To the untrained ears, all forms of extreme metal might sound a bit experimental. At least in the sense that extreme metal bands by the very nature of the word “extremity” take the music into uncharted territories by pushing the boundaries of form, and of course, accessibility. Naturally, most extreme metal bands and artists aren’t exactly setting out with mass appeal in mind so unconventional songwriting is commonplace in extreme metal. However, extreme metal and its various guises, particularly death and black metal, do have their own defining characteristics. Both death and black metal defined themselves fairly quickly as the ’80s turned over into the ’90s, a decade so often historically misrepresented by most mainstream outlets as a low time for the genre. The opposite was true as the rapid evolution the metal underground experienced throughout the ’90s saw bands begin to mutate the definitions and characteristics of their adopted genres. At the same time, there still remained a strong purist mindset as many bands faced potential backlash for straying too far from said definitions and characteristics. Some bands decided to stay the course and continue down the road paved by their predecessors rarely deviating from the standard. However, many other bands opted for something different. Whether it was bringing in outside sources or morphing into something else entirely outside of the genre, a host of bands emerged that were experimental in their extremities. Then, there’s a band like Nuclear Death.
In the context of American death metal, Nuclear Death certainly falls into the latter category of bands that pushed beyond any and all perimeters that may have been previously set. In all actuality, they’ve always been somewhat of an anomaly. The brainchild of vocalist and bassist Lori Beth Bravo and guitarist Phil Hampson, Nuclear Death’s location of Phoenix, Arizona certainly isolated the band from the well-known Florida and northeast death metal hubs during the genre’s developmental days. More important to the Nuclear Death nativity is their forming and the start of their demoing process in 1986, one year following the release of Possessed’s watershed Seven Churches album. As the sound of death metal evolved, Nuclear Death seemed to evolve along the fringes with a sound that was incomparable to any of their peers. Arriving as early did, Nuclear Death were naturally ahead of the curve in a number of ways. So much so that Bravo and Hampson’s vision proved to be too much for some and still poses a challenge to even those well acquainted in so-called “brutal” death metal. To put it bluntly, Nuclear Death’s early albums Bride of Insect (1990) and Carrion for Worm (1991) are exactly what something called“death metal” should sound like. Compared to some of the more famous names in the genre whose success overshadowed theirs like Cannibal Corpse or Deicide, albums like Bride of Insect and Carrion for Worm also seem like alien variations on the genre.
Death metal is generally viewed as the musical equivalent of horror. This is mainly due to the violent lyrical content, graphic album artwork, and harshness of the music. Like the overwhelming majority of death metal, Nuclear Death openly embraced horror subject matter on their albums. There’s a fine balancing act to walk, not just in death metal, but in any genre dealing with the similar subject matter, as it’s difficult to not tip over into caricature, a trap Nuclear Death never let themselves fall into. Nuclear Death is unquestionable “horror” music; but “horror” in the originally intended sense, defined by Merriam-Webster as “painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay”. “I named ND after one of my most disturbing, recurring nightmares”(1) Bravo told the Vomitose blog in 2008. Indeed, the horror evoked by the sounds of early Nuclear Death is akin to a highly personal nightmare. In virtually every department– musically, lyrically, and aesthetically. Nuclear Death began to tread into areas more unsettling than others. Even the artwork on early releases, which Bravo described as “comic book style renderings'(2), seemed to come from a much more disturbed and hallucinatory mindset compared to other horror-themed death metal album art. Similarly, Nuclear Death’s early recordings bear the classic death metal hallmarks such as blindingly fast guitars, blast beats, and guttural vocals. All put through Bravo’s filter and warped, Nuclear Death tapped into the abstract potential of death metal better than any other band. With the low recording budgets turning the already feral music into a dense, lysergic swamp, Nuclear Death’s peculiar brand of death metal emitted something truly horrific and obscure. A bit too peculiar for some, as again, Nuclear Death found themselves to be a niche band within an already niche realm, often dismissed as an unfocused cacophony. Much like the criticisms hurled at 90’s metal, this dismissal of Nuclear Death is also easily disproved, the directions Bravo took the Nuclear Death name throughout the ’90s revealing an extremely focused and even conceptual vision.
