An oral history of Chicago’s metal scene: the early years
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Several American locales come to mind as hotbeds for the myriad subgenres of metal and extreme music in general. San Francisco spawned breakneck, punk-influenced thrash metal. New York City and Florida birthed their own putrid forms of death metal. And New Orleans gave rise to a unique, sludge-metal sound as thick as its bayous.
Despite being located in one of the three largest cities in the U.S., Chicago’s metal scene, by comparison, has never gained as much of a reputation—at least not until recently. In light of the critical acclaim and national recognition modern Chicago acts like Nachtmystium and Yakuza have received, The A.V. Club compiled this oral history to serve as a crash course on the history of the Chicago metal scene.
Part one: the early days
Scott Carroll (guitarist, Cianide): I think Trouble were the first original heavy metal band [in Chicago] who were actually really heavy and not hard rock-y. They were just really heavy. That first album—Jesus Christ, Trouble started in ’79, just being Sabbath-y and heavy. They were the first to maybe define a sound of heaviness [in the scene], and maybe everyone kind of took that sound a little. But everyone loved Trouble. I don’t care who you were. If you were in underground metal at any point, you loved Trouble.
Paul Speckmann (vocalist-bassist, Master; vocalist-bassist, Abomination; vocalist-bassist, Death Strike; bassist, War Cry; vocalist-bassist, Funeral Bitch): The early metal scene was a [traditional] heavy metal scene. You had these bands like Trouble and Zoetrope and Thrust, and it was a camaraderie back then. We were all going to support each other’s shows, and everybody was really friends. We had a lot of good times back then.
SC: Zoetrope used to open up for everybody. It got to the point where it was annoying. But as soon as they came on, you loved ’em and you were headbanging. My first underground show was seeing Exciter and Megadeth and Zoetrope. Zoetrope, to me, are legends in Chicago. They were the earliest band that brought everyone together. I love the really old stuff, early ’80s metal, like Trouble and Zoetrope and Thrust. That stuff’s gold to me. Even those bands just sounded completely different from each other. Trouble had the total Sabbath thing down. Zoetrope had a little bit of hardcore, mixing it with this Motörhead-y, kind of speed-metal type shit. They had two albums on Combat that were just legendary for me. Thrust were on Metal Blade, but then they broke up. They were more like a real hard Judas Priest-type thing. They were all different, but those guys used to always do shows together. Zoetrope started getting more into the hardcore punk scene, and they started taking on Master, and then Master started playing with Thrust. So Master started playing with all of the old heavy metal bands. It was pretty fucking cool. And Speckmann’s first band, War Cry? Fuck, man. You wanna talk about heavy shit, it was like Sabbath with more double-bass drumming. [Laughs.]
Mike Perun (vocalist-bassist, Cianide): A [Ronnie James] Dio-era Sabbath with double-bass drums.
Bruce Lamont (vocalist-saxophonist, Yakuza; vocalist, Bloodiest): I’m born-and-raised Chicago, so my first experience with the Chicago metal scene was seeing bands like Trouble and Zoetrope back in the late ’80s. Of course, these are all early bands, like Cianide, who are from the South Side. That’s where I’m from. There was a big death metal scene there for a long time, and then you had the grind stuff from way up north.
SC: The North Side was definitely even more advanced than we were on the South Side, as far as underground shit. It was always more underground up there.
MP: On the South Side, there was always more of a glam scene. What was that club’s name?
SC: “Kats”—with a “K”! [Laughs.] There wasn’t much death metal on the South Side. It was more just traditional heavy metal. I love all the old Chicago metal. I’ve got a huge collection of it.
MP: You can’t talk about early Chicago stuff without mentioning Macabre, too.
SC: They had their own fucking thing, you know? Nobody even wanted to go near their style, because it was too fucking crazy. They were three more characters who just stayed true to themselves. Longevity-wise, right now it’s Macabre and us [Cianide]. We started playing in ’88. We’re dying for Macabre to break up so we can be the long-reigning kings. [Laughs.] I just saw Chuck [a.k.a. Nefarious, Macabre bassist] at a Nunslaughter show, and his whole head’s all white—all white hair, and his beard’s white. It’s like, “Hey, you’re going white. Would you guys just break up already so we can fucking beat your record?” They’re still the reigning kings of the same three guys from ’87. That’s crazy, man.
