One can never determine exactly when a genre of music started. For ever obvious benchmark, there’s an obscure, influential one that entrenched hipsters are waiting to draw like a pistol. Kill ‘Em All? Try Overkill first. Big Korn fan? Put on some downset and call me. This gotcha fandom has often made discussing musical history an infuriating effort for fans and journalists alike, whose best efforts to grasp the wide scope of a musical movement are always thwarted by some Comic Book Guy butting in with eye-rolling input. But every so often, there’s one record — both underground and widely acknowledged, important while at the same time super fun to listen to — out of which we can watch a whole genre sprout, bloom, and grow.
For death metal, that record Seven Churches by Bay Area legends Possessed. The first of its kind, and leagues more brutal than anything being released around it, Seven Churches is the soil in which all of death metal’s roots sink so horrifically. And today, on the 35th anniversary of its release, the record is as captivating, punishing, and fucking awesome as ever.
First, let’s quiet the statisticians: Possessed came first. The band formed a full year before Mantas, Chuck Schuldiner’s band that would eventually become Death. They also coined their genre’s name, with their 1984 three-song EP titled Death Metal and featuring the blistering track by that same name. The power of that tape got the attention of Metal Blade Records founder Brian Slagel, who featured them on a Metal Massacre compilation, and, subsequently, got them signed to Combat. All of this led to the creation of Seven Churches, and the advent of death metal as a whole.
But perhaps what Seven Churches most benefits from is that it was at the time considered just a super, super extreme thrash record. When most people think of early death metal production value, they think of the lower-fi-than-thou sound of early records by bands like Cannibal Corpse, Repulsion, and Impetigo. But much of Seven Churches’ extremity comes from how up front and audible its sound is. You can feel the serrated edge of the guitar’s roar and the metallica hiss of the cymbal crashes. Sure, Jeff Becerra’s vocals are certainly drenched in feedback, but they sound less like they’re buried and more as though they’re being howled out of some sort of subterranean cathedral.
From start to finish, the album tempests forward with maniac fury, a skipping gallop the closest thing the listener gets to a slow number. Opener “The Exorcist” centers around a muscle-straining guitar chorus, while “Pentagram” offers front row dwellers a chance to headbang amidst panicked harmonics. “Burning In Hell” is blindingly fast and vengeful, while “Evil Warriors” is almost like a cruising-around windows-down number for diehard satanists high on bath salts. Later tracks like “Satan’s Curse” and “Twisted Minds” keep up the speed, but use vocal patterns and tempo changes to sound uniquely powerful (gotta love the latter’s chorus, too — “WOOOAH, REVENGE!”). All of it comes to a close with “Death Metal,” the war cry that heavy music’s most gruesome subset deserves, complete with a paraphrased Slayer lyric. Each track is a blistering mindfuck, but the album is truly worthy of a complete spin, solid in its parts but all-encompassing as a whole.
Today, death metal is a genre label that incorporates so many influences and flavors, from polished melody to utterly repulsive noise. But these is a sound we all recognize at the genre’s core, a sonic profile and attitude which embodies that scene. That is Seven Churches: a perfect microcosm of the death metal mindset. With its rage, speed, balls-out satanism and complete dedication to its extremity, Possessed’s debut album perfectly encapsulates everything we love about death metal in all its forms. Evil never dies, and neither will this record.
Words by Chris Krovatin