Along with Dark Angel, Holy Terror ruled the Los Angeles thrash metal scene of the mid to late '80s. Featuring guitar work inspired by both the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and the speed of vintage Motörhead, Holy Terror released two studio albums (Terror and Submission and Mind Wars) during their three-year run. Not quite reaching the level of fame their musical output warranted, the group broke up in 1989, but still managed to become a big influence on the next wave of thrash bands in the '90s.
Since one of No Echo's prime missions is to spotlight bands and musicians that we feel fell under the radar during their original runs, I reached out to Holy Terror guitarist Mike Alvord to get his thoughts on his former band, and to also see what he's been up to in the decades since their dissolution.
Holy Terror was originally based here in the Los Angeles area. Were you born and raised here?
Yes, I am the only Holy Terror member born and raised in L.A. [Guitarist] Kurt [Kilfelt] is from the Seattle area, [vocalist] Keith [Deen] was from Detroit, [bassist] Floyd [Flanary] was from Reno, and [drummer] Joe [Mitchell] was from North Carolina. I grew up in a pretty standard middle class Catholic family in the San Fernando Valley. You may have heard about the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. Well, I grew up just about five miles from there.
What was your childhood like?
I spent a lot of time with my mom's family. Her parents are from a small village in southern Italy. I loved baseball, but when I was 12 I saw KISS live and I knew that was what I wanted to do. My friends and I would dress up like KISS and put on lip-synced KISS concerts in my garage. There were about 20 kids in my neighborhood all around the same age. We lived close to hills and we spent most of our time outdoors. It was a great time.
Do you remember how/when you first heard heavy metal music? Did someone turn you onto it, or did you come across it some other way?
My dad worked as a computer data programmer for Capitol Records and then for Warner/Elektra/Asylum Records when I was a kid. He gave me Alice Cooper's Billion Dollar Babies when I was in 2nd grade. That was my introduction to heavy metal and I loved it. He was friends with a bunch of music industry people. He would bring home KISS albums and all sorts of other cool stuff. He even got tickets for my sister and her friends to see The Beatles at Dodger Stadium. I was always into music from a very young age, but I also loved sports. It wasn't until that KISS Alive II concert when I started to learn to play guitar.
When did you get serious about playing guitar, and who were some of the players you looked up to at that point?
I took lessons at a local music store when I was 12. The first song I learned (other than "Smoke on the Water") was Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop." My teacher would try and teach me theory, but all I wanted to do was learn songs. I only took lessons for about one year and then I would just try and figure out songs on my own. I had a good friend in middle school and he and I would listen to AC/DC, Judas Priest, and UFO nonstop. I was also a huge Zeppelin fan. The guitar players that really influenced me in the beginning were Jimmy Page and Michael Schenker. Around 1981, I really started getting into the NWOBHM. Maiden was a huge influence, but I also love Angel Witch and Raven. Well, at least the first two Raven albums.
Tell me about the metal scene in L.A. when you were in your teens. Did you go see a lot of shows back then? Who were some of the local bands that you enjoyed?
The scene was amazing. Since I lived in the Valley, we spent a lot of time at the Chuck Landis Country Club. Every Thursday was metal night there. I remember seeing bands like Cirith Ungol and Bitch for $3. I saw Metallica and Raven on the Kill 'Em All for One Tour, Girlschool, Mötley Crüe, W.A.S.P., Uli Roth, MSG, and a ton of other bands at the Country Club. We would also drive over the hill into Hollywood and see bands at The Whisky, Roxy, and other local clubs. It was a magical time. I was also fortunate enough to see Rainbow on the Diffcult to Cure album tour and Rush on the Moving Pictures tour at the Forum. I also saw Maiden open up for UFO at the Long Beach arena. It was Maiden's tour for Killers with Paul Di'Anno. Unfortunately, this was just after Schenker quit UFO.
What are some of the bands you played in before Holy Terror? I know there was one called Black Widow.
I played in a few different bands. My good friend from middle school, Ron, and I played with two brothers who played bass and drums. We would cover Priest, Maiden, old Def Leppard, Raven, and a bunch of other bands. Ron was really into punk and the brothers (John and Dan) were more into Def Leppard. I was somewhere in the middle. I liked some punk bands at the time and I was a huge Motörhead fan. Although the song sucked, we were able to play on Metal Blade's Metal Massacre III compilation. It was an honor for a dumb 16-year-old kid [laughs]. Our drummer was only 14.
Why did Black Widow break up?
