Saturday, November 05, 2016
Coroner's essential 'Autopsy': How Swiss trio wrote their own thrash-metal narrative
Rewind, a feature-length documentary on the band Coroner included in their new DVD/CD box set, Autopsy, ends on a note of hopeful uncertainty. "I wonder how we will sound today," bassist/vocalist Ron "Royce" Broder says.
I do too. There are many reasons to be curious. Coroner's in-progress sixth album, apparently due in 2017, will be the Swiss metal trio's first full-length since 1993, and the first non-archival release from the band since they reunited five years ago. It will also be their first album without drummer and co-founder "Marquis" Marky Edelmann, who played a few years' worth of Coroner comeback gigs — which I'm kicking myself for not having seen — starting in 2011 but bowed out in 2014 when he split with the other members on the question of writing and recording new music.
Rewind captures footage from the original Coroner lineup's final gig in early 2014, in the band's hometown of Zurich, and there's a real poignancy to the night. No hard feelings evident among the members here, just brotherhood. Royce gives Edelmann a warm send-off from the stage, and we see the two and guitarist Tommy "T. Baron" Vetterli celebrating backstage after the show. Royce admits to getting choked up the night before when thinking about the inevitable farewell announcement at the end of the gig. The three embrace, agreeing seemingly without the slightest resentment that Edelmann's departure is the right move for everyone.
"I wish them luck," the drummer says with a laugh in a candid interview near the end of the film. "I hope they don't screw it up. But I'm very positive they won't – they don't want [a new album] to ruin things, either. I think everything will be fine."
Rewind has some interesting points to make re: that question of just what's at stake on a reunion album, especially on one by a band like Coroner. They were and are very much a cult band, for whom writing and recording new music so many years later seems about 98 percent a question of art, not commerce. (The festival crowds they've been playing to for the past five years are by and large showing up to hear the old stuff, and that will likely continue to be the case even after the new music arrives.)
The question is really one of legacy. Various metal luminaries weigh in on the topic in Rewind. Celtic Frost leader Tom G. Warrior — a fellow Swiss metal veteran and a longtime friend of Coroner — argues strongly that Coroner ought to follow in his own band's footsteps and record a new album after reuniting. "Tell those bands half your age, 'Fuck you, we can still do this!'" he asserts. "That's how you do a reunion."
"Now [creating] new music, that's a sensitive area," ex-Sepultura frontman Max Cavalera says in the doc with a kind of half-sigh, half-wince. "'Cause how can you get that magic back? I very often ask myself the same: If I do a reunion with Sepultura, would we do another record? I don't know if I want to take that responsibility to try to re-create that magic."
In Coroner's case "that magic" seems almost alchemical. Especially considering where they began and where they ended up during their initial run. Coroner started out in the mid-to-late Eighties playing densely technical thrash metal — best captured on the excellent albums Punishment for Decadence and No More Color — driven by an odd but brilliant juxtaposition of florid composition and steely attitude, qualities embodied respectively by Vetterli and Broder's finger-busting virtuosity and the latter's snarling, venemous vocal delivery. (Excellent, darkly evocative lyrics — e.g., "I see you smile it's like a punch in my face / Can't you feel my bleeding heart" — written, fascinatingly, not by Broder but by Edelmann, round out the strange blend.) During this period, Coroner come off like prog geeks holding switchblades behind their backs.
But Coroner's third album, 1991's Mental Vortex, was where they crossed over into a kind of glorious genre-transcendent weirdness. They began writing longer, stronger songs that sacrificed some of the frantic energy of their earlier material for a kind of trancelike focus, a tendency toward eerie mood-setting and almost robotically driving groove. There's a section in Rewind — several sections, actually — where fellow musicians and fans express their awe at Coroner's collective virtuosity. Some pinpoint a "coldness" at the heart of their aesthetic, and I'd agree with that characterization while stressing that I don't at all see it as a downside. Mental Vortex is a deeply insular album, one that "rocks" conventionally in many places but that seems more like an obsessive art project than a mere "heavy metal" album. There's a proud perfectionism at work here, evidence of a band answering the call of "Just how far can we take this?"
