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Post Mortem - 'Coroner's Office' Retrospective

Interview with John McCarthy and John Alexander of Post Mortem

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Post Mortem

Post Mortem

John Alexander of Post Mortem
Updated February 19, 2009
It’s Fall 1986 when my friend hands me a cassette tape with a stark black and red cover adorned with images of skulls. No words or even recommendations are exchanged. It is simply implied that I should take this home and listen to it. The album is Post Mortem’s Coroner’s Office, and it stays in my Sony cassette Walkman for the next three months. I’ve never heard anything quite like it: a combustible mix of death dirge and abrasive punk peppered with unexpected experimental passages.

“Armies of the Dead” opens with a molasses-thick riff and marching band drums before vocalist John McCarthy unleashes a smoky, primal scream (McCarthy was interviewed for this story in 2008. (He passed away at 40 this February). There’s a few seconds of Pet Sounds like experimentation before the bass chord that anchors “It was Just a Thought” – a chilling song with a not-so-subtle message about the perils of self-expression. The songs are packed with bleak lyrics like: “Putrid gastric juices/among the bloody bowels/carving choice selections/and licking off the towel.” They also touch on freedom of speech, alienation and despair, like in the aptly-titled “I Want to Die.”

Post Mortem offered my first real exposure ever to death metal, arriving before standards like Death’s Scream Bloody Gore in 1987 and Autopsy’s Severed Survival in 1989. Coroner’s Office continues to find new listeners and is now as remembered for its unusual styling and flirtation with jazz and punk as it is as an overlooked death metal cornerstone. Nearly two decades after its release, it’s not just seen as a pivotal genre release but a preview to musical experimentation common in metal among bands like Cephalic Carnage and The Dillinger Escape Plan. Music stories and websites still don’t know how to categorize the album which is perhaps part of its appeal.

“I thought we’d be remembered more for Festival of Fun and Destined For Failure,” guitarist John Alexander said. “There’s been less than 10 fans that have mentioned anything else we’ve done and there’s been countless numbers saying Coroner’s Office is amazing. It’s mind-boggling.”

Vocalist McCarthy was encouraged by his family to start a Post Mortem MySpace page. He expected a handful of views. The page is now close to 100,000 views. Fans have written from Greece, Germany, Mexico and throughout the United States to praise an album that has been out of print for years.

“When I started it I was expecting about 50 people to respond because I didn’t even know what MySpace was,” McCarthy said. “My brother and my son showed me. I had no idea of the massiveness of it. I’m still very surprised.”

Boston Beginnings

Post Mortem formed in 1982 in suburban Boston when the band members were still in high school and there was no American death metal scene. The band rehearsed every day, often rushing home to write music after classes. McCarthy penned the personal songs while drummer Rick McIver wrote the gore lyrics. Alexander helped write most of the songs.

“Our whole concept was that we honestly didn’t give a f&*k. That’s why we’re lumped in with punk rock as well as metal,” McCarthy said, adding: “It’s much better to piss off people who think they’re pissed off than to piss off your grandma or your mother or your father.”

After several years of practice, the group –- which also included bassist Mark Kelley - saved enough money to record Coroner’s Office at Baker Street Studios in Watertown, Massachusetts. The songs were so old by the time that the band entered the studio that the band didn’t play most of them live. Studio owner Roger Baker had never heard heavy metal and thought the band was creating a new genre of music. McCarthy and Alexander brought in copies of Black Sabbath’s Volume 4 and Celtic Frost’s Morbid Tales to show him that the music wasn’t new.

“He had never done any hairy rock before. He had mostly done country and folk,” McCarthy said. “What we were doing was completely alien. He didn’t understand at all. He thought we invented this music. We needed to show him this kind of music exists. We didn’t invent it.”

Most of the songs on Coroner’s Office were recorded on the first or second takes. The recording took five days at a rough cost of $900. No one in the band thought a collection of songs recorded quickly would be remembered so well almost a quarter-century later.

Underground Favorite

The album circulated quickly and became an underground favorite. McCarthy and Alexander say they heard that as many as 60,000 copies album sold in the 1980s, but today think 20,000 is a more accurate number. One slight annoyance was that by the time many fans received a copy or a dub of Coroner’s Office, Slayer had recorded their 1986 masterpiece Reign in Blood. Many fans assumed the band swiped their name from a Slayer song. It didn’t help that Alexander sported a Slayer tee-shirt on the back album photo.

While Coroner’s Office was well-received, the fans in road venues were often icy if not violent. Post Mortem occasionally veered into experimental music or would bring tambourines on stage. They were mistakenly booked with hair metal or classic rock bands. And they came on stage wearing t-shirts and jeans - not spikes or bullet belts. “We used to get chairs, beer bottles thrown at us like The Stooges or something. It was horrible,” McCarthy said.

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