Fischel's Beast - Commencement 4/5

Reviewed: 7-10-09


1. Commencement
2. Forbidden territories
3. The phoenix
4. One man's cry
5. Fate of kings
6. Where am I

From the steaming cauldron of the burgeoning West Coast thrash scene emerged the legendary Sentinel Beast in 1984. My friends and I always called Sentinel Beast (much like Savage Grace, for instance) a speed metal band rather than a thrash band because they played everything at supersonic velocities and used more melody than the typical U.S. thrash purveyor of the time. For example, Sentinel Beast's idea of a cover song was to take Iron Maiden's "Phantom of the opera" and play it at warp speed. It was an awesome spectacle to behold. To us, that was speed metal, through and through. Maybe the distinction is meaningless today, but it was a big deal back then. Nomenclature issues aside, Sentinel Beast were also distinctive because of vocalist Debbie Gunn, whose rough-hewn but powerful and easily decipherable vocals were truly unique. Sadly, after releasing the amazing 'Depths of death' LP (it didn't come out on CD until many years later) on Metal Blade Records in 1986, Sentinel Beast went silent for many years, despite having a number of unreleased songs that never saw the light of day. A couple of years ago, however, Gunn reformed the band with a new batch of much younger musicians, and they've traversed the European true metal festival circuit to great acclaim, albeit without releasing any new music.

Barry Fischel was half of Sentinel Beast's twin-guitar killing team in their 80s glory days. Unfortunately, he was unable to participate in the new Mark II iteration of the band for various reasons, not the least of which was that he had relocated to Brooklyn, New York, in the interim. So Fischel did the next best thing: He formed a new band called Fischel's Beast and worked up the unreleased Sentinel Beast material from 1987 into this 'Commencement' CD. What that means is that all of the tracks on 'Commencement' date back 2 decades and were originally intended to be the backbone of Sentinel Beast's never-recorded sophomore CD. But this isn't a reissue; to the contrary, these evergreen oldies have been newly recorded with the benefit of modern recording technologies for a fuller, richer sound. The vintage nature of the material is readily apparent. Many of these riffs would have been right at home on 'Depths of death' or Flotsam & Jetsam's 'No place for disgrace' opus. It's just uncanny. (By the way, the link to Flotz is not coincidental. Several tracks on 'Commencement' were written by Sentinel Beast bass player Mike Spencer, who went on to join Flotsam and Jetsam after Newsted won the Metallica lottery, with Spencer co-writing some of the 'No place' masterpiece.)

For all of the clear similarities to Sentinel Beast, there are some differences too. Paramount among them is that vocals in Fischel's Beast are handled by Anthony Cross, who is nothing like Gunn and could never be accused of being a clone or a copy. Cross sings in a clean, melody-laden voice, avoiding screams and high pitches and sounding a bit like a cross (heh!) between Brian Troch (Cyclone Temple) and David White (Heathen). I know not everyone loves that style of vocals in the thrash/speed metal context, but Cross is an outstanding singer who definitely enhances the material. In a fascinating touch, Cross wrote brand-new lyrics and vocal lines to a couple of the songs, out of deference and respect to Gunn's intention to use the original incarnations of those tracks in the latest version of Sentinel Beast. The remarkable part is that, according to the liner notes, Cross added these creative contributions without ever hearing Gunn's lyrics and vocal melodies, so these cuts have been reimagined through the eyes and ears of one who never heard them as they originally were. The other marked difference is that the 'Commencement' songs are overall longer and more technical than the 'Depths of death' stuff. Most of these Fischel's Beast tracks feature lengthy, cool instrumental breaks, and running times of 5-6 minutes as compared to the breathless 3-minute duration of most 'Depths of death' songs. And 'Commencement' is not an all-out speed workout either, although there are plenty of fast parts on display. Thus, 'Commencement' reveals that Sentinel Beast (like many of their peers at the time) were becoming more ambitious and adventuresome with their songwriting and arrangements in the wake of the all-out high-velocity blitzkrieg of 'Depths of death'.

Finally, it bears noting that this 'Commencement' CD is a truly professional release to which great care and attention to detail have been given. The cover artwork, layout, band photos and track-by-track liner notes are all top-notch. The guest guitar solos of Chris Caffery on a pair of songs lend gravitas and credibility to the project. Fischel's Beast and Stormspell Records have done a very fine job here. Sure, there's room for the occasional nitpick (chief among them being that 5 songs plus intro is not enough and the slightly funky riff in "Fate of kings" is repeated way too often for my liking), but overall 'Commencement' is a treasure trove of lost gems from the golden days of California speed metal. In a refreshingly drama-free set of circumstances, all of this was apparently done with Gunn and Spencer's blessing. What a boon for old-school speed mavens worldwide!




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