One-Album Wonders: Disincarnate

It’s incredible to dig through the history of metal albums and discover one of the many, many bands that have only released an album or two before splintering. Some of these albums are by groups of musicians that never really went on to do much else in the music industry, and then there are others that are more super-group oriented where some established musicians come together (such as with S.O.D. or Meathook Seed) that don’t have a long shelf life beyond a few years since the group is a secondary priority in contrast to members’ main bands.

Disincarnate, despite only having one studio album to their credit, has built up quite the reputation over the thirty years since they formed. With no disrespect to the other members of the band, much of the draw to the group and their album is due to one factor: James Murphy.

Who is James Murphy? Let’s begin with how I learned about the lead guitarist. I was fresh out of high school in 2003 (it was literally in the afternoon following my final exam), and I made a trip to the mall to look at the music stores. I had been wanting to get into Testament for years, dating back to when I first saw the band featured on a trading card as a kid, and by the time I was in high school would always get pumped seeing their old videos for “Over The Wall”, “Practice What You Preach”, and “Trial By Fire” playing on VH1’s Metal Mania program. As luck would have it, one of the stores had a copy of The Very Best of Testament. I usually don’t like compilation albums, but I’d never seen one of their albums in-store. I desperately needed this to go alongside the likes of my Metallica and Megadeth albums! I’d hear the familiar soloing of Alex Skolnick on the great bulk of the album, but tagged onto the end was the song “Dog Faced Gods”. While the band sounded somewhat closer to death metal than thrash, I dug the change in approach, and was equally impressed with the lead guitarist on this track (that would be James Murphy). He had a fairly different style from Skolnick, but he was both equally melodic and fluid, as I would soon observe further with proper listens to the Low album in its entirety as well as The Gathering. Very much a lead sound of his own. I believe I also heard his iconic intro solo on Obituary’s “Cause of Death” around the same time off a compilation my brother owned, so his name locked into my head quick.

It turns out that he had a rather prolific career, particularly in the ‘90s. While I’ll get to touching on more of his work, I’ll bring it back to Disincarnate’s Dreams of the Carrion Kind.

In James Murphy’s entire discography, what is it that makes 1993’s Dreams of a Carrion Kind so unique? It’s not as if this was the first record that James Murphy ever played on, but the key factor about this recording is that it marked the first time where the public really got to see James Murphy stretch his wings as a songwriter. Death’s Spiritual Healing gives him credit on half the songs, though I’ve been inclined to believe Chuck Schuldiner was the primary writer, taking ideas of James’ to craft into complete songs. According to Murphy in an Into the Combine podcast from 2018, his writing compositions for Death were coming up with material in reaction to what Chuck was coming up with. With Obituary, since he joined midway through the Cause of Death album’s completion (as recalled in Decibel Magazine’s Hall of Fame feature on the album), he mainly contributed solos. However, he showed material to rhythm guitarist Trevor Peres that was deemed to not quite fit Obituary that would be salvaged for other projects, including Disincarnate. The tracks off Cancer’s Death Shall Rise are listed as full band efforts, so the balance of writing is a bit murky. It should also be mention that while he notably gigged with Agent Steel in 1987, this was to fulfill a tour with no recording before band dissolved around that time.

A December 1993 interview with Metal Maniacs magazine reveals his involvement with Cancer, whom he claims to have joined in the studio and touring as a favour, was what initially stalled Disincarnate from getting off the ground. However, by 1992 he was able to get some momentum going on the project. As the liner notes state for their Soul Erosion demo’s limited reissue on Valour Records in 2018, he was essentially sick and tired of being in other people’s bands and wanted to get his own group going. To realize his vision of what was to become Disincarnate, he couldn’t do it on his own. With Murphy would come vocalist Bryan Cegon and drummer Alex Marquez at the time of recording the Soul Erosion demo. Cegon would later be part of a number of bands including Strict-9, Mutilation Ritual, Sectioned, Low Life, and Infernus. Marquez had previous experience playing with Solstice and Malevolent Creation, and would also proceed to join Demolition Hammer following Disincarnate’s demo. By the time the band entered the studio to record a proper album, Tommy Viator was the drummer of choice, and Jason Carman (who was also an Infernus member at one point according to Metal Archives) would join as rhythm guitarist. Viator previously played with Astaroth, and would go on to work with Acid Bath, Shrüm (both bands also featured bassists Joseph Fontenot and the late Audie Pitre), and Suffer. The role of bassist was fulfilled by Murphy on the album, but when they performed on the road they did travel with one. Tobias Pike was part of the lineup at one stage, though there may have been other bassists in the mix as well. These names may not necessarily be ringing many bells, but that was by design. As revealed on the Third Eye Cinema podcast in 2014, James intentionally recruited inexperienced talent, looking for “clay” to mould and fit into his desired sound. Murphy was the primary songwriter, but shares co-writing credits with a combination of Cegon and Carman for most of the compositions.

