The thrash-metal band returns with a sophomore release, where the battle-tested musicians deliver face-melting, eviscerating tunes on the heels of guitarist Michael Crain’s recovery from cancer.
Of all genres, thrash metal is one where the term “raw emotion” takes on a different meaning. It’s not, for example, raw like the voice of a folk singer baring their heart and soul in a vulnerable ballad, or raw like a live, low-fidelity recording of a blues-guitar legend’s twangs and bends. No, the rawness of thrash metal demands your attention with unflinching aggression—screams, growls, blistering guitar lines, and heart-attack-inducing drumming—and few groups in the modern heavy landscape capture that as well as supergroup Dead Cross, which consists of vocalist Mike Patton, bassist Justin Pearson, guitarist/vocalist Michael Crain, and drummer Dave Lombardo.
The band’s music drips with an incomparable kind of authenticity and visceral intensity. That vitality, you can imagine, may come easily for a band with members that helped weave the very fabric of their genre with Slayer (Lombardo), have pushed the boundaries of experimental metal with the likes of Faith No More (Patton) and Mr. Bungle (Patton, Lombardo), and made grindcore dangerous again with provocateurs like the Locust (Pearson) and Retox (Pearson, Crain).
Dead Cross’ eponymous 2017 debut, produced by Ross Robinson (Slipknot, At the Drive-In, Sepultura), laid out a blueprint of chaotic and frothing metallic hardcore and outsider weirdness. It has an inimitable sound that saw its members’ distinct musical personalities coalesce into something altogether unique—all while sidestepping the classic disappointing-supergroup curse. Now, on their sophomore LP and latest release, II, the band has reunited. Joining forces once again with Robinson, they push their volatile sound to its absolute limits, dosing their hardcore punchbowl with a hearty blast of sonic psychedelics, goth-rock textures, and even more of the twisted sounds one would expect of any Patton project.
II’ssongs have a palpable feeling of urgency and tension that was shaped by a series of life-altering and traumatic experiences, which included the pandemic, but also Crain’s courageous fight with cancer. “I got diagnosed in the summer of 2019 and started treatments in October,” he shares. “This was my first experience with cancer, and while head and neck cancers are the easiest to survive, they can have the worst treatments—and that was certainly my experience.”
Crain, who’s now in remission, continues, “I thought the treatments were going to kill me. Towards the end, I was so fucking sick, but I felt like, ‘Fuck this! I want to live, and I’m not going to leave anything unfinished ever again!’ So, I got a hold of Greg [Werckman, co-owner] at Ipecac and the guys in the band and said, ‘Let’s book studio time now.’ They were like, ‘Dude, are you sure? You’re like half dead right now!’ I said, ‘I don’t give a fuck. Let’s do this. I need this to live.’”
Working on a second Dead Cross record and returning to the studio with a real mission was the very thing that kept Crain going during the painful days that followed his last treatment. “I finished my last round of radiation the day before Thanksgiving, and we had studio time set up for early December,” he elaborates. “I was still very sick and in a lot of pain. It was rough to stand up for hours writing and playing, so tracking was especially tough, but that pain worked itself into the music.”
That it did, undeniably. You can feel it in the claustrophobic atmosphere and clang of “Animal Espionage,” the fuzzy hardcore stomp and acerbic delivery of “Strong and Wrong,” and the absolutely feral-sounding, bad-trip churn of “Christian Missile Crisis.”
Much of the writing and arrangement of II’s songs happened in the studio. And while Crain’s recent experiences certainly brought a lot of emotional weight to the process, working with a famously feel- and psychology-focused producer like Robinson helped tremendously to coax all of it out and inject it back into the music.
Michael Crain’s Gear
Crain’s main guitars are a ’77 and ’78 Gibson SG, classic choices which he uses to deliver blazing riffage.
