Friday, July 2, 2010

At War - Ordered to Kill (1986)

John Rambo. First Blood. Chuck Norris. Delta Force. Such are the products of the 80s craving for warfare and bloodlust, huge action films with unforgettable firefights and dialogue, all conveniently and ironically to coincide with the end of the Cold War era. But where was the thrash equivalent? Well, it was actually quite common during the 80s to include some gas-masked or muscular, vested, grenadier with a bigger arsenal than most small nations, struggling against injustice before or after the bomb dropped. Virginia's long lost and now found thrash cult At War represent a little less foolery in their brand of war metal, and a more honest, if underwritten depiction of violence and other topics, like the horrors of rape or experimentation at the lethal and lovely hands of a female S.S. officer...

Ordered to Kill was the trio's first entry into the arena, and like so many other New Renaissance Records releases of its time, it brings back fond memories. Who were these three men strapped with machine guns and camo emerging from this North American logo beneath one of the more distinct, if simple logos and military title font? They were Paul Arnold, Shawn Helsel, and Dave Stone and they were about to deliver one of the more blunt and hammering sounds of East Coast thrash metal. The writing on this debut is hardly perfect, and the band's second effort would be a step up in quality, but it's still decent enough if you like the crude sounds of a band like early Slayer, Hallows Eve, Sacred Reich or even Maryland's obscure Indestroy, who were on the same record label.

The title tracks opens with a few capable artillery rounds of smooth, rugged riffing, Paul Arnold's voice sounding quite like Tom Araya's lower end capacity in the 80s, without the swerves into a middle range or the bloodshot screaming. The solo is quick and forgettable, the entire experience rather cheap, but who cares? This was the 80s and you were banging your head, because you spent the $6-10 on the cassette or LP. "Dawn of Death" is mildly faster, but a little messier as it shifts from the momentum riffing to the war drum breakdowns. "Capitulation" is one of the weaker pieces on the record, with the song title being bludgeoned to death in the chorus to the loss of all affectations. Next we break into the Motörhead section of the record, beginning with the original "Rapechase" with its rolling punk-fueled aggression, and followed by an actual cover of "The Hammer" from Lemmy and friends. Both of these are actually pretty good, and one wonders if the band had followed their influence more closely for the entire album, if it might have made more of an impact.

But the final tracks return to the straight thrash sound, with some dirty, spent round casing riffs in "Mortally Wounded". I'm not a fan of the vocal breaks in this song, they get a little dull and again, the rather poor writing steals the potential power of the track. "Ilsa (She Wolf of the S.S.") opens with a Hitler sampler, not unexpected, and breaks out some of the finer musical moments on the album, with some deadpan thrashing rhythms and an excellent chorus which burns with a little of that Lemmy NWOBHM flame. Unfortunately, the finale "Eat Lead" is simply not that tolerable, with a mix of basal thrash 101 riffs and rather sloppy lyrical presentation. I don't mind the brief melodic guitar riding between the verses, but the rest is pretty dull.

At War were certainly not firing complete blanks on this debut, and I do find the raw production of the record endearing to this day, but the actual composition was somewhat lacking. If you're looking for a sound similar to Motörhead or Tank, updated for the new era of harsh, warlike thrash guitars that were exploding in the 80s, then this album might have some value to you. Otherwise, this was clearly left in the dust by Master of Puppets, Peace Sells..., Reign in Blood and many other albums of its day. The Virginians received their orders to kill, but this first mission was not a success, and casualties were high.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]
(tyrants, take heed)

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