Another band that ranks high in the kvlt stakes, the name Death SS evokes an aura of darkness, of classic metal, of a band whose legendary period is of a time when little was recorded and even less released. I’m sure that mentioning the very name of the band to you, the Fist readership, brings about the sort of reverential talk normally reserved for the most sacred of acts, quickly qualified by a statement along the lines of “well, up until their first demo/single/album” [delete as appropriate].
Even the briefest of internet trawls for reviews of ‘Resurrection’, Death SS’ latest album, generates an opinion that is overwhelmingly negative, most notably from newbies wondering what all the fuss is about and for whom the 2013 incarnation is their fist encounter with Steve Sylvester [born Stefano Silvestri] and his occult-fuelled outfit. Many comparisons are made between the Italians’ latest and Morbid Angel’s ‘Illud Divinum Insanus’, seemingly by virtue of the industrial overtones of both albums providing a common link more than anything else. While it is true to say that ‘Resurrection’ is several miles removed from the likes of ‘Heavy Demons’ in many respects, at the same time it certainly isn’t the car crash that the outpourings of web vitriol would suggest.
“‘Resurrection’ is the collection of all my artistic and musical work of the last five years,” says band founder and mainman Steve Sylvester. “Some songs were written for the soundtrack of horror movies or television series, while others take up the occult concept based on the writings of Aleister Crowley, as I did on the ‘Do What Thou Wilt’  album. It isn’t something [that’s] predetermined; it’s rather a sort of ‘best of’ of unreleased songs that I composed after ‘The 7th Seal’.”
As well as delivering the title for Death SS’ previous album, the Seals are also one of the integral legends of the Death SS story. When first starting the band, Sylvester formulated a magical pact that entailed the creation of seven magical creations or ‘Seals’. Not necessarily limited to one particular album, ‘The 7th Seal’ album in 2006 completed that particular cycle. Seeing the new album as the start of a new path rather than a specific new Seal, and unlike the previous incarnation of the band where its activities were governed by the master plan, this time around the game plan is a more freeform affair. “At the moment I prefer to live this new adventure day by day, without planning anything and without make long-term projects. We’ll see how things go,” he says.
Following ‘The 7th Seal’ album Death SS took to the road, culminating in what was seen at the time as farewell shows in the Summer of 2008 and following up with live recordings and compilations. Far from lying low, however, Sylvester found a number of other projects, both music-related and otherwise to keep him occupied while plotting the next instalment for the band.
“After I’d celebrated the 30th anniversary of the founding of the band and having published the seven seals, I took a break for an indefinite period of time to dedicate myself to other projects,” says the singer. “In that time I founded two other side-bands such as Sancta Santorum and Opus Dei [which later became W.O.G.U.E. = Work Of God United Entertainment, following a complaint from the Opus Dei Christian religious association, certainly not the first time Sylvester has been dogged by controversy during his musical tenure].
“I wrote my own biography on the genesis of the band,” he continues, “and I was approached in the world of movies and TV, both as a soundtrack composer and as an actor. The band, however, has never really stopped and I continued to see the other members and compose music with them.”
As noted previously, 2013 finds Death SS in a musical environment several steps away from the likes of ‘Black Mass’ and ‘Evil Metal’, if not in spirit then certainly in terms of musical style. The adjective ‘industrial’ is often used to describe the band’s 2000s output (and for none more so than ‘Resurrection’); while Sylvester certainly agrees that the band has moved on, he questions whether his music can really be put into such strictly defined, neat categories.
“Actually, when I write a song I never think about what will be its ‘style’,” he affirms. “Many people tell me that from ‘Do What Thou Wilt’ onwards we have become industrial. That makes me smile because for me, industrial is artists like Throbbing Gristle, Einstürzende Neubaten or Psychic TV, not really Death SS! Simply, I only follow my taste in music and melody to try to make my songs beautiful, at least for me. If some people think that [my] songs are metal or gothic or industrial or pop or prog or as you want to, it’s not my call. For simplicity we say that we play ‘horror music’. For me, there is no difference between the first compositions of Death SS or the last; I see them as if they were the same ‘person’ who, over the years, has grown.”
So, how do you see your new album against your catalogue?
“As for all our other albums, ‘Resurrection’ is an evolution of the previous and photographs the essence of the band during this period. So it’s different from the albums you mentioned, even if it continues their ‘basic spirit’ that is always turned toward horror and occult.”
Taking several steps back in time to 1977, and a young Steve Sylvester was taking his first steps towards what would eventually become one of Italy’s longest lasting, if not the most notorious of bands, although his desires would eventually lead to a burn out of sorts, despite the initial promise of the people that he had hooked up with.
“At that time I was 13 years old,” he remembers, “[and] I was looking for kids who loved horror and certain rock music such as The Sweet, T Rex and Black Sabbath as much as I did. It was not an easy thing at all! In the end, aside for Paul Chain, I contented myself to take guys who knew how to play an instrument decently and who didn’t break my balls!”
It is often thought that the band had a solid line-up during these early years, but that is not the case. Using a technique that Quorthon would accidentally develop via a revolving door of musicians around the time for ‘Blood, Fire, Death’ (his desire to present Bathory as a proper band inadvertently served only to pour fuel onto the fire of Bathory’s mystical and mythical persona, as the people originally named Kothaar and Vvornth rapidly left and were replaced), so Death SS would feature a number of people using the same name for much the same reasons; Sylvester having worked hard to build up the band lacked the time and energy to assimilate new identities into the line-up and with the members frequently masked, gave him an easy way out. “Yes,” exclaims Sylvester when asked. “There were two ‘Danny Hughes’ on bass and two ‘Thomas Chaste’ on drums.”
