Tuesday, March 26, 2013
The guitar tone here is "sort of" a step or two back towards that which was found on 'Cause of Death'. The band inevitably comes up short but it is still thicker than the dry tones of 'The End Complete'. The riffing is also a bit more colossal than those of TEC, giving World Demise a broader feel similar to 'Cause of Death'. In a weird way, 'World Demise' could be interpreted as being a somewhat "darker" album (exluding, of course, the abominable 'Don't Care') than anything previously released by the band. Sure, there's a greater emphasis on groovier rhythmic fluctuations than ever before and there's even faint shades of industrial metal diligently sprinkled throughout (undoubtedly bled over from Trevor and Donald's involvement in Meathook Seed) but WD is carries with it a sense of foreboding that I'd have to argue is a wee bit more prominent than their first two releases. This doesn't mean that I like this album better than those, but I do have a fondness for WD that goes beyond mere nostalgia.
There's a couple of elements that are sure to get the whiners whining such as the groovy beat at the beginning of 'Redefine' or the tribal incorporation of 'Kill for Me', both of which I dig and always felt to be rather clever intermissions amidst the overall sludge and grime that permeates the majority of the album.
The one, almost fatal flaw of this album is the gratuitous inclusion of 'Don't Care'. The song absolutely fucking sucks musty balls and the fact that they erroneously placed it as the album opener is an almost guaranteed turnoff to anyone seeking to give this album a shot. The song makes The End Complete sound like a masterpiece by comparison and really has no place among the other tracks that comprise WD. I mean, what the fuck? It was already released as an 'ep' beforehand. Oh well...
Again, this is pretty much the last gasp of creativity for the band, here. I personally don't think that 'Frozen in Time' was that bad of an album, though it was about as exciting as The End Complete, which aint sayin' much, but aside from that one, brief interlude, Obie's career has pretty much been at a stagnant standstill since and I'm fairly convinced that the boys are so out of touch with it all that you can forget a "return" to the band's glory days.
Overall, 'World Demise' is a damn fine album that I will gladly stand up for. No, it's not 'Slowly we Rot' or 'Cause of Death', but that's ok with me.
I like the fact that the music on this album never seems to take itself too seriously. There's a jovial and whimsical vibe to each track that brings to mind the work of fellow Finns, Amorphis and Xysma, both of whom (along with Disgrace) followed a similar, if not the same path as Convulsed with albums that delved further and further into mystical and hallucinogenic wonderlands that were bound to alienate the more "militant" death metal minds.
It's rather unfortunate to me that with the newfound fascination for all things ancient and decrepit, Convulsed have undergone the obligatory resurrection only to return to the more generic style of their first album, obviously in an attempt to capitalize on everyone's "old school" needs and desires. Bad enough that they bailed after this album with no hope of any further exploration of the strange new land they had discovered through its creation. Fortunately for me, they had created and released this album so that I may return to it from time to time and get my psychedelic fix when needed. You wouldn't be far off the mark were you to compare this to Afflicted's 'Prodigal Sun' as both bands had a knack for the ethereal whilst retaining much of their original sound.
It's easy to forget how much of a great time the 90's truly were for music. Sure, if you were solely subjected to what was being churned out by the mainstream media, than maybe it wasn't so great (though I'll take Jane's Addiction and Soundgarden over Lil' Wayne and Pink ANY fucking day of the week), but if you were hip to what was going on beneath the surface (and I don't merely mean listening to death and black metal), there was a whole universe of abstract and interesting things going on. The 90's were perhaps the peak of musical experimentation as evidenced by stellar releases from Disharmonic Orchestra, Today is the Day, Brutal Truth, Neurosis, Melt Banana, Monastat 7, OLD, Godflesh, Meathook Seed and so on. The list is, thankfully, endless, and among those sonic pioneers who bravely went where no musician had gone before were Convulsed and I for one count 'Reflections' among the classic releases of that decade.
Saturday, March 23, 2013
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Slaughter the Weak certainly isn't as evil and creepy sounding as the first two Obituary albums, nor is it as boring and bland as the rest of that band's catalog post 1990. To me, JR pretty much took what Obituary has been trying to achieve since The End Complete and successfully ran with it (and undoubtedly ran it into the ground as well), which is basically a simplistic, bottom heavy and head-bangable death metal formula. Again, this isn't rocket science, but aren't I entitled to veg out to some neolithic grooves from time to time? This is definitely the type of album that you bring with you to a keg and bonfire out in the middle of the woods somewhere. I know that after my 6th beer or so I don't necessarily want to listen to something too heady and cerebral and that's when an album like 'Slaughter the Weak' comes in perfectly!
Way before the whole wigger "slam" sub-genre gained momentum and laughs aplenty, many of the bands that now comprise that style were in fact just plain ol' death metal bands that were seeking to outdo their peers by applying the blueprints laid out by the likes of Cannibal Corpse, Broken Hope and Suffocation by upping the ante a couple of notches by taking things to their logical (and in all likelihood, "final") extreme.
The cool thing about this CD is that there really aren't any traces of slam found here. This actually sounds like the mutant offspring of Rottrevore and Crematory (Swe) slathered in sewage and nourished by a diet of nuclear waste. The vocals sound like a bizarre crossbreed of pig and cricket with a few rasps ala Jeff Walker thrown in for good measure. Oh, let us not forget the occasional growl that actually does sound like a toilet flushing, which to me is a fucking great thing!
