[Album artwork: Andreas Marschall]
Gelsenkirchen, Germany, early 1980s: A young Thomas Such finds himself not particularly taken with the notion of spending a perfectly good life buried in the depths of the local coal mines. Unfortunately for Thomas Such, this was precisely what people from that particular part of western Germany did 40 years ago, so off to the queue he eventually went as a mechanic’s apprentice.
Soon enough, however, in a notably benevolent act of kindness, heavy metal revealed a passage to an entirely different form of underground work. Following an unearthing and subsequent obsession with the early albums from Venom (responsible for the Sodom namesake—Welcome to Hell: side B, song 2), Tank and Slayer, Thomas Such opted to redirect his focus toward shambling into the more extreme side of heavy metal, and with that came the origin of the pseudonym “Angelripper,” the commencement of the entity that is Sodom, and, in due course, a living wage that has long since managed to outlast the very coal mines Tom Angelripper circumvented all those years ago.
The early years were predictably bumpier than a highway to Hell, both in terms of member stability and musical proficiency, but that somehow managed to solidify the band’s charm. Sodom was louder than anyone, drunker than everyone, and news of their explosiveness eventually found the ears of SPV / Steamhammer founder Manfred Schütz, who had this bit of magnificence to say regarding the young bombers: “This band is so shitty, it has to sell a lot of records.” Consequently, and against seemingly all odds, Sodom became the first of the Big Four of Teutonic Thrash (including Kreator, Destruction and Tankard) to sign a bonafide record deal.
The band’s early goal of creating cult records was fully realized with the release of the In the Sign of Evil EP in 1985 and Obsessed by Cruelty one year later—both regarded as hallmark abominations within the first wave of black metal—but it was unquestionably 1987’s Expurse of Sodomy 12” that marked a turning point for the band in terms of proficiency, vision and a clear confirmation that the suits behind the label had made a sound decision by investing in Sodom. The most notable development up to that point: guitarist Frank “Blackfire” Gosdzik stepped in to replace Michael “Destructor” Wulf, who chased Josef “Grave Violator” Dominik, who followed Frank “Aggressor” Terstegen, and with Blackfire came a fresh energy and workmanship that seemed poised for a bigger stage. What followed were two full-lengths widely considered to be Sodom’s best (with apologies to Tapping the Vein and M-16): the game-changing Persecution Mania in 1988, which introduced the band’s iconic mascot Knarrenheinz, and the monstrous kick to the chiclets that was 1989’s Agent Orange.
So, why opt for Agent Orange over the sophomore effort for this edition of D&R? Or Tapping the Vein? M-16? Sodom has been remarkably consistent throughout their career—more so than any of their early Teutonic peers, Kreator included (by just a skosh)—so they’re the sort of band that inspires fans to count favorites that often correspond to whichever release marked their entry point. However, it’s difficult to deny the significance of the following two factors regarding Agent Orange: 1) the record managed to sell over 100,000 copies in Germany alone (and is purported to have sold more than any other German thrash record ever), and 2) it reached #36 on the German album charts, a feat not even Metallica managed to accomplish up to that point.
It’s difficult to put that into perspective in the modern age, thanks to streamin’ ’n’ thievin’, but consider this juicy morsel dropped by our friend in heaviness, Tankcrimes Records, who has access to Billboard numbers:
Wow, this is the lowest I’ve ever seen. If your band would have sold just 377 copies of your album last week you’d have landed at #200 on the billboard sales chart.