Soon after the compilation appearance, because of musical differences, Ron left and went on to form Fatal Error and then Nature Core, who were two really good punk bands. Black Widow found another guitarist and a singer and we started to write more of our own material. We had a few fast and heavy songs, but the other guys in the band kept wanting to move more in the direction of Def Leppard. It was the summer of 1985 when my neighborhood friend, Jack Schwartz, introduced me to Kurt Kilfelt. I guess the rest is history.
Holy Terror was formed in 1986 after guitarist Kurt Kilfelt parted ways with Agent Steel. How did you end up in the band?
Actually, I think we formed in 1985, maybe it was 1986. After Kurt left Agent Steel, he connected with Jack, who had just left Dark Angel. Kurt was also friends with Floyd, who was in a band called Thrust. The three of them started jamming. Kurt originally wanted Juan Garcia from Agent Steel to join them, but he stayed with Agent Steel. That's when Jack recommended me. I jammed with them a few times and although I was quite a bit younger and not as good of a player at the time, they liked my enthusiasm and style of music. Kurt was a big Maiden fan at the time and I was a huge Motörhead fan. We also loved many of the old school classic bands like Zep, Sabbath, Deep Purple, etc. I guess I owe it to my dad, who helped introduce me to this music at a young age. I was 17 or 18 at the time Holy Terror formed, Kurt was around 24, and Floyd about 27. So, I had a lot of learning and growing up to do, but it worked.
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Did you guys gig frequently during those early days?
We played as much as we could, but L.A. was starting to change at this time. Metal was getting more glam and bands like Mötley Crüe were playing all over. We did play some of the classic Hollywood clubs like the Troubadour and Whisky. We also played the Country Club several times. One place that worked well for us was a small club called the Anti Club. It sort of fit with our misfit status. We played with Megadeth, The Mentors, and a bunch of other local bands.
The 1986 Holy Terror demo is a ripper! Is that what led to the band's record deal with Under One Flag? Did you guys have management at that point? Did any other labels approach you?
Yeah, the demo got a lot of buzz. We had good reviews in a lot of the European metal mags at the time. Mark Palmer from Under One Flag contacted us right away after the demo came out and we signed with them. I don't know if other labels approached us or not, but Under One Flag approached us immediately.
How did Roadracer Records end up signing you after that?
We went about a year without an American deal. The Under One Flag deal was for two records in Europe only. Around the time we were recording Mind Wars, we also got a manager. It was the same guy managing D.R.I. We were approached by Roadracer for Terror and Submission and Mind Wars distribution in the U.S. However, they also wanted our next three records in both the U.S. and Europe. This ended up being another major reason why Holy Terror broke up. While we were on our second Euro tour with Nuclear Assault and Exodus, Under One Flag approached our manager regarding a new contract for our third and beyond records. When they found out we signed with Roadracer, they kicked us off the tour. It was a disaster.
The first Holy Terror album, Terror and Submission, came out in 1987. What I love most about the record is that even though the songwriting is obviously firmly rooted in thrash, there's a NWOBHM influence in some of the guitar runs.
Kurt wrote almost the entire record. I wrote the song "Tomorrow's End," and the band as a whole contributed a little on some of the structure of some of the other songs. However, it was pretty much all planned out by Kurt. Like me, Kurt was also really into the NWOBHM era. So, I think that probably contributed to some of the style of Terror and Submission. There are also a lot of '70s metal influences. A lot of NWOBHM bands were also influenced by bands like Deep Purple, Zep, Sabbath, etc. I think these styles really present themselves on that first album.
How was the touring cycle for that first album? Did you hit Europe more than once, being that the label was based over there?
We toured Europe before the States. We opened for D.R.I. in 1987 for a month. It was an amazing tour and we were really well received. It was amazing to hear people yell out song titles and sing along to the songs. We only played in L.A., and although crowds were decent-sized, they were not true Holy Terror fans like the ones we had in Europe. We even played a few songs from Mind Wars on that tour. If I remember correctly, we played "Judas Reward" and "Debt of Pain." That first Euro tour was a great experience.
Let's move to the second Holy Terror album, Mind Wars. That one came out in 1988 and was one of the era's finest thrash records.
When we got back from the first Euro tour, we were playing really well. There is nothing like a tour to improve your chops. We were tighter and faster. A lot of Mind Wars was written before this tour, but we went right into rehearsing and finished up the record. It was a much more collaborative effort than Terror and Submission. I wrote two songs and Keith wrote lyrics for four songs. We also worked on the structure and arrangements on all the songs together. When we finally went in to record, we were ready. Although we liked Terror and Submission, none of us were happy with its production. It was too soft and mellow. The studio engineer had no experience with metal, especially thrash. We really wanted to put out a record that was a step above Terror and Submission. Thank you for acknowledging it as one of the finest of the era. We had amazing reviews. Kerrang! ranked it higher than Slayer and Testament at the time. We were primed for a good ride, until the wheels fell off.
