[Artwork by Adrian Stubican]
Shuffling forward on the D.A. timeline, the thought of a sophomore slump hitting a band with such a high scorch factor was inconceivable, and 1988’s Frolic Through the Park didn’t exactly disappoint, but it did feel strangely disoriented and conflicting—as if each of its experimental appendages that scouted funk, punk, and hard rock were at odds with the band’s foundation and intended to pull the record apart at the seams. It still worked, mostly, but in retrospect, Frolic Through the Park depicted a young band in the throes of metamorphosis, and it wasn’t until their third venture two years later, Act III, that the transmutation fully culminated into an absolute powerhouse that coulda shoulda woulda vaulted Death Angel to the head of the class right alongside the Bay Area Big Four.
Life has a funny (de facto: not funny at all) way of throwing ruinous curve balls, though. During the subsequent tour immediately following the release of Act III, Death Angel incurred a major bus accident that literally shattered young drummer Andy Galeon to the point where more than a year was required for a full recovery. Needless to say, the experience shook the “connected through blood” band to the core, and because they refused to quickly hire a replacement for Galeon in an effort to salvage the extensive tour funded by Geffen, Death Angel was dropped by the label. Following that, the remaining members parted ways, and an extraordinarily bright chapter in thrash’s storied history came to a very abrupt, extremely unfortunate (albeit impermanent) end.
So, what makes a record like Act III so remarkable, and how did a band with such a grisly moniker and song titles like “Evil Priest” and “Mind Rape” ever catch the ear of a major label that also released records from Tesla, the Eagles, and Edie Brickell & New Bohemians? A beautiful and extraordinary combination of “time and place,” youthful grit, and exceedingly steep talent.
By 1990, thrash was at its softest and in the midst of a marked downswing in the wake of death metal’s usurpation of the extremity throne, and a number of metal fans were widening their nets to explore and capture peripheral trends that investigated heaviness through industrial, grunge, and funk, and often under a mind-numbingly pedantic umbrella term called “alternative metal.” Headgiver’s Ball was still mildly interested in delivering visuals, even if most of us still watching did so through gnashed teeth due to its clear lack of contrast and depth, and video crossovers between it and 120 Minutes became increasingly common as bands such as Nine Inch Nails and Ministry encouraged cross-fertilization through dark energy and bleak distortion. Grunge and funk were the loudest invaders into metal—particularly the former—and it wasn’t at all rare for the same people who bought Slowly We Rot, Realm of Chaos, and Altars of Madness to also dip into records from Soundgarden, Fishbone, Janes Addiction, Living Colour, Faith No More, and brand new acts such as Alice In Chains, TAD, and Helmet. In essence, the lines were getting fuzzier.
For their part, Death Angel had already proven they had serious chops and were willing players in the experimentation game, and Geffen Records was on the hunt for a thrashy golden goose after watching rivals at Elektra, Capitol, Def Jam, Atlantic, and Island reap the reward$ of signing the likes of Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Overkill, Testament, and Anthrax. The label bought out Death Angel’s contract with Restless Records / Enigma and assigned A&R guru Tom Zutaut (also responsible for signing Guns N’ Roses) and veteran producer Max Norman (Ozzy Osbourne, Fates Warning, Megadeth, Loudness) to the task of guiding the young quintet into their major label debut.
It is a rational assumption that the more marketable, polished Death Angel sound from 1990 that expanded on the supplementary funk and rock elements throughout Act III were the direct result of Geffen’s, um, requests, but subsequent interviews with the band in the years that followed revealed the truth that the direction and merger were simply exceedingly well-timed. Death Angel was young, poised, and hungry for the bigger stage, and whether or not they were influenced by the burgeoning alternative metal scene and outlier records such as The Real Thing, Truth and Soul, and Vivid, or if they simply went there as a natural progression from Frolic Through the Park, it all mattered less than the end result: a new record that delivered a fittingly hip and adventurous form of modern thrash that still managed to preserve the flammable core that first caught a young Kirk Hammett’s ear when he decided to produce their second demo, Kill As One, back in 1985. Opening Act III with an explosive commencement like “Seemingly Endless Time” confirmed this reality:
The soft waves that unlock this otherwise fiery opener (cut a bit short in the above video) serve as a coincidental (?) reminder of the band’s Bay Area roots as much as they lull the listener into a false sense of calm before a classic thrash riff and Andy Galeon’s flailing toss you into the core of the song’s crucial strut. From there, “Seemingly Endless Time” skanks across the floor with pep and fire, and Mark Osequeda’s voice offers up an ideal balance between gravelly and smooth—something that wasn’t exactly rare (shared with, for instance, fellow Bay Area underdogs Forbidden and Russ Anderson), but he definitely was, and remains to this day, one of the more dynamic vocalists thrash ever put to the stage. Look no further for proof than the spotlight afforded him on one of two Act III ballads, “Veil of Deception.”
