Holy Terror Ruled, Burned Out, and Remained Criminally Underrated
With a new box set, 'Total Terror,' bringing the band's late-'80s work together, we spoke with guitarist Mike Alvord about the LA band's strange and brilliant history.
Heavy metal is rife with its shoulda-beens and coulda-beens: bands fucked from the start; bands cut short in their prime; bands who, like precocious childhood prodigies, blossomed early only to fade into embarrassing ignominy when puberty cast its gawky spell.
Holy Terror's story might not be the saddest or the most tragic, but in terms of burning bright and fast before the wheels fell off, it has to be up there. In just a few short years this band of mismatched misfits released a four-song demo, signed with Brit imprint Under One Flag, gigged on both sides of the Atlantic, and released two of thrash metal's finest, weirdest albums: 1987's Terror And Submission and its peerless follow-up, Mind Wars, released in 1988. An outlier band in an outlier genre they didn't feel part of, the band's mix of amped-up, NWOBHM-inspired thrash and progressive sensibilities ensured they were misunderstood by apathetic US audiences and thwarted locally by the burgeoning LA glam scene.
The band ultimately dissolved in a mess of violence, drug abuse and bitter recrimination when their second continental jaunt went awry, cut off at the knees when the label organizing their European tour discovered they'd signed with a stateside competitor. The music, at least, remains, and in the years since Holy Terror's demise their star has risen, culminating this month with the release of the Total Terror box set and a swathe of vinyl reissues via UK label Dissonance Productions.
Rookie guitarist Mike Alvord cut his teeth with LA metallers Black Widow, whose main claim to fame was a spot on Metal Blade's Metal Massacre III comp with Slayer and Znowhite. "Kurt [Kilfelt, guitar] had Holy Terror ready to go by the time he moved down from Seattle to Los Angeles," says Alvord. "I wasn't the first choice—that was Juan Garcia. Juan wanted to stay with Agent Steel [Kilfelt's previous outfit], so Jack [Schwartz, drums, ex-Dark Angel] recommended me and we started jamming. I was going to college but I didn't want to be in school, I just wanted to play music. My expectations were pretty low—I was just along for the ride in the beginning—but I quickly saw promise and potential. Kurt had more direction than anybody I'd played with, and I was really intrigued by that. I joined the band in '85, and by '86 we had a demo and a record deal."
The progression was not without its hurdles. Alvord, the youngest member of the band by some stretch, initially felt sidelined. "I was pretty intimidated," he says. "While Jack was only a couple of years older than me, Kurt was in his mid-20s and Keith [Deen, vocals] and Floyd [Flanary, bass] were in their late-20s, so I felt like I had to prove myself. I felt like I didn't get a whole lot of respect, and I almost quit the band early on. We recorded the demo, and I came back to the studio a couple of days later to be told that Kurt had recorded over all my solos. So, being younger, being more immature, not wanting to admit that I wasn't up to par, I walked into the next rehearsal and said I was going to quit. Kurt convinced me to stay—he did it the right way and fed into my ego—by saying how much Holy Terror needed my rhythm playing."
While Alvord remained, Schwartz was an early casualty, unceremoniously jettisoned after signing the band to Music For Nations subsidiary Under One Flag on the sly. "There was a power struggle," says Alvord. "I was so young that I didn't care—Kurt's the leader of the band? Sure, whatever—I'm just having fun. But Jack wanted more control, and when he bypassed Kurt that infuriated him. Kurt pretty much kicked the crap out of Jack and we just stood there—If I was who I am now I would have stepped in, but…"
With new drummer Joe Mitchell replacing Schwartz, the band recorded their debut LP, Terror And Submission. It was a fast, frantic album that shone despite a flawed production, giving full rein to Deen's extraordinary vocal delivery, which was as influenced by cartoon voiceover king Mel Blanc as it was by Roger Daltrey. The singer's heroes highlight a sound born of disparate interests, with members variously citing Led Zeppelin, Motörhead, the new Wave of British Heavy Metal and Mahavishnu Orchestra as points of reference.
So, it was perhaps understandable that they felt little in common with the wider thrash metal scene, despite gigs with the likes of Exodus, Kreator and Megadeth ("Kurt and Dave [Mustaine] almost got into a fistfight because Dave was hitting on Kurt's girlfriend," recalls Alvord of this latter experience. "It was pretty ugly, but beyond that we didn't really see much of those guys"). The band seemed well aware of this separation, but nonetheless unwilling to toe the line. "I don't think we realised or recognised the movement," says Alvord. "We were more focused on putting out our music. When Kurt and I would discuss things, we'd say 'let's take Iron Maiden and put in on 78', and I think if you asked Kurt he'd say the band's sound stemmed from anger. Those guys were just pissed. They felt that they were always getting the short end of the stick, and I think a lot of that aggression came out in the music."