Despite being based out of Florida, the band would be off to North Wales (United Kingdom) at The Windings to record the album with Colin Richardson as producer/mixer and Pete Coleman as engineer (the latter also contributed sampling and keyboards). Richardson, like Murphy, was a man of stature in the death metal scene, having already worked with Carcass, Bolt Thrower, and Massacre in a similar capacity and would go on to lead more accessible metal acts such as Machine Head, Bullet for My Valentine, and Devildriver through various studio efforts. Coleman also has an extensive body of work, including production credits of his own with Theatre of Tragedy, Echo & the Bunnymen, and The Blood Divine among others. To keep the list of noteworthy names going, Dave McKean (My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost, not to mention several comic books) was brought in for the album artwork. Bonus performances come in the form of trade-off vocals by Aaron Stainthorpe of My Dying Bride on “Monarch Of The Sleeping Marches” and backing vocals on “Beyond the Flesh” by former Cancer bandmate John Walker.

I didn’t plan on turning this into a full-blown album review, but what do I think of it? It’s a very enjoyable listen, as heavy as just about anything James Murphy ever recorded. Bookended with an atmospheric intro and acoustic outro, in between is brutality melded with flashes of melody. It kicks off strong with “Stench of Paradise Burning” with more of a “classic death metal” alternate-picked chugging riff as it starts, but twists and turns into something further with tempo changes and a melodic midsection. I wish there was a bit more of that melody on this album, but when it does appear, it will make you perk up and grin. “Monarch of The Sleeping Marches” stands out for playing to Murphy’s strengths with harmony, as well as moments on “Entranced”, the lead breaks in “Confine of Shadows” and the penultimate “Sea of Tears”. It also has echoes of that standout track intro that endeared me to Murphy’s playing in Obituary, particularly on “Soul Erosion”.

What I will say about the album overall is that I find some songs bleed a bit too much into each other, meaning if I’m listening to one song and I take a peak at the song currently playing in my media player, I’m surprised to learn I’m at the next track rather than an extension of the previous one. Some reviews I’ve read seem to take aim at the vocalist as being merely “average” or “generic” (I think the voice works well with the material), and I’ll agree with certain criticisms of the bass being buried in the sound. In terms of the vocals, I think it’s harder to find your own voice when using guttural growls as opposed to singing in the traditional sense. Though perhaps that particular criticism was taken to heart because a follow-up shortly after may have seen a different vocalist enter the picture, which I’ll get into later. As for the bass, maybe schedules weren’t aligning for a designated bass player to join the group in the studio or it was a matter of James simply wanting to get parts on tape with no deliberate focus on making the instrument stand out in any fashion.

Murphy recording Dream of the Carrion Kind (as first shared on Disincarnate’s Facebook page)

However, whatever criticisms are levied at the record, there’s no telling what could have occurred if the band took another shot and recorded a follow-up. Any flaws myself or others may have perceived could have been worked out in future recordings, but they did not build on what was started. By the time 1994 rolled around, James found himself in Testament’s lead guitar slot. He would later re-establish his own voice as a songwriter through two solo albums, Convergence and Feeding The Machine. While a two-year span doesn’t seem to be a long time for a band to give it a go, plenty can happen in that relatively small span. So what did?

There were various factors that put the whole Disincarnate project off-balance, such as different members feeling the pressure to head to college or other various family and personal concerns. Numerous interviews also have Murphy pinning the routing of the tour as a cause of grief due to long stretches of travel between certain shows. A study of the itinerary bears this out. Tour dates are shown on the back of the shirt in this Invisible Oranges post, revealing the dates spanned from July 31 to September 5 consisting of 26 dates across 17 states. Of note, September 6 was in Buffalo, New York with a show in New Britain, Connecticut on the 7th. That’s 411 miles! There were several other lengthy road trips between cities on overnight trips between shows, such as from Milwaukee to Cincinnati (392 miles), Columbus to River Grove (336 miles), and then River Grove to Cleveland (357 miles). You might say that stretches on the road like this are just part and parcel of being in a band, but this leaves little margin for error in travelling for a group lacking in experience and containing only one recognizable musician. A closer examination of the map certainly convinced me this was the case.

Below represents a route that the Disincarnate boys are likely to have travelled given their first ten tour dates, which began at Milwaukee MetalFest.

Google’s math was 2,393 miles on the road for a potential 39 hours. Sure, night travel could have meant less traffic to cut down on time (which doesn’t even factor in the initial trip from their native Florida to the first date). It’s the fact that they drove from Wisconsin to Ohio without setting a date in Illinois or Indiana first. Well, they technically backtrack later to play the River Grove date (which was a leisurely 84 miles from Milwaukee), but bypassed some major cities such as Indianapolis and Fort Wayne twice. I didn’t bother mapping out the rest of the dates because the bad logic of this course alone I could easily see making a band road-weary.

