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Bay Area One-Offs

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In a setting like the San Francisco Bay Area, where musicians often have their hands in several different bands, it’s more than likely that some groups simply don’t have the chance to develop their discography. Some bands were never intended to make it past a single release, others were cut off before they could reach their full potential and the occasional act evolved into an entirely separate beast.

These are a selection of some of the bay’s forgotten bands that managed to scrape together something special for one knockout release, and then scattered to the winds. Some of these artists went on to do just as great work with other bands and some retired to quieter lifestyles. These pieces of work still stand up; they continue to offer something a little weirder, a little heavier and a more little interesting than what you’ll find in the abscesses of Bandcamp, YouTube and Encyclopedia Metallum.

Pale Existence – Dark Tranquility Demo – 1995

Birthed from Silicon Valley suburbia alongside In Disgust, Sleep and Noothgrush, Pale Existence began as just one of several cookie-cutter death metal outfits from the area. Within a short amount of time however, they pulled an Autopsy and added choking elements of doom to their sound. It made for painfully heavy death metal with just a touch of grindcore nastiness, and barring a pair of tracks that later appeared on a split with Exhumed, Pale Existence faded away into obscurity. Since then, guitarist Bud Burke has served time in Exhumed as a bassist, guitarist and projectile vomiter while his partner on the axe Lorin Ashton went on to become Bassnectar. Yes, that Bassnectar.

Unholy Cadaver – Demo Number One – 1998

Long before John Cobbett clocked in time with the likes of Vhol, Slough Feg or even Ludicra, he spent years woodshedding with an act called Unholy Cadaver. With longtime cohort Chewy Marzolo on drums, Mike Scalzi of Slough Feg on guitar and Lost Goat’s Erica Stoltz on bass alongside Cobbett, Unholy Cadaver put together a short demo consisting of three thrashy tunes with a layer of blackened grime from San Francisco’s Mission district slathered on top. Shadow Kingdom Records later compiled this demo along with other unreleased tracks into a great DLP package in 2011. After bringing in Janis Tanaka for bass and vocal duties, Unholy Cadaver changed their name to Hammers of Misfortune, named after the 14-minute monstrosity that concluded both the demo and compilation releases.

Blitzenhamer – Pawns of the Predator – 2000

Imagine your dad. Now imagine him in his lamest dad-jeans and his favorite vintage prog shirt, tucked in said jeans. Now he has a mustache and he plays with his buddies in a metal band. Once known as S.S. Dagger, they changed their name to Blitzenhamer, a band so endearing and fun that you couldn’t help but root for them before they went to drop their kids off to school the next morning. Their sole recording is pure classic metal worship played by middle-aged men that just wanted something fun to do after work, and you can hear their enthusiasm in every song. It’s infectious and bound to make you smile, even if it wouldn’t make a year-end list. Somehow, Blitzenhamer even found a small following at the weekly Lucifer’s Hammer metal club, where even the crusty, tatted out black metal fans cheered them on. One can only hope that these guys still get together to jam once every now and again.

Weakling – Dead as Dreams – 2000

This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Weakling, the band that helped define the sound of American black metal, at least on the West Coast. One listen to Dead as Dreams is all it takes to understand its influence. John Gossard’s unintelligible howls paired against Josh Smith’s borderline triumphant tremolo riffs in a way that summoned the most chaotic and hellish sounds American black metal had yet produced in 2000. Set that against the mighty drumming of Sam “Little Sunshine” Foster and Casey Ward’s apocalyptic keys, and you have a recipe for sonic havoc. It’s a formula that black metal bands up through the Pacific Northwest have aped throughout the 2000s and beyond. Dead as Dreams was released well after Weakling had split, and pressings in any format have been limited over the years. Rumor has it you can still find the occasional CD copy at Aquarius Records in San Francisco however. Upon their dissolution, Gossard conquered the funeral doom realm with Asunder, while bassist Sarah Schaffer (née Weiner) explored more atmospheric textures with The Gault. Smith and Foster continued with their other bands, The Fucking Champs and Sangre Amado respectively, before eventually stepping away from metal entirely.

