Friday, July 6, 2018

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Contract In Blood

Christopher Owens reviews a book by musician and writer, Ian Glasper.

The best books about music are the ones that are so absorbing, it doesn't matter if you like the music or not. And the best authors are the ones who focus just as much on the unloved ones as much as the classic bands.
A scribe for metal magazine Terrorizer since forever, Ian Glasper is what we would call a lifer. Being immersed in punk since 1980, he has played in numerous bands and feels compelled to catalogue the various scenes for posterity. For this, we are truly grateful.

His previous books have focused on the UK punk scene in all it's guises (UK82, anarcho/crust, hardcore, metalcore, pop punk, melodic hardcore) so it makes sense for him to turn his focus to the UK thrash scene from its beginnings in the early 80's, to the present day, where younger bands pick up the baton and spread the music far and wide.

What's always been infectious about Glasper's tomes is that he gives just as much space to the lesser known bands as he does to the big hitters (i.e. the ones you've come to read about) and their tales are just as compelling. Quite often, it can just be about the environment that they come from. Reading about the likes of Richard III (from Co. Cavan) act as a reminder just what a conservative, backward looking hellhole this country was in the early 90's, culturally speaking.

Or Lord Crucifier, originally from Rome but who ended up settling in Halifax, Yorkshire because Rome had nothing to offer them.

Of equal interest are the tales of tension between the thrashers and the hardcore punks, always fascinating to read. Although, to most, thrash metal and hardcore punk sound similar, both cultures come with their own set of rules and influences. And sometimes, crossing over isn't good for a band's health (one of the first "crossover" bands, English Dogs, were universally sneered at by punks when they turned metal).

And it's rather telling that, for me, the most creative records of that era were put out by bands with backgrounds in hardcore punk (English Dogs, Warfare, Hellbastard, Sacrilege).

And this is a crucial point because it's important to remember that, at the time, Britain had little credibility in the thrash scene, which was dominated by the Americans (Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth) and the Germans (Kreator, Sodom, Destruction) with Swiss pioneers Celtic Frost dropping jaws around the world for their twisted, evil and avant-garde approach to the genre.

Although Britain helped create the genre with Venom (who are now mainly synonymous with black metal), the biggest bands it could boast of were Onslaught, Slammer and Sabbat, with bands like Acid Reign and Xentrix retaining a sizeable national following but never translated into anything worldwide.

Throughout, Glasper queries why the UK never garnered sufficient credibility. Although the answers vary, the cold truth is that if you put any record by those bands up against the likes of Reign in Blood, Morbid Tales or Pleasure to Kill, you will see that they are worlds apart. And that's just in terms of extremity. Put the same records up against bona fide metal classics like Master of Puppets, Peace Sells...But Who's Buying and Among the Living, albums that are hailed by mainstream critics and music fans as the epitome of heavy metal and the British ones just don't stand up.

To be fair, Britain were pushing the boundaries when it came to hardcore punk, giving us Extreme Noise Terror, Napalm Death, Sore Throat and giving birth to the genre that we now call grindcore. And gothic metal (coming out of bands like Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride) was also on the ascendency in this period. 

So, by contrast, the UK thrash acts couldn't help but come across as also-rans. But the ones with some punk in their system could end up creating something that stands above most of their peers.

However, leaving aside tribal allegiances,, Glasper has to be saluted for his efforts. He takes a genre that has long been written off for the reasons listed above and shows it sufficient respect for readers unfamiliar with the bands to take an interest in the recordings. It's the human touch, the dreamers who felt they were just as good as the big boys. They're the ones who keep going regardless of trends, and the ones who talk about their time with pride and affection.

Contract in Blood is a celebration of an area of underground music and a great jumping off point for readers who now want to check out Slammer or Evil Priest.

Ian Glasper Contract in Blood: A History of UK Thrash Metal 2018 Cherry Red Publishing ISBN-13: 978-1909454675

➽ Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212