Alright, we recently reconsidered Warrior Soul, so now, for the latest in our series of stories looking back at under-rated metal bands, it’s time to put the microscope on Baltimore’s Wrathchild America.
Wrathchild America (whose Metal Archives page, ominously, lists the band’s current status as “active”) loved to flirt with different sounds from song to song, which was the reason they never caught on more than they did, but also the reason they ruled.
The best way to examine Wrathchild America is to do it song by song. So, let’s break down their albums rapid-fire here and re-examine this truly original band the way it should be done.
The Climbin’ the Walls debut from 1989 starts off with a fairly straight-ahead thrasher in the title track; combined with the cover art and band name, this song could easily make the average longhair think this band would fit right at home opening up for Nuclear Assault and Anthrax when they rolled through town. And they would. Kinda.
From that (killer) opener, the band goes into “Hell’s Gates,” which finds Wrathchild taking a sharp left turn into a more traditional metal sound, with the lyrics suddenly going from real-world problems in the title track (including the Body Count-meets-Frehley’s Comet-ism of “When you see me doing 83 in a 55/I might kill a cop”) to full-on old-school Slayer devilspeak lyrics, which works over the thrash, although the sudden switch in lyrical content is a bit jarring.
Apparent pretty early on here is the drumming of Shannon Larkin, who went on to considerable drumming success and is most known for being a total barbarian behind the kit. He shines on both these albums; he went on to play drums for Godsmack, which is considerably less interesting, but speaking as someone who actually saw Godsmack play live once, I can attest that he’s still killing it back there (and I can also attest that I fully planned on yelling Wrathchild America song titles at Larkin the whole night, but, you know, that arena was pretty big).
Although nowhere near as jarring as “No Deposit, No Return,” which finds us way back in the real world, an insane tale of alcohol and, uh, love gone wrong. Musically, it sort of sounds like Macabre on 16 rpm but without the death metal. So, just kinda weird, and not at all like the first two songs. Still rocks hard, though. So we’re three songs in, and there’s three radically different styles, along with lyrics that are just all over the place.
The fourth track, “Hernia” is an instrumental, which is cool, because it gives us a chance to stress how good the players in Wrathchild America were. Here, they do a bunch of weird groove-laden time signatures, racing through it all with reckless abandon. Then, side one (if you owned this on cassette, and got it from Columbia House, which is a very fond memory of my childhood, I must admit) ends with the weirdest song yet, “London after Midnight,” a near-six-minute Iron Maiden-ian epic about Jack the Ripper or Dracula or something, which features the insane moment where vocalist/guitarist Brad Divens (who has a killer voice, by the way) sings “A virgin boy on a black stallion/Just walked across my grave/Oh no!” What the hell is going on here? No idea. But I love it.
Side two has “Candy from a Madman” (long, plodding, trad metal, lyrics as hopelessly true-to-the-song-title as you’re fearing; still, a success) and “Silent Darkness (Smothered Life),” a cool melodic rocker about, literally, being buried alive (“Not much air, there’s not much time/There’s not much hope”). Then, two even more unexpected, off-the-wall, amazing things happen.
First, an absolutely stunning Pink Floyd cover. Wrathchild America’s version of “Time” is, still, totally jaw-dropping. If you haven’t done yourself the favor yet, listen to it below. I don’t know, but I hear this and think, this band could have been the band that released The Black Album. Or, well, considering it’s a cover, at least opened for Metallica as they conquered the world on that tour.
Then, the album ends with a full-on melodic power metal romp, “Day of the Thunder.” Motherfucker is six-and-a-half minutes long, and brings the victory. It’s a totally bewildering way to close off what has been anything but a normal listening experience. I can see why this band didn’t catch on, but I can also see why our own horror columnist Richard Christy is such a fan: this album is basically like listening to a rad, fun, ’80s metal compilation where nothing sucks.
Before we dive into the band’s second and only other album, quick reminder here that guys in Wrathchild America also have played/do play in Kix, Black Sabbath, Ugly Kid Joe, Crowbar, and Godsmack. Which is a super weird grouping of bands, but actually totally makes sense.
1991’s 3-D kicks off with kinda-title-track “3-D Man,” which is like Justice-era Metallica with more swing; in other words, the band hit it out of the park hard here on the start of their second album. It’s a killer, raging opener that shows the band’s thrash chops in a big way.
Then they follow it up with “Spy,” which is not something most bands of sound mind would do. “Spy” sounds like… well, it sounds like… it sounds like this:
All these years later, I’m still not sure what they were going for with “Spy.” Maybe if it was late in the album it would be a fun novelty track—that’s a great chorus—but placed as track 2, they’re basically turning metalheads away at the door here. I still think it’s a fun song, though. The frantic tech-thrash intro to the moody “Gentleman Death” rules, as does the song itself, which finds the band showing off their tech chops in the verses and knack for writing great, simple trad metal choruses. Already, this album finds the band genre-hopping quite a bit, but when they’re locked in, the sounds they come up with are just huge.
“Forever Alone” predicted the groove metal the band would go on to dabble in as Souls at Zero, and the chorus has a great vocal line; it’s worth noting that a lot of these songs remained stuck in my head when I hadn’t revisited these albums for years (not sure why I would ever let that happen, but there you go). “Draintime” is the first of several six-minute songs on here, the band really stretching their wings with this one, which starts off somewhere between tech-thrash and prog-leaning trad, with some tasteful lead work in there as well. And that chorus? Why wasn’t this band huge?
You might remember Wrathchild most for “Surrounded by Idiots,” a sort of sister song to Scatterbrain’s “Don’t Call Me Dude.” It was decent enough, I suppose, but felt more like a novelty song than anything. Still: a novelty song that’s been stuck in my head for a whole lot of years. I do dig that opening riff, big time:
“Desert Grins” pushes its luck a bit at 6:29; considering this album goes on too long in the first place, this one doesn’t really need to be here, although, still, I dig the guitar work and the atmosphere the band creates with it. That song plows right into the Hellraiser homage “What’s Your Pleasure?”, a very Persistence-era Anthrax-ian thrasher with an insane chorus:
“Prego” is a zany instrumental, “Another Nameless Face” is basically blues thrash, like third-album L.A. Guns played by classic-lineup-era Nuclear Assault, and “//” doesn’t have a name any human can say out loud and also has an oddly convincing reggae part (!). The whole deal ends off with a cover of “I Ain’t Drunk, I’m Just Drinkin’,” which, sure, whatever, fun to listen to once, I suppose. So, yeah, the final third of 3-D is maybe a bit too left-field for its own good; that’s hard to deny. Still, the sum of all these songs put together is this: Wrathchild America ruled.
And then, man, just like that, two albums later, Wrathchild America packed it in; as previously mentioned, they morphed into Souls at Zero, a decidedly more serious groove-metal band that had their moments (“Checkin’ Out,” “Welcome to the ’90s”), but ultimately sacrificed Wrathchild’s personality in attempt to do the Pantera thing, and it just didn’t work. After a few no-fun releases, they checked out. But we’ll never forget the very fun releases that Wrathchild America left us, the band’s relentless drive to try different things no doubt the very thing that made wide acceptance elusive to them, but the reason they’re up for reconsideration today, and the reason we say they pass with thrashin’ colors.