without Internet Explorer,
in 1280 x 960 resolution
Right before the “Agent Orange” tour, Frank Blackfire left Sodom due to his conflicts with Chris Witchhunter and joined Kreator, contributing to create the stellar thrashterpiece known as “Coma of Souls”. Luckily enough, Sodom managed to survive to their sudden loss, picking up the Mekong Delta guitarist Uwe Baltrusch and going on tour with Sepultura without problems. But when it came to pick up a new permanent member, the band’s choice fell on Michael Hoffmann, already pretty well-known in the German underground scene for his remarkable work on Assassin’s second album “Interstellar Experience” (another hidden classic of Teutonic thrash metal). With this new lineup, the band returned in 1990 with “Better Off Dead”, one of the most controversial Sodom records to date.
While it was already clear since “Agent Orange” that the band was moving toward a slightly more melodic and streamlined sound in comparison to the inhuman rawness of the earlier works, “Better Off Dead” represented an abrupt change in the eyes of many diehard fans. Perhaps, too abrupt. Frank Blackfire’s role on “Persecution Mania” and “Agent Orange” had been determinant, and his departure surely influenced what Sodom did right after: at that point, their early “proto-black metal” intuitions had been dropped completely - and without Blackfire’s contribution, Tom Angelripper directed the band’s style toward his main influences, going for a slightly more simplified approach and embracing a definitely more evident heavy/speed metal aesthetic which owes a lot to the likes of Tank, Motorhead and Raven; even his vocals moved toward a slightly clearer and more “melodic” style (prosecuting on the same way of “Remember the Fallen”, “Ausgebombt”, “Incest” and “Tired and Red”), though still maintaining his trademark “roughness”. Plus, hearing the cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Cold Sweat” and Tank’s “Turn Your Head Around” (which at least sounds more “integrated” in the album’s context if compared to “Don’t Walk Away” on “Agent Orange”), the band’s purpose is ulteriorly confirmed.
However, don’t worry: even with a more stripped down formula, a thinner guitar sound and an apparently less “extreme” style, Sodom didn’t lose their amazing songwriting skills that brought them to write the masterpieces we all know; actually, “Better Off Dead” still stands above most thrash metal releases out there - including the well-known “Coma of Souls”. It may be incredible, but despite the heavy/speed aesthetic that this album possesses on its surface, songs like “An Eye for an Eye” and “Bloodtrails” still deliver the same kind of fast, urgent, twisted, wicked, hateful riffs with pretty complex patterns that remind more to the likes of Kreator, Necrodeath and Assorted Heap, rather than Accept or Raven: yup, exactly the same kind of sharp riffing that made the fortune of older songs like “Baptism of Fire”, “Tired and Red”, “Incest” and “Exhibition Bout”, with the same breath-taking intensity and the same absurd, dramatic urgency (maybe just on slightly less fast paces); the band’s songwriting is still able to build up crescendos of tension which grow in the right measure and “explode” flawlessly at the right moment - as demonstrated by the simple, yet “eloquent” nature of the title-track or “Tarred and Feathered”, two songs that manage to bash your skull with aggression and fury while always giving you a paroxysmal dose of “pathos” which constantly keeps you pending about what’s to come after; “Shellfire Defense” deserves a special mention in this regard, thanks to its blend of frantic paces and tense, nervous, rough speed/thrash riffing - building up a unique amount of tension especially around the pre-chorus and “discharging” it flawlessly during the chorus. Tom’s vocals work complementarily to this structure, empowering the mood of songs like “An Eye for an Eye” and the title-track with their slightly “cleaner” nature which makes them even a bit more “expressive”, at least in some regards. However, as a witness to the band’s stylistic change, this album features also a couple of completely mid-paced tunes, such as the galloping “Capture the Flag” and, most of all, the amazing rock ’n’ roll monster of “The Saw is the Law”, which contains one of the catchiest and most infectious riffs ever written by Sodom.
If you paragon Michael Hoffmann’s guitar style to Frank Blackfire’s, the difference is pretty much like night and day: while Frank’s riffs sounded like the most violent punch in the face you can ever imagine and his solos consisted usually in open melodies which increased the “dramatic” feeling of the songs, Michael’s riffing-style is more “surgical”, technical and “controlled”, and it’s accompanied by a less heavy distortion (while still achieving almost the same level of brutality); but, probably, the most remarkable difference lays in his solo-style, which is definitely more “blues-influenced” in comparison to Frank’s major distance from classic rock standards: tracks like “An Eye for an Eye” and “The Saw is the Law” benefit from this kind of solos, which enriches the song in a fun, catchy way without shredding the aggressive, tense and oppressive atmosphere evoked by the riffs.
On the contrary, I’d dare to say that the feeling of “oppressiveness” is developed even further in comparison to past Sodom releases (perhaps rivaling only with “Obsessed by Cruelty”), and this is something we must thank Michael for, as well: in fact, he also possesses a very strong taste for weird sounds and guitar tricks, who puts at the service of “eerie” sequences which fit and enrich flawlessly the album’s atmosphere. The first track opens with a slow, gloomy section which sets the mood for things to come, and this trend continues throughout the whole record with the slow, creepy intros of “The Saw is the Law” and “Bloodtrails” (both of them also feature some of the few “raspy” vocal parts that Tom performs on this album), as well as the eerie middle section of “Shellfire Defense”: all these parts are filled with “weird” sounds you wouldn’t expect to be crafted by a speed/thrash metal guitarist, as they sound completely “alien” and out of the average metal spectrum despite being obtained by simply fucking around with feedbacks and cleaner distortions. The most surprising thing is that Michael never showed all these odd tricks when he was in Assassin - but, well, this is just another demonstration of Sodom’s superior quality.
