Thrash had already been growing in the 80’s up until Sodom’s release of Agent Orange on June 1, 1989. Built on the foundations of speed punk and existing heaviness, thrash created a legacy of aggression that planted its feet as one of the core metal subgenres. The first groups that come to mind at the mere mention of thrash are typically the American “big four” consisting of Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer. The beast, however, could not contain itself to one region and thus incarnated in Germany with the “Teutonic four.” These core bands remain as Kreator, Tankard, Destruction and, of course, Sodom. Teutonic thrash shared similar elements of American thrash, but with an extra level of death-metal-infused spirit. The German thrashers poked their influence beyond the boundaries of their own genre.
Alongside their Brazilian counterparts Sarcofago and early Sepultura, Kreator and Sodom in particular began to cross into the first wave of black metal. Unlike the death-worshiping, corpse-painted radicals of the second wave in Norway, first-wave black metal groups scratched the surface of blackness that would soon fester. Sharing little of the political ideals with second-wavers, the seeds of darkness were nevertheless planted. Agent Orange holds its own Teutonic ground, but plays a fierce game of barbed-wire-tug-of-war between traditional thrash and blackened metal, standing as a milestone of sonic evolution. In hopes of achieving utmost brutality, what better theme for Sodom (and pretty much any other metal band) to fixate on? War, of course.
Metal is pretty notorious as a whole for exploiting the brutality of war for its lyrics. Sodom’s bassist/vocalist Tom Angelripper had a great fascination with the Vietnam war, thus influencing a large body of the band’s lyrical and visual content. Agent Orange is the thematic pinnacle of Angelripper’s interest, naming the album and title track after the chemical herbicide of which millions of gallons were sprayed over vegetation in Vietnam, causing long-term health effects to those exposed. Angelripper stressed, however, that using themes of war was not exploitative to those lost. An inscription on the packaging even clarified that the album was dedicated to “all people – soldiers and civilians – who died by senseless aggressions of wars all over the world.” In my 30th anniversary tribute, this is where I began.
A Fire That Doesn’t Burn
30th anniversary tribute artwork
Rather than breaking down each track and implementing individual iconography, I felt it more appropriate to focus on the essential themes of Agent Orange. No, that doesn’t mean I made it orange because “orange” is in the title (it did have something to do with it, though, shhh). I’ve always found the most compelling themes of war are not by body count, but individual portraits of suffering. Only then can the grand scale of mass tragedy be fully digested. The unfortunate victim in this harrowing depiction is isolated to simulate suffering from person-to-person, viewer and viewed. What begins as suffocating clouds of gas morph into rippling, fleshlike textures in a haze of confusion and pain. The mind dwindles with escaping oxygen as a force of inhuman terror grips around the victim’s neck. Living flesh becomes one with it’s surroundings as it flakes, melts and dissolves into nothingness. The perpetrator is a mere flash of anonymity, representative of both reckless war criminals and Sodom’s gas-masked mascot Knarrenheinz. As Sodom intended with their tribute, I stress that while this is metal as hell, it is also a reminder of how cruel mankind can be with technology.
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Agent Orange was not only essential for the evolution and darkening of metal through time, but a reminder that with brütal music comes brütal responsibility.