Danzig’s sophomore mold-breaking blues metal masterpiece still swings low as part of his grand slam album quartet
Heavy metal culture rode a pendulum midswing in 1990. The dawn of the decade was an apex for vapid hair metal bands.
Alternat(iv)ely it was the darkness before the dawn for all the gnarled rockers from Seattle vying to sign major deals that would file their fangs in exchange for mall culture awareness.
Metallica’s Black Album was still a year off, as was Nirvana’s Nevermind. January 1990 saw Rush’s “Show Don’t Tell” topping the Album Tracks Chart. The same month Voivod headlined a US tour over Soundgarden and Faith No More. As a high school senior I was on cloud nine, hardly imagining so many vast disappointments on the horizon.
Amongst my friends the biggest debate was whether or not Word As Law by Neurosis was “too metal.” In those punk influenced circles The Misfits were ubiquitous thanks to Caroline’s recent reissue series and the affordability of cassette culture. Personally I was less enamored with the campy B-movie obsessions of The Misfits, far more fascinated by Danzig’s second group, the transgressive esoteric Samhain.
Internet access was limited to email and bulletin boards at schools and universities. Beavis & Butthead’s pilot film “Frog Baseball” was two years away. Danzig had already been blacklisted by MTV after the network goofed by running an uncensored version of the original “Mother” video on Headbanger’s Ball. Isolated as I was in small town Oregon, I missed the first boat when Glenn Danzig’s solo career began to flex.
It had taken Glenn Danzig a frustrating decade for his dark star power to be recognized by the big leagues. He had to start his own label just to get the Misfits material released in the first place. From ’77-’87, he battled to prove himself, finally finding a champion in Rick Rubin. Samhain signed to Def Jam on the advice of patron saint Cliff Burton, a mere year after Rubin had signed Slayer. In short order the band retooled its name to one that need never change. Next Rubin brought in dream drummer Chuck Biscuits. The fourth tine of the cross was classically trained guitarist John Christ. Rubin’s production stripped this fearsome quartet’s sound down to the bone with timeless results.
I first recall paying attention to “Twist of Cain” and all the songs on the self-titled album on U of O campus in the fall of 1991. My dorm mate had a leather jacket he’d scrounged out of a dumpster, EVERY Heather Thomas poster (bikini, bath tub, scuba gear, etc…), and two hundred heavy metal cassettes. Each evening, after finishing his homework (at least one of us was doing that) he’d play his handmade electric guitar along to Metallica and Slayer records. I turned him on to Bleach a month before Nevermind was released. Together we shared confusion and dismay when he brought home the “Enter Sandman” cassingle on release day. But that Danzig tape stayed in rotation throughout the autumn season.
Danzig’s sophomore album Lucifuge was the first I owned. By then I’d moved out of the dorms and into shared housing off campus, rooming with a goth couple who had moved to Eugene from Phoenix in order to escape the sun. They kept heavy curtains over the windows and displayed a stolen tombstone on our mantle. For my nineteenth birthday they gifted me a shrink-wrapped cassette tape with Danzig’s glowering face hovering in the darkness on the cover. His band mates’ faces lurked over his left shoulder like little devils full of bad advice. The original edition of the CD features a booklet that unfolds into an upside-down cross.
By this time I was disgusted with the direction that my favorite bands were taking. Metallica were newly dead to me. Nirvana had shit the bed. Voivod had gone psychedelic alternative. Ministry was writing comedy songs about drag racing. I’ve since grown up and have a different appreciation for all those albums/careers. But what I wanted in 1992 was uncompromising artistry. Danzig gave it to me.
The opening of the album is a clarion call of dive bomb swoops from John Christ’s guitar. “Long Way Back From Hell” is up-tempo, pure evil, and it fucking rocks. Here was fire and brimstone Danzig, singing high-octane voodoo blues about murder in New Orleans.
Next up is “Snakes of Christ”, a sort of “Twist of Cain” riff do-over that proves what a difference a few BPMs and glossier production make. The sonic difference between Danzig I and Lucifuge are comparable to the marked crispness Pixies’ Doolittle boasted over the rugged earthy sound of Surfer Rosa. (Great records, all).
The swing of “Killer Wolf” follows. Like “Mother” it’s a warning to parents. In this case, Danzig is gonna get inside their little girl, and she’s gonna “howl ‘Til the sun comes up.” Danzig’s power trip is daunting and infectious. Does the listener have what it takes to follow in his footsteps? (Answer: no).
Taking a page from the early black and white trilogy of Blue Öyster Cult albums, Danzig leaves no silence between cuts. As the feedback of “Killer Wolf” fades away, the plaintive guitar of “Tired Of Being Alive” moans in. Danzig isn’t afraid to show that he’s sensitive—about his own feelings. He honestly could not care less about yours.
