originally written by Juho Mikkonen
Not many underground metal albums have been able to establish such a cult following as Whiplash’s 1985 full-length debut, Power and Pain (featured in the ninth installment of you know what). Almost thirty years after its release, it has prevailed as a reference point for speed, aggression and brutality in thrash metal, and it looks like there are no serious challengers looming in the horizon. One could even argue that the band unloaded everything they got on their first LP, because their post-Power and Pain output never enjoyed similar recognition (although this is also due to the I-like-their-first-demo syndrome that has plagued the metal scene since Celtic Frost was born from the ashes of Hellhammer). Anyway, we got the man and the legend, Tony Portaro, to reminisce about the piece of work that got his name carved in all caps in the annals of heavy metal (before you start wondering: no, it’s a not a place protected by Fenriz’ ass cheeks). No spoilers this time. Just read on.
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Selecting 100 must-have records from the decade that shaped metal as we know it was not an easy task, but Power and Pain was one of the easy picks for our list. This certainly isn’t the first time that your debut full-length makes an appearance within this context, and the album is widely considered as an all-time thrash/speed metal classic. How do you feel about releasing something that generations of metalheads keep praising after almost 30 years of its recording?
It’s great to have an album that is recognized as being a thrash innovation. We had no idea at the time of the amount of recognition Power and Pain would have and the impact it would have on the metal scene. And here we are nearly 30 years later! It’s amazing when you look at it from that perspective. When performing worldwide, I meet many young thrashers who tell me that I am a major influence of theirs. And, most of them really kick ass!
Many of the fans of this album, myself included, were still trying to learn not to shit their pants every day in 1985, so can you tell us a bit about how was the reception of Power and Pain back then? Was it an instant classic or did it also get its share of negative feedback?
We didn’t get any negative feedback, but it did take over 10 years for us to realize the impact that the album had.
After the band’s formation in 1984, you quickly recorded three demo tapes which eventually got you on Roadrunner Records for the release of Power and Pain. How did you originally hook up with them, and did you have to consider different options for the label?
That was before the digital age. Back then you didn’t have immediate access to people or companies on the other side of the globe. Tony Scaglione and I put together packages that included the cassette demo, a biography, and an 8×10 photo. We sent them out to at least 20 record labels and we received record contracts from six of them. We even walked into the Combat office and hand delivered a copy. This corporate looking guy in a suit wanted to put us on a compilation album, but we wanted no part of that. Roadrunner told us they would change anything in the contract that we wanted, so we signed with them. After that, every label said they would have done the same thing!
I’ve understood that Power and Pain was the first recording where you worked with a producer, so what was the writing and recording process like? Did you walk into the studio with complete songs or did Norman Dunn for example contribute to the arrangements of the compositions?
We had everything completely finished except some guitar leads. We’ve always been very prepared before entering the studio. Rarely, we scramble to finish up lyrics. Other than that, I like to leave room open for spontaneous guitar leads. About half of my leads are finished when we go into the studio, but I really like the limitless feeling of just busting out a lead with adrenaline and taking that hyped up feeling of being in the recording studio and using it to your advantage. There’s a sense of freedom when you don’t have to think where you are supposed to be going on the guitar neck. Some of my favorite leads were done spur of the moment that way.
Power and Pain was – and still is – a very intense and brutal recording when stacked up against pretty much anything released under the banner of thrash/speed metal; something that would shape the more extreme spectrum of this style of music within the following years. Where did all this unprecedented, no-holds-barred aggression come from? Also, are there any musical influences that you think were crucial for giving birth to your unusually extreme sound?
My all-time favorite band is Deep Purple. Richie Blackmore was my main influence. I matured musically by copying his leads when I was young. You may hear that in many of my leads. I admired how he played with feeling. Also, the early thrash from the San Francisco Bay Area bands made a huge impact on me. I took that sound, added my knowledge of theory that I acquired at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, and mixed it all with an east coast, New Jersey twist. I thrive on the power and aggression that are the main ingredients in thrash. When I get a guitar in my hands, I just want to make it sound aggressive. It’s my weapon of choice.
There are some interesting guest appearances on Power and Pain, especially those of Peter Steele and Vinnie Stigma who joined the sessions to lay down some backing vocals. What’s the story behind these collaborations? Also, interestingly enough Agnostic Front ventured into the territory of crossover thrash with their sophomore album, Cause for Alarm, in 1986. Do you think that Vinnie got some influences from working with you?
