By Avinash Mittur
“It was just dead. Completely dead.” What was dead? Was it a person? An animal? A society? When Sean McGrath, singer (growler) and guitarist for a gore-obsessed death metal band called Impaled uttered those words he was referring to the San Francisco Bay Area’s heavy metal music scene in the early ‘90s. For McGrath and his fellow metalheads, that time may as well have been the dark ages. “People just didn’t go to metal shows. There really wasn’t anybody doing anything.”
For sixteen years, Impaled has been one of the flag-bearers for Bay Area death metal. Their first full-length album, The Dead Shall Dead Remain, was released right in the middle of those bleak times. Thirteen years later, Impaled is releasing a spit-shined re-recording of that album under the name of The Dead Still Dead Remain via Willowtip Records. Until now though, the detailed history behind Impaled’s debut record has been somewhat murky, really only known well by those who were there at the time. The following words are my attempt to document the early days of this band, and chronicle the events surrounding their debut album and its imminent rebirth.
The earliest origins of Impaled are most easily traced back to McGrath. Growing up in San Francisco in the late ‘80s, the influence of thrash and hardcore punk was inevitable; the floodgates opened in earnest when a friend introduced him to the horrific and violent sound of death metal. Still living in San Francisco to this day, McGrath returns to his high school years in a conversation over the phone. “It was actually really difficult. There was no internet and the only record store that I knew of that sold stuff like that was Tower Records which was like, pretty far away. There weren’t a lot of places to get metal publications, at least not that I knew of. I had no support system for that stuff since I didn’t have any friends who listened to it. If there was a place for people to get that shit, I wouldn’t have known about it. I’d have to stumble upon it myself- nobody liked that stuff, nobody I knew. All my friends in high school listened to metal, but they only listened to Suicidal Tendencies, Metallica and Megadeth- they hated death metal.” Like a small number of other Bay Area death metal geeks at the time, McGrath eventually joined a band, a group called Aceldama.
Two Boots Pizza in Echo Park, a Los Angeles neighborhood that has been Leon del Muerte’s home for nearly ten years now, is where he tells me about how it all began for him. Though he now lives just a short walk away from the pizza place where we meet, del Muerte’s high school residence was the small East Bay town of Pinole. Thanks to BBS, an early version of online chat, he managed to befriend McGrath. “I met Sean when he had his band at the time, Aceldama. Actually, before I even met him I was talking to some girl online and her friend mentioned that Sean was into the death metal thing too and that we should hang out,” del Muerte says as he’s sipping an orange soda. “I talked to Sean on the phone a couple of times and he said, ‘Hey, we’re looking for a guitar player to play in Aceldama.’ This was in ’91 or ’92, I was like fifteen or sixteen. I was pretty young. I went to go jam with this band, and the band was like, really shitty… They were just like straight death metal- the groovy, shitty death metal that I’m not really into.” del Muerte then laughs at his honest memory of that band. Though the jam session wasn’t a musical success, McGrath had finally found a friend around his age to share death metal with, especially since the other members of Aceldama were a good deal older. The two guys who would end up writing most of the music on The Dead Shall Dead Remain were now pals. del Muerte now skips ahead a few years. “At some point, Sean had got back together with my old band Infanticide. They had a drummer named Ricky, but then they got Raul and changed the name to Impaled.”
In early 1997, Infanticide was rehearsing at Soundwave Studios in West Oakland. When the band needed a drummer, McGrath went to Soundwave employee Dave Lopez for help. Lopez knew just the guy, a young man named Raul Varela. When I speak to Varela over the phone, he has only just returned from a three week long excursion to Peru, Bolivia and Chile. Back in October 1996 however, his big adventure would be the trip from his hometown of Juarez, Mexico to Richmond, California. A longtime metalhead, Varela had already played in bands in Juarez, and had no intention of putting his musical aspirations on hold when he came to America. “When I moved here I only brought a few things, but one of the things that I made sure to bring was my drum kit. If I was going to move here, I was going to try out for a band and get playing right away.“
Varela recalls the early days with apparent ease. “At the time, drummers were the hardest band members to find, so they were talking to Dave about it. Dave said, ‘I know this guy, he’s a death metal drummer. He lives in Richmond and if you’d like, I’ll give him your phone number.’ So Dave gave Sean and Jared [Deaver, Infanticide guitarist] my phone number and they called me up the same day. Within the next hour and half I think—it was pretty quick—they picked me up. At that time I already kept my drums at Soundwave, so when I first talked to Jared and Sean over the phone they were like, ‘Hey, would you be interested?’ I said, ‘Of course,’ and asked when they wanted to practice. ‘Well, what about right now?’” Varela’s memory of this period is surprisingly detailed, and he’s quick to mark the historical significance of that particular day- “Within two hours they picked me up, we went to Soundwave and you could say that was the first ever Impaled practice.”