Photo by Raz Azraai
- 1977 Gibson SG Standard (with HomeWrecker pickups)
- 1978 Gibson SG Standard (with HomeWrecker pickups)
- 1970s Gibson ES-335
- Bogner Uberschall Twin Jet
- Bogner Uberschall Twin Jet 4x12 Cab
- Peavey 5150 Head
- 1970s Marshall 4x12 Cab
- EarthQuaker Devices Organizer
- DOD Rubberneck Analog Delay
- MXR Carbon Copy Analog Delay
- Ibanez Tube Screamer
- DigiTech Whammy
- Mu-Tron Octave Divider
- EHX Holy Grail Reverb
- EHX Small Stone Phase Shifter
- EHX Electric Mistress
- Boss BF-3 Flanger
- Vintage EHX Big Muff Pi
- Pro Co RAT
Strings & Picks
- Dunlop Electric Nickel (.010–.046)
- Dunlop Tortex .73 mm
Crain, who describes Robinson as the band’s fifth member, says, “He’s all about the performance and emotion.” One prime example of the producer’s uncanny ability to pull the best out of the musicians he works with is “Animal Espionage,” Crain’s favorite track on the record. Most of the song (other than the core riff and pre-chorus) was written on the spot in the studio, with Robinson coaching and pushing Crain to grasp different parts of the arrangement from places of deep emotion. “Ross is the kind of guy that asks you to think about what painful childhood memory triggered the riff for a song,” Crain shares. “He wants you to think about what emotion is actually guiding your right hand and can tell if you’re not feeling it, or if you don’t mean what you’re playing. I learned a lot about structures and arrangements, crafting parts, crescendos, and setting up moments within a song from Ross.”
That emotional attunement drives more than just their songwriting. Though Crain is Dead Cross’ sole guitarist, their music often feels like that of a band with a two-guitar assault—thanks to the interplay and synergy he has with long-term musical partner, Pearson. The two have known each other since Crain was 16, and they played together in Retox. Pearson’s performance style mirrors and dances around Crain’s in a way that’s both tight and loose at the same time, and only comes with years of mutual experience. “Justin and I have just the right combination, where we don’t share the exact same taste in music, and there’s enough difference in where we come from as musicians that it creates something unique when we work together,” Crain comments.
“I was so fucking sick, but I felt like, ‘Fuck this! I want to live, and I’m not going to leave anything unfinished ever again!’”
As for working with Lombardo, easily one of the most important heavy metal drummers of his generation, Crain has been training for the gig most of his life. “Slayer changed my fucking life, and those are totallydrum records,” he says. “Even though I’m a guitarist, I grew up around drummers; my dad plays drums, and my earliest memories were of band settings with my dad. He imparted the advice, ‘If you want to get good at an instrument, start playing with other people,’ upon me at an early age. He was 100 percent right. So, having listened to Slayer my whole adult life, when I finally started jamming with Dave, I locked in with him very quickly; I knew his playing and it felt natural.”
Lombardo’s breakneck-yet-lyrical playing certainly adds to the record’s thrash authenticity, and Crain’s love of the style is heard loud and clear on II. The dexterous riffing on “Reign of Error” is evidence of a player that’s studied the golden era of thrash deeply, and Crain confirms the influence that music has had on him in his formative years.“I really learned to play guitar when I was 16, which was during my Metallica years,” he shares. “That was when I really understood Metallica’s songcraft and their incredible abilities as players, particularly the …And Justice for All period and James Hetfield’s playing. That record was really what got me into metal playing and informed my rhythm style.”
While recovering from painful cancer treatments, Crain got himself back in the studio for the writing and tracking of II.
For the guitars and amps used to create II’sgnarly, dynamic guitar sounds, Crain kept it to a few favorites: a pair of vintage Gibson SG Standards—a ’77 and a ’78—and his ’70s Gibson ES-335. The guitars were all unmodified, aside from their custom-wound pickups, made by HomeWrecker Pickups’ Joshua Hernandez. Crain describes them as “super high-gain, but very classy and articulate.” His trusty Bogner Uberschall Twin Jet and matching 4x12 cab did the heavy lifting on the album, though Robinson’s early Peavey 5150 head and ’70s Marshall 4x12 cab rounded out the guitar sounds and provided some contrast to the Bogner.
Building on these essentials is Crain’s love of heavy guitar effects. His adventurous use of pedals twists metal and punk tropes into something less recognizable on II. Almost every guitar track on the record has some sauce on it, whether it’s a bit of percussive slapback delay in an unexpected place, spacey atmospherics as a brief respite from the violence, or warped, pitch-shifted leads that jut in and out of songs.
