Dutch metal pioneer talks Death demos, Autopsy’s “dirty sludge” and more
text Fred Pessaro
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The name Martin van Drunen is as crucial to the death-metal story now as it was at the dawn of the genre. For more than three decades the Dutch vocalist has been a cornerstone in the scene, thanks to his influential work with Pestilence, Asphyx, Bolt Thrower, Hail of Bullets, Death by Dawn and more. Since 2007 he’s been back fronting long-running death dealers Asphyx, whose new and 10th studio album, Necroceros, will arrive on January 22nd, 2021.
Before he became one of death-metal’s most distinctive vocalists, Van Drunen spent his time much like many other headbangers in the Eighties: trading demo tapes with like-minded metalheads across the globe. These trades yielded demos from many future icons and included some of the greatest death metal ever made by bands including Death, Autopsy, Possessed and many more. Below, he reveals five of his favorite death-metal recordings from that era.
When I got a copy of the album, we were already in contact with Autopsy. So we obtained all the demos back then because we were tape traders. They traded with us as Pestilence and we traded with them. So we got to know them after [Autopsy singer/drummer] Chris Reifert played on [Death’s] Scream Bloody Gore. So Pestilence would send their music over and Autopsy would send theirs until we got the first album Severed Survival, which is a bloody classic along with the demos. After that, Mental Funeral came out and maybe a lot of people will not agree with me, but I prefer it to Severed Survival. It’s got a groove and sometimes there is this death, dirty sludge to it. Mental Funeral is really an old-school death-metal album that has a lot of doom influences too. I love it. I feel like that’s when they kind of stepped it up and figured out who they were a little more — stepping ahead of the pack, that kind of thing.
How many demos did they make? There were the Meatcleaver demos and rehearsals, but when they came with Strappado it was like, wow. It’s still a classic. It’s just raw and uncompromising. I don’t even think about the production or the quick, simple lyrics. It’s just: Our name is Slaughter and we deliver the goods! I still love that album.
The thing with Death is although I like Scream Bloody Gore, we always preferred the demos, the times of the [Chuck Schuldiner’s pre-Death band] Mantas days. Yes, Massacre did it afterwards, but there was a bit too slick of a production for those tracks. Tracks like “Witch of Hell” and “Corpsegrinder” — those really were the monuments of death metal, that really simple one, two, three riffing. I prefer those demos like the Mutilation demo and the Infernal Death demo. So when Scream Bloody Gore came out, we were actually a little bit disappointed.
The same actually happened with the second Nocturnus [demo] The Science of Horror, which was the first time I heard death metal with keyboards in it. The first thought is that it’s not going to work, but that specific demo had such a great atmosphere. Those keyboards were really sinister. So I expected a lot from their  debut The Key. So when that came out, I go, “What the hell did they do with them?” I was in contact with [vocalist/drummer] Mike Browning — he was really a nice guy — and wrote him, “Jesus what happened here? I’m sorry to say but I’m disappointed.”
Possessed’s Seven Churches was not as dirty maybe as some of the other albums that I mentioned before, but it almost felt like the violence they were singing about was actually for real. It was as if they were there in the bloody studio destroying the place, you know? They were just kids making this noise! They were doing something no one ever heard before. So this was really a bomb. We were just shocked, like, “This can’t be real. It’s so brutal.” Jeff [Becerra’s] voice sounded like it was from another planet. The way that the guys play the riffs. And sometimes we would discuss, like, “Is he really planning to drum the way he’s drumming on this album?” It’s a crazy album and it’s still fantastic. I still love to play it.