“I’m The One” is one of most authentic blues jams in a catalog that’s not short of homage to the roots of rock. Here’s Danzig doing his best Elvis impression over John Christ’s acoustic start/stop riffage, and a lone hi-hat cymbal. This song nods to “Life Fades Away” which Danzig had penned for Roy Orbison on the Less Than Zero soundtrack, and to “Thirteen” which he’d later write for Johnny Cash’s first American album.
Side one taps out with “Her Black Wings.” Who would have imagined that Danzig could follow up the ultimate stripper anthem “She Rides” with another song embraced by pole dancers around the world? There is no sensible reason that this song isn’t in heavy rotation on classic rock stations. Then again, perhaps it’s a dark blessing that a song of this quality hasn’t been squeezed blood dry like so many of its peers. (I’m looking at you, every radio song from Back In Black and Appetite For Destruction).
Side two kicks off with “Devil’s Plaything” giving Glenn license to sincerely croon over a delicate arpeggio…until Chuck Biscuits steps in with a series of crushing drum fills and the song erupts into a stop/start march. Lyrically it’s another cautionary tale about the hellfire heat you risk when trying to love a man like Danzig. This is one of the rare instances where he allows in a chorus of backing vocal “whoa-ohs” something he’s generally steered clear of since folding The Misfits.
“777” was the working title before Danzig settled on the Latin compound Lucifuge, meaning “flee the light.” Nevertheless, the song “777” remains the same, and features slide guitar, an instrument few metal bands outside Raging Slab make good use of.
VIDEO: Danzig “I’m The One”
“Blood and Tears” is a remarkably lovely ballad. Glenn does his Orbison impression over this church organ waltz. It’s not difficult to imagine Sinatra or Bowie covering “Blood and Tears”, though of course neither was sweeping the metal ghetto in search of songs in the 1990s. The first Danzig album hinted that songs like this might be coming, and many have followed since. But Lucifuge was the moment when Glenn really unleashed his full range as a vocalist and a songwriter. He may be a legend for his cat food memes, but he deserves a better reputation based simply on craftsmanship of songs like this.
“Girl” takes the boneyard position, another romantic warning to all would-be paramours to Danzig’s heart and throne. Loving this man is more than your mind or body can take. That doesn’t seem to stop a series of hot and bothered underwear models from leaning against wooden rails in the black & white videos that appear on the Lucifuge Home Video compilation. Since MTV was ignoring the band (“Mother ‘93” changed all that a few years later), Danzig simply released his own video set, which included him reciting passages from Paradise Lost (from memory), running with wolves, and wrestling an alligator. There’s also a cute segment with Chuck Biscuits rating sugary breakfast cereals with Halloween themes.
The album finale is another savage waltz. “Pain In The World” boasts an evil riff and a lyric about…evil. After nearly five minutes, following the blueprint of Glenn’s heroes on their original song “Black Sabbath” the tune launches into a blistering howl of drums and guitar. Then we’re left with nothing to do but turn the tape over, or move on to Danzig III.
VIDEO: Danzig 1990 Home Video
How The Gods Kill ended up being the band’s commercial peak. That’s also the first time I saw the band live, and the only time I caught the original lineup. I was a college dropout by then, manning the science fiction/fantasy section at a used book store. A Hesher I worked with who wore puffy white Reeboks offered to buy me a concert ticket in exchange for a ride to Portland. On Oct 24, 1992 (‘tis the season) we drove up to the Fox Theater (where I’d seen a tepid post-Nevermind set from Nirvana one year prior). Danzig, however, was at a live peak. He blew the doors off the place, despite warm-up sets from White Zombie and Kyuss. Danzig and his band stole the show by miles. Chuck Biscuits was on a thirty-foot drum riser flanked by gargoyles with laser eyes. It was a sight to behold the prowess of the band playing only material from those first three albums (though when pressed I’ll often admit that 4P is my favorite).
The first four Danzig albums are a grand slam. Anyone who dismisses any of those four, or considers one better than the rest either isn’t listening or is victim of some adolescent bias that they’ve never outgrown. Inside that trajectory, Lucifuge is the moment when the band was on a high. They still got along with each other. The awkwardness with Rick Rubin had barely begun (his studio absence relegated him to “executive producer” credit on albums III and IV). “Mother” was still three years away from charting. Lucifuge proved the band was capable of expanding its sound, improving its production, and extending its own mythology into a new decade.
The feeding frenzy of major labels strip-mining the independent Underground scene in the early 90s was the last of its kind. I’m happy that The Melvins and Babes in Toyland and TAD were able to get a trip around the world out of the deal. But far too many artists suffered artistically. Danzig was ahead of the curve, and to this day refuses to compromise an inch.
Lucifuge was released three days after Glenn’s 35th birthday. This week he celebrated 65. His most recent releases include the long-promised Danzig Sings Elvis covers album, and the long-threatened film Verotika.
Thanks for always being you, Glenn, and for taking no shit along the way. And Happy Birthday, King Wolf.
Danzig will perform Lucifuge in its entirety at the recently rescheduled Psycho Las Vegas 2021. Information and tickets available here.