Is nothing Sacred? Ruminations on the musical catalog of Sacred Reich by Marty Rytkonen

logo_sacred_reichPerhaps Phoenix, Arizona’s long running stalwarts of US thrash with a message was a bizarre choice to begin this essay/musical catalog overview series with, but as I realized that I had just listened to Sacred Reich’s “Ignorance” full-length debut 6 times in a row while at work one day late in 2012, the seed was planted. I still listen to this album a lot… enough so that I consider it to be in regular rotation 25 years after it was released. I found it pretty mind blowing to suddenly realize and be able to document the passage of time as I still vividly recall sitting in my old teenage bedroom studying the lyrics and staring hypnotically at the artwork. The more I pondered this piece, I realized how much this band actually meant to a much younger me and how not only had Sacred Reich’s own proudly proclaimed “progression” been their unfortunate undoing, but it was further solidified with a resounding yawn from long time fans who found themselves being consumed by far more extreme metal subdivisions taking over our precious underground. This of course also includes said younger me, but more on that later…

sacredreich

It all started in 1986 for Sacred Reich upon birthing a much sought after and really ambitious demo called “Draining you of Life”. 4 songs and a sharp attack/production set the tone for this bands hungry and youthful years. Unencumbered riffage with a minor hardcore edge and a damn good drummer to hurl them at the listener was the formula that Sacred Reich performed well. They were tight and serious due to a thrashed out pseudo political slant lyrically. They possessed a sound all their own which seemed so much easier to achieve back then due to there being less bands. The mounting popularity found them recording the track “Ignorance” for Metal Massacre VIII, which in turn led to a deal with Metal Blade Records and greatly elevated worldwide distribution. The stage was set for what I feel is the peak achievement in their catalog….. Ignorance!

sacred reich demoSacred Reich entered the studio rehearsed and ready to destroy for Ignorance, an album so skillfully built upon a full “professional” production, smart song structures and endlessly memorable riff slaughter. I find this album to be the total package when it comes to 80’s US thrash due to the band at this point in their development shying away from the mounting silliness and musical sense of humor that was infecting bands like Anthrax and what seemed like an exploding stream of new talent who were just out to have a good time and cash in on a trend. Ignorance was fueled by a venomous contempt for the political system, fear of a nuclear planet (at the time a topic often raped by the thrash genre thanks to the cold war), death, anti-religion… all of which still seems so relevant in this modern day and age. Bassist Phil Rind possessed the uniquely clean shouting style to deliver said messages in an easy to understand manner that still felt completely pissed off, though somehow composed through it all. And the lyrics could be so hard hitting when mixed in to elevate the musical intensity:

Death SquadSRignorance
Putting to death those who oppose you
Will take control, no matter the cost
Bodies are mounting the carnage around you
At the last count, 10.000 have died

Taken by force
Controlled by fear
Death squad police of the right
Must stamp out subversion
Dissension, unrest
Those who oppose will meet death

Automatic weapons in hand
You say you’re what the people want
Why must you kill them to secure their vote
Death squad escort them to the polls

Puppet regime with you at the head
You’ve rid them of a communist threat
Your brand of “democracy” is now in control
And all of your people lie dead

Taken by force
Controlled by fear
Death squad police of the right
Must stamp out subversion
Dissention, unrest
Those who oppose will meet death

“Democracy” at any cost
The methods of freedom unclear
Right-wing radicals, abusing control
The choice will be democracy or death

Ignorance demonstrated how wicked a quartet could be as Sacred Reich sounded ravenous and ready to level the competition on this album. Wiley Arnett’s solos executed a technical proficiency while never losing an ear for melodious sub harmonies that became integral elements to every song. Sure he could lean on that whammy bar for a Kerry King styled noise attack, but he thankfully never went too overboard with this technic. His and Jason Rainey’s musical ideas were full of a furious energy with riffs that felt intimidating thanks to Greg Hall’s superior drum work (and precision double bass dexterity), but songs like “Sacred Reich” adopted more of a mid-paced movement so full of fluid guitar work and heavy hooks, that they were instantly identifiable and destined to stick with the listener. Sacred Reich paced this album for maximum effect. The fast and slower tracks effortlessly flow into each other with a deadly impact that has stood the test of time and so has the hardcore influence lurking just beneath the surface of such a fighting metal monster. Should you have somehow missed this band through the years and you want to set that right, Ignorance is by far Sacred Reich’s crowning jewel and in spite of a quarter Century passing by since it’s release, the sound and style still holds up remarkably well. In fact, this annoying thrash revival that is still going on could stand to learn a few things from Ignorance.

