotomy, and makes us more complete human beings.


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