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Meet Charon,the boatman from traditional to thrash - 88%

Gutterscream, April 21st, 2011

“…denim, chains, spikes and leather, we are living in sin…”

This record received quite a bit of play back in the day, at least on the two underground radio shows I used to fill my late weekend nights with - unwitting dawn-of-thrash speed with energetic yet boyishly toned vox, the latter point owing much to the adolescence of eurometallers Hollow Ground and Fist as well as Vince Neil, and the music was vitalized to double speed that, at the time, sounded 12 2/3 rpm too fast. Unfortunately, I didn’t appreciate One Nation Underground as much as I should have, as its value in the pocket-sized scene was unheralded except by high minders who really knew their stuff, the people who rattled off names like Deuce and Vixen as if Marty Friedman was already a frizzy-haired fixture who’d be shredding places literally larger than Hawaii, and here I was stumbling over a moniker I thought was pretty gay for a metal band. Blinded by youth and ignorance, or are they one in the same?

Some time would pass before I finally plunked myself down and gave this an I-will-do-nothing-else type of listen, and I embarrassingly realized that you didn’t need to be a shaman of music to figure out why the hoopla existed at the time. Shrapnel Records' guitarist-oriented agenda wasn’t exactly a mystery, at least not to those familiar with the label, so a spin or two of some of these tracks, especially the wordless album closer “Overture Volcanica” with its nimble-fingered Star Spangled Banner-like triumph, should’ve read like spray paint across the wall. But that’s not all.

One Nation Underground captures a lot of the primordial madness going on in ’83, unnoticed by the world of commercial metal where parents are properly shifting in their seats over the thought of their precious children hearing anything called Shout at the Devil, meanwhile behind their parents’ backs those same kids are being dazzled by ‘new’ bands with sinister (sounding) names - Twisted Sister, Krokus, Dio - heady stuff to those who don’t know any better, and yours truly is a wide-eyed dipshit right there with them. Underneath it all and unbeknownst to most, a crossover brews, coagulating, thickening into the brickwork of a scuzzy, narrow back alley where at one end the well-populated NWOBHM-style sound adjusts its glasses, squints, and witnesses a faster, unoiled, screeching din careening toward it. The moral of the story (finally) is that Hawaii’s superbly named debut is more important than any ‘ol brick in the foundation; the album is an embossed stone aware of its OTT-ness for the time yet stands incognizant of its own radical, velocity-dripped DNA blowing off into what would be thrash and speed’s superstructure. But that’s still not all.

We have some early progressive here, sneaking in under Watchtower’s radar by around two years and even Megadeth’s for that matter. In fact, over the years it’s crept under lots of radar. Mike Varney over at Shrapnel didn’t miss it though, hooking up Mr. Friedman as early as ‘82’s US Metal vol. 2 with a now lost Vixen track. Okay, it’s not like it flies at you every twenty seconds for twenty seconds, but you’re almost guaranteed a fretboard spectacle with every solo and intermediate rhythm and is no wonder Mustaine didn’t begrudge him a spot in Megadeth about seven years down the pike. It’s obvious they were on the same wavelength, even in ’83.

Really though, it’s all right here, and it isn’t like it was molting away unplayed on shelves. More than half of the first side amazingly received airplay - “Living in Sin” fades up from silence already full bore with intensity, that higher form of belligerence not unknown to thrash albums to come with riffs even amazingly thicker, more condensed and nimbler than the bashers on Kill ‘em All, energy tapped and redoubled from Raven’s power source, and makes the driving force of Accept’s ode to antagonism, “Fast as a Shark”, seem suddenly subtle. The title cut hits the same target, almost splitting the previous arrow with a dirtier, more malicious intent that chugs meanly at the start, rumbling through the chorus, and drags Gary St. Pierre’s usually high-end keen down to muddier trenches. And of course the playlist wouldn’t be complete without the melodically spruced “Escape the Night”, a sorrowfully happy glibster to show the unhardened side of the three-piece. Surprisingly, the lower powered of the speedsters on the side, “Silent Nightmare” and “You’re Gonna Burn”, didn’t get the attention, though both do a swell job spacing out the true bruisers.

Fingertapping our way to side two, “Nitro Power” kicks things off with one of those fretboard spectacles addressed earlier, the “Eruption”-style foray reinforcing what we already suspect in Marty, and continues on with the might of its title. “The Pit and the Pendulum” substitutes catchiness with something more clangorous while “Secret of the Stars” is another hefty bag full of sparkling solos, intricate midways, and top notch songwriting. Lots going on here, and by the ending elongated power chord of "Overture Volcanica", things were pretty hot, bothered, and sweaty.

Despite all this, it’s not completely stars and garters for One Nation Underground. Gary St. Pierre sings high…constantly and continually high. He sings higher than Jeff Scott Soto, higher than Lizzy Borden, higher than Vic Wright (Tokyo Blade), in fact I don’t think there’s a guy who sings as habitually ball-tied as this guy. I hate to say it, it’s fortunate he doesn’t stick around for follow-up Loud, Wild and Heavy.

The production via Rendez-vous Recordings in Honolulu isn’t the hottest and is probably the culprit behind the music’s thickness, unwittingly mucking things up to the point where, only in afterthought, it became advantageous to the future and past of metal that I'm sure at the time Marty couldn't stand.

Finally and lastly, there’s the one dopey part in the great “Living in Sin”, this goofy blurb midway through where a deliberate Sherlock Holmes/suspense thriller type of rhythmic dwiddle doesn’t only stall the track’s charge, but awkwardly goes (gay), then piles on more syrup when St. Pierre starts speaking and cackling over it like a Victorian slut. It’s like a wonderful day for a picnic that’s interrupted by a flash flood.

Now to stack it up to other unmeaning conspirators of ‘83’s hidden thrash/speed revelation: Anvil’s Forged In Fire – the rising of aggression and speed in the Anvil camp, equal in hostility, but came from plusher beginnings. Exciter’s Heavy Metal Maniac – wouldn’t see true fury ‘til Violence & Force, but less of a bite to be reckoned with on their debut. Venom’s At War With Satan – already starting to peeter out, and with two albums under their blackened belt that aren’t thrash or all that speedy, it’s pretty obvious they’re not taking that direction. Mercyful Fate’s Melissa – forget about it, and St. Pierre is also more annoying than KD. Show No Mercy – thrashy as hell, undeniable, but by December almost out of range, and we know which at least halfway thrash album came out prior to it…if you can’t figure out which one I’m speaking of, go back to your Whitesnake records.

So One Nation Underground stands a proponent to thrash, maybe the closest proponent to it without actually being considered of the style. Then again, in some alien cosmos where Metallica doesn’t exist, maybe it is.

Sorry for the length.