A classic of the American death metal canon is exhumed for your delectation and information...
The latest in our Classics Track-By-Track series takes us to America, and death metal legends Deceased. Their 1997 release Fearless Undead Machines is still to this day my personal fave American death metal record, and it was a great thrill when Deceased lynchpin King Fowley agreed to chew the fat at length about it’s inception. So sit back and enjoy this in-depth dissection of a classic of American death metal…
What was the mood of the band as you went into the recording of Fearless Undead Machines? “Fearless Undead Machines was the first album where we felt like (label) Relapse had given us a proper budget; they also asked us to use an outside producer. We hadn’t met him, he was a guy from the West Coast called Jim Barnes who had worked with a band called Mind Rot. We didn’t know much about him. I’d talked to him on the phone once but we basically met him the day before we started recording. He had our demos. He was a crazy guy, like an older surfer dude. He got off the plane from California carrying a boom box playing Deceased demos! He was all riled up to go! He came and watched us practice that night just to see us play. He had some ideas he wanted to try. That was the first album also for which we had established a real practice base. We were set up in the basement of the house I was living at. Before that we’d been everywhere, from other people’s basements where the Cops chased us out to rented places, storage units… so we were very well prepared and ready to go. I really felt locked in”.
And you were getting on okay with Relapse at that point? “We were. 1997 was the time in the United States especially that heavy metal was very dead. Things were very grunge-orientated, and Relapse told us they had our backs. It was a very gradual thing. They helped us out on (the band’s 1991 debut) Luck of the Corpse, we got a little further with (1992 EP) 13 Frightened Souls and The Blueprints For Madness (1995), and then they were like ‘let’s go for this’ now for FUM… they gave us a decent budget, Bill Yurkiewicz, one of the part owners of the label came down to see us while we recording. He hung out for a day. It’s nice when that kind of thing happens. We were friends, and there was a loyalty kinda thing there”.
Okay, let’s go for it – track one was and is The Silent Creature. “That was the first song we wrote for the record. Basically, we went into my basement and soundproofed it, ready for practice. Mike Smith (guitars) came down early to practice one day, he told me he really wanted to write a lot of heavy metal riffs for the record. That’s where his heart is, that’s what he does the best. So he played me his first riff and I said ‘that’s really like Iron Maiden’s Wasted Years!’ and then he said ‘check this out’ and he played the first real ripping, grinding riff on the song. I said ‘that’s like Venom – Venom and Maiden – two of our favourites!’. We both kinda chuckled and then we started rolling… so we had all of these riffs, and then Mark (Adams, guitars) and Les (Snyder, bass) showed up and we already had two or three minutes of the song worked out. So I told them then that the album was going to be called Fearless Undead Machine, and that the concept went back to the second and third demos (Birth by Radiation and Nuclear Exorcist). I thought they could have been better, but now we were a little bit older and more mature and I wanted to ramp up what we’d done there. Basically it was Romeroesque, about life and death. It does have to do with Zombies and at the time Zombies were unpopular. Not like with all The Walking Dead crap that came later. They were all for that. So when they heard the riffs they heard the same things me and Mike did, and over the next three or four months we kept adding things to the song. We’d decided we wanted to do some longer, more epic tunes. We were very much in heavy metal mode. We still had our death and thrash roots, and the Voivod-style experimental stuff; I’d also decided I wanted there to be two or three instrumentals on the record to join things together. I didn’t want any quiet on the record. It was intended to be one long musical piece, track one into two, two into three…”
It’s a sort of format that’s done a lot now, isn’t it? Very progressive. But in 1997 it was quite a way ahead of its time. “It really was. That’s what I was thinking. I’d come off of Blueprints For Madness where I was on a huge Emerson, Lake and Palmer kick! That was still in my heart, and of course Maiden, coming from the same era, they grew up on Nektar and ELP and those kinds of bands; so that was what was really driving us. And I was also pissed off with the number of bands that were deserting metal at the time, including some of the bands that were bands I’d grown up with. Bands like Judas Priest… not ‘going grunge’ but doing that ‘macho’ Pantera stuff… I was like ‘what the fuck?’ I felt that Maiden was still being Maiden, even with the differences they had with Bruce Dickinson they were still doing their old kind of stuff. And we didn’t want to follow any format; We have never been a band to just string a few new songs together and call it an album. We knew we wanted FUM to be a concept record, something we could look back on, and it just seemed to be the perfect time”.