The official name change came soon after Varela joined the band, and the four began woodshedding at Soundwave. It was there that they became acquainted with Mauricio “Moe” Acevedo, who was working with fellow Soundwave tenants Testament as their sound engineer. Acevedo subsequently manned the board for Impaled’s first demo, Septic Vomit. Changes were imminent however. Back in Echo Park, del Muerte picks up the story where Varela left off, explaining the next stage for the newly christened Impaled. “They had these dudes Jared on guitar and Ron playing bass. So Jared’s playing guitar and he had this really funny voice when he’d do death metal, kind of this proto-pig squeal, it was really, really bad.” del Muerte shows me that squeal, letting out a quiet sound resembling that of a dying hog—a sound far removed from the powerful mid-range roar that he’s known for—and laughs. “They got me to just do vocals for a while, and then Jared quit and just before he left he actually kicked out Ron.” The next detail that del Muerte offers is the big one though: “Then we got Ross who started playing bass and I went back to guitar, we started writing music and that eventually became The Dead Shall Dead Remain.”
We return to 2013, when I initially chat in Oakland with Ross Sewage about Impaled’s salad days. We’re over in the back patio of Eli’s Mile High Club, a dive bar where Creepsylvanian thrashers Ghoul are set to play a show. Misfortune has managed to find us here however, as a nine-piece mariachi band blares over the conversation. Yes, you read that correctly- a nine-piece mariachi band, hanging out in the back patio of a dive bar in a sketchy part of Oakland before a heavy metal show, making noise seemingly only to disrupt what could have been an informative chat. It’s this kind of random event, one that defies any and all conventional logic, that gives me a deeper sympathy for the walls and roadblocks Impaled has hit over the years.
Fifteen years ago though, Impaled’s addition of Sewage to their ranks was anything but unfortunate. His barbed bellows perfectly complimented McGrath’s serrated high shouts and added a new dimension to Impaled, a band now armed with three skilled death metal singers. Even today, Sewage possesses one of the raddest growls in the genre. The bassist was located a bit of a ways off from the members of Impaled, living all the way out in San Jose, the biggest city in the South Bay. As the bass player and one of two vocalists for local grind maniacs Exhumed however, Sewage had become acquainted with McGrath and del Muerte by playing shows together in the early ‘90s. As he lights a cigarette, Sewage reminisces about some of his busiest years. “In ’98 I was working on Gore Metal with Exhumed. I specifically remember that I was working on the album’s typography with Matt [Harvey, Exhumed guitarist/vocalist] and I got a call from Leon. He asked me to fill in for a couple of live shows, so I said yes. After one, two, three live shows I was listening to the new material and I said ‘This is pretty good, I don’t think I’m gonna leave.’ So I didn’t leave.” The incarnation of Impaled that would record The Dead Shall Dead Remain had assembled, and the band would waste little time getting material together.
Back at Eli’s, the mariachi band’s cacophony has become too overpowering for Sewage and me to have a decent conversation. We depart from the dive and embark on a short mission to Soundwave Studios. Our goal: locate a World War II safari helmet for Sewage’s pals in Ghoul. The Creepsylvanians need it for their show tonight after all. Soundwave Studios isn’t merely our temporary destination however- as we noted before, the facility has been Impaled’s rehearsal space for about sixteen years. About a week after this minor and very random excursion, I return to Soundwave and meet with McGrath and Sewage in the very room Impaled has been renting for a decade and a half. Sewage is leaning back on a chair, noodling on an Ibanez guitar as he talks about the room around us: “We’ve been at Soundwave since Impaled has existed. We’ve been in the same room for sixteen years, and we’ve just moved into a new room so we can get kind of a recording studio going. We’ve been here a long time. A lot of different members, a lot of different roommates and yeah, it’s our little home.” Sewage has trouble remembering exact events at this point, but he manages to recollect enough to assemble a rough timeline. “I joined in ’98, we played some shows, and then I believe later that year we got the From Here to Colostomy demo together. Then I got kicked out of Exhumed.”
For young Ross Sewage, that was just fine. “For almost a year I was in both Impaled and Exhumed. I ended up gravitating more towards Impaled because those guys were a lot more fun to drink with, and wrote what I thought were much better songs at the time… I was just more into the material they were doing, more Swedish-y death metal whereas Exhumed was going towards Slaughtercult at that point. It wasn’t what I wanted to do.” In a stroke of dumb luck, Sewage’s exit from Exhumed paved the way for Impaled’s first official release. “We took two songs from From Here to Colostomy and put them on a split with Cephalic Carnage. It was actually supposed to be a Cephalic Carnage/Exhumed split on Headfucker Records. I wrote to the people in Italy saying, ‘Sorry, I’m not in Exhumed anymore, here’s their contact.’ They told me ‘Actually Ross, we just wanted to work with you on a split, so we’d be happy to have Impaled on it.’ So it became an Impaled/Cephalic Carnage split. Shortly before it even came out we got signed to Necropolis Records just from playing shows.”
