The Porcelain Throne – Red Death
Forever refusing to be bound by chains in my heart.
Brevity is the soul of crossover thrash. Thrash is already a full-blooded punk descendant, not known for taking its time. Recombining it (or perhaps inbreeding it) with the hardcore sounds of the ’80s and ’90s produces tunes volatile and searing enough to melt prison bars and fuel homemade rockets, audial thermite that sizzles with hazardous levels of flash and force, but for only a few fleeting fits before burning itself away. The Porcelain Throne is thus far focused on marathon bands, who have gone the distance but never quite outstripped the pack, arguably the more responsible path to respect and good health. Who the hell has time for that? Today, we’re not talking about a long-runner who built the momentum to keep going, but never quite break through, in limbo between hanging up the boots and hanging onto the dream. No, we’re talking about a fresh up-and-comer who had all the momentum they needed, and burned through all of it just before they broke big. We’re talking about the Jeff Francoeur of the crossover revival, Red Death.
In 2013, born with a Washington DC pedigree and plenty of stepstone bands worth of experience behind them, Red Death busted out with everything they needed to out-thrash all local competition, with small-time releases both on their own and with Triple-B Records. They were picked up by Century Media in the twilight of 2019, and one very sweet-ass debut party later, they were finally hitting the road as headliners, touring with labelmates and fellow NoVA nouveaux thrashers Enforced in January 2020. Then, in November, with no fanfare (beyond an innocently innocuous liquidation of all their merch), they were gone. Broken up, no more steam or maybe commitment issues, no doubt exacerbated by global lockdown, but the details are unknown to me.
Red Death’s run was short, their discography terse, as brief and fiery as a summer fling, and just as hard to let go. Which is why I am being as serious as I can be on this bubbling cauldron of reheated sarcasm the admins so generously call a website when I say: If you have any Red Death merch in your possession, then you and I need to swap business cards. Fool that I am, was, and always will be, I only seized the chance to buy one shirt, (oddly one of two NoVA band shirts I own that feature a zombified Reagan on a red background) and now that it’s starting to show wear, suddenly I have no more chances to snag a replacement. If I can’t track down a suitably ugly longsleeve or hoodie soon, I might have to buy a red trucker hat and sharpie a bootleg cap myself. Just something to remind myself that these guys were there in DC, that they were my hometown boys, and that I will always rep them to anybody who is unfortunate enough to catch an infodump from me.
The Demo + Permanent Exile (2014/2015)
Before their first proper bout, Red Death hit the hardcore gym. They come right out flaunting some well-developed Cro-Mags muscle, stomping and hollering with Chad “DHD” Troncale’s roided-up D.R.I. bark. Ace Mendoza’s (can this name be any more killer?) wide power chords go jolting in between steady drums, with a swinging groovy breakdown to close out showing good instincts for building and harnessing momentum. The drums kick up dirt and speed away with Connor Donegan (also of Genocide Pact) at the helm, and it all rips through a full workout inside of 7 minutes. They can clearly start a pit, but there’s still plenty of room to grow from the 1-2-1-2-mosh-break basics. The leadwork is single-minded, much more frantic than finessed, and the only real missing element in the equation.
Permanent Exile completes the portrait sketched by the demo, giving us a raw, messy crossover sampler, coloring red outside the lines. Production is crisper, but as before, the riffs come short, sturdy, and bludgeoning, never sticking to a single pulse for too long, like a boxer working a bag and honing his jab. Between the flurries of slammed riffs, though, there is a surprising focus and precision to the leads, signaling a fertile future in thrashier climes, and the songwriting has a few more flexes. “Palace Of Unending Pain” shows the most progression in soloing, tossing the aimless chromatic babble for reliable pentatonics with plenty of bends, and “Alleviate” nearly doubles the average track length with some tempo-warping bridges and an extended break for some classic punk hammering.
Looking back, the Red Death of their demo could have grown up into a much grindier outfit like Baltimore’s Noisem (even sharing their mixer Kevin Bernstein), especially with how well the nascent riffage fills out with the crackling recording job. They’d have done well with the roiling, ragged barrage of their first release, but instead began chiseling a more sharpened silhouette from the raw rock. Still rough hewn, but taking a more upright, less purely bestial shape.
Deterrence + Formidable Darkness (2016/2017)
2016’s Deterrence EP has a hard time standing on its own, being something of a missing link between Exile‘s slushy, punked-up ephemera and the more sustained focus of Darkness. It allowed Red Death to show off some added control to their offense, and foreshadow their imminent passage into straight-up metal. We won’t make too much of a detour for Deterrence, but note how the title track has riffs that go down smoother and less spastic, swaps out heavy sliding power chords for mischievous high-string hammers in some bars, and a deliberate, foreboding solo with much more moody melodicism to it than any before. “Empty Shell”, on the other hand, gives us more whiplashing punk pummeling, though the chorus picks up some winding, teasing phrases to go with the stormy, triplet-shuffling drums. Red Death has gone from caveman riffs to basic tool use and maybe even cave painting.
