Released: 2005, Roxx Productions
Reviewer: Gabriel C. Zolman
Once Dead is made up the former members of cult 80’s thrash band Vengeance Rising, minus evil genius Roger Martinez. If you don’t know what happened…you’ve got some reading to do. I won’t go into it here. You need only know that the split was acrimonious; and Roger holds a great deal of antipathy towards his former bandmates. His version of Vengeance Rising, featuring himself and a revolving door of studio goons, released two more albums after the split before going on a decade-plus hiatus. Last year, both factions of the band resurfaced: Roger with a newly-revisioned Satanic Vengeance Rising, and the other guys as Once Dead, featuring Ultimatum vocalist Scott Waters at the mic.
As a friend of Roger’s, I was almost positive I would hate this; and yeah, bits of it tweaked me. But in the end, I have chosen to remain as diplomatic as possible, and all the zingers I’d prepared for them remain unpublished. I suppose I’ll have to wait for the new Ultimatum release to use them.
Guitarist Larry Farkas sounds as if he never stopped playing these songs—the guy is simply a brilliant guitarist, and I can’t believe his resume is so obscure. Rhythm guitarist Doug Theime, despite resembling a frustrated camp counselor now, was spot-on also, but needed to be turned up in the mix. Bassist Roger Dale Martin, whose hair chose not to participate in the reunion, is nothing short of a joy. He genuinely seems to enjoy being there, and his ecstasy is contagious. Playing is clearly a religious experience for the man; and when the rest of the band is off, his overwhelming jovial presence maintains your interest. I’m not sure I would enjoy this band without him; I certainly wouldn’t enjoy watching. Drummer Glen Mancuso was…well…there. His drumming is fine; it was fine then, and there’s nothing wrong with it now. But he just does not look like he really wants to be there. By Glen’s own admission, he never fancied this style of music. His ability to play it adequately is a tribute to his versatility and talent, but a clearly ticking time bomb for the band. (EDIT: since this review was written, he has since left and been replaced by The Crucified’s Jim Chaffin—am I a prophet, or what?).
The disc begins with “Warfare,” which still remains a brilliant opener after all these years. It must also be stated that the transition into VR standard “White Throne” was actually quite clever. Slightly less effective is the classic “Mulligan Stew.” I can’t quite pin what’s wrong with this one, but it just never seems to take off like the original. I first wanted to say it was the vocals; but when I think about it, Roger’s weren’t any better—in fact, if anything, they were even less intelligible. Next up is the SOD-inspired “Receive Him” (which admittedly, when taken out of its Christian context, sounds a bit fruity…); compared to “He Is God/Salvation,” brings to mind just how completely Vengeance incorporated all that was going on in extreme metal at the time these songs were new. The whole band shines on “Into The Abyss,” but really, Roger Dale seems to get the most of the mix. Again, the man is just a joy. “Beheaded” is actually heavier here than the original version—it really works. The new song, “Once Dead” shows promise; it’s a bit more streamlined than the VR material was. It will be interesting to see where they go with this.
I can’t get a handle on Scott’s vocals. The issue is in the sound mix, and the pitfalls of debuting a new frontman in a live setting—especially one so different from Martinez. Often compared to Zetro of Exodus, here, he seems bent on channeling Paul Baloff. It might work in the studio; I will reserve my judgment for when I hear the inevitable studio release. Here, I can barely distinguish him from the feedback and echo.
The only problem with Scott’s vocals, that is discernable immediately, is that he is too serious. Roger was charismatic, and displayed a keen sense of humor on songs like “Can’t Get Out” and “Mulligan Stew” (Aha! There it is!); Scott’s menacing, almost hardcore delivery loses the tongue-in-cheek aspect of the lyrics. He needs to stick to the straight ahead thrashers. It’s like when Six Feet Under covered “California Uber Alles”—it was bound to be a mess, whether the music itself was good or not. Admittedly, this approach is quite alright on songs like “Frontal Lobotomy,” “Fatal Delay,” and “Into The Abyss” (which he shines on). Actually, his performance on “Fatal Delay” is arguably more appropriate to the subject matter than Roger’s was; in that sense, he made some songs his own. But at the same time, he was the only thing not perfect about Once Dead’s version of “Can’t Get Out.” As a frontman, Scott makes decent contact with the crowd. His approach is very different from Roger’s: Roger preached and went on mad tirades between his songs. Scott, on the other hand, sounds frequently like a fitness trainer in his between song banter.
And the hat has got to go.
While the DVD is marred by the lack of songs like “Fill This Place With Blood,” “From The Dead/Ascension,” and “The Threshing Floor,” the performances are fine. I would prefer to see this band evolve into something new, though. Vengeance Rising was frantic and messy without the core that makes up Once Dead; with that rhythm section restored—but without the lovably unhinged Roger Martinez—the songs are humorless and dry. This DVD performance is fine, and a gem for the fans—parts of it are on par with Exodus’ reunion live disc; other bits are strictly for old fans, bewildered at Roger’s abandonment of them. For the rest of us, it is a teaser for what might be better things to come from either camp.