A prolonged period of songwriting and progressing into the recording of several demo tapes throughout the late ’70s and into the early ’80s garnered the band some press attention, which in turn led to an offer from a small local label for an appearance on an upcoming compilation album and followed by a single. Sadly, however, despite getting their feet up past the first rung of the ladder, the band were not able to capitalise on any plaudits and positive reviews the recordings generated.
“At the time, I was not interested in getting recording contracts,” says Sylvester on their first vinyl appearance. “Anyway, a couple of articles were written about us in the ‘Rockerilla’ magazine, [which] caught the attention of Electric Eye, a small independent record label that wanted us on their first compilation of Italian alternative rock, [titled] ‘Gathered’. The same label then changed their name to Metal Eye and proposed us a deal for a three-track EP. Unfortunately at that time I was ill and the first line-up broke up. Only later the EP saw the light of day, but with another line-up, without me and the original bass player.”
The EP appeared in 1983; Sylvester having quit the band in 1982 leaving guitarist Paul Chain to hold the reins until he himself felt that the band could go no further and dropped the name, recording instead under Paul Chain Violent Theatre.
“I was too young and I wanted to experiment [with] all sorts of excesses,” says Sylvester on why he quit the band. “This, along with the execution of dangerous magical practices without adequate experience and protection, brought me to the extreme. I ended up becoming sick and arriving at a step from death. I decided to cut with everything and move to another city where I could calmly start all over again, without repeating the mistakes made. The right time came in 1988.”
Chain put together the (then) posthumous ‘The Story Of Death SS’ album that collected key recordings from the band’s early years. Recently reissued on vinyl by Svart, it remains to this day one of the high points of the band’s oeuvre, and the positive reaction to the album was all the encouragement that Sylvester required to pick up the baton once more.
“When I started with the band I was very young and I wanted to break the world. When I then reformed Death SS in 1988 I simply had the purpose to start a professional music career, which could grow artistically over the time. I was never interested in making money with music, but rather to be totally free to express myself in the best way I believed, without any kind of restriction. Surely I’ll have made some mistakes during this long journey, but looking back I have no regrets and probably I would do the same things I did again.”
From the start, the band had an instantly recognisable image that took a persona, namely The Death, The Vampire, The Werewolf and The Mummy (in much the same way that Kiss had done with The Demon, The Spacemen and what-have-you) and created a character around it with an image to match. Those images have remained, but have been tweaked over time to make the relevant imagery more closely attuned to the music and the themes that the band are playing at that given point in time.
“When I founded the band in 1977, I found [it] very original to make an impersonation of each member of the group”, he says, “a character taken from the gothic-horror imaginary. It was something that was visually linked to the themes expressed in our music. The characters had always remained the same, but they have had an aesthetic evolution over time, that has gone hand in hand with the evolution of our music.”
Frequently citing ‘horror’ as a prime influence upon his work, the late-’60s to the early ’80s saw Italy develop a long tradition of producing some of most memorable and charismatic films of the genre, from the strikingly jarring works of Dario Argento to the amateurishly atmospheria of Lucio Fulci and beyond (pun intended), before even beginning to start down the path of the legion of cannibal, occult-based and other films that the country has excelled at over the years. The same qualities that made such films so memorable can also be applied to the soundtracks to those films, being just as charismatic and unsettling as the images they represent. Not surprisingly, this golden age of Italian cinema had a long-lasting effect on Sylvester.
“I’ve always been a big fan of a certain kind of Italian cinema, especially of the early ’70s, that was usually labelled as ‘B-Movies’,” he says. “I refer to films of directors such as Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento, Renato Polselli and many others. All these movies have been recently rediscovered and revalued by the foreign public, [which] has enhanced their originality and skilful mixing of horror images, sensuality and strong soundtracks. There was not one in particular that has influenced me in creating the Death SS style, rather it was a mix of all of these Italian movies, and others [such as] the English Hammer Productions or Spanish directors like Amando de Ossorio or Jess Franco”
A practising occultist, it almost seems as if the worlds of heavy metal and the occult are inseparable within the story of Death SS. Despite having endured several issues with censorious authorities and sundry unhappy Christian organisations and despite the band themselves not quite playing up to their mystical side to the obvious extent of earlier times, Sylvester’s twin interests (and undoubtedly the formula upon which his band was created and continues to thrive) show little sign of diminishing.
“I’m still interested in the occult,” he confirms. “I am a member of the Italian O.T.O. [Ordo Templi Orientis], and spiritually I like to draw from all forms of free thoughts, without dogmas and restrictions. Actually I sympathize with the form of thought known as Chaos Magic; a highly individualistic practice that borrows freely from other belief systems, in order to create a form of personal magic. Similarly, I’m always interested in heavy metal in all its forms, although I always try not to stay fossilised into patterns [that are] too narrow. In practice, I can say that over the years I’ve always tried to evolve my spirit and my music.”
Thus, while naysayers might raise a complaint about the stylistic path that they have trodden, it cannot be denied that, whether it is ‘Black Mass’ or ‘Resurrection’, Death SS are one band who do not conform to what others might expect (or even demand) from them.
THE RE-BIRTH OF STEVE SYLVESTER WAS ORIGINALLY IN IRON FIST #6
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