Author's note: Welcome to our first installment of Graves of the 80s, dedicated to exploring the best death metal, black metal and grindcore from that formative decade. Yes, I got the name from the Darkthrone song.
About This Series
This series is dedicated to extreme metal’s early development in the 1980s, and focuses on some of the key albums from that decade. While death metal, black metal, grindcore and their various combinations and offshoots would gain notoriety, prominence, and (some) commercial success in the 1990s and beyond, there’s something uniquely fascinating about the early years. It was an age of volcanic creativity in which the core essence of various styles came together, developed and then became distinct.
So, what do we mean by “extreme”? Here are some basic parameters. First off, if you play it for a group of normie non-metal fans, does it clear the room? Extreme music inspires extreme feelings, from severe revulsion from its detractors, to fierce loyalty and devotion from its supporters. Second, can you still hum along with the vocals? If that’s true, it probably doesn’t qualify. Third, does it fear the reaper, or does it identify with him? Extreme metal represents an artistic break from the classic canon through its fascination or even positive affirmation of evil. Finally, what do the riffs sound like? If it’s too bluesy or just sounds like Iron Maiden played faster, that’s not enough of a clean break.
In aggregate, this means anything more extreme than Slayer. Think of it like this: extreme metal is anything that took the contributions of Slayer, the German thrash bands, Venom, Dark Angel, hardcore, d-beat, street punk, and death rock and brought them to a logical conclusion. Back in 2015, I talked about the “1985 sound” that comprised a mix of bands that contributed to extreme metal and others that would give it a recognizable shape. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll be dedicating this series to the latter. I want to focus on music that brought about new forms of heavy metal expression and go beyond the inane analysis of “It broke new ground!”
So, with that out of the way, let’s talk about Seven Churches.
Background: Possessed By Death Metal
Possessed is an established name among death metal diehards, but here’s some quick context for anyone unfamiliar. Not all of our readers were alive in 1985 (hell, even I wasn’t) or have read up as obsessively as everyone else, so it doesn’t hurt to bring everyone up to speed.
The band formed in the San Francisco bay area in 1983. In this incarnation, the band consisted of vocalist and bassist Jeff Becerra, guitarist Mike Torrao, guitarist Larry LaLonde, and drummer Mike Sus. Inspired by bands like Slayer, Exodus, and Venom, Possessed immediately stood out among their contemporaries for their ferocious and blasphemous style of metal. Indeed, the influence of Venom here cannot be overstated. In a brief 1986 interview in the Slayer Mag fanzine, the band’s guitarist Mike Torrao told Metalion that Venom’s Black Metal was the best album he’d ever heard. The band released its demo, simply titled Death Metal, in 1984 — the same year Death put out Death by Metal (as Mantas at the time) and Reign of Terror. The band was at the burning edge of the metal blade, and was about to make a decisive cut when they signed to Combat records.
In Albert Mudrian’s book Choosing Death, Jeff Becerra offered some amusing details about the recording of Seven Churches, conducted at Prairie Sun Studios in Cotati, California:
“To this day I still refer to that album as ‘Seven Chickens,’” Becerra explains. “It was on a chicken ranch. Most of them were in chicken coops. And I remember they were running around, and when you’d actually start playing, they’d go to the other side of the yard. Horses will do that too, when you play death metal — it’s like completely unnatural to them. Death metal scares the fuck out of people, too, and 99.9 percent will hate you, animals included.”
Hence my point about being able to clear a room.
The band would go on to create more straightforward thrash metal material on 1986’s Beyond the Gates and the 1989 EP, The Eyes of Horror before Jeff was shot in an armed robbery and paralyzed from the waist down. After a long series of struggles and lifestyle changes that are outside the scope of this article, Jeff would return with a reformed Possessed in the 2010s. It’s hard to assume what the band would have done during the 1990s, but it’s still great to have Jeff back in action.
The Music: Off The Rails, Into The Fire
Alright let’s get this out of the way. Yes, Seven Churches is the first death metal record. True, the definition wasn’t totally formalized yet, as many terms were used interchangeably at the time. In the aforementioned interview with Metalion, Mike Torrao signed off saying: “KEEP THRASHING TO BLACK DEATH MEAL AAAARRRGGHHHH.” But I still feel comfortable saying that Seven Churches is more than just a dark thrash metal album.
