RELENTLESS- A Metallic Misadventure With Death Angel

By Mike Smith

Published on Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Journalist.

It’s quite a loaded word, full of Woodward-and-Bernstein prestige, and thus, often of arrogant self-importance. That’s why we heavy metal writers often balk at employing the word to describe ourselves, even as it passes our lips. After all, we’re not dodging death squads to interview psychotic dictators, hunkering down with weary troops in war-torn countries, or influencing elections with our snarky bestselling political exposes.

We’re providing support, often on our own time and wallets, to an underground industry whose bands desperately hawk merchandise on the road just to keep their jobs, let alone make the Billboard 200. Nobody’s better than anybody else. It’s a grassroots thing. “Professionalism” is a very flexible word in this business.

In other words, we attend concerts and get drunk.

The story I’m about to tell will hopefully provide some insight into just how outrageous and ridiculous heavy metal journalism can be – brimming with chaos, uncertainty, and thankless legwork, yet spiked with victories and moments of euphoria that somehow make it all worth it. The moments that make one truly proud to be a fan. Because after all, that’s the reason we do it.

DEATH ANGEL is one of the great comeback stories of the genre over the past decade. From 1987 through 1990, they recorded three studio albums and morphed from teenage after-school band into the curious little darlings of the San Francisco Bay Area thrash scene. METALLICA and TESTAMENT may have been writing the history books, but DEATH ANGEL was different. Quirky, eclectic fusions of funk, punk, and straightforward rock ‘n’ roll were absorbed into their brand of thrash metal, along with a welcome, playful sense of humor. Altogether, these elements formed a cohesive whole that set DEATH ANGEL apart as a unique entity – quite a difficult feat in metal. Try it sometime.

Then they vanished.

The details of their initial inability to garner mainstream success – and their subsequent breakup – have been adequately covered elsewhere, but suffice it to say that for over a decade, DEATH ANGEL seemed doomed to be swallowed up by history and forgotten by everyone except the most ardent thrash aficionados. Luckily for them – and for us – attitudes have changed. Metal has undergone a renaissance that would’ve seemed unthinkable during the dark insanity of the ’90s, when Fred Durst very nearly passed for a credible rock star. The unstoppable force of the Nuclear Blast label, operating in tandem on two continents, resuscitated this amazing band and brought us three more stellar albums from 2004 through 2010, with more to come. Despite various lineup changes, DEATH ANGEL’s core visionary duo – frontman Mark Osegueda and lead guitarist Rob Cavestany – remains intact on their latest (and possibly their best) offering, Relentless Retribution. And that’s where our story really begins.

It was Thursday, February 3rd, and I was all set to interview DEATH ANGEL on their headlining tour with LAZARUS A.D. and BONDED BY BLOOD. Although I’d previously been assured my name was on their guest list, that evidently didn’t happen until I personally phoned Stephen, their tour manager, the day prior. A minor oversight, no doubt, but a fine example of one of the eternal truths of metal journalism: never expect anyone to handle things for you. If you sense that you’ve slipped through the cracks in a whirlwind of label PR, busy band members, overworked tour managers, and asshole security, then you probably have. Sometimes sticking your neck out and wandering backstage is the simplest way to cut to the chase. More on that later.

I live in Burlington, Vermont. I didn’t grow up there, or anywhere near New England, but circumstances brought me there several years ago, and there I’ve stayed ever since. As for the local metal scene, it’s virtually nonexistent. Ditto for any significant underground fan base large enough to bring in most national touring acts. Sure, we host GWAR at least once a year, which people seem to flock to, and we were lucky enough to bring in SOULFLY and FEAR FACTORY in 2010, but quality metal shows in hippie-land are few and far between. As far as DEATH ANGEL is concerned, it was out of the question. So Nashua, New Hampshire would have to do.