While dwelling pretty much on the ingredients I listed before, “Better Off Dead” features also a bunch of slightly more atypical episodes: the punky nature of bands like Tank and Motorhead appears on other up-tempo tracks such as the powerful “Never Healing Wound” (while still not dropping the album’s rough, warlike nature which is still audible on some riffs) and the anthemic, iconic “Stalinorgel”, which sounds like the natural prosecution of “Bombenhagel” and “Ausgebombt” in an even more melodic way (mostly thanks to Tom’s vocals and Michael’s awesome solos, which create an almost “ironic” rock ’n’ roll vibe that fits perfectly the disruptive nature of this track). However, the album’s most atypical episode is undoubtedly “Resurrection”, a song that Tom wrote after his father passed away: it’s a solemn, martial track with a slightly sinister atmosphere and a vaster melodic research in comparison to most other songs, and Tom delivers one of the most melodic vocal performances of his whole career; it’s definitely a weird track, but if you examine it better, you realize that this is just the template for a lot of modern Sodom tunes, usually conveyed in a more mid-paced fashion and a catchier, more melodic style - something that’s especially audible on the 2006’s self-titled album.
Analyzing all the different facets of this opus, “Better Off Dead” comes off as a criminally misunderstood record that needs absolutely to be rediscovered by those who usually overlook it. The most awesome thing about this album is that it doesn’t sacrifice quality for aesthetic: on the contrary, the band’s trademark style is just injected into this new, different surface (which is of course more akin to heavy/speed metal) without dumbing down anything and maintaining Sodom’s “barbaric” spirit perfectly intact. In fact, Angelripper’s inspiration doesn’t suffer from this “apparent” change of direction and from the handling of new, additional elements which, on the contrary, just contribute to refresh the music and make it even more surprising and challenging in some regards.
So, while not topping its predecessors, “Better Off Dead” still remains one of the biggest highlights in the realm of speed/thrash metal, achieving with a more “linear” and stripped down formula what many other bands aren’t able to obtain with an apparently more “developed” style - especially considering that, in 1990, the “technical thrash” movement was in full-swing and even many famous bands like Megadeth, Destruction, Tankard, Sadus, Kreator and Dark Angel were aiming toward that direction. If you have previously overlooked this masterpiece, bridge instantly your gap and prepare to hear a drier, yet paradoxically more efficacious and somewhat “eerie/mysterious” interpretation of thrash metal.
”The rites of the saw began!”
The fourth offering from German thrash band Sodom, “Better Off Dead,” is perhaps a bit of a let-down following their stellar previous works even though there’s plenty to enjoy with it as long as a comparison is not made to those previous works and can be listened to for its own merits.
While the previous releases tended to focus on a tight, streamlined mixture heavy thrash metal with a dark vibe and plenty of punk attitude and speed, this effort is quite the opposite of those works. About the only point-of-reference from their past to the present is the drumming, which is where the band really excels here with a rather bombastic performance that really showcases a wide range of talent throughout. With plenty of moments within the songs to range from hyper-speed machine-gun styled blasts, double-bass fills, restrained and mid-paced beats or to go all out in a technical frenzy, these different styles are all given full display here on the record, which still gives the band plenty of life and energy into the album, which is what really pushes the album this time around. The kinetic, punk-like energy from this material is quite exciting and generally comes from the stellar drumming on display, and that it manages to compliment the rest of the music quite well is the biggest selling point to this one since it seems to overlook the streamlining of their last albums in favor of a return to the punkier material of their debut. The riffs here are a lot technical than a true punk-influenced thrash band, but the fact that a crucial element that was featured in those songs is missing from this album is hard to overlook which is the extended thrashing sections placed in the song. Usually running through a fast-paced thrash riff for several times over, it was a fundamental part of their sound which was being developed by the band and yet is missing here to be replaced by a series of intense and aggressive riffs that don’t have the same impact as before. This seems to make the album feel more like a back-step more than anything.
From the start, the album unleashes a new curve for the listener this time around, and it’s a fun addition in the sense that the band has decided to incorporate a more pronounced technical bent to their songs. This isn’t to say the band is a progressive master-class in off-beat, avant-garde riffing but more a fact that the riffs here are far more complex than what was previously used. Before, being more of a punk-influenced group that was utilizing simple but fast and up-tempo rhythms and riffs, here these elements get a little more complex and challenging yet still fueled by the same aggressive rhythm section that the band has become known for to sound somewhat similar to their past works. This makes the album a lot heavier than expected due to the added technicality being mixed together with the thrash undercurrent in their writing and those rhythmic beats from the drumming it makes for a groovy-sounding album. This is carried out pretty much throughout the first half, where we get a non-stop series of intense, aggressive riffing that contain those complex patterns, some outstanding drumming and those always great dirty vocals, here cleaned up even more than usual even though it’s still painfully obvious of their band’s origin. In short, this all feels like a traditional side to the band if only injected with a brand new element within.