Throughout the ‘90s, Paul Thind’s Necropolis Records was a haven for some of the most extreme black metal around. It may seem like an odd home for a death metal band like Impaled, and at the time Thind would have probably agreed. Sewage credits a pair of friends, particularly one by the name of Jason Balsells, for getting Impaled on Necropolis’ roster. “We talked with Paul here and there, and they weren’t too terribly interested in us until Jason Balsells and Matt Harvey started working there. They spun around the idea of starting a death metal sub-label, Death Vomit, I think because those two weren’t into much of the black metal Necropolis was putting out there. Jason really championed for us to get on there as one of the first death metal bands.” Impaled’s resulting relationship with Necropolis was notoriously rocky, and the contentiousness began right away with the initial paperwork between the two parties; “They gave us a contract- apparently it was a really shitty contract that we didn’t check out very well because we were actually told that later by Necropolis! They gave us what they themselves called the worst contract they could offer and expected us to go over it with a lawyer.” However, not even a lawyer could help them out as McGrath notes: “We did in fact go over the contract with a contract lawyer, but he said that it was probably as good of a contract as we could hope for.” Sewage ultimately concedes a deal of fault to the band- “Instead we signed the dotted line right away because we were young and didn’t know what the fuck we were doing. We just wanted to get on a label and start recording immediately. We probably weren’t ready for any of it.”
Necropolis gave Impaled a $1400 budget for the production costs of their debut, and the band quickly went to work. With Moe Acevedo once again acting as engineer for the inexperienced gore-freaks, Impaled began tracking The Dead Shall Dead Remain. We return to Leon del Muerte in Echo Park, who sheds some light on the sessions for the record. “Moe was renting out the back of someone’s house- the drums were set up in front of the bed.” del Muerte then points his fingers at various parts of our table, showing me a mock floor plan for Acevedo’s improvised studio. “The drums would be here, the bed would be there, and there was also a big TV with videogames. We would be sitting there drinking beer while Raul was playing and Moe had a little control room set up at the end of the room. It was a weird setup, we’d have to be quiet while playing our videogames.” del Muerte jokingly raises his fists and contorts his face in muted exasperation, an expression that those guys likely wore often as they repeatedly “died” playing MediEvil on the PlayStation while tracking The Dead Shall Dead Remain.
At Soundwave, Sewage recounts the story he has told friends, fans and journalists alike a thousand times over. “We just got really drunk and didn’t give a shit,” Sewage explains as he quantifies the band’s alcohol intake of two cases of beer a day. del Muerte tells us what those two cases would really do to the band though. “The thing that I remember most is that we would get a case or two of beer. Back then that was a lot for us- three or four beers would get us pretty fuckin’ shitty.” Varela insists that the band’s drunkenness in the studio has been somewhat exaggerated over the years, but he readily admits how tempting a cold brew can be in the studio. “I go in, do my drum tracks in two or three days, and I’m done. For the rest of the process I’m just sitting there listening and listening, and I get so bored that all I want to do—all of us really—is just drink when we’re not doing our parts.”
As for Acevedo’s engineering, “unconventional” may be the best word to describe his methods. It was something that concerned Sewage even during the sessions themselves. “I do remember asking Moe about the mic bleed- my cab was set up right next to the drums, but he’d insist that he’d ‘take care of it in the mix.’ We heard that a lot throughout the recording.” McGrath remembers that phrase vividly. “Yeah, it actually became a joke later on- ‘We’ll fix it later’ and we never ended up actually fixing anything. I don’t personally remember the mic-bleed issue being a problem, but I probably wasn’t paying attention. I do remember having a feeling of not knowing what we were doing, not understanding it that well, and hoping that we could fix it later.” Varela agrees with the idea that the band was very inexperienced and relied on Acevedo heavily. “We were pretty green when we entered the studio that first time. We went along with a lot of Moe’s advice.” As for del Muerte, those sessions were likely pretty horrific- “I thought we were so well rehearsed and that we would just snap it out like super easy. We get in there though, and we can actually hear [all the mistakes] clearly.” del Muerte recalls one part of a song in particular that took him three straight hours of tracking to nail. “It was a nightmare,” is his succinct summarization.
Despite rough performances and haphazard recording methods, the band agrees that Acevedo truly stepped up when it came to the finished mix of The Dead Shall Dead Remain. Both del Muerte and Varela praise his mixing and engineering skills, but it’s McGrath who has the audible proof: “I have an unmastered version of the album and it actually sounds pretty good. It sounds a lot better than the released version of the album. It’s not ‘We just completely fucked it up,’ but a huge part of why it sounds the way it does is because of the mastering.” The mastering engineer for The Dead Shall Dead Remain turned out to be former Death and Obituary guitarist, James Murphy. As Sewage recalls, in the late ‘90s Murphy was suffering from a brain tumor. “James Murphy did a really crappy job mastering it, but we’re pretty sure that it was when he was going through brain tumor issues, which are well publicized. We even played a benefit for him at one point.” del Muerte reaches a similar conclusion about the mastering job, though his recollection of Murphy’s erratic behavior is a bit more specific. “It wasn’t until we sent [the album] to James Murphy for mastering that it really got fucked up. After not hearing from him for a week or two, we called him up and said, ‘Hey man, just wanted to make sure that everything’s going alright with this album.’ He told us, ‘Nah man, I haven’t started yet.’ It was like, ‘What the fuck dude?’ We started calling him every day and he was making all these excuses like ‘Oh man, I’m locked in the studio.’ We’re thinking, ‘What? That’s a perfect time to finish the album!’ I don’t know what he was doing, it was almost like he just compressed the shit out of it in an hour and said, ‘Here you go.’”