The guitars are nice and sludge coated. The riffing is not quite "doomy" but there is certainly nothing technical going on here and there is a relieving emphasis on heaviness here without resorting to breakdown sections. The drumbeats are delivered via drum machine, but that matters not to me as each beat, be it blast or other, serves its purpose well and takes absolutely nothing away from the grotesque atmosphere puked fourth by the vocalist and guitars.
With only four songs in tow, this mood of this CD is perfectly represented as I feel anything longer would have pushed it into monotony. Of course, that sentiment is debatable as this would prove to be the only thing released by the band (unless you choose to consider the Erotic Incisions rehearsal demo as well) before calling it a day.
Contrary to popular belief, the mid-late 90's were quite an exciting time for death metal as there was a new breed of death metal bands that were emerging from out of the sewers, and while many of their forefathers were becoming increasingly concerned with branching out, either creatively or commercially, these newer bands were only concerned with putting out the most vile and barbaric music possible and Clean Flesh was among the most barbaric of these acts.
The first thing that impressed me with this album was the riff variation and multitude of rhythmic sequences. This wasn't a pair of Norwegian dorks furiously picking away at a single note for ten minutes. These were well thought out and rather complex musical arrangements. I was actually taken back by some of the doomier segments found on this album. For a black metal band, COF were pumping out some quality fucking doom here! At other times I was floored by the amount of Maiden-isms there were flying about during some of the snappier sections, particularly in regards to the bass. Then of course there are the vocals, which have always fell under the "love them or hate them" category. which I wouldn't go as far as to say that I love them, but I do feel that they fit the music just fine (though some of the screeching can get monotonous at times) as well as convincingly convey the story within the lyrics. I also like the fact that their is variation in the vocal department. It gives the sense that there is a "cast of characters", if you will, all playing their part within this theatre of the macabre.
Not every moment's a winner, mind you, as some of the synth embellishments could have been scaled back some for they tend to weaken the overall assault a bit, and again, the main "screeching" vocals employed by Mr. Filth can prove to be a bit overwhelming, to say the least. Don't get me wrong, I don't have a problem with the actual pitch of the vocals during these moments and the rapid fire onslaught can be quite effective at times, but Mr. Filth has a habit of overdoing it and thus tossing a clever idea into the realm of redundancy.
Lyrically, DAHE showcases some of the best I've read. The compositions found on this album easily rank among the finest lyrical excursions such as those wrought by Sabbat (UK) and Emperor. Again, the use of multiple vocal techniques really brings out the storyline in each song and never fails to produce a smile on my face as I am a sucker for wordplay and the use of puns.
COF really threw down the gauntlet and stepped up to the plate with this album and, for the most part, haven't been able to recapture the fire since. Their have been modest attempts for sure, but nothing really noteworthy. Again, it's sad that many folks will miss out on this album as their heads are stuffed so deeply within their own rectums as a result of their search for underground cred and approval, "but", nevertheless, for those of you who care not for such idiosyncrasies, I implore you (if you have not done so already) to search out this album and give it a whirl.
This is probably the slowest the band has played since their debut. Make no mistake about it, though, Forest of Equilibrium this is not, and aside from the tempo (which never truly gets as slow as that album), 'The Last Spire' fits in perfectly with the bulk of material released since those early days. The tempo has been drastically brought down since 'The Guessing Game, sure, but believe me, this album has more in common with 'Endtyme' than it does 'Forest of Equilibrium', which is certainly not a bad thing, but as 'FOE' is my absolute favorite album of all time, I've always held out hope that they would indeed return to their roots. Nonetheless, there are no "feel good" grooves to be felt here and I think that it's a rather classic move on the band's part to go out on such a sour note! Bravo.
If you've been a fan of the band's more "flamboyant" output through the years as well as their amputated extensions towards their distant past then there's really no reason for you not to get into this album. For the most part the band is in fine form here though Dorrian doesn't sound nearly as hostile as I would have liked to have heard and as a result he sounds a mite bit out of place amidst the rumbling tones surrounding him.
I have to say, I'm rather surprised that they didn't go with their usual Patchett clad cover art, designed to lure you once again into their immense world of LSD wrought oddities and introspection. Instead they chose a more simplified and iconic look reminiscent of the figure that adorns the 'In Memorium' demo (as well as the 'Soul Sacrifice' ep) which, if you want to look at it that way, really brings things back a bit and thus full circle.
Unless you were hoping for a complete return to "the forest" (or a sequel to 'The Guessing Game'), Cathedral's swansong should prove to be quite satisfying for you. Again, I wish that Lee had spruced up his vocal delivery a bit with an extra dash of grime, but all in all, this is about as close to equilibrium as we're gonna get, so...
All in all, I can't say that I'm especially teary-eyed over Cathedral's departure as, for me, the band truly set sail and faded away beyond the distant horizon quite some time ago. On the flip side, though, I'm sure their absence will ultimately prove to be a bummer in the coming years as there hasn't been nor will there ever be a band quite as colorful and daring as they. And to the fellas in the band themselves... thank you for the memories. Cheers!
