DEATH ANGEL were among the cream of the legendary Bay Area metal scene when they burst out of it in 1986, first through a Kirk Hammett-produced demo, then a startling and lively debut album, 1987's "The Ultra-Violence". The relative youth of the band (drummer Andy Galeon was only 14 when that first record came out), their thrashing, intricate style, and the innate melodicism of Rob Cavestany's guitarwork and songwriting all combined to give them a unique edge over many of their underground metal counterparts, even if their ambitions often outpaced their talents.
Many of those elements are still in place in 2004, as the band has come together after a 14-year hiatus for "The Art Of Dying". The album picks up pretty much where 1990's innovative "Act III" left off (skipping the two later, misguided efforts by a revamped lineup known as THE ORGANIZATION), blending classic speed metal riffs with melodic passages and a few stylistic curveballs. Yet while DEATH ANGEL have retained their identity and sound, a number of songs here don't hang together as well as they did on that landmark album (a creative peak for the group), and both the production and performances hit spots where they just sound listless.
There's no doubt that years and experience have both improved the musicianship and taken the youthful sheen off the band, but that's not necessarily a negative. The seven-minute-plus opening epic, "Thrown To The Wolves", is a showcase for a series of muscular, virtuoso riffs, while Mark Osegueda's voice has acquired a maturity that brings weight to Cavestany's dark lyrics. Osegueda has benefited the most from his time away — his often weak vocals on early efforts are replaced by a stronger, more wide-ranging delivery.
The band certainly picked a killer to kick off the record, but later cuts like "Prophecy" and "Never Me" repeat the formula with less effectiveness. Elsewhere, "Famine" has the almost funky feel associated with the band's biggest hit, "Bored", but it's far less catchy, which seems to be a common problem with half the tunes here. While many of them echo previous work, none quite approach the greatness of "Third Floor" or "Seemingly Endless Time".
Even so, there's still a lot going for the band this time around. They sound tighter than ever (with the powerful Galeon showing no ill effects of the bus crash that nearly took his life in 1990) and new guitarist Ted Aguilar is a comfortable fit. The star of the show, however, is unquestionably still Rob Cavestany. Many metal fans complain about the lack of lead work on many modern heavy rock records — just take a listen to this and you might end up shitting your pants. Cavestany's work is simply outstanding, and his nimble, fiery, yet graceful playing out and out dominates the album and uplifts even the weakest track.
For a welcome dose of classic late Eighties thrash metal, you could certainly do a lot worse than "The Art Of Dying". While it doesn't represent a blazingly triumphant return for this quirky product of that celebrated San Francisco hotbed, it certainly reaffirms their status as one of the genre's classier outfits.