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It's a fool's errand to point to a single person or band and attribute the birth of an entire genre to him/them, as there are always multiple players involved in such macro-evolutionary events. Nevertheless, it isn't out of line to credit the pioneering San Francisco act Possessed with beginning the putrid beast that is death metal, and not merely for putting forth a song title that became the genre's name. There is a certain threshold that is crossed when the intensity and vileness of thrash gives way to something even more evil, and while Slayer was definitely hinting at this eventuality, the first LP that truly captured all the essential elements was "Seven Churches", an album that has rightly earned its place as one of the sickest and most formidable offerings of the entire 80s decade. While some have taken a revisionist approach to this album and simply pass it off as a unique thrash offering due to the wide gap that exists between it and the brutality-obsessed character that Suffocation and Cannibal Corpse ushered in during the 90s, it's pretty difficult to miss the heavy similarities that this album shares with the early offerings of Death, Morbid Angel and Deicide, bands whose death metal credentials have never been questioned.
As with any lofty claim of historical significance, there comes an obvious necessity for something truly groundbreaking to be present in such an album, and "Seven Churches" clearly listens like an album years ahead of its time. The atmospheric aesthetic in play here is far darker and more morbid than anything that Slayer had put together on "Show No Mercy" or "Haunting The Chapel", and hints pretty heavily at the deep, haunting deluge of chaotic rage that typified Morbid Angel's "Altars Of Madness", missing only the signature blast beats that were a staple of said album. But while blasting is not in the drumming repertoire, this album more than makes up with it by offering up a rapid shifting array of beats and fills that actually appears to be predicting techniques that would be employed heavily on Cannibal Corpse's more technical works in the early to mid 90s. Similarly, the vocal work found on here is the first really distinctive example of the guttural barking sound that would come to dominate the late 80s Florida scene, though Jeff Becerra's David Vincent-like shout is still a far cry from the unintelligible frog-groans that took over in the 90s and has since been considered a requirement for a qualified death metal sound.
Yet while the guitar tone is definitely darker and less percussive, the drum work far more chaotic and wandering, and the vocals clearly on the road toward something far removed from the orthodox thrash shout of Hetfield and Araya, this album still maintains an essential thrash metal quality to it that makes identification with a number of early extreme progenitors of the redder variety of thrash very easy. The mixture of palm muted stops and starts, along with the introduction of the tremolo based melodic line still see a strong affinity with the mid 80s Slayer sound, and definitely shares a high amount of commonality with contemporary international thrashers such as Kreator and Sepultura, though their respective LP offerings that warrant the strongest comparisons wouldn't come to be for another year. In the same essence, the guitar soloing style is heavily informed by the Kerry/Hanneman approach to dueling leads, though restrained a bit more and having a stronger melodic sensibility rather than a continuous bombardment of scale runs and whammy bar noise. And ultimately the songwriting mostly conforms itself to a standard high octane thrash effort, one that is maybe a little bit more muddied and crushing that "Hell Awaits", but operating on a very similar wavelength.
If nothing else, the distance that Possessed put between itself and the Big 4 warrants an equal if not completely separate level of recognition in shaping the overall tone and character of extreme metal in the years that followed 1985. The eerie atmospherics that are accomplished in the haunting keyboard intro of "The Exorcist" and the doomsday bell with a hint of dissonant turbulence of the melodic character of "Fallen Angel", alone put this in very different territory from anything that Slayer or Metallica had delved into by this point. Likewise, while the riffs are still largely based in the speed metal repertoire and tonality that was borrowed from the NWOBHM acts to help birth thrash metal a few years prior, the manner in which they are implemented is quite more involved and complex than the formulaic repetition heard on "Hell Awaits" and the rigid, heavy metal-like structure of "Ride The Lightning" (not to downplay either of these very consequential albums). Even the aforementioned song "Death Metal", which was first head on Possessed's 1984 demo and is one of their more simple offerings, touches upon far darker territory than the most messed up moments on "Haunting The Chapel".
There is literally no way to downplay the significance of this album without engaging in some really outlandish leaps in revisionist history, which would obviously involve downplaying Chuck Schuldiner's impact on death metal's formation since this band inspired him to move beyond conventional thrash metal. For someone who doesn't listen to 80s extreme metal and thinks that true brutality only exists when the lyrics of an album are as gore obsessed as a raving lunatic suffering from surgical addiction, dismissing the entire 1st generation of death metal albums that were still tied, in some respects, to the thrash style is somewhat logical, but it also involved severing the tree from its life-giving roots. While it may be possible to dislike this album musically because of its dated and low-fidelity production, denying its significance shouldn't be. Anyone who enjoys any brand of extreme metal, be it death or black in persuasion, should hear this album at least once, and all self-respecting death thrashers should multiply that number by a much larger one.