Friday, March 15, 2013
Enter 'Symbolic' and it's painfully obvious that Schuldiner was bored to (ahem) death with Death. Vocally, you can hear the transition he was making from all out death rasps to a higher pitched, dare I say more "accessible" sounding vocal emission. The rhythms here sound pretty flat to me. Honestly, the whole album sounds pretty uninspired. 'Symbolic' sounds like a "diet" version of the previous two albums. You can forget any sort return to the sound of the first three albums here. This is pretty much a warm up for 'The Sound of Perseverance'. Hell, I actually probably like that album a little better. For one, Richard Christy's drumming is fucking phenomenal and two, the album's not that much of a letdown considering I had pretty much written the band off after hearing this. Whereas 'Human' is a tempered beast yet nonetheless volatile, even beautiful, and 'Individual Thought...' was a more excitedly paced version of that, even a bit more technical without ever going overboard, 'Symbolic' is just plain boring. It's barely even death metal. this is death metal "lite". This is the kind of shit that pseudo-intellectual prog-fags worship. As if to "symbolize" the fire being taken out of the band, 'Symbolic' is the first album not to feature the blazing 'T' in the band's logo. How ironic.
Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Mikael Akerfeldt's vocals possess that elusive "command" that seems to emerge once in a blue moon. The closest comparison I could make would be 'Covenant'-era David Vincent. Each syllable of each and every word is thrown out with just the right amount of venom and authority. Diction is key and Akerfeldt is in fine form here.
I personally found the previous two Bloodbath albums to be rather pedestrian attempts at conjuring fourth the ancient Swedish sound. Sure, I give them props for choosing to go that route at a time when Sweden was pumping fourth one shitty melodo-death band after another ala In Flames, but I felt that they hadn't quite gone "all the way" and came up just a wee bit short of convincing me that this was indeed a genuine endeavor. Come album number three and I have become a full fledged, card carrying member. There is no doubt in my mind that Bloodbath is the real deal as The Fathomless Mastery pisses on and makes a mockery out of its predecessors.
The riffing here is quite bizarre and you can clearly tell that the band have finally got a grasp of their own identity instead of merely and halfheartedly aping the bands that they were initially honoring. The fact that so many people have written the band off after hearing this album just confirms to me how many fucking idiots there are on this planet that would rather listen to soulless and generic retreads for the umpteenth time in their lives. Sure, Bloodbath aren't reinventing the wheel here but it's clearly evident that TFM sees the band attempting to move forward all the while staying the course.
First off, I'd like to say that as much of a letdown Cathedral's post-Forest of Equilibrium material has been, there have been a few instances that I've been able to enjoy what the band were up to despite their goofy misgivings. Both 'The Ethereal Mirror' and 'Endtyme' had enough heavy riffs and morbid atmosphere to balance things out a bit, of course ultimately I always end up pondering what might have been.
The Carnival Bizarre sees the gang travelling further down the rabbit hole (-aka- toilet bowl) as they gleefully dropkick any semblance of low tuning out of the window and concentrate on the more horrendously comical aspects that they had previously begun to employ on 'The Ethereal Mirror'. Despite how cringeworthy TEM could be at times, there were still some pretty bombastic grooves that kept it afloat. Here, there is nothing to save you from wanting to crawl up inside your own arse and die of shame for the band. The presence of Tony Iommi himself could not prevent Cathedral from diving headfirst into a sewer populated with bobbing turds as well as other bands who chose to abandon the path to greatness. TCB is a complete and utter failure and anyone who chooses to tell you otherwise deserves to be violently bitchslapped upside their clueless mug. Nuff said.
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
There's always been something about Gorguts that kept me from fully embracing their music. In the beginning I felt that they were nothing more than an Obituary/Death clone (which is the same reason why I never got into Morgoth so many years ago). There was never anything terribly intriguing going on within the confines of their debut and right when I thought that the band was starting to cook a little, they pull a fast one and put out the absolutely bonkers 'Obscura', an album that I'm convinced you have to be a retard to comprehend.
Here, you can see the band progressing as musicians and songwriters without going entirely over the deep end, though you may find yourself strained to decipher one song from the next. As boring and pedestrian as 'Considered Dead' may be, at the very least, each song possessed its own identity. Here, the songs tend to unintentionally bleed into one another, a pitfall that has claimed many a technical death metal band. Ironically, the one album that I tend to identify this one with is Suffocation's 'Breeding the Spawn', which was their sophomore release as well, not to mention that both bands had teaser tracks that were featured on the second 'At Death's Door' compilation released by Roadrunner. Both albums were released the same year (1993) and they both sported absolutely killer covers courtesy of Dan Seagrave with Suffocation's dominating hue an ice blue and Gorguts' a sort of orange-y dawn. Both albums also saw each band seemingly cast aside their hooks in favor of all out technicality (Suffocation more-so) and the end result on both ends is a not-so-memorable soup of ideas haphazardly strewn about. Hate to say it, but it's not that much of a surprise why these two got booted off of Roadrunners roster not long afterwards (though Suffocation did attempt to redeem themselves with one last offering to the label, 'Pierced from Within'). The difference between the two albums is that while I found 'Breeding the Spawn' to be a tremendous fucking letdown, 'The Erosion of Sanity' was an improvement, albeit a modest one.
All in all, though, 'The Erosion of Sanity' is a decent album. Pretty fucking good, even, and lately I've found myself drawn to it more and more (even if it's to help me go to sleep at night, which isn't a bad thing at all).
As an impressionable teen in high school, I nonetheless marveled at the band's legendary publicity shots covered in blood and adorned in inverted crosses the size of church steeples, not to mention the killer album cover courtesy of then go-to guy, Dan Seagrave. Having seen these images before actually listening to the band's music, it's needless to say that I had high hopes for what they were capable of, sonically speaking. I must also mention that 'Like an Everflowing Stream' is one of the greatest album titles in the history of death metal, far outshining any reference to gore or satanism that had already been done to death by that time.
