It was 1995, and three months before my 21st birthday, I was already deep in as a metalhead. But nothing could prepare me for the course my metal journey would embark upon the first time I heard Deicide’s third full-length, Once Upon the Cross. My whole world was inverted with this album, which also opened my eyes to the now-legendary movement centered at Florida’s Morrisound Recording. Whenever I think of my definitive favorites in death metal, this is hands down the one, and it continues to be my measuring stick when listening to anything in this genre.
Sure there’s plenty out now in death metal that’s exciting, but I’ve yet to hear an album that grabbed me by the throat as quickly and completely as this one did. Deicide had already established themselves as death metal titans with both their self-titled debut and second release, Legion, but on this album they trimmed the fat, tied up the loose ends, and produced the most visceral album in the genre at the time—one that’s stood the test of time better than most anything I was listening to then.
At just over 28 minutes in length, Once Upon the Cross was on a mission to hit you hard and get the hell out while leaving you grinning from ear to ear. The album-opening title track begins with a line from The Last Temptation of Christ, then kicks you in the teeth with the Hoffman brothers’ dual guitar attack, as well as the chant of “fear him” that sounds like it came from old Beelzebub himself. Within the opening minute you realize you’re in for a treat. It’s plain to see early on that Glen Benton had refined his already-evil-sounding vocal delivery to the ultimate death growl; there’s no doubt he was good on Legion, but here he’s in truly fine form.
“Christ Denied” and “When Satan Rules His World” both showcase a new-found groove in all of the madness that immediately stood out to me from the rest of the album. To this day these two tracks are my favorites off the album. Between the groove of the guitars, Benton’s monotone growls and Steve Ashiem’s double-bass-driven drum patterns these songs are any headbanger’s dream. The utterly infectious grooves show up later in the album in varying forms but only in short bursts.
As we blast through from “Kill the Christian” to album closer “Confessional Rape,” there are heavy riffs on top of heavy riffs, fantastic palm muted tremolo usage, blast beats galore and more satanic verses than you could cleanse with a truck load of holy water. The bass is somewhat low in the mix—whether or not this was on purpose we will never know—but there’s still enough of it present to allow for the overall crunchy sound. Also of note on the chorus portions of “Trick or Betrayed,” there’s a hint of thrash thrown in for good measure. Showing off a little? Maybe, but it’s well placed and well executed.
I’ve read countless reviews and discussions on this album over the years, with opinions that both align with and counter my own. What you think of it is your business, but for me, it’s a pinnacle release for both Deicide and death metal in general. I’m still waiting on some band I’ve never heard of to come out of nowhere and dethrone this album in my book…but so far, no dice. Listen for yourself below and have fun with it like I have for so many years.