Review Summary: Everything and the kitchen sink; throw it all at the wall and hope something sticks.
Death Angel’s debut The Ultra-Violence remains something of a landmark in the thrash genre. It came out in 1987, at a time when a good chunk of the scene was already taking cues from Slayer and Possessed and flirting with more extreme nascent sounds like death or black metal; a time when another good chunk of the scene was preoccupied with taking the genre to another level, experimenting with technicality and complexity, greater ambitions in terms of song structure, different approaches to songwriting in general. The Ultra-Violence didn’t really bother with most of those things. All it really had going for it was energy - a jovial energy and a willingness to play around with anything that seemed like it might be fun. It was naive, but it was earnest, never lowering itself to the cheesiness of Anthrax, and being only sufficiently restrained as to be reasonably cohesive and thus effective.
Unfortunately, cohesion is exactly what their sophomore effort most direly lacks. Of course, creativity and experimentation tend to be prerequisites of truly great music. Metal as a genre and thrash in particular have long been criticised for being overly derivative, and with good reason, as many bands both popular and forgotten seem content to simply imitate and recycle, or self-plagiarise to the point of self-parody. Yet unbridled creativity without some sort of focus, without a clear vision, without a solid core to tie it all together, rarely produces good results, especially in the hands of young and inexperienced songwriters.
Death Angel’s second album, 1988’s Frolic Through the Park, is quite frustrating to analyse and describe. One of the biggest reasons for this is that most tracks are quite dynamic structurally, changing tempo, approach and feel as they please. Paradoxically, this is both one of the album’s strengths that manages to save it from true, one-note late-80s thrash mediocrity, as well as its greatest weakness that dooms it to being scatterbrained and unremarkable on the whole.
Make no mistake: this album certainly has plenty of bits that feel like a natural progression of their debut’s sound, more refined, more developed. Most tracks in fact have at least one moment here and there that feels like the band are close to touching their true potential: the riffs get more technical from time to time, the bass continues to be a highlight in both presence and playing, the drums impress just as much with tasteful bursts of double bass and countless fills. In fact the first two tracks are strong examples of all of the above. So what’s wrong with it then?
The problem is Death Angel’s lofty ambitions seem carried by an almost neurotic compulsion to keep mixing things up, an obsessive devotion to variety. And unfortunately, while they strike gold more than once, there’s also an abundance of parts that either feel generic and undercooked, overstay their welcome, or flat out do not work at all. While the idea of cramming in a dozen riffs into one song is admirable, if half of them feel unremarkable perhaps it would have been better only writing and refining three or four genuinely interesting ones. Thrash is after all one of the more guitar-centric species of metal, and this album alternates between offering juicy morsels and stale leftovers.
Let’s look at some tracks then. Why You Do This opens with a hardcore punk riff, into a shreddy thrash passage, into a dissonant riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on Voivod’s RRRÖÖÖAAARRR. Then back into the punk, and this is all in the first minute and a half! It mostly works, although the chorus is a rather generic affair. The later Guilty of Innocence and Mind Rape are fairly similar in terms of the influences they combine, though neither feels quite as inspired. Open Up starts with about two minutes of glam-y hard rocking heavy metal, before launching into yet another Voivod-esque thrash passage, and then back to the former. Somehow it mostly works, with the bass contributing quite a bit to it all throughout. The single Bored begins with a pretty interesting riff and does nothing but showcase variations on it for the entire duration, wearing thin by the end. Confused is a bit ahead of its time, with its slow groovy chugs making modern listeners think of the 90s post-And Justice For All, post-Cowboys From Hell metal landscape, for better or for worse. Sadly it drones on for about four minutes before doing anything truly interesting. Shores of Sin is a solid thrasher, let down by its needlessly long intro and outro, and followed by a thoroughly unnecessary KISS cover in Cold Gin.
By now it should be evident that Frolic Through the Park is truly a mixed bag, feeling as if the band simply threw into the mix every idea they could think of, with no restraint, no filter, no editing, much like this review. At times they seem to sprint ahead of most of the competition, while at others they fumble, stumble and fall on their faces. This record had the potential to surpass their debut in almost every way, provided that the fat had been trimmed and some things rearranged and reconfigured. Instead, it demands over 50 minutes of your time and leaves you feeling like you should have listened to something else by the end.