Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Master Fury - Circles of Hell (2013)

Reason #116 that small/independent label compilations of underground bands are infinitely superior than larger label collections/anthologies of 'made' bands: because they actually give a shit. And because THEY give a shit, YOU'LL give a shit. Generally when I receive discs like Circles of Hell, be they reissued discographies or demo/rarity gatherings, I make a beeline for the liner notes to read up on the band's history, and in this case, was treated to a great anecdote of the Contaminated Tones label owner, who originally encountered a Master Fury cassette in an old, dusty shoebox and fell in love with it; inevitably inspiring him to get in touch with the former New Jersey trio and discuss a re-release of both their albums. How do you not smile at that? As someone who, when old enough to finally drive, used to head out with friends to comb the used record shops in Boston with his paper route money for whatever metal and hardcore obscurities he could find, how do I not choke up on nostalgia?

Now, granted, none of that rummaging turned up any Master Fury material for me to enjoy, so I'll admit that, apart from seeing the band's name in a list or two, or possibly hearing a video on YouTube in recent years when I was researching deep underground thrash for any unknown gems I might add to my lists, I had no substantial exposure to this ex-Jersey trio. But I'm glad that has changed, because both of their albums are every bit as energetic, earnest, entertaining, and innocent as you'd expect of a hopeful speed/thrash outfit in a time when the stuff was exploding in the mid to late 80s. Okay, perhaps 'innocent' is a bad adjective for something so innocent and face-shredding as Master Fury's songwriting, but there's a peculiar, particular response I've always had to metal like this. Fast, relentless guitars playing with an intensity that made them seem like they were racing against the studio engineer's work shift before the power went out for the night; frenetic lead bursts being thrown to the wind; rampant, angry drumming with spurts of proto-extreme metal technique; and maniacal, over the top vocal charisma. Yes, that same reaction I had to Kill 'Em All or Show No Mercy when I were but a fingerling. Or Sentence of Death. Bonded by Blood. Reign in Blood. Metal Inquistion. Pleasure to Kill. Finished With the Dogs; hell, even Witchery's "The Reaper" much later.

Say what you will about the budget production values, or the lack of total innovation here: Master Fury manifests that same ardent aesthetic...in spades, at least a dozen times across these two collected works. Thus it would be impossible for someone of my background to not begin thrashing around like a gremlin dunked in a public swimming pool after midnight. Circles of Hell definitely draws some comparisons to Whiplash, another Jersey trio, who performed with a similar brake-for-nothing abandon, interspersed with fits of flashy musicality that seemed to hint at 'contender' status against the West Coast and German scenes in dominance by the end of the 80s. But really, apart from their similar love of acceleration and uncouth, rabid vocals, the two groups do not entirely overlap. Master Fury definitely has a lighter sense of humor at times, even unintentionally, like the bridge of "Time is Right" where Queen-like anthem leads tear out over a volley of hyper punk rhythm guitars, or "Riot", which starts out with a speed metal spy aesthetic reminiscent of Wrathchild America, but trust me: they're still extremely aggressive.

Hell Party (1988). Definitely the rougher of the two recordings, possibly due to the transfer, I read that this had some limited involvement from Rich Harter (of Harter Attack, another lost Jersey thrash act). This shit hits like a barrage of old Metallica meets Whiplash/Nuclear Assault, with meticulous rhythm guitars that are often adorned with the frivolous leads I mentioned above. The boxcutter guitar rhythm tone is by far the most powerful element, but the bass and drums pop through, and the vocals, which feel like an ungodly East Coast alternative to the late Keith Deen (Holy Terror), retch and bark like a crate of salacious imps just imported from some preschool in Hell. In what might be seen as an 80s thrash tradition (at least in some circles), this album opens with an instrumental, which to be honest would have been even better with vocals, but quickly sets the pace for most of the material here. And that might be one of my only real issues, that you don't get a great deal of variation in the songwriting. They blaze, and blaze some more, with only a few points like "Riot" where it mildly changed up. On the other hand, the songs are concise and engaging, you never really get bored, only exhausted, and ultimately the speed metal excess here is pure spectacle.

Circles of Hate (1989). The more mature, gestated of the pair. While I won't say that I enjoyed it more than its predecessor, I appreciate that they varied up the material, with slower riffs churning off against the inevitable blitzkriegs of dexterity. I felt that the lead harmonies in tunes like "Die In Your Sleep" and "Son of Man" were catchier and better plotted than the first record. The vocals are still quite nasty, but at times he has dialed down the feral edge so that you can better understand what he's saying. The riff selection is more surgical, but I do have to admit, ironically, now that they've got a few slower progressions in there, I found those to be among the least interesting on both the albums (with the exception of "The Way", which had a great, airy, eerie breakdown melody comparable to something like Excel). At any rate, Circles of Hate clearly was a step ahead in terms of ambition and refinement, which made sense at a time when a lot of similar bands were also coming into their own. The musicianship is better, the lyrics and themes just as relevant as anyone else out there, and its the sort of record, that, had there been less saturation of the style by the end of the 80s, might have made some greater waves in the underground press.

Alas, Master Fury did not prove to be the next Megadeth- or Testament-in-waiting, but in today's climate of rethrash hysteria and the genuine nostalgia and reconnection of the 30 and 40-something audience, I think there's a great chance more people would appreciate the band. Militant aggression (partly due to Digg Rouze's stint in the service prior to the albums), street savvy, striking musicianship, and an utter lack of compromise; just as radioactive as anything else to emerge from the Garden State. Fans of Whiplash, Holy Terror, (early) Kreator, Sadus, Dark Angel, Razor, Zoetrope, Tankard and Sodom are genetically wired to enjoy efforts like these, so I would not hesitate for a moment to recommend checking out the collection. The production is hardly cutting edge, and perhaps the riffs and choruses weren't half so memorable as many of the other acts coming out in that Golden Age of the genre, but regardless they feel crisp, fresh, timeless, and authentic, which is more than I can say for a lot of the retro peddlers. Circles of Hell is a great value, getting it all in one place like this, because there's not much of a chance the rest of us will be finding it in a shoebox of tapes at the local Salvation's Army...though you never know what the hell else is out there. Start digging. And let me know what you find.

Verdict: Win [8/10]


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