Sunday, April 5, 2009

Hellhammer - Satanic Rites (1983)

In the autumn months of 1996, I received a package from Metal Blade Records that included the first five of the Metal Massacre compilations, on cassette. These tapes blended in, nicely, with my collection as I was only somewhat aware that the 80s were over. To walk into my room back then would be to step into a dark cave that was always filled with music. Whether it was Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer, Venom, Death, Morbid Angel, etc. it was, more often than not, something spawned in the 80s or before. I looked forward to the Metal Massacre tapes, though there turned out to be a lot of horrendous music contained therein. However, a few gems stuck out and attracted my attention. Among these were "Condemned to the Gallows" by Voivod and "Crucifixion" by a Swiss band called Hellhammer. I don't think I had ever heard or read of this band before that day. Following this, I sought out whatever I could find of them. It would take a year or so before I was able to find out that this song was taken from the Satanic Rites demo. Once I learned this, I pursued this obscure release for quite some time before getting my hands on it.

Satanic Rites is the third demo released by Hellhammer. However, the quality is so superior to what was heard on Denial Fiend and Triumph of Death that this can be considered more of an album than a demo, by comparison. This album was recorded in early December 1983 and it marked the first time that Hellhammer recorded music in a proper studio. Stephen Priestly abandoned the band around this time and, as a result, Tom Warrior played the bass for these recording sessions. This would lead to Martin Eric Ain joining the band shortly thereafter. After moving all of their equipment over from the Grave Hill bunker to the studio, they recorded 10 songs in the first day, with the guitars and drums being live. The bass, vocals and leads were overdubbed.

Satanic Rites cost about 600 Swiss francs and was officially released by Tom Warrior's fictional Prowlin' Death Records on 200 Sony and TDK cassettes. The album was recorded by the request of Noise Records (Berlin, Germany). It led to a full recording contract in March 1984 and the Apocalyptic Raids E.P. that would follow. This recording is responsible for beginning the legacy of Hellhammer and Celtic Frost as well as the legions of bands that would be influenced by this music.

The idea to create Hellhammer was born in late 1981 when Tom and Steve Warrior deliberately slowed-down playback of Venom's "In League With Satan" single from 45 rpm to 33 rpm. They pay homage to this moment during the intro to Satanic Rites as they slow-down the ending riff of "Triumph of Death". This sets the dark and obscure mood, right from the start.

The first song is "Messiah", and it fades in with a sloppy, yet energetic sound, and a terrible shriek from Tom Warrior. His vocals improved a great deal from the ridiculous nonsense found on the earlier demos. This is stripped-down, primitive and ugly Black Metal. This was Venom's legacy, already corrupting the youth of Europe and beyond. Hellhammer's music struggles with itself, cycling through repetitive riffs that seem thrown-together; the guitar almost desperately sawing back and forth between chords that simply don't sound like they belong together at all. Often it sounds as if Tom isn't sure quite what chord to play, and simply ends up thinly strumming half of it, or forcing an anguished bent note out of his instrument. The drums, in the majority of the songs, clip along at a fast pace, but the rest of the band crawls, so that even the faster songs come out doomy and hobbling. The complete absurdity of some of these riffs would make most musically minded people cringe, yet it works in this context. If you want great riffs and sinister melodies from this time period, listen to Show No Mercy or Melissa. This is for those that want something ugly and primal.

The raw minimalism continues on "The Third of the Storms (Evoked Damnation)". The overall sound of Satanic Rites is actually preferable to that on Apocalyptic Raids, but this song probably sounds better in its final form. There is a completely over-the-top echo on Tom's voice, which gives the music a sort of distant feel that isn't present on the E.P. The guitar is much thinner on this particular recording, but in a way that makes it clearer. There are a couple of glitches in the sound here and there, which obviously point to the fact that the CD was necessarily mastered from a cassette that was degraded in a couple of places, resulting in the breakup and distortion of sound common in old and often-played audio tapes. It's not a chronic problem though, and only surfaces in a couple of tracks, most notably for a second or two in the previous song.