Carrion for Worm saw a crucial shift in personnel with the addition of drummer Steve Cowan whose jazz background added a new dynamic(3) and would remain with Bravo until her retirement of Nuclear Death in 2000. Following the For Our Dead EP in 1992, the band saw an even more critical line-up change with the departure of Hampson, leaving Nuclear Death a two-piece with Bravo, who then picked up guitar duties. Prior to Hampson’s leaving, songwriting duties were split between Bravo and Hampso All Creatures Great and Eaten exposed the nucleus of Nuclear Death to have always been Bravo. Not even a half-hour in length, All Creatures Great and Eaten saw Bravo pushing death metal into a more surreal dimension. The last three tracks, in particular, the ambient piece “Aunt Farm”, “A Dark Winter Psalm” and the title track all slowing the tempo with the contorted psychedelic horrors of the previous albums even more pronounced. More like soundscapes than traditional songs, the closing trio of All Creatures Great and Eaten singled the directions Bravo would eventually take, moving the band outside of death metal altogether.
There was also a noticeable difference in the visual aesthetics of All Creatures Great and Eaten as well as the previous For Our Dead EP compared to the bands’ prior releases with Bravo now doing all the artwork. Calling her own art more “languid” than Hampson’s comic style (4), Bravo lists the likes of Dali, Giger, Degas, and Khalo as some of her inspirations (5). The splash of colors on All Creatures Great and Eaten also somewhat recalls a psychedelic Gorky in a more distressed state of mind. Bravo’s visual art would be a catalyst for where Nuclear Death would be headed musically. Along with writing and recording, Bravo spent a good chunk of the ’90s isolated in the Arizona desert, “pulling a Philip K. Dick”(6) as she referred to it. Writing and drawing under the influence (7), Bravo’s efforts resulted in Slumberblood, a zine-style science fiction novella written and illustrated entirely by Bravo centering on “the birth and rebirth of universes”.(8) Released four years after All Creatures Great and Eaten in 1996, Nuclear Death’s fourth album The Planet Cachexial coincided with Slumberblood, the album being the soundtrack to Bravo’s novella which was included with initial pressings of the album.
The Planet Cachexial Slumberblood
The Planet Cachexial is where Bravo becomes an almost Paul Chain sort of reclusive artist following their own muse, immune to both outside influence and genre pigeonholing. Jeff Wagner, co-host of the Radical Research podcast and author of Mean Deviation, described The Planet Cachexial as “Burzum trying to play Oxiplegatz”(9). While humorous, the comparison might be the closest thing to an elevator pitch The Planet Cachexial could get, Bravo’s low-fi sci-fi conceptualism perhaps best described as extreme cosmic drama. Running only a brief half-hour in length, The Planet Cachexial is actually a rather sparse affair, both musically, playing very much like an extreme ambient soundtrack, but also from a production standpoint. Much like previous releases, the actual recording of The Planet Cachexial has its own identity. Similar to a filmmaker using their limited resources to their favor, the DIY recording of The Planet Cachexial effectively projects the outer limits Bravo was reaching from whatever room of hers or Cowan’s house the album was recorded in. Also unique for its lack of actual lyrics, The Planet Cachexial instead, Bravo uses vocals purely as an instrument. Bravo had long been unparalleled when it came to death metal vocals, her work on previous Nuclear Death albums being perhaps an even bigger conduit for horror than the actual music. Terms like “bestial” and “animistic” have long been used to describe extreme vocal stylings ad nauseam. There are moments on The Planet Cachexial in tracks such as “Raped by the Wiengod”, “Birthing of Slumberblood”, and “Grimalkin Be Spoiled” where Bravo quite literally sounds like a wild, inhuman entity, emitting the sounds of the various creatures that make up the world of Slumberblood.
