Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Reaper’s Onslaught

Onslaught – In Search Of Sanity

London Records 1989

Candlelight Records 2006 (reissue)

Listen up Muthas, the lead vocalist in heavy metal is crucial to forming the identity of the band more so than any other single player, and a change in vocalists can lead to trouble. Some bands have changed frontmen and experienced the same amount of success as they did with their previous singer, but the majority of bands that have a change at the mike usually fare far worse. Their fans either want the old vocalist to return (and whine constantly about it) or the new vocalist alters the sound of the band radically and fans flee in droves.

Thrash bands generally have a vocalist who has a rougher style, or sings in a higher pitch such, as Bobby Blitz of Overkill or Tom Araya of Slayer. Few thrash bands have explored having a more traditional metal vocalist in the mold of a Rob Halford or a Bruce Dickinson. In 1989, the English band Onslaught tried a radical departure with their vocalist and musical style.

Onslaught released Power From Hell in 1985 and it was very much in the mold of Venom as it was fast, heavy, evil and had rough, shrieky vocals from Paul Mahoney. By 1986, Sy Keeler was brought in for vocal duties and Mahoney concentrated on the bass. That year the band released The Force and many people consider it to be one of the best thrash albums of the era. Keeler also sang in a rough style and the music was still heavy, thrashy, and owed much to Slayer and Venom.

The band then moved up to the London Music record company (a division of Polygram) and apparently the label and the band’s management convinced the band to get rid of Sy Keeler and bring in someone with a more melodic voice. The new vocalist was none other than Grim Reaper frontman Steve Grimmett, who was searching for a new gig after the implosion of his band. For those of you who don’t know, Grimmett sings in a traditional metal style and has a very powerful voice with fantastic range. I can't think of someone who could sound more different than Sy Keeler!

By the time Grimmett stepped in, much of the album had already been written, but the radical shift in vocals required major rewrites. In 1988 the band released the Shellshock EP that had either 3 or 4 tracks depending on the version. All versions had the new song “Shellshock” as well as some cover tunes. Finally in 1989 In Search Of Sanity was released and the thrash world was more than a bit confused and underwhelmed.

The album had 8 tracks on vinyl and 9 on CD and soncially was a complete departure from Onslaughts’ earlier records. Vocally, Grimmett sounded just as powerful as he did in Grim Reaper, but musically the band sounded exactly like Metallica circa Ride The Lightning. The similarities were impossible to miss when the axe hit the wax. The songs were lengthy, with the shortest being over 5 minutes and one was over 12 minutes!

The guitars were very much like Metallica's with solos a-plenty and riffs everywhere with massive amounts of crunch. Onslaught’s fans were almost universally appalled and stayed away from the platter like it was infected with herpes. Cries of sellout were heard being shouted by thrashers as they could not believe what had happened to their beloved band. However, The Metal Blog Of Metal loved it.

The concept of having a traditional vocalist over thrash music is novel, and sounds fantastic to these ears. The songs' melody adds a ton of hook to the tracks, which is something that thrash does not usually do well. Melody is normally verboten, but Onslaught went for broke with this idea. Many of you may be aware that in Metallica's early days the band had courted John Bush of Armored Saint and attempted to recruit him to be their vocalist. That obviously never happened, but if it did I imagine that In Search Of Sanity would have sounded much like the result of that union.

In Search Of Sanity starts in a completely moronic way with the cut “Asylum” which is more than five minutes of screaming and sound effects. This is a pointless waste of time and possibly the dumbest intro in the history of recorded music. The album really begins with “In Search Of Sanity” which is 7:32 minutes of pure thrashy excellence as Steve Grimmett takes command of the good ship Onslaught. “Shellshock” and “Lightning War” are fast burners with tons of crunch and guitars everywhere. Next up is a cover of AC/DC’s “Let There Be Rock” and it’s a smoking cover. Oddly enough this was chosen as the lead single for the album and a video was made for it.

“Blood Upon The Ice” is more tasty thrash with superb vocals from Grimmett and lyrics about insanity, murder and death. Speaking of which, “Welcome To Dying” is the album’s crowning achievement and at 12:45 minutes is reminiscent of “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” with multiple tempo changes and solos. The song is long enough that it actually contains a bass solo believe it or not! It’s a particular favorite of The Metal Blog Of Metal and should have been a hit for the band but sadly wasn't. Wah-wah.

Closing out the album is “Power Play,” another speedy track, but frankly is the weakest cut on the disc. The CD version of the album adds the track “Confused” and at 1:58 minutes it’s the shortest track by far. It turns out that this is also a cover song and the original performer was the mighty Angel Witch. I had never heard of them back in 1989 so had assumed it was an original song. It was only years later when I started listening to Angel Witch’s first album that I realized that this was a cover.

Unfortunately, Onslaught were given the boot by their label and called it a day in 1991. They reunited in 2005 with Sy Keeler back on vocals and have released a couple of albums in the mold of The Force. Grimmett went on to front various bands such as Lionsheart, Friction, Grimmstine, and Steve Grimmett’s Grim Reaper. He also appeared in this kickass Garmin commercial during the 2007 Super Bowl!

In 2006, Candlelight Records remastered and reissued the album along with what they called “expanded artwork.” The remastering sounds fine and the album is certainly louder, but the new artwork is absolute shit. In the picture above you can see that they changed the logo, moved the title of the record, and the picture is so murky that you can barely see it. Actually the picture above is clearer than it is in person as you can make out some detail in the photo. I have no idea why Candlelight botched this so badly, but they did and it was a boneheaded move on their part.


The Bottom Line: If you like old Metallica and traditional, powerful vocals, then In Search Of Sanity will really be your cup of mead. It’s got crunch, melody, lengthy songs, great solos and riffs. After all these years it still sounds good to me and I highly recommend that you add it to your collection.



  1. Great review! Welcome to Dying is an underated classic! from Troublemagnet/Cognitive Dissonance

  2. Thanks! Glad you liked the review. I wish that Onslaught had continued in this vein, but that was not to be unfortunately.