What could have been done to avoid this? A more typical tour plan may have been setting up the east United States dates first, then back to Florida for a rest/regroup before heading out west. There was a bit of that with fours days off between the Tampa and Forth Worth shows, but these paths still leave out much of the mid-west and northwest of the country. I don’t envy those that schedule tours, but considering numerous shows were apparently low attendance, never confirmed in the first place, or straight-up cancelled (I’m not certain which stops never happened), they definitely seemed to be biting off more than they could chew. It’s possible a more extensive East/West tour split was considered (something resembling a month in each half of the country), but the tour funding from the record label or other means of endorsement may have been lacking.

In several retrospective interviews, James also bemoans that the state of the music industry at the time wasn’t as kind to death metal as it had been in the recent past. However, you could argue that a number of such bands were still thriving (Carcass, Entombed, and Napalm Death were enjoying major label distribution), but these were the exceptions rather than the rule. They weren’t connected to majors at the scale that thrash metal bands were getting snatched up following Metallica’s breakthrough ..And Justice For All, where you’d have bands like Powermad and Gothic Slam getting some mainstream exposure before largely fading from public memory. These death metal acts getting such distribution deals were among the biggest in the sub-genre, first-ballot potential for a death metal Hall of Fame. Labels like Roadrunner Records were shedding bands they took pride in signing just a few years prior such as Malevolent Creation, Gorguts (who would use the demotion to get even more experimental) and Pestilence, and then have next to no death metal on their label by the middle of the decade.

Following his second stint with Testament, James was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2001, which would have a re-occurence ten years later. Health issues no doubt put a wrench in one’s best plans, but he has maintained employment in the music industry on the recording and production end of it. He runs SafeHouse Productions, where he has done production, mixing, and mastering work with artists such as Havok, Aborted, and Abigail Williams. He still appears sporadically as a performer, laying down guitar leads on recordings by Angerot, Viogression, and the Death-worshipping Gruesome, just to give a sample.

Were there plans for a follow-up? In spite of different career and personal life developments, there certainly have been efforts made. Initially, a demo was going to be prepared for the next Disincarnate record following their tour, but the Testament opportunity came up. The earliest mention I’ve found of a second album dates back to a 1997 interview with, where the interviewer references a potential link-up with a former Napalm Death vocalist. It doesn’t mention if the vocalist in question is Nic Bullen, Lee Dorian, Barney Greenway (who was briefly on the outs with Napalm in ‘96), or someone else altogether. Through a second interview with the same website, he announced he had written some Disincarnate material and planned to work on the album in 1998 with a potential lineup consisting of ex-At The Gates vocalist Thomas Lindberg as well as ex-Death bassist and soon to be Testament band mate Steve Di Giorgio on bass. A 2002 interview with Metal Side had James reiterate that he was still slowly working on material, and estimated work on it would commence in the following year. He also details various items keeping the original lineup from coming back together, such as health issues with Jason Carman and Bryan Cegon’s involvement in a different band. Then, this time talking with Metal Hammer Italy in 2004, he discussed working on new material while juggling other duties such as a tribute album to Chuck Schuldiner (which is another album that I do not believe ever came to fruition). A reunion was in the works in more recent years, and James has been asked about it in every podcast and YouTube interview I’ve included here (and several others, no doubt!). Apparently, the drummer wasn’t physically and mentally ready to do it. He had briefly moved in with James, but eventually left for home without finishing recordings.

In summary, lots of talk, but no product.

I realize that there are risks taken when coming back from such a long absence and longer album drought. Though not metal bands, I’ve seen other harder-edged bands like Refused and The Stooges getting mixed-to-poor reception for their reunion records, but those groups have a bit more of a body of work to compare against. Then again, there have also been groups like Cynic, Damn The Machine, and Terrorizer over the years that regrouped to finally add that follow-up to their standalone full-lengths that James Murphy and Disincarnate can look to for inspiration that it can be done after an extended hiatus. James stated in the Player’s Pick Podcast in 2020 that he’s in love with the album concept, liking the deep cuts and not simply an album’s “big” songs. It could be that the wait to build an album’s worth of songs that fits to mood of the project had part in the delays. Personally, I hope it’s not too much of a self-critical, perfectionist frame of mind that would be holding back the creative process. Given how often he addresses the band’s existence, we know he cares a great deal about Disincarnate and its legacy.

I don’t really want the story to end at this being a one-album wonder. If James feels he’s got the material cooked up, and his band mates can join him to add the right spice, his fans would welcome a rebirth of Disincarnate in some form. Even still, couldn’t Murphy, should he have enough material compiled, just say “fuck it!” one day and one-man band the thing? He’s no vocalist, but would he consider crafting it more towards technical death metal instrumentals? Would he re-consider bringing in guest musicians or vocalists? Whatever the result or approach, there must be thousands of his fans out there wondering the same thing.

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