The beginning riff of 'Override the Overture' is, to this day, one of the classic rhythmic sequences that I will cherish to the grave. Unfortunately though, I began to notice the quality spiral ever so slightly downward as the album played on. It wasn't that the album was necessarily bad, nor was it lacking any of the elements that comprise your typical experience through death metal land, but... aha... that's it... "typical". This was nothing more than a typical death metal album, er, "Swedish" style, that is! There were no doomy drop offs into some hideously creepy subconscious netherworld, nor were there any obscene bouts of blast beat retardation. This was merely shaping up to be an average, run of the mill death metal album. I can pretty much say that that has been the case throughout the band's career and apparently they themselves have wised up to the fact as they eventually turned in their pink slips.
Ironically enough, the one song that I felt was the "standout" track is actually a Carnage cover (Death Evocation), of course I'm a sucker for processed vocal spewage and the bonus track 'Defective Decay' is also a winner, but alas, at the end of the day I usually end up skipping over this and going for my copy of 'Dark Recollections' when I wish to reminisce the days of old.
'Mercenary', I feel, is a way better and far more interesting album than 'For Victory'. That album felt tired and yet the band were cleaning up in all the wrong places. Gone were the muddy dirges of old. Now the band were making that dreaded attempt to "clean up their act". Granted, 'Mercenary' sees the band traveling down the same path but they seem to have become a bit more comfortable in their new skin. Not every riff's a winner here, but when they're on they are fucking on!
Bolt Thrower have long been considered to be one of the pioneers of doom/death and on 'Mercenary' you can find some of their absolute best dirges as there are no shortage of crawl fests. Each slow section draws you in and releases you deep within your subconscious, the way doom riffs are supposed to. Where 'For Victory' seems almost uncomfortable with settling down and capitalizing on its own inherent heaviness, 'Mercenary' embraces it and the result is perhaps the most epic Bolt Thrower has sounded in their entire career. Before or since. No, I am not saying that it's better or heavier than their earlier works, but as opposed to the violent assaults that were 'In Battle...' and 'Realm of Chaos', 'Mercenary' is rather glorious. A triumphant return from the battlefield.
The drums here are a bit too clinical for my tastes and I find them to be rather boring. Sure, "technically" this guy might be better than the band's previous drummer, Andy Whales, but I always found his drumming to have more heart and feel, which I've always felt better suited Bolt Thrower.
There are a few rather bland grooves here that have a sort of "stalking" feel to them but they are usually routed and cast down by one of the many superb doom sections that permeate the majority of the album. Again, I know that there are many naysayers and I can only assume that they haven't bothered to really sit down and take this album in, because I can assure you, this is one of the band's better works, sitting comfortably alongside 'The IVth Crusade' and 'Those Once Loyal'.
Anyway... 'Morningstar' is safely tucked into the middle of Entombed's best and worst list. It sure as fuck aint no Left Hand Path but it doesn't quite fall into the same category as 'Same Difference' either (though, I actually have something of a soft spot for that album. Yeah, sue me). More than anything, I'll always long for that good ol' Sunlight sound. With Skogsberg's production to bolster their riffing, just about anything the band does would turn to gold. However and for whatever it's worth, it seems like those days are long gone as the band has long since ditched that approach for a more stripped down aesthetic.
The songs on display here are a wet dream for someone who suffers from ADD. There's a little thrash, a little stoner variety doom, a little rock (-aka- "death") & roll, etc. Not a whole lot of death metal, though, and that's what effectively prevents this from being a so called "throwback" album. I'm not sure what the fuck people are yammering about when they claim that this sounds as good as 'Clandestine' or 'Left hand Path'. Hell, this doesn't even come close to 'Wolverine Blues' in my own personal dimension! That's not to say that it's a bad album by any means though, as Entombed haven't really ever put out a "bad" album. Sure, there have been some serious motherfuckin' changes in style and approach but the quality has always remained from each record to the next.
Again, each Entombed album is co chock full o' ideas that it almost feels like you're listening to a compilation of different bands as opposed to the same album by a particular artist. Boring is a word I couldn't imagine anyone using to describe an Entombed album, whether they liked it or not.
Looking back in hindsight, I can say that, for the most part, I do enjoy Darkthrone's back catalog, though for the life of me I'll never understand the mass appeal of their apparent "magnum opus", 'Transylvanian Hunger'. Sure, I get the fascination with droney/minimalism (I mean, doom is my number one style of music, for fucks sake!), but TH is just outright fucking annoying. I don't care what the 'necro' police tell ya, there aint nothing provocative about chilling on the same rusty chord for several minutes before moving on to the next. That's child's play. A midget with Down's Syndrome can come up with something more "far out" than that.
Anyways... here we have the band in their latest incarnation and for the most part it sounds just fine. I know that there are a lot of "true/kvult/necro" fucks out there with their panties all bunched up inside their twats due to the lack of "orthodox" (seriously, who the fuck comes up with this shit?) black metal vocals and all I have to say is, how does it feel to have your desires and expectations cast to the wind?
I can't help but feel as if many of the riffs on this album were written by someone who has a no more than a remedial understanding of how to write a song. If it weren't for the mastery shown on 'Soulside' so many moons ago, I would be inclined to believe that Darkthrone is nothing more than a duo of hacks that have been pulling the wool over their audiences eyes for the past 20 or so years by purposely releasing albums of a shit quality. I don't know. Apparently I'm the only one who wonders about this shit for there's been no shortage of drooling and fanatic Darkthrone dorks who eagerly lap up every ounce of diarrheal splat the band has to offer.
