Reappraising Coma of Souls: Vintage thrash’s great last gasp
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When they released their continually lauded Gods of Violence album in January 2017, Teutonic warlords Kreator cemented their status as vintage thrash metal’s most valuable commodity. The album was an immense exercise in perfectly executed harmonics combining seamlessly with the most state-of-the-art aural abrasiveness, resulting in a melodic extravaganza of pure, unfettered energy. It was exactly the kind of Kreator album that fans had been craving ever since its equally awesome predecessor, Phantom Antichrist (2012). But what started this melodic-meets-mad formula that followers and critics worldwide now consider to be Kreator’s artistic signature is a titan from far further back in the annuls of time: 1990’s Coma of Souls. Dropping in the same year as such speed metal masterworks as Megadeth’s Rust in Peace, Slayer’s Seasons in the Abyss and Death Angel’s Act III, Coma of Souls is an often overlooked entry into the monumental thrash canon, but it played a significant role in the subgenre’s eclectic expansion in the early 1990s. While Megadeth were injecting their metal with some healthy hints of prog and Death Angel were adding in full-blown acoustic ballads and Anthrax were mixing it with hip-hop, Kreator tossed in harmonics pinched straight from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Coma of Souls was a distinctly European approach to American thrash, with swanky lead guitars punctuating pummelling rhythms and explosive choruses. The album’s desire to differentiate itself from a saturated thrash metal scene becomes apparent from the very beginning, as opener ‘When the Sun Burns Red’ lulls itself to life with ever-building acoustic guitars and an ominously melodic guitar solo. What follows is classic, mammoth Kreator, with unbridled heaviness swirling and churning beneath the wails of frontman Mille Petrozza. Open E-sting chugging dominates ‘When the Sun Burns Red’’s hard choruses, keeping intact Kreator’s roots in full-blooded thrash metal. Then, to top it all off, the enchanting guitar solo preceded by a pure marathon of a bridge makes for one of the album’s early highlights. The following duo of the title track and ‘People of the Lie’ make up two of Coma of Souls’ biggest hits, each spawning music videos and each boasting equally masterful instrumentation. The rhythmic guitars of Petrozza and cohort Frank Blackfire rage with the same taut aggression as Jürgen “Ventor” Reil’s impactful drumming, the speed and technicality of which is criminally underrated. ‘World Beyond’ keeps the momentum high with more roaring choruses and visceral soloing, segueing into the downtrodden midpoint magnum opus ‘Terror Zone’. Slowing Coma of Souls pace to a grooving crawl, the centrepiece is fuelled by frantic lead guitars and a guttural hook of a refrain. Strings soar in a proud display of rock ‘n’ roll guitar heroics, the grandeur and catchiness of which thrash metal had found itself discerning in its firmly punk-inspired origins. It’s easy to see how the taut, manic progressiveness of this indomitable suite inspired such modern and similarly experimental stalwarts as Havok and Vektor. Ingeniously, ‘Terror Zone’’s successor, ‘Agents of Brutality’, carries over the same middling pace before having it violently break down into a cavalcade of unmistakably thrash metal violence. The consistent segue not only adds to the catharsis of the enormous shift to full-on aggression, but also demonstrates a true understanding of pacing, an often negated art in the realm of album sequencing. This breakdown then fantastically replicates itself after a dreamlike solo, which just as eagerly deconstructs itself into a far more abrasive second half. The technical wankery of ‘Material World Propaganda’ totally juxtaposes the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it insanity of ‘Twisted Urges’. Condensing both frantic vitriol and a mathematically intricate start into less than three minutes, it’s a brilliantly apt encapsulation of the rest of the album surrounding it. After ‘Hidden Dictator’ steals the show with a funky bass lick courtesy of the maestro Rob Fioretti, ‘Mental Slavery’ makes for a more than apt conclusion to this raging masterpiece. Its stop–start beginning harkens back to such veterans as Possessed, before constantly building through ear-wrenching riffs to an unabashed thrash opus. Revisiting Coma of Souls almost thirty years after it first wrestled its way into record shops worldwide, its place in extreme music history is clear. It stands as one of extreme metal’s great last gasps before its disappearance into the underground, betrayed as genre leaders like Metallica and Megadeth sought a more commercial direction and other titans from Death Angel to Anthrax would dissolve or be crippled by disastrous line-up changes. As far as metal as a whole is concerned, Coma of Souls is a severely overlooked piece of history, more than deserving to stand side-by-side with the other great thrash achievements of 1990. However, the album also represented a last gasp for Kreator for some time, as they would spend the rest of the 1990s experimenting with industrial- and groove-inspired overtones to varying degrees of success. By the time the German outfit were ready to mount their full-on metal comeback in 2001 with the magnificent Violent Revolution, Coma of Souls would clearly be their blueprint. They would spend the rest of their career in the 21st century expanding upon the melodies and technicality that this seminal album perfected far, far ahead of its time. And, as a direct result, the 2000s and beyond have seen this quartet become one of the most valuable and respected old-school speed demons. Coma of Souls will be re-released in double CD and triple vinyl formats via BMG on 23rd February. Be sure to also check out our reappraisals of Metallica’s Master of Puppets and Death’s Individual Thought Patterns.