In “Diamonds & Rust,” Last Rites looks back at classic albums from metal’s storied history. Some of those albums were big hits, and others are overlooked gems. All of them deserve your time and attention…
Imagine, if you dare, being Thirteen-Year-Old Me, just dipping his proverbial toes into this crazy world of heavy metal and already obsessed with the cartoon-covered likes of Iron Maiden and Megadeth and Anthrax. In the middle of the wall of second-hand cassettes at the used record store, our intrepid explorer runs across something called The Return Of Martha Splatterhead by a heavy-metal-umlauted band called Accüsed. (The “the” was omitted from the cassette spine, for whatever reason.) His interest instantly piqued by the presence of the Combat Records logo, he pulls that cassette off the shelf… and turns it over… and then… well, let’s just scroll back up and look at that album cover one more time, shall we? Atop a pile of rubble, under the full moon, stands a… buxom zombie… hooker? It’s the stuff of thirteen-year-old metalhead dreams, Killers meets late-night Cinemax.
So of course, I bought it.
Whatever thoughts I may have had about the voluptuous undead heroine (villain? both?), as I popped that cassette into my bright-yellow Sony Walkman, I certainly wasn’t prepared for the hellacious racket that came back at me. I’d heard thrash — or at least, some of it — and this particular madness was thrashy, for sure, but it wasn’t much like the tight, controlled fire of Among The Living or Peace Sells. It was closer to the chaotic Killing Is My Business — an album that was then and still remains my favorite of Megadeth’s, and among my favorite thrash albums — but Martha was rawer even than that one, certainly less skilled, and undeniably more unhinged. The vocals sounded like a vicious, snarling chihuahua, spitting forth bloody B-movie tales of death and decay to match that gloriously silly comic book cover.
Of course, a significant portion of that ear-opening first listen can now be ascribed to the ignorance of youth. Back then, I was hip to punk, sort of, but my knowledge was limited to the more melodic side, and even then, mostly to the classics, to the Sex Pistols and Clashes and Ramones. I’d been only barely exposed to anything more aggressive than the Dead Kennedys’ biting politi-core. Nowadays, I have a much better understanding and decades more experience with ugly music — and in large part, I have both of those thanks to that inadvertent headlong jump into the deep end that was my initial exposure to Seattle punks (The) Accüsed.
Looking at it now with the benefit of that experience and understanding, The Return Of Martha Splatterhead fits best in the realm of “crossover,” although it pre-dates the DRI album that would give that sub-genre its name. Regardless, whether it was punk or metal or in-between, looking at it from the far-flung future of 2019, the (toe-)tag fits: fast and furious hardcore melded to chunky, thrashy riffs, sporting the occasional solo that reaches towards King-Hanneman chaos, and all sandwiched between lightning-speed drumming, gnarly distorted basslines, and Blaine Cook’s maniacal half-choked chattering.
Formed in 1981, The Accüsed had dropped a pair of demos and a split with Rejectors, all of which were pretty firmly anchored in straight-ahead hardcore: Short bursts of aggression, barked shouts courtesy of first vocalist John Dahlin, Tommy Niemeyer’s simple chord-based guitar parts… Adding metal into their sound and dropping Dahlin in favor of former Fartz frontman Cook, The Accüsed described both their sound and inspiration in one self-coined term: “splatter rock.” Naming their zombie mascot, the classic Accüsed line-up of Cook, Niemeyer, bassist Chewy, and drummer Dana Collins offered up the Martha Splatterhead EP in 1985, featuring a little under half of the songs that would appear again a year later on their debut full-length.
The album opens with the fiery barrage of the somewhat title track “Martha Splatterhead,” the forthcoming frantic madness belied by an introductory childish shout-out to Martha. And then the band kicks in and the remaining two minutes — and twenty-eight additional ones — careen by at breakneck pace. “Wrong Side Of The Grave” would be covered by Benediction on their Transcend The Rubicon LP a few years later, and it may well be Return’s grooviest and catchiest song, Chewy’s bass a fuzzed-out and oft-indistinct rumble beneath the white-noise bite of Tommy’s guitars as the hard-charging verses give way to that surprisingly hooky, swaggering chorus.
Later entry “Autopsy” is arguably Martha‘s most metallic moment, with a doomy riff that Niemeyer can’t quite keep from pushing, before Collins and Chewy jump in and the whole of it jumps back to Ludicrous Speed. (The likes of Candlemass would’ve loved that opening riff… though they’d have played it at half speed, if not slower, and thickened up the raw-nerve guitar tone by a good margin.) By the time “Martha’s Revenge” brings the album to a close, thirteen songs have flown by in a half-hour’s time. Many of those are just blurs upon first exposure, but like the best grindcore and crossover albums to come, the wonders of Martha Splatterhead reveal themselves over multiple listens: Riffs coagulate into songs; Cook’s manic yelps form something not entirely unlike melodies, or at the very least, hooks; Collins and Chewy’s energy settles into a sloppy, irresistible groove.
Released on Subcore before Combat picked up the band, eventually a later issue of The Return Of Martha Splatterhead would become the first album ever for a British upstart label called Earache (catalog number MOSH1). That version came with different cover art, more akin to the rough-edged sketch that adorned the Subcore release. (Maybe the Combat art was too cartoony, too metal, not punk enough, whatever — it’s certainly more intriguing than the yellow-haired, tongue-spitting image you see above, says the inner thirteen-year-old captivated by it in that used record store aisle nearly thirty years ago.)
The Return Of Martha Splatterhead has been in and out of print for its thirty-two years of existence — I still have that tape I bought back then, even long after I gave up on cassettes on the whole, and I was lucky enough to score a copy of the 2010 CD issue on Unrest (which restores my preferred artwork, thankfully). It’s not as difficult to find a physical copy of ol’ Martha as once it was (lucky you — I waited twenty years), so grab one while you can. It’s more fun than an open casket funeral…