When I was younger, I used to write lyrics about Satan and people killing each other and stuff. Fiction. Fantasy stuff." So go the heavily accented words of Mille Petroza, leader and lone continuous member of German thrash-metal pioneers Kreator. And he might as well be speaking for every recovered teenager who has made underground metal a lifelong pursuit. But Petroza has evolved into someone far different from the 14-year-old who formed the Kreator-precursor Tormentor back in the early '80s. "Now, the lyrics are more personal," Petroza continues, "more human, and the meanings are much more hidden."
On the rare occasions when it is allowed, maturity is an underrated element in heavy metal, and that unlikely transformation is exactly what happened with Kreator in the late '80s. Formed in 1984, the band reached an early creative peak with three groundbreaking albums: Pleasure To Kill (1986), Terrible Certainty (1987), and Extreme Aggression (1989). These albums had an effect on underground European metal that is directly comparable to the stateside impact of Slayer's three classic albums from the same period (Reign In Blood, South Of Heaven, and Seasons In the Abyss). Sure, they sounded different. Kreator did not have a badass knob-twiddler at their disposal, for instance, but they also took little time getting things right, unlike their American brethren, who spent the early '80s making laughable records before Rick Rubin came to the rescue.
European underground metal had different, darker, and more hardcore-punk influences than its American counterpart. Though it may be a bit of a simplification, one could say that there were five key bands that drove the movement: Motorhead, Venom, Celtic Frost, Discharge, and, of course, Black Sabbath. In early inceptions, Venom and Celtic Frost were metallic hardcore bands dressed up in fake satanism and bullet belts. Motorhead was a bunch of long-haired bikers playing short-haired music. Discharge was a blurry sonic storm of negativity and politics, and their unique hardcore-metal crossover (probably the first) arguably laid the groundwork for the death metal and grindcore that proliferated in the late '80s and early '90s. And Black Sabbath was Black Sabbath.
If you were to continue this family tree into the late '80s, the younger generation of extreme metal acts would most assuredly include Kreator near the top of the list. Oh, and if you haven't already figured this out, none of this has much to do with the current breed of "metal" bands who sport backward baseball caps, ill-fitting jumpsuits, and extreme facial hair -- or the ones that think they understand hip hop. "I do not care for it -- no," Petroza offers when asked his opinion of the nü-metal and rap-metal scenes. But he grows considerably more modest when speaking of the young bands, mostly Scandinavian ones, that have drawn upon Kreator as a primary influence.
Kreator perfected a very technical, very German brand of progressive thrash that was far less accessible than the melodic, Iron Maiden-flavored style that fellow countrymen Helloween briefly brought to worldwide ears in the late '80s. Kreator's audience transcended European insularity, but, at least in the States, it has remained a particularly underground phenomenon. Kreator fans were Slayer fans were (pre-success) Metallica fans and so on. This breed of '80s metal fan was very serious and seriously unconcerned about how tall their hair was. These were kids who moped through the suburban wasteland in jackboots, listened to traded tapes on a waterproof walkman, and threw butterfly knives into wooden fences. Think River's Edge not The Decline Of Western Civilization Pt. II. If pictures speak volumes, then I invite your eyes to the one below, so that everyone is clear about what kind of metal this is not.
After an unrewarding stint on a major label in the early '90s, Kreator flirted with industrial music, as underground metal was wont to do in the middle of the decade. Setting experimentation aside, Petroza and the gang returned to the strong sound of pure metal. Last fall's Violent Revolution is a tight set of riffs and songwriting that is catchier and more accomplished than your average death-metal band, plus it takes the piss out of whatever Slayer is doing these days.
"It is not a return to form, as a lot of people are saying," Petroza insists. "It is a combination of the old Kreator and the new." Fair enough. The big, loud, beautiful production helps to place Violent Revolution in the future, and the singing is hoarse but far removed from the accepted guttural growl of a band like Cannibal Corpse. (There's nothing more depressing than seeing a man in his 30s barking into a microphone like a laconic troll.)
Joining Kreator for this potentially ear-shattering metal bill in Memphis is Destruction -- another old-school German proto-death-metal trio who have been kicking about as long as the headliners (albeit with less success and influence). The presumptuously named "Hell Comes To Your Town" tour has seen a couple of obstacles thus far -- a broken-down bus and the cancellation of a show in upstate New York because the promoter wanted the bands to play on a 9-by-13-foot stage -- but, hopefully, it will roll into town without a hitch and fill the Hi-Tone with pure metal, thick smoke, and unironic devil-sign-throwing.