Prevail – It Takes A Whole Lot Of Work, It Takes A Whole Lot Of Time… And It Still Sucks – 2001

Prevail from the East-Bay-Nowhere town of Martinez never offered anything entirely fresh or new, but they had one hell of a weapon in their arsenal. Playing guitar and writing the majority of the songs for this band was a young man named Andrew LaBarre, a musical prodigy that managed to dial in the riffing style that made At the Gates and Dissection bore into your head, and condensed it into 10 songs in only 23 minutes. Though their youth (too young to hang out in the bars after playing a set) and clean-cut image hindered their local ascent, those that knew better were banging their head furiously to “The Dead.” The band fizzled out, but LaBarre went on to stick his hands in a few memorable releases afterward.

Black Ops – Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body – 2002

Black Ops existed for literally less than 48 hours, a true flash in the pan. The band was an impromptu collaboration between Sean McGrath and Raul Varela of Impaled, their former bandmate Leon del Muerte and Henke Forss of the Swedish acts Dawn and Retaliation, who found himself stuck in the bay for about a month. The four came up with these five bursts of bug-eyed deathgrind in one night, recorded them the next day with Andrew LaBarre (see Prevail above) engineering the session, released the tracks on this split with Leng T’Che and was never heard from again. With whammy dives galore, high/low vocal tag-team action from Forss and McGrath, and a wonderfully dirty production from LaBarre, these tracks zip and rip with a spastic sense of fun.

Altar the Sky – Plight of the Vomit Eagle – 2004

We return to the mad axeman from Martinez, Andrew LaBarre. After Prevail split, LaBarre did a tour of duty with Oakland’s dopiest gorehounds Impaled, mixing and playing guitar on their sharpest release, Mondo Medicale. Throughout this time, he chipped away at a black metal solo project that he called Altar the Sky. Covering drums, bass, guitar, vocals and engineering for the record, LaBarre produced an American black metal album that did away with the pseudo-artistic excesses that bogged down many of the Cascadian groups, and he tore through the competition with laser-like technicality and precision. Few outside of LaBarre’s friends and bandmates heard this record, and this remains his last recorded work to date. Rumor has it LaBarre is now a school teacher.

The Gault – Even As All Before Us – 2005

This one is a bit of a departure. The Gault played a brilliant and atmospheric style of deathrock that few others felt like trying anywhere in America during the late ’90s, let alone the Bay Area. Formed as a fresh project by Lorraine Rath, later of Worm Ouroboros and Amber Asylum, alongside Sarah Schaffer from Weakling, the two recruited Schaffer’s former bandmate John Gossard to fill out guitar duties. Vocalist Ed Kunakemakorn rounded things out, and while they mesmerized crowds at the Lucifer’s Hammer events and even recorded an album, the band fizzled out as the members’ other projects took greater precedence. That album, Even As All Before Us, eventually saw a limited vinyl release in 2005 and continues to age gracefully as time passes, in no small part thanks to Tim Green’s warm production. A small number of vinyl copies remain on Discogs, but this album is well-deserving of a proper reissue.

Lawless – Nite of the Wolf – 2012

In the wake of the breakup of the excellent Acephalix, three of that band’s members—bassist Luca Indrio, guitarist Kyle House and drummer Dave Benson—formed Lawless. Where Acephalix brought a crusty edge to the proceedings, Lawless was rooted in caveman clubbing. House and Indrio’s tandem vocals were simply badass, and the band summoned a sound that brought the grizzly bear riffing of To Mega Therion and Morbid Tales to the 21st century. Lawless only managed to record one tape demo before putting themselves on indefinite hiatus—lucky for us, the three songs on the tape are all uniform rippers. Acephalix has since reformed, but this tape remains an interesting snapshot of the lumbering behemoth that could have been.

—Avinash Mittur

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