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Thrash Under Pressure: Heathen

Written by Tim Jones

Thrash Under Pressure continues with a look at another band which might have escaped your attention, Heathen.

Heathen were formed in the Bay Area, thrash metal ground zero, in 1984. The fact that every band formed in San Francisco at that time wasn’t immediately snapped up is quite staggering, but it took three years before a demo caught the eye, or indeed ears, of Combat Records.

Breaking the Silence was Heathen‘s debut in 1987. It’s not a bad debut either. Because they didn’t already have three albums under their collective belts like many of their contemporaries, Heathen had a mix of early 80s thrash metal and NWOBHM combined with mid-80s song lengths. They were still finding their feet really. It’s a peculiar mix – imagine what Metallica would sound like if you put Kill Em All, Ride The Lightning and Master of Puppets in a blender and then played the resulting mixture and you might be somewhere close. Let’s not pretend that Heathen couldn’t shred though. This album is full of chunky, chugging riffs and face-meltingly fast solos. The vocals are a little high in the mix though and a little too melodic for many thrash purists, I’d wager. The cover of Sweet’s Set Me Free gave Heathen a great deal of exposure, getting a lot of rock radio airplay and even featuring regularly on MTV’s Headbangers’ Ball.

Despite the reasonable start Heathen had had to their career, wholesale line-up changes were afoot, some members citing the old chestnut, “musical differences”, as their reason to quit. In the next three years a number of bassists and vocalists came and went – among the vocalists in Heathen very briefly was former Exodus warbler, Paul Baloff.

A semblance of stability was found, even though they were still without a permanent bass player, and Heathen headed to the studio once more in 1991. Victims of Deception was the result and it weighed in at over an hour. Heathen were described in this period as “progressive thrash” and had a lot more lengthy songs with complex playing and unusual time signatures. This sort of move might make many people accuse a band of having their heads firmly wedged up there arses, but this wasn’t the case for Heathen. This album was loved by fans and critics alike. Some of the playing on Victims of Deception is quite breathtaking. In fact you should direct that person we all know who says that thrash metal is “just noise” towards it and it would change their mind. Maybe.

Of course there had to be a ballad in the mix too. Prisoners of Fate is no Nothing Else Matters, but ballads really were a blight on the thrash metal scene in the early 90s. Anyway it didn’t do Heathen any harm as they got to tour in support of Sepultura and Sacred Reich off the back of this record.

Tragedy struck when having found a new, permanent bassist, he was killed in a car accident less than a year later. The door of band membership continued to revolve until the band either split up or took a lengthy break in 1993, depending on which story you listen to.

Heathen re-emerged in 2001, primarily to play at a benefit gig for the two Chucks, Billy and Schuldiner, to raise money for their cancer treatments. In 2004 an EP was released, comprising of some demos from the Victims of Deception period and a few covers.

Demos and line-up alterations continued and in 2009 there was finally a new album. The Evolution of Chaos is a damn heavy album and it sounded like a band that knew what they were doing. Rather than churn out a succession of albums like some other bands had done in the 90s and 00s, Heathen were seemingly only recording quality work and this is high quality – the best album of their three releases. 68 minutes of thrash metal heaven.

Heathen have a recording deal for new releases, but currently no plans to record anything new. No immediate tour plans either, but if you get the chance to see Exodus when Gary Holt is absent due to commitments with Slayer, you might well see Heathen‘s Kragen Lum ably deputising for him though.

Put them on your playlist: Pray for Death, Hypnotized, Fade Away

About the author

Tim Jones

I’m an East Yorkshire-based fan of thrash, hardcore and punk who likes to write about it as much as he likes to talk about it.

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