For every thrash band that went on to great success, there were countless bands that couldn’t break through but are fondly remembered by fans today. Dark Angel are certainly one of the latter, thanks to a brilliant album that immediately established them as major contenders in the scene: 1986's Darkness Descends. And their drummer, Gene Hoglan — nicknamed "the Atomic Clock" — is still widely admired as one of the more influential drummers in metal.
If you know your Dark Angel history, you’re probably aware that Hoglan was not the original drummer. The band, which formed in Downey in 1983, had already recorded an album with Jack Schwartz on drums, We Have Arrived. But Hoglan would become the most recognized member of the group — its focal point, chief lyricist and the natural leader who would help push the band to new levels of speed, intensity and brutality.
Hoglan is very good with dates, and he can tell you exactly when he joined Dark Angel: Dec. 10, 1984. He had become friendly with Dark Angel guitarist and founder Jim Durkin through various parties and gigs, and was invited to a secret rehearsal where, as he recalls it, Hoglan played on then-drummer Jack Schwartz’s kit. By the end of '84, he was officially in.
We Have Arrived was released in early 1985 and showed some promise. But when Hoglan joined Dark Angel, the band had begun to move in a more brutal direction. Hoglan heard two new songs that wound up on the Darkness Descends album, "The Burning of Sodom" and "Perish in Flames," and remembers thinking, "Oh my God, they’re really starting to get crushing now, this is really cool.”
But when Hoglan asked the band what the lyrics were to "The Burning of Sodom," Durkin and Dark Angel’s lead singer Don Doty looked at him sheepishly and said there were no lyrics. Doty just spewed a bunch of fast-paced babble into the mic. So Hoglan wrote lyrics in his high school English class about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah that impressed both his teacher and the band. At that point, the band told him, “Hey, if you want to write all the lyrics from now on, cool. You’re taking over.”
Dark Angel’s lyrics tended to be much smarter than the usual metal fare, dealing with subjects such as reincarnation ("Hunger of the Undead"), euthanasia ("Death Is Certain (Life Is Not)"), the legend of Nostradamus ("Black Prophecies") and, a popular subject for many thrash bands during the Reagan era, the horrors of nuclear war ("Perish in Flames"). Hoglan’s lyrics used a lot of big SAT words that made you run for the dictionary; a line from the title track, for example, went, “Inimical powers against humankind, this charnel house ensanguined.”
“I was a young man with a large vocabulary, and if I could use a 10-cent word instead of a two-cent word, I would," Hoglan explains today. "I learned a lot of words when I was a pre-teenager from Rush lyrics. I’m looking around, and all the bands that are writing our style of music, everybody’s writing about jumpin’ in the pit, slashin’ somebody with a rusty knife. So OK, these other bands have that going for ’em. There’s no reason why we can’t show a modicum of intelligence with our lyrics. I was a nerdy Rush fan, and I figured I’d try that approach.”
Which isn’t to say that Dark Angel couldn’t also write a song based on a comic book. The title track of the Darkness album was the first metal song inspired by Judge Dredd, right before Anthrax did their tribute to Dredd with "I Am the Law" on their 1987 album Among the Living.
One gets the impression that Dark Angel might not have gotten as far as they did without Hoglan as the driving force. “One thing that Jim pointed out very early on is that the band had five guys in it before I joined, and you had five completely different wishes for the musical direction," Hoglan says. "Jim always felt we should be heavier, and when I joined, that was absolutely my approach. So now Jim had a compatriot, and here were two guys with a focused direction in mind. I think the other guys acquiesced to that after a while.”
We Have Arrived was released through a tiny label, Azra Records. But now the band had moved up to Combat, the New York indie that practically cornered the market on thrash bands in the ’80s. Combat’s roster included Megadeth (before they moved over to Capitol), Exodus, Possessed, Nuclear Assault and many others.
Darkness was recorded over a period of several weeks at the Music Grinder, a long-defunct studio on Melrose Avenue where most of the Combat bands did their albums. Hoglan says the total budget for the album was about $11,000 and can remember the date when recording commenced, April 14, 1986. “And the only reason I remember the date [is] because that was the day the United States bombed Libya. I remember saying that day, ‘We’re going to war, and Dark Angel’s the soundtrack to the apocalypse.’ I remember back in those days that nuclear war was a looming threat over everybody ... and I thought that was kind of humorous.”