SRsurfIn an effort to capitalize on an increasing swell of popularity, and to stall until the next full-length was completed, the MCD “Surf Nicaragua” arrived a year later as your stop gap release with a couple new tunes not good enough for Ignorance, a reworked demo song, an irrelevant Black Sabbath cover (War Pigs) and 2 live tracks to tide us over. I bit hard on this release when it came out as I was still basking in the afterglow of the debut. Having not spun this disc since a year or 2 after it was released, the material comes off as a massive departure from Sacred Reich’s initially impressive first statement. It was obvious they still possessed the chops, but more of a bluesy drawl was entering into a bed of material obviously slower and easier to play for the live arena. Phil’s vocals seemed far more streamlined and less angry as he found more of a pitch to his voice and desire to “sing” in his own way. Add this and the fact the title track was laced with moments of light hearted music which incorporated an old surf jam and obvious rhymed themes lyrically, it seems that Sacred Reich were becoming one of “those bands” skewed off their mark by popularity and the desire to appeal to a wider audience. The shift was minor at this point, but as the band continued down and nurtured this path, the writing was on the wall early on which I probably didn’t realize or care so much about back in 88. With the newer version of “Draining you of Life” being the most lively song on this MCD, the past arose as a fitting epitaph while shaking a finger in disapproval at a direction that would work to undue a once bright future. Surf Nicaragua is one of those collection place holders we just sort of dust off once in a while and contemplate why we continue to hang onto it. For Nostalgia? Probably.

When The American Way arrived on the scene, I was ready and hungry for it, scoring it the day it hit the shelves. Even though an obvious change was taking place stylistically in the band, I nearly wore the 1’s and 0’s off this disc, as the clinically clean yet heavy production presented the catchy riffs with a grooved out style. My excitement was often blinding at that age, allowing me to overlook, or simply not accept an admired band’s departure from a path that I thought they needed to stay on. I still consider The American Way to be a good album, once again benefiting from a spot on drum performance and punchy song crafting that was streamlined/simplistic and damn catchy. The downside: the songs relied on a trash 101 formula and after longer exposure revealed predictable tricks in the transitions and that burnt out E note palm muted thrash gallop. Phil’s vocals really started to get even more melodious on this album and since they were way out front in the mix, they became a focal point, love the untrained pitch style or hate it. It is a sound all his own, I’ll give him that, but it is a limited niche fan base I think when it comes to powerhouse thrash vocalists and I have to be in the mood for it these days. This slicker style unveiled even more socially and politically aware commentaries lyrically that were border lining on the preachy side of expression. An example of this lies in the “diversify yourself when it comes to music” closing track “31 Flavors” with its strict funk/metal-less presentation and light hearted call to try something different. Here’s an excerpt:

“I love the Chilis freaky, Uplift, Mother’s Milk SRamerican
Faith No More Mike Patton’s voice is smooth as silk
Metallica’s music makes me want to rage
Sting’s lyrics have something to say
Jimi Hendrix plays guitar like a no one else
Black Sabbath Ozzy’s voice is sick as hell
Prince, Fishbone, NWA these are the things that I like to play
Mr. Bungle is so very cool so don’t be an ignorant fool there’s so much
music for you to choose so don’t just be a metal dude it’s cool fool”

Perhaps this is indeed COULD HAVE been a worthwhile message in it’s own skewed way, but in this case, comes off as a band trying to thinly veil their own musical complacency. Who really needs or wants to withstand someone essentially telling them they are lame for not liking the popular bands listed in their little tirade? Sorry, but “I’m cooler than you because I like Sting and NWA” makes little constructive sense in the context of what Sacred Reich had achieved leading up to this point. Perhaps more complex metal felt too restrictive to their writing process? It appears so, for The American Way was only a hint at the rounded off direction they would travel in their quest to achieve more of a lifeless groove which in turn would virtually neuter the 2 albums that preceded this, Sacred Reich’s last “good” album. And funk? Really? Let’s check in with Mordred and Mindfunk and see how well that turned out for them…

SRindependentHaving witnessed a video from Independent on Headbangers Ball, I avoided this and the bands swan song album “Heal” like the plague due to the obvious loss of creative fire. I recently purchased both releases (thankfully cheaply from Ebay) to aid in the creation of this piece mainly and so that I could see if the years between the release dates and my increasingly open minded awakening could mend any ill feeling I still harbored for Sacred Reich. On it’s own, if you could look past everything that was going on in 1993 with the changing of the guard from death metal, to the Scandinavian woodland dwellers in the exploding black metal era, Independent starts off with a bit of energy, but it quickly fades away by mid disc. Adjectives like “boring” are easy to attach to this album, but it never fully loses it to a point where it is no longer completely unlistenable. I know… such a damning sentence really doesn’t inspire repeated investigations which is just as bad as someone telling you this album completely sucks. The positive: Sacred Reich retain that memorable edge when it comes to riff creation which is intact here on both the opening title track and “Free” as well, BUT the songs degenerate into 1 or 2 grooved out power chord riffs and a predictable chorus that repeat endlessly for the duration of the tracks. The slower songs like “Just Like That” and “I Never Said Goodbye” suffer the most as they crawl along and sound completely uninspired. Phil reaches to higher sung registers for variety, but his voice always felt decent, but hopelessly awkward to me as he continued to work with the pitch singing style. Independent is one of those albums where you know where you’ve been, where you’re at, and where you’ll be going, enough so that you wonder why you ever chose to embark on the journey in the first place. At this low point, Sacred Reich comes off as a band that is dead in its heart, but the brain keeps them propped up and functioning on the false hope that they’ll win back the fans with their live show. I don’t think that ever was the case… SRheal