What's the story behind the album art for Mind Wars? You have world famous tattoo artist Mark Mahoney listed in the credits.
The concept and artwork were all the brainchild of Kurt. When Kurt rented an apartment in Hollywood, he saw some of the artwork by Rick Araluce. He commissioned Rick to do the covers. I am not sure when and how Kurt met Mark, but Kurt has several Mahoney tats, as do Floyd and I. Mark did the Holy Terror bones logo. They were both amazing artists with amazing concepts!
That's around the time I first started reading European metal magazines like Metal Forces and I recall seeing some good write-ups on the band and album.
Yes, there was a lot of buzz, mostly in Europe. The U.S. has always been a bit finicky. Although, when we toured with D.R.I., the response was good, too. As I mentioned previously, Kerrang! gave us an amazing review on Mind Wars. We were firing on all cylinders and things were going really well. We were looking forward to writing the material for the third record, but during our major U.S. tour in 1988, we began to self-destruct. In fact, things got so bad after we toured across the States for two months that we went back out on the road across the U.S. for a third month without Kurt. He was spiraling out of control on drugs and we played about 30 shows as a four-piece. Things started getting better that winter when we were asked to play four shows with Motörhead. When we found out we would tour Europe in support of Mind Wars with Exodus and Nuclear Assault, we felt that we were about to really break through. Unfortunately, the tour for us came to a crashing halt after the Under One Flag drama and I left the band.
How do you think your different labels across the globe handled the promotional campaign for Mind Wars, and for that matter, Terror and Submission?
I am not really sure. I do remember Under One Flag doing a great job for us. However, I remember when we were touring the states in support of Mind Wars, neither of our records were out in the U.S. We were almost done with the tour when Terror and Submission and Mind Wars finally came out in the U.S. Roadracer didn't treat us the best. I wasn't involved too much on the business side, but I know there were money issues and certain creative issues they disagreed with Kurt on.
Did you do a lot of touring for Mind Wars?
I think we played over 100 shows in two years. We played a few dozen shows locally, and we toured Europe for a month and the U.S. for three months with D.R.I. We played about half of a month-long tour with Exodus and Nuclear Assault. For the few years Holy Terror was together, I think we toured quite a bit.
From an outsider's perspective, Holy Terror seemed like Kurt's baby. Is that a fair assessment?
It was definitely Kurt's baby. It was his concept, artwork ideas, and for Terror and Submission pretty much all his music. I was okay with it. After all, I was pretty young and the rest of the band were very professional. We rehearsed four nights a week and hung out together all the time. We really started to become a family and a solid unit after our first tour. It was at that time it started feeling more like a band. I don't recall if Kurt had the concept for Mind Wars before we started writing the material, but I don't think he had anything planned for the third record. Terror and Submission was almost all Kurt. Mind Wars was closer to a 50/50 collaborative effort, even though Kurt wrote most of the music. I think the third record would have really been a complete band effort. I had a bunch of material I was working on that I never got the chance to share with the band.
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After you left Holy Terror, Kurt decided to move the band to Seattle. Did the band have any new material written when the split came about?
There were a lot of reasons Holy Terror broke up. I sort of touched upon them earlier. Unfortunately, drugs played a big part in the breakup. Also, the debacle with the Euro tour caused even more problems. When I left after we got kicked off the tour, Kurt made it clear that if I left, it was going to be permanent. I made the decision to leave anyway. When the rest of the band got back from Europe, I only spoke with Keith and he said they were going to go on without me. I think Kurt's girlfriend at the time was also pregnant and she relocated to Seattle, so when Kurt told the others he was moving back to Seattle, Joe and Floyd went along. Keith stayed in L.A. Without Keith, Holy Terror was definitely over. I am sure they could have replaced me, but not Keith. I am not sure about all the details surrounding what happened in Seattle, but I know the three remaining members decided to take a more punk approach. It sort of makes sense. As a band, we were getting faster, and without Keith's vocals and with only one guitarist, punk rock seemed like an appropriate direction.
Wow, I didn't know Holy Terror morphed into a punk sort of thing!
Yes, I think the band was called Shark Chum.
What did you do after Holy Terror? Did you play in any bands, or did you take time away from the metal scene?
