N.M.E. – “Unholy Death” (1986)

My friends over at Tacoma’s Hi-Voltage Records have been making my mouth water in recent months with the FB videos of them flipping through their New Arrivals section – they’ve been getting in a ton of great stuff, especially metal, punk, and indie. Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane and I decided to head down there a few weeks back since it had been a while and there was a new burger joint down that way we wanted to check out, plus I was excited to get my hands on some of those new arrivals.

One thing that caught my eye was this crazy looking record with a black-and-white cover that was clearly a drawing. There was a post-it note attached to it indicating it was a 1986 self-release of a metal band from Federal Way, WA, which is right up the highway a few miles from Tacoma. It checked off all my boxes – 80s metal, obscure, local. It wasn’t cheap, but a quick check of Discogs indicated the price was spot-on, plus I was treating myself to some early birthday vinyl so into my stack it went. When I got to the counter the guy working there smiled and showed it to the woman who was also working, and they were both stoked that I was picking this up. They asked if I’d looked up the backstory of the band and I admitted I hadn’t. A brief debate ensued about whether or not they should tell me the story, but ultimately they decided to let me learn it for myself and assured me it wouldn’t be hard to find online.

At this point my mind started doing that thing it does sometimes where I seem to manage to connect some seemingly unrelated data in a way that is both correct and sometimes freaky. “Wait,” I said. “Is this the guy who killed his mom and then drove his car off the bridge?” Silence and stares, including from Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane, though she has experienced this before. Sheepishly they admitted that indeed yes it was, which then prompted me to start a fast-talking dissertation about violence and extreme metal, particularly the Norwegian scene and the whole Varg Vikernes / Mayhem / church burning thing. I do this at work too (not about extreme metal (usually), but instead about data), so I’m used to the wide-eyed looks that sometimes result. I just can’t help it when I’m excited about something.

Some (probably most) of you are still stuck on the quote above and wondering why I felt the need to blather on about my personal quirks instead of getting down to this whole murder thing. All good things to those who wait, my friends. I’m getting there. Most of the info available online contains the same basic set of facts, though with a few discrepancies here and there. I actually went to the local library last weekend and pulled a couple of Seattle Times articles from the days immediately following the crime, and I was considering trying to get my hands on the court records when I came across a three-page reference to the events in Pamela Des Barres and Paul Kemprecos’ Rock Bottom: Dark Moments in Music Babylon (1996, p. 288-90). Des Barres and Kemprecos quote the 911 calls and court records, so I’m putting a lot of stuck in the veracity of their account and that seemed to eliminate the need to track down those details.

The crime occurred in an apartment building on South 281st in Federal Way, Washington on April 7, 1986. In the days and weeks prior to that fateful day, N.M.E. guitarist Kurt Struebing had been acting strange. He cut off his long hair, a very un-metal thing to do in the 1980s, and drank an entire container of carpet cleaning fluid to “clean himself out”. He began suffering from paranoia and delusions, thinking that people around him were robots and following him, going so far as to hit one of his friends in the chin with a bat. We don’t know precisely what transpired that evening and into the early morning hours in the apartment Struebing shared with his 53-year-old mother Darlee Struebing (♠), though friends later indicated the pair had a great relationship and that she was very supportive of her son. However, Kurt called 911 shortly after midnight and told the operator that he had killed his mother, describing it as a “God job”. The police arrived at the apartment building and encountered a naked Kurt Struebing outside waiting for them. When they made contact with him, Struebing is reported to have said, “I killed my mother and then I killed myself.”

The scene inside the apartment was gruesome. Darlee had been stabbed in the chest with scissors and struck about the head with a hatchet. (♣) She had also been raped. Kurt was sent to a psychiatric hospital (Western State) for evaluation and a few days after the murder tried to kill himself. He told the doctors that he thought he and his mother were robots sent to earth by aliens to somehow prepare the planet for the arrival of other forces. His assault on her was an attempt to prove that she was indeed a robot. She was not.

It was clear to everyone involved, including the prosecutor, that Kurt Struebing was mentally ill. Ultimately he pled guilty to second degree murder and sentenced to 12 years in the mental health unit at the penitentiary in Monroe, Washington, which is only maybe 10 miles from Life in the Vinyl Lane World Headquarters. He served eight, and was released in 1994.

By all accounts things went well for Struebing after his release. N.M.E. re-formed and Kurt organized various benefit shows when those in the local metal community who needed help. He got married, had a son, and worked at a printing company.

And then on March 9, 2005, he drove his car off a bridge.

