Twenty-five years ago this past August, the Swiss art-thrash band Coroner released their greatest album, Mental Vortex. From the cover (a manipulated still from Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho, showing a panicked Norman Bates) to the eight songs within—including a shockingly worthwhile cover of the Beatles‘ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”—the album was a potent artistic statement at a time when metal bands were still capable of making those on a regular basis. (Other notable heavy releases that year included Bolt Thrower‘s War Master, Death‘s Human, Dismember‘s Like an Ever Flowing Stream, Entombed‘s Clandestine, Fudge Tunnel‘s Hate Songs in E Minor, Morbid Angel‘s Blessed are the Sick, Motörhead‘s 1916, Prong‘s Prove You Wrong, Sepultura‘s Arise, Soundgarden‘s Badmotorfinger, Suffocation‘s Effigy of the Forgotten…and Metallica‘s self-titled “black album,” which was really a case unto itself.)
An embryonic version of Coroner existed as early as 1983, but it wasn’t until 1985 that the trio of drummer Markus Edelmann, bassist Ronald Broder, and guitarist Thomas Vetterli came together to record their first demo. (Since Edelmann and Vetterli had served as road crew for another, already more established Swiss band, Celtic Frost, that band’s frontman, Thomas Gabriel Fischer, sang on the demo. Afterward, Broder took the microphone.)
The trio’s first album, 1987’s R.I.P., showed little indication of where they’d end up. It begins with a haunting piano-and-synth intro that leans in the direction of Popol Vuh‘s soundtrack to Werner Herzog‘s Nosferatu. Intros have always been popular in metal, but young Coroner really liked them; R.I.P. has three, plus an outro. The first actual song, “Reborn Through Hate,” features blindingly fast thrash guitar and equally speedy, but clearly audible bass. Broder and Vetterli are a highly complementary team, but the bassist isn’t just following along—he’s doing his own thing. This is especially helpful when Vetterli launches into one of the Yngwie Malmsteen-esque classical-metal solos he was favoring at the time. Edelmann’s drums are soaked in reverb, creating a sound that’s more like a sustained rumble than the crisp thwacking the music demands, but he drives the other two hard.
The second Coroner album, 1988’s Punishment for Decadence, retains the speed of its predecessor, but they’ve shifted into a more Megadeth-esque style. Broder’s vocals are a Dave Mustaine-esque sneer (bolstered by intermittent gang shouts), and Vetterli’s guitar solos are fast and showy. There’s another instrumental—”Arc-Lite”—and it’s just as shredtastic as ever. Edelmann is better served by producer Guy Bidmead than he was by Harris Johns on the debut; his drumming is machine-gun fast, and individual hits are clearly audible throughout. The disc ends with a cover of Jimi Hendrix‘s “Purple Haze,” which the band transforms into something slightly less awkward than Megadeth‘s take on Willie Dixon‘s “I Ain’t Superstitious” (a second-side lowlight of 1986’s Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?). Still, it should probably have been cut.
Only a year later, on 1989’s No More Color, things were already beginning to change. Broder and Edelmann are heard first, setting up a throbbing tribal rhythm pattern in preparation for Vetterli to come crashing in with another high-speed thrash riff. But almost before it begins, that burst of speed is curtailed in favor of a more restrained chugging pattern, and the song proper consists of rapid shifting between two riffs that really don’t fit together that well; the song repeatedly jerks the listener’s brain back and forth. It’s the next track, “No Need to Be Human,” though, that really shows the change in Coroner. It begins with a count-off from the drummer, clacking sticks and all, a gesture totally antithetical to the ethos of much thrash. The point, back when many fans still called the music “speed metal,” was to demonstrate post-human/inhuman technical facility. Megadeth even called themselves “the world’s state of the art speed metal band.” But Coroner were stepping away from Megadeth-esque posturing, in favor of a more down-to-earth Metallica/Anthrax-like attitude. Their music retained a fierce aggression and complexity, but they were more focused on songs than they had been. There were no instrumentals on No More Color, and Vetterli’s solos featured more squeals, and fewer neoclassical squiggles, than before.
Mental Vortex, though, was the true leap forward. The band’s 1991 album begins with a short snatch of dialogue from the movie Re-Animator—a nurse attempting, and failing, to resuscitate a patient. Then the first song, “Divine Step (Conspectu Mortis)”, begins, and it’s immediately different from anything that’s come before. The drum sound is crisp and dry, with very little reverb, and the guitar is distorted in a chilly, science-fiction way, more like Voivod than Metallica. Vetterli and Broder are more locked-in than before, too. And while the song is mostly fast, it breaks down at its midpoint for a slow, almost bluesy guitar interlude that also incorporates eerie laughter and atmospheric sound effects. When Vetterli does take a solo, he’s still shredding, but it’s somehow more stripped-down than before. This is a leaner, meaner Coroner.
The band continues to work changes on their style throughout Mental Vortex. The second track, “Son of Lilith,” is built around a stuttering, stop-start groove with some surprisingly blues-rock guitar work. “Semtex Revolution” strips the guitar away entirely at times, leaving Broder to snarl his lyrics over a bare drumbeat, and the bridge is almost psychedelic doom. “Metamorphosis” begins with a slow, almost dubby bass-and-drum rhythm, over which wolves howl; when the guitar comes in, a sound like church bells can be heard, dimly, in the background. “Pale Sister” is another track where the tightly coiled main guitar riff is played almost against the equally chopped-up drums, as though deliberately attempting to wrong-foot the listener; it’s not until the guitar solo that the whole band lines up together. And the album concludes with another cover—this time, as mentioned above, it’s the Beatles‘ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, rendered in a much more convincing doom style (including organ) than their attempt to thrash up Hendrix.
Coroner‘s final album, 1993’s Grin, found them moving ever farther down the path of experimentation, from its didjeridoo-and-tribal-percussion intro to the dubby, postpunk lope of “Status: Still Thinking” and the album-closing “Host.” The latter track is one of the strangest the band ever recorded, with spoken-word vocals, female voices chanting in the background, guitar shimmering in and out of the mix, sudden interjections of pulsing synths, and almost jazzy bass. In many ways, the track points the way toward things Kevin Martin and Justin Broadrick would explore further a few years later, with Techno Animal and Ice. But it’s genuinely shocking for a band that started out as pure, head-down thrash to have come this far in only eight years.
Coroner reunited in 2010 and have been playing festivals in the US and Europe. There are rumors of a new studio album in 2017—in the meantime, they have released Autopsy, a 3DVD/1CD set that contains a documentary about the band, footage from their reunion shows, live video and music videos from their original run, and an eight-track best-of. (Get it from Amazon.) Their catalog is hard to come by on CD, and Mental Vortex is the only one of their albums on Spotify. All their work is available digitally, though, and is definitely worth discovering.