In the beginning, there was Venom. Though having evolved (or devolved, depending on your perspective) from existent modern archetypes of the period, most notably Motorhead, their brand of ‘black metal’ was a filthy new experiment, paving the way in shock and blood for even more savagery to follow. As those tendrils grew and enveloped the world, new appendages began to grow from the dirty, terrifying entity that was just burgeoning into what we now call extreme metal. One of these was Germany’s Sodom, who stepped up to the plate with their spiked bat ready to take on all comers. Even beating the mighty Slayer to the punch, they followed Venom’s blackened stylings quite closely on their early demos. It wasn’t until after those Bay Area barons of evil exploded with Show No Mercy, however, that Sodom began to garner world notice, with this, their debut EP, In the Sign of Evil. As much as this follows the skeletal precepts of Venom and Motorhead, with its straightforward, kick-to-the-crotch rocking, it also borrows a bit of the aggressive riffing nature from Slayer to become a bit more distinct. Moreover, this feels much more decrepit than any other metallic emanations from the time (outside of Bathory), mostly due to the deranged snarls of Tom Angelripper himself.
Indeed, the riffing itself is quite basic, caught somewhere between thrash and NWOBHM, with the pace of the former and the flavor of the latter, though the muddy, gritty production feels distinctly removed from either, more in line with their direct heroes, the aforementioned Venom. It’s this bent, hostile production, in combination with Tom’s (at the time) unique approach to vocals, that lends the blackened vibe so many pick up on within this EP. All the instrumentation is incredibly basic, just a few chords per riff (or song, usually) and roughly zero technical skill between the three of them. But the glory of this kind of dirty rollicking is that it doesn’t need any, and succeeds largely on the energy that’s naturally conjured, volatile and pissed off, and the rough edges performance-wise only add to that mystique, like these really were some drunken demons carousing through the streets, just a whim away from kicking down your door, cutting your throat, and stealing your girlfriend, just fucking because. Everything is raw and simple, but it’s all perfectly audible, the muddy bubbling of the bass just below Grave Violator’s fast, hooky guitars, while Witch Hunter’s drums provide the shambling skeletal backbone. The cover art is also incredibly iconic, even if it’s not all that artistic. But it suits the music, a simple statement of intended violence, coming right at you with blade drawn and a sneer to match.
Of the ‘Big 4’ of Teutonic thrash (at least my big 4), Sodom, Kreator, Destruction, and Tankard, I’ve always been drawn to Sodom the least, so it speaks volumes of their quality that I still listen to them a good deal. In the Sign of Evil is a fun, street-stomping 20 minute war machine of churning malevolence and take-no-shit punk attitude, and it’s not only a highly influential album for its time period, but an infectious journey worth repeating even today, for established thrash barons and headbanging neophytes alike. It’s not anywhere near their best, nor is it in any way amazing music, but it does exactly what it sets out to do, repeatedly stabbing you with the rusty sword of its notation while laughing maniacally all the while. More importantly, this is truly the starting point of German thrash, as it would lead in very short order to a little band called Destruction wanting a slice of the pie, and the mighty Kreator, possibly my personal favorite thrash band of all time, hot on those heals. In the Sign of Evil did not blow my mind, as it's not nearly as memorable as most of the other big releases from the period, but it must be stated that history lessons are rarely so much fun.