Impaled now had a debut album that sounded awful (“It sounds like crap, I don’t care what anyone says,” Sewage declares), but one thing that the band absolutely nailed was the gross, disgusting and utterly hilarious cover artwork. The artwork was the first product of a do-it-yourself ethic that would be associated with Impaled for years to come. For McGrath, the concept was a simple one: “The idea was basically some guy shitting too hard and all of his guts come out.” While McGrath’s description is short and to the point, Sewage gives us a full behind-the-shit look at the artwork for The Dead Shall Dead Remain- “We went to a Chinese market, we bought a bunch of guts and Sean remembered George Romero, ‘Oh yeah, he used to fill up a bunch of guts with water.’ We even got the bum gut, which is the stinkiest fuckin’ thing you can imagine because there’s shit in it. We’re pouring water in it and tying it off with thread so it looks like big, massive guts… We just threw a bunch of that shit around a toilet, Sean laid down in it and we took a photo. It was an ethic that built up more and more with Impaled, that we should just do everything ourselves… Sean had this great idea, ‘Yeah, what if a guy just shat his guts out?’” Sewage grins, raises his 1.75 eyebrows and attempts to contextualize the band’s faeces-obsessed thinking. “All of these discussions were over a couple of 40s by the way.”
On October 29th 2000, The Dead Shall Dead Remain was released. Less than a month later, Impaled hit the road with Nile and Incantation for their first ever tour. Sewage has a very particular anecdote for how the tour came to fruition. “We did a couple of fests here and there, and finally we were formally offered a tour with Nile. The story told to me is this- they were at a show and talking about who to take out on their first headlining tour and someone brought up Impaled. Right then a kid walked by with a big, bright green Impaled full color shirt. We got the offer and said ‘Alright, cool.’” Varela recalls the tour’s awful living conditions like it was yesterday. “We rented a cargo van, emptied the back, threw a mattress in there along with luggage and bags. We used the second part of the cargo van to hold the equipment. Traveling was super uncomfortable and we definitely weren’t eating right.” As with most of Impaled’s early experiences, alcohol was an integral part of the activities. “We were drinking a lot,” is what Varela readily admits. In fact, beer ended up derailing Impaled’s first show on the tour as Sewage recalls. “The first show in Texas was the drunkest we’ve ever played because we were so happy to be on our first tour and we played like shit. It was probably the worst show we’ve ever done.”
McGrath agrees that the band was stoked to be touring at all, but looks back on the experience within the context of the era. “It was exciting, but the tour itself was pretty shitty. It wasn’t well attended and probably wasn’t well promoted at all. This was like, 2000 or something. Metal just wasn’t as popular as it is now. It was still in the declining period; maybe it was just starting to come back up again. I think a lot of the tours were kind of crappy back then, and I think it would be a lot better attended now.” Varela looks back on the tour more positively, and agrees that the band was sincerely enthusiastic about the lineup despite their drunken shenanigans; “We were glad though, our first tour was Nile and Incantation after all! It was pretty awesome. We had a lot of fun with the bands.” The tour was most certainly an educational experience for Impaled, and Varela thinks of it more as a stepping-stone rather than a wake-up call. “It was definitely kind of a learning process, it definitely took us a few tours to really get better at playing live and get into a routine.” As for the alcohol, Varela admits that he took a bit of time to learn his lesson. “It took me a few years to realize that I can’t get drunk before playing, I have to practice, I need to warm up my hands… If I have a chair and a pillow, I’ll practice on that. If you have time to kill, don’t start drinking, before you know it you have to play.” Sewage sums up the Impaled/Incantation/Nile tour of November 2000 rather simply. “Our first tour experience: we almost died several times, we were freezing to death in a crappy fuckin’ vehicle, making fifty bucks a night, except for the nights where we only made twenty-five.”
Spending all your free time with friends is one thing, and living with them for months in a tiny stinky van is another- by 2001, near the release of the Choice Cuts compilation, the creative and personal relationships between del Muerte and the rest of the band were beginning to erode. Back at Two Boots Pizza, del Muerte’s voice takes on a sadder tone as he accepts a chunk of the blame for his split from the band. “I kind of had my head up my ass. I really wanted to take creative control… Sean and I did an interview where I said that I had written eighty percent of The Dead Shall Dead Remain. I wrote a fair bit of it, but I had really overstated it in that interview. Sean was like, ‘Well fuck this, I’m gonna write my own songs.’ We used to write everything together, but we started writing separate songs.” del Muerte even points out the proof that he and McGrath had grown apart creatively. “On Choice Cuts there are the two original songs exclusive to that album, one song is Sean’s and the other is mine. Sean’s song is pretty well put together and mine is pretty fuckin’ dumb.” McGrath also acknowledges his and del Muerte’s creative differences- “Leon’s song on Choice Cuts is definitely more grind-y and more close to what he ended up doing in Murder Construct. My thing is more songwriter-y with a lot of different parts and tempo changes… What Leon was into isn’t that much different from what we do, but I guess it was different enough at the time.“
McGrath divides the burden of the split equally, admitting fault on everyone’s end. “At the time, it seemed like we were delving into a direction that I personally wasn’t interested in going in. As for the personal stuff, you could probably just chalk it up to people having too big of egos. I’m talking about everyone here- just stupid ego problems and probably too much testosterone and probably too much drinking too.” McGrath lets out a bit of a chuckle- beer had managed to throw a wrench in the way of Impaled’s career path once again. “The fact that we were all wasted all the time probably didn’t help, and the fact that we didn’t really talk to each other about stuff. Not enough communication really.” Varela’s memory once again paints a sharp picture, this time of the day that Leon del Muerte and Impaled officially parted ways. “Sean is the one who had to make the phone call to Leon. I remember we were at Necropolis Records, where I used to work. Sean and I were at the office that day, we made the decision and Sean called him. It was such a long time ago and it happened so fast before we knew it.” del Muerte would end up relocating to Los Angeles, where he would be able to freely pursue his personal style of death metal.