— Tankcrimes (@tankcrimes) January 22, 2020
Sure, people in 1989 had no choice but to buy a physical copy if they wanted to hear an album, but we still had tape-trading and college radio shows at 2am that helped tip an album’s hand. The truth of the matter is that Sodom simply managed to hit a home run in a year that not only included thrash heavyweights from Kreator (Extreme Aggression), Coroner (No More Color), Dark Angel (Leave Scars), Overkill (The Years of Decay), Watchtower (Control and Resistance) and Sabbat UK (Dreamweaver), but also these leveling game-changers for those looking for the next level of extreme:
- Sepultura – Beneath the Remains [April 7th, 1989]
- Autopsy – Severed Survival [April 24th, 1989]
- Morbid Angel – Altars of Madness [May 12th, 1989]
- Repulsion – Horrified [May 29th, 1989]
- Obituary – Slowly We Rot [June 14th, 1989]
- Bolt Thrower – Realm of Chaos [October 28th, 1989]
- Carcass – Symphonies of Sickness [November 4th, 1989]
- Godflesh – Streetcleaner [November 13th, 1989]
- Terrorizer – World Downfall [November 13th, 1989]
Whether or not Agent Orange is qualitatively “better” than Persecution Mania, though, is something that will be argued until the Kühe come home. The simple truth is that Blackfire was a better guitarist in 1989 compared to 1987, so the leads on Agent Orange are stronger (still wonderfully raw, though) and the song writing is more intricate. Plus, producer extraordinaire Harris Johns absolutely nailed the heaviness, particularly with regard to Chris Witchhunter’s drums, so it was able to stand toe-to-toe with a lot of the more extreme albums suddenly coming down the chute. [Trivia side note: Johns was responsible for the satanic laugh in Helloween’s “Victim of Fate.”]
Agent Orange was also very different in terms of lyrical content. Metal was certainly no stranger to Vietnam War motifs, but to have such an aggressive thrash band take a peacenik’s approach was definitely unique. Further spicing the pot were subjects exploring everything from incest to biogenetics to animal cruelty. Bundle everything together and package it all behind the band’s first artwork from the amazing Andreas Marschall and you’ve got all the makings for one of the most intriguing thrash records of the 80s.
Sadly, the writing was already on the wall in the studio during the recording of Agent Orange, as Frank Blackfire continued to distance himself from Angelripper and Witchhammer for reasons that never really went beyond “different views.” Then, just three weeks before a headlining tour of Europe with Sepultura opening, Blackfire split to join Kreator for an extensive U.S. tour, leaving Sodom with the unenviable task of finding yet another new guitarist capable of learning everything in time for them to hit the stage. The story has a happy ending, though, as Angelripper and Blackfire have long since mended their differences, and the European tour was salvaged, thanks largely to the guitar chops of Uwe Baltrusch from Mekong Delta.
The saga of Sodom’s steadily swinging door with regard to membership could probably fill a book, but they always manage to find some high level sweet-spot when it comes time to record, perhaps none sweeter than Agent Orange. In short, it’s a damn-near perfect thrash album that’s extremely worthy of a Diamonds & Rust deep dive, so… Geronimo!
- “Agent Orange”
The boldness of coming straight from the gate with a title track is something I’ve always admired. Boom: here’s the heart of the beast; please sink your teeth right in. “Agent Orange” kicks off with the sort of bright, bold, mid-paced trot you’d expect to hear from Testament’s New Order, but then it splits off into a perfectly Teutonic blitz by the 1-minute mark that’s pushed by Witchhunter’s punky punch. Frank’s lead in the back half is the fire that absolutely 100% burns.
2. “Tired and Red”
Tough, raw and punishing for two minutes, then “Tired and Red” takes a very surprising turn into a despondent, acoustic stretch that leads directly into a freshly pleasant face that’s rife with melodic riffing and one of the happiest solos you’ll hear on a Sodom record. Sodom gone soft?? Nah, Angelripper still sounds like a lizard after mowing through three packs of Reds, and the song cycles back to punching your face into ribbons during its closing moments. WHEW!
“Oh, there’s a song called ‘Incest’ on this record. That must mean the band is in favor of incest. BEWARE, FELLOW PARENTS.” ~ Tipper Gore. (Probably.) That said, this is the song you might want to quickly turn down once you get to the grocery store parking lot to avoid submitting that sweet lil ol’ lady with kitty litter in her arms to Tom Angelripper howling “INCESSSSSST.” Or hey, maybe you’re one of those gonads who still thinks people will be afraid of you because of the music roaring from your car speakers, in which case… turn it up, person whose middle name is clearly “Danger.” Working in your favor: this song absolutely shreds from start to finish.
4. “Remember the Fallen”
My ears can’t hear too well, Bob—is this a mid-80s Helloween song after getting rolled over by an M60 Patton? Tom Angelripper sings! And no, that’s not the name of an album being sold via a 30 year-old commercial at 2am from Time-Life music. And yes, “singing” might be a bit of a stretch. But it works! “Remember the Fallen” sashays its way into your heart in a notably infectious fashion, and Angelripper, while certainly not posing any threats to Howard Jones, pulls off his version of crooning with panache.