“The heavy flange on ‘Animal Espionage’ is one sound that inspired the riff,” the guitarist points out, and says he plugged in a Boss BF-3 for the sound. “We knew that verse was screaming for some swirl action.” He then calls out the song “Imposter Syndrome” for its “heavy [hardcore guitarist] Rikk Agnew-influenced flange setting.” Some of the album’s standout guitar moments feature Crain shifting quickly between octaves with a DigiTech Whammy, which can be heard on album opener “Love Without Love” and the solo on “Christian Missile Crisis.” Crain says he only uses the whammy pedal in the one-octave up or down position, and credits it for helping him to write many of what he considers his heaviest riffs. Also on his board for the sessions were an Ibanez Tube Screamer, an EarthQuaker Devices Organizer, a DOD Rubberneck Analog Delay, and the venerable MXR Carbon Copy, which he describes as his “Swiss-Army-knife delay.”
With countless tattoos and wearing a gas mask, Crain’s image bears a grisly, striking edge that falls perfectly in line with Dead Cross’ sound.
Photo by Becky DiGiglio
“It was rough to stand up for hours writing and playing, so tracking was especially tough, but that pain worked itself into the music.”
While Crain says he was too sick during his cancer treatments to listen to much music leading up to the writing and recording of II, his guitar influences from the goth-rock world proved to be major touchstones for his guitar sounds and compositional ideas—especially those that Agnew used on Christian Death’s records, as well as Daniel Ash of goth-rock architects Bauhaus’ sense of economy.
“Everything both these guys did was in the service of the song, and I’m a huge proponent of that,” shares Crain. “I'm not here to show off, so I always ask, ‘Is this serving the song? Is this helping the main idea? Is this supporting the thesis?’ That’s what’s important. Sure, some guitar tones or lines or players are the focal point of the song, and every song is different, but it’s about the song for me.”
Dead Cross - Church of the Motherfuckers (Live @ PBR Halftime Show)
In this live performance, Crain backs up Patton with melodic vocals and rapid-fire picking on his SG, catalyzing the furious energy that serves the Dead Cross sound.
With another Dead Cross release out in the world and cancer treatment in the rear view, Crain looks back on the process and on how the band approaches making music. While the writing and recording process was an undoubtedly painful, cathartic, and intense experience, he came away from it with more than just a new record, but an affirmation of his artistic philosophy.
“Having listened to Slayer my whole adult life, when I finally started jamming with Dave [Lombardo], I locked in with him very quickly; I knew his playing and it felt natural.”
“There should be no fucking rules. There are no rules! The one place where I don't want there to be rules or laws is fucking art,” he enthuses. “Let it be free! I love trying crazy things, and thankfully, so does Ross and my bandmates. We all love trying crazy, wild shit. Making this record is what helped me heal.”
The Jeff Hanneman Memorial Celebration will take place on Thursday, May 23 at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles from 3:30 - 7:30PM.
Los Angeles, CA (May 16, 2013) -- The Jeff Hanneman Memorial Celebration will take place on Thursday, May 23 at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles from 3:30 - 7:30PM. Hanneman passed away on May 2 at the age of 49.
The Memorial Celebration will be free and open to the public on a first-come, first-in basis (subject to venue capacity). All ages are welcome, and paid parking will be available around the venue.
Jeff Hanneman helped shape Slayer's uncompromising thrash-metal sound as well as an entire genre of music. His riffs of fury and punk-rock attitude were heard in the songs he wrote, including Slayer classics "Angel of Death," "Raining Blood," "South of Heaven" and "War Ensemble." Hanneman co-founded Slayer with fellow-guitarist Kerry King, bassist Tom Araya and drummer Dave Lombardo in Huntington Park, CA in 1981. For more than 30 years, Hanneman was the band member who stayed out of the spotlight, rarely did interviews, amassed an impressive collection of World War II memorabilia, was with his wife Kathy for nearly three decades, shut off his phone and went incommunicado when he was home from tour, did not want to be on the road too late into any December as Christmas was his favorite holiday, and, from the time he was about 12 years old, woke up every, single day with one thing on his mind: playing the guitar.
