Review Summary: Behold Death SS, the long lost kings of occult metal.1 of 1 thought this review was well written
Death SS were likely the very first Italian metal band, formed way back in 1977 and playing a style of gritty rock n roll/heavy metal influenced by occult-themed prog rockers like Goblin and Black Widow. Their original lineup included vocalist Steve Sylvester (his initials being the reason for the SS) and guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Paul Chain. Between 1977 and 1984 they released two demos, three singles and an EP titled "Evil Metal". Most of the content of these releases would be compiled after the group's initial breakup in 1984 for an album titled "The Story of Death SS". This material was almost shockingly ahead of its time, laying down the groundwork for gritty occult-themed speed metal and by extension black metal. Paul Chain would leave the group in 1984 to pursue a solo career, leaving Steve Sylvester as the frontman with a stable of new musicians. The later incarnations of the band would sully its name almost irreparably with a string of horrendous releases, but the recordings of the original lineup remain classics and have preserved the name of Death SS as true innovators of metal.
The sound of the recordings varies a bit between early demos, live material the slightly more cleaned up and concise "Evil Metal" EP. In general the production is a bit hazy but has a distinctive crunch and trebly analog tone. The instruments can all be picked out clearly, separating both guitars and some distinctive bass lines (especially in the more prog-like sections). The riffs include gritty mid paced rock n rollers, speedy upbeat heavy metal parts, lead-driven mid paced occult sounding prog jams and perhaps most notably the eerie, dissonant and harsh bits unique to Death SS' early speed and doom metal infused style. The guitar sound is sometimes a bit sparse, but this allows the plunking bass lines to enter the forefront which really enhances the dull dead-sounding tone of the music. In the live tracks however the distortion of the guitar has a tendency to overpower everything, and this is where they achieve the highest levels of harshness and heaviness. Steve Sylvester's vocals, while not fitting in with with the screaming and growling seen later in extreme metal are interestingly harsh for their time. He mostly sings with a throaty grating tone and works in some grunts and horrifying yells. Their lyrics and general aesthetic are also important to their role in the development of the particular brand of speed metal that would spawn black metal years later. They focus on death, the occult (obviously) and horror and approach them with a general strangeness that seems to be unique to Italians (prog rockers Goblin had a similarly strange atmosphere the horror/giallo movies that came out of Italy in the 70s and 80s fit in with the sound perfectly). While those Danish charlatans Mercyful Fate are often credited with being responsible for black metal aesthetic and lyrical themes, Death SS actually contributed to the genre musically.
It's easy to see how a band like Death SS could arise with all the occult-themed prog and stoner rock of the 70s (which was the forerunner of metal in general). Still, their particular brand of gritty speed metal and occult doom highlighted the greatest aspects of those genres and was clearly very important in the development of extreme metal and most especially early black metal. Fans of Venom, Hellhammer and other black metal aligned classics may at least appreciate Death SS as a curiosity and an important piece of metal history. Those who enjoy the black metal of the late 80s that still wore its early metal influences on its sleeve (Tormentor, Mortuary Drape, etc) will also likely appreciate these horrific Italian weirdos. Those proto-power metal pansies Mercyful Fate can step aside, as the true masters of occult metal Death SS are here to dethrone them. King Diamond's ball-grabbing faggy squeals can't hold a candle to the sinister grunts and rasps of Mr. Steve Sylvester (although they're probably equally gay now considering the kind of reprehensible nonsense Death SS have been up to since the 90s). Also, Paul Chain in a way continued the glory of Death SS with his solo project in the mid to late 80s. Anyhow, if you're interested in investigating a strange old relic from the past and a unique development in the metal genre, check this out.