For some readers, this is a long-ago accepted and boring observation. To others, this still comes off like a hot take, and I can understand why. When compared to the rest of the death metal canon, the sound isn’t as refined and recognizable as it would become later in the decade. When we consider Death’s Scream Bloody Gore or Obituary’s Slowly We Rot, there is no debate — those are death metal records. Seven Churches has a lot of leftover vibes from thrash metal, so it gets tricky. However, Metallica’s Kill Em’ All and Slayer’s Show No Mercy are basically heavier variations of classic heavy metal, but have enough extra speed and aggression that no one denies their place in thrash.
If we’re honest with ourselves as music fans, a lot of stylistic definitions simply come down to vibes. It’s not simply the mix of techniques and progressions of notes, it’s the mood and feeling they create in the listener. To paraphrase a famous quote about another extreme art form: I know it when I hear it. And you sure as hell hear it on Seven Churches.
In this case, the death metal extremity comes from the off-putting nature of the playing. When you first hear Seven Churches, you can tell why audiences were baffled by it at the time. The record lacks the precision of a lot of thrash, which becomes evident immediately on “The Exorcist,” the album’s terrifying opening track. The guitar tone is simply hellish, evoking a strange burning sensation, one that only flares hotter during the riff at 1:20. Additionally, the odd drum timing comes across like a mistake, but one that only adds to the music’s unhinged quality.
And thus the fire burns without letting up through the swirling chaos of “Pentagram,” the devilish party soundtrack on “Evil Warriors,” and “Satan’s Curse” — a song that points directly to a tremolo-picking style that would be perfected by the likes of Morbid Angel and Deicide. And to take the metaphor all the way, there is a song called “Burning In Hell,” which features some of the quick licks the band liked to insert between guitar lines. It’s a cool little tweak that catches the listener off-guard upon first listen.
Jeff Becerra’s vocals take the next step from Tom Araya’s shouting and Cronos’s barking by smashing the techniques together. It’s not quite the “cookie monster” vocals people associate with death metal, but it is one of many tactics of throaty growling that would become standard among many other practitioners. These vocals, along with the album’s raw production sound and Satanic imagery, also dip the album slightly in the black metal direction.
(Fenriz wanted to include Possessed on his compilation Fenriz Presents… The Best of Old-School Black Metal, but apparently Larry LaLonde refused permission to be included. God knows why, seems a little ridiculous.)
Lyrically, while “The Exorcist” seems directly inspired by the film, the rest of the songs explore themes of openly embracing Satan and the powers of hell. Here’s an example from “Pentagram”:
Giant kingdom down below
Where the lord of darkness sits and waits
For a poor lost mortal to come in
When he lowers down his gates
You can't escape your destiny
So take my hand and fly
To an evil land of fantasy
Inside of Satan's eye
Oh, and the last song is called “Death Metal,” with lyrics I imagine accurately describe most non-fans’ attitude to this music:
Ruling your cities
Controlling your towns
Entrapped in your worst nightmare
Piercing your ears
With a horrible sound
It should also be noted that Possessed isn’t the only band with a song under this name that came out in 1985. Onslaught’s Power From Hell includes another song by this title. And while that album totally rules, it sounds more like The Exploited and G.B.H. … if they really liked Satan.
Artistic Legacy: Burning In Glory
To prog-snobs who judge music by how difficult it is to play, the album’s loose and unfinished quality is unforgivable. But metal’s evolution has often come from people trying things for the first time without quite knowing what they’re doing. Progress requires risks, including the risk of hearing some nerd say they could time the fills on “Fallen Angel” better than Mike Sus did. Whatever.
In 2023, Seven Churches stands on its own terms as a hellishly great listen, a singular achievement for its confounding and blazing quality. You practically feel the spiked gauntlets growing on your hands as you listen. And it’s part of why there was legitimate anticipation and excitement for Possessed reformed comeback album, Revelations of Oblivion, in 2019. As guitarist Larry LeLonde said in a 2011 interview:
"We made Seven Churches and there wasn’t a lot of death metal then. There was Slayer and Venom so we were still trying to invent some kind of new music. What I remember about that time is that it was really about trying to come up with something new. You know now there’s been so much death metal and everything has been pushed so far and it’s kind of hard to imagine that there was a time when people were inventing this stuff. But even when I listen back to that record, even for death metal it was kind of weird music."
And hey, he would know, he wound up joining Primus, after all.