Too much driving can wear you down, but I didn’t especially mind. I’m used to it. If nothing else, it gives me a chance to spin some great music in the car. This time, it was two live recordings – GAMMA RAY’s Hellyeah! The Awesome Foursome and DEATH ANGEL’s Sonic German Beatdown – and, of course, Relentless Retribution. The CD ended and restarted as I pulled into Nashua and down narrow High Street toward the venue, and I skipped forward to my favorite cut off the album, “Into The Arms Of Righteous Anger,” a grinding mid-tempo anthem of accusation. I shut off the stereo, however, when the blaze of the setting sun glared right through my road-salt-stained windshield and rendered me virtually blind. Limping forward on a wing and a prayer, I reached my destination just as the earth’s rotation spared my eyes from any more torture.

What first grabbed my attention upon parking across the street from The Amber Room was the utter lack of human beings. The front of the venue, which I’d expected to be crawling with early birds and concert devotees, was deserted. The only familiar sign of life was a tour bus, equipment trailer attached, parked alongside the building with engine running. Assuming the bus belonged to DEATH ANGEL, I decided to give Stephen a heads-up call – and find the nearest bar.

I tend to down a drink or two before an interview. Medicinal purposes, I assure you. I rarely write questions down. I go in with various topics (and the occasional specific question) in mind, but I think rattling off a huge list of prefabricated questions is a recipe for a boring C-SPAN interview. I don’t sit on a congressional committee; a metal interview needs to be approached like a conversation between friends. It needs life, enthusiasm, and spontaneity. Therefore, sometimes it needs alcohol. Just a little.

Over the course of a couple Scotches, I learned from Stephen that he’d be setting me up with either Rob or Mark – or possibly both. That was fine with me; either founding band member would do, as my basic question topics applied to them both. Stephen then told me he’d been having a “hassle” with the venue personnel, which to me was about as surprising as Communists in China. I told him I understood, and he told me to “hang tight” and wait for his return call soon. Being a reasonable human being living by a twenty-four-hour clock, I gathered “soon” to mean “in ten or fifteen minutes.”

Two hours later, I was standing in front of The Amber Room, shivering in the frigid evening air, gulping down frozen drags from the cigarette between my fingers, thinking. I’d managed to rendezvous with some friends and acquaintances living in the area, three of whom happened to be performing with local opening acts. What I hadn’t managed to accomplish was my interview. Not a word from Stephen since the bar, and I was getting a little antsy. At this point, simply knowing the interview time would’ve appeased me, which is why when my phone finally rang, my heart swelled as if I were receiving a call from a long-lost love. Sound a little pathetic? Well, it’s sadly true, and more common among my breed than you might think. Anyway, I answered, and was informed that I’d been set up with Rob Cavestany at 9:30. About an hour and a half away. Fine, I replied. That would allow me to enjoy the opening bands and take a little more time for some mental preparation.

The openers were all stellar. First to perform was DORIAN GRAY, a cadre of talented youngsters playing melodic progressive groove metal. Frontman Myke Havoc has described their sound as a combination of FEAR FACTORY and KAMELOT, which seemed pretty accurate, especially in a live setting. They recently finished work on their debut EP and are selling it relentlessly at their gigs; if they keep it up, they’ll go pretty far.

Next came underground New England thrashers CRYPTER (such a simple, classic name, it’s amazing nobody used it in the ’80s) and CANDY STRIPER DEATH ORGY (on par with Jack Black’s fictional “Sonic Death Monkey” project in the film High Fidelity). With these guys, it was back to the old school, and there it stayed as the locals left the stage and the first touring act of the evening, L.A.’s BONDED BY BLOOD, emerged.

As their name indicates, BONDED BY BLOOD are just a few steps shy of being a circa ’85 EXODUS cover band, but since when was that a bad thing? These kids have pure thrash metal coursing through their veins, and they play it to the hilt. Their spastic, adrenaline-fueled attack brought a genuine smile to my face.

My smile was short-lived.

