No Life ‘Til Metal: The Metal Massacre Series Returns (Interview with Curator Albert Mudrian)
A compilation album might seem a bit of a relic in today’s age of streaming music playlists, but for many generations of metal fans it was the most accessible way to quickly gain exposure to more bands. A number of compilation series have entered the halls of legend, and while it’s not the first—that credit would perhaps go to Metal for Muthas which helped launch the NWOBHM movement—one of the most esteemed metal compilations that has become almost synonymous with the concept itself is Metal Blade’s Metal Massacre series. It debuted in 1982 when Brian Slagel got a bunch of mostly Los Angeles area unsigned metal bands together, launching the first volume as Metal Blade’s first release. Years later, the album proved to be the launching pad for a number of bands including LA glam metallers Ratt, and further elevating bands like epic metallers Cirith Ungol. Most famously, it served as the earliest debut of a little band called Metallica.
The second edition of Metal Massacre was released not even a year later, and it would continue on through to the mid 1980’s highlighting a number of bands that would become massive either in direct popularity or in laying the groundwork for the underground. Some of them would release full lengths on Metal Blade or even form the majority of their careers with the label, as occurred with Armored Saint, Warlord, Trouble, Lizzy Borden, Omen, Fates Warning, and Hirax. Most famously, after Slagel was personally impressed with a very early Slayer’s performance opening for Bitch in Anaheim, he asked the band to record an original song for Metal Massacre III. That song was “Aggressive Perfector,” and Slayer’s early career would be under the wings of Metal Blade until they made the leap to Def Jam with their career defining Reign in Blood. Many other bands never signed on to Metal Blade, but the Metal Massacre series picked them up and helped propel them anyway—such as with Overkill, Virgin Steele, Voivod, Metal Church, Hellhammer, Possessed, Dark Angel, and many more.
Of course, not every band on the compilation went on to fame and glory, and that unfortunately seemed to occur a bit more often by the late 1980’s and onward. The 1990’s only saw two editions released, and from Metal Massacre XII’s release in 1995 it took 11 years till another was put out. That release, Metal Massacre XIII, is perhaps the worst in the series as it seemed to merely serve as a pure label sampler. Not that there aren’t good songs on there (I particularly love the tracks included from Bolt Thrower and Amon Amarth) but it certainly wasn’t the same. The series saw a bit of a rejuvenation ten years later with Metal Massacre XIV again picking up younger talent, though it seemed mostly focused on younger bands reviving the classic metal style the series started with.
Now, 2021 sees the birth of Metal Massacre XV, almost 40 years since the original gave birth to Metal Blade. The 15th edition is also rather special as it sees a return to the ethos of collecting underground bands, to the point where some have barely put out a first release yet. It’s also an especially diverse cross section of the metal music scene, including kick-to-the-face Motörhead rock-outs, bellowing death metal, crusted punk a-go-go, misery-suffocating doom metal and even a flair of traditional heavy metal glory. Furthermore the tracklist plays out smoothly, building anticipation at every song transition. At no point does the album as whole feel like it’s retreading ground, as every band is doing something with their own artistic flair and unique execution. It’s not only one of the best Metal Massacre compilations in potentially decades but also one of the best metal compilations certain in a similar time frame, at least according to my ears.
All this is thanks to Albert Mudrian, Decibel Magazine’s Editor in Chief, who Metal Blade reached out to in order to help curate the compilation. Mudrian certainly knows his way around the metal scene, having piloted one of the most world class metal magazines through years of industry challenges and evolutions: Decibel now not only is the banner for a magazine but has flexi-disk releases, tours, festivals, and a publishing house under its name. So, it was a real pleasure to once again sit down with Mudrian to discuss how Metal Massacre XV came about and his own history with metal compilation albums.
What would you say is your personal history of Metal Blade’s Metal Massacre compilation series? Do you remember the first time you listened to one of them or the first time you were aware of it existing?
I'm 45 right now, so by the time I was cognizant of compilations, Metal Massacre kind of already had been through a couple different phases. Metal Blade wasn't necessarily even like really an underground label by the time I was getting into metal or at least into extreme metal. So it was really something that I learned about when I was reading the history of Metallica, that's really the thing that connected the Metal Massacre series as something that had an impact. Not just an impact on a global scale for heavy metal, but also culturally, for a way to go about discovering new bands. When I think of pivotal compilations of my youth, it's things that are late 80’s to early 90’s. Something more like the Grindcrusher compilation or Peaceville Volume Four. Something like that... and, you know, Metal Massacre is the template for all of that stuff. So when I started to get into compilations and stuff like that it was 10 years down the line from when Metal Massacre established itself. So I just wasn't at an age where it could have impacted me as much at the time, but I was aware of it by just the digging that comes with becoming a fanatical heavy metal fan in your youth.