Dark Angel were often very messy live, but on Darkness they put in a tight, precise performance that (unbeknownst to the average listener) was a little slower than the band’s usual speed. “I think that’s one thing we tried to concentrate on is, let’s play these songs at a pretty quick pace, but let’s not play at the blistering speed we did live,” Hoglan explains. It’s also remarkable to note that Hoglan was all of 18 years old when he recorded the album, and it was his first time ever recording in a professional studio.
Darkness Descends came out on Nov. 17, 1986, a little over a month after Slayer released what many consider to be the masterpiece of the genre, Reign in Blood. While Darkness Descends may not be up to the same level as Reign, Metallica's Master of Puppets or Megadeth's Peace Sells, it proved to be a solid piece of work that absolutely held its own.
While Metallica had already moved up to opening for Ozzy Osbourne, and would headline arenas two years later, Hoglan says he never thought much about where Dark Angel’s place was in the grand scheme of thrash, or whether the band could get to a bigger level.
“We were the pissed-off younger brothers of all those guys,” he says. “You got four great gateway bands, and you have us too. I wouldn’t know how to compare us to the Big Four or anything like that. Success, monetary gain — man, this is thrash metal! We’re one step away from punk rock, and there’s no money in punk rock. This was underground music made for underground people that appreciate metal, not people that listened to the radio and liked Mötley Crüe and Ratt, who thought thrash metal sounded like noise. Good, that’s how I liked it.”
Darkness Descends was very well received in the metal underground, and Dark Angel seemed to have a strong future ahead of them. But within just a few years it would all come apart. In 1987, vocalist Don Doty was fired for various issues and replaced by Ron Rinehart. While Rinehart was technically a much better singer, many fans were used to Doty’s vocals, which had an odd, high-pitched quality to them. (While Doty’s vocals were somewhat of a weak point for Dark Angel, the riffs, brutality and speed more than made up for them.)
The band finally came back in 1989 with their long-awaited follow-up to Darkness, Leave Scars, but the fans were underwhelmed. The album's songwriting was inconsistent, and the muddy production lacked the tight focus and brutality of Darkness.
Scars was produced by Michael Monarch, the former guitarist of Steppenwolf, and the band clashed with him during the recording. “By the time we did Leave Scars, we were bull-headed kids in the studio,” Hoglan says. “The reason the album doesn’t sound that great was completely our responsibility. It wasn’t Michael Monarch; he tried to save us from that, but at the time we were like, ‘Fuck you, old man, you don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, we wanna do it this way.’ That was not smart on our part.”
A frustrated Jim Durkin would leave the group during the Scars tour, yet Hoglan and company continued to solider on with 1991’s Time Does Not Heal, which was produced by Terry Date, famed for his groundbreaking production work with Pantera. But by this point metal was changing again, with death metal and grindcore becoming all the rage, and a lot of thrash bands were left behind.
Dark Angel finally called it quits in 1992. “I get asked a lot, ‘Grunge came around when you put out Time Does Not Heal; did grunge kill thrash metal?’" Hoglan says. "No, death metal did, and I get it, because thrash was the fastest, heaviest, most chaotic music around until somebody found a way to up it with grindcore and death metal.”
As it turns out, Dark Angel were a big influence on a lot of death metal bands. When Hoglan would go see groups like Deicide and Morbid Angel live, they would come up to him and pay their respects. He was pleased to see his band’s influence continuing.
Since Dark Angel, Hoglan has played drums for a variety of bands including Death, Fear Factory, Forbidden, Dethklok and Testament, where he currently commands the drum throne. He's also cemented his influence on metal drumming with a series of instructional videos; his latest collection will be released on DVD on Friday, Feb. 3, under the name The Atomic Clock: The Clock Strikes Two.
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It took a long time for it to happen, but Dark Angel finally reunited in 2014, playing a successful tour of Europe with the full Leave Scars lineup. “Those shows were absolutely amazing,” Hoglan says. “And the band’s getting along better than ever. We’ve always stayed in touch. We didn’t break up with any kind of acrimony or anything like that; the band just kind of dissolved.”
Dark Angel also have been working on new music since the tour ended. Hoglan says they have some killer tunes in the can, but there’s still no timetable for when a Dark Angel comeback album could be unleashed. (Hoglan has a hard time working around his touring schedule, but he’s hoping the band can get something done and released sooner rather than later.)
Whether Dark Angel can ever deliver another great album remains to be seen. But with Darkness Descends, they left behind a hell of a statement that stands the test of time after all these years.
“I’ve heard people say that ’86 was the greatest year for thrash metal,” Hoglan says. “It was probably the most cohesive in terms of releases for everybody. A lot of really, really classic albums came out that year, and to be mentioned in the same breath as those albums is an absolute honor.”