The San Francisco Bay Area thrash scene from the 1980s remains one of the most colourful and potent genres in metal history. Naturally, it was fuelled by the music but was also driven by fan tape trading and a brotherhood between the bands and a united relationship between musicians and fans. Even now during its resurgence, the days of tape trading may be consigned to history but that brotherhood – rather than being dimmed by time – remains as strong as ever.
Although considered the “second wave”of thrash, Death Angel was originally formed in 1982 by guitarist Rob Cavestany with cousins Dennis Peppa on bass, Gus Peppa on guitar and Andy Galeon on drums. The line up was completed by Mark Osegueda on vocals – who is second cousin to the other four members and initially their roadie – joined as their front man following the release of their first demo Heavy Metal Insanity. The band then recorded the Kirk Hammet (Metallica) produced Kill As One demo which was widely distributed thanks to tape trading while the band furiously gigged around the Bay for two years, which with the success of the demo, ultimately caught the attention of Enigma Records.
Debut album The Ultra-Violence was released in 1987. Beyond the record itself there was a point to be made as to the age of the band – all under the age of 20 years with the exception of drummer Andy Galeon who was only 14 – a fact that was regularly mentioned in relation to Death Angel at the time. There is much to be said about looking back on albums three decades later, listen back to ‘first out of the gate’ Metallica with their debut Kill ‘Em All  and also the band that has plenty of credit for igniting the scene – Exodus with Bonded By Blood  both are raw sounding records. By the time that Death Angel’s debut was released, Bay Area thrash had developed, and Exodus and Metallica had already released two more albums. In a sense, The Ultra-Violence was a re-ignition and a re-introduction to those raw and uncompromising beginnings of thrash, a band taking their tentative steps in joining their peers on a slightly lower rung. Death Angel was not just a young band just starting out in the big leagues of record deals, The Ultra-Violence was a reminder of what started the scene in the first place. And this is where this record has to be taken in context. In comparison with modern day production values, The Ultra-Violence does feel primitive but as a thrash record, it remains one without compare to any other from back in the day, the extra element of a band barely out of their teens, youthful exuberance ramped to 11 in the hey day of a world dominating scene – it is possible to see why this album caught the attention and imagination of so many. The energy that this record maintains is still worthy of a dropped jaw; a furious rampage that from the squally guitar intro on first track Thrashers never lets go for its entire running time. The chunk on the guitar that begins Evil Priest still sounds huge and some nifty time changes and the middle bass solo section before guitar that picks up the pace in a dash to the finish still sounds immense. Death Angel were not just a thrash band, musical ideas was a cup that overflowed for this extraordinary band and something that they would continue to revel in. A bona fide classic indeed.
In 1988, a little over a year following from their debut, Death Angel released their sophomore effort Frolic Through The Park which was a more eclectic journey that gained the band some commercial success. Frolic was – and still is – an uneasy listen with the diversity definitely in the driving seat. On the plus side, it is a talented band bursting with ideas and more than prepared to look outside of the thrash template, remaining heavy but taking their sound in different directions – albeit with mixed results. Frolic Through The Park might have only been released a year after their debut and maybe the fan base would have been quite happy with The Ultra-Violence part II but Death Angel were not content with repeating themselves and commercially, it was a gamble that did pay some dividends. Frolic is not short of bangers and opener 3rd Floor is still like a lump hammer to the cranium but the band were determined not to be pinned down to any type. Tracks such as Why You Do This? has an array of dizzying time changes which drops the song from punk to thrash with a progressive view point whereas Open Up is a rather goofy off kilter beat that strays way from a well worn thrash path. The tracks that gained the most attention are probably not considered thrash at all. Bored was quite a departure, the way that the guitars are layered on an incline to the first verse is top notch quality head banging material and with Osegueda’s less aggressive vocals fitting the song perfectly, those guitar breaks after the one line chorus makes it a real guitar song. The band filmed a video for the track which also made the 1990 horror flick Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III only adding to the attention that the album received. The other song out of type was a cover of KISS’ Cold Gin which pretty much is an off the peg cover done by Death Angel which could have easily been an ‘in the studio’ jam cut which made the album and while it does add to a break in the record, it was seen by some as a cheap shot when it was just a thrash band saying “hey, we love KISS, alright?” As much as Frolic Through The Park was a commercial success, it was also an album that was considered the ugly step child to genre fans, it was not a straight up thrash album that The Ultra-Violence was and as such it was a record that inspired praise as well as ire. There has to be some credit to Death Angel for daring to step outside what may have been expected; some may say that Death Angel were pushing their own envelope far too quickly, a height of readiness to experiment without having a clear way to which direction they were heading. Frolic Through The Park remains an interesting album and in a way a blueprint for what happened next and the success that Death Angel gained. 32 years on, this was Death Angel at their most experimental.
