What’s more impressive — that Bay Area act Death Angel is returning with its ninth album, Humanicide, on May 31 through Nuclear Blast Records, or that it’s still successfully waving the banner and raising the stakes for thrash metal 37 years into its career? Let’s call it a tie.
But the group’s refusal to let off the gas has led to it being in more demand than ever, fueling a creative renaissance that’s paying off for fans and band alike. And lead guitarist Rob Cavestany says that Death Angel is vital to maintaining his equilibrium. “I’m thankful that I still crave creativity and crave venting my life into some form of positive outlet,” he says. “That needs to happen, or my life will totally go off balance. I’ll go mental if I don’t get that out of me.”
Death Angel’s website (designed by rhythm guitarist Ted Aguilar’s wife) divides the band’s career into three phases: “The Formation,” “The Re-formation” and “The Evolution.” For those unfamiliar with the band’s heritage, it formed in 1982, around the same time Metallica did — in fact, Metallica axeman Kirk Hammett produced a 1985 demo. After getting signed in 1987, Death Angel released three albums, before a tour bus crash, disillusionment with the music industry and a handful of lawsuits led it to take a decade-plus hiatus, beginning in 1990 — prior to most of the group even turning 21.
Although it continued performing under the name The Organization (sans singer Mark Osegueda), Testament singer Chuck Billy asked if Death Angel would reunite for 2001 cancer benefit show Thrash of the Titans, which was held to provide financial relief for Billy and Death co-founder/singer/guitarist Chuck Schuldiner, who were both battling cancer at the time. (Schuldiner died later that year.) The show’s success led to Death Angel touring, and eventually deciding to record again. After two well-received albums, it replaced its rhythm section in 2009 and has maintained the same lineup since.
Humanicide, the band’s fourth album produced by Jason Suecof (Drowning Pool, Trivium, Deicide), finds them picking up where they left off on 2016’s The Evil Divide, creating catchy, riffy thrash anthems that sound timeless. When asked what inspired the album’s enduring sound and creativity, Cavestany says working hard at remaining relevant is important.
“In the early days, we were probably more inspired just to be in the scene, and get music out of our systems and have a vessel to rock out, travel and be onstage,” he says. “Once you’ve done that stuff already and it’s actually your livelihood, you need different kinds of inspiration and motivation. That’s always still at the core of it all, but you need to dig to find the energy to do such a thing. The older you get, you don’t automatically have that natural youthful vigor that you had in your teens. The major inspiration is to continue what we love to do: play live, tour, record and get the gang together in a room and rock out.
“To continue to do that, you must continue to put out relevant, new material,” continues Cavestany. “That’s one motivation right there … There’s also the fact that we’re fans of music and always have been. We want to leave our mark in the music history books just like others have impressed upon me and influenced me through my life. That’s our dream.”
Being that Death Angel has existed as long as the Big Four of thrash (Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer), it has a diverse fan base, which makes Cavestany ecstatic. “That was our goal and our intention for that to hopefully happen,” he says. “It’s a great challenge, because you are viewed as an old-school band from an old-school ’80s era, and that’s going to put a brand on you and define you to a retro category that’s hard to get out of — if you don’t want to be pigeonholed as that, which we don’t.”
He adds, “We recognize our old-school fans and welcome our new fans, and spread it out as strategically as possible so the setlist makes sense. There’s no difference in the reaction of the crowd from when we play something off [1987 debut album] The Ultra-Violence or something from the brand-new album. Some of the younger fans don’t know the songs off the older stuff and light up when we play newer stuff. Then you’ve got the old dudes that go off when we play the old stuff.”
Of course, many things have changed since The Ultra-Violence arrived. For one, recording technology has changed how Death Angel works. Cavestany has a home Pro Tools studio, where he wrote much of Humanicide, which is a far cry from when the band recorded its debut in a mere three days. “We were recording live in the same room, so if somebody fucked up, we were starting over again,” recalls Cavestany. “We were just young, raging and playing as hard as we could and not focusing on the production.
“Fast forward into how things are done now, where there’s so much more technology and I’m pretty much co-producing our records now,” he continues. “I’m doing all the pre-pro. Back in the day, you went to a studio to do your demos. Now I produce all our demos in my home studio, in my rehearsal studio, so for me, it’s a lot more work … All the pre-production is massively time-consuming. But I also love to do it, and I’m more experienced now, so I think I know what I’m doing better.”
Touring has gotten harder, too, especially since bands can’t survive off record sales alone. “We tour way more than we did back in the old days,” he says. “We’ll play 18 shows in a row with no days off. It’s exhausting, but we’re used to it.” One-off shows — which Cavestany says can be “a pain in the ass” — are a staple in the work schedule. “Sometimes we’ll play a show in Germany over the weekend. We’ll fly out Thursday night, we’ll play on Saturday, and we’re home on Sunday night. It’s brutal, the amount of travel you have to do for a 40-minute show. I’m not complaining, and I would never trade it. But sometimes people are like, ‘You’re living the dream, playing Germany on Saturday.’ And it’s not like that.”
Touring also takes its toll on adult responsibilities. “Unfortunately, it’s not just about having a blast and rocking and having some drinks,” says Cavestany. “It’s about surviving — and, for me to do this, my family has to suffer too. Because every time I’ve leaving for long periods of time, it makes my wife be a single parent, and she’s got to work full time. So it’s not easy to make this happen.”
Death Angel is about to have one fewer band to tour with, as its labelmate Slayer is in the midst of its farewell tour. “I’ll miss new music from Slayer, and their live show is one of the best killer live thrash shows you’ll see, even now,” he says. “At the same time, I can see their point. They want to go out on top, not when they’re starting to wither away. I understand that completely, and I know that it takes a lot of effort to keep the four-way marriage going.”
While Cavestany understands the decision to retire, he says that’s not really an option for Death Angel. “[I’d be] so bummed if we had to stop playing right now — but on another level, even if we wanted to, it’d be a weird time to stop because we’d immediately be fucked scrambling for work,” he explains. “Our music is like the blues for me — you can’t help but do it because you love it, but it’s a bummer because you’re stuck in a weird vortex.”
Death Angel will get pulled back into the vortex when it hits the road in April for a North American tour and unites with fellow thrash vets Overkillnear the end of the month. It will headline some shows that bookend the tour, where it’ll preview several songs from Humanicide. In addition to the title track, fans may also hear new songs “I Came for Blood,” and “The Pack,” which the band is working on learning. “It’s exciting and fun and funny to have new material we’re stumbling through,” says Cavestany. “But that keeps it interesting.”