The vast majority of metalheads usually have a slight tilt towards a particular sub-genre. My sensitive point is called San Francisco Bay Area Thrash, for which I will talk about at some future point extensively. Bay Area style became overtime a truly big phenomenon in the “microworld” of Thrash, generating releases that have stigmatized not only music worldwide, but also the musical experiences of tens of thousands of listeners over the years. Among bands such as Death Angel, Attitude Adjustment, Lȧȧz Rockit, Forbidden, Defiance, Ulysses Siren, among dozens of others, Heathen came out with a debut that to this day, every listen brings shivers down my spine, as if hearing it for the first time.
Heathen was practically (as well in discography) active from 1984 to 1993 and again from 2001 and onwards. Their story begins in 1984, when Lee Altus and Carl Sacco of Metal Church formed Heathen and despite not having a bassist until 1985, they made their live debut in April 1985 with Sam Kress on vocals and Jim Sanguinetti on guitars (who will later leave to join Mordred). Towards the end of the same year, they decide that in the end Kress was better as a lyricist than as a singer, so they asked David Godfrey of Blind Illusion to take his place, while Doug Piercy (who participated in the demos of Anvil Chorus and Attitude Adjustment in the same year) officially replaced Sanguinetti.
With the addition of Eric Wong as a bassist in early 1986, Heathen made their first live appearance in February of that year, playing a rather aggressive but overwhelmingly technical Thrash, with N.W.O.B.H.M. vocal elements in particular, with plenty of instrumental passages and orchestral circle shape (intro – outro). In other words, it was easy to understand that Heathen were quite different from the trend of the time.
In 1986 they released the demo “Pray For Death”, which secured them a contract with Combat Records. Eric Wong decided to leave and Griffin’s Mike “Vaz” Jastremski took his place. With this line-up, Heathen got in the studio to record their first full length album.
On May 1, 1987, Heathen released “Breaking The Silence”, an album with seven of their own compositions and a brilliant cover on “Set Me Free” from Sweet’s sophomore album, “Sweet Funny Adams” (1974) (you should also check Saxon’s version in their 1984’s album “Crusader”). This particular adaptation was the bait that attracted a large portion of listeners almost immediately with the extensive airplay that Heathen won but also with the video clip that was released promoting the song, respectively, gaining television time at MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball.
“Breaking The Silence” in my opinion is the record that managed to balance between the two most powerful music worlds at that time. On one hand we had the freshest musical current, the totally aggressive and incredibly dynamic Thrash which was translated in many albums and in various ways and on the other hand the already fully shaped and dominant, multi-dimensional N.W.O.B.H.M. Which inspired countless bands and led to corresponding releases. Heathen “grabbed” the best parts of the two worlds and united them in a mix that yielded one of the most emblematic underground records of the genre.
I believe that they combined the technical perfection and intelligence of bands such as Metal Church with the comfort and easy accessibility of Metallica, for example, but grafted their compositions with much of the mysterious darkness brought by Great Britain. The album is characterized by dynamic guitars that offer heaps of fast riffs and solos, strong but demanding melodies, plenty of tremolo / double picking with a relatively clean sound, without excessive distortions that is, and drums that support each composition with double kicks, giving simultaneously intensity and impetus.
Οf course White on vocals shows a completely different side of the coin than what was in circulation at the time, having basically clear, loud and almost operatic vocals (impressively wide extent) while there are enough moments when his voice becomes as guttural as needed just to add a more theatrical twist on the dark and eerie atmosphere the band built. Thinking abstractly we could say that the duo Altus – Piercy was balancing between King / Hanneman and John Sykes / Robb Weir.
In terms of production, it is quite clear, although at times the guitars are mixed a bit more forward from the vocals and drums, but I do not think it took away points from the overall glamor of the album. Admittedly, “Breaking The Silence” is on the verge of melody and metal, with catchy choruses, fast paces and power thrash moments that could easily serve as background music on some reportage covering the violence between football hooligans.
Many tracks stand out from the album, such as “Open The Gate” with its ominous atmosphere or the multi-layered “World’s End”, however I consider “Death By Hanging” one of the best and most characteristic Thrash tracks of all time. Excellent introduction, to a wonderful album, with a chorus that, once stuck in your mind, takes months to come out. By the end of 1987, “Breaking The Silence” had sold 100,000 copies.
The support that Heathen received from both the local metal community (which, by the way was in heat, to say the least) and the press, which celebrated their debut, enabled them to tour extensively in America. On the downside, Carl Sacco was replaced by Darren Minter on the drums shortly before they began their live appearances, sometime in January 1988.
