The Hi-Tone Café is the place to be this week if you're interested in a crash-course on the subject of extreme metal, and on Thursday, April 17th, the club hosts a four-band lineup that presents a cross section of the current state of the genre. Though Soilent Green and Skeletonwitch have played Memphis many times, put them together with the less familiar Hate Eternal and Toxic Holocaust, and you get a fantastic lesson in underground metal circa 2008. Is it still a partial glimpse? Sure. After all, we're talking about four bands, not 400.
Though sometimes lumped in with the current thrash revival that's sweeping the metal landscape, opener Toxic Holocaust is a far grittier band that dates back to 1999 and is led by true underground metal aesthete Joel Grind. With a revolving door of backing musicians, Grind's Toxic Holocaust owes a nod to the crossover thrashcore of mid-'80s luminaries Septic Death and black-metal enigma Darkthrone. To use a comparison that will infuriate metalheads, Toxic Holocaust is almost an extreme metal version of early Guided by Voices or power-pop lifers M.O.T.O. — highly prolific on tiny labels or through self-releases, a recording fidelity that fluctuates wildly with each release, lots of hard-to-find singles, splits, and EP's, and a prevailing, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-dig-in D.I.Y. ethic.
In that sense, Toxic Holocaust harkens back to a glorious time in underground metal — when the scene was kept alive by bands that never stopped touring and when Xeroxed 'zines and a fervent tape-trading network were utilized to spread the word. (To note: There would be no Metallica without said network.)
As for full-lengths, Toxic Holocaust has released two, Critical Mass (2002) and Evil Never Dies (2003), and will turn over a new page this year by recording a third album for the illustrious Relapse Records. A positive attribute of the underground metal community that rings true more so than in other musical genres: Hard work might actually pay off. Relapse will undoubtedly assist in bringing Toxic Holocaust a wider audience hungry for the band's unique take on time-honored thrash.
Of heavy metal's innumerable sub-genres, death metal is essentially an American phenomenon, with ground zero being middle Florida. Tampa and the surrounding area was to death metal's heyday of the late '80s and early '90s what Seattle was to the grunge explosion of the same era. The bands that came out of Tampa (Morbid Angel, Obituary, Death, Deicide, etc.) would create and expand upon the style's unprecedented heaviness, 200-beats-per-minute velocity, bulldozing rhythms, themes of depraved darkness, and complete disdain for vocal melody. Much to the chagrin of these artists, a dilettantish music writer coined the term "Cookie Monster vocals," and it stuck as an easy way for outsiders to poke fun at the genre. Nonetheless, death metal managed to finally do what metal had always threatened: scare the living crap out of every concerned parent, priest, and unsuspecting listener within earshot.
This history manifests itself in Hate Eternal, a band created by scene veteran Erik Rutan, who spent time playing guitar for Morbid Angel. Hate Eternal came together in the late '90s as a vehicle for Rutan to explore a perfect storm of death metal. Roaring onto disc in 1999 with Conquering the Throne, the Tampa/St. Petersburg band wasted little time erasing the mediocrity that had sent death metal limping through the mid-'90s. It doesn't exactly make one feel young to refer to something that happened in 1990 as "old school," but Hate Eternal merge old-school death metal with its cousin grindcore and elevate every quality to the next level.
It seems implausible that death metal or grindcore could get any heavier, harsher, tighter/more technical, faster ... without imploding, but Hate Eternal pulled it off on album number four, Fury and Flames, released in February on longtime genre powerhouse Metal Blade Records. It's a concept album thematically arranged around the October 2006 death of Rutan's best friend and bass player, Jared Anderson. Few authentic death-metal bands stay relevant for more than a decade without buckling under a temptation to switch gears; Hate Eternal has accomplished the none-too-small goal of modernizing death metal for this young century.
An extreme-metal institution, New Orleans' Soilent Green is one of the few bands that can toy with different styles (usually within the space of a single song) without sacrificing an ounce of intensity or having their eclecticism come across as an affectation. Formed 20 years ago by Brian Patton (guitar) and Tommy Buckley (drums), the band hit its stride as a Relapse Records flagship in the late '90s. The accomplished Sewn Mouth Secrets (1998), an unrelenting tornado of grindcore, death metal, Southern/classic rock, jazzy breakdowns, and powerful hardcore, would position them as a worldwide force in metal.
Soilent Green represents a who's who of New Orleans' legendary extreme metal scene: Patton also plays guitar in EyeHateGod; vocalist Ben Faust is in Goatwhore; and Buckley beats the kit for Crowbar. On more than one occasion, Soilent Green has survived some serious adversity. Bassist Scott Williams died in 2004 as a result of a murder/suicide, then former vocalist Glen Rambo was killed by Hurricane Katrina.
After years with Relapse, Soilent Green's fifth full-length album, Inevitable Breakdown in the Presence of Conviction, signaled a move to Metal Blade, which released the album this month. Rolling Stone may not be a wealth of metal coverage or awareness, but there's something to be said for the inclusion of Soilent Green in the magazine's "25 Most Influential Heavy Metal Bands of All Time."
Last but not least, Skeletonwitch have been given inches in these pages that the aforementioned bands have not, but their black-metal-informed thrash proudly rocks shiny steel touchstones such as classic '70s-era Judas Priest and Thin Lizzy. Plus, they are excellent live.