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Living Death might be better considered a speed and power metal infiltration squad who latched onto the thrash medium a few years into their development, but there's no real argument that even this debut album, Vengeance of Hell, contained the raw and rugged guitars and aggression comparable to old Metallica or their closer kin in Destruction. Despite its crude standards, and the rather shaky presence of frontman Thorsten Bergmann, there's a certain curb appeal here that unquestionably takes you straight back to the early through mid 80s excitement of uncertainty and menace that was so prevalent before the days of Wikipedia, instant internet gratification and guttural brutes attempting to out stomp one another.
Bergmann is clearly the weak point to this recording, because half of the album is spent with him sounding like he's trying to clear his throat or evoke images of two old women bickering at the local market. It's particularly annoying in a track like "Living Death" or "Riding a Virgin", where it almost nullifies the music completely, but a little less of a distraction in the great "Heavy Metal Hurricane", "You and Me", "My Victim", or the crushing "Vengeance of Hell" itself, in which he actually creates some appeal through the siren-like wailing, though he still might have you hovering upon the precipice of outright laughter. When the band drops the faster, speed/thrash elements for a pretty straight up metal tune like the pumping, nasally "Nightlight" or "Hellpike", the results become more varied. Clearly the guy has a voice, and can hit notes, but he almost seems to be under the illusion that he's a comedian and that people might want to experience his absurdity over the scorching metallic undercurrent.
As far as the riffs, they're fairly comparable to Running Wild, Judas Priest or Accept of their day, with a few surges into ruthless power thrash that serve as precognitions for their later 80s, 90s fare. The album has never sounded very good, even when it was released, and this primacy is one nagging flaw difficult to shake, even if you can get past some of the more awkward vocals. Still, I have to say that I still really enjoy the album for its musical attitude and nostalgic atmosphere. It's not the jewel atop the Living Death crown, I could bestow that honor only on the far thrashier Protected from Reality, which makes this look like a shaggy, unkempt peasant guest at a regal Renaissance dinner gathering. But it's fun despite its glaring 'problem'.
“…it was a battle like heavy metal, all the freaks banged their heads…”
I’ve always thought this was a rather uninteresting if not wrongly hair-raising album, recollections of homely Thorsten Bergmann and his clowning, feeble, and below-par King Diamond-hued vocal diction awakening frigid shivers down to my tailbone, but somewhere in the folds of my mind I knew it wasn’t all that bad. So here I am blowing cobwebs off the thing to give it another fateful whirl, thinking burning ants with a magnifying glass may perhaps be more constructive. Concentrate on the music…Bergmann is but a phantom of your imagination…adapt, overcome…it’s just not that easy, but with some practice becomes tolerable.
Many times during this German nine-songer, aggressive and dogged momentum that can easily raise a checkered flag at the speed metal checkpoint is the backbone guitar charge of guitarists Frank Fricke and Reiner Kelch, and first and top track “You and Me” flies out of the gate with the screech of burning rubber. Unfortunately, curtailing much of the power that is obviously stewing is a frail production where the guitars are buried in the vox’s coffin and the bass is embalmed even further. Despite this distraction, a concentrated, vigorous rhythmic delivery and addictive chorus possesses “You and Me”. “Living Death” has a haunting narrative that acts as a half-assed intro and turns out to be a nice antipode to the driving riffage that comes momentarily. From here, “Night Light” does an about-face and plunges neck first into the band’s guillotine of goofiness; a short story of hitting the sack with someone, and while the main riff is the shiniest moment (but not at all blinding), it still doesn’t throw the track a lifesaver. Luckily, the five-piece know when to spread cheese as well as how much (until the lp’s end, that is), and by following “Night Light” with the strong, virile “My Victim”, lessen the damage report, meanwhile “Labyrinth” is a mostly inconclusive, soft-fisted instrumental that puts a lid on side one.
As one would expect, “Heavy Metal Hurricane” is another quick-paced slasher that fortunately doesn’t sky write ‘anthem’ across it and is a fine choice to groove the start of side two. On top of that, the vocals actually don’t make me want to stick my head in the toilet. Oddly, “Hellpike” begins with some warning signs that a ballad may be blooming; a slow, sensitive solo surrounded by a like-minded melody that may be a tad heavier than Dokken, but before we stick screwdrivers in our ears, heaviness claws through the near serenity to produce an acceptable hard roller with a chorus that’s as memorable as it is simplistic. On second thought, where’re those screwdrivers? We’re going to need them for the annoying and vocally suicidal “Riding a Virgin”. Horrid. The title cut, while thirteen times better than “Riding a Virgin”, still dangles from the rope of mediocrity, a meandering pedestrian track that has no business following such a song or closing the (or any) album.
For an album that ends as punch-less and plain as the back of a postage stamp and with vocals about as appetizing, it’s not that bad an album, and I find myself fine-tuning my original opinion of the band. I believe you can thank Bergmann for their lack of distinction among early thrash/speed groups, and I still can’t understand why the rest of the band didn’t take one audible gander at this and give him the boot.
I like to imagine the band with a potent, spleen-stomping vocalist…perhaps their countrymate from Iron Angel… and conceive what could have been, but there’s no use laboring over what wasn’t.
Living Death formed around 1980 around the core lineup of Reiner Kelch on guitars and Dieter Kelch on bass. After adding vocalist Thorsten "Toto" Bergmann, guitarist Frank Fricke and drummer Frank Schubring, Living Death set about raising hell in their hometown Velbert, more noted for its disco scene. Some demos caught the attention of various labels, and in 1983 Living Death were signed to Earthshaker records. Just before the recording of their first album, Schubring departed, leaving Living Death to record their first album with a session drummer Eric. Living Death's first effort was released the next year.
What we have here is some rather standard heavy/speed metal very much in the vein of Accept and Motorhead. Most of the songs are quick slices of speed metal, in particular You And Me, Living Death and My Victim. They also have a few AC/DC style midpaced crunchers, most notably Night Light. A definite highlight would be Heavy Metal Hurricane, which seems to carry an intensity not found in the other cuts. The guitarists (who would 'secretly' become members of progressive thrashers Mekong Delta) work well together, locking in tightly and providing some aggressive rhythm work. A better representation of their style is in the instrumental Labyrinth, where they peel off an aggressive downpicked rhythm similar to that of Anthrax's Belly Of The Beast. Dieter Kelch is quite hard to hear in the mix, but seems to follow the guitars for the most part. Eric plays it safe for the most part here, laying down a beat and not really going for too many fills. He uses quite a bit of double-bass here and there, and gets a short drum solo in Night Light, which does the job well. The weak link in this lineup however is Thorsten Bergmann. Those who complain about Sean Killian will have plenty to bitch about here. His vocals come across as a cleaner and far less powerful version of Udo Dirkschneider, and his falsetto is a weaker King Diamond. He also can't really hold a tune either except for a few cuts. He is almost intolerable on Riding A Virgin in particular. The production is the other main problem I have with the album. The album sounds very weak, with the bass not having much presence and the guitars not having enough power at times. There are also some inconsistencies in the production from song to song. A notable error occurs on Hellpike, where in the intro one of the guitars is buried, which makes it sound weak.
Overall, there is some nice heavy/speed metal to be found, although nothing too noteworthy. If you can get past the production errors and the poor vocals, you could find this very enjoyable.