The second half of the album is where we get a bit more experimental within the confines of what’s presented here. Rather than stay with the thrash-based material than was the focus of the earlier half, in the second half it tends to focus more on incorporating the riffing in more of a punk-like style which allows for some good stuff to come from that. The return to the punk-like patterns here are actually quite good in that there’s a sense of chaotic energy throughout those which are missing from the more intense tracks offered up on the front half, which ties in with their first record but is still given a touch of that technical-styled riffing that really comes into play due to the more involved variations and patterns in the riffs than what would be common for a true punk offering. Also amongst the experiments present is a slightly avant-garde-ish track for the band where it offers up mid-paced atmospheric riffing and ethereal chanting on the track, which is quite unusual and never explored before on any other track with the veracity and commitment it does here.
The songs on the first half are generally the more traditional tracks and will really find a point of familiarity with fans. Segueing from a creepy intro verse, opener ‘An Eye for an Eye’ blasts off with a series of vicious technical riffing with explosive drumming, razor-wire pacing, dirty vocals and brief but powerful solo that still gives off a classic feel from the band. Follow-up ‘Shellfire Defense’ is another intense mid-tempo paced rager with plenty of blasting drumming, some restrained riffing that retains the vicious intent and an explosive solo to cap off an impressive track. The first downer track, ‘The Saw Is the Law,’ starts off bad immediately with an eerie discordant riffing intro with chugging, mid-tempo groove throughout, restrained drumming and overall weak performances that are overall quite a disappointment knowing what the band can do otherwise. Things pick back up with the rocking cover Tank’s ‘Turn Your Head Around’ which really wins over the listener with great energetic drumming and fun riffing, but comes off too light to be an original and is an obvious cover. The first half ends with the album’s overall best track, ‘Capture the Flag,’ a slow-boiling build-up intro with vicious riffing, pounding drumming that keeps the technical patterns in check and an epic structure that allows all the varied patterns to fit comfortably alongside each other with ease during the elongated track-length but yet never comes off as being too long.
As mentioned, the second half of the effort is where the album takes a minor detour back to their past and offers up more punk-influenced tracks rather than simple, straightforward thrashers with technical riffing. The intense ‘Bloodtrails’ is really the lone stand-out here with its atmospheric guitar intro with brutal blasting drumming, intense vicious riffing and a straight-forward, groovy, pounding approach amplified by dirty vocals and an explosive, flaring solo that almost recalls the twang-like riffing associated with alternative rock that contains any clues as to where it’s going in the later tracks. The dirty, simple and streamlined punk-like thrasher ‘Never Healing Wound’ is more of what would’ve been found in their debut with tight riffing, explosive drumming and plenty of energy along with a rocking solo in a short, blasting thrash song that feels like a total punk track. The only semblance of sanity to be found in this section is the title track, as it’s a straight-forward and intense thrasher with tight, blasting drumming, vicious and chaotic riffing with wonderfully wicked atmosphere that feels closest to the efforts from the bands’ preceding albums. The album’s big experimental track, ‘Resurrection,’ starts off normal with solid, heavy riffing and groovy chug that creates an atmospheric vibe by being a mid-tempo offering and offering stellar chanting vocals on the outer chorus which creates a haunting, dream-like effect that is normally never approached on their albums. It all comes back home again with closer ‘Stalinorgel,’ another rocking, dirty punk-thrasher with stellar drumming, infectious up-tempo riffing and fine vocals with plenty of speed and energy throughout that leaves the experimenting alone and gets back down to business in typical Sodom fashion, ending this on a high note.
A rather curious entry in the band’s cannon, as while for any other band this would’ve been a highly impressive album for this particular band it feels like a misstep back instead of a forward leap. The inclusion of an increase in technicality, whatever little there is, into the intense riffing makes this stand-out from the pack even more than usual due to the increase of jarring, off-kilter riffing that the band never explored before now, and the effect gives off the feel of it being recorded out-of-place in the current placement in their discography or even as a continuation of an album that feels missing since the gap between the previous one and this one is quite strange. There’s still plenty to like on this one and it’s got plenty of enjoyable qualities as mentioned, but the fact that those gaping holes in the album’s writing make for a rather satisfying if slightly disappointing effort, and is therefore more recommended to hardcore fans than just general thrash aficionados.
Tom & Chris had to find quickly a replacement for Frank, Michael Hoffmann from Assassin got the job eventually and Sodom set about recording their 4th studio record at Music Lab Studios in Berlin with the collaboration of Harris Johns again. Those were the early-90’s, a time of hugeness and culmination for most major thrash acts – sophistication, technique and melody took over, pushing away the original concept of pure and simple speed and aggression of the subgenre’s earliest phase. Most Teutonic groups had also become professional and proficient, the big shots Destruction and Kreator were doing some of their musically stronger and most challenging albums by that time, while Angelripper & co. decided to experiment on their next effort, not going full throttle, taking risks to somehow reinvent themselves and get over Blackfire’s transcendental resignation. Tom recalls:
“We were motivated, Hoffmann was very motivated to participate in a new album. He had a completely different style from Frank or the guitarists before, which was confirmed on the Better Off Dead record – incredibly clean, transparent and mixed very near to the ear. It might not be the best or the heaviest album but it was something special to me”.