After the aforementioned tour, things changed dramatically for the Californians. For a short time the vocals were taken over by the ultimate thrash icon Paul Baloff (Exodus), with whom they recorded a demo in October 1988. However, the gap between the members was growing, having as a result all the members of the band leaving except for Lee Altus claiming personal but also musical differences. Heathen tried to make a restart with Manny Bravo on bass, Rick Weaver from The Disspossessed and David Wayne (Metal Church) on vocals, but within days, White made a comeback and returned to his place.
Wayne did another jam with the band in late 1988, but never recorded anything. Bravo also left Heathen shortly afterwards and was replaced by Blind Illusion’s bassist Vern McEllroy.
A few months later, in March 1989, in order to release a second album, a demo entitled “Fear of the Unknown” was partially recorded, but due to low funding, it was never completed and was abandoned. It featured many of the tracks that were later released on their second album.
With Blind Illusion’s Marc Biedermann on bass, Heathen released “Victims of Deception” in 1991 via Roadrunner Records. Much more complicated than its predecessor, “Victims” introduced many rhythm breaks, complex riffs and tunes, longer tracks, and the composing change was evident with the N.W.O.B.H.M. elements disappearing, resulting in Heathen’s open flirt with the technical progressive sub-genre.
Despite the qualitative change in the music direction of the compositions, Heathen remained very fast, with an impetus that could dissolve everything in its path, intense melodies, brilliantly structured riffs and escalations in every track. If we elaborate on the orchestration or how solid they sounded then we are dealing with an absolut gem. Nothing seems to be left out, nothing is over-played, and everything is as it should be.
White is perhaps the only one who this time makes some difference, including more hoarse / rough passages, without of course leaving behind his operatic but deep and dynamic vocals. Extremely interesting is the plot of the lyrics, which basically apply to the influence of the Church and in general any kind of religion in people’s lives; every aspect of it. Specifically the album opens with an excerpt from a speech by the Evangelist Jim Jones (Toxik and Manowar also wrote about this tragic incident) who was the founder and leader of the People’s Temple, best known for its cult sectarian murder / suicide, in 1978 where more than 900 sect members in Johnstown, Guyana, died and also the killing of five people on a nearby runway. More than 200 children were killed in Johnstown, almost all by cyanide poisoning thrown at the Kool Aid soft drink.
The album also includes a cover on Rainbow’s “Kill The King”. Rightly in terms of evolution and influence in the respective circles, “Victims of Deception” is considered one of the most technical records of the period and a large part of the technical / progressive thrash movement that shone in the late ’80s and early’ 90s, with many – including me – claiming that the album had an effect similar to Dark Angel’s with “Time Does Not Heal”, Coroner’s with the “Mental Vortex” or Watchtower’s with “Control And Resistance” on the scene of the sub-genre.
In the 2006’s reissue released as digipack by Metal Mind Productions, there are two bonus tracks, a cover on Tygers of Pan Tang’s “Hellbound” and a new track, “Timeless Call of Prophecy”. From a purely commercial point of view, the success may had not been as expected, but the album gave Heathen the ticket to tour Europe with Sacred Reich and Sepultura (a dreamy billing indeed). On this tour, Randy Laire replaced Biedermann, but unfortunately lost his life in a car accident in June 1991, with Jason Viebrooks taking on temporary bassist duties. Shortly afterwards, D. Piercy left and was replaced by Ira Black.
Heathen intended to record a cover EP in memory of Laire and White’s recently lost brother, but this never happened. After a brief stint with Jason Vie Brooks on bass and Thaen Rasmussen on guitar, Heathen officially disbanded in 1992. According to Dave White, they all wanted to forget about that period. Doug Piercy, Lee Altus and Darren Minter moved to Germany. Doug started racing cars, while the other two joined Die Krupps.
Heathen’s reunion took place only for one reason, and it was a really good one, with David White, Lee Altus, Ira Black, Mike “Yaz” Jastremski, and Darren Minter, after they decided to participate in Thrash Of The Titans in 2001, a charity show aimed at raise money to cover the costs of Chuck Billy’s laryngeal cancer treatment and Chuck Schuldiner’s brain cancer treatment respectively.
Heathen ‘s real comeback came with the release of the EP “Recovered” by Relentless Metal Records, which included four covers on Queen, Thin Lizzy, Tygers of Pan Tang and Sweet Savage in order to give prominence to the bands that influenced their sound. It also featured four demo tracks from the album “Victims of Deception” and a new track, “In Memory Of …”. Heathen decided to keep working and writing new material despite the years that have passed.
Nearly two decades after the release of their second full-length album, Heathen returned to the epicenter, releasing “Evolution of Chaos” in 2010. This is the first time that guitarist Kragen Lum is participating, who will also appear on their next album too, while at the same time will be Jon Torres’s only appearance on bass. It was originally scheduled to be released on July 20, 2009, but it took much longer to complete the mixing process, so it took a long time to reach the stores.