Osequeda clearly sounds great as the focus here—a perfect accompaniment to the song’s dusty westernness—but “Veil of Deception” also showcases another less talked about Act III strength: heavy use of a unique style of background vocals that still summons the classic “gang style” thrash has often been noted for, but… modernized to fit the new Death Angel model. The album’s second ballad, “A Room with a View,” does similarly and even goes so far to show just how well guitarist (and principal songwriter) Rob Cavestany also manages the mic in its opening minutes.
The record also demonstrated a sheer knack for nailing the sort of dangerous middle ground between thrash and a more popular brand of hard rock / metal that—ahem—Metallica clearly stumbled with more than they didn’t in the 90s, and this was purely by virtue of Death Angel’s clever, captivating songwriting and flair for big, danceable / skankable hooks. Again, Rob Cavestany truly came loaded for bear in 1990, and a song like “The Organization” cowritten with Galeon had fans of Death Angel suddenly associating words like “snappy, fun, and impossibly catchy” with the band.
The funk is what ultimately raised the most hackles, though. Or did it? There was certainly no shortage of metal purists none too pleased about joyfulness being injected into metal via groups like Anthrax, but the sheer amount of bands throwing their bucket hats into the hard rock / metal / funk-fusion ring in the early 90s made it clear that there were plenty of willing participants in the scene—outside of acts already mentioned, projects such as Primus, Mind Funk, 24-7 Spyz, Urban Dance Squad, Scatterbrain, Infectious Grooves, and fellow Bay Area thrashers Mordred all brought a blend to the table that moved units off shelves. However, Death Angel clearly wasn’t a “funk metal” band, opting instead to simply incorporate funk elements in the same way they did hard rock, and the gamble paid off more for Act III compared to Frolic Through the Park simply because they’d become better songwriters in the two years that spanned the records. “Stagnant” was a great song that offered up a textbook definition on how to successfully merge the two worlds with all its wakka-chikka guitars being balanced out by some of the record’s heaviest riffs, but “Discontinued” blew the roof off the building.
Funky, modern (for the times), and bold, for certain, but the outsider elements were blended into the band’s thrashy, moodier face with such skill that even those generally opposed to the union couldn’t help but tap a foot and grin. And really, that just might be the most significant power behind Act III: A more suitable metal ambassador than Death Angel circa 1990 did not exist for ushering the genre into a modern age where thrashers and mopey grungesters and “alternative outcasts” might share a Walkman and a spliff. In that regard, they were the perfect bridge between newly arrived novices and seasoned vets alike.
The record covered a great deal of ground in its perfectly appropriate 45 minutes, and having Geffen behind the venture assured that Death Angel would not only get the exposure they deserved, but the production and overall sound necessary to emphasize their talent across the board. I would be remiss to not at least mention the fact that the flawless mastering job behind Act III was provided by none other than George Marino (R.I.P. 2012 / lung cancer), one of the true greats of the recording industry, and an individual likely responsible for mastering more than just a handful of your favorite records—everything from Dio’s Holy Diver to Death’s Symbolic to Enslaved’s Vertebrae.
What might have developed for Death Angel had that bus crash never occurred thirty years ago? You could ask a similar question of Metallica and any number of other bands and get the same answer: Who the hell knows, so there’s really not much point in fixating over the matter. It did, however, seem as if the artwork (Adrian Stubican’s only album cover, by the way) was some sort of mystical portent of things to come; a stage with what appeared to be a curtain opening to a brand new world turned out to be quite the opposite… At least for approximately fifteen years. But what a magnificent curtain call Act III turned out to be.
So many of us return to this record in the modern age because the exquisite nostalgia it conjures provides great comfort amidst exceedingly stressful times. But once we get here and the songs slowly begin to unfold for the umpteenth time, we quickly realize just how bulletproof Act III is from start to finish—a true diamond clearly worthy of celebration.