The album starts with Dolph Lundgren’s speech from Mark Goldblatt’s 1989 movie The Punisher about the Marvel Comics character, a nice prelude to the ferocity and velocity of “An Eye For An Eye” and “Shellfire Defense”, both including rapid beats, refined lines and repetitive verses. Those songs are considerably dynamic and thrashy, yet more sophistically-arranged from previous attempts. Technically, music is still humble and straight, exposing limited, simplistic alterations on structures and few tempo changes on generally homogeneous configurations. The punkish speed metal Motörhead-reminiscent track “Stalinorgel” and “Capture The Flag” emphasize the vitality of rhythms and the looseness of riffs too, composed with minimalist ideas, uniform song-bodies and insistent choruses – far from pretentious but honestly-executed, despite the increasing lack of inspiration and freshness. Actually, Micha is often coming up with alarmingly dull, inexpressive riffs, modified insubstantially during the songs and following quite similar patterns without progressing much. However, there are spectacular moments on the record like the opening on “Bloodtrails” with Angelripper screaming enthusiastically, introducing more competent speed thrash sections with accented riffage and vicious double bass kicks, or the title-number and its uninventive, persistent verses discovering Tom’s harshest low-pitch disturbing vocals about terror, hate, murder and rape – yet both instrumentally, despite being decently-played, with little to offer. Formulas get too predictable and conventional on “Never Healing Wound”, but fortunately Sodom offers bigger musical variety with alterative cuts like the hard rockin’ “The Saw Is The Law”, deprived of thrash standards, emphasizing those catchy choruses instead or “Resurrection”, another vocal-based tune, revealing notable harmonies and melody, denying the reigning roughness and vigor on the rest of the record.
Sodom were trying something different here, results are occasionally unsatisfactory on certain uninspired songs deprived of the fire and grace of the preceding effort – a majority are still thrashy and violent though, a few riffs are certainly sharp and vicious but complementing melody and sophistication of those cleaner, more polished arrangements. There’s aggression and there’s speed, in smaller percentage as the group are now taking other elements into consideration on a less frenetic, more disciplined performance. Eluding the predominant up-tempo of its predecessor, Better Off Dead includes weightier rhythms, a bigger quantity of slower sections, lower-tuned riffs and stronger harmonies and melodies, combined reasonably with their natural predilection for sonic brutality. Music remains as simple as usual technically – progression and complexity of lines is still humble while song-bodies obey strictly uniform, minimalist schemes. Arrangements are now more precise but not substantially intricate. Despite the obvious inclination for simplistic formulas, Angelripper & his team manage to give their music cohesion and continuity by adding effective transitions and interludes, efficient riff variations and beat shifts. Other times, songs are lacking consistency and perspective, getting stuck on flat sequences, becoming generic and unfocused, lacking the fluidity and inspiration on Agent Orange. But the band is trying its best, Tom & Chris’ performances in particular are as passionate and competent as usual – Angelripper’s tone has become cruder and raspier than ever, concentrated on low notes, less-eloquent and vivid than his old teenage range but more convincing and solid, giving the music a darker touch. The biggest disappointment is undoubtedly Micha’s playing, scandalously unimaginative and limited, nearly ruining most of these songs with his scruffy riffs, dumb schemes, noisy solos and absolute technical clumsiness.
Better Off Dead has potential and punch, it features really cool, fresh songs but it seems this time Tom & Chris chose the wrong guitarist to accomplish their experimental plans. Despite including original ideas and amusing tunes, the record inevitably pales beside its 2 predecessors, on which Blackfire’s contribution had been vital to consolidate Sodom’s own sound. Deprived of a competent guitar player, the group lost direction and vision while Johns’ terrible production definitely ruined these already musically weaker tracks, making future unclear for the group in such brilliant period for the subgenre. Story would’ve been different if they exchanged Frank for Jörg Trzebiatowski instead, though fortunately we all know how the story continues. But no matter how inconsistent it might be, nobody makes albums like this anymore, not even Sodom themselves.
Fuck the so-called fab four, the teutonic thrashers are the metalheads that bring the truly unrestrained violence and hate to the table. I love Ride the Lightning, and yeah I want me some Peace Sells to go with my Reign In Blood, but no, I don’t need any Anthrax ‘cause I fuckin hate Anthrax and couldn’t care less about them. Sodom, Kreator, and Destruction just seemed to have more of a visceral urgency in their metal than did the Americans. Slayer is undoubtedly the evilest of the aforementioned yanks, but it was Sodom and Kreator (and of course Switzerland’s Hellhammer) who were largely the musical inspiration of the infamous murderers and church burners who comprised black metal’s Norwegian movement of the early 90s. Hell, Euronymous borrowed a song title from Sodom to name his Deathlike Silence label, and young Varg Vikernes even found himself wearing a Pleasure to Kill hoodie after removing the clothes soaked in the blood of his murder victim…
Better Off Dead is pure thrash warfare beginning with the d-beat debauchery of “Eye For An Eye.” The production of Witchhunter’s drums is immaculate and complete with pummeling double bass and rich, warm sounds from the rack toms. I really enjoy Angelripper’s lyrical taunting of god which gets this album off to an evil start. “Why are the innocent dead? Come on god, answer me.”
“Shellfire Defense” is a ripping, high-velocity ass kicker that leads us into the awesome “The Saw is the Law.” This song is better and more terrorizing than all of the Saw movies combined, and the double bass is saved for the end of this crusher, which makes it all the more powerful. “Capture the Flag” is nice and heavy with its tribally drum opening and speedy triplet groove during the verse, which proceeds to kick into sixth gear as Sodom haul ass to the end of the tune. Then we are treated to a cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Stone Cold Summer.” It’s cool to hear a Lizzy tune sung with Tom’s German accent, and Sodom definitely beefs up the original version, making it quite headbang-able.