MP: I think that’s what makes Chicago cool, though. With most of the bands, I think everybody just has their own unique sound.
SC: That’s what is Chicago. It’s just the uniqueness. Maybe it’s just from the neighborhoods we grew up in. We’re South Siders. Maybe the North Siders are a little different. What stores you shop in, what kind of beer you’re drinking ... I don’t know.
Anyways, Speckmann got into more Discharge and stuff. That’s when he started doing Master and Death Strike.
MP: He was in Funeral Bitch, too.
SC: But that was after. Funeral Nation and Abomination were separate bands. Abomination was their own band without Speckmann, but Speckmann went to see ’em one day and said, “I like that drummer!” Somehow, he fuckin’ befriended him and stole the drummer, and the drummer owned the name, so Speckmann was like, “We’re Abomination now.” The other guys were like, “Well, what are we?” That was when they formed Funeral Nation with the other two guys Speckmann left in Funeral Bitch. The Funeral Nation album’s great, too. It’s really classic. It’s really Satanic and evil, but more on the thrash side. It doesn’t sound like anybody. I saw the first Abomination, and they were super Satanic, man. Next thing you see, Speckmann’s in Abomination.
JN: He’s like the Gene Simmons of the underground metal scene. He invented everything. I didn’t come around until the late ’80s, and that was probably around that time. Speckmann was always telling you how great all of his bands were.
MP: It was weird seeing interviews back in the day of, like, Napalm Death and bands like that mentioning Master. It was like, “Hey, they’re our hometown guys! Fuckin’ A!”
SC: It’s that sound, man. That chainsaw sound and that drum beat. “Du-ba-du-ba-du-ba.” Nobody else was doing it. But Speckmann started joining every other band. He stopped doing Master and started doing Abomination. He started doing Funeral Bitch, and then he quit all that. Devastation broke up. Terminal Death broke up. Sindrome did a killer first demo, and then their second demo got, like, two new guitar players and completely changed their sound to be all “thrashy.” So, it all kind of died. That’s what happened to ’em. ’Cause “thrash was getting big.” Master could’ve been awesome.
MP: And then he ruined his deal with Combat. He could’ve been huge.
SC: Right. He could’ve been. I mean, he came up with this shit. Terminal Death was another band that was fucking awesome. They sounded like a 16-year-old version of Master. They even said, “We wanna be Master.” They sounded like ’em. They broke up and Shaun [Glass] went to Sindrome.
Shaun Glass (bassist, Terminal Death; bassist, Sindrome; bassist, Broken Hope; guitarist, Dirge Within): A lot of people said stuff like that. Terminal Death was never meant for success. We were kids. I really think that we were just so young that we were ahead of the times in some ways in the Chicago metal scene, and what we did, and what we started may have left some blueprints. We were never like, “We wanna go on tour! We want a record deal!” We did it because we were fans of metal and we wanted to have fun. It was a real sacred era. It was untouched grounds in Chicago metal in 1985. Realistically, I think the band had 10 songs to its name. It really was something that was very premature. Sindrome, however—now that is a long story.
MP: Sindrome was almost like a “supergroup” of Chicago bands.
SC: Right. There was a guy from Master, two guys from Devastation; the bass player was from Terminal Death. That first Sindrome demo was just legendary. It’s that good. And they never did anything because, basically, their egos were too big. They wanted to conquer the world. They used to walk around just thinking they were the cat’s ass, and technically, they kinda were.
MP: We helped ’em along, too. [Laughs.]
SC: You’re right. They were something else, too. But Master was just about to get signed, and that hope died. Sindrome was like the next big “buzz” band. Everybody knew that they were gonna do something. And time went on, time went on. Nothing was happening.