It was once suggested to Slayer that if they would write "just one mainstream song that could get on the radio," they would likely sell millions of records and change the commercial course of their career, similar to what had happened to Metallica with 1993's "Enter Sandman." Jeff was the first to draw a line of integrity in the sand, replying, "We're going to make a Slayer record. If you can get it on the radio, fine, if not, then fuck it."
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What separated Jeff from the rest of the metal pack was his rhythm technique, his songwriting, and that for which he will be most remembered—his riffs.
It was L.A.'s hottest day of the year, soon to segue into one of metal's biggest nights—the Revolver Golden God Awards fifth-anniversary show—when a very sad rumor spread amongst those of us in town to attend the event. Soon it would be confirmed as true via an official statement from Slayer: Founding guitarist Jeff Hanneman—who'd suffered from a tragic necrotizing fasciitis infection that prevented him from playing with Slayer since early 2011—had passed away a few hours earlier from liver failure. The world had just lost a voice hugely influential in metal and beyond.
Jeff had a subtle sense of humor that was all his own, and though he was a bit more reserved than the rest of the Slayer camp, he viewed life as a party to be enjoyed to its fullest. Much of what Jeff’s loved ones and fans appreciated about him was his steadfast and genuine style—the fact that he didn’t stray from his own vision. In Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman’s Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, Jeff is quoted, “I tried to emulate what [well-known shredders] did and really grow as a guitarist. Then I said, ‘I don’t think I’m that talented, but more important, I don’t care.’” But as legions of dedicated Slayer fans the world over would attest, Jeff’s portrayal of himself as marginally talented is completely inaccurate. A more apt description could be summed up in one word, "immense."
What separated Jeff from the rest of the metal pack was his rhythm technique, his songwriting, and that for which he will be most remembered—his riffs. But his frenzied, turbulent solos were also an important part of the package. They weren’t about showing off. They served a greater artistic purpose—to sonically channel the qualities of Slayer’s lyrical content. They were sometimes abrasive, sometimes jarring, and at times disturbing. They had less in common with typical rock-guitar virtuosos than they did with the sonic collages of avant-garde improvisers such as Derek Bailey and John Zorn, the latter of whom is a self-professed Slayer fan who has cited the band as an inspiration. Though Jeff’s wider, more holistic guitar approach didn’t garner the same accolades as some of his more technically proficient contemporaries, Jeff never waivered from his original approach. And the fact that he continued to attack his guitar with relentless abandon—as though he were a linebacker on his beloved Oakland Raiders (whose logo adorned some of his signature ESP guitars)—is without a doubt a big part of why Slayer’s music will always be deemed one of metal’s high watermarks.
If you’ve ever seen Slayer live, you’ve felt exactly what propelled the band’s popularity past those of Venom and other classic-metal influences. In fact, prior to Hanneman and his bandmates’ groundbreaking albums—including 1986’s bar-setting Reign in Blood—many believed metal could never reach such levels of popularity and fan dedication. Before Slayer, metal had never had such razor-sharp articulation, tightness, and balance between sound and stops. This all-out sonic assault was about the shock, the screams, the drums, and—again, most importantly—the riffs. And it was Hanneman who brought so many of the band’s timeless riffs.
Of course, one cannot dismiss the voracious riff and song output of co-guitarist Kerry King, who, with his giant spiked wristbands, goatee, and shaved, tattooed head, essentially became the “face of Slayer.” But if you took a poll of the band’s fans—from dedicated concertgoers to peers and professional music journalists—their favorite Slayer songs would likely be dominated by pulverizing Hanneman gems like “Angel of Death,” “Raining Blood,” “South of Heaven,” “War Ensemble,” “Dead Skin Mask,” “Seasons in the Abyss,” and “Die by the Sword.” To many fans of heavy music, these songs and riffs aren’t just definitive of the band, but of metal itself.
Had Jeff recovered from his medical challenges, one can fully envision him confronting his demons head-on with songs about spider bites, skin grafts, and flesh-eating bacteria. Tragically, all we are left with is his memory and monumental songs and riffs that will reign in metal fans’ blood forever. By being true to himself and expressing his own unique style, Jeff Hanneman ended up doing what most musicians will never do—he impacted music in such a way that an entire genre will never be the same.