For Impaled, that wasn’t the only relationship that would reach a turning point. The band always had a rough relationship with Paul Thind and Necropolis Records, and Sewage remembers that at the time, the band was just about fed up. “We felt that we were getting the short end of the stick and we saw the label failing. Raul was working there and we knew all the different employees, so we’d hear all these stories. We knew that it was not gonna work, it was not going well. We said that we wanted out of the contract. Some other labels had been talking to us and asking us how much longer we’d be with Necropolis, so we were like, ‘We’re gonna get the fuck off this label.’ We went out with Paul, kind of hashed it out and came up with a sub-contract that got us out of the long-term part of the original contract.” One of the terms of the sub-contract allowed Impaled to receive some extra funding to record their second album, Mondo Medicale. “It was supposed to make all the parties happy, but we kind of did some shitty maneuvers on Mondo Medicale that were not cool,” Sewage admits. When I speak with Varela though, he provides some insight on one of those so-called “shitty maneuvers”- “Ross wrote the lyrics to ‘Rest in Faeces.‘ If you read the lyrics, it’s actually about Necropolis Records going down. Mondo Medicale came out and everything was printed. Paul received a copy, opened it up, read the lyrics, got to ‘Rest in Faeces’… From the first line of that song, you know it’s about Necropolis. When he read the lyrics of that song, he exploded. We were all at my house after I had come home from work. He called me, wanted to come right to my house and beat up Ross. He was calling us and saying things like, ‘I’m on my way, I’m gonna fucking kick Ross’ ass,’ and this and that. Of course, that day I got fired and we happened to not have a label anymore. That was kind of what happened.”
Though that one incident makes for a rather colorful story, Varela also notes how Necropolis was simply failing to operate well. “The label was making a lot of money, but that also meant a lot more money was being spent. Basically, the money at the label was not really there. From my perspective, we were starting to have a lot of people mad at the label because they weren’t getting paid. I’m talking about distributors, pressing plants, other labels selling things to us… The label had really good credit, a really good reputation, and it all just went down the drain.” The release of the Medical Waste EP fulfilled Impaled’s contractual obligation to Necropolis and the band were now free agents. They signed on with Century Media Records, but found themselves one man down when del Muerte’s first replacement, guitarist Andrew LaBarre, left the band. Sewage remembers the difficulty that Impaled had in finding not simply a skilled axeman, but a guitarist who would fit in well with their music. “We were already working on new songs with Andrew and he left—it kind of gave us a dent because it was like ‘Oh shit, we need another guitar player.’ It was very difficult to find someone who kind of understood the groove we were trying to go for. There was a lot of math metal around here at the time. There were lots of guys who could play these crazy solos and riffs, and they’d have to bust out a calculator to make sure it added up right. There were not a lot of people who were willing to chug out some fuckin’ fun riffs that are good to headbang to. Everyone was trying to write some magnum opus of un-understandable music that just wasn’t fun to listen to.”
One of the first guys to try out for the band was local guitar wizard Jason Kocol, an acquaintance of McGrath’s and a longtime friend of del Muerte’s. Kocol nailed his audition without a hitch as McGrath recalls. “The way the audition worked was I tabbed out ‘Dead Inside‘ from Mondo Medicale and gave that to people to learn before they came in. It’s not an easy song to play, and Jason played it perfect.” The members of Impaled were hesitant however, and McGrath notes that they nearly lost Kocol’s interest. “I ended up calling Jason a month later or whatever and asked him if he was still interested and I think he had to think about it for a second- ‘Uh, I don’t know… It seems like you took a long time to get back to me.’ I was just like, ‘Ah fuck, we blew it.’” Kocol, speaking to me over the phone from his Berkeley home, looks back on the audition a bit more sympathetically these days. “I think it took a while because they wanted to make sure they had the right person. After losing two guitarists in a row, I think they just wanted to find someone that could stay and be able to work with them. Now here we are almost ten years later- I’ve been the longest serving second guitarist in Impaled to date, so it did work out. I think they really just wanted to make sure they found the right person and hopefully they did.” Kocol fights to hold back laughter. “If they didn’t, then they’ve been keeping it a secret from me!” Even after spending many tours and weekly rehearsals with Kocol, McGrath doesn’t have an unkind word to say about the guitar nerd. “He’s great, he’s the perfect band member. He’s such a nice guy and super talented and very humble.”
