By design, album art is supposed to reflect the music, to be some visual representation of the aural experience contained within the grooves or bytes or magnetic bits or whatever. A large part of album covers fail at this purpose, although many are still perfectly functional as eye candy to catch the consumer. Few of them achieve a level of perfect synchronicity.
Painted by the master himself, the late HR Giger, and titled “Work No. 93 Hommage To S. Beckett I,” the cover for Atrocity’s debut album, Hallucinations, exists outside the album itself, and yet matches the music within with a preternatural perfection. Dark, twisted, perverse, vaguely recognizable and yet inhuman, left of center, black and white but really mostly grey… All of these fit the art, both without and within.
Beginning as a grindcore band called Instigator, Germany’s Atrocity switched to death metal for their debut EP, Blue Blood, released in 1989. That EP was interesting, experimental in its arrangements (even with some ill-advised clean vocals on “When The Fire Burns Over The Seas”), but it wasn’t cohesive enough to be phenomenal, and certainly not compared to what they’d do in just a year’s time…
Historical perspective: In 1990, Chuck and Death were three albums in, but he / they were only beginning to move into the realm of the progressive. Obituary had two albums under their belt, dueling straightforward gut-punches, and Deicide added blasts of blasphemy with their debut, and both bands were still well within the Floridian mold. With keys and a science-fiction lyrical bent, Nocturnus’ The Key stood out, more technical and more accomplished than many of their caveman contemporaries, but even that was nothing compared to Hallucinations.
“Lying there in a small crib,
Naked and innocent.
Just losing my virginity,
Only four years old.
A menacing man above me —
He’s my own father!
My legs and arms are limp,
Crushed by confusion.
Lascivious eyes stare at me,
I’ve never seen before.
Musty smell in the air,
Diffusing body odor
Feeling like a pig ravished and abused,
Praying for my god,
The old man with the long white beard.”
Death metal has always been fascinated with the grotesque and the frightening — gore, Satan, war, whatever it may be — with bands seemingly in competition to out-gross-out one another, to be the most evil, the scariest, the vilest. In just three verses and a bridge, Hallucinations’ opening track “Deep In Your Subconscious” establishes itself as the most twisted of the bunch, and tragically, one of the most realistic. A concept album, Hallucinations chronicles the life of a nameless young lady, the victim of sexual abuse as a child, and it follows her from that broken childhood through her subsequent downward spiraling adulthood, slipping into drug abuse and prostitution to her eventual death on the bathroom floor. It’s not an uncommon tale, sadly, and it’s presented in a manner both poetic and starkly clinical. Juxtaposed against the blood-spattered horror of Necrophagia (and later of Cannibal Corpse), or to Glen Benton’s anti-Jesus rhetoric, the lyrics on Hallucinations are infinitely more real and disturbing, more frightening in their directness and despicable relatability, and they help push the album above most of death metal’s cartoonish darkness.
Still, none of that would matter much were there not a solid base of metal beneath Alex Krull’s Schuldiner-ian growl, but that’s where Hallucinations gets even more interesting…
Building on the hyperactive technicality of thrashers like Watchtower and Psychotic Waltz, Hallucinations’ arrangements predate the prog-death explorations of Atheist and Cynic by at least a year, although the former of those two also released the forward-thinking and thrash-y Piece Of Time in 1990, hinting at the jazz influence that would flourish on 1991’s Unquestionable Presence. Progressive in the lower-case-P sense of pushing boundaries, not so much in the capital-P sense of showcasing instrumental proficiency, Hallucinations is nevertheless the work of excellent musicians — it’s a stream of shifting tempos, twisting riffs, guitar leads that seldom end up where they appeared to be headed, odd-meter drum breaks, sliding basslines… Though it’s unquestionably early death metal in inception, it’s anything but straightforward — its music is as twisted as its lyrical concept, and as twisted as Giger’s Melting-On-The-TV monster on the cover.
The call and response introduction to “Life Is A Long And Silent River” flirts with an indirect jazziness — a feel that’s revisited in the weird bass-and-drum breakdown of “Fatal Step” or the random interplay on “Hold Out (To The End)”– but for the most part, Hallucinations keeps its experimentation within the metal realm, not adding in any of the complex chord voicings or prog-rock influences that would come to characterize “progressive death metal” in later days. Mostly, it’s thrash-y death metal, but arranged as though it were chopped up, the pieces dropped, and then patched back together by someone who hadn’t paid much attention to the initial flow, getting it almost right but then jagging sideways into some unexpected turn. Like that oozing monster, it’s recognizable as death metal, and yet it’s something slightly different, left of center, weird, ugly, and yet captivating.
After Hallucinations, Atrocity managed one more classic death metal album in 1992’s Todessehnsucht (conveniently translated into Longing For Death in the US), before they succumbed to Alex Krull’s seemingly endless need for creative re-invention. 1994’s underwhelming Blut was based on Dracula, evoking the Keanu Reeves film of the time, and featured a stripped-back goth-y groove metal sound that did no one any favors. Subsequent forays into folk-y goth metal and industrial were equally as unimpressive, and the band had its biggest success with an album of industro-gothic covers of 80s pop tunes. (So much so that they released a sequel ten years later.) These days, only Alex Krull remains from the Hallucinations line-up, and Atrocity has shifted into a more symphonic death direction, releasing 2013’s largely riffless Okkult and promising a sequel to that one later this year.
I’m not waiting for new Atrocity, I’ll admit, but regardless of the band’s genre-hopping about-faces in more recent days, they’ll always have two classics, of which Hallucinations stands tallest and weirdest. It’s not pretty, but then again, it’s not supposed to be — just look at it, after all.
[Author’s note: Hallucinations has been in and out of print since its release, most recently reissued by Napalm Records on CD in 2008 and limited edition vinyl in 2013, both versions with the EPs Blue Blood and The Hunt as bonus material. Regrettably, it’s not cheap these days, if you can find it at all, so hopefully some enterprising label will see fit to bring Hallucinations back again. It certainly deserves another chance.]