Nonetheless, aside from the lack of 'whiny bitch black metal vocals' (you know, the "orthodox" kind) the only real offense here is the abominable 'Valkyrie' which showcases an agonizing onslaught of Fenriz' absolutely horrendous falsettos and high end wailing. Please, somebody shoot this guy and pass the title of "I'm so necro it hurts" to the next retard in line.
At the time of its release I thought that Brett Hoffman's vocals were just fine on this album, in fact, I was somewhat impressed that he was attempting to go lower in pitch. These days I can clearly hear the wear and tear undoubtedly wrought by his performance on the first two albums, not to mention the band's extensive touring. He does sound a little shot and the album may have been a bit more successful in warding off its detractors had the volume of his vocal delivery been lowered in the mix some. Nonetheless, I've heard way fucking worse from bands whose albums are considered to be the cream of the crop, so...
Aside from that microscopic gripe I've always felt that 'Stillborn' was a worthy addition to the MC discography and if anything it serves as the final album to carry with it the feeling and sound of the albums that precede it. Sure, there's no shortage of momos who cry and complain about this album, but I've long fancied that I have quite a sharp ear for music and I truly can't find much to gripe about here. Hey, I like it better than 'Retribution', so there.
Thursday, March 7, 2013
Again, this is Barnes with a gang of hipster wiggers coming up with all the music, and as a testament to how out of touch with classic death metal people are these days, everyone's touting this album's greatness as well as Barnes alleged "return to form". Bah. There is no return to form here, folks. Sure, it might not be quite on the same level of boredom that the majority of SFU's catalog is on, but nonetheless, you can forget about hearing anything even remotely close to 'Tomb of the Mutilated' or 'The Bleeding'. All I can tell you is this: if you want "old school" death metal, then go fucking listen to "old school" death metal. That would be pretty much anything from '85-'95. This is not old school death metal. This just plain sucks.
I know there are some fags out there who whined about the absence of former Suffo guitarist Doug Cerrito, but let me tell you, Guy Marchais was actually in the band before Cerrito or even Terrance Hobbs, for that matter. In fact, it can be argued that, aside from Frank Mullen, Guy Marchais is the only "original" member now in Suffocation.
I like the fact that there are nods to chestnuts such as 'Jesus Wept' like in the beginning of 'To Weep Once More' and overall, the riffing and the production on this album feels like somewhat of a throwback to the band's prime. Souls to Deny could have easily been released between 'Effigy of the Forgotten' and 'Pierced From Within', in fact, I'd actually rank this alongside 'Pierced...' in terms of quality overall.
I must confess that, for the most part, I have long since given up on reading death metal lyrics. All I can tell you is that Suffocation has always had a knack for coming up with some of the most cringe inducing song titles in musical history ('Marital Decimation', anyone?), though to their credit, 'Souls to Deny' is hardly their worst album in this regard.
Tuesday, March 5, 2013
The picture shown to the jurors was enough to haunt them for a lifetime: a young girl with jet-black hair and pale skin, standing amid the tumbledown ruins of a wooden barn in rural Illinois. She wears a dress that reaches to just above her knees and patent leather heels. She is staring at the camera, her hands held up like she’s fending off an attacker. Sometime after the photo was taken, 14-year-old Regina Walters, a runaway from Pasadena, Texas, was strangled with baling wire and her body abandoned in that same barn.
The person who took the photo—her killer—is Robert Ben Rhoades, a long-haul trucker from Houston. In April 1990, five months before Regina’s decomposed body was discovered, Rhoades was arrested on the shoulder of Interstate 40, about 50 miles north of Phoenix. A state trooper, who thought Rhoades was parked dangerously, discovered a woman inside the truck, alive, but shackled to the door. She had welts on her body, cuts on her mouth, and a horse bridle secured around her neck. In Rhoades’ briefcase, investigators found alligator clips, leashes, handcuffs, whips and dildos. He had told his latest victim—the woman in the cab—that he had been torturing women for 15 years as he crisscrossed America by highway.
Rhoades was sentenced in Illinois to life without parole. But in March of this year he was transferred to Ozona, Texas, where he appeared in court charged with the 1990 murders of two hitchhikers. Twentysomethings Douglas Zyskowski and his new bride Patricia Walsh had been on their way from Seattle to Georgia when Rhoades offered them a ride near El Paso. Zyskowski’s remains were found in January 1990, some 300 miles east of El Paso, along Interstate 10 near Ozona. Walsh’s corpse was discovered in October 1990 by deer hunters in Utah. Detectives didn’t identify Zyskowski’s body until two years after the grim discovery; dental records helped authorities identify Walsh 13 years after her murder.
Though prosecutors in Texas initially indicated they would seek the death penalty, Rhoades ended up accepting two life sentences under a plea deal: if for any reason he got out of prison in Illinois, he would be behind bars in Texas for the rest of his life. Rhoades, in his 50s and balding, wearing glasses and a squint, stared straight ahead as the judge read his sentence. After the trial, prosecutors told the media they suspected Rhoades may be responsible for additional murders. Trucking records showed he regularly traversed 22 states. The FBI won’t comment on its ongoing investigation.
The agency believes there are currently close to 300 “highway serial killers” like Rhoades at large in the U.S. Crisscrossing the nation in big rigs, they are unconfined by city, county and state boundaries. Because the cabs of their trucks are their killing fields, the chances of finding DNA evidence tying a particular truck to a body that’s been tossed out the door are next to none.