The years pass quickly at this point. Impaled’s short time with Century Media Records resulted in the 2005 concept album Death After Life and a subsequent tour. The band then signed with their current label, Willowtip Records, and released The Last Gasp—their most recent collection of all-new material—in 2007. Luckily for Impaled fans, time had healed a few wounds. Varela remembers how pleasant it was seeing Leon del Muerte again for the first time in years. “One of the first times I saw him again was when he was living in L.A. and he came up to the Bay Area for a show. I ran into him, we had a couple of beers and it was like nothing had happened. We were chatting and having a good time.” It wasn’t long before del Muerte was jumping onstage with his old buddies to sing songs from The Dead Shall Dead Remain- Impaled would even find themselves crashing at his house whenever they dropped by Los Angeles. The guys even seem to be at least cordial with Paul Thind, as Varela happily mentions. “We actually ran into Paul a couple of times this year and it was like the same thing with Leon. We had a beer and we’re chatting, it’s like, ‘How have you been? What have you been doing?’- that kind of stuff.” These days, Thind finds himself incredibly busy running a new videogame company, Triggerspot.
Though time had managed to heal the friendship between del Muerte and Impaled, it had also taken its toll on the band’s willingness to tour. As far as the band was concerned, time had also not been very kind to The Dead Shall Dead Remain. To make matters worse, the record was out of print and Necropolis Records—by then defunct—still claimed legal ownership of the album. Sewage recalls that he and the rest of Impaled wanted to give the music a second chance at life. “We talked about re-recording for years and years. We did the round of touring for The Last Gasp in America and Europe. It was good but there were differing opinions about what to do next. Some of us didn’t want to go out and tour again. We were getting some offers but it was like, ‘If we don’t want to go out and tour, what do we want to do?’ We didn’t really have the urge to write anything new at that point, so we went back to the re-recording idea and figured, ‘Hey, that’ll be fun for a little break.’” McGrath offers a differing opinion of the tours in support of The Last Gasp, but affirms that the band needed a more relaxing project to tackle. “We got back from a tour that didn’t go so well and everyone was just sort of like ‘I don’t really wanna do that anymore.’ It just seemed like a good time to do [the re-recording], something that didn’t have a time limit on it. We could take our time and get it done, and it was something that we wanted to do anyway.“
In a rather odd coincidence, Impaled again found an engineer at Soundwave Studios. Remember Dave Lopez, the Soundwave employee that put Varela in touch with McGrath all those years ago? Once again, Lopez pointed Impaled to a guy the band needed, this time an engineer by the name of Vincent Wojno. If that wasn’t odd enough, Wojno turned out to be Testament’s soundman, like Moe Acevedo before him. Weird, right? Wojno was ultimately hired to track drums and mix the re-recording, which would be entitled The Dead Still Dead Remain. Wojno quickly knocked out drum tracks with Varela at Testament’s own studio. Years had passed since Varela’s daunting experience in the studio, and this time he was more than prepared for the job. Sewage offers glowing praise for his friend’s performance: “Raul’s become eons beyond what he was as a drummer. He’s super tight on this record. He sounds really good, everything sounds really in time without sounding too sterile.” Varela has a more modest take on it, but he does give Sewage’s warm compliment some context. “I don’t know if I improved a lot or not but about six months before we started re-recording, I started playing to a click track. I’d never played with one before. That was the thing- before, I’d hook it up and play it the way I felt was right to play, which was the way I’d play live. One day I realized, ‘You know, I need to start working with a click and get to know the tempos of the songs…’ Once I started using the click, I actually asked Jason to give me copies of all the songs with the guitars isolated along with the click tracks. I actually started practicing our live set and it took me about six months to a year to really get used to it… To me, it was a weird thing. I don’t know how to read music, I don’t know how to play other styles of music right, so when I started playing to a click, it was completely new to me.”
Meanwhile, Jason Kocol took on the burden of recording the stringed instruments and vocals. Kocol isn’t merely speaking to me from his house in Berkeley; his home doubles as a recording facility, a place he calls Hhhey Studios, where the guitars, bass and growls were tracked at the band’s leisure. Kocol explains how he only needed to record a clean guitar signal to nail the album’s brutally heavy tones. “What we used on The Dead Still Dead Remain were two virtual amp plugins. We used Guitar Rig 4 and Amplitube Metal. The entire sound wasn’t recorded through an amp at all in case the plugins didn’t sound good, but I knew I would spend as much time as I could to get it dialed in right. Most importantly, our main engineer for the record, Vince Wojno, thought it was fantastic. We did the right thing by doing it this way.” Kocol also found himself playing new guitar solos on the re-recording, which he says allowed him to put his own stamp on the vintage material. “Any of the solos that Leon had played on the first record, I didn’t end up re-creating mainly due to laziness.” Kocol laughs at himself. “It was also a way of putting my own personal touch on it since I had been playing some of those songs since I joined the band. I had already written new solos back then, so I thought it would be good to continue playing them.”