The title track is one of the heaviest songs on the album as it proficiently uses varying tempos and time-signatures, and the lyrics are just plain brutal, certainly a highlight here. I can honestly say that the production of this album is clearer and more dynamic than the two classics preceding it, and Sodom seems to be taking a more straight-forward metal approach on Better Off Dead which very much works to their advantage. This is no-frills thrash, as in no acoustic guitar, no keys, just balls to the wall performances from each musician here; a confident Sodom playing their black hearts out. The cover art offers some dark, ancient tomb-like imagery as opposed to the iconic covers of Persecution Mania and Agent Orange. It would also appear that the logo they used on Better Off Dead was blatantly ripped off by vile poseurs Static-X, not that those dildos have any relevance, but I mean, come on.
This fourth full-length from the mighty Sodom is a must for any fan of thrash metal, especially if you’re looking for a road less traveled by in these terrible teutons. Though Better Off Dead has not been as heralded as their earlier works, it will still kick your ass, as it is undoubtedly one of 1990’s premier thrashterpieces.
It may be best known for its unforgettable track "The Saw is the Law", but the more I've spun Better Off Dead, the more I've realized the album is the perfect crossroads between Sodom's raw and thrashing beginnings to their more rock and punk influenced, later albums (though the band has since reverted to its thrash roots).
Better Off Dead has an excellent Harris Johns production, so if you turn this up you will be pleased by the results on almost any stereo system. The songs alternate their pacing quite well; it's a good balance between a savage German thrash precision and a hard rock/NWOBHM feel, the latter of which is anchored by the covers of Thin Lizzy's "Cold Sweat" and Tank's "Turn Your Head Around".
The album goes for the throat immediately with a trio of power house anthems. "An Eye for an Eye" sounds like Accept's "Fast as a Shark" on crack. Tom Angelrippers accented and charismatic vocals are all over this album like whores to a Benjamin Franklin. "Shellfire Defense" is pure thrashing war metal in the vein of their classic tracks like "Nuclear Winter" or "Agent Orange". A very catchy chorus. Even this could not prepare one for the slower paced rock'n'roll meets thrash savvy of "The Saw is the Law"!
After this it's all continuous, methodical awesome. The cover of "Turn Your Head Around" rips forth, and Angelripper's vocals rule. Tank receives some justice. "Capture the Flag" is yet another slaying Sodomite wargame. "Cold Sweat" is more of a recognizable cover tune, but still performed quite well. "Bloodtrails" is one of the best thrashers on the album, with a furiously fast paced verse riff kicking all manner of ass. "Never Healing Wound" is a fuel injected rocker, while the title track is another filthy excursion into rapid destruction. "Resurrection" is another of the slower paced tunes, but it has some excellent riffs, and I was taken by surprise when the great vocal harmonies came in at the end. "Tarred and Feathered" spits further thrash venom, and the album closes with the punky "Stalinorgel".
This is a great album, rock solid. As I mentioned, it's mixed by Harris Johns who is pretty much the best record producer of the 80s, responsible for Walls of Jericho, Deception Ignored, Consuming Impulse, Dimension Hatross, and so many other classics. Whether you are a fan of their beer fueled punkish albums or their old school violent thrashing, this is an essential album. My reaction at first was mixed, but it's since grown on me to become one of my favorite Sodom albums, and may continue to do so.
"For many years, I am asking you why, Why are the innocent dead and the guilty alive?"
Better Off Dead, what a misunderstood album. Seriously, besides 'Till Death Do Us Unite it is Sodom's less known album. Though I really liked Sodom's punkish period, Get What You Deserve and Masquerade In Blood get a lot more talk than Better Off Dead only for the reason that they strayed from pure thrash and marked a "low point" in their career. You often hear things like: "They got more commercial" or "Not enough fast" about the album. There is rarely talk about how good this album is, otherwise only that it is criminally underrated. Well it wasn't released in the best of the years for them; they released it little more than a year after their still feverishly hailed classic Agent Orange when thrash metal was going downhill but besides some good or classic albums like the acclaimed Coma of Souls and Rust in Peace, it wasn't so bad a year for thrash. Sodom's album was probably overshadowed by the aforementioned albums and by their own Tapping The Vein which probably surprised everyone as it was still thrash to the core and brutal as ever even in thrash's lacklustre '92. The fact that Frank Blackfire caught the whole scene by surprise by quitting Sodom to join Kreator and being replaced by the short-lived - in the band if you didn’t know - Michael Hoffman didn't help either. He unfortunately - or fortunately? - quit shortly after the recording to live in Brazil and ironically became the same fate of Blackfire a couple of years after.
So Better Off Dead is a logical continuity of Persecution Mania and Agent Orange; yes it's more and more accessible but at the same time more mature and... logical, less impulsive, more controlled. While Agent Orange was fundamentally the same than Persecution Mania, the mood, the sound was much different. The former was more oppressive, darker, grittier, the later more... war. The drumming was galloping as ever, as soldiers running their adrenaline pumped up pursued by death in every corner, the riffs fast and sharp as 'copter blades, Tom like a German soldier not knowing what he was doing in Vietnam with some American marines, you could sense the danger in every riff change; if Persecution Mania was more about the backstage of war or religion, Agent Orange was at the forefront. Here, not only the mood and approach is different, the whole songwriting is and with yet another take at war with some other elements. The sound's mood is hard to pinpoint, combined with the lyrics, I'd say it's more an "objective" take at war, with "An Eye For An Eye" about religion and "The Saw Is The Law" and "Better Off Dead" about the no-nonsense of violence and society - a more explored theme on later releases mainly in their punkish period. It's a step back from all the action while not necessarily going in as dark areas as their sophomore. With everything slowed down and less impulsive, objectivity is a fitting description. What was previously stated is a good description of the sound, but while pretty obvious, it is better produced though since everything is slowed down and is far from the neck breaking, fast and impulsive thrash riffs or drumming, everything is more calculated and made in a way that it is memorable. While neck breaking worthy riffs may be memorable and have that "wow" feel, well, indeed it may only allow more punches to be thrown. While a quick punch gets anyone back to their senses, a couple of uppercuts could either seem like slaps - well since it's a slow attack, you can easily miss the middle of the target depending of his awareness of the situation - or a real beating. Here it definitely falls in the latter category. There is also a good share of faster punches keeping the enemy from being able to predict your moves. It's a calculated craft of powerful, catchy riffs accompanied by the usual catchy lyrics that could only be written and expertly sung by none other than our dear Onkel Tom.
