[2 December 2004]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Death Angel should have been huge. Along with Testament, the San Francisco band emerged from the thriving Bay Area thrash metal scene in the late ‘80s, following the lead of local heroes Metallica and Exodus. By the time their debut album was released in 1987, the subgenre was peaking in popularity, and although The Ultra-Violence was little more than basic, run-of-the-mill thrash, the band attracted a cult following. If you were a metal aficionado in the late ‘80s, you knew about Death Angel. Why? Well, not only were they a talented bunch, but they were all of Filipino descent. And they were all cousins. Oh, and they were only in their teens, the youngest being a 14-year-old drummer who played with more muscle than many drummers twice his age. With a drummer like that, a lead guitarist who could shred solos with the best of them, and a lead vocalist who boasted a strong melodic range, they were impossible to hate.
After 1988’s Frolic Through the Park, which polarized fans with its daring stylistic adventures (who could ever forget the fun single, “Bored”?), Death Angel seemed to find their niche, as the 1990 album Act III was brutally powerful (boasting terrific production from Max Norman), possessing plenty of dexterous thrash arrangements. The big time beckoned, as the band was invited to open on the 1991 Battle of the Titans tour, featuring three of the great “Big Four” of American metal at the time: Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax. Sadly, the band’s career would be halted, achingly close to their big break, as their tour bus was involved in an horrific crash in Arizona. Drummer Andy Galeon was the most severely injured, and ultimately required a full year of rehabilitation just to get back into performing shape. However, due to mismanagement and in-fighting, singer Mark Osgueda parted ways with his cousins, and Death Angel was relegated to being little more than the answer to a metal trivia question, quickly becoming a distant memory to metal fans as the 90s wore on.
In the 14 years since Death Angel’s tragic dissolution, heavy metal has endured, but is a much more complex and challenging genre than it was in 1991, as bands have taken it to its farthest extremes, be it lunkheaded (Limp Bizkit), satanic (Dimmu Borgir), or virtuosic (Meshuggah). So much has gone on during that time, that it’s easy to understand how one could forget completely about classic thrash metal, let alone Death Angel. So imagine the utter surprise among veteran metal fans when the band came back in 2004 with their long, long, long-awaited fourth album, The Art of Dying.
It’s as if the band has emerged after a 14-year hibernation, because t The Art of Dying sounds like the entire last decade and a half has never happened. For thirtysomething ex-headbangers who cynically lament the lack of “old school” heavy metal in today’s scene, who bitterly complain about extreme “cookie monster” vocals and pathetic, anti-social lyrical content, well, this album is guaranteed to please each and every one of them. In fact, the sheer quality of this album is shocking, and what makes it even more encouraging is that the members of Death Angel are still only in their early 30s.
“Here comes the pack/ready to attack/Blood in their eyes/No compromise!” sings Osgueda on the blazing opening track “Thrown to the Wolves”, the seemingly corny subject matter coming off as a declaration of the band’s own mission statement. Virtuosic lead guitarist Rob Cavestany and rhythm guitarist Ted Aguilar tear away with tight, melodic staccato riffs, faithful to the classic thrash sound, with both Galeon and bassist Dennis Pepa forming a superb rhythm section, handling the various time signature changes with ease. It’s Osgueda, though, who is the most improved band member; back in the 80s, his voice, while strong, had a youthful, almost androgynous quality to it that came off as a somewhat awkward fit with this kind of music, but today, his voice has aged nicely, as the range is still there, but a hint of a weathered, world-weary quality is present in his singing. In other words, a perfect combination.
The album, for the most part, is exceptional. “5 Steps of Freedom” evokes the best moments from their Bay Area brethren Testament, with its catchy, shout-along chorus, while “Thicker Than Blood” is purely an exercise in all-out speed, with Osgueda leading the charge, delivering a tribute to he and his cousins’ fortitude: “Cant you see that it’s not labor it’s love/Thicker than blood.” Osgueda shines on moodier numbers like “Famine” and “The Devil Incarnate”, while Cavestany’s jaw-dropping guitar talent steals the show on “Prophecy” and the stunning closing track “Word to the Wise”, which he sings on as well.
The Art of Dying hits a minor bump during its latter half, as Galeon and Pepa take over the lead vocal chores (on “Spirit” and the clunky Bad Religion homage “Land of Blood”, respectively), but while the pair do an admirable job on both tracks, the band is better off with Osgueda at the helm. That said, the album is an absolute pleasure, a welcome return for a group of much-missed prodigal sons. That they’ve returned after being gone so long is enough, but the fact that they’ve released such a strong album, completing one of the most astonishing comebacks in recent metal history, makes this one a real treat. Don’t ever leave us again, boys.