Track two is Contamination. “A song I gave to Mark Adams. I told him ‘I want you to write this thing… I need some kind of thing where I can do a little spoken, spooky Vincent Price-type of thing over it’. It’s just a little interlude. Mark was very influenced by Last Rose of Summer by Judas Priest for that one. It’s one hundred per cent a Mark Adams piece. I wasn’t even going to let him hear what I had planned for it until I went in to record it. So he came in and showed me whenever he had new parts for it… all of which I loved but he was always ‘it isn’t done King, it isn’t done’! Then one day he came in with the whole thing, three minutes of it, and I was like, ‘man this is perfect!’. I knew it would sound so good coming out of The Silent Creature. I loved it. When I was doing my parts for it in the studio, Jim Barnes the producer said ‘lets set up some ambience for this, I’m going to put out some candles for you’. It was about one AM in the morning, all the other guys were in the other room. I sat down on the floor and started talking, all the shadows of the little flames were dancing. I was on my own. Jim Barnes snuck out, left the basement through a back door, went around the house, came back in through the kitchen, and kicked the studio door in. He had a jacket over his head like a cape and I fucking freaked out! ‘holy shit man!’ I would love to hear that outtake! But that track really set the tone for the storyline – I’m really proud of what Mark did with it”.
And it leads into the title track. “Fearless Undead Machines. Another one me and Mike Smith worked on early in rehearsals. These songs took months to put together. I actually bought a twenty four-track ADAT machine but we could only hook up eight tracks because the board wouldn’t go to twenty four… I’d record every practice and when the others went home I’d take the tapes upstairs and listen to them, edit them down or whatever. Just to try to see whether things might work in different orders, whether they might be better fast or better slow… when this track was finished I was blown away. Before we went to the studio to do the record we went to Mike Bossier’s (who engineered the record) house to demo on his eight track. The songs were so heavy metal I said – for a joke – I could just sing these songs in a heavy metal voice. Mike Smith said ‘yes!’ but I said I wasn’t going to do it. But I just wanted Mike Smith to know how melodic and how well-prepared his riffs were. We were all blown away. All of our influences were in these songs – Mercyful Fate, Maiden, even some Queensrÿche and old bits of Slayer, the weirdness of Voivod, all this stuff was starting to creep in as we started to write longer songs… We wanted to make the songs interesting, not do verse-chorus-verse-chorus and then do two more of everything just to make the song longer. We wanted emotional highs and lows, dynamics, and for me this song is one of the best on the album for those things. It pushes the adrenaline on from Contamination, which is laid back and mellow, forwards, and takes you along”.
At the time, reading the sleeve notes, seeing the tributes to names like Blackmore and Schenker, it felt like nothing else that was out there. And especially like nothing else on Relapse. In the middle of all the chaos it had things you could hang on to, riffs or solos you could hum and whistle! “It sure did – you get it brother! You get it! That’s exactly what it was! And there didn’t seem to be a lot of people who remembered or cherished those times anymore… even though we were between twenty six and thirty years of age as a band, we were old farts to the death metal scene! You know a lot more now about bands because people are sharers, but in those days you would talk about Oz or Acid and people wouldn’t give a fuck. They were all caught up in the Earache label when it came to death metal, or Nuclear Blast or Century Media bands… I remember a review for the record said ‘is this a fucking joke? This is the worst piece of shit record I’ve ever heard… what are these guys going for? Have Relapse got pictures of these guys doing dodgy things with farm animals?” So not everybody got it, and that’s okay. But you got it right. You fully understand where we were coming from”.
That’s a relief! The next track is From The Ground They Came. “I gave this one to Mike Smith, saying ‘think Goblin, think Gates of Hell, think City of the Living Dead, think all those weird Zombie movies and weird, freaky Italian keyboard shit – let’s go for it’. We all actually sat together to build the song, it’s another song that went on that early demo at Mike Bossier’s… When we recorded the album I was so thrilled about how many of the songs came together so quickly and so… properly. I will never do an album where you think ‘it’s not the best song but it’s a song’. Every song has to be the best it can be. I also told Mike I wanted to put the keys on this one… my keyboard skills had come along a little in my other band, Doomstone, Just evil soundtracky stuff. I’d always fucked around with keyboards away from Deceased. I’d done little bits on Blueprints for Madness but I didn’t want this to be the same, not as symphonic. Blueprints was more of a kitchen sink approach whereas I wanted things on this record to be more fitting. We wanted that Goblin type of thing and I think it came out really cool for what it was. It definitely came out how I wanted… everybody in the band loved playing that tune”.