Promptly at 9:30, I took shelter from the cacophony in the men’s room and phoned Stephen. Simultaneously, I received a text message that he’d sent just before I dialed, and he then explained the gist over the phone: Rob was wolfing down some dinner and hadn’t yet returned to the bus – could I wait until 10:00? I died a little inside, knowing that time was running shorter and shorter, but I very politely told Stephen that yes, I could wait. After all, what else could I do? The situation is what it is.

So I waited. And waited.

By the time Wisconsin’s LAZARUS A.D. hit the stage, 10:00 had come and gone. I’d seen them live before, opening for TESTAMENT and UNEARTH in 2009, and consider myself a fan. So my inability to relax and enjoy their slammin’ set of groove-laden thrash – including songs from their recently released sophomore effortBlack Rivers Flow – just piled frustration upon frustration. And did I mention they were the last band on the bill before DEATH ANGEL? Yeah, the clock was ticking for me.

When I finally got the call, I bolted across the dance floor toward the entrance, making my way toward the tranquil outdoors, knowing that this had to be it. Thankfully, I was right, and came face-to-face with Stephen outside the tour bus in about thirty seconds flat. He apologized for the inconvenience and hustled me aboard.

As we were waiting for the man of the hour to emerge, I met and exchanged brief pleasantries with DEATH ANGEL’s rhythm guitarist Ted Aguilar, and digested the chief interview ground rule from Stephen: fifteen minutes, max. This wasn’t surprising – most of our precious time had already been squandered – but disappointing nonetheless. Time limits make me edgy and remind me of the SATs. Always a bad sign when you’re supposed to be having fun. I made a mental note to stick to the most important and relevant topics, lest I come away with an interview full of useless small talk. But then again, I asked myself, what’s a good interview without small talk? You can’t just dive in and start interrogating the guy like a criminal suspect. This was a serious catch-22. Somehow, a compromise would have to be made. Within my own head, thoughts racing at a thousand miles an hour, I finally resigned myself to fate and decided to go with the flow. After all, that’s what I normally do – time limit or no time limit.

After a few minutes, Rob appeared seemingly out of nowhere. At last! If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him, a good one-word description would be… animated. This slim, wiry Filipino-American is pushing middle age, but still doesn’t look or act a day over eighteen (that’s a compliment). Sure, he must have his down time and bummer days like any of us, but tonight, he was bouncing off the walls and chattering at the speed of sound, an ever-present grin plastered across his face. A few decades ago, I probably would’ve attributed this to a pre-show coke binge, but given the more seasoned professionalism of today’s rock musicians, this is highly unlikely. On the contrary, I could immediately tell that much of his band’s ANTHRAX-esque playfulness emanates from this man’s flamboyant, everyday personality… especially after his fifth cup of coffee.

“Mike, right?” He asked as he stuck his hand out. That was nice; I’ve always had to introduce myself before. I shook his hand and we shot the breeze for a couple minutes as I broke out my portable digital recorder. During this chat, I learned from Rob that he’d only been informed of this interview at the last minute – another lesson: don’t expect musicians to know what their “handlers” are up to – but he didn’t seem put off in the slightest. His friendly enthusiasm loosened me up and helped me transition from “serious interview” mode to “two buds talking” mode, and by the time I fired up the recorder, we were ready to roll.

We talked about everything we could in such a brief window of time. After kicking things off by discussing the thrill of headlining tours, I dug into the nitty-gritty of DEATH ANGEL’s present – specifically, the increased aggression on their newly released album. I said, “I’m not always sure what Mark is singing about, but he sounds really pissed.” Rob laughed and nodded, explaining that Relentless Retribution is the logical continuation of their ongoing musical adventures. Essentially, he elaborated, it’s a natural expression of angst in reaction to our times – an economy hanging in the balance, political discontent on all sides, and the personal strife that can result from, and parallel, such turmoil. So of course it’s going to be heavy! I asked him for his thoughts on the current widespread “thrash revival” in American metal, and predictably, he said he was all for it. However, he surprised me when he stated that his support was just about all he was willing to lend to the new breed of thrashers. Newer music doesn’t interest him much, he said, and while he fully endorses the resurgence of thrash metal, he doesn’t listen to much of it. He claimed to stick to his old influences, some of which aren’t even metal. Coming from a member of almost any other classic thrash band – DESTRUCTION, OVERKILL, whomever – this would’ve shocked me, but considering DEATH ANGEL’s quirky cornucopia of influences, it rang true.