Very little stayed the same for very long in Death Angel’s world. By 1989, the band were no longer on the Enigma label having had their contract bought out by Geffen Records. Enigma did not go quietly though and would not be the first label to pull out an unauthorised release as a last gasp following the departure of one of their acts whether it be a compilation or a rarities album – Enigma released a live album, gambled and lost. Much has been said about Fall From Grace, infamous rather than famous for how it came into being. Touted as an official release, it was nothing short of an illegal act to cash in on the band moving to Geffen. There is no doubt that Enigma (who went bust in 1991) were out of line releasing Fall From Grace and under some twisted perception that they were “owed” another record following Death Angel’s departure. Even as a live album and there is no other way of saying this but Fall From Grace is incredibly poor and should have never seen the light of day. The record is often referred to as a “bootleg” but it has never been clear whether it was recorded by an attendee at the gig, an opportunist insider plugging into the soundboard or whether it was a sanctioned surreptitious recording that Enigma just rushed out as it was – and while the one positive is that it is better than real bootlegs, that stands for very little when fans were tricked into paying money for what they believed was a genuine authorised release. With the band having no input into the album or having any knowledge of its existence that also meant that there was no quality control over the recording at all and the whole affair still reeks to this day. From a music standpoint, the record does sound alright from a guitar perspective, drums and bass are audible but only just. There feels to be a ‘distance’ to the recording which sounds like it was recorded at the back of the balcony and at least on the side of the lead guitarist as the guitar tone is strong throughout. There is a serious injustice done to Mark Osegueda’s vocals though which are reedy and nothing like a powerful vocalist in his prime should sound; the constant lack of resonance and an “in and out” – again suggesting that as Osegueda moves around the stage and away from the recording source. To judge Death Angel on this record is totally unfair, its creation and release was none of their doing, Fall From Grace is poorly mixed, in dire need of editing, sounds unfinished and is incredibly sloppy. What this album does stand for is its historical significance, its infamy has fallen into legend and it is impossible to look at Death Angel’s timeline without seeing Fall From Grace as part of it. Yes, an awful record but one that cannot be ignored in an historical context and that does make its inclusion in this box set worthwhile, even if it is to listen to just once and agree how bad it really is.
The fourth disc in this collection is a set of rarities and archive materials such as demos, out-takes and a garage recording. There can be some joy in a dig around the vault, showing how songs were developed and how they matured into finished pieces. This rarities disc is slightly different in that apart from a song being called Frolic Through The Park, this is not a song that actually appeared on the album which suggests that it was one that was left on the cutting room floor. The other songs do not appear on any of the albums and so it is unclear where they have come from, were they working ideas for a particular album or ones that just did not make the album, discarded by the label? There is no indication anywhere as to the provenance of the songs or what the time frame is and so it is difficult to place any of them within Death Angel’s history. There are two sides to this, on the one hand they are extra songs that have been pulled from a vault that does give a complete picture of Death Angel and this is actually a set of rarities that are worth checking out. On the other hand, some might wish to place them somewhere within a band’s timeline or have that information as to where they come from because out-takes and demos do function as as a point in time or under a set of circumstances, their historical place does mean something. This may sound like a gripe but a few short words as to where the songs originate from would be of massive benefit to understanding their scope and time to allow context to be added. On the whole, this collection is quite listenable taking into account that they are demos, the chunk of the guitar riff on Vulture’s Nest has some real thump and The Nest has a thrash attack opening before slowing right down and the aforementioned Frolic In The Park is a primitive punk blast that whizzes by in a flash with a gritty hack and slash. As demos, these are not supposed to be fully fleshed out and sounding top notch quality and there is of course no promise that this is the case, they are what they are and indeed do make for an interesting listen. As it stands, this is collection of songs that suggests it ties up Death Angel’s early period – it just does not say how.
Beyond Frolic In The Park and Death Angel’s move to Geffen, the band released Act III in 1990 which hit serious commercial success and did allow this talented band to realise their full potential. Once more continuing to delve into ideas, the album incorporated other elements such as funk and the band made major MTV airplay with Seemingly Endless Time and the perennial ballad A Room With A View. Tragedy was to strike though and on the 1991 tour to support Act III, there was a terrible bus crash leaving drummer Andy Galleon critically injured. During his year long recuperation from his injuries, vocalist Mark Osegueda exited the band which in effect ended Death Angel. Four fifths of the original Death Angel line up (minus Osegeueda) did form a new band called The Organization (named after a song on Act III) which incorporated metal, funk and alt rock and the combo appeared at the Dynamo Festival in 1992 releasing two albums but split up in 1995 following Dennis Pepa’s exit from the group. Like many thrash bands from the same era, Death Angel re-formed in 2001 for the benefit gig for Testament’s Chuck Billy and Death’s Chuck Schuldiner. Death Angel continued their journey releasing The Art Of Dying in 2005 and still record, release albums and tour to this day – last seen in the UK on The Bay Strikes Back tour in 2020.
The Enigma Years (1987-1990) is a great collection that brings together the early years of one of the most important bands of the San Francisco Bay Area. It is a collection that has been released before – in a fashion. A box set was released in 2005 that included the same albums with the exception of the much maligned Fall From Grace and included a DVD instead. This box features all four of the albums in individual cardboard sleeves with their original art work. Each of the actual album discs includes bonus tracks, the celebrated Kill As One demo features on The Ultra-Violence, there are three extra tracks on Frolic Through The Park and there is one extra live track on Fall From Grace. There are no sleeve notes as such, there is a mini poster sized sheet in the box which features the track listing and a paragraph from guitarist Rob Castevany that makes it clear that the archive recordings on the rarities disc have not seen the light of day since 2005. On the reverse of this insert is a collage of Kerrang! articles. What yours truly was impressed with was that the box which the albums is housed has its own art work rather than some hastily thrown together non-descript box. It’s just a box! Maybe so but it also makes this collection feel complete and standing on its own as opposed to a rushed effort to throw out there some hard to get records.
For any thrash fans that cannot find those early albums, this set is definitely for you and anyone that is without a copy of an album as utterly essential as The Ultra-Violence is truly missing out on what Death Angel brought out of the Bay Area and to the thrash scene as a whole.
Death Angel – The Enigma Years (1987-1990) is released on 27 November, 2020 and is available from Cherry Red Records.