5. “Magic Dragon”
In a world where people spend quiet afternoons on the veranda crushing cans of Karsquell and arguing over which song on Agent Orange is best, those who elect “Magic Dragon” will eventually be vaulted to an Eden that features trees that drop endless pairs of puffy high-tops like fresh apples straight from the limb. The rivers in this Utopia sparkle like acid-washed denim, and skanking is the primary mode of transportation. What’s that you hear on the wind? Is it the restless call of the Gelsenkirchen whip-poor-will: “CRUSH ‘EM… TO WIN THE WARRRRRRR!”
6. “Exhibition Bout”
On a personal note, apart from the band’s notable consistency, one of my favorite things to spotlight about Sodom is the fact they’ve twice stepped up to the plate to stand against animal cruelty (maybe more, if anyone would like to correct me)—once for whales with “Silence is Consent” (1994’s Get What You Deserve), and the other this particular rager that rails against bull fighting. “Exhibition Bout” spends half its time whipped into a beautiful frenzy, then it drops a nasty breakdown right around the midpoint just as “hate… hate… hate…” drips from Angleripper’s mic like crumbling flesh. It might seem strange to wedge a song such as this amidst a stack of war tunes, but it fits Sodom’s peacekeeper aesthetic perfectly.
It’s almost as if Sodom overheard someone saying, “These guys had too much fun with ‘Bombenhagel.’ Sodom shouldn’t be fun,” and subsequently decided to bomb the fuck out them with arguably the most fun thrash song ever written. What’s so masterful about “Ausgebombt” is the fact that it manages to be fun, Fun, FUN without being overly corny or stepping into “pizza thrash” territory. It’s basically the punk face of Sodom turned up to 11, but this time it’s pulled from the sort of design that could inspire someone to grab their old skateboard and sneakily drop into the empty pool next door. If the Descendents were to ever cover Sodom, and they should, this would be the joint. Side note: there are a number of soreheads out there who don’t like this song. AVOID THESE RASCALS.
8. “Baptism of Fire”
Thrash bands should always end an album on a fiery note. Pretty sure it was either Eisenhower or Edison who first said that, and I for one absolutely agree. As great and as fun as “Ausgebombt” is, Sodom made the smart choice to close the original version of Agent Orange with a true face-peeler that features Witchhunter’s heaviest and hardest hitting. If the drum kit in the studio survived “Baptism of Fire,” then it was only after a week spent in an ICU with all of its little drum family gathered at its side. The song also tromps out a deliciously skankable shift 30-seconds in and a suddenly solemn Blackfire lead that… sorta seems like it shouldn’t fit but does? Yes, it does. Go to hell, question mark. “Baptism of Fire” is the perfect conclusion to this explosive release.
9. “Don’t Walk Away” [Tank cover]
Hi, hello, we’re still here. ONE MORE SONG! ONE MORE SONG! ONE MORE SONG! SODOM! SODOM! SODOM! Remember that thing about Sodom being fun? Well, they decided to further rankle the panties of the underground elite who were upset with their punk rock antics by releasing a German version of “Ausgebombt” (seems natürlich, ja oder nein?) in September of 1989 that featured a cover of Tank’s delightful “Don’t Walk Away” on side B. And hey, what better way to tempt folks into a remastered version of Agent Orange than by offering up said B-side as the new closing track? As discussed several hundred lines above, Tank was one of the bands that first motivated Sodom, and this particular song is the sort of rocker you’d expect to hear cranking from an open door of a muggy UK pub in 1979 whilst smoking against a cold brick wall. Tom’s bass gets more of the spotlight in Sodom’s version, so it’s extra Lemmy-like and therefore wonderful.
Since we’ve made it this far together, here are two final requests to be tossed into the aether…
One: Oh, great gods of Teutonic Thunder, please grant the wallowing denizens of these United States the gift of a legitimate Sodom tour before it’s too late.
Two: Sodom has earned the right to have their material readily available at all times, yet it somehow remains challenging to track down albums for a decent price, particularly LP versions. Please fix this error in judgement, SPV.
So it shall be written, so it shall be done.
Chris “Witchhunter” Dudek: Sep 7, 2008
Michael “Destructor” Wulf: Jul 21, 1993
Dirk “Strahli” Strahlmeier: Jan 13, 2011