November 16, 2021

While not everything was pure gold in the 1980s, the decade was home to some seriously good music that continues to stand the test of time. It was of course the decade when thrash metal – a blend of punk and NWOBHM – gained a foothold and San Francisco’s Bay Area became something of a hotbed and a beacon for the burgeoning thrash scene.

The proto-type of Mordred began around 1984, inspired by what were local bands such as Metallica and Exodus. The band had something of a revolving line up but by 1986 Mordred had recorded a demo which featured their original vocalist who later left to be replaced by goth-loving live wire Scott Holderby – it was a move that was to pay off as Holderby was not a typical thrash vocalist and that fit with what the band wanted. Clearly influenced by the local scene, Mordred had a desire to be something else entirely and San Francisco was cultural alchemy. Mordred was emboldened by the city’s artistic heritage – its dalliances with other genres such as funk and hip hop – and taking in further influence from bands such Primus. It was bass player Art Liboon that threw in the cover of Rick James’ 1981 hit Super Freak into the band’s set and the crowds soaked it up which led to the band being noticed and eventually signed. Mordred had arrived and were about to become trailblazers by bringing something of an unknown – a funk sheen to thrash metal.

Signed to Noise Records, Mordred’s debut album Fool’s Game was released in 1989. The album has to be taken in context of the time – a year after Slayer’s South Of Heaven, the same year as Kreator’s Extreme Aggression and two years later, Metallica’s self titled “Black” album would change everything. First single Every Day’s A Holiday was going to be the focus – and with good cause – it is the song that introduces Aaron “DJ Pause” Vaughan – a guest at this point – adding scratches and samples to create a song that slides with its funkiness and back into a thrash-lite mid-section. Every Day Is A Holiday does stand out in its overt non-thrash elements and while detractors may suggest that the band cut and pasted these on top, the song actually knits well together. The remainder of Fool’s Game does contain familiar thrash tropes, dashes of fast paced drumming and squally guitar solos but with Holderby’s clean vocal take was something of a star of the show as was the prominent bass lines of Art Liboon. Thrash was at the heart of Fool’s Game and there are some real neck snappers that keeps the riffs flowing and the switch between mid-paced and heavy-set thrash attack such as on the excellent Spellbound. The Artist had a similar air but was slightly more eclectic, the progressive lilt of the opening and a mid-paced chunk of guitar which picks up speed and it is the one-two of the pacing that takes the song out of standard thrash fare. The thrashiest out of Mordred’s short discography, while the funk may be the talking point, it was actually in short supply with Every Day’s A Holiday and then the almost necessary but actually superfluous cover of Super Freak. Taking a view of Fool’s Game 32 years later, it is an album that still stands up today, maintaining it’s thrash appeal while at the same time taking aim at new ground. With progressive and even quasi-power metal elements Fool’s Game does not stand as just a thrash record, an excellent record but at the same time was not hyper experimental so as to not to alienate anyone.

Whereas Fool’s Game was trying the flavour of experimentation, for Mordred’s follow up In This Life, it was completely off the chain. Released in 1991, it was a record that should be rightly considered as Mordred’s masterpiece and a breathless trip from start to finish. On first listen there was no real clue as to the direction of travel and the unpredictability was something of a challenge – but it was more than worth the effort. Whereas Fool’s Game was thrash-centric with touches of funk, In This Life totally blurred the lines between the two. Much of this was down to DJ Pause who was by now a full-time member, the scratches and samples are way more prominent and no longer just a cursory nod; Mordred had crossed a Rubicon as to realising their vision. Two singles were released from In This Life with Falling Away being something of a minor hit, a chunky riff overlaid with Pause’s scratches whereas Esse Quam Videri carried a more hip hop influence. Not even clocking in at three minutes, this dance floor filler featured weird vocal effects, some heavy guitar, a full on mid-section rap courtesy of DJ Pause and then straight into a cracker of a solo – a short song it may be but one chock full of head spinning contrasts and is pure genius. In This Life was never about following the rules, it was about making up new ones and the band performing it had no intention of playing with a straight bat. Tracks as Window were so multi layered, the guitar and the bass front and centre while the scratches and turntables played more of a supporting role. The only song that sounds like it could be from the previous album is Progress which is too straight forward when surrounded by all of the other colourful numbers; Mordred had turned their style on its head and using the funk influences to really drive the album. It was a time when bands such as Faith No More and Red Hot Chili Peppers had gained ground and it is not difficult to see why Mordred’s name was spoken in terms of comparison; Mordred were at the opening door to the next generation where “alternative” wore the crown. It is understandable why the thrash crowd may have had some reservations but 30 years later, this thrash/funk crossover is still ground breaking and Mordred laid down an incredible record that remains a joy to take in. This edition includes the bonus tracks (or B sides as they were known then), Lion’s Den and a cover of Thin Lizzy’s Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed from the Falling Away single and live versions of Killing Time and Every Day’s A Holiday from Esse Quam Videri.