As with their two preceding albums, while being slightly different, Tom's vocals are still those Lemmy-being-a-vicious-German-trying-to-be-English ones, well being a lot less vicious here and less rocking than The Man himself. The rhythm section is not to be underestimated in this already underestimated release. Whitchhunter does some really inventive drumming with the usual great cymbal hits, there are also the moments of "soldiers running" but here it seems they know where they're heading. Angelripper's bass is less present - and audible - though still good and has a couple of those brilliant addictive lines that couldn't better support the drumming though doesn't get as kickass than on "Baptism Of Fire" for example. While Hoffman hasn't written that much groundbreaking riffs, where he really shines is in his leads and solos. The solos are closer to heavy metal and maybe some hard rock; they rock more, you can imagine the guitarist having a good time playing these.
The album starts with "An Eye For An Eye" with that almost spooky intro made of controlled guitar distortion followed by that ever addictive riff calling urgency from the get go. If the previous' albums may sound unrelentless because of their speed - and of course quality - here it still sounds so song after song - most of them - due to the riffs and overall musicianship quality. Well they are not particularly technical, but overall, again like the previous albums, they compliment well each other; nothing is desired or undesired and kick some serious ass. Then comes "Shellfire Defense" which features one of those instantly catchy choruses but not only being the song title. Another reason why the album is more controlled and calculated is unlike a couple of song title only chorus - while not being bad at all in itself - besides being more complex have some really good and catchy pre-choruses. So follows the song better known than the album, "The Saw Is The Law" which could feature one of those mandatory to be known screams in metal history if it wasn't for the album's ability to get unnoticed. While having one of those pre-choruses, the actual chorus is one of those simple two worded but still loved ones. "The saw is the law!" There's not much more badass than that, well except the splatter version - meaning: has a chainsaw intro and you can almost smell it! - featured on the named after that song EP.
"This man is better off dead" No this isn’t from the title track but yet another aptly chosen Tank cover, "Turn Your Head Around". Can't know for sure if the album's named after this song line or it is a coincidence and Sodom decided to cover it because of this particularity but knowing Tom as a Tank fan, the former wouldn't be surprising. While the cover kicks ass as the original, as heard on "Don't Walk Away" , Tom has the ability to find that little Algy Ward timbre though a lot more thin than on the first cover, well you could almost miss it here. Though not present on the vinyl version - which I first got - there's another cover just after one Sodom track; Thin Lizzy's "Cold Sweat". I can't say a word on covered band as it's the first track I heard of them, but it rocks. The lyrics are catchy and Tom's voice again couldn't fit better to be an alternative, the verse riff is one of those simple, repetitive, yet seem to be only working that way with the simple, bass drum-almost-more-complex-than-the-snare beat's compliments. Preceding the cover is the six minutes long almost epic "Capture The Flag" with that intro of toms shortly followed by the bass and progressively more present guitar building up to the first snare hits and the actual beginning of the song. Everything evolving in that mid-paced but massive pummelling thrash anthem, guided by fellow Tom describing a tight and tense battle. All of this leading to some again badass chorus: "Capture the flak!" It's just his strong German accent (Gs are pronounced like Ks), but it almost seems like a word play. And almost as badass, is a German saying "Russian roulette", well it's a badass sounding expression alone.
Back right after "Cold Sweat" is three songs consistent to their approach of any non-cover preceding track, "Bloodtrails" having that killer acoustic effect driven riff followed by comparably vicious screams as the "Der Saw" one: "Blood! ... Blood! ... Blood!". "Resurrection", dedicated to Tom's father, venture in a more heavy metal territory with a little nostalgic sound. May sound of out place but is surprisingly good and a welcomed addition. I don't know if the vinyl version which is also missing "Tarred And Feathered" is the definite one, that those songs are to be considered bonus tracks, but either way they’re good, not necessary but gives a good extension. Closing the album is the faster and addictive "Stalinorgel", their third punkish standout track. It features upbeat punkish riffs and drumming with Hoffman being in perfect shape, playing some nice fast n' short leads and several solos; he's clearly having a good time. There are also some shout-along gang shouts: "Stalinorgel!", fast and catchy vocal delivery and a false ending. The best possible last song from Sodom's last eighties sounding output, it's old-school and all and sounds like: "Okay guys, we had a good time but we need to go on, reach new grounds. So let's play like there is no tomorrow and we may just get killed on the battlefield".
