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One way or another, in the late 80's / start of 90's, almost every band had a splash from the fever of "prog/technical" metal. It happened to Metallica, with their megalomaniac, some kind of failed experiment - but still an interesting audition - "...And Justice for All", it happened to Heathen, with their melodic, monolithic "Victims of Deception", it happened, somehow, to Megadeth in "Rust in Piece". Anyway, it happened to many bands. One of the firsts groups to join this "adventure", before it was “cool” were Razor. Yes. Those canadians who used to play a fast, loud, dirty and aggresive sound, the result from an orgy between Motörhead and Slayer, but having its own identity.
"Custom Killing" was released in the mid-1987. It was pretty different from anything the band had released so far. Gone was the completely savage blood bath from their first albuns. Now their sound was more elaborated, with long compositions, very time changes, complex arrangements (for their standards) and a requirement of a lot of patience and time to appreciate the whole album (You'll figure out of what I'm talkin about soon). All I can say is that something went wrong. The road became foggy to them. Few things really shines or outstands in this disc.
The main problem here is that the primary purpose of this release isn’t clarified enough. They tried (and kinda "achieved") to write "epic", progressive, technical material. Tracks 1 and 4 do have interesting riffs, some smart lyrics (or do you prefer some poetic stuff like "Miami", of "Shotgun Justice?") but it's lacking something. I don't know if every time you'll listen to "Custom Killing", you'll try to find, hidden somewhere, a gem of the level of "Legacy of Doom" or "Instant Death", or you'll just expect them to play their promise of a technical, progressive sound with competency. "Survival of the Fittest" and "Last Rites" are like different pieces "glued" to each other, composing a single song (something Rush did a lot in the 70's). They just don't work very well...
But don't get me wrong. This is not a all that bad album. It can be very interesting, especially to the first listeners. The songs, despite the problems mentioned above, have their strong points. "Shootout" and "Forced Annihilation" are classic Razor, "Survival of the Fist" and "Last Rites" are, among other things, great tracks. You should listen to them close and get your own conclusions. "Russian Ballet", "Snake Eyes" and "White Noise" are shit, a waste of vinyl material. The mixing of the album follows the "Razor standard". In other words: it's a mess. The volume of the guitars is too low, while the bass is unexplicably loud, the drum sounds weird and loosely played, and the vocals... well... oh, c'mon! It's Sheepdog who's singing, god dammit!
A little experimentation here and there is very well welcomed. (I said "experimentation". "Selling out" is completely different...) You may start shy, like Riot and the horn sections of "The Privilege of Power" and the whitesnakesque "Another Perfect Day" Motörhead's release (how I love that record), or go deep and hard, like "Somewhere in Time" and "Never Say Die" had done. Whatever, you do, just know what you are doing! If you're outside of UK, USA or Germany, your band has a vocalist who is better at spitting into the microphone than properly singing (believe me, it's a compliment), your drummer keeps getting worse and worse, your band lacks record label's support, you have a tight budget, your concerts don’t make a lot of money etc., then rearrange your ideas, or just keep doing what you are good in doing and forget about the rest. At least, It’s for a good reason.
...and it doesn't sit well with me. What happened to these guys at this time? "Malicious Intent" wasn't great, yeah, but it definitely wasn't a bad album by any stretch. But what were they thinking when they were writing this stuff up? I mean, the whole of "Custom Killing" in of itself isn't a bad idea; Razor, a thrash band known mostly for shorter, punchier anthems tackling more complex and lengthier song structures is an interesting concept. But the final result is just lousy. The production is weak, the songs are boring and the overall performance of everyone is painfully plain and uninteresting.
Yes sir, you heard that right. The four Razor gang members don't do the thrash world any favors with this album. Sheepdog scales back his shrieks on this release, going more in favor of a weirdly-punkish take on his Lemmy-esque vocal work from "Executioner's Song". Only here he sounds more bored than attacking and aggressive. Mike's bass is actually something of a high point here, mixed surprisingly loudly though it matters little since he too just strums away at his strings with very little to bring to the table. Poor Dave Carlo is clearly trying his damnest to throw as many riffs and interesting moments to each song as he can, but his thoughtful efforts are further hampered by this record's dry, quiet and muffled production. Lastly, M-Bro's drumming. Well I have to admit while his work on here isn't as painfully repetitive and lazy as on "Malicious Intent", it does come close. He really just keeps the pace and rhythm, though at times he will bash out his beloved cymbals and throw out a few good fills but other than the fills, his work is just mundane.
I imagine part of what hampers the tracks on "Custom Killing" is the lousy production job as I previously mentioned, though the thought behind most of the tracks on here results in sings that completely come and go without so much as a killer chorus or a catchy riff to hook on to. The most notable songs on here are "Survival of the Fittest" and "Last Rites", both of which are interesting for being the longest songs in Razor's discography, both breaking the 11-minute mark. "Survival of the Fittest" is probably the best song on here, moodily building for five minutes with riffage and a nifty atmosphere before breaking into the feel of a more traditional Razor number. The load of boring tripe titled "Last Rites" need not apply. Then we have more typical Razor thrashers like "Shootout", the stomping "Forced Annihilation" or "Going Under", all of which are typical but stale and totally forgettable thrashers. Then we get some nonsense thrown in as well. The semi-decent speeder "Snake Eyes" is bookended but some silly, stupid skit of one of the bandmembers doing a goofy Indian accent. Oh and don't even get me started on the utterly worthless "Russian Ballet" outro...
