Samhain Box Set

(E-Magine Entertainment)

Glenn Danzig isn’t an easy guy to like. In an era when serious music fans tend to prefer their pop stars in the Elliott Smith and Thom Yorke mold–skinny, introverted, and melancholic–Danzig is a buffed, bellowing centaur. He’s Jim Morrison on steroids, a self-aggrandizing, melodramatic seer spewing oracular, satanic claptrap. As a result, the cognoscenti don’t cut him a whole lot of slack. Even though he’s produced some remarkably bracing and distinctive rock over the past 20 years, his World Wrestling Federation demeanor, Lord of Hades act, and affiliation with heavy metal have all conspired to ensure that he remains overlooked.

For instance: the Samhain box set, issued last August, was conspicuously absent from year-end overviews in a number of prominent publications. While it did get ink in Billboard and Pulse, neither Rolling Stone nor Spin noted its appearance. Yet few retrospective sets in 2000 offered more striking, unprecedented music.

Samhain was the group Danzig led after disbanding–or disemboweling–the Misfits, in 1983, and before he began recording under his own name, in ’88, and not surprisingly the music represents a transition between the Misfits’ ghoulishly catchy punk and the urgent metal of the current incarnation of Danzig. As a result, critics and record buyers–who tend to align themselves with one camp or the other–have paid scant attention to the band’s work.

But many of rock’s most unique and rewarding records–like Tom Waits’s Swordfishtrombones or Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home–have been transitional efforts in which artists ended up between familiar compass points in a world entirely of their own making. The Samhain box contains remastered reissues of all four of the band’s concise studio records, plus a disc of live material culled from a 1985 set at New York’s Danceteria and a 1986 set recorded in Chicago at Metro. Each is an aural snapshot of a stage in Danzig’s transformation from obscure punk gremlin into arena-ready metal magus.

Samhain’s first LP, Initium (1984), basically picked up where the Misfits left off. It’s a Gatling gun blast of high-speed punk stamped with Danzig’s trademark fondness for grisly imagery (“Horror Biz,” “All Murder, All Guts, All Fun”) and hard-hitting yet insanely infectious hooks. There are only two tunes that suggest Danzig would soon be heading out into a kind of Transylvanian musical outback. The first is the record’s title cut, a creepy and unintentionally hilarious spoken-word rant about Satan on which Danzig sounds like a cross between Beelzebub and Jesse Ventura fed through a lot of reverb. The other is the subtly revelatory “Macabre,” a midtempo rocker, accented with church bells, that supplants punk’s verse-chorus-verse formula with a monolithic, doom-laden guitar drone. Earlier Danzig tunes fly by in a bat-wing blur of melody and gore, but “Macabre” stews and wallows in timeless anguish.

Samhain’s second record, the Unholy Passion EP (1985), used the “Macabre” model to erect a morbid 17-minute portal to a sonic terrain that was never on the Misfits’ map. The record’s title cut abruptly transports listeners to a landscape where both punk and metal are shadowy signposts rather than clear landmarks. Over the song’s jagged, skittering drumbeat, punkish bass line, and crunching chord progression, Danzig adds layers of meterless, tonally uncentered guitar fills and synthesized chimes. While the song’s great vocal melody and Danzig’s commanding pipes give it plenty of momentum, the uneven layers of rhythm and ungrounded tonality create a spectral, quasi-experimental vibe.

“Moribund,” “The Hungry End,” and “I Am Misery” are all based on thundering drones that occasionally splinter into distinct sections marked by varied tempos and arrangements. And on a remake of the Misfits’ “All Hell Breaks Loose” (here titled “All Hell”), Danzig hobbles the verses with a hiccupping rhythm that sounds like it can’t quite slip into gear until–with each shouted chorus of “All hell breaks loose!”–the guitars, bass, and drums suddenly mesh into a torrent of power chords that underscore the lyrics far more potently than the four-on-the-floor grind of the Ramonesy original.

Samhain’s utterly remarkable third record, November Coming Fire, was the apex of the band’s–and arguably Danzig’s–career. Fifteen years after its release, this ferocious, cryptic LP still sounds like little else subsequently heaved up by punk, metal, or pop.

Ripping punk rave-ups like “November’s Fire” and “Kiss of Steel” sound like they could’ve been lifted from Husker Du’s contemporaneous New Day Rising–if it weren’t for Danzig’s basso diablo crooning and the quirky, shifting rhythmic patterns that flow through the songs. Monumental sing-along metal eruptions like “Mother of Mercy” and “Halloween II” (another Misfits rewrite) presage the lean, hard-driving sound of Danzig’s subsequent solo work, minus the grandiosity. There are also some tunes that are just weird. “To Walk the Night” is a dreamy graveyard ballad (Danzig’s first) cloaked in queasy instrumental textures that hang like so much sepulchral moss. During the middle verse, the rhythm lurches into an off-center groove that briefly but effectively disorients the ear, driving home the unsettled anxiety the song’s lyrics are trying to portray. “Unbridled” is a bizarre blast of hardcore rhythm, atonal guitar bursts, and hellhound background vocals seemingly exhaled from the bowels of the earth. In just two minutes, the song completely unshackles itself from popular music convention with a whirling, headlong dive into avant-garde punk.

November Coming Fire draws to a fittingly eerie, hypnotic close via the enigmatically titled “Human Pony Girl.” Not so much a song as a sinister, ceaseless mantra, “Human Pony Girl” is an atonal three-chord drone stuck in a strange tonality that, like the LP as a whole, evokes a world of menace and mayhem without ever slipping into heavy metal cliche.

While the Samhain box makes a convincing case for Glenn Danzig as one of rock’s maverick voices, the singer’s penchant for bluster and overheated, musclebound bravado will probably ensure that he continues to be judged more for who he is than for what he’s done. That’s ironic considering that, for all his obvious rock star yearning, none of Danzig’s bands has ever achieved broad, commercial success precisely because, until very recently, they have refused to pander to convention and audience expectation. None did so more defiantly than Samhain.