Thursday, June 4, 2009

Zoetrope - Amnesty

So the Pope’s write up on the awesome yet forgotten crossover thrash masters D.B.C. (Dead Brain Cells) inspired me to pull out an old favorite from their label mates on Combat Records – Zoetrope and their incredible debut album Amnesty.

Zoetrope was part of an impressive metal scene going on in Chicago during the first half of the 1980’s along with Thrust, Znowhite, and Trouble. A few things set Zoetrope from most bands locally and nationally. First, was the fact that drummer Barry Stern was also the vocalist. I always have a soft spot for singing drummers and Barry’s up there with the mighty Dan Beehler of Exciter and Evo of Warfare as a primo skin basher and screamer. Secondly, they had a black bassist named Calvin "Willis" Humphrey. Back then, this was a pretty unusual sight. They referred to their brand of musical mayhem as “hardcore street metal” since they had strong ties to the Chicago punk scene and were one of the few thrash metal bands not to sing extensively about Satan or nuclear war.

Like most of my favorite metal bands, I discovered Zoetrope in the hallowed pages of Kick Ass magazine, the greatest metal zine that ever was. If chief writer Bob Muldowney gave something a good review, I usually picked it up without hearing a note of it. Luckily I worked a lot of overtime in high school and college to support my metal habit. Amnesty was released in 1985, a great year for metal – Bonded By Blood, Hell Awaits, Feel The Fire, Speak English Or Die, To Mega Therion, and Seven Churches all came out that year. These are classics of the genre and Amnesty deserves a spot right up there with them.

“Indecent Obsessions” starts off the record with a slow, heavy Black Sabbath intro before exploding into a fast thrasher reminiscent of Overkill’s “Raise The Dead” with lyrics about a twisted peeping tom. Listening to this record for the first time in many years I was struck at how well the production has held up. Lots of early thrash records are drenched in reverb so they sound like they were recorded in a church. The guitars of Kevin Michael and Ken Black rock like hell and the rhythm section is tighter than Brian Slagel’s wallet. Lots of killer double bass fills and Barry screams his brains out in a horse shouting style.

There are no weak tracks on the record, but there are a few that really stand out above the rest. The title track is really heavy and starts off fast and then shifts gears to get even faster. It’s sort of political, with Barry decrying “patriotic bullshit” and “special interests.”

“Break Your Back” is a headbanger’s delight and my all time favorite Zoetrope song. It’s a fast Motorhead style boogie monster with killer blue collar lyrics about busting your ass just trying to survive. There’s a frantic lead break that stops on a dime for everyone to yell “Break Your Back” before the mayhem starts up again. Whenever I hear this song I want to grab the nearest chair and throw it against the wall.

Songs like “Kill The Enemy” and “Mercenary” have a strong Thin Lizzy influence with some great dual guitar parts. “Mercenary” even has a sort of a British punk vibe to it. I could imagine a bunch of Chicago skinheads screaming “Oi! Oi! Oi!” to it as they fight with the metal heads at the show.

This album was originally supposed to be titled Break Your Back but the label changed it to Amnesty because they thought it was more provocative. Most supporters of Amnesty International ignored the record. Zoetrope recorded a follow up in 1987 for Combat called A Life Of Crime but I don’t remember it at all. Not long after that Barry quit the band to drum for doom legends Trouble. Zoetrope info is pretty hard to find on the web but it looks like most of the band left and sole original member Kevin Michael put out a final record in 1993 called Mind Over Splatter. Unfortunately, Amnesty is out of print. Century Media put it out on CD in 1999 with bonus tracks from their early demos but it’s very expensive if you can find it. Used copies of the LP and cassette are easier to find and at an affordable price.

The entire Chicago metal scene was surprisingly not mentioned at all in the excellent documentary Get Thrashed: The History of Thrash Metal. Barry sadly passed away in 2005 and the rest of the band has faded into mist and the madness of metal daze past.

But Amnesty still rules so play it loud!


Buy here: Amnesty [With Bonus Tracks]


bob_vinyl said...

I remember this and Life of Crime both being a little closer to hardcore than most metal bands even in the glory days of crossover. That's probably why I liked these records as much as I did at the time. Along with bands like Executioner, Whiplash and At War, these guys are definitely a band that got lost in the shuffle and never got their due.

Metal Mark said...

This is a great album. There is also a CD re-issue that has a pile of demo tracks on it as well.

Metal Mark said...

There is a good seller on ebay who has been offering Amnesty and Life and crime on CD for 10-12 dollars a piece. I got my copy of Life of crime from him. Life of crime is just as good if not better than Amnesty. Both CDs have notes from the band members that fill in a lot of the history. I never heard the third album "Mind over splatter". I figured with just one original member that it would be very different.

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