In a way it's ironic that Holy Terror were outsiders in what was, at the time, very much a tribe of outsiders. "The guys from Exodus and Nuclear Assault, they treated us well. And when we were on tour with DRI, those guys were great. But then I remember pulling into a gas during a US tour, and, I can't remember what the band was—Jetboy or maybe some band related to Warrant—they definitely thumbed their nose at us. They had this gigantic tour bus while we were in a little 25-foot motor-home that had seven guys sleeping in it. We were all tattered and hadn't showered in days, and they just looked at us like we were lower than everything. It's like everything—you want to be in the big boys' club but there's only room for so many. So you try to suck up and do what it takes to get in there, or you do what we did and just say, 'screw it, if we make it we make it and if we don't we don't.'"
With an LP under their belt, the band embarked on a European tour with crossover kings DRI—a band whose mixed fanbase of punks and metallers could be something of an eye-opener. "It introduced us to a lot of different people and not all of them treated us well," laughs Alvord. "There were a couple of nights where there was a really big punk turnout and they threw stuff at us and treated us like a bunch of hippies." As well as testing their mettle, the DRI tour helped hone the band's metal, pushing them to be faster, harder and more ambitious—something more than evident when it came to the band's second album. "I think we played over 100 shows with DRI," says Alvord. "Whatever you're hearing stays in your memory bank, and when you write songs it's hard to separate that out."
Beyond subliminally taking on the speed and energy of their tour buddies, however, there were more fundamental developments at play. "When we recorded Terror And Submission, there was one song where I wrote the music and lyrics and everything else was written by Kurt," says Alvord. "I wrote another one called "Lake Of Fire," and we actually played it live, but I can't remember what it sounds like to this day. There wasn't much collaboration—it was five guys learning material that was already written. I think when you do that, it results in sterility—it's not as organic and it doesn't allow for growth. With Mind Wars, our musicianship was getting better, and there was more openness and collaboration. While some of the stuff was Kurt's—like "Debt Of Pain," which was a holdover from his Agent Steel days—everything else was pretty much new, and that newness came from becoming closer as a band, and living together on the road. It led to a pretty dramatic shift."
The leap was indeed a stratospheric one, with Holy Terror standing as one of era's most powerful—and underrated—albums, a perfect mix of hypercharged NWOBHM melody, savage aggression and weird, off-kilter personality. And, for a time there, the band seemed poised to capitalize on what they'd achieved. "I think we all cared for each other at that point," suggests Alvord. "On the Mind Wars US tour—well, I guess you'd call it the Mind Wars tour [although] the record didn't come out until after the tour was over, which pissed Kurt off a lot—we saw a terrible, terrible car accident when we were leaving Fort Lauderdale. I was driving the motor-home on the freeway, and in front of us was a car engulfed in flames. We saw the driver get out and run around to the opposite side to pull out the passenger, but he wasn't able to—we saw the passenger burning up in front of our eyes. Keith came up and sat next to me for the entire drive to keep me company and help me make it through the night."
Despite this newfound closeness, however, the Armageddon clock was ticking down for Holy Terror. A bizarre set of circumstances involving a temperamental tour bus saw the band playing some 30 shows without Kilfelt, which led to the band leader feeling angry, isolated and stewing on circumstances beyond his control—a mindset not aided by spiralling substance abuse. "It drove a big wedge between me and Kurt and we barely spoke for a while," says Alvord. "By the time we got on the European tour with Nuclear Assault and Exodus we sort of made amends. We talked about moving forward, about the tour and about starting work on the third record, but when the shit hit the fan and Kurt punched out the road manager I was just done. I felt like we were just going round in that same circle. Kurt's life was pretty chaotic, and I just couldn't handle it anymore. I saw the writing on the wall—we weren't going to get back on that tour.
They tried, they stayed there for another three weeks, but they never played another show out there. I didn't want to deal with any craziness anymore, and just wanted some stability. Who knows what would've happened if I didn't quit the band? Maybe we would've carried on, maybe we just would've continued to self-destruct and something worse would've happened. It left such a sour taste in my mouth that even after all the great experiences, I just didn't want to do it again. Instead I started working with my uncle as a mechanic—I did that full-time for about two years before I went back to school." Slipping away from band life, Alvord went on to forge a successful career that was at a considerable remove from his rock n' roll past, though he couldn't quite keep his inner metalhead at bay.
"When I started my career my hair was still super long," he chuckles. "I was told I had to cut it within my three-month probation period or they'd fire me. So what I ended up doing was getting a wig, and I wore it to work for about ten months so I could keep my long hair." As time marched on and Holy Terror's star continued to rise, Alvord has found himself drawn back within heavy metal's orbit, excavating archive material for Holy Terror reissues (one serving as a tribute to the sadly-deceased Keith Deen), and making a return to playing and performing with the aptly-named Mindwars.
"What else am I gonna do?" he asks. "Sit around watching re-runs of I Love Lucy in my rocking chair? You gotta do something more fun than that!"
Follow Alex Deller on Twitter.