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Noise Records’ Death Metal Turns 30

The Crypt Keeper's salad days.

One of the great instances of heavy metal incongruity occurs in the cover above. Helloween? Running Wild? Death Metal?

Did I have a stroke?

No, and you don’t need a pair of They Live specs to check for tomfoolery, either. That compilation is an actual thing that actually happened. And, in certain circles, it has become something of an in-joke, a rich slice of metal nerdity that’s a go-to dinner party pleaser.[1] If you remember, original spherical fruit handler Cosmo offered it to you on a platter back in ’09, rightly noting how odd it was seeing Hellhammer rubbing spiked bracers with two future cheese wheels and one doomed powah dealer that would go dim shortly after Death Metal‘s release.

Of course, it’s my writerly duty to now blow hard with over-the-top, exclamatory statements like, BRAH, IT IS BIGGER THAN THAT. I mean, it is and it isn’t. Nays first: 75 percent of this four-way consists of hunks of ham I adore,[2] but aren’t of much interest to those preferring music from this century. Though these bloodthirsty incarnations of Running Wild and Helloween are before both bands’ muscles atrophied, they’re still lighter than a Talon feather. Same goes for Dark Avenger, the Pete Best of the collection, a group inspiring menace only if you’re petrified of leopard print and spandex.

The yays, however, weigh a little heavier: The compilation, cataloged as N 006, is foundational concrete for Germany’s Noise Records, a label which would rule Europe over the ’80s. The name might not cause commotion in the underground these days, blemished by a spotty release history from the cash-chasing ’90s until it was finally shuttered as a shell of its former scepter-wielding self in 2007. That said, Dio almighty, you definitely know the bands sailing underneath Noise’s banner: Celtic Frost, Coroner, Kreator, Sabbat, Voivod, Watchtower, and a mountain more.[3] And Death Metal provided the first bang many heard from Hellhammer, even if the resulting incoming fan mail was mostly for the H-E-double-hockey-sticks prefix holding the pumpkin.

Okay, okay, Death Metal is of greater importance than a punchline or curio. So, how did it come to be? Well, that’s the tale to catch. It all starts with a tiger named Karl Walterbach.

According to pit bull owning impresario himself on his kinda-braggartly blog, Karl’s start in tune acquisition was as a young punk in politically charged Berlin, Germany near the end of the ’70s. While punks in the United States often penned warnings regarding the approaching Cold War apocalypse, Walterbach was organizing shows and fests across from The Wall. The Wall. Yeah, his neck of the scene was charged to say the least.

After some initial success where he displayed a managerial/curatorial acuity, he began guiding the Hamburg group Slime on his AGR label, a division of his mothership named Modern Music. But, he also set his sights West, looking to get his fingers into the hardcore pie baking in the Los Angeles sun. He finessed a distribution deal with SST, Black Flag’s label. This lead to SST’s interest in Slime. Over 1983, the two sides often intermingled, culminating in Karl promoting Flag shows on an Euro swing. Then, by invitation, he arrived in California. Serendipity: Walterbach caught a few SST sets including one shared with Metal Blade bands.

Sadly, it’s hard to track down the exact bill, as documenting hardcore wasn’t exactly the pressing need of the day. Further complicating things, Metal Blade had quite the LA contingent in 1983, including Armored Saint, Bitch, Demon Flight, Savage Grace, and Slayer. Be that as it may, considering SST’s relationship with Saint Vitus, it might not have been a Metal Blade band at all. Whatever banger supplied the spark, Walterbach left the States blown away by the impact of underground American metal and quickly set to work finding his own bands for his new imprint, Noise Records.

After snagging the Euro rights to Bitch’s S&M ode, Be My Slave (N 001)[4] and the Slayer-opened Metal Massacre III (N 002), Karl hit pay dirt on his first fresh release, the compilation Rock From Hell (N 003). The stellar Dancing With the Stars fanfic cover sheathed entries from S.A.D.O., Grave Digger, Iron Force, Rated-X, and Running Wild. With its release, Walterbach proved to himself domestic heavy metal could be as hard, heavy, and powerful as its US counterparts. It didn’t have to adhere to the glossy wump-thump of Accept or Scorpions.[5] The race was on to sniff out additional demos to showcase. It was time to test extremes, to get as dirty and ugly as possible. Luckily, Karl had a knack for bottling electricity and his label was a lighting rod.

At some point, Walterbach was exposed to the Swiss Hellhammer by way of their Satanic Rites demo and soon scooped the group up. As was common, he got the trio into the studio, and the new wares were teased/flaunted on another compilation alongside three other promising contributors; one being the freshly redubbed Helloween who just laid to rest their old moniker Powerfool.[6] Karl wanted to call the collection Black Mass. Hellhammer’s singer/six-stringer, Tom “Satanic Slaughter” Fischer, intervened and convinced Walterbach to use the name of Fischer and Martin “Slayed Necros” Ain’s zine, Death Metal. Karl smartly acquiesced and adorned the document with that fitting album art hanging above, an envelope-pusher quickly banned by the authorities.[7]

The rest? Well, you know the rest. Hopefully, that puts meat on the bones of an oddity. Take a listen to the comp below and tell me: Did Death Metal influence metal’s path, getting it to where it is today? Or is it simply weirdo convo fodder? Both?

— Ian Chainey

1. My social life is nil, so my impression of hangouts are based on TCM movies. People. . . still have dinner with other. . .people, I’m assuming?

2. I love the power metal. It’s so bad.

3. In a future post, we’ll take a tour of the treasure trove of Noise’s second-tier releases.

4. This was cutting edge extremity in its day. Maybe we’ll do an oral history of people recounting their parents finding their Bitch album.

5. His feelings, not mine. Love ’em both.

6. “Oernst Of Life” is a Powerfool song. Just as a note, the band once went by Iron Fist. YOU COULD’VE SETTLED WITH IRON FIST.

7. Hilariously, it would remain on the banned list until 2010. Also removed that year? A map of a spherical Earth. Seriously, you could swaddle a baby with that art and no one would give any eff about it now. Also, is that Louis XIV or Lana Del Rey getting eaten? YOU MAKE THE CALL.

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