Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Death SS - Black Mass (1989)

Black Mass is probably one of those albums you remember just as much for its cover as for the actual musical content. I mean, seriously, that's pretty fucking haunting. Has Jesus ever looked any cooler than this? The eyes, man. The eyes. At any rate, the record is also notable for attempting to incorporate a pretty broad range of elements into a pure heavy metal package. Though Steve Sylvester's primary vehicle Death SS never quite brought him the success of a King Diamond or Lizzy Borden, which had a similar theatrical, horror-rooted flair to their image, he still spun some heads in Europe and has enjoyed over 30 years of cult status among fans in Italy and beyond.

It's not a stretch to discern that Death SS is heavily based in the shock rock aesthetics that were pioneered by KISS and Alice Cooper, even down to Sylvester's sniveling, constipated vocals which recollect Coopers' heavier rock works in the 70s and 80s. At times, I honestly found Steve (aka Stefano Silvestri) to be a bit distracting, since his accent and delivery combine for an atmosphere that feels more like the family cat hunting down crumbs of kibble more than some strapping metal maniac, but even his voices mixes and matches with the tunes, often blending in with the backing vocals or attempting a cleaner, sultry mid-range. There are a few points at which he's even pitch-shifted down to provide a sort of horror narrative in tracks like "Welcome to My Hell", but this feels just about as corny as his scrunched nasal bite in "Kings of Evil" or "Cursed Mama".

As for the music, it's quite solid traditional/speed metal which at times reminds one of Germans like Accept, Rage or even a less blindingly melodic late 80s Helloween. Black Mass is pretty well produced for its time, with clean tones in both the rhythm and lead guitars, the latter of which feel a bit too soaring or bluesy to really capitalize on the dark themes in the lyrics or cover art, but then, this was in an era where cheap horror flicks like "Black Roses" or "Trick or Treat" where just the act of having a heavy metal band in the score was considered 'edgy' or dark. Not that Black Mass is a soundtrack to anything other than what's in the band's minds, but I'd compare them to a band like Detroit's Halloween whose lyrics alone were supposed to channel the creepiness more than the rather major keyed, straightforward musical output. Death SS were a lot more unique though, using acoustic/ballad segments, organs, proggy synthesizers and even saxophones to flesh out their fairly stock array of rhythm guitars.

This is not the best material in the Death SS repertoire, as the following album Heavy Demons upped the ante on the metallic elements, and the preceding Evil Metal EP had better songs than any of these, but it's definitely reaching for a wider appeal than most of their pre-industrial metal era. The lyrics, while not complex, are more thoughtful than one might expect for a horror based record, but I do rather wish there were a more central, consistent concept running through the entirely of its runtime. The music is just good enough to stand on the threshold of the memory, and certainly there were scores of better bands in the genre pouring out of Europe in the late 80s that made this sound like child's play, but if you're into the shock theatrics and not so easily dismissive of Sylvester's pinched vocals, it might be worth a spin.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (pray the Devil with force and faith)

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