At the first Show Your Scars metal festival this Saturday, Jan. 9 at the Regent Theater, L.A.’s underground metal community will be out in full force. Virginia beer-thrashers Municipal Waste headline, and a bounty of rising L.A. metal acts will fill the first part of the day. But what has heavy-metal historians geeking out most are two highly influential bands sharing the same bill for the first time: Repulsion and Terrorizer L.A.
Considered by genre experts to be the building blocks of the subgenre known as grindcore, Repulsion and Terrorizer were teenage phenoms in the mid-1980s. Each band blasted out extremely short bursts of musical aggression similar to punk but amped them up with distorted death-metal riffs and the fastest blast-beat drumming imaginable. All of it served as a backdrop for Terrorizer's politically vitriolic lyrics, or, in Repulsion's case, horror-influenced tales of bloody death.
Aspiring musicians forming an extreme-metal band in 2016 have more than 30 years of genre history to play with. But as Repulsion were forming out of Flint, Michigan, in 1985 and Terrorizer were starting here in Los Angeles in 1986, each band had few roadmaps. Their members were disaffected teenagers equally obsessed with the heavier ends of metal and the more hardcore extremes of punk. Their goal was simply to make the music even faster.
“We had a desire to take what Slayer were doing at the time and make it more fast and more extreme,” says Repulsion guitarist Matt Olivo, over beers at Angel City Brewery. “I wanted to write stuff like ['80s thrash/punk band] D.R.I. but with more of a metal edge — no twin lead guitar solos. And keeping it punk but still faster and more sinister.”
“No one here in L.A. was really doing that then,” recalls Terrorizer L.A. vocalist/guitarist Oscar Garcia during a separate phone conversation. “There was just thrash and death metal. We wanted to be just a little different.”
Despite the disparity of the local scenes that birthed them, Repulsion and Terrorizer each stood out as oddballs from what was considered heavy metal circa 1986.
“We never actually played a metal gig back then,” Olivo says. “The only guys playing metal in Flint in 1986 were doing Motley Crue covers. So we only did punk shows. We were metal, but what we were playing at the time was so weird. Our guitar solos weren’t full of poses or wacky antics. The punk-rock kids loved how fucked in the head we sounded.”
“Some people got [Terrorizer], but a lot of people just stared at us,” Garcia says. “Our shows were all backyards and wherever we could play. A guy once asked us to play a show, but he didn’t have a backyard so he just set us up on his front porch. People would be walking down the street minding their own business and there’s us on a porch making noise in front of a few people drinking 40s.”
As they were slogging it out in their respective local scenes, members of each band circulated their demos through an underground heavy-metal, tape-trading community. Interest from record labels and press in this emerging sound was nonexistent, so tape traders helped spread the bands' names through a global network of devoted metal fans.
“I probably sent [out] a couple hundred copies of our demo,” says Repulsion bassist/vocalist Scott Carlson during a conversation at Groundworks Coffee. “If I saw a tape trader in the back of Metal Forces magazine who had a cool list, I would send him a copy of the demo. I figured if this guy has good taste in music, I’d send him a copy of the tape and he’ll spread it. I figured that had worked for Metallica, so why couldn’t it work for us?”
“[Terrorizer guitarist] Jesse Pintado was really big into tape-trading,” Garcia says. “When he would do a trade with someone he would throw in our demo just asking people to check out our band. We didn’t think anything would happen from it. We were just kids that wanted people to hear our stuff.”
While the demos were circulating, internal conflicts led both bands to break up in 1988. Repulsion guitarist Aaron Freeman started a family; Olivo joined the Army; Carlson simply became disillusioned with where heavy metal was going. Terrorizer's members departed for other musical endeavors.
“I showed up to practice one day and [Terrorizer drummer] Pete Sandoval told us he was moving to Florida to play with Morbid Angel,” Garcia says. “I got pissed off and wondered why we should bother practicing then if he was leaving. I pretty much packed my stuff and left.”
As Repulsion and Terrorizer were falling apart, the subgenre that would become known as grindcore finally exploded, thanks to British heavy-metal label Earache Records. The releases of Napalm Death’s 1987 politically charged debut, Scum, and Carcass’ 1988 gore-obsessed Reek of Putrefaction perked up the ears of metalheads and punkers alike who were looking for the most extreme sounds imaginable.
