I've been an obsessed hard rock/heavy metal fan and collector since the early 1980s. If it's got a good guitar riff and attitude, I'm in.
The Christian Metal scene of the late '80s/early '90s was an extremely fertile period for "forgotten albums." Dozens, if not hundreds, of short-lived Christian hard rock and metal bands tried to follow in Stryper's evangelical-rock footsteps during this period, hoping to turn their positive message into platinum mainstream success.
Contrary to what many "true" metalheads might tell you nowadays, some pretty good bands came out of that era. Unfortunately, most of them only stuck around for a short time, thanks to the ever-changing tides of the notoriously fickle CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) scene. Many promising acts disappeared with only one or two album releases under their belts, including the band we'll be discussing today, Die Happy.
Die Happy only released two studio albums and a live EP before splitting in 1994, but despite their small discography, they were one of my favorite bands during the early-to-mid-1990s. More than a quarter century after their last recording, the material still sounds pretty damn (sorry!) good and is well worth revisiting!
So Who the Heck Was Die Happy, Anyway?
Die Happy rose from the ashes of Vengeance Rising, the notorious combo who were widely credited with introducing the "extreme" sounds of thrash and death metal into the Christian rock scene. Led by the gravel-voiced Roger Martinez, VR's first two albums—1988's Human Sacrifice and 1990's Once Dead—rivaled secular metal acts like Morbid Angel and Slayer in terms of ferocity and intensity.
VR instantly gained a legion of devoted fans among Christian headbangers and even managed to earn some grudging respect from the "secular" metal press, who usually dismissed Christian metal acts as inferior to the "real" thing. Despite all the rave reviews and notoriety, Vengeance Rising's record sales apparently didn't quite live up to their hype, and the band found itself in major debt to their record label by the end of the Once Dead tour.
Financial squabbling among band members led to an acrimonious split, with Roger Martinez taking the Vengeance Rising name, hiring all new backing players, and releasing two further albums, 1991's Destruction Comes and 1992's Released Upon the Earth.
Meanwhile, the rest of the original V.R. line up—guitarists Doug Thieme and Larry Farkas, bassist Roger Dale Martin, and drummer Glenn Mancaruso—regrouped with a new singer, a slightly tweaked sound, and signed to Intense Records (V.R.'s label) with a new name, Die Happy.
Interestingly, Roger Martinez disavowed organized religion altogether by the end of the '90s, citing his bad experiences within the "Christian" music industry, and eventually became a well-known anti-Christian-metal agitator via his blog and various internet forums . . . but that's another story for another day.
"Cage" From DIE HAPPY
The Debut (1992)
I've never been big on growling "death metal" style vocals, so I wasn't much of a Vengeance Rising fan. I respected their musicianship but I found Roger Martinez's off-the-wall caterwaulings irritating. Therefore, when I first learned that Die Happy was essentially "Vengeance Rising with a new singer," I wasn't expecting much from them at all. When I heard Die Happy's tunes, however, I was pleasantly surprised.
Robin "Kyle" Basauri was an actual singer, not a growler, and his smooth vocal stylings nicely complemented Die Happy's brand of crunchy, straightforward, heavy metal. D.H. were not as blindingly fast or over-the-top as Vengeance Rising, which was another plus in my book. The songs on this debut leaned more towards the polished, melodic vibe of Metallica's "Black Album." (In fact, the intro to the track "Real" noticeably resembles the opening moments of Metallica's "Enter Sandman." Coincidence?) Some traces of the old V.R. thrash sound still comes through on tracks like the ripping "Cage" and the furious "Bone Doctor," but the album also contains its share of mellower moments like "Celebration" and the trippy, album-ending instrumental "Silver Cloud."
Fun Fact: Robin Basauri is credited as a guest lead vocalist in the album's liner notes, because he was a last minute replacement for the band's original singer, Mike Lee, of '80s Christian rockers Barren Cross, who exited the project just before the band was due to head into the recording studio.
"Sticks and Stones" From Volume II
"Volume II" (1993)
By the time Volume II hit stores in 1993, Die Happy had upgraded Robyn Basauri to full band-member status and they'd also bid farewell to bassist Roger Martin. The bass slot was filled by a minor celebrity of sorts, Greg Chaisson, who'd played on several albums by the secular hard-rock outfit Badlands alongside former Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Jake E. Lee.