After I quit Holy Terror, I was pretty sour on the whole music scene. I was going through a lot of different emotions. I reconnected with my friend Ron from Black Widow, and he was in a band called Nature Core. They were morphing into a more alternative rock band. They were doing a mix of acoustic and punk rock stuff. During one of their shows, Ron asked me to play a couple of acoustic songs with him. Soon after that, I joined their band. We didn't have much direction, but I guess you could say we were playing more of a grunge/alternative style. We recorded a three- or four-song demo and soon after the drummer quit. This was around 1990. We then replaced the drummer, and soon after that changed the bassist. We changed our name to Black Apple Forest. Believe it or not, you can find a live show from us on YouTube.
Tension started occurring with Ron and some of the other members and we broke up after about eight months. The drummer and I met Steve Hansgen (he played bass in Minor Threat in the early '80s) and we brought in the singer from Black Apple Forest and the four of us started writing songs. We had about 10 songs by the summer of 1991. At this time, I started taking classes at a local community college. I told the band I wanted to go back to school full-time and Steve said it is either the band or school, not both. I understood and the band broke up. I then immersed myself in school and got a degree in Biology. I went on to get a Master's in Environmental Health and started working in drinking water quality. I still played, but nothing serious.
Holy Terror's vocalist, Keith Deen, passed away in 2012 after a battle with cancer. His unique singing style was such an important aspect of the band. Tell me about some of your memories working with Keith during those two albums and tours you did with him.
Obviously, Holy Terror was Kurt's baby, but it was Keith's vocals that really set us apart from all the other thrash bands. He was incredibly unique. Keith could sing like Roger Daltrey, scream like Rob Halford, and growl like nobody else. He was not a thrash metal fan or even really a metal fan, for that matter. He loved bands like The Who, Zeppelin, and AC/DC. He was a ton of fun and could always make anyone laugh. I was fortunate enough to bunk with him most of the time while we were on tour, and we got along great. He was also a big sports fan and loved playing basketball. He was the heart and soul of Holy Terror. Everyone loved him and he didn't have any enemies.
You're currently playing in a band fittingly called Mindwars.
As I mentioned earlier, I had some material I was working on in 1989 for what would have been the third Holy Terror record. I also continued writing this style of music for a short time after I quit the band. In 2013, I was contacted by Roby Vitari through Facebook. He and I met in 1989 when we were on tour and Holy Terror played Milan. He is from the same area of Italy as my grandparents. We chatted for a while through Facebook and both agreed that the music of the '80s and early '90s was some of the best ever. I told him I had some material that I wrote back then and I sent him some mp3s. He put drums to them and I loved how they sounded. We then immediately started working on these and other songs I had. Some of the songs on The Enemy Within would have definitely been on Holy Terror's third record. After we had a bunch of songs, he said he knew a bass player that could play to the music. The only thing we were missing was a vocalist. We discussed it and since we were starting to form a band with members in two different countries it might be too difficult to bring in a fourth member, so I tried out singing. I have never been a singer, nor do I consider myself a vocalist, but it seemed to fit with the music and it just sort of came together.
Mindwars recently released its second album, Sworn to Secrecy.
After The Enemy Within came out, I started writing songs for what would become the second album. The songs just started flowing. Roby and Danny came to L.A. at the end of 2014 and we played together for the first time. Yep, we recorded a full-length album without ever meeting or playing together. Well, Roby and I did meet back in 1989, but that doesn't really count. We rehearsed for three days and played three shows in L.A. in October 2014. After we put out Sworn to Secrecy, they came back to L.A. and we played shows in L.A., Tucson, and San Diego. We owe a lot to Punishment 18 Records, who put both records out. They showed us a ton of support and have been great to us. We are currently working on trying to set up a mini Euro tour for this fall, and then another mini southern U.S. tour in the winter of 2017. We are also working on a third Mindwars record, which will hopefully be out in the summer of 2017.
Outside of music, what else have you been up to lately in your civilian life?
I work a full-time, normal day job and I also teach part-time at night. I work in the drinking water industry. I stayed local in the San Fernando Valley and still hang out with a bunch of old friends. I'm just an average, normal guy.
Listening back to the Holy Terror albums, what's your favorite song and why?
I would have to say the song "Alpha Omega," because it's complex, has dual solos, great lyrics (what Holy Terror song doesn't?), and has varying tempos. I also really like "Damned by Judges" and "Judas Reward" a lot. I still love all the Holy Terror songs and they are a regular on my digital playlists. Thanks so much for the support and interest in both Holy Terror and Mindwars. Cheers, and remember: speed kills!