Next track – Night of the Deceased. “One of my all-time favourite Deceased songs. I really liked the song. I told Mike Smith again that The Silent Creature, Fearless Undead Machines and Night of the Deceased, with those connecting pieces, were like our little trilogy. We spent a lot of time doing this song. The first riff he came up with sounded like Helloween, but I said ít’s gotta sound like ‘tragic Helloween’! It’s got a little bit of that European flavour, like Helloween, Gamma Ray, Stratovarius, any of that kind of stuff… but we gave a darker edge to it and I’m really happy with the way it turned out. I didn’t sing it as well or get the enunciation as good as I do these days, over time that has come to me, but it’s one of my favourite songs. It’s almost always the track we open with live, and that’s been the case for years. Its got everything that we’re about. The speed, the slow parts, the melody, the noise. There’s a lot of Mike Smith in this track with the rest of us adding little parts”.
I’m interested in what you say about the three ‘main tracks’ we’ve talked about so far. We’ve featured a lot of albums in this series over the years, and one of the key things for me is that the songs on the albums we’ve deemed ‘classic’ seem to really be built to last. The songs on this album fit that bill. “They do. We’ve been playing the album in its entirety, or sometimes we’ve left out Contamination if the circumstances for playing that song weren’t right, people have said to me ‘Man, this thing really holds up’, and I think it really does hold up well. I’m proud of that. Every song that Deceased has released has been arranged by me. I’m the guy that sets the songs up and I want them to be as memorable and as good as they can fucking be. I don’t want anything half-assed”.
Well, I definitely think you succeeded on this album! “Well, thank you. Thank you for that!”.
The next track is Graphic Repulsion. “This is a King Fowley/Mark Adams tune. More of a thrash kind of thing. The feel of this song is more of a visual song – its the splatter movie song on the album! Mark came in with a riff, I came in with a riff, we put them together… it’s my favouritely-mixed song on the album. When we were doing the record Jim Barnes had some family issues and had to leave a couple of days before we were supposed to finish the recording. I can’t afford to get involved with peoples’ issues when we are paying them to record an album. It’s a long record, over an hour, there are a lot of vocals and a lot of other things to do; We were recording and mixing from ADATs, which don’t stop when you’re doing the mixing. You switch the tape on at second one and then have to play it all the way through, back and forth as you bounce the tracks… for whatever reason Graphic Repulsion came to be the last song we mixed for the album, and Jim had already left. So I looked at Mike Bossier and said ‘ít’s you and me, dude. Let’s mix this thing our own way. Let’s give the guitars more of a hit than the other songs on this record. Boost those fucking guitars up some more!’ When we listened back it hit me! If we had have had more time I would have done more of the songs like that! A few years ago when Decibel Magazine did a feature on the album Mark said it was his favourite track on the album because the guitars jumped right out of the speakers. I just think that’s the song though. It’s got some different things for Deceased in it, the slowed-down, almost sludge moments in the middle, that’s something we don’t do that often, and some of the Voivod, ‘choppy’ stuff too. We haven’t played it live in a while but it’s one of my favourites on the record”.
It’s followed up by Mysterious Research. “One of the things Relapse asked us to do for this album was to record the solos better because the guys could really play. Before we’d recorded the solos and they sounded a bit scratchy, a bit noisy. Relapse kept saying ‘these motherfuckers can play!’… I knew they could play too. Mark and Mike are phenomenal players. For this song I told Mike to start the song with a solo. He said ‘what?’ – I was saying ‘come on, mix it up – let’s start the song with a solo!’. This is where Mike Smith started to shine as the main riff writer for Deceased. That solo came in and I was blown away by the emotion in it. At the time I had a big thing for the band The Gathering; I liked the way they would present these songs that were depressing but melodic… almost… I don’t want to call it ‘folky’… with a deranged, dark melody to them. Anyway I told Mike that that opening solo reminded me of early stuff by The Gathering. The Always record, the very first one. It was cool for what it was. Mike loved it, and he was getting what he wanted from the song, as was I, so we were both getting to where we wanted to be… It’s a really emotional song because the melody really comes out. I really like the drastic changes in the middle, the beautiful lead work and the way the snare builds up two thirds of the way through the tune… it’s just a really good tune”.