And being the Knarrenheinz fanboi that I am, I can't make no comment about any Sodom cover he's featured on in a review. It's the third Sodom album cover he's on and the last of what I call their classic trilogy. Actually here you don't completely see him; seems like he's being entombed or something and unfortunately had one hell of a beating. His glasses are broken (you can see one of his eye) and his hand is all bloodied. Looks like his trip in Vietnam didn't turn so great and his bird crashed, only to be pursued by some Vietcong guerrillas and have one of those nasty "interrogations". Probably figured out he wasn't of any good and thrown him in some kind of hole making him rot in solitude until they conduct that gruesome experiment (Tapping The Vein) - have courage Knarrenheinz, your time of revenge will come. He exposes his war experiences in a more step back way, not in the battlefield but with an omnipresent view of it.
All in all, Better Off Dead marks the end of an era for Sodom, the end of their eighties thrash period. They went in a more brutal, almost death metalish at times direction with Tapping The Vein and then added some outer influences - namely punk - to keep their sound fresh during the period of crisis that was the 90ies for the thrash genre.
If you ask to a fan to mention one album by Sodom, this fan will never mention Better Off Dead. I don’t know why but this album has been always considered the hidden one in the band’s discography. Maybe it’s because it was put out at the beginning of the thrash metal crises worldwide period or maybe because after Agent Orange the thing started to change a bit for Sodom…I don’t know…but the thing that I know is that this is another good album by this band.
Sodom achieved the goal of reaching quite mature sonorities as the years pass by and we can hear them album after album, from the thrash/black mess of the first EP to the dynamic structures of the last Agent Orange that signed a more thrash style. Frank Blackfire was let go and a new guitarist arrived and also this could have contributed to this more mature approach of this album. Here I think Sodom reached the more mature and dark moment of their long career. The songs are less impulsive and somehow the darkened production helps in this.
The instruments volumes and sounds are now less angry and direct but conserving a thrash metal style, anyway. The things that catch the listeners immediately are the quite clear drums and the lower (in volumes) guitars sound. For example “Shellfire Defense” is on up tempo but barely reaches the intensity and the violence of Agent Orange compositions. It is always a very good piece of burning thrash along with the first “An Eye For An Eye” but the different approach and sounds make these songs darker and less impulsive. There are also more melodic arpeggios by the rhythmic guitars and also this adds a sense of maturity.
The structures and the refrains are always truly catchy and well done while Tom’s vocals are always raspy and rough with that “one thousand cigarettes” tonality. “The Saw is the Law” and “Capture The Flag” are two examples of the Sodom’s direction for this album. They took the mid tempo from “Remember The Fallen” track and they made brand new ones for this album that follow more or less the same style. Also the length and some furious but calculated restarts are signs of maturity. The weird guitars breaks on “Blodtrails” are quite new for the band and they fit the music well, to break a bit the sound.
On the other hand we have total thrash metal tracks like “Never Healing Wound” and the title track where the band manages to keep alive the most brawling spirit of thrash metal even if the production doesn’t help, as I said, for the pure impact of the guitars. “Stalinorgel” is the classic hardcore/thrash assault to end perfectly this album. Here Sodom demonstrated to everyone how they could be mature and violent at the same time. I can consider this as the more intelligent album by this band. It’s a pity that it’s so overlooked and underestimated because it contains some of the better songs by this band. If you want mature thrash by Sodom, get this one.
Well, after several months of unrelenting listening, seriously, not a day would go by when I would not itch and crave 'Better Off Dead' and its dulcet tones. I have come to the conclusion that 'Better Off Dead' is a thrash classic and one of the most unsung albums of the whole genre. It's tense and will grab you by the jugular asking;
'Why are the innocent dead and the guilty alive!'. Come on God, answer me... what d'ya mean your only open nine to five?
In 1990 and even a few years prior to that, things were turning more towards technically in thrash metal. It was a natural progression - young, spotty fellows with Marshall stacks decided they wanted to play faster and louder than their NWOBHM predecessors, and for the most part they succeeded. So logically, they continued to do so, but as Maiden got more proficient so did the thrashers and by 1990 we had exercises in technicality such as 'Coma of Souls' and 'Rust In Peace'. Sodom, going by the age-old principles that simpler ideas indeed do often work better went for a more austere take on thrash and as a result 'Better Off Dead' does not usher in a new age thrash style. Rather, it harkens back to the early 80s in its approach. Motorhead and Tank are still the order of the day for Sodom, and in all fairness they never outgrew their NWOBHM favourites. Sure Metallica may wear Witchfinder General tee-shirts to this day, but, it reeks of "please allow me back into the Metal Club, c'mon Tony". So in 1990, while every other fucker got a rager over sweep picking and Marty Friedman, Angelripper called Michael Hoffman who seems to have more than a passing obsession with 'Fast' Eddie Clarke and gave Sodom their best guitar sound ever.
Michael Hoffman, Germany's second favourite Hoff, really does a commendable job here. A Marshall stack, wah pedal and BC Rich pushed to breaking point, his tone is gorgeous albeit completely blistering... to the point of stripping lead based paint away. Notably, he uses a lot of mid range which is great for me as it gives a lot bit and snarl to the guitars. Please take note, mid-scooping does not equate a great metal guitar sound. However, a tube amp pushed to breaking point, a man capable of going biggity, biggity, biggity with a wah pedal and a great producer, however, does.