In her book Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate, published by the University of Texas Press in April, author Ginger Strand writes that highway violence followed hard on the heels of the construction of the U.S. interstate system, beginning in the 1950s. “Before the concrete was dry on the new roads,” she writes, “… a specter began haunting them: the highway killer.”
In the 1980s the FBI launched an initiative called the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, better known by its acronym, VICAP. Local law enforcement agencies can fill out a 16-page form indicating the characteristics of a particular homicide. The form can be sent to the FBI, where analysts look for patterns. Submitting murders to VICAP, however, is not mandatory.
In 2004, the agency launched its Highway Serial Killings initiative, creating a repository specifically for information about serial murders gleaned from law enforcement agencies nationwide. By 2009, the initiative had identified 600 victims and upwards of 275 suspects.
Two years ago, FBI statistics showed Texas leading the nation in unsolved serial highway homicides. According to a USA Today investigation, the FBI believes serial killers operate along the busiest stretches of highway in the nation.
Catching truck-driving serial killers may not be easy, but I wanted to find out how far we’ve come in solving such crimes. What I discovered was an inter-institutional mess in which law enforcement agencies hardly communicate with each other, leaving murders unsolved, families without closure, and killers on the loose. What’s more, the 38 unsolved highway serial murders the FBI has identified in Texas could be a drop in the ocean compared to the actual figure.
In December, 2011, I contacted the FBI in Quantico, Virginia, for details of some of the Texas cases. Special Agent Ann Todd told me via email that since the cases in the database did not originate with the FBI, the agency couldn’t disclose specific information about individual crimes, including locations, “or the names of the law enforcement agencies responsible for the investigations.”
“As a point of clarification,” Todd added that submissions to the agency’s Highway Serial Killings database were, like those to VICAP, voluntary, so a higher number of murders reported by one state is not necessarily indicative of a greater crime problem there. By that same token, reported figures are likely to be smaller than the real number, because law enforcement agencies are under no compulsion to notify the FBI.
Surely the Texas Rangers, tasked with the state-wide investigation of unsolved serial crime, among other things, would be able to help? The Texas Department of Public Safety, which includes the Rangers, told me they did not have a centralized cold-case unit, and therefore probably didn’t have the information I needed. “We do have Rangers who work on cold cases in various areas, often assisting local agencies, but there is not one central agency.”
I was left with the local agencies, sheriff’s offices and police departments in municipalities throughout Texas, but aside from contacting each of them individually (there are 1,067, by my count), it’s impossible to get an accurate idea of how many serial murder victims there may be in this state—let alone the other 49. If a highway serial killer were to dump a victim this side of the Oklahoma state line and another victim on the other side, there’s little chance that police in the bordering jurisdictions would talk to each other; ergo no serial killer. We have no comprehensive idea how many victims of serial murder there are, let alone how many perpetrators. As the FBI’s Todd told the media in 2009, “The mobile nature of the offenders, the high-risk lifestyle of the victims, the significant distances and involvement of multiple jurisdictions, the lack of witnesses and forensic evidence combine to make these cases almost impossible to solve using conventional investigative techniques.” In many cases, they are impossible to solve at all.
Regina Walters’ father received anonymous phone calls a month after her disappearance.
The calls were traced to Oklahoma City and Ennis, Texas. “I made some changes,” the voice on the phone told him. “I cut her hair.” Among the evidence recovered from Rhoades’ truck after his arrest in 1990 was a notebook belonging to Walters in which she had written her father’s phone number. Detectives compared Rhoades’ trucking logs with the phone calls, placing him in Oklahoma City and Ennis when the calls were made. In Rhoades’ Houston apartment, police found handcuffs, whips, bondage magazines and white towels soaked in blood.
Rhoades had been arrested in early 1990 for a similar kidnapping in Houston, in which he kept an 18-year-old girl in the cab of his truck for two weeks, shaving her pubic hair (he’d done the same to Regina Walters before killing her) and raping her before she escaped. In the Houston case, according to a story in Tuscon Weekly magazine, the victim was too scared to identify Rhoades for police and he was allowed to go free.
In prison in Illinois for Walters’ murder, Rhoades was then indicted—on the basis of DNA evidence—for the murders of hitchhikers Zyskowski and Walsh. Laurie English, the District Attorney for Pecos County, which includes Ozona, called it among the worst crimes she had ever prosecuted. Had Rhoades not parked at the side of an Arizona highway with his hazard lights on that April night 22 years ago, he might never have been caught at all.
Jack Levin, author of one of the first books about serial killers—Mass Murder: America’s Growing Menace, published in 1985—tells me that serial killers tend to stick to established comfort zones and often live in the community in which they commit their crimes. For long-haul truckers, the comfort zone is the cab of their truck. “Their victims, usually prostitutes, are picked up at truck stops and dumped along a desolate area of a highway,” Levin says. (According to the FBI, victims of highway serial murderers are typically women who live high-risk, transient lifestyles, and are often involved in drug and alcohol abuse and prostitution. Their bodies, the agency says, are often left in rural areas along highways, distant from the jurisdiction or even the state in which they were picked up. Walters, Zyskowski and Walsh did not fit this profile.)
University of Houston criminology professor Steve Egger, a former homicide detective, calls such victims the “less dead.” Prostitutes, he says, make appealing targets for serial killers because they are often socially marginalized, with no one to notice they’ve gone missing.
The bookshelves in Egger’s Houston office are stacked with tomes on crime victims, crime analysis, crime mapping, even serial killer cinema, plus biographies of some of the better-known mass killers. Considering there are supposedly so many truck-driving serial killers out there, I tell Egger I’m struggling to name even one, other than Rhoades. “Keith Jesperson out of Oregon,” he says, quick as a flash. Jesperson, who became known as the Happy Face Killer due to the smiley faces he drew on letters to the media, killed eight women in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s.
There have been others too, he says. In 2010, an Illinois trucker named Bruce Mendenhall was found guilty of the murder of 25-year-old truck-stop prostitute Sara Hulbert in Tennessee after police discovered her bloody clothing in a plastic sack in the cab of his truck. Detectives later found the blood of five different women in Mendenhall’s cab, and Mendenhall is suspected of several additional murders, including one in Texas. He is due to stand trial for the murder of a Tennessee woman later this year.
Egger coined the term “linkage blindness” to describe what he says is the inability of law enforcement agencies to recognize serial murder patterns. “They are myopic,” he says. “They act like these [killers] don’t have a car or don’t have legs. Serial killers may not be Mensa members, but they become aware of this fact.”
Egger once interviewed Henry Lee Lucas, one of America’s most prolific serial murderers. “Lucas claimed he carried bodies across jurisdictions because he knew police forces didn’t talk to each other,” Egger says.
And bodies, he says, may be outnumbered by crime scenes: “You might be talking about a place where the victim was lured, where they were held, the place where they were killed, the place where they were dumped, and the place where the weapon was discarded.
“By the time patterns are identified, by the time they’ve found a similar modus operandi or trace evidence, there could be eight, 10, 12 victims, and the traditional response is to form a task force. But if they think task force, they think task force within their own agency.” If an interagency task force is formed, there’s inevitably controversy over who’s going to be in charge, Egger says, and who’s going to take credit if the killer is found. “It’s almost childish, but it happens all the time.”
Recent events in Long Island, New York, seem to echo that dynamic. Since 2010, 10 bodies have been discovered in undergrowth lining the ocean-front of Jones Beach, but for months police refused to consider that the murders could be the work of one killer. The gravesites stretched across county lines. Detectives in both counties now accept that the murders were likely the work of one man, who remains at large.
According to the American Trucking Association, there are roughly 3.5 million truckers on the road today. In her book, Ginger Strand identifies about 25 former truckers currently serving time in U.S. prisons for multiple murders. She quotes Eric Hickey, dean of the California School of Forensic Studies at Alliant International University, describing truck-driving serial killers as “opportunistic.” Part oft the problem may be truck stops themselves, which Hickey describes as “absolutely fascinating places for criminal activity.”
Not least due to lack of witnesses. Pit-stopping travelers tend not to pay much attention to their surroundings, Egger says. “You might have to go to the bathroom, maybe grab a candy bar or a cup of coffee if you are getting sleepy, and then you are gone. You won’t even remember what the gas station looked like, let alone any of the people there.”
I’ve come to a truck stop South of Houston. “Wind Beneath My Wings” is being piped into a building housing a convenience store and café selling graying tamales and fried chicken under a heat lamp. Boxes of Mountain Dew share shelf space with engine oil. No one smiles. I sit at a Formica table on grubby blue faux leather seats. Divorce Court plays on TV. A woman in tight jeans, high heels and hoop earrings walks past me and smiles. She looks out of place; everyone else here wears overalls and caps and faces that have seen too much sun.
From 1971 into the 1990s, more than 30 bodies—all of them schoolgirls or young women—have been found dumped along a 40-mile stretch of Interstate 45 between here and Galveston Island, an area that’s become known as the Killing Fields.
A decade ago, BBC news asked: “Is this the most dangerous road in America?” Even then, no one was optimistic about a breakthrough. The nine law enforcement departments with jurisdiction over the murders failed to identify a pattern. Infamous “Confession Killer” Henry Lee Lucas was once dismissed as a suspect in the murders of the first slew of victims in the 1970s. Known to have roamed the Gulf Coast when some of the early I-45 murders took place, his modus operandiinvolved picking up victims along America’s highways. He admitted to, or was implicated in, more than 600 killings, but later recanted many of his confessions. Lucas was never charged with any of the I-45 killings, and died in prison of heart failure in 2001.
In April this year, Kevin Edison Smith, a refinery worker from nearby Port Arthur, was convicted of murdering a 13-year-old girl in Texas City, along the I-45 corridor, and dumping her body under an interstate bridge. He was sentenced to life without parole, and some investigators believe he may have been involved in other I-45 murders. But that’s just a hunch.
After my visit to the truck stop, I check into a seedy motel just off the highway near the town of Dickinson. Just before midnight I’m woken by the throaty hum of an engine revving outside my window. I pull the curtain back. It’s raining hard and I see the 10-wheeled cab of a truck parked alone at the end of the motel parking lot. Suddenly it slooshes across the tarmac, past my window, and disappears into the night.
Next morning I join the rush-hour traffic for a few miles south, a stretch of highway choked with motor inns, fast food joints and adult video stores. A billboard touts the services of a “truck accident attorney”; another tempts travelers to visit the Coushatta Casino Resort in Louisiana. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, on average 150,000 vehicles traverse this stretch of road each day.
A few miles down the road I turn off the highway and drive down a lonely stretch called Calder Road. There is ranch land for sale, ramshackle trailers, and a development of new homes that wasn’t here in the 1980s when the bodies of Laura Miller, Heidi Villareal-Fye and two still-unidentified women were discovered in the undergrowth a hundred feet or so from the road.
I arrive in rain under a steel-gray sky and traipse through puddles to get to the abandoned oil field that’s been just grass, trees and scrub for decades. The only sign that anything sinister ever happened here is a small memorial cross, with broken shells at the base and flowers.
Over the years police have identified potential suspects, but they’ve always been dismissed and nobody has ever been charged with the murders. In September, Houston detectives announced they were looking through old case files to see if a transient worker who once lived in Galveston could be responsible for any of the unsolved murders. Bobby Jack Fowler had already been linked through DNA to an unsolved hitchhiker murder in Canada, and is a suspect in the deaths of two teenage girls in Oregon in the mid-1990s. He died from cancer in prison six years ago.
The most promising lead in the Laura Miller case arrived when the League City Police Department named as a suspect the owner of the land adjacent to the field where the bodies were found. Robert Abel was a retired NASA engineer who operated the Star Dust Trail Rides on his property, and apparently fit the FBI’s profile, but no evidence tying him to the murders was ever found.
Tim Miller was long convinced that Abel killed his daughter—and possibly other women along I-45—and confronted him about it several times. Abel took out a restraining order against Miller. In 1999, Texas Monthly published an article asking, “Is Robert Abel Getting Away with Murder?” It said officers had searched his home, questioned his friends and family, analyzed his relationships with women, and that investigators had flown over his land in helicopters and searched the property using cadaver dogs.
There wasn’t a shred of evidence to implicate him. Abel died after his golf cart was struck by a train at his ranch in Bellville, Texas, in 2005. Miller says he feels terrible. “I was fortunate enough to see him probably a year before he passed,” he says, sitting opposite me one afternoon this summer behind a big wooden desk in his office, situated around the back of Dickinson’s Dollar General store. “I saw him in this parking lot and I told him I was sorry for all the grief I put him through. The League City Police Department convinced me he was the killer and I told him I knew he wasn’t. I hugged him and I choked up. We both broke down. He told me it’s just part of life.”
It’s a wonder how Tim has coped, as much tragedy as he’s seen. His parents abandoned him; his brother, Glen, committed suicide a year before Laura’s disappearance; his infant son died in his crib. After some kids playing near the abandoned oil field found Laura’s body, Miller’s marriage crumbled, and he is estranged from his only surviving child.
In 2000, in memory of his daughter, Miller started Texas Equusearch, a mounted search and recovery organization. Since then, the all-volunteer group has helped locate more than 300 missing people and 136 bodies around the nation, helping families find closure.
I ask Miller what motivates him.
“It’s her,” he says, pointing to a framed painting of Laura on the wall behind his desk.
Equusearch began by looking for missing people along the I-45 corridor, but now its services are in demand nationally. The organization helped in the search for Caylee Anthony and Stacy Peterson, two of the highest-profile missing-person cases of recent years.
Miller is a small man with piercing eyes. He wears polished ostrich leather cowboy boots, blue jeans and a pale blue denim shirt. He seems exhausted, and while talking to me he checks emails, answers his ever-ringing mobile phone, and yells instructions or questions down the hallway to his office administrator. “What do you know about two missing 18-year-old girls out of Liberty?” he says. Plaques on the wall bear testament to the gratitude of those Equusearch has helped. One thanks Tim for “your help finding our love.” It doesn’t say whether their love was found alive or dead.
Miller says it was he who got the FBI and the Galveston County Sheriff’s Department in the same room at the same time a year and a half ago to go over the Calder Road murders again. Before that meeting, he says, “nobody would bring any paperwork, nobody would bring any files … nobody would talk to each other.”
If Laura’s killer is ever found, Miller says he’ll show up at the county jail the next morning with a Bible. “I’ll hug his neck and tell him I forgive him,” he says. “That it’s now between him, God and the system.”
He says he can only imagine what childhood hell his daughter’s killer must have endured to turn him into such an animal.
Captain Patrick Bittner was a police officer in League City when the Calder Road bodies were discovered. The murders were in his jurisdiction, and now he’s captain of the department. Bittner insists that finding 30 bodies over a 30-year period along the interstate between Houston and Galveston isn’t particularly unusual. There’s nothing to point to one killer, two killers, or even three, he tells me. They could all have been one-time homicides. And, he says, only one of the murders has ever been connected with a truck driver. That was in 1990, when the body of a truck-stop prostitute from the Channelview area was found in a League City ditch near the highway. Bittner doubts the girls found off Calder Road were killed by a trucker. “It would have been hard to get in and out in a truck, and he’d have been seen,” he says.
Unless it’s a particularly sensational murder that’s made headlines or TV news, Bittner admits, solving interjurisdictional crimes is difficult. If a body were discovered along a highway just over the border in Louisiana, for example, Bittner says that Louisiana police wouldn’t routinely call detectives here in Texas. In a situation like that, he says, finding a pattern is like looking for a needle in a haystack. “But DNA databases are growing, and that’s the biggest tool we have.” As for the Killing Fields murders, Bittner insists that the investigators working those crimes had good working relationships and routinely shared intelligence.
Still, the fact remains that few of the I-45 murders, some four decades old, have been solved, and Tim Miller isn’t ready to rule out the possibility that an interstate serial killer murdered his daughter. After 28 years trying to connect the dots, he won’t rule anything out.
by Alex Hannaford Published on