Merciless Death - The More Things Rage...

By Dr. Abner Mality

In the Good Doctor's humble opinion, the leader of the surging wave of New American Thrash Metal is California's Merciless Death. Of all the bands trying their hand at this speed-obsessed genre, Merciless Death most sounds like they want to kill you...and laugh while they're doing it. They possess a visceral savagery and intangible quality that identifies them as more than just revivalists...they are a band that is as fully qualified to lead the thrash movement as a Slayer, Exodus or Kreator.

Upon hearing their first full length "Evil In the Night", I was utterly blown away by their sincerity and raw fury. Was it a fluke...or would the dreaded sophomore slump strike the Merciless One's dead? Would it, hell! Second record "Realm of Terror" surpasses the debut in every way...and establishes these guys as unquestioned masters of the new thrash domain.

I recently hooked up with guitarist Dan Holder and we had a fine old time talking about thrash old and new, what makes a band true thrash and what will happen to the whole neo-thrash scene. Strap on your crash helmets as we race towards the sound barrier...

WORMWOOD CHRONICLES: You guys weren't around for the original thrash metal explosion. How did you guys wind up getting bitten by the thrash bug instead of becoming an emo or metalcore band?

DAN HOLDER: I think for us, when we were growing up, metalcore was what was really popular. We just weren't into it...I just thought it really sucked. I had already been listening to Slayer and Venom and that stuff is just way fuckin' better, you know. Me and Andy were just way more into that, so we started looking back into that time period for more obscure records that were released. A lot of good albums came out during that period...we wound up finding a lot of good bands that released killer albums that stand up better than a lot of shit today.

WC: And you don't have to worry about wearing a lame side-swipe haircut...

DH: (laughs) Yeah, really!

WC: Was there one band in particular that kind of inspired you the most?

DH: I think early Slayer was a huge influence on me. When we were first forming this band, I was really into "Hell Awaits" and "Haunting the Chapel". I loved the sound they got on those records, I loved everything they were doing around that time. Possessed was another big one for me, with their evil, Satanic vibe.

WC: Yeah, those were the two that impressed me the most. I think Slayer's "Chemical Warfare" was maybe their greatest song...

DH: Oh hell, yeah! That was a badass fuckin' song...that whole "Haunting the Chapel" EP was unreal.

WC: That and "Seven Churches" by Possessed ruled...

DH: Yeah, that was about as heavy as it could get in 1985!

WC: Metal back then wasn't as easily broken down into subgenres like it is today. Death metal, black metal, thrash all kind of merged together.

DH: Definitely. Anything extreme could be put in those categories...

WC: Is there any obscure band from back then that you feel hasn't gotten their due?

DH: Infernal Majesty! I fuckin' love "None Shall Defy"'s an amazing album. Those guys really knew how to play. They did their death metal albums years later, but it's too bad that they didn't get to do a proper follow-up to "None Shall Defy".

WC: I definitely remember those guys. There was a band from Belgium called Cyclone...

DH: Oh yeah! They did "Brutal Destruction"...they're fuckin' heavy!

WC: Another band that doesn't get as many props as they deserve is Whiplash. People don't seem to remember them that much these days...

DH: And they had a pretty original sound.

WC: They weren't a Slayer clone or a Metallica clone.

DH: They had their own thing going on.

WC: Have you ever had a chance to meet any of your thrash heroes and inspirations?

DH: I've gotten the chance to meet the guys from Tankard, which was cool. I've met the guys from At War...we played with them. We met Overkill a long time ago, but they were dicks anyway but we were never super big into them and that just kind of reaffirmed it for us.

WC: That's disappointing to hear, because they're one of my favorites. I've actually talked to Blitz twice for my zine...

DH: He was the one guy who was cool to us...

WC: He's a very funny guy. The rest I couldn't say. I still like their records. When I grew up, I was huge into Kiss, but Gene Simmons wound up as the biggest dick on the planet! (laughter)

DH: Anything he can get money out of, he'll do it!

WC: What band would you most like to run into?

DH: It would be cool to meet Cronos from Venom. And it would be really cool to meet King Diamond.

WC: I used to go to Milwaukee Metalfest when it was really an event and I briefly ran into both of those guys. King is one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. Cronos seems pretty scary, but once he knows you're into his band, he lightens up a lot. What got me is that those guys were all built like wrestlers!

DH: (laughs) Just like back in the day!

WC: Maybe a little less hair. (laughter). Right now, the thrash scene in California is really intense. Do the bands work together or is there rivalry between them?

DH: There are some rivalries, but the rivalries are based on knowledge of the scene. There are a bunch of underground bands like us, Executer, Tyrant, Sakrificer, who are really into the obscure kind of thrash. All of those bands and their fans unite against the bands that claim to be thrash but just listen to Metallica and Megadeth. It's cool to see. The bands that we play with all the time are bad-ass and are into all the stuff we're into. There's more passion to them. We're more into the music.