So some may be wondering at this point, would Leon del Muerte be involved with The Dead Still Dead Remain? Sewage answers that question with zero hesitation. “That was already a foregone conclusion. We said, ‘We’re re-recording it and you’re gonna sing on it,’ he said ‘Fuckin’ dope.’ We’d jammed some of the old stuff when we were in L.A. or he was around, like at Maryland Deathfest. I don’t think there was any doubt that Leon was going to be involved. He was totally down.” del Muerte recalls his session being rather short. “I went in and did all the vocals in one day- not like that’s saying a whole lot.” Sewage seems to disagree with del Muerte’s humble quip. “He fuckin’ nailed it, he did some of the best vocals I’ve ever heard out of him, so I’m stoked.“
While the making of The Dead Still Dead Remain sounds like it should have been a quick process, in reality it’s been six long years since The Last Gasp was released. So what happened? As a touring engineer for Testament, Vincent Wojno wasn’t able to dedicate every moment of his life to mixing The Dead Still Dead Remain. There was also the myriad of other projects that the members of Impaled found themselves pursuing over the last few years:
Raul Varela decided to pursue his passion for film, beginning work on a documentary about the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a Mexican rebel group dedicated to furthering the rights and better treatment of Mexican aborigines. By Varela’s own admission, friends and fans probably shouldn’t hold their breaths waiting for the movie. “I’ve been working here and there on it whenever I can, but it’s been hard. There are so many projects around and so few get funded. It’s one of those things that could take me only two years to finish, but it could also take me ten years to finish it.” Varela’s film work can also be seen in the music video for ‘Beaten and Left Blind‘ by Arizona death metallers Landmine Marathon. Varela eventually found himself joining the band in 2012. He has since served on a handful of tours, and is currently working with Landmine on material for a new album- their first with Varela on drums.
Jason Kocol was able to turn his love for guitar into a viable career, and ended up working on a handful of music video games including Rock Band Unplugged and Guitar Hero 5. Kocol transcribes note-charts and designs levels for the games. His latest project, Rocksmith, is probably one of the coolest things a guitar nerd could work on for a living- it’s something that Kocol refuses to call a mere videogame. “It’s a tool that goes beyond Rock Band and Guitar Hero in that it teaches you how to play a real guitar and bass. That’s what I’ve been working on for the last two years over at Ubisoft.” Kocol’s latest videogame project, Rocksmith 2014, will be released just a week before The Dead Still Dead Remain on October 22nd.
Ross Sewage spent a good deal of time recording and touring with a Bay Area black metal outfit called Ludicra (their final release, 2010’s The Tenant, may be America’s finest contribution to the genre). In the years since Gore Metal in 1998, Sewage has become the Bay Area metal scene’s resident electrical engineer/gear junkie/road expert/mad scientist, documenting his many adventures and experiments on his blog, Doktor Sewage M.D.I.Why. Though he comes off as a generally sarcastic guy, his words about the site are surprisingly sincere. “I wanted to do something that actually helped other people, especially when I started getting into electronics. I’ve been on the road on pretty much all the worst tours ever; I could give some advice out. I was like, I’m going to tell about when I played this city, what you should go look at and in the meantime, what gear we’re using on the road and why it’s good, or why it sucked. It’s not like it has a huge readership or anything, but I’m just trying to give something back and I can do something fun.”
Since leaving Impaled and moving to Los Angeles, Leon del Muerte became a nomad of grind and death metal, serving stints in Exhumed, Phobia, Nausea and Intronaut among other bands and touring all over the world. In addition to earning his veteran status on the road, del Muerte finally recorded his creative masterwork with Los Angeles grind supergroup Murder Construct. The entity came to existence in del Muerte’s bedroom even before he split from Impaled, with only a drum machine and a tiny practice amp as his tools for composition. After years of setting the material aside, del Muerte assembled an all-star lineup, collaborated on the songwriting with his new bandmates, and released the incredible Results in August 2012. del Muerte had finally realized his decade-old idea of deathgrind- the same idea of deathgrind that tore a creative rift between him and Impaled all those years ago.
That leaves us with Sean McGrath. As far as most are concerned, McGrath spends his days filming court depositions and his nights with his wife in San Francisco. When Creepsylvanian thrash band Ghoul comes to town though, he and Sewage can be found selling t-shirts at the merchandise booth. When the band takes the stage, one can hear a familiar serrated high shout from their guitarist, and an inimitable barbed bellow from the bassist. There is only one logical conclusion: McGrath and Sewage have been enslaved by the facially-mutilated knuckleheads, and are now forced to write thrash metal songs and sell shirts for the rucksack-clad Creepsylvanians known as Digestor and Cremator. In the years since McGrath had no one to share his love of death metal with, the music has undergone a resurgence in popularity: a resurgence that Impaled missed out on and that Ghoul has found some success in. It’s a cruel outcome for McGrath, though one can find a kind of twisted satisfaction in theorizing that his music has lived on through Ghoul in the absence of Impaled.