Formidable Darkness was my entry point to Red Death, and it left an exit wound in my skull when it was done. Compared to Permanent Exile, you get more riffs, natch, but also more stamina and more tightly wound arrangements. The landscape of the songs is more expansive, playing with the extra runtime to let grooves announce themselves and settle in, then subvert their timing with Exile-holdover quick-and-dirty leadups, setting up a slew of surprisingly hooky choruses. Chad Troncale claims he did his vocal takes in 5 hours and was working through the flu. For my part, I don’t detect the slightest frailty in his voice, but the spontaneity and immediacy are breathing through every song.
The riffs don’t just stomp anymore, they sprint, leap, gallop, and they collide with crackling contrast. For old times sake, “Slashed To Bits” is still a positively over-packed little firecracker, fittingly the shortest song on offer. At the other end of the spectrum is “Vagabond Wondering And Roving”, the most segmented (and most speed-shifting) selection, which ends with a back-half that is all pitch-perfect mosh buildup for the finisher. My favorite song, though, is “Parasite’s Paradise”. Just a ground-shaking bass opener to draw you into that erratic back-and-forth main riff, and probably Troncale’s most ravenous delivery on the record. Hard to believe that chorus only hits once, and then it’s over. Better to leave your audience wanting more, which I damn well did.
I picked up this record (and my aforementioned shirt) when they were opening for Power Trip at the Black Cat, and they were already equipped to hold their own against Trip’s renowned showmanship and razor sharp chops. And hey, speaking of Power Trip, drummer Chris Ulsh plays the solo for “Usurped”, and Eternal Champion drummer Arthur Rizk took another solo for “Random Acts”, not to mention producing the whole thing. Guess they both wanted some spotlight away from Blake Ibanez, am I right guys? Heh, right? Cause they both, uh, never mind. Let’s just tie this all up.
Sickness Divine (2019)
So here we are at last. The big time, big label blowout, the crossover crescendo. Sickness Divine opens up with unexpected groovage, stepping out of the stern acoustic intro with a swaggering march. Red Death is much more groove-friendly this time around, and some songs, like the break in “Face The Pain” verge on the anthemic, in sharp contrast to the crammed-in chaos of previous fare. “Bound By Chains” is illustrative here, with emotive, fulfilled choice of chords ringing out over the chorus, then an urgently irresistible post-chorus mosher before building it all back up again with the return of the intro groove. I get a lot of golden years Suicidal Tendencies vibes from some of these riffs, soaring high and far and getting plenty of time to breathe, and a focus on melancholy before channeling it into raw aggression. Compare ST’s “You Can’t Bring Me Down” or “How Will I Laugh Tomorrow” to the way that RD’s “Bound By Chains” and “Sickness Divine” introduce themselves, and appreciate the extra dimension of emotionality before the pit breaks out.
Of particular note is the way extra space is drawn in each arrangement for Ace to slice out his solos. It might be because Troncale picked up bass, in addition to vocals, between this record and the last, which might necessitate some longer breaks between verses for him. But I have to believe the shift would have happened anyway, if only because Ace’s leads have become fucking killer. The album title, an oblique reference to social media, would better describe these solos: totally sick and immaculately divine. The leads are finally carrying out extended melodic ideas by themselves, like the break from “Face The Pain”, and chiming in to add extra flavor with flourish like in the chorus to “Sword Without A Sheathe”.
Red Death‘s evolution from pure hardcore to crazed crossover to now (almost) purebred thrash gives one a compelling portrait of a guitarist finding his voice and truly exceeding himself with each new project. Ace Mendoza (again, what a fucking excellent shredder name) deserves to be one of your favorite players. [Disclaimer: I know that Will Wagstaff of Enforced plays on this record as well, and I can’t fully confirm whether he plays leads here. Ace is the only one credited for songwriting on most of these, and beyond that, goddamnit I just really want to believe in my boy. Let me have this.]
Like with their demo, the resplendent leadwork invites one to imagine a different track for Red Death, cut off by the ultimate path of history. In another generation or two, how much more lush could these leads become, how much more virtuosic the arrangement? There’s already too much shred to contain to proper songs, prompting 2 interlude tracks of almost neoclassical richness. A path now never to be trodden. Best to appreciate what we have instead of playing coulda-been. Sickness Divine is a chopped up, purring thrash engine, born perfect and ready to slay, which now gets to ride in an eternal afterlife unabated. The band might have run out of gas, but this record never will.
Life goes on for the members of Red Death, as much as it does for any of us right now, at least. You can still hear Connor Donogan drumming for Genocide Pact, and Will Wagstaff is still tearing things up with Enforced, but my eyes will be on Ace and Chad for the real continuation. Have I convinced you? It’s not like this discography dive will take up too much of your time. One and a half hours of guaranteed sizzling slice-and-dice thrash, just enough time to fire up a grill, enjoy the sunshine, and crush some cans against your forehead. Memorial Day is right around the corner, that’s all I’m gonna say.