It's funny as you already touched on what I was gonna ask next, what other metal or punk compilations influenced you?
I can talk about those.
Can you remember what was maybe the first one? I mean you kind of mentioned two there already, so I imagine it was either the Peaceville one or Grindcrusher.
So I have this here [Albert shows on the screen a very well preserved copy of the Grindcrusher compilation on vinyl]. This is still in the house I'm pretty sure and it's so bizarre but I have a Peaceville Volume Four long sleeve. I don't know why they made them but I found it in a catalog. I don't even think it was a Peaceville catalog, rather I think it was like a Relapse records catalog in like 1994 or something. It's the Volume Four cover on the front and the Peaceville logos down the sleeves with all the bands just listed on the back. It's such a strange and weird thing, but...
I've never before heard of a comp as a shirt.
I never did either, man. That era of Peaceville in particular was so crucial to my interests in underground metal. That comp is 1992 so that would have been my first exposure to like At The Gates via "Kingdom Gone", which is on that. That would have been my first exposure to Anathema, I believe “Lovelorn Rhapsody,” though it’s a different recording that doesn't appear on the album Serenades. I think Gothic is on that, I mean, obviously I was familiar with Gothic by then. There was also like all the weird Dreamtime stuff, that was a sub label of Peaceville, that was more electronic based. That's how I first heard about stuff like Kong and G.G.F.H. That was just this other weird world that it was fun to kind of dabble in at that time, when you were like 16 or 17 and discovering all this stuff. There's absolutely no way I would have heard any of those bands without something like Peaceville Volume Four because I wouldn't have sought out that style otherwise. Even knowing that those artists were affiliated with Peaceville via the sub label, I still would just... you know, you have such a limited budget as a teenager and more likely going to have a moment like, "oh, my god, there's a Broken Hope album! I gotta buy that instead," rather than dive deeper into everything else that was on Volume Four. I don't think I have Volume Four on vinyl but there was this comp [Albert pulls out another vinyl record] that preceded it. This is Vile Vibes. Which, man, what a weird ass tracklisting on that, that's like Peaceville circa 1990, like two years prior to Volume Four. So it's really transitional.
So still with the early crust punk?
Yes, like you've got your Deviated Instinct, Doom, and Electro Hippies but there’s also Confessor, Paradise Lost, and Autopsy. So it's really kind of neat in retrospect, though it's only about eight tracks or something. It's a really weird comp. I didn't get that one till after the fact. But yeah, Volume Four would... The Gathering was on that too, I think. Yeah, The Gathering had a song from Always on that. They ended up signing to like Foundation 2000 or something weird; one of those weird European labels that when you go back and look they had like seven releases from around 1992 to 1994 and that was it. But anyway, for me, it was stuff like that which was my Metal Massacre, because there were still a lot of new things to discover that you just wouldn't have been able to spend all that money to acquire. I don't know but there must have been like at least 12 or maybe 14 tracks on it and they were all over the place. There was a bunch of forgettable death metal on there too but I could put that on from start to finish right now and still be totally cool with it and still think it works.
It's an interesting dynamic because I often wonder how universal that experience of a compilation opening doors is, because I definitely have one or two that had a big influence when I was getting into metal. For me I think it was Identity Five and Identity Six from Century Media. It wasn't even until like years later I'd eventually check out something and be like, “Oh yeah, that's from that comp I’ve had from years ago and already heard this before.”
Yeah, I've heard other people, generally people who are younger than me, mentioned the Identity comps in particular as influential to them. I mean the problem for me is I'm so old [laughs]. I've been writing about music for so long that for me those things didn't even register the impact that they could have had. By then, when those things were coming out I was writing already and getting serviced with the full promos of the records from the artists that were featured, but that definitely makes complete sense with your generation. If I was just a few years younger maybe it would have been those comps that were catching me. I remember Relapse had a few. They had Corporate Death early on which I don't know how familiar you are with that one as it was probably 93-ish. The cover is this big high rise building with clearly a Relapse logo photoshopped on the outside. I was so dumb I believed that could have been there. Like their actual offices were that whole building. Relapse in my mind was enormous in 1993 to 1994.
Yeah, what a great world it would be if metal labels had giant office buildings.
Yeah, I mean..
Maybe in Germany.
Well, Nuclear Blast is signing everybody, so I guess it's not impossible. I don't think Metal Blade was big in the comps game in the late 90s. I do remember that Blackend compilation which was a series in, it would have been the late 90s. I think the label was maybe called Blackend or something and it was from Europe [Editor's Note: it was actually called Mystic Production from Poland]. Metal Blade licensed it from them. The first round of them was like the super influential awesome second wave of European black metal bands but by like 1999 it was just getting pretty ugly with what was making the cut and it went downhill really fast. They probably did like four or five of them when they should have done two of them maximum. I mean there were definitely things that you could still hear and find some interesting bands. All of this is obviously pre-internet and it was a great way to find stuff if you didn't have a ton of friends who were buying records all the time and trading tapes. A compilation was potentially the most valuable thing you can get your hands on.