Hahahaaa. You would have to ask Vinny that question. I’m not sure if Whiplash was a part of that decision. But I was always amazed how the NY hardcore bands took the three Tonys from New Jersey under their wings. We played many shows at CBGB and those guys made us feel like part of their family. We all had the same manager back then.
When Pete Steele was doing background shouting, we were all crowded around the microphone. Norman Dunn made him stand back three times the normal distance from the mic because the power emanating from Pete’s lungs was so strong that you couldn’t hear anyone else! Recently, I was able to reunite with Roger and Vinny when Agnostic Front performed in my hometown at Dingbatz. I hadn’t seen them in over 20 years. I walked up to Roger and asked him if he knew who I was. At first, he didn’t recognize me. When I told him, he was soooo excited. He said, “Did Vinny see you yet?” and he dragged me backstage. It was really cool. They’re awesome people.
If I’m not completely off the mark, you played your first show only after releasing Power and Pain, but after that you started doing a lot gigs in the States and shared the stage with many other to-be legends. There must be some really magical moments and stories from that era, ones that you remember for the rest of your life. Could you share a few of those with us?
Oh man! I did so much partying that I don’t remember too much from the 80’s. I know we toured the US Midwest after doing our first show at Ruthie’s Inn in Berkeley, California with Possessed and Death Angel. I did get to hang with a lot of artists that I admired, and still admire to this day. Opening for Megadeth was ultimate. There was one time we were on Mercyful Fate‘s tour bus hanging out with them behind the Capital Theater in Passaic, NJ. We played all the time at L’Amours in Brooklyn, NY, and hung out there a lot. All the major metal bands passed through those doors, and hanging out backstage watching bands like Voivod, Slayer and Exodus was what we did on a Friday or Saturday night. I do need to apologize to anyone that came to L’Amour for the Exodus show, though. I was partying heavily with Baloff, and he never made it to the stage! But the crowd was so awesome – they sang every word to every Exodus song! That was amazing. The music scene was different back then. That was when there were no festivals. We used to play small clubs that held about 200 people. And it was brutal traveling hundreds of miles at a time in our van. We didn’t have a Nightliner in the States like the one we got in Europe a few years later when we toured with Sodom. And nowadays you can play a festival and perform to 60,000 people, whereas we would spend a month on the road and never come close to reaching that many fans at one time.
Tony Scaglione left Whiplash to join Slayer in 1986. How did you feel about this decision and what kind of effect did it have for the band?
After Tony got the offer from Slayer, he asked me what he should do. I told him that if I had gotten the offer I would have taken it, and I was happy for him. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity that couldn’t be passed up. I sometimes wonder how things may have been different for Whiplash if he had stayed, maybe how different the following albums would have been. But, you can’t change the past, and we’ll never know! Tony and I are like brothers. In fact, I was just talking to him yesterday. We were discussing how Cult of One and Thrashback never got the notoriety we feel they deserved.
The first incarnation of Whiplash continued until 1990, so you got to experience what many people think of as the golden era of metal from the proverbial center of gravity. How did you personally experience the development of the metal scene after that?
When grunge became popular in the 90s, it looked like it was the end for thrash metal. It was very discouraging to me as it seemed to get pushed more underground. I mainly focused on my own material and limited my influences…moving forward with blinders on. Maybe that’s why my songwriting is considered to be so original. Many new directions were happening in metal, as musicians fought to keep the metal alive. I see all the genres of metal produced in the 90s as I prepare my radio show “Sonic Asylum.” It made me decide to present a history of my favorite style, so I feature bands from each year of thrash metal, which for me begins in 1982. Today, thrash has bounced back and seems to be as strong, or even stronger, than it ever was. I know the Internet has a lot to do with that. There’s a metal community that spans the whole globe and it’s all right at your fingertips.
It seems as if Power and Pain also left an everlasting fire burning inside you. We all know that Whiplash has been on hiatus a couple of times, but do you think you could ever decide to put a definitive end to the band’s existence?
Thrash Til Death! As long as I enjoy writing, recording and performing live, I will continue to do it. I’m not ready to give up yet! And if you hear the new song, “Sword Meet Skull, Skull Meet Sword”, I’m sure you will agree that it doesn’t sound like it’s time to throw in the towel.