On the band's next and final (so far) album, they answered that question in a fascinating way. To hear them tell it, it wasn't easy. Rewind features a fascinating section where Edelmann and Vetterli talk through the tensions that plagued Coroner during the recording of 1993's Grin, when the guitarist's perfectionism, already causing tensions with the band's label, drove a wedge during him and the drummer. At one point, Edelmann recalls, "It got physical." Broder adds that he broke up a fight between the two, and there's a priceless tidbit about a pizza being thrown against the wall. (I should note that this particular interview, excerpted throughout the film, features the full band sitting in a dark room in front of a fireplace, talking candidly, and there's something mesmerizing about the footage, as though the three old friends — Edelmann, Coroner's blunt, charismatic leader, with the rugged good looks of a Bond actor; Vetterli, the softspoken but almost cocky virtuoso; and Broder, an easygoing but mysterious presence, who spends much of the film staring thoughtfully into the fire — are staying up all night and really hashing out the highs and lows of their almost three-decade adventure together.)
The account of this tension is odd considering that Grin is in some ways a profoundly relaxed album. The steely heaviness is still there, along with traces of uptempo thrash, but the album gravitates toward expansive and hypnotic groove, yielding a strangely serene sound. It's interesting to think about what else was going on in metal at this time, as some of Grin reminds me of Helmet but with that band's harsh industrial bark replaced by a kind of noir-ish, unhurried cool.
Listening to the members unpack the highs and the lows of their journey — from their early days as leather-pants-wearing '80s rockers to Edelmann and Vetterli's glorious, eye-opening tour of the States as Celtic Frost roadies and, finally, Coroner's big "arrival" moment, when they stepped onstage at their favorite big hometown venue and went on to tour the U.S. themselves — you really feel the arc of a life devoted to underground music, especially music as eccentric and personal as Coroner's. We hear an account of Vetterli's post-Coroner stint touring with Swiss pop/rock singer Stephan Eicher — who, like so many others interviewed in the film, stands in awe of the guitarist's abilities, not to mention the whole band's — and Edelmann's embracing of electronic music and DJ culture. And we hear from longtime fans such as Celtic Frost's Martin Eric Ain how once Coroner returned, they sounded better than ever. (It's true: The extensive post-reunion footage on the second disc of Autopsy is in some ways more satisfying than the also-terrific classic stuff, such as a beautifully shot East Berlin show from 1990.)
Watching the film, you really feel the strength of Coroner's focus, their hunger for a true sonic signature, which they achieved early on and honed to an admirable extent over the course of five albums together. "Your kind of music is rarely played on the radio," we see an interviewer saying to Edelmann in a 1991 TV clip in Rewind. "You don't sell that many records either. Doesn't that kill your motivation to play even harder music?" (I'm pretty sure he means "heavier," but he might as well be asking about Coroner's fearsome, uncompromising technicality as well.) "No, not really, "Edelmann responds in almost blasé fashion, as though the idea of playing music for commercial gain had never even crossed his mind. "We still enjoy it. You're right, we get rather ignored by the media. You don't sell loads of records either. But it's great fun."
That's really all that needs to be said. Coroner thrived, simply, on a love for what they were making, and you feel the same sort of enthusiasm during the more recent Rewind interview footage when Broder and Vetterli ponder what a new Coroner album might sound like. "For me, it's just not over yet," Vetterli says, while acknowledging as Broder does just what a daunting task the pair have ahead of them, not just in writing great, worthy music but in replacing a core member, who not only brought a unique rhythmic feel to the band but also memorable, evocative lyrics and even took charge of the band's stark and haunting graphic design. Coroner's classic lineup consisted of three very different personalities and talents whose affinities and — especially, I think — tensions fostered something singular and beautiful and fascinatingly other. I believe in Vetterli and Broder, but I do wonder, as Broder does, "how [Coroner] will sound today."