So you were in collaboration with Ryan Williams who according to the press release for the album reached out to you at the recommendation of Nikki Law. So between the two of you, how did you guys devise this thing?
Basically Ryan got in touch and he was like, "do you want to curate this?" and I was like, "I don't know. Do you want me to curate this?” [laughs] I said if you think it's a good idea then sure since this could be a lot of fun. So I put together a list of like a dozen things that I thought could be a good fit. Some of it was just me having direct relationships with the artists, an example of that being Many Suffer which is the solo project of Calvin Robertshaw, formerly guitarist of My Dying Bride, who has been a longtime friend of mine. He'd been honestly feeding me demos of this project for a fucking decade. So as he was getting closer and closer to figuring out how it was all gonna come together I was like, "you know man, I got asked to curate this thing. One of these songs would be great for it if you could do an edit that wasn't 12 minutes long. You know, just shave something.” Which was funny too because every time he would send me demos of stuff over the years my only real criticism would always be "you know what? I don't know if you need that three minute running start to that song.” So when I was eventually like, "look, we can do this, but guess what you got to do? You got to shave this down again” [laughs].
Then there are just bands that I knew and like that I didn't have any relationship with that I thought, "oh, this would be really cool to reach out to see if Midnight Dice would be into having something on it." Then going back to what I said before with other bands that I did have relationships and friendships with, like Andrew Lee from Ripped to Shreds. Just me saying, "hey, you want to record something new for this? I think Ripped to Shreds is fucking great and more people need to hear the band, so having that on here would be awesome.” Then there were things where Ryan was like, “You know what? I really like Fuming Mouth. Do you think we can get them for this?" and I'd be like, "let me hit them up." They were totally into it because they were trying to track something. It's gonna be announced shortly but while I was talking with those guys we decided to do a flexi with Fuming Mouth as well, which will get announced in the next week or so. It's another ripper from them. So it was basically like I put together pretty much, you know, 80% of it. Ryan came in and was just like, "you know what? This is cool. This is cool. I don't think we need this. What if we... I really like this band, can you see if they're interested?"
Then I was looking at it and I think the last band I reached out to was Midnight. We had maybe 90% of the tracklisting done and I was like, "how do we not have a fucking Midnight song on this?"[laughs] Like what? Like how? That band is absolutely as Metal Massacre as you can get in my mind, they're now signed to Metal Blade, and they're friends of ours. So I ask them and they're like, "Yeah, we got a track! We got something!" So fucking perfect. That became immediately the intro track to the comp. It's been a long time since I was working on a tracklisting, probably not since I made a mixtape for my wife 20 years ago, that would have been the last time [laughs]. Really focusing on the order, the where and how for each track fitting... you know how important it is. I will say the styles represented on Metal Massacre XV are pretty eclectic even though you only got 10 bands in 10 spots. So it was a little difficult to sometimes get the flow right. I think there's some jarring transitions at times I think but at least it'll keep you on your toes, I guess.
I mean I love it in part for all the musical diversity on it. I was looking at some of the more recent Metal Massacres that came before. I mean it's interesting because the second before this one [Metal Massacre XIII] they basically seemed to just use it as a label sampler
Yeah, they totally fucked up the brand on that one [laughs].
So it was kind of like "eeehh" when looking back on that one. The most recent previous one [XIV], in I think 2016, it's all newer old school sounding bands. Which is cool as I like some of those bands but again, it was sort of like, “oh, okay. You're doing like a one sub-genre thing.” Which is funny maybe to say because compared to the first Metal Massacre that was what almost all metal was like in 1982. I mean you got the Metallica demo days on there and that's about it for anything beyond classic metal or NWOBHM sounds. I love the fact that you start with Midnight and then you go into something I had never even heard of until playing this comp, which is Poison Ruïn. I was just like, “what the hell is this? This is crusty. It's kind of got even a slight Amebix vibe.” Really strong punk or post-punk vibes. Then like, from there it’s death metal followed by death-doom. Then at the end you got stuff like Midnight Dice and Smoulder. I think you did a really good job in how you shaped it because it never feels like it gets repetitive at any moment.
That's cool man. I don't think I've listened to it in order. So I should, I should try that [laughs].
That's funny to hear. It's like you said, “I don't need to hear that. I think it's alright as it is” before throwing it up in the air.