The next song is the doom-laden "Buried and Forgotten". It was later stripped of certain elements and given a few others, developing into "Necromantical Screams", as heard on Celtic Frost's To Mega Therion. The Hellhammer version is a lot less precise and tight, obviously. It's very slow and full of those torturous bending notes Tom is so fond of, as well as some very menacing riffs. This is one of the highlights of this album. The vocals are ghostly and evil, adding to the atmosphere rather than detracting from it, though they do sound kind of weak in other parts of the song. The fast part, near the end, is completely unexpected and doesn't do a lot for the song, but it is brief enough to dismiss. Also worth mentioning is that Metin Demiral performs some guest vocals on this.

"Maniac" is not evil or dark, in any way. This song is much more up-tempo than the previous one and is faster, though not really that fast. It's at this point that the listener really senses that this band came out of nowhere, which is part of what makes them so great to so many. Tom Warrior listened to a lot of Motorhead, Venom and other NWOBHM bands like Angel Witch, at the time. Those are probably the bands, if any, people would be quick to pin on Hellhammer as obvious influences. However, if they had been able to play as well as Motorhead or even Venom, they would not be the original phenomenon that they were, because as Tom would have pointed out, they would have tried to sound like them. The fact was though, that Venom looked like virtuosos when compared to Hellhammer, and that is a scary thought for a lot of people.

"Eurynomos" is one of the most memorable tracks to be found here, possessing a lot of the early 80s rock vibe that was present on the earlier demos of Hellhammer. This isn't particularly evil, but it is pleasing to listen to. I have many good memories of listening to this while speeding down the highway after picking my girlfriend up from work, late at night. This is a fairly fast song, kind of sloppy, but it serves its purpose well.

The next song is "Triumph of Death" which is better than the previous version, but pales in comparison to that which is found on Apocalyptic Raids. It's neither as slow nor quite as epic as the later version and represents only one step in the development of this song, which is considered the defining opus of Hellhammer as a creative entity. The thrashier riffs (that were recycled on Morbid Tales) sounds more natural at this speed, but the rest of the song seems awkward and, while it is still a good song it simply isn't as satisfying as the version on the E.P. The suffocatingly dark atmosphere is absent, as are Tom's soul-shattering shrieks of anguish and despair.

"Revelations of Doom" is a pretty straight-forward song that can also be found, in a different form, on the Apocalyptic Raids E.P. This is more primitive, rock-based Black/Thrash from Switzerland. It's not one of the more inspired tracks, but it has its place and is good if you are in the mood to rock.

One can easily hear some pre-Morbid Tales riffs in the next song, "Reaper". This one is pretty mid-paced and gets things back on track for this album. This primitive, minimalist track leads into "Satanic Rites", which is epic by comparison. The title-track has a brief build-up before unleashing more traditional hard rock/heavy metal rhythms. Sadly, the lyrics for this song seem to do more to showcase Tom's perverse nature which was one of his inspirations for getting into music, anyway. Certainly, he needed some sort of outlet for all of the pent-up aggression and music seemed to double as a way to get women interested, as well. Despite this, "Satanic Rites" is one of the more memorable songs on the album and is one of the most inspired tracks to be found here. It's fairly simple and repetitive, yet it is done in a way that you'd hardly notice that the song was over seven minutes long.

The last song on here is the first Hellhammer song that I ever heard, from the Metal Massacre V compilation on Metal Blade Records. "Crucifixion" makes the previous song look like a complex and technical masterpiece. This is about as stripped-down as it gets. The opening moments are reminiscent of the beginning of Slayer's "Aggressive Perfector". This is straight-forward, ugly Black Metal and serves as a good way to bring this album to an end.

The outro is similar to the intro, a slowed-down riff from "Revelations of Doom". This doesn't create quite as dark an atmosphere as the intro, but it makes its point.

Overall, Satanic Rites is a great representation of what Hellhammer was. While the earlier version of "Triumph of Death" is vastly inferior to what is found on Apocalyptic Raids, the rest of this actually does a better job of conveying the spirit of Hellhammer than that E.P. This is the band as they were meant to be: stripped-down, raw and unpolished.