Speaking of non-metal excursions, I was about to ask Rob for his thoughts on collaborating with Mexican folk duo RODRIGO Y GABRIELA on the new track “Claws In So Deep,” but tour manager Stephen suddenly appeared and silently brandished his watch in front of my face. He then made a rolling gesture with both his hands – time to wrap it up. Trying to stifle some resentment for the previous delay, I abandoned the nitty-gritty and launched into my “broad” question topics, the kind of stuff that helps round out an interview and expands the scope beyond a particular band.

I asked Rob, “What does the word ‘poser’ mean to you?” This wasn’t a silly throwaway question; I wanted a genuine perspective from a veteran who’d been there and done that. He replied that back in the ’80s, “poser” was basically the umbrella definition for the mainstream MTV glam rock musicians – your MOTLEY CRUEs, your POISONs, etc. – who’d appropriated the “metal” label in the eyes of the general public without having earned it. “Those were the guys we were supposed to kill,” Rob explained, chuckling, and at that moment, something I’d always instinctively understood fully hit home: nothing ever changes. By its very nature, heavy metal is an underground genre, and at any given point, some warped manifestation of the genre is bound to capture mainstream attention. Be it glam rock in the ’80s, rap metal in the ’90s, or metalcore in the ’00s, there always exists a faction of “false metal” (as MANOWAR might say) for diehards to revel in mocking. Of course, there is a downside to that attitude. It can lead to elitism, snobbery, arrogance, and just plain purist douchebaggery. Which is why I was thrilled when Rob updated his definition of “poser” to current terms. He fingered the “More Metal Than You” types brilliantly skewered by Brian Posehn – people who present their prickly opinions as fact and dismiss anyone who doesn’t share their tastes as sellouts (or posers, for that matter). It was refreshing to speak with someone so “metal,” yet so open-minded and unpretentious.

I knew I was cutting it pretty close, but I figured I’d try for one more question: “Tell me a funny or interesting touring story that you’ve never told anyone else.” This one got a pretty amusing yarn out of Silenoz (of DIMMU BORGIR) back in December, and I figured I’d use it again. Unfortunately, Rob was at a complete loss. Chuckling, he said that the most exciting story he’d be able to tell on record involved the tour bus rocking and spilling his cereal and milk on Ted. Action-packed, titillating stuff. “Those old crazy days are pretty much over,” He explained, in so many words. “I’m an old man now.” However, he did say this with a big smile. “Talk to me at the bar after the show, when I’ve had a couple drinks. Then you might hear something.”

This was my first experience with what you’d call an “abrupt end” to an interview, and while everyone was rather pleasant about it, I still felt awkward as hell. Stephen returned and cut us short. Rob asked for the time, which I gave him. With showtime in a mere five minutes, he rocketed off the couch, shook my hand in a frenzy, and evacuated the bus like Road Runner, yelling back at me as he left to stick around for the show. I gathered my equipment in a slight daze and stepped into the frigid night, ushered along by Stephen, who seemed pretty eager to get me out of there.

What a relief! It’s always nice to get an interview over with, knowing you’ve captured some gold, and then relax and enjoy a great show. Sure, it was kind of brief, but I knew that with a little smoothing out and a few editorial flourishes in the transcription process, it would come out just fine.

I reentered The Amber Room. Guitars and drums were being tuned and checked on the small stage up front, and excited fans were milling about the dance floor. I decided to break out my recorder at a table near the bar and take a quick listen. I flipped the “on” switch, stuck my tiny headphones in my ears, and plugged them in. Then I noticed something.

