Sylvester, Steve-The Necromancer Of Rock: The Origins of Death SS (Book Review)

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Reviewed: January, 2022
Published:  2021, Ajna
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: JP

I can honestly say that I’m not a fan of Death SS.  It’s not because I have heard them and dislike their music.  Far from it.  It is only because I don’t own a single Death SS album!   Of the thousands of bands I’ve heard and bought albums of in 40 + years, Death SS is not one of them. I think I heard one ‘Best of compilation CD’ (they have about twelve of them) once, maybe 25 years ago, and it went in one ear and out the other.  I can’t call my self a fan with any legitimacy.

I’m not one of those guys who pretends to like an old cult band, or loudly declares that “I was an original fan’ just to get Metal street cred.   We have all met those types.   If I had a dollar for every Metal guy who claims they own an original Metallica ‘Power Metal’ cassette demo or a ‘yellow goat’ Bathory vinyl or a Maiden ‘Soundhouse Tapes’, that they bought when it came out, I’d be rich!

I have no problem ‘admitting’ (like it’s a crime of some sort) that I have no clue about Death SS.  For whatever reason or reasons this iconic underground band totally passed me by.  Obscure labels, poor distribution, lack or promotion and media meant I just never explored the band despite the fact they have been around since 1977.

Two factors united to motivate me to explore the band; the publication of a new memoir by Death SS founder Steve Sylvester and the recent release of the bands tenth studio album simply entitled ‘X’.   I decided once and for all I’m going to explore this band I’ve known about since I was a kid but never paid attention to.   Feel free to enjoy both reviews in this long overdue feature.

Death SS has had several phases in their career.   There was the original ‘cult’ phase, and then a brief period where after parting ways Paul Chain took the name and ran with it for a few years before being soundly rejected.  Sylvester reclaimed the throne and released the band first full-lengthy debut in 1988.   The band had a handful of legendary demos and EP’s from 1977 on so it really demonstrates the cult-like status of the band.   The early days of the band is the focus of the book, THE NECROMANCER OF ROCK.  The sub-title ‘The Origins Of Death SS 1977-1982 clearly explains the timeline involved.

Unfortunately the label could not provide a hard copy of the book so I have no idea what it is like in terms of size, paper quality, presentation, etc.    We do know that it is a paperback that runs 224 pages and is mostly black and white.   However Anja has always had good quality so you can rest assured that when you order  THE NECROMANCER OF ROCK it will look and feel good.

It is immediately evident that a lot of effort went into this book.  A number of people had their input and the book has no less than four introductions from the various key people.   One of those is Mortiis and I’m not shocked that a creepy soul like him is right into old Death SS.    I suppose technically this is a more of a memoir than a full-autobiography.  THE NECROMANCER OF ROCK has been around for quite a few years, originally published in 2011 in Italian.  In 2020 Sylvester gave it a big upgrade, again published in Italian only, and then finally in April of 2021 , on Walpurgisnacht no less, the English language version rose from the grave.

Sylvester is an engaging and entertaining writer. He was aided by Gianni Cioppa and together they have cobbled together a really magnificent look at the origins of the band.   We follow the story chronologically, as is usually the case, from the birth of Sylvester (born Stefano Silvestri) and onward.  I took great interest in learning how this young man blended his love of rock, especially the theatrical side of glam rock (Sweet etc) and the steady influx of Italian pulp horror comics, magazine and film and created something new.  There are many photos of those old film posters and magazines, more often than not featuring ‘easy-on-the-eyes’ images of busty vampire woman, a la Vampirella and so on. Intelligent and detached from normal puritan religious upbringing he drifted ofv down the left hand path never to return.

As time progressed Sylvester’s  youthful , and largely innocent dalliances with dark culture evolved into full immersion into satanic orgies, seances, grave-robbing, drugs, animal torture and all sort of hedonism.  The early Black Metal bands realizing it or not really took a page from the book of Sylvester.  King Diamond’s infamous microphone stand of human bones was pre-dated by Death SS by many years as was the idea to bury stage clothes in a grave so they would reek like death.    His excesses led him to be outcast, ostracized and even subject to an exorcism by, I’m sure, well-intentioned family members.   By now fully dedicated to evil and adopting the vampire persona, Death SS the primitive band cobbled together some now legendary shock-rock performances including throwing meat in the crowd and so on.   All of these are detailed in a somewhat amusingly  detached fashion by Sylvester as he explains these occurrences as rather routine, rather than exploiting the shock value.

The book is loaded with visual elements, not only old photos but in terms of the design and layout.   There are also many testimonies and  interviews with ex-members and more.  An aspect of the book I found quite helpful were the many explanatory footnotes which helped explain some of the more obscure culturally references from Italy in the 60’s and 70’s.   There were any number of helpful Addendums scattered across the book that expanded on a particular point, such as literature that influenced Steve or his opinion on various narcotics.

The main narrative takes us to when Steve left the band and opened a bar in another city (Florence) and the band carried on with another singer, albeit briefly.  The book is far from over as there are multiple Appendices to explore.  There are several interviews with former members, keeping mind there had been a lot of people in the band over the years, but these were founding and/or early members, all too happy to participate.   Then there is an extensive interview with Sylvester.   We also get a full discography and three comics about Death SS as well.  The book is incredibly comprehensive.

THE NECROMANCER OF ROCK is a really special and very well done book.  It chronicles the history in amazing detail and with passion and sincerity.   I enjoyed reading this as much or even more than some mainstream rock star biographies of artist with whom I am much more familiar with.  As trite as it may sound, this tome is mandatory for all Death SS fans and event acolytes like myself will find a rich and entertaining story of this underground band.