Sacred Reich fight back in ’96 with Heal, their last ditch effort to reclaim a bit of the intensity and conviction that has been haunting them for a better part of the 90’s. Again, the leadoff track is the most spirited of the bunch, finding Blue Shirt, Brown Shirt to possess a needed boost of speed and energy. It suits them well, but after 2:27, they fall back into that mid-paced power groove rut that might as well be a bottomless pit. Even though the band does work with a quicker register of speed on other tracks like “Break Through”, “Don’t”, and “The Power of the Written Word”, the low point for me is the predictability of it all. Even though Heal is a definite step back up, it feels like too little, way too late. Add the slightly augmented Pantera riffs to this equation and you hear a desperate band trying to reclaim a lost gleam of creativity to no avail.

The frustrating thing here is that Sacred Reich still maintain the chops to pull off something much better, but are one of those bands that lost their way in every aspect of their music creation process. After a lengthy hiatus, they have returned as a live unit to step onto the stages of some of the metal world’s biggest festivals/events as they shall again be doing for the upcoming Maryland Metal Fest. Perhaps this return to the lime light will appeal to people’s nostalgia when it comes to this band, but I for one hope that Sacred Reich choose to avoid this fleeting feeling of appreciation and NOT return to the studio. Their catalog is evidence enough that what they wanted to achieve musically was a departure from their formative years and a mutation that didn’t sit well even with their sonically battered and bruised fans. We wanted to keep on liking them, but they made us pay for our lack of vision. Is nothing Sacred?

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~ by martyworm on April 10, 2013.

9 Responses to “Is nothing Sacred? Ruminations on the musical catalog of Sacred Reich by Marty Rytkonen”

  1. Awesome! Concise and right on the money bro!!

  2. Thanks! Glad you liked it.

  3. Great article…about a band I never really knew. I saw them open for Sepultura in 1995 and all I can remember was a chanting “Independence!” chorus. At least it stuck with me!

  4. I still remember very clearly seeing them play when touring for The American Way and being disappointed by the change in sound… 🙂 Well, whatever…we’ll always have the first LP. 🙂

  5. Mmm… I beg to differ sir. Maybe it’s because I was introduced to Sacred Reich in a different manner, namely by the video for Independence which blew my brains out at the time. I bought the album and loved it. Recent re-evaluation reveals some weak tracks that just seem to be bad copies of other songs on the album but still; I hear a passionate brew of bulldozer grooves, hardcore attitude and some great songwriting with soulful vocals. The title track, Free, Just Like That (yes, that one) and Crawling I can still highly enjoy. But: thrash it ain’t.
    It was only after Independence that I started digging into their past. I agree with you there; American Way (“Johnny can you hear meee” *sigh*) and Surf Nicaragua are good and/or amusing (I do like their War Pigs cover, especially live I think it sounded colossal) and Ignorance is amazing, a completely different beast than Independence though. Somehow Heal passed me by completely (I guess in ’96 my taste moved on to more extreme territories) and that’s fine I guess.

    To each his own. Still; well-written and although I don’t agree with you on Independence I do appreciate your reasoning.

  6. Just cranked Independence up LOUD… Yup, still gives me a boot in the ass! \m/

    (and it made me aware of its direct neighbours on the shelve: Sadus’ first three records are up next. Sweeet!)

  7. The first 3 Sadus releases along with the demo, are eternal classics. I really should do an essay on their entire catalog. In time…

    Regarding Sacred Reich. You hit the nail right on the head with it depends on what era your discovered them on being your favorite. This is common when discovering a new artist. I found SR during the Ignorance era, so of course the more aggressive edge felt normal to me. the groove metal era felt like a departure, but there are definitely some catchy songs in the mix for sure.

    So yes… thanks for reading the essay and sharing.

  8. Hell yeah, do one on Sadus! Or Agent Steel, or Coroner, or Forbidden, or Kreator, or Overkill, or… \m/

    The Sadus albums are indeed classic. I replaced my originals with the re-issues by Displeased Records a while ago so now I also have the demo stuff; killer!!!

  9. Damn… When I write IndependENCE of course I mean IndependENT. Brain fart.

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