The audio file I’d just recorded read :06. Six seconds? Must be reading it wrong. I pressed play. My voice filled my ears loud and clear, thanking Rob for the interview. His voice, also crystal clear: “My pleasure!” The end.

I hadn’t recorded a damn thing.

I could’ve sworn my testicles started aching right then and there, as if a gigantic invisible foot had given them a nice hard kick. I felt weak.

I’d heard of this kind of thing happening before. Actually, it seems to be kind of a common mistake among “journalists” like us – a dreaded rite of passage. You do interviews, every now and then you fail to record them for some reason. But I’d been lucky so far, and was now getting my first taste. It tasted like a urinal cake.

Adding insult to injury, DEATH ANGEL stormed the stage a few seconds later, and all excitement and energy I’d brought to New Hampshire was completely gone. The band was ripping it up, opening the set with their blazing new track “I Chose The Sky.” At that point, I would’ve chosen the business end of a Saturday Night Special, or at least a third leg so I could kick my own ass. Any way you slice it, I was not enjoying this show. What a cruel trick of fate.

I turned to the bartender and ordered a Sam Adams, then proceeded to guzzle it down. Not exactly drown-your-sorrows beer, but let’s face it – the mass-market Budweiser types are basically overpriced cans of water. Knowing I still had a long haul ahead of me later that night, I made that Sam Adams my last, and wandered outside dejected, looking for shoulders to cry on.

Surprisingly, that didn’t last long. As I fell in with a small group smoking just outside the rear entrance, only a single wall and door separated us from the band inside – so their sound didn’t become muffled or otherwise obscured. The twin guitars were razor sharp. The rhythm section produced a mind-demolishing rumble. And Mark Osegueda’s raspy throatbox was nailing every note to perfection, replicating and sometimes outdoing the studio versions of some of DEATH ANGEL’s most beloved tracks.

To summarize, I simply could not stay depressed. This was a true live band, I realized, one that makes you forget your fear of moshing, or the parking ticket you received outside the venue, or the bored indie-fan girlfriend you dragged along, or an interview gone unrecorded (but damn, that was still a pisser…) A band that makes you forget all your troubles and just rock. I wrapped up my sob story with my sympathetic new acquaintances and strode back inside, determined to man up.

Within the cramped confines of the postage-stamp stage and the cozy little clubroom setting, the band put on a ripping thrash show worthy of any famed summer festival. The acoustics were top-notch, which was a pleasant surprise – I’d learned that this type of concert was a rare event at The Amber Room, a private club. Regardless, credit for the tight, slicing sound quality goes almost entirely to the band and their crew.

The bulk of the set list was devoted to newer material, which I liked. I think that since their reunion and their comeback effort The Art Of Dying (2004), they’ve only improved as songwriters and performers. Heavy attention was paid, of course, to the new album, and several tracks from their previous disc Killing Season(2007) also made appearances. Also included were mandatory nods to their ’80s back catalogue, particularly their 1987 debut The Ultra-Violence, although Frolic Through The Park (1988) and Act III (1990) were observed as well. Predictably, a few obnoxious drunk fans kept clamoring for old school songs, which was nice, but I can only take so much of “GO BACK TO THE ULTRA-VIOLENCE! THE ULTRA FUCKING VIOLENCE!” before I feel like granting their wish and cracking a couple heads together. I’m a fan who prefers not to live in the past. I enjoy being taken for a ride over time as my favorite bands grow, evolve, and experiment, and I think every effort from every “era” in a career has something to offer. So needless to say, purists who follow every band-related discussion with the disclaimer “I only enjoy their early work” are some of my least favorite people.

Since their last album, DEATH ANGEL has lost two more original members, Dennis Pepa (bass) and Andy Galeon (drums). During a song break, Mark took some time to introduce their deadly replacements, Damien Sisson and Will Carroll. “We’ve got two white boys in the band now!” He announced, laughing.