As their notoriety grew, members of Napalm Death and Carcass were able to lobby Earache founder Digby Pearson regarding the label's future releases. Bassist/vocalist Jeff Walker and guitarist/vocalist Bill Steer of Carcass had been members of the tape-trading community that circulated Repulsion’s 1986 demo, Slaughter of the Innocent. Launching their own imprint through Earache, called Necrosis Records, Walker and Steer mixed the demo and released it under the title Horrified.
Olivo, stationed on an American military base in Germany, was stunned when the album showed up in his mail. "I opened the box and it was Horrified. Nobody told me about it. Aaron Freeman had sent it to me as a surprise.”
Meanwhile, Napalm Death bassist Shane Embury and drummer Mick Harris had received a Terrorizer demo through tape-trading, and convinced Pearson to fund the recording of a proper Terrorizer record. Sandoval returned from Morbid Angel with bassist David Vincent in tow, Pintado took a break from having just joined Napalm Death, and Garcia took a respite from his new death/grind act, Nausea. Together, they recorded Terrorizer's debut album, World Downfall, in just eight hours.
“I was excited to record a proper album, but it was going to be over then,” Garcia says.
Both released in 1989, Horrified and World Downfall would slowly build reputations as genre milestones, even as their creators spent the 1990s focused on other projects. Olivo moved to Los Angeles in 1995 to pursue a career in scoring for film and television. Carlson briefly joined British doom-metal icons Cathedral and then joined Olivo in Los Angeles in 1998. Garcia continued slogging it out in the Los Angeles metal underground with Nausea, the death metal/grindcore mainstay that would remain his top musical priority for the next 20 years.
The cult surrounding their groundbreaking releases grew nonetheless. Influential metal bands of the 1990s such as Entombed would cover Repulsion songs, exposing the source material to their own fan bases. As Morbid Angel and Napalm Death's popularity grew, listeners who dug into the bands’ histories would find Terrorizer lurking on the resumes of Sandoval, Vincent and Pintado.
Even though they both lived in Los Angeles and had remained friends, Carlson and Olivo kept Repulsion dead and buried until 2003, when extreme-metal label Relapse Records reached out about doing an expansive reissue of Horrified. Sporadic live shows followed, but it was a performance for an overflow crowd at Murderfest, an L.A. metal festival in 2007, that really opened Carlson and Olivo's eyes as to how much Repulsion's popularity had grown.
“That was the first American show where we realized newer fans were really giving a shit,” Carlson says. “The curtain went up, and the place was crammed full of people going apeshit. We’re not completely sure how we made it through that show, because we were deer caught in headlights for the first few songs.”
Sandoval and Pintado re-formed Terrorizer without Garcia for the 2006 release Darker Days Ahead, but Pintado passed away that same year from liver failure at 37. After his death, Sandoval kept the Terrorizer name alive by releasing Horde of Zombies under his old band's name in 2012.
Garcia, for his part, avoided revisiting Terrorizer that whole time. Finally, at the request of Pintado's sister Emma for a tribute show in July 2014, he performed under the name “Terrorizer L.A.” with other local metal musicians. Much as they had done for Repulsion seven years prior, newer L.A. fans who had been waiting years to see Garcia perform Terrorizer material exploded into one of the most boisterous mosh pits of the year.
“When that pit busted out, it reminded me of when I used to see Slayer back when I was a teenager,” Garcia says. “I didn’t really want to play those songs for years. My wife would tell me that people wanted to see me sing these songs. I wondered, ‘What for?’”
Garcia intends to continue performing sporadic shows under the name “Terrorizer L.A.” If he and his new bandmates decide to release any new music, he says that it will likely be as a split 7-inch.
Carlson, on the other hand, is wholly averse to recording new music under the Repulsion name. With his band's limited recorded output building a cult following for nearly three decades, the "unreal expectations" on new material, he feels, would be too great.
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“Repulsion exists in a bubble,” he says. “The fans like it there, and I like it there. Way more people tell me they’re happier that we haven’t made a new record than say they wish we would make a new one.”
Repulsion and Terrorizer L.A. play the Show Your Scars festival at the Regent Theater, Saturday, Jan. 9.