Seattle’s Spokane Street Bridge connects Harbor Island and West Seattle. Some sources online have described it as a drawbridge, leading to speculation that Struebing may have been trying to jump the span. However, it is in fact a swing bridge, with two sections supported on piers that can rotate to allow ship traffic to pass through. We took a field trip to the bridge this weekend to see it for ourselves. It’s the lower one on the right side of the photo. The two cylindrical vertical supports you see on ether side of the waterway are the piers on which the two bridge sections spin.

Whereas the motion of a drawbridge is vertical, a swing bridge moves horizontally, which can be quite strange looking if you’ve never seen it before, and could lead to confusion as to whether the bridge was open or shut. Witnesses report that at roughly 1 PM Struebing passed a number of cars stopped for the bridge opening, crashing through a wooden arm and metal gate and falling into the gap left by the open bridge. I’ve seen the height described as anywhere from 40 to 100 feet, and seeing it today I’m more inclined to believe the 40 foot figure. Regardless, it’s a long fall and one that proved fatal. Kurt was 39.

Many have asked if this was an accident or an intentional act. Friends indicated nothing was amiss, but we’ll never know for sure. We walked out onto the bridge from the Harbor Island side and took this photo of the spot where the stop gates are today. There are two things that struck us about the view from here. First is the area where the pivoting section of the bridge separates from the road isn’t that far from these gates – maybe about 30-40 feet away. And second, the area where you’d stop is actually fairly close to the apex of the bridge, which would make the separation of the segments harder to see until you were right up on top of them.

This was our first time at the Spokane Street Bridge. I’m not sure if Kurt had ever used it prior to the incident, or if he had ever seen it open before. If not it isn’t hard to imagine a car accidentally going off the open bridge, though of course that’s exactly what the gates are designed to prevent, providing a pretty clear warning that you shouldn’t continue forward. We’ll just never know.

Musically N.M.E. have a reputation for being an early and influential black metal band. Ian Christie lists Unholy Death as an early inspirational band for the genre, putting it alongside releases by seminal bands like Bathory, Hellhammer, Morbid Angel, and Venom. (♥) That’s some pretty high praise. And in fact quite a few bands have covered songs from Unholy Death, the band’s only output prior to a compilation that came out in 2012. (♦) Abigail, Skeleton Blood, Toxic Holocaust, Sacrificial Blood, Nunslaughter, Decayed, and Bunker 66 have all paid tribute by playing versions of N.M.E.’s songs.

The two sides of Unholy Death are labeled as “Eternal” and “Hate”, mirroring the message on the jacket reverse, “Praise the Eternal Hate”. Lyrically the message is clearly aligned with black metal:

We are of hell, born to sin.
To us, none is sacred.
We rape your mind and torture your soul.
Bleed upon the altar of God.
Wait not for his son.

So it’s a bit dark.

Musically, however, this feels a lot more like early thrash. Ignoring the words, songs like “Louder Than Hell” are some killer metal jams. The sound is raw, lacking sonic density and range, though this kind of flatness is fairly common on OG (i.e. that haven’t received the modern re-mastering treatment) metal pressings from he 1980s. It’s especially notable on the low end, which is not as low and rich as you’d expect to here from contemporary black metal. “Speed Killz” has some solid guitar riffs, as does “Stormwarning / Blood & Souls”, though the latter presents itself as more hardcore in the vocal pacing. There are a few weighty tracks here as well, most notably “Warrior” with it’s rasped singing and driving guitar.

Unholy Death definitely exceeded my expectations – this is something I can imagine getting some additional play on my turntable, and I’m tempted to buy the CD collection of the band’s complete works. If you’re a fan of thrash and the heavier end of hard rock, this is definitely worth a listen… and you can check the whole thing out below for free.

(♠) Darlee Struebing is described in some accounts as Kurt’s mother, in others as his adoptive mother, so I’m not entirely sure which is the most accurate description. Also, sources vary in the spelling of her first name, citing her as either Darlee or Darlene. The Seattle Times articles from the period, as well as those from the time of Kurt’s own death two decades later, refer to her as Darlee, so that’s what I’m going with.

(♣) Some reports refer to a hatchet, others an ax.

(♥) Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History History of Heavy Metal (2004), p. 109.

(♦) Released on 2 CDs or 3 LPs, Unholy Death / Machine of War includes the entire Unholy Death album, the versions of four Unholy Death songs that comprised the band’s 1985 four-song cassette Machine of War, and a bunch of rehearsal recordings.