Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
I’m choosy about metal. Thrash and technical metal don’t often move me, and as unhip as it makes me sound, I don’t care for most death metal or black metal either. (The latter’s well-documented Nazi infestation doesn’t help—but yeah, I do have Venom’s first album.) I like my metal sludgy and epic, preferably with lyrics about medieval beasts—think power metal, doom, and stoner metal. Hair metal is OK by me too, especially when it’s fun, glammy, and sleazy. My favorite subgenre, though, is scrappy, punk-influenced NWOBHM—which stands for New Wave of British Heavy Metal, something you surely know if you’ve bothered to read this entire paragraph.
NWOBHM bands shaped the sound of local heavies Witchslayer, and that’s a big part of why they made the cut as Secret History of Chicago Music subjects. Founded in 1980, they should’ve torn up the burgeoning stateside metal scene, but alas, by the time they split four years later, they hadn’t yet toured, and their recorded output consisted of one demo and a single track on a compilation. I was lucky to talk with Witchslayer vocalist and cofounder Jeff Allen about the band’s origins—and about their unexpected return in 2022.
Allen was born in the small northwest Indiana town of Knox on August 14, 1961. Allen’s father was in the printing trade, and he moved the family to Chicago to take a job on Printer’s Row. The Allen family eventually settled in the northwest suburbs, specifically Des Plaines, when the area was mostly cornfields.
“The 60s were a really interesting time to be a child growing up,” Allen says. “My first exposure to music, like most people, was with the Beatles. I had this mini 45 RPM portable record player, and I used to play Beatles 45s when I was three or four years old. I also used to watch the Beatles cartoons.”
Allen’s childhood got darker, though, and so did the music he sought out. “By the late 60s, my parents had divorced, and I became basically a pretty pissed-off kid,” he recalls. “I naturally gravitated towards heavy rock as an emotional outlet. In 1972, when I was in middle school, I had a friend who had older brothers. So at 12 years old I got exposed to albums like Neil Young’s Harvest, Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced, and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.” Allen also benefited from some unusual pedagogy: “I had a great music teacher at Dempster Junior High in Mount Prospect, Mrs. Nelson, who spent a semester having the class listen to the Who’s Quadrophenia album,” he says. “She reviewed the album song by song, and of course I aced that class.”
The rise of glam rock in the 1970s also influenced Allen—especially the music’s sinister side. “By the time I was in middle school I had grown a huge fondness for Kiss and the Alice Cooper Band,” he says.
Early in the 70s, Allen’s mother remarried, and her new husband had two sons and a daughter. “We were like a