WC: They're more into the history and tradition of thrash...

DH: Definitely! They're not afraid to check out some bands that didn't do much more than an album or two.

WC: You've been known to crusade against what you consider "false thrash". Any names you want to bring up in connection with that?

DH: Well, there's one band called Rattlehead. We haven't dealt with them in a couple of years, but we used to have a rivalry with them. When we were first starting, they were calling themselves and we told them, dude, you don't even know what this shit is about! I can't think of many others now that I can pinpoint. But if you're gonna call yourself a thrash metal band, you should know what thrash metal really was. The scene already took place, you gotta learn about it.

WC: One thing I've noticed that the Latino fans are really important to the thrash scene out there. It's one of the best kept
secrets in music that a lot of them are into metal, not rap or Tejano music. How important are they to the scene out there?

DH: I can say that right now, they are hugely important to the thrash scene out here. It seems like at least 85% of the scene here is Latino. It's in LA, so you can expect that there will be a bigger proportion, but it's really cool to see that. There's some diversity in the scene...

WC: It's sprouting up all over. Chicago and Milwaukee area are starting to develop. Out east, Municipal Waste is a huge influence...

DH: They got more of a crossover influence, like D.R.I.

WC: Do you think the audience for this music is going to expand dramatically?

DH: I think it will, but I also think there's gonna be a lot of people who are just into it for a short time. But a good portion will wind up getting into other bands, so thrash will become part of their life, you know?

WC: I think there's some danger in this, because the worst thing that can happen to a form of music is for it to become trendy. We've had a progression from grunge rock to nu-metal, from nu-metal to metalcore and now many people say, thrash is the new metalcore. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not.

DH: Oh, totally, I know what you mean. A big problem is that the word "thrash" gets thrown around a lot, you know what I mean? A lot of bands use the word to describe their sound when they don't really have that sound. I think also for us that when we do a third record, I see we are getting a lot more exposure, so what it's making me say is that as long as we keep it as fast and heavy as possible without compromise, then so be it. As long as it can be called thrash and it is REAL thrash.

WC: One of the things that impressed me about "Realm of Terror" was that the production was improved in every way over "Evil In The Night" and yet it still sounded raw, it wasn't overproduced. That's hard to do! There's a certain edge to your band that I don't detect in a lot of the newer thrash bands, even the ones I like a lot. You seem more savage.

DH: Oh yeah, thank you! (chuckles)

WC: There's a more violent feeling to Merciless Death. Is that something that comes to you naturally or do you have to work at it?

DH: I can say that we come by it naturally. When I'm coming up with music, I know what I want it to sound like, I want it to be fast and heavy, but I don't push it. I'll have days where I come up with some riffs and say, that's enough for now. I'm not gonna force it, I can't get anything out of it right now...I'll come back a day or two later and work on it. We know what we like to listen to and we know what we want to sound like. We're into intense, fast metal.

WC: Are you the main musical architect? How does the songwriting work out?

DH: You could pretty much say that, yeah. I tend to do a lot of the writing, most of the musical writing and most of the lyrical writing. Right now, I've got some new songs I've got to show Andy. I'll write the riffs out and put together a song structure and show it to him and he'll say oh yeah, that seems cool! We'll learn it on bass and drums and once we have the music down, if I don't have any lyrics, I'll ask Andy to come up with some. That's what we did on "Realm of Terror"/ I wrote the lyrics for four or five of the tracks and he came up with the other five.

WC: You've gotten some tremendous artists to do the covers on your CDs. How did you hook up with Ed Repka and Andreas Marschall?

DH: Our label Heavy Artillery is run by Dave Amster and he has some good contacts. When we did the first CD, he came to us and said, do you want Ed Repka to do the cover? We were like, yeah, definitely! No question about it!

WC: That cover ranks with anything he did in the 80's!

DH: Right on! When I saw it, I was blown away, it definitely captured that kind of a feel. We were really happy with it. When it came to "Realm of Terror", they told us we could use Ed again but they also told us we could go with Andreas Marschall. We checked out some of his work and we thought he might be able to capture what we wanted to do even better. When we saw his art, we were blown away by the amount of detail in it.

WC: With both illustrations, you could tell there's a real story behind it, like something from an old EC comic book...

DH: There you go, yeah!

WC: On "Realm of Terror", even more than the first album, you seem to be dealing with some pretty evil subject matter. Do you consider yourself a Satanic band or are you just using that imagery to get a vibe?

DH: You could call us that, I guess. I'm not gonna say we are Satanists, because we're not, but I am definitely into more of the left hand path. Whenever I write lyrics, that's what I like to write about. Andy seems to be along the same kind of path. When it comes to this kind of music, we like the lyrics to be really "out there" and seriously demented. I prefer those lyrics over the more political and socially aware stuff.

WC: For black metal fans, Satanism is a way of life. I was wondering if you took it that far. It does sound a little bit deeper than just imagery.