'Better Off Dead' for me and most others has three clear standout tracks. 'An Eye For An Eye', 'The Saw is the Law' and 'Stalinorgel'. 'Stalinorgel', is another name for the Katyusha rocket launcher meaning Stalin organ... thankfully not Stalin's organ. The song is a politically uncommitted view, barring the 'declaration of war by a madman' line, on the grim war of the Eastern Front, struggles hand to hand and the magnitude of plight. Like many other Sodom portrayals of warfare, it's simply depicting the human suffering and military tactics. And of course, the German accent is well suited to a harrowing tale of total war and devastation on the front lines of the Second World War. Still, one can bet over zealous members of the media branded this some sort of neo-fascistic cry for another advance for Lebensraum. Musically, it recalls 'Overkill' with its false endings, double bass drums entering unaccompanied at times and simple pentatonic licks. 'The Saw is the Law' is absolutely manic in its execution, Tom asserts himself once more as the best thrash vocalist with the rampant cries of;
'DERRR SAWWW!!!!' and then the band kicks into overdrive, mid-paced but Sodom understand that this merely allows more punches to be thrown. Its got a great atmosphere too, the opening wailing scratching vibrato give a tension to it that echoes its slasher movie themes. The slower tempo also gives Michael Hoffman more space in which to work, with his frenzied, but expertly crafted guitar solos. Its violent, blood-thirsty fun should of been a massive hit... well its got the Incubus market nailed.
'An Eye For An Eye' is the album's opening salvo - bombastic and tense, with one of the most urgent and rancorous riffs in thrash. Witchhunter's drums stand out on this one, is it to much to detect a bit of Ian Paice in his style? Lyrically, it's an excellent thrash metal yarn, a tale of personal justice, that unlike Anthrax's comic book exploits never comes across as goofy (despite that being the shorted ones' intention) and rather is a well-written insight into the mind of a man who takes the law into is own hands.
Elsewhere, 'Resurrection' is the most interesting here, Tom's tribute to his father. Unlike, other thrash tributes by say Metallica and Megadeth, this shows a lyricist writing outside of his native tongue coming up with more interesting lyrics, Tom here reflects on 'mortal dust' and 'flesh to bones'. Interesting that he does this when it could be argued that the death of a father is more shaking than that of a friend or band-mate. Musically, it is of note as it has the first non-snarled vocals on a Sodom record. It's also healthy that Tom can write about his family and not of a sexual awakening to roger his sister. 'Shellfire Defense' is notable for its peach of a riff, nimble yet very heavy, Muistane would be proud. The refrain of, you guessed it, 'Shellfire Defense!' is also effortlessly catchy. The albums title track is a nominal straight-forward thrasher, depicting a grey picture of modern life in which, you are indeed, better off dead. Is it really worth enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or should you simply kick the bucket... are you prepared?
'Better Off Dead' features two covers, but rather than reeking of a band running out of ideas, they show a rejuvenation of two 80s classics. Both faithful to their originals, at least as vocally close to Lynott as Mr. Such could get. I've loved the originals and these too are at very least brilliant homages.
To me, this is Sodom's best record and has provided hours upon hours of vicious and so very addictive thrashing fun. The band never repeated this formula again, shame really, but this just makes 'Better Off Dead' even more sacred.
How could you expect otherwise. Sodom has earlier released their two best thrashing albums (‘Persecution Mania’ and ‘Agent Orange’) which were alike more than a lot. That path continues here together with new guitarist Michael Hoffman (ex-Assassin) who replaced Frank Blackfire, but the balance got somewhat disturbed.
In true Bombenhagel-Augebombt thrashpunk style Sodom presented us with the thrashier ‘Stalinorgel’ which grew out to become one of my favourites. The quality thrash metal assault we had gotten used from especially the previous two albums, is represented on this album by the best thrashers ‘Eye For An Eye’, ‘Better Off Dead’ and ‘Bloodtrails’. And there is even a real Sodom gem here apart from the earlier mentioned songs: ‘Shellfire Defense’. This song should be mentioned together with Nuclear Winter and Agent Orange at all times. Yes, it is that good. The double bass-laden half speed metal-half thrash metal tune ‘Never Healing Wound’ is pretty entertaining. The short thrasher ‘Tarred and Feathered’ is just good but nothing more.
Unfortunately on ‘Better Off Dead’ many slow paced moments are creeping into the sound, making album as a whole losing power and intensity compared to earlier releases. I’m certainly not stating mid paced thrash metal is always bad, Kreator had proved they could also write some good slower material without losing intensity and with suiting riffs and personally I’ve always loved the Testament album ‘Practice What You Preach’. But Sodom – at this point in their career – hadn’t learned yet how to write real classy slower thrash songs. The first half of ‘Capture the Flag’ is a nice, but it takes just a bit too long to accelerate and doesn’t live up to the thrash assault as found on the earlier mentioned great songs. But more annoying: ‘The Saw Is The Law’ which just drags on and on. I never understood why some people liked this song. Also the tedious ‘Resurrection’ with the cheesy chorus gets on my nerves. I’m sure Graham Chapman would agree with me: ‘Get on with it!!!’
The second annoyance was the inclusion of two (!) covers in the middle of the album (‘Turn Your Head Around’ en ‘Cold Sweat’). Although especially the speedy ‘Turn Your Head Around’ has its own specific charm, it would have been better if both these covers had appeared at the end of the album or not at all and released separately on an EP. The covers damage the continuity, intensity and style concept of the album.
I am not saying Better Off Dead is a bad album, since it easily beats a lot of Sodom releases from the later nineties, but it is pretty inconsistent and I do get annoyed when after the brilliant ‘Shellfire Defense’ I have to wait for 4 songs in a row for the ‘real’ thrash metal album to continue and later on ‘Resurrection’ disturbs my thrash meditation as well. So no high score for the album as a whole but indeed some great stuff to be found here!