The next track was Beyond Science. “That’s pretty much a King Fowley tune. I’m more of a simple player, I don’t write a lot of riffs straight up. I’m more of a simple guitar player. A lefty too! I came up with some riffs and said I wanted to do something with them. One of the riffs I had for the end part of the song was something I had from years back, from the demo days; I wanted this song to be more scaled back, more Luck of the Corpse or 13 Frightened Souls. Not so long, not so epic. Three and a half to four minutes. But it served it’s purpose. More of a straightforward thrasher, but with a big finale where the emotional side could kick in which would get us to the next song, Unhuman Drama. It was a more simplified song but everyone enjoyed playing it. Not my favourite track – I’m very hard on myself on songs that I’ve mainly written – but I do enjoy it. I really like the finale. It’s a fitting part with the keyboards and the emotion”.
As you mentioned the next track is Unhuman Drama. “A phenomenal track. Maybe my ‘quiet assassin’ song… I love it. I told the guys ‘this is going to be a weird one’. The riff comes in, the guys are playing it and I told them to stop, to chop it around a little bit. They said ‘what do you mean?’ But every time they played the riff they stopped. And chopped it around. They finally got it. Then I showed them a drum part I had (hums ‘choppy’ part)… I said ‘see? It’s a different approach. We’re not just rolling through it. WE’RE CUTTING, WE’RE CHOPPING LIKE AN AXE! I love the build up from the snare through the next part of the track, unintentionally it comes out like Voivod… or some sort of jazz thing you might find on side two of Never Say Die by Black Sabbath! We were creating something outside of our comfort zone. I thought it was so fucking cool. I want to bring that one back now! When we played the album in it’s entirety a few years back it was the first time I’d played it as a singer, not singing and playing. And I thought ‘man, I fucking love this tune!’. I think this and Night of the Deceased are my two favourites on the record. There’s something about that point, where I was telling the guys about the chopping, that set Deceased up for the future too. Still keeping the heart and the spirit of Deceased, but moving outside of the box”.
I remember at the time, just before the album came out, talking to somebody from Relapse at the Dynamo Festival in Eindhoven who knew my tastes and told me I’d love the record because it wasn’t the standard Relapse death metal release. He was right – when I heard it I couldn’t believe how progressive it was, but also how much it was still ‘the same’ if you get my meaning. You are pushing boundaries, but not to the point where the listener holds their hand up and cries ‘enough! You’re going too far!’ “I feel the same way, I really do. It’s out of the box, but still in the box if that makes sense!”
It does! Next track – The Psychic. “The song that wrote itself! We used to practice from six to ten, get everything we had out in those four hours. One day the guys came in with some riffs I was ready to roll, and from six till nine that night we had the song written and done. I looked at those guys and said ‘this is the fucking single!’ Remember those limited edition twelve inch singles they used to do, that folded out into a calendar or a clock or something? With a remix on side B! I heard Grim Reaper in in it, I heard Maiden, but the weirdest thing was I wasn’t even sure there was going to be a Psychic in the story. I added it to the concept about two thirds of the way through the lyrical part of the record. The concept of ‘the Psychic’ doesn’t really happen in Zombie movies, so the story took a bit of a turn there. Suddenly it goes from being the end of the world, nobody can be saved, to finding there are these people who saw it coming and have an underground city where they thought they could get away from this mess, but as you know that doesn’t happen. They don’t get away from it and the people who were prepared for it were not prepared for it…”
Which leads us to the final track, Destiny… “Destiny was the finale for the record. It was the song that everybody wrote riffs for because I wanted everybody to contribute to it. The completion of the concept. The home run of it all! Everybody brought riffs to the table over the months that we wrote the record. We just let it happen. Would it be an epic closer, a short closer, we didn’t know. It ended up being one of the longest songs on the record. Everybody went out of the way to contribute the strongest stuff they could, the whole record had come to complete fruition at that point, everybody’s work was spot on. We couldn’t fuck it up even if we wanted to! But we didn’t fuck it up. I love the way the song feels, the lyrics, the fork in the road – nobody lives, everyone dies. There’s no happiness, no smiles. Deceased will never have any happiness in their songs, that’s what makes death metal for me, and makes this song the perfect closer for us. And I’m very proud of it. I’m very proud of the whole record. When we came to sequence it, I loved how it just faded out, and you could just sit and think about everything you’d been through for the last hour…”