Released in 1994, The Next Room was the odd album out for a number of reasons. Firstly, a major personnel change in that Scott Holderby had left due to “musical differences” which forced Mordred into a decision of either breaking up or continuing with someone else. Deciding on the latter, the band advertised for a new vocalist – and the unknown Paul Kimball answered. For anyone  who expected a re-run of In This Life then a surprise was in store. Clearly influenced by what was happening in Seattle, The Next Room had a grunge vein running through it and apart from some sonic strangeness and those tell-tale turntables, at times it is debatable that it even sounded like Mordred at all. Was it a bad album? Not by a long chalk. The Next Room did not suffer over production, it was a raw sounding record and one that was certainly song orientated but still had the tendency to go off in odd directions. When The Next Room was good it was very good, second track Skid has a hulking guitar and Kimball’s multiple vocal deliveries really fit the song and while Vaughan’s turntables could have gotten in the way, they perfectly frame the tune, especially on the verses. Crash was a slow burn and relatively mellow funky number which kicked up the heat one minute in, dropping back to that mellow vibe and some sweet pacing which carried the tune. It has to be said that Liboon’s bass on this track was exquisite. It was similar with Pauper’s Wine – an almost jazzy number that has such a laid back vibe it is impossible to close one’s eyes and drift off to the steady bounce of the tune. Mordred did indeed revel in their musicianship it seemed like all bets were off and there was nothing to lose but not all songs gelled and Splinter Down was painfully messy and a couple of minutes too long. Even that sonic weirdness occasionally became overwrought; Pauper’s Wine, as brilliant as the song was has a minute at the end that sounds like a car ignition repeatedly starting and some animal screeching in the background and its a nails down a chalkboard end to what is one of the highlights of the album. With a new singer, Mordred clearly had more in the tank and proved that they could take the band in different directions but the grunge feel did make it sound familiar. The Next Room certainly deserves more credit than it was awarded at the time and repeated listens did reveal more; an album with groove, panache and crammed full of texture. Showcasing a talented band that were not afraid to push envelopes or develop their sound, The Next Room is a band finding their feet again and casting the shackles off. Maybe the left turn was too much – the label certainly thought so, they hated the album which forced the band to quit a year later.

This edition of The Next Room features “bonus tracks” in the form of the Vision EP which does present a major issue with the chronology. The Next Room is a 1994 album, but the disc ends with a 1992 EP so most of the disc is the voice of Paul Kimball which then goes back in time to post In This Life music featuring the voice of Scott Holderby. It is a baffling scenario and one not easy to figure out; maybe it is the running time? In This Life clocks in at the hour mark and The Next Room just under and a 23minute EP must be accommodated. The label must be commended for including the EP – which is not easy to get a hold of – but there is no explanation as to why it is parked at the end of The Next Room. The jarring return of Scott Holderby’s voice aside, musically, it is difficult to know who the Vision EP was aimed at – it is too funky for the metalheads and too metal for the funksters. For sure, the EP was a natural follow on to In This Life, continues in the same vein and progresses those funk elements with the same terrific musicianship but it really tests the walls of the genres to their limit. West Country Hospital feels like a pre-cursor to material that featured on The Next Room. Some songs are reminiscent of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Faith No More and the most invigorating track is Close Minded which featured Pause rapping through the whole song. Vision is a worthwhile listen and its inclusion is paramount as it showed where Mordred in the post In This Life configuration were taking their sound. While the placement of the EP is something of a gripe, it is a small one considering that to not include it at all would have been a serious loss to this collection.

The 1990s was defined by alternative music and a new breed of genre hopping metal – dubbed – nu-metal – became a major player in heavy music. Whether Mordred can confidently say that such bands were influenced by them – why not? Mordred trailblazed and pioneered the splicing of metal with those funk and hip hop elements but are also one of those “forgotten” bands that brought so much but faded into the background as the future took hold; a product of their time but with musical boundaries totally changed, the band could have morphed and even more. Mordred did reform more than once, in 2001 and 2013 and aired a new song on tour in 2014. However, the first new material to be released was the Volition EP in 2020 which then led to their first new album in 27 years – The Dark Parade released in 2021.

To have these albums back on the streets is long overdue – The Noise Years (1989 -1994) is the perfect package and one of those ‘must have’ sets – any metal collection missing Mordred albums needs this collection. There is no confirmation whether the albums are remastered but in comparison to the original albums on CD, this set has a fuller sound which certainly improves the original version of In This Life. A real and complete package in every sense which is housed in a tri-fold digi-pak over three CDs and a booklet that has the history of Mordred with quotes from the band. With the inclusion of the single B sides and the EP there is very little extra that could be asked – this really is the history of one of metal’s most innovative and fascinating acts.