Later, with all sung and done, I stood indecisive on the rapidly clearing dance floor next to the stage, as crewmembers broke down DEATH ANGEL’s equipment and carted it off with top-notch efficiency. I was chatting with members of DORIAN GRAY, and mentioned to them that it just wouldn’t feel right to leave without explaining what’d happened to Rob – if only I could find him.

The solution they proposed was so simple and beautiful, it never would’ve occurred to me: walk backstage. After all, the curtained doorway was dead smack in front of me.

Duh.

We moseyed on through and wound up in what appeared to be the second half of the long, rectangular club – and only then did I realize that the stage itself belonged to a movable partition that effectively bisected The Amber Room. Security? Nonexistent. Bodyguards – Bodyguards??? This is an underground Bay Area thrash band, not Sharon Osbourne! – nope. I should wander more often.

We wound up chatting with Mark as he was changing shirts. We did the usual round of congratulations and thanks, and after some mundane chitchat that I can’t recall for the life of me, I spoke up, trying like hell not to sound like a hapless tool.

I told him the whole story from A to Z, perhaps in too apologetic a tone (I was still a bit ashamed of myself for screwing up so gloriously). I explained that since I was about to leave, I wasn’t sure if I’d run into Rob himself, so would Mark mind passing it along, with my apology?

As I related the painful details, Mark burst into uncomfortable laughter and groaned. “Bummer, dude – I’m sorry!” I shook my head and smiled back, assuring him it was not his problem, a little heartened. He then pointed back through the door toward the venue proper. “Rob’s drinking at the bar right now. Why don’t you go catch up with him?”

Bingo. That’s what I love about shows at small clubs, especially metal shows. On the perfect evening when the stars align, there comes a point where patrons, band, and crew merge into one. All artificial barriers dissolve, leaving only a crowd of dudes (and ideally some attractive women too) with the same reason for being there: to rock. Try duplicating that kind of intimacy at Mayhem Festival, or even Wacken.

I approached Rob at the bar as the last few straggling attendees were beginning to clear out. He downed a drink and wrapped up a jovial conversation with some random fellow, and I felt slightly tempted to offer him another and share a round with him (my impending return drive notwithstanding). Thankfully, he turned his attention to me and distracted me from my own foolish decision-making. I let the litany spill out in uncomfortable spasms of heartfelt sincerity and nervous laughter.

I’d already met him, so his reaction, while more visceral than Mark’s, didn’t exactly surprise me. He instantly alleviated my first concern by laughing uproariously. I’d told him that despite the misadventure, I felt grateful for the thrilling show and the overall experience. He now replied, “You’ll be grateful I didn’t kill you!”

Getting on the same page with someone who’s in a wholly different mood can be tough, and while I appreciated his zeal and his silly sense of humor, I felt considerably more subdued. I played along, though, with some kind of witty rejoinder that you couldn’t ask me to recount in court, and then Rob said something truly awesome.

“Remember when you asked me to tell you a funny or crazy touring story that I’ve never told anyone else? Well, I’ve got one for you. Once upon a time, we were playing a gig in New Hampshire, and I was supposed to do this interview that I found out about only a few minutes before showtime, and then the guy didn’t record any of it!”

Perhaps I’m a masochist, because it didn’t sound flattering then, and it still doesn’t. But I still laughed, this time with all the sincerity in the world. And, in some way, it was awesome. Rob had answered my final interview question in a way I’d never dreamed he would – by inserting me into the story and delivering me a satisfactory ending for the story I’ve just told.

He’d come through.

DEATH ANGEL set list 2/3/2011:

I Chose The Sky
Evil Priest
Buried Alive
Mistress Of Pain
Claws In So Deep
Seemingly Endless Time
Dethroned
This Hate
Relentless Revolution
Truce
Purgatory/Veil Of Deception
Opponents At Sides
Bored
Thrashers
Lord Of Hate

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