The Rickety Old Shack

Stormtroopers Of Death — Speak English Or Die

album cover

As the story goes, guitarist Scott Ian killing downtime during recording sessions for the second Anthrax album, Spreading The Disease, by drawing. These idle hands would produce a cartoon fascist — zombie in military regalia named Sargent D — as an ad-hoc mascot without a home. This would eventually lead to Ian collaborating with Nuclear Assault / ex-Anthrax bassist Dan Lilker, Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante and Psycho frontman Billy Milano. The group originally recorded an exceedingly low-fi demo known as Crab Society North, which was captured to tape by sticking a walkman inside of a speaker cabinet. Where the demo was improvised material, with 'tracks' consisting of short blasts of sound, the group solidifed as Stormtroopers Of Death and actually wrote actual material for a studio record.

The intention behind Speak English Or Die is pretty obvious: to be as over-the-top and offensive as possible. This concept was guided by the tastes and conventions of the year 1985, so there is definitely some material on the record that might bring pause to the listener. Obviously taste is very subjective, and material written with the intention of being provocative gambles that the audience accepts the premise and the execution is sufficiently finessed. Stormtroopers Of Death come about as close to the proverbial line as one can get, managing to be crass without devolving into genuine malicious intent.

Comedy albums are a very tricky thing to do well, and this is one of the few historical examples where the creators get it right. Speak English Or Die is both musically sound and genuinely gets some laughs out of me due to the bludgeoning ignorance on display. Getting the right mix of quality music and humour is difficult, as usually there is a deficiency in one (or both) of those categories, in addition to the fact that the more you hear something, the less funny it is. Speak English Or Die still feels energetic and entertaining 35 years later. Stormtroopers Of Death songs aren't technical masterpieces, but the riffs are solid. Beyond that, "March Of The SOD" — and its companion piece "Sargent D And The SOD" — have been iconic pieces of thrash for 3 decades now.

The blend of chugging thrash metal grooves and frantic speed metal breakdowns was genre-defining for its time. Frontman Billy Milano's gruff, shouty vocals and pro-wrestling heel persona was what tied Stormtroopers Of Death together. The material is meant to be a antagonistic, but the performances are all very serious. The record is short and to the point, with none of its 21 tracks running longer than 2:32. Speak English Or Die is less-than a half-hour, clocking in at 28 minutes, which is exactly as long as an album from a fake thrash band inspired by a cartoon fascist should be. The irreverence of cuts like "Anti-Procrastination Song," "What's That Noise?" and "The Ballad Of Jimi Hendrix" help establish the absurdity of the project; the band isn't purveying hate — this is too stupid to have an ideology beyond being obnoxious and loud. Sargent D is a fascist with the stylised 'A' (for anarchy) on his helmet — just to give you an idea how much thought went into this.

I didn't hear Speak English Or Die until it was already 15 years old — it's only 2 years younger than I am! I will never know what it was like to hear the album when it came out, but it holds up remarkably well given its age. Like I said, this was done for fun, but it wasn't a joke; the engineering and performances are all excellent. Charlie Benante's drums sound massive, Scott Ian's tone is crushing, Dan Lilker's bass perfectly complements the two, and Billy Milano's delivery is razor-sharp and rapid-fire. Stormtroopers Of Death were a perfect storm: a bunch of talented musicians (and Billy Milano) goofing around ended up producing a cult classic record that would cross-pollinate thrash, speed metal, punk and hardcore scenes and influence countless other musicians.

To this day, I still enjoy the record. I can understand if someone doesn't have patience for the 'edgy' nature of the album, or the meathead mentality that inspired it, but I think it's still got a lot of merit as a piece of heavy metal history. I believe there was no real forethought put into how the material would be perceived; this was 1985, and a bunch of relative nobodies were recording a gag record — a novelty no one expected to gain any traction. The lyrics to the title track are bluntly xenophobic, there is no denying that. "Fuck The Middle East" is as nuanced and measured as you would expect, but manages to avoid outright racism.

The whole concept of Speak English Or Die is pro-wrestling in the form of a metal band. The material is all written from the perspective of Sargent D, a fictional, intentionally crass character no different than ones adopted by countless wrestlers of the same era. There is room to debate whether any of the sentiments on this album have any place in music, and I think they do — provided the proper context. Stormtroopers Of Death is a product of its era, and accidentally became a significant force in the metal world. Mixed reactions to Speak English Or Die are expected in 2020, I acknowledge the content and take the creators at their word that there wasn't any serious thought put into any message they were sending.

For such a stupid record, Speak English Or Die has always been very thought-provoking and that is no different now than 35 years ago.

Summary

Written and recorded on a lark, Speak English Or Die would go on to become a huge underground success and a huge part of the enduring legacy of Stormtroopers Of Death. A classic album, possessed of a generalised antagonism that still packs a punch today, this is 28 minutes of violent, headbanging, mosh fuel. Thirty-five years later, this album stands as an important piece of metal history, a recording so ahead of its time that it doesn't sound dated to any significant degree. This is mandatory listening for anyone with an interest in thrash metal.

Album Information

Release date: August 30th, 1985
Record label: Megaforce Records

Billy Milano — vocals
Scott Ian — guitar, backing vocals
Dan Lilker — bass, backing vocals
Charlie Benante — drums, guitar solo (track 6)

Track Listing

  1. March Of The SOD
  2. Sargent D And The SOD
  3. Kill Yourself
  4. Milano Mosh
  5. Speak English Or Die
  6. United Forces
  7. Chromatic Death
  8. Pi Alpha Nu
  9. Anti-Procrastination Song
  10. What's That Noise
  11. Freddy Kreuger
  12. Milk
  13. Pre-Menstrual Princess Blues
  14. Pussy Whipped
  15. Fist Banging Mania
  16. No Turning Back
  17. Fuck The Middle East
  18. Douche Crew
  19. Hey Gordy!
  20. Ballad Of Jimi Hendrix
  21. Diamonds And Rust (Extended Version)

Link: spotify.com

—by Derek

Published: May 7th, 2020.