Die Happy's sound had also undergone a few changes, adding a foundation of '70s-style blues-rock underneath the metal crunch that owed more to Led Zeppelin than Metallica. This new vibe suited Basauri's soulful vocal style perfectly, and he goes for broke letting his Robert Plant/Ian Gillan influences shine all over the album.
Die Happy's new "retro rock" feel took some getting used to at first but eventually Volume II won me over thanks to some strong tracks like "Sticks and Stones," "Justified," and the tongue-in-cheek "Talk," which made fun of the then-current crop of sleazy afternoon TV talk shows ("this one's about a man who left his wife for an alien!"). The instrumental jam "Cole's Atomic Funk Thang" (written by new bassist Chaisson) was a pretty cool workout too. I still prefer the debut album over this follow up, but you can't really go wrong with either one.
"Painted Truth" From Intense Live Series Vol. 4
"Intense Live Series Vol. 4" (1993)
Later in 1993, Die Happy took part in the "Intense Live Series," a set of five bargain-priced EPs commissioned by Intense Records to showcase the live talents of their roster's heavy hitters. (The other four volumes featured Deliverance, Tourniquet, Mortal, and Rose.) These sessions were recorded "live" in a studio as opposed to at a concert, which was a bit odd, but Die Happy's installment is a fun listen nonetheless. You can tell the band members were having fun jamming together even without the benefit of an audience.
The set list concentrates mainly on Volume II songs (the only track aired from the debut is "Celebration"), including my personal favorite, an excellent take on "Temple of Soul," which obliterates the original album version and may be Die Happy's finest recorded moment. Twenty-plus years after I first heard it, this version still sends chills down my spine!
Intense Live Series Vol. 4 also featured one brand-new Die Happy original ("Endless Time") and a crunchy cover of the Petra oldie "All Over Me." I didn't know it at the time, but this EP would be Die Happy's final release. At least it was a good way for the band to go out.
Where Did They Go?
After Die Happy's split. Basauri and Chaisson started a new project with guitarist Chris Howell (ex-Fear Not) and Chaisson's former Badlands bandmate Jeff Martin on drums, which continued the heavy blues-rock direction of DH's Volume II. Calling themselves Red Sea, they released one album, Blood, on the short-lived Rugged Records label in 1994. Blood is also an excellent CD and would be a fine candidate for a future "Forgotten Hard Rock Albums" entry!!
In 2004 the "classic" Vengeance Rising lineup announced a reunion gig with Ultimatum vocalist and V.R. superfan Scott Waters in place of the AWOL Roger Martinez. Just prior to the show, Martinez apparently resurfaced and threatened the band with legal action if they performed under the Vengeance Rising moniker, which necessitated a last-minute name change to Once Dead.
The live show was captured for the Return With A Vengeance DVD, released in 2005, and was followed by a new studio album (with vocalist Devin Shaeffer of Fasedown replacing Waters) Visions of Hell, in 2008.
DIE HAPPY Discography:
Die Happy - Intense Records, 1992
Volume II - Intense Records, 1993
Intense LIve Series Vol. 4 - Intense Records, 1993
Die Happy/Volume II (2-albums-on-1-CD reissue) - KMG Records, 1998
(Note: the KMG reissue deletes "Bone Doctor" and "Silver Cloud" from the debut and "Cole's Atomic Funk Thang" from Volume II in order to fit both albums on one CD.)
Same Name, Different Band
It's probably already obvious if you've read this far, but the "Die Happy" described in this article obviously has no relation whatsoever to the other Die Happy, an alternative hard-rock act from Germany that has released records in Europe since 1994. I've actually never heard the German Die Happy, but their name is always the first thing that comes up whenever I do Google searches for the Christian band. This article is my attempt at balancing the scales somewhat!!
© 2014 Keith Abt
Scott D. on January 06, 2015:
Fantastic review of those guys and their path. The two DH albums and Red Sea's album will always be amongst my all-time favorite hard rock/metal albums. Nice!
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on October 31, 2014:
Hi Charlie - I remember Rez Band, pretty cool stuff. If you've never heard Die Happy, check out the YouTube tunes I embedded in this post and see what you think.
Charlie Claywell on October 31, 2014:
Interesting article. I never heard of this band -- although I actually saw Stryper perform -- always liked their sound. Rez Band was another one I always liked (and saw perform), but overall I was more of a Larry Norman fan, so I watched his performances the most.