The album, honoring the band’s legacy, of course opens with a special orchestral intro with oriental elements to suddenly lead into the most characteristic track of the album “Dying Season”. Despite the 18 years that separate this release from the previous one, “Evolution of Chaos” seems to be the logical continuation of “Victims of Deception”, with a plethora of ideas, consecutive riffs and solos, melodic breaks in frenzy rhythms, drums that support like a backbone the whole affair and features a David White giving his everything with a little more grit than usual.
As one would expect, the compositions tend to be longer with scaling and crescendo, without omitting points where the rhythms fall so that the final climax is even more intense.
The album seems bigger to my eyes and I wish it would be the same for you all, because it came out at a time when the revival of Thrash was a global phenomenon alongside the reunion of many older disbanded groups that were often – unfortunately – heartbreaking. There are some moments in tracks like “Control By Chaos” that could be described as overly ambitious with the guitars firing two hundred riffs per second, but it did not bother me at all.
Furthermore their dynamic gives me extra goosepumps. Another positive element of this album and why not a moving point I can say, are the friendly guest appearances: Steve DiGiorgio plays bass in “No Stone Unturned” and sitar in the intro, Gary Holt took over the lead guitars in “Control by Chaos ”, Rob Dykes contributed with general backup vocals while Adam Harrington took over the narration in“ A Hero’s Welcome ”.
Their long-awaited return offered them a place alongside Exodus, Kreator and Testament at Thrash Damnation in Tokyo, Japan, while in 2011 they toured Europe with Sepultura, Exodus, Destruction and Morbid Saint. In 2012 they sign with Nuclear Blast and among other things, they visited our country with an explosive billing (Exodus, Obituary, Morgoth / Athens – Homo Iratus / Thessaloniki).
In January 2019, Heathen officially start working on their fourth album, which was entitled “Empire of the Blind”. In June they presented as a single from their new album the track “The Blight”, while the official release took place in September of the following year. It is Heathen’s first record in 11 years, with Jason Mirza and Jim DeMaria on bass and drums respectively. Although recording had not officially begun until 2019, Heathen began working on “Empire of the Blind” immediately after signing with Nuclear Blast ιν 2012.
In the next seven years since the band’s signing, the band was tested by lineup changes, the projects that every musician outside the band had, and most importantly, guitarist Kragen Lum took Gary Holt’s place at Exodus every time Holt toured with the Slayer.
In a September 2020 interview with KMUW radio, Lum recalled: “By about 2014 I had half the record completely demoed with vocals and everything. I continued to write over the next few years but I more or less too busy to demo it and properly finish the songs. I was touring with Exodus pretty heavily from about 2015 until 2019. Whenever we had a long enough break, I would work on stuff but it just really wasn’t until last year where I had enough time to finish writing and I had more than enough for an album. There’s a song that we actually didn’t even record.”
The record, from my point of view, could be Heathen’s but it could at the same time be someone else’s. And let me explain what I mean. Up to a point in this album, Heathen show the character they had projected so far, with intricate lengthy compositions and orchestration, but at the same time, precisely because the line-up has changed and the writing procedure of the songs had been taken over exclusively by Kragen Lum, this seems that the final result belongs to someone else. Also, in this album we meet a changed David White, whom you won’t easily understand, unless you’ve been obsessed with his vocal range since day one. I don’t mean that he doesn’t have the right positioning, nor that he doesn’t apply himself correctly on the notes, we just hear a different approach: lower frequencies and too few high pitches and turnings. And I really miss them. Maybe the passage of time is to blame and without overthinking it I had unrealistic expectations. Maybe they were optionally written that way. I honestly cannot know. The album as a whole left me with a different taste than usual. As if it was coming from a side project. I don’t know, I may overreact. Of course, this does not mean that the next time we see them live there won’t be blood everywhere!
Although they failed to break the shackles of the underground and became a great commercial success, like many of their community, they are considered one of the bands that made the Bay Area scene stand out and to a point identified with the sound of the region. Comparing them with huge records released from their region, such as Metallica’s “Kill ‘Em All” (1983) and Exodus’ “Bonded By Blood” (1985), but also theoretically simultaneous releases, such as Death Angel’s “Ultra Violence” ( 1987) and later Vio-Lence’s “Eternal Nightmare” (1988), Heathen were always more technical – almost prog – in their sound and therefore less explosive and hooligan-like. And it’s ok. They blew our minds anyway.
Trivia: The David White/Godfrey story: David was born a White after his biological father, but used his stepfather’s surname, Godfrey, in school for issues of convenience. Upon reaching adulthood, he began using the White name, but his bandmates convinced him to use Godfrey on the “Breaking the Silence” album so nobody thought Heathen had switched singers.