Well you know what it's like when you know what the songs sound like. We started working on this thing a long time ago. Uhm, definitely... well shit, it must have been like the fall of 2020 or maybe even late summer that year when we started putting it together and I began talking to people. I mean I had all the masters already last year. I lived with those songs for a while and was really familiar with all of them. So yeah, I knew how it could go but yeah I haven't done the actual sitting down from front to back. It's only been the theory and not the practice in terms of if the tracklisting is successful, in that sense.
Was there anyone you weren't sure you were gonna get or was there anyone that you wanted to get that just didn't work out?
You know, not really because with a compilation like this you really want to highlight people who are super excited to be a part of it. The biggest band I reached out to was Midnight and I think pretty much anybody who reads Invisible Oranges or most everybody who'd buy the comp is probably familiar with them. It's not like I called up... I don't know, who's a big band who's left? [laughs]
Testament or something like that.
Yeah, like I'll call up Chuck Billy and say, “you guys got an extra song for this Metal Blade compilation?” I don't want to say I didn't aim high but I didn't aim for a high profile. So there wasn't anything really shot down in that sense but it was all a cognizant choice. There's like you said when we talk about the Metal Massacre series... I guess it would have been 13, right? 14 is the one before this one and that's the one that Alan from Primordial curated.
Oh, I didn't know that.
Yeah, Alan did that one. So the one before his was like10 years earlier. It's like the Ozzfest era and that's when Metal Blade just fucking royally destroyed the brand. Not to say there aren't good bands on it but what it is, is just a sampler. It's not really even a compilation in my mind. Those are two different things. A sampler is something that's for pure promotional purposes only whereas a compilation I feel like that there's a certain art form to it. Like with a movie soundtrack or something where you want to have a flow and I think just some kind of artfulness to how it’s presented. Thankfully Alan came back with that last comp five years ago as I think that helped kind of re-establish Metal Massacre as something viable. It wasn't gonna just be a sampler. Something that would have been the free CD you get at the Ozzfest tent, you know. So I think Alan helped restore some legitimacy to it and then my hope is that this can do that for some of the other genres that were underrepresented in the last one.
Part of what I appreciate with this compilation is like you just said you don't have really big tier bands like Testament or anything like that. The most established band is Midnight and you've got a few others who have albums under their belts, like Temple of Void, but then you get stuff like Poison Ruïn, who I think it would be okay to say are not terribly well known. I think they only have one full length out while you also end the compilation with Mother of Graves who only has one EP out. So there's a lot of bands put together where there is a lot of potential to get bigger, even Midnight. I mean they've got their first album on Metal Blade last year and especially given how great a live band they are there's a lot of potential for them to get even bigger when the pandemic is over and they can hit stages again. So it's cool that you can have stuff that is really underground on there and then stuff that's kind of in that midpoint. It's all stuff with an excitement behind it where it's like, “oh, this could go somewhere.”
I think that's a good way to look at it. Truth is you won't really know what a compilation means until like 5 to 10 years down the line, you know. For example is Mother of Graves is going to develop into something? Are they going to just kind of kick it Brave Murder Day for a couple records or are they going to kind of find their way and develop their own voice a bit? As you said, there's tons of potential there and I think all this stuff is good and solid on its own. Ripped to Shreds is another one where I honestly think that if Andrew has a solid lineup and can get some shows under his belt... like I can tell you that we've got some stuff, well I can't tell you when, but we've got all kinds of stuff lined up with them because I think they're really exciting! When I think about all these bands going old school Swedish death metal style, like that element exists with them, it's interpreted in a much different way that I think gives them a unique sound. They're definitely one of the more exciting death metal bands right now for me.
I mean there's tons of exciting death metal bands that are out now [laughs]. It's stupid right now with how many good ones like Blood Incantation, Necrot, Tomb Mold, and Gatecreeper. Compared to those bigger established bands there are the ones that are a couple rungs below that you can see punching up into that and Ripped to Shreds I feel are one of them. What's the other death metal band… oh yeah, Rude is on there. Another one of those good death metal bands that has probably been ahead of the curve. Pretty much all those bands that I just mentioned they've been at it a decent amount of time. I would expect them [Rude] to have something new soon too.
So yeah, you just kind of see where it goes like this. How does Smoulder develop? Does Midnight Dice get picked up by a bigger label? I think you want that energy because there isn't much fun for anyone having, we'll just use them again as an example, like the one Testament track that's on there. Like is that gonna get you to buy the album? If you're a Testament completist maybe but I don't know. I didn't approach this thinking what's going to help this sell albums. To me it was just let's make sure this is good and hopefully that just sells it. That's kind of my approach to everything though.
Metal Massacre XV released May 21st, 2021 via Metal Blade.
Want more Albert Mudrian content by way of Invisible Oranges? Check out our podcast interview with him about Decibel's 200th issue.