In spite of all of these crazy activities, The Dead Still Dead Remain is finally finished. When fans buy the CD, obviously the first thing they see is the artwork. “There was always going to be something relating to the old cover because we can’t get past how fuckin’ ridiculous that thing is,” Sewage admits. “We figured, ‘If it’s this much later and we’ve matured, how much would all that gore and poop have matured too?’ So yeah, let’s see what it looks like thirteen years later and it looks horrible.” Sewage also takes delight in the new artwork going one step further with the realism. “The coolest part was that my friend was able to give me some real human leg bone. Those are real leg bones on there, and a whole bunch of other shit. It would probably look a lot drier if it had been rotting that long, but I took some creative license.” Sewage mentions the reverence that he gave the first version of the artwork, while still acknowledging the silliness of it all. “The idea was to pay homage to the original, pay as much respect to a cover with a toilet and doo-doo on it as one possibly can.”
As our chat nears an end at Soundwave, McGrath and Sewage show me both the original version and the new re-recording of ‘Faeces of Death.‘ We listen to the original first. You can hear a decent mix buried under choking compression and horribly harsh EQ- the three of us can barely stand listening to it for more than twenty seconds or so. They then put on the new version, and the difference is shocking. There’s a newfound clarity and separation on the guitar tracks; you can actually hear each note during the gallops just under a minute in. Sewage’s bass growls while still locking down the low end, Varela’s drums assert themselves with a previously unheard force and definition and del Muerte’s vocals are ferocious and commanding in a way I have never heard from him before- the years have been good to the man’s throat.
The song also sounds a tad different, as if the key of the song has changed when compared to the original. McGrath and Sewage attribute the phenomenon to tuning to D-standard for the past few years, whereas the band played in B-standard for the first half of their career. McGrath casually explains that there wasn’t much thought behind the tuning difference. “That’s just the way we play now, we don’t tune to B at all anymore. It’s also an opportunity to actually hear the music. A lot of that stuff that we wrote back then is pretty melodic and there’s a lot of little details and stuff that gets lost when you tune so low. You can’t hear all the notes very well. On some parts, the D tuning adds some punch.” Sewage adds, “When we talked about the re-recording we never even thought about going back down to B. It’s what we do now, and we sound better. You want the record to sound better? We’ll play the way we sound good.”
McGrath is sympathetic towards those who love the first incarnation of the music, but firmly stands by The Dead Still Dead Remain. “I’m sure there will be people who don’t like it and think the original is better or whatever. I totally understand where that comes from, but the production is way better, it’s better played, everything about it is better.” Sewage still feels a sense of disgust when it comes to the original. “We can’t listen to [the original]. I know people like it because it’s this raw grindcore sound, but it’s actually a death metal record- not a grindcore record. It’s hard to look at your ugly baby. Other people might say it’s cute, but I disagree.” Sewage even adds that The Dead Still Dead Remain is a far better representation of the material than the original could ever offer. “It sounds like the record that I wish we had been talented enough to record back then instead of being drunk and stupid.”
On October 29th, fans will get to hear the fruit of Impaled’s labors for themselves. So what does the future hold for these guys? When it comes to touring, Sewage insists that the band won’t be losing their lives to the road like they did as youngsters. “I don’t think we’ll be embarking on some large tour for this record but we want to do some small trips here and there. I’m not above sleeping on some punk rocker’s floor, I don’t give a shit. The question is more like, will it be fun? Will it be fun to drive through five Boise, Idahos to do shows or can we just go to New York for a little bit?” As for del Muerte, he’ll continue to man a mic for Impaled for the time being. I ask McGrath if del Muerte is officially in Impaled once more- McGrath proceeds to poke some fun at himself and his bandmates. “First of all, I don’t think he’d want to be an official member of Impaled.” We both laugh and are probably thinking the same thing: who would want to officially join a band that took six years to re-record an album after all? McGrath takes on a warm and sincere tone with his next batch of words however. “Leon’s really like family. He was a member of Impaled, and he will nominally remain a member of Impaled- not really a member, but he might as well be.” Family is a key word here, a word that del Muerte would more than likely welcome if his imagination is any indication. “I’m sure that if I lived back in the Bay Area I’d be hanging with them a lot like we did back in the day. It would always be the four of us. Me and Sean would go everywhere, but eighty percent of the time it would be all four of us propping up a bar somewhere.”
These guys all seem rather content with what the band’s future looks like, particularly Sewage. “We’re not going to ‘make it.’ We’re still friends, and we’re having fun jamming music together. We still practice every fuckin’ week. We’re going to do what feels fun to do, not try to make some fuckin’ career goals out of this. We want to play for people we like and we want to have a good time doing it.” It’s an admirable and levelheaded stance for the band to take, especially in a time when death metal is more popular than ever before. They’ve opened Impaled’s past, present and future to me over the last couple of months, but there is one question that the Bay Area’s lords of gore still can’t answer- will there be another Impaled album made up of new material? “I have no idea,” is McGrath’s simple reply. Perhaps there will always be a mystery left to solve with this band, but for now we have a very cool death metal album to feast upon. Impaled lives, and The Dead Still Dead Remain.