Band: Running Death
Album: DressAge (2017)
Genre: thrash metal
Where to buy: Bandcamp
From the heart of Bavaria comes the monster sound of Running Death’s DressAge, their 2017 full-length. I use the term “monster” deliberately, because in addition to a metal sound that would be right at home next to the big four thrash metal bands of the 80s, lead singer Simon Bihlmayer sounds exactly like what you’d expect if you designed a metal singer out of Muppets. Imagine taking Lemmy, Dave Mustaine, and Sweetums and putting them in a blender. That’s Bihlmayer’s singing voice, and it works perfectly for Running Death’s sound, which is fast, aggressive, technical, and energetic in all the right ways. DressAge is an instant classic of the genre and requires loud and repeated plays.
So what makes good thrash? We might think first of songs written around exciting riffs, which abound on DressAge. The riffs provided by Bihlmayer and Daniel Baar are melodic and exhilarating, and complimented adeptly by Andrej Ramich on bass. The album opens with a breathless drum fill onto which explodes a mid-register descending riff backed by huge power chords. “Courageous Minds” gives us this first riff, and it is versatile enough to provide the vocal melody in addition to the guitar line. “Delusive Silence” starts with a blazing riff that rips over a palm-muted rhythm figure and provides melodic structure throughout the song. “Duty of Beauty” uses dual guitars to smash its opening riff into the stratosphere, then settles into a steady gallop for the verse, with the dual guitars returning post-chorus. The riffs are the foundation of this album, and you can flip to any track and hear not just an effective riff, but some creativity in its deployment.
Much of this creativity comes in the interplay between drums and guitar. Drummer Jakob Weikmann frequently ties his drum kit to the crashing guitar rhythms, playing as tightly as any technical guitarist. Good thrash often has this quality; recall that Hetfield and Ulrich are on record as co-writing many of their great riffs of the 80s together. This has led some to mistakenly identify Ulrich as a poor drummer and Hetfield as a better drummer than guitarist, neither of which accurately captures what’s really happening on Metallica’s early albums, which is the same thing that happens on DressAge: the drums are used to augment the guitars’ rhythms, and the guitars are used to augment the drums’ percussion. This is not as easy as it sounds, as drums are usually used only for rhythm and compositionally-facile dynamic shifts. You’ll hear drums used as melodic instruments in thrash, progressive metal and rock, jazz, and a few other genres, but not often on the radio or Top 40 music. I would not be at all surprised to find that Weikmann is in no small part responsible for helping write many of the songs on DressAge.
There are other creative elements here, too, elevating DressAge from a middle-of-the-pack release to something much greater. The title track, for example, uses its main riff during the post-chorus bridge, but adds a few accented notes to keep things fresh (the song is also not stylized as in the album title, for unknown reasons). “Heroes of the Hour” starts as a slow power ballad, then becomes a punk-influenced stomper for the verse, but with syncopated rhythms you’ll never hear at a punk show. “Duty of Beauty” has intro and chorus phrases that require all band members to play tightly and precisely. It’s complicated but not just for the sake of being so. The complications are intended to ratchet up both the song’s energy and listeners’ coordination with the meter. It works exceedingly well, even as the musicians add unexpected bits of color, timbre, and pulse to the music.
This album is also shockingly catchy. “Numbers” is a thrash party incantation, about the joys of pursuing music and life itself. You’ll be reminded of “(We Are) The Road Crew” by Motörhead, in theme if not song structure. It’s one of those songs that is written for the fans, both exultant and empowering. “Courageous Minds” inspires the listener to go for broke in the face of tremendous odds. “Beneath the Surface” will have you adding your voice to the “Whoa-oh-oh! Whoa-oh-oh!” of the chorus. For all the layered syncopations and complications of the intro to “Duty of Beauty,” you can just see the smiles on the band members’ faces as they play. DressAge is a fun album to listen to, and the best part is that it’s clear that the band has fun playing the songs, too. That approach to heavy metal appeals greatly to me, and I appreciate the work Running Death has done in creating a fantastic album.