What I'm certain of is that, when it comes to music, these guys don't make tentative moves. There's no halfway with a band this unusual, this meticulous, this trend-proof, this driven. Again I come back to this notion of Coroner's supposed coldness, cited by a few fans and associates in the doc. I can see where the assessment comes from but on the whole, I don't agree. There may be a certain emotional reserve to this band, but for them, passion seems inextricable from diligence and devotion, from a kind of all-or-nothing aesthetic, the shared sense that their music has to sound this way. You have to really live music like this; you have to care that much. And I'm thankful that Coroner did, and still do.
One great track apiece from each of Coroner's five full-lengths:
"Reborn Through Hate" (R.I.P., 1987)
Already, on the first proper song on their debut LP, Coroner begin to earn their eventual (unofficial) designation as the "Rush of thrash metal." Key Coroner features such as relentlessly intricate, note-y riffs and disorienting rhythmic hiccups coexist with classic, fist-pumping '80s thrash tropes.
"Masked Jackal" (Punishment for Decadence, 1988)
A completely raging track that moves ingeniously through a cycle of intricate, increasingly badass riffs. The chorus perfectly illustrates that harsh, sneering, almost sardonic quality that's integral to this band's greatness. I love the way Broder's venemous delivery aligns with Edelmann's lyrical portrait of a two-faced politician: "Darling of the TV screen/Manipulator of the purse strings/Master of the spoken words/Jackal with connections."
"Die by My Hand" (No More Color, 1989)
Sitting at the midpoint of the band's discography, No More Color is in some ways the quintessential Coroner album, delivering all the aggression of their earlier work with plenty of the eccentricity that grows increasingly prominent on the later LPs. A beautiful production job, raw yet clear, highlights the nasty, relentlessly driving quality of this opening track. "Die by My Hand" is simply thrash metal perfection: a must for anyone who knows their Master of Puppets and Reign in Blood cold and wants to venture deeper into the '80s underground.
"Metamorphosis" (Mental Vortex, 1991)
The unstoppable riffs remain but this is a more confident, mature, at times borderline-laid-back Coroner. The sound is not so frenetic; the groove is more prominent, the song structure more smartly assembled. And the Broder/Edelmann team of vocalist and lyricist, respectively, sound even more viciously dialed-in here: "See me become a snake / Wrapped around your neck / See me become a spike / Pushed deep in your flesh." As with a lot of Coroner tracks, the words can scan as flat on the page, but spat out of Broder's mouth, they take on a real sinister gravity.
"Grin (Nails Hurt)" (Grin, 1993)
Sinister gravity is what Grin is all about, from that riveting, stomach-turning cover image on down. So many excellent tracks on this thing, but this penultimate song just kills me. A writhing, almost-hardcore-ish breakdown to start and then into that absolutely unstoppable hypnotic verse at :40. The riff has its ornamental features, but mostly we're in groove-engaged/head-down territory, leading up to that gloriously crunchy chorus breakdown at 1:50. I just love the way they're letting the riffs breathe here: No fat whatsoever, just a sort of sustained, cruising sneer of a song — I can't escape that word when writing about these guys — leading up to a drifting, quasi-psychedelic relaxed-blast-beat outro. When I hear "Grin," I hear crushing heaviness but also zen-like serenity. I hear a kind of defiant confidence, the sound of a band fully inhabiting its own zone, standing apart from scene and genre, and just getting down to the business of becoming more and more itself.
Here's hoping that this process continues on the next LP. I'm bummed that Edelmann has left the fold, but like him, I, as a devoted fan of all of Coroner's prior work, think that everything will in fact be just fine.
*If you're even remotely a Coroner fan, you need to own Autopsy. If not, check out the discography first and then take the plunge (the set is also available as a signed vinyl/Blu-ray combo).
*Read Phil Freeman's insightful recent overview of the Coroner catalog here.
*Lots of other Coroner goodies on the YouTube channel of the band's touring keyboardist and backing vocalist, Daniel Stössel.