JN: In the old days, Master always thought they were gonna take over the world, and they should have. They had the music, they had the idea, they were original, and they were brilliant. They were brutal and insane. Then Sindrome thought they were gonna take over. On a business level, they were gonna do it. They were recording demos at Morrisound. They were holding out for the big, major-label contract. The rumor was that Earache offered them a great deal before Earache became really big. They were waiting for, like, the Columbia deal, and it just never happened. [Laughs.] They had the mailing list and the fanny packs and the whole thing, and it’s like, “Who do those guys think they are?” We were all getting drunk under the train tracks before a show.
SC: They did a tour with, I think, Whiplash and At War, and we all thought, “They’ll do this tour and then they’ll come back and do a record.” The demo came out in ’87, and as time went on—a couple of years later—they got rid of their guitar players, and Troy [Dixler] flew everybody down to Florida to do their second demo at Morrisound. That’s how much money this guy had. He was their singer. But then they came back with just this totally technical thrash sound.
SG: When Terminal Death broke up, Troy had left Devastation, and he and I both wanted to start a new band. We recruited members and formed Sindrome in late 1987. I think Sindrome was poised to be really big, and then we went through a lineup change. After we did that, we changed styles a little bit and got more mature and more progressive. I think that showed the band hugely grew up and developed, but we definitely lost some of our base. The labels that were offering us were not up to Troy’s standards. He didn’t think signing to an independent metal label was smart. I was ready to sign to Metal Blade or Roadrunner or whatever, but Troy had invested a lot of his own time and personal money into the band, and had such big expectations, that I don’t think anything could have lived up to his expectations.
JN: A handful of bands from our generation started getting signed, like The Dead Youth. Later they became Usurper, but originally, it was The Dead Youth. They got a record contract, and then Cianide was super pissed. It was [Dead Youth bassist] John Karnes who talked Grindcore Records into signing Cianide, but then they were rivals on the same label. And then Funeral Nation got picked up by Turbo. There were all of these new labels that were “gonna be huge,” but never did anything. But as soon as bands started getting signed, there was this “Who does that motherfucker think he is?” kind of attitude. I guess, in a way, it was detrimental to the scene. But it also helped spur bands on to try to be better. There was always this underlying competition. We’d see each other at a party and have a drink and talk about Slayer, but once we all got drunk enough, we’d start motherfucking each other.
PS: When the bands started getting signed and stuff, everybody’s attitude started to change.
BL: I had experienced some of that when I was a kid going to shows and just starting in bands in the early ’90s, too. I didn’t really understand it, you know? I didn’t understand why that had to be the case. Now, there’s not really any need for that at all.
SC: Speckmann moved down to Phoenix for a while, and he had some terrible fuckin’ guy named Daley, who was his manager. I think that dude fucked him over. It wasn’t Rich Daley. [Laughs.] Or maybe it was him. Maybe it was the fuckin’ mayor. [Laughs.] I wouldn’t doubt it, man. King Richard. But yeah, he moved down to Phoenix for a while, and maybe he lived in Florida. Who knows? He had a whole different lineup of Master down in Phoenix and did one demo. It was kind of cool, but didn’t sound like Master. When he moved out of America, I thought it was genius. He’d been bitchin’ about America for years, and he finally said “Fuck it” and moved.
PS: I was active in Chicago probably from 1981 to the early ’90s. I lived in Holland in 1993. In the early ’90s, I was living in Arizona and California. In 2000, I moved to the Czech Republic.
MP: He wasn’t like any lame Rage Against The Machine, who bitch about America and then make all their money here.
SC: He just said, “Fuck you, I’m out of here.” Now he’s in the Czech Republic, you know. Great country. Super free. Everyone’s got great jobs. Whatever. At least he did what he said he wanted to do. I love Speckmann, though. People say he’s an asshole or he’s bigheaded and shit, but I could give a shit. I’m glad he is. I don’t know him that well.
MP: If someone needs to have a big head, it’s him. He deserves it.
Tomorrow, part two in our four-part oral history of Chicago’s metal scene: “Location, location, location.”