The band’s first self-distributed work through their own Cats Meow label, Bravo has cited The Planet Cachexial as her personal favorite Nuclear Death release with ambitions of turning the Slumberblood story into an animated film (10). The album and Nuclear Death as a whole become more fascinating with Bravo’s admission that the project took “about 6 years”(11) from conception to completion, meaning Bravo’s plans of taking Nuclear Death out of death metal were germinating even before All Creatures Great and Eaten. Although decidedly not a death metal album, The Planet Cachexial certainly isn’t without traits that could be heard as metallic, although it would be another fours years following The Planet Cachexial, which would end up being Nuclear Death’s final statement, the evocatively titled Harmony Drinks of Me, would see Bravo stepping away from metal altogether. By this time Nuclear Death had more or less become a Lori Bravo solo endeavor, Bravo writing and playing the material that would make up Harmony Drinks of Me with Cowan handling production duties. Although Bravo considers The Planet Cachexial to be the fully realized version of Nuclear Death’s soundtrack ambitions, Harmony Drinks of Me is perhaps the most satisfying and curious of all Nuclear Death releases with a greatly expanded palette of sound.
Like The Planet Cachexial, Harmony Drinks of Me is impossible to categorize as a whole. With every track featuring Bravo trying her hand at a different sound, pulling from a variety of genres for inspiration that may sound familiar and even shockingly accessible at first. Similar to Nuclear Death’s earlier material, Bravo’s perversions of her various inspirations are unlikely to lead to many specific comparisons. Even when viewed alongside other albums from around the same time by, Harmony Drinks of Me still feels divorced from any zeitgeist, existing comfortably on its own planet. Album opener “Electric Spaceboy” for instance, is somewhat indicative of late 90’s/early 2000’s electronica, dominated by synths and drum samples, and is certainly a major shock considering what came before. The song’s biggest surprise though is the strength of Bravo’s singing, just as strong on albums past and featured prominently throughout Harmony Drinks of Me. The tone of the album quickly takes a turn however with the songs “Eyes Closed (The Sin)” and “Sunless”, with the dark carnivalesque keyboard foundation of the former and brooding gothic moodiness of the latter. The pure horror of early Nuclear Death returns in an entirely new guise on album centerpiece “The Baths”. Taking the idea of an experiment like “Aunt Farm” from All Creatures Great and Eaten even further, “The Baths” is a return to the realm of personal nightmares and truly realizing the horror soundscape form with the various ambient and electronic noises along with Bravo’s contorted vocals being genuinely distressing. Horror, more specifically vampirism, is also hinted at in some of the lyrics with the catchy refrain of “Eyes Closed” being “I’d rather stay sleeping, The sun is my foe, Harmony drinks of my when my eyes are closed” and the wonderful line of “And night is now my lover” in “Sunless”.
Despite Harmony Drinks of Me ushering in new sounds for Nuclear Death, it also marked the end, Bravo parting ways with Cowen and officially putting the Nuclear Death name to rest following the release of Harmony Drinks of Me. Bravo quickly embarked on a solo career with a new sound more inspired by grunge and stripped back rock, self-releasing I’d Marry the Devil in 2003. More than a decade would pass before Bravo would re-emerge with new music, still in the solo form under the guise of “Lori Bravo Raped” with the more acoustically based EP When the Sun Dies in 2013. Yet another eight years would pass with Bravo’s third solo album Bare Bones finally being unleashed in June of 2021. A massive double album with a length pushing an hour and a half, Bare Bones is Bravo’s wholly unique take on acoustic music, sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying, never boring. Once again self-released through Bandcamp, the album is very much Bravo forging onward with her DIY mentality, doing everything herself for Bare Bones–writing, recording, and mastering. Bravo even shot herself for the album cover. Given how Nuclear Death’s musical story ended, Bare Bones seems the logical, full circle work to come from the mind that birthed Nuclear Death. Nuclear Death and Bravo may be cult names, though the historical importance, innovation, and left-field individuality of Bravo’s recorded output is without question. The Planet Cachexial and Harmony Drinks of Me being two defining works from one of the most original artists in American underground music.
1, 2. 4-7, 10, 11. LORI BRAVO (Ex-Nuclear Death) INTERVIEW – Vomitose Issue 3 2008. http://vomitose.blogspot.com/2008/08/lori-bravo-ex-nuclear-death-interview.html
3. JAMMING OUT ALL BAD ASS!! EPISODE 14 WITH LORI BRAVO/NUCLEAR DEATH. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-S7T_HZIP8U&t=6469s. May 8, 2021.
8, 9. Radical Research Episode 49: CAVEAT!!!!!! Nuclear Death 1986-2000. January 28, 2020. https://radicalresearch.org/caveat-nuclear-death-1986-2000