DH: There's a little bit of truth to that and at the same time, not. When you see me in the band pictures, I've got a lot of inverted crosses on. That's part of my everyday life. I was raised a Catholic Christian until I was around 14 or 15 and since then, I've just been totally, totally against that. I'm not gonna go out and kill somebody or burn down a church, it's just my opinion. Maybe that separates me from the black metallers.

WC: That separates you from many of the newer thrash bands. A lot of them seem to write about nuclear war.

DH: Yeah, definitely! They are way more into the nuclear war subject. I'd agree for sure.

WC: How do you see both yourself and the whole new thrash scene evolving? Right now, a band can get by by sounding authentic but at a certain point, they are going to have start putting more of their own sound into the music.

DH: Honestly, I think it's going to go a few more years and then it will get oversaturated. I know it's gonna happen. When it comes to us, I know we at least have a couple of more records in us. It's just a matter of knowing when we hit the point where we know enough is enough, regardless of what's going on with the scene. If we can't write anything more or we don't have the same vibe, it's over. That's what's really important to us. We don't want to overstep it. That's the one advantage that the bands today have over bands back in the day...we have a history we can see. Take a look at Possessed...they ended it at the right time. Their last one was "Eyes of Horror" and it was really good. Other bands, you got to see them take it too far and do a more commercial type of release.

WC: There was a period around 93, 94 when almost every thrash band was doing a slower and more accessible style. (Examples would include Megadeth, Overkill, Kreator, Testament and, of course, Metallica...Thrashtorian Mality)

DH: Exactly! It was to the point where they were nothing like what they were back in the day.

WC: There was an Exodus album ("Force of Habit") that had horns on it. There was some good stuff on there, but a bunch of songs were totally not Exodus.

DH: With us, we want to make sure that the last one we put out is comparable to the first one and still have that same energy and feel that it should have.

WC: So far, so good...

DH: (chuckles) Thank you, man!

WC: Have you guys been on any extensive tours yet or have you stuck to the West Coast?

DH: We've been on a couple of tours so far. We just actually got back for a four week tour. We went up to Frisco and then Washington and Montana and down to Texas, so it was kinda like a Midwest and West Coast tour. It actually didn't go that great because it wasn't booked that well. But last year we did the "Evil Curse" tour and that was five weeks and we went around the whole country on that one. That went really well and we had good turn out at all the shows and good response from everybody.

WC: I would expect you would soon be at the point where you could head over to Europe.

DH: That would be really cool, actually. We did one show at the "Keep It True" festival over in Germany and that was really cool. We played the first day on that and we were one of the opening bands. It was pretty wild.

WC: I think Manilla Road played on that. I talked to Mark Shelton not long ago and he's one of the unsung heroes of the metal scene.

DH: Yeah! They were really good!

WC: I think the fans would go crazy for you guys in South America and Mexico.

DH: Actually, we're talking right now with a band called Strikemaster. They're cool dudes and we're talking with them about possibly going down in December for a couple of shows. That would be great if it goes through.

WC: What was the last CD or album you bought just because you wanted to check it out?

DH: Do old albums count?

WC: Yeah, sure!

DH: Well, I haven''t actually bought anything in the last couple of months, but when we were in Europe, I was able to pick up a couple of records...I got "Seven Churches" by Possessed on vinyl and also Morbid Angel's "Abominations of Desolation" and Iron Angel's "Hellish Crossfire". I love that record, it's awesome.

WC: Lots of good old German thrash...

DH: Hell yeah, tons of stuff from that period. Have you ever heard Violent Force?

WC: That's one of the few that even I haven't picked up yet.!

DH: Oh, you gotta check it out, it's fuckin' awesome. "Malevolent Assault of Tomorrow"...

WC: What was the last gig you went to just because you want to check out?

DH: (laughs) You know Sadistic Intent is doing the Possessed reunion with Jeff Bercerra? They played out here in March at the House of Blues and it was fuckin' awesome. Sadistic Intent played, then they did the Possessed gig and then they finished with Book of Black Earth, so it was a really sick show. Other than that, I check out a lot of the local shows in the scene.

WC: Has there even been a Spinal Tap moment in the history of Merciless Death that you might want to share with the readers?

DH: We've had our share of bad experiences, I guess you could say. Stuff like the van breaking down. When we played Germany and I plugged into my amps, they didn't quite have the overdrive I thought they were going to have. I started playing and looked at the sound guy. Dude, is this the clean channel or is this it? He messed with it and said, that's it, that's the clean channel, that's as distorted as it's gonna get. We looked at each other and I said, Holy shit, I can't believe this is how we've got to play. We had to play the whole set with this dry distortion and it sucked, but we did our thing, you know what I mean?

WC: Well, you live and learn...

DH: Yeah! Next time, they said I should just bring a pedal with me to every show just in case!!

Merciless Death's MySpace Site