Overall, this is Razor's low point in the 80's works, both creatively and performance-wise. The songs are a forgettable bore, the production blows nut sacks, and the idea of a more progressive Razor is totally wasted. You'd think the future would be over for Razor after this fine mess, but no. In fact, the sun in the horizon was just dawning for the band. A new future promised of more interesting, energized, and above all, more brutal endeavors...
Razor is about the last band on Earth I'd expect to tackle epic length song structures, but indeed that is one of the defining characteristics of their fourth LP Custom Killing, at least on two of the central pieces, "Survival of the Fittest" and "Last Rites", both of which are 11 minutes in duration. Kudos for the Canadians for trying something different, and in truth they do help break up the record, so as to not repeat the brash attack cycle of an Evil Invaders. But unfortunately, it turns out that the band doesn't work their best in such a format, since the endless parades of riffs Carlo is churning out in these thrash-whales seem as if they've all been played out on others songs, and nothing really interesting occurs as they bounce back and forth between stock speed metal and the upper momentum, with the possible exception of the more atmospheric, open riffing used in segments of both.
I'm also not into the frenzied "Russian Ballet" rock polka outro, so pretty much any fun I was going to have with this record was relegated to the other five tunes, which range from 4-5 minutes of livid, battering old school speed metal. Tunes like "Going Under" and "Forced Annihilation" are pretty standard Razor fare, with high velocity chords, palm mutes and even some darker tremolo passages in the latter that hinge on a death metal aesthetic. "White Noise" is generally more acrobatic and shifty in terms of its tempos, and "Snake Eyes", with an intro that most would consider pretty racist by today's standards, is pretty much what Possessed would have sounded like as a punk band, Sheepdog's menacing inflection barking out over a pretty basic procession of chords. Ultimately, I don't think there's a single song on this album that I'd place on a highlight reel of the band's discography, but they don't break character for much of the playtime, and there's nothing all that depressing if you've a hard on for Executioner's Song and Evil Invaders.
Custom Killing has a looser feel to its production than any of the previous albums, not nearly so spiffy and audible as Malicious Intent. The guitars are good and chuggy, especially when multi-tracked, but the bass here is extremely plump, and often the nuances of the leads and melodies get lost. Otherwise, it's workable and airy, but my least favorite mix they'd achieved to its day, even if it's not a far cry from its neighbors, and some of the murk of its tone would be transferred forward to the band's magnum carnage opus Violent Restitution. Sadly, while this doesn't break rank, there's also the retrospective burden of knowing just how damn excellent this record's successor would be, superior in every respect, Razor returning to the abusive speed and no-nonsense thrashing brawl that put them on the vests and jackets of generations of adoring fans in the first place. I used to enjoy Custom Killing more when I was younger, but it simply hasn't aged as well as the rest of their '84-88 material, and I rarely feel compelled to break it out of its own jacket. Along with 1997's Decibels, it's very much skippable.
This baby is granted to take some serious doses from the listening time of dedicated thrash heads. Whereas Executioner's Song and Evil Invaders threatened to become repetitive in spite of their attack, which kicked out any wuss trying to face them, and Malicious Intent was a damn solid accomplishment with a more pummeling recording style, Custom Killing is Razor's most ambitious album ever, and their most colourful offer.
I will have to admit that Survival Of The Fittest didn't sound at first as a total winner, but from the second minute, boy, did I change my mind. Razor have an amazing sense of epicness and progression. Everything seems to be more dramatic and solemn than on their previous works, though the riffing style is recognizable enough, and very fast riffs galore. Maybe M-Bro isn't the ultimate deliverer of fills and rhythm changes, but he doesn't get lost in the fire of battle. Not to mention that the bass player ends the guitar riffs with his own special lines, although sometimes you just get the impression that he's trapped within a certain register.
All the songs are winners, actually, except Russian Ballet, which could've been spared (though that weird fade-out part in the ending is worth mentioning), and there aren't noticeable letdowns if it comes to the instrumental part. Forced Annihilation, Last Rites, Going Under and White Noise are definitive Razor classics, where the band doesn't cease to bring wonder upon the listener with the great pile of riffs and gallops and a few absolutely old-school sounding solos (without that wah-wah abuse found on Shotgun Justice's solos), and even Stace McLaren shows that he can actually SING!!!! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, he is alive and singing, and his vocal prowess is worth every bit of praise on Last Rites, washing the shit off Shootout, where he fails to impress. What about the lyrics? This needs to be taken into consideration. The lyrical themes are so varied. From the ol' angry thrash youngster, to meditations on the future of humanity and even medieval-flavored lyrics.
Even the recording, with its unpolished aspects, remains adequate and somehow "intimate", if I could say so. Like a band in the rehearsal room, all alone against the non-underground suckers' ears, it appropriates the listener more to the band and to the music.
All in all, a quality and underestimated album from one of the top bands in thrash metal. Not a Spectrum Of Death or an Eternal Nightmare, if you ask me, but still a mandatory listen.