James Weaver reports on the legacy and impact of New Jersey's cult-level heavy metal band HEATHEN'S RAGE
"It's a shame this band was never offered a decent record contract
back in the day. They were easily one of the best metal bands to come
out of the East Coast," wrote No Life 'til Metal's Scott Waters about
Heathen's Rage, a lost relic in America's East Coat's metal scene. And
despite never releasing a full-length record, Heathen's Rage have
grown into a cult act in the American metal underground.
Wearing their influences on their collective sleeves, a fusion of traditional New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) and speed metal, the New Jersey shredders intended to capitalise on the bubbling momentum of the scene developing on America's East Coast. But it was not to be. Whilst the likes of thrashers Anthrax and Nuclear Assault or hardcore mobs Agnostic Front and Madball experienced meteoric rises in popularity, by 1990 the band had disbanded and were fading into obscurity, a shame considering the hype surrounding the group. "Back in '84 - '85 we all thought that Heathen's Rage were going to be the next big thing," Waters said.
Whilst they may never have quite hit the heights as their fellow countrymen, Heathen's Rage's legacy and impact remain an integral cog in the machine of metal's underground culture. Very much grounded and proudly expressing a love of the metallic riff and breakneck guitar solos, Waters and Heathen's Rage guitarist Tony Lee bonded over heavy metal's blossoming popularity in the early 1980s. "Tony Lee was a close friend of mine throughout high school until I moved away to go to college in late 1985. He and I went to many concerts together back then and I never missed a Heathen's Rage show. (I caught quite a few practises down in the basement as well.)" he said. "We used to hang out and listen to music quite a bit as well. Jimi Hendrix, Kiss, Raven, Saxon, Anthrax, Accept, Judas Priest, Twisted Sister and Metallica's 'Kill 'Em All' were some of his favourites." Indeed, it is this mutual love for the wailing fury of heavy metal and hard rock which acted as the building blocks for their career (albeit short-lived), and which solidified Heathen's Rage place in the scene.
"Hearing these songs, which were recorded between 1983 and 1990, really reminds me how this band was royally robbed and ignored by record companies," Waters said. "Hearing stories of how they were rejected by the likes of Metal Blade Records, even for the inclusion on the Metal Massacre compilations, is mind-boggling."
Although they may be deemed a forgotten relic of a time long gone, decades after their trailblazing antics, the wheels of the Heathen's Rage machine are starting to turn again. In 2015 No Remorse Records, a Greek label, released all the old Heathen's Rage recordings on vinyl, as well as a 2-CD set, titled 'Knights Of Steel: The Anthology'. That, and with bootlegged copies of their demos and EP (1986's self-titled effort) surfacing from a Greek company, Heathen's Rage's cult status is confirmed; something which Waters finds amusing. "I find it pretty amusing that a local band from New Jersey who were never even fortunate enough to get a decent label, has developed such a cult following."
New material may still be a pipe-dream (1986's self-titled EP and 1988's 'Fight til The End' remain the band's sole releases), followers of the cult-status metallers have had to quench their first with the compilation and bootlegged releases for the past four years. Now, though, comes 'Knights At Switlik'. A snapshot in time, a chance to go back to days gone by, this May saw the release of a precious artefact of Heathen's Rage's history. Alongside Rage Days: The Illustrated History of Heathen's Rage (a limited edition 32 page book which extensively covers the band's history through hundreds of photographs and interviews with the eight members) 'Knights At Switlik' captures the band's performance at Switlik Park Pavilion, a little league baseball field recreation hall in 1985, showcasing a band at their prime.
'Knights At Switlik' is a heavy metal celebration. Covers from Iron Maiden, Dio, Fates Warning, Warlord and a splash of original material ("Power Of The Sword", "Knights Of Steel" and "City Of Hell") intertwine throughout the performance as they were still in the fledging stage of writing their own original material. Although the release benefits from a touch of modern production, helping it stand on its own two feet against the wave of technically-polished releases of the modern age (light de-hissing and channel balancing were applied by Rob Colwell of Bombworks Studio), the raw intensity of the original recording remains, placing you in the eye of Heathen's Rage's musical storm.
They may never have quite broken out of the underground or followed in the footsteps of their contemporaries, and are often overlooked for their contribution to metal's defining years, but Heathen's Rage gave everything for the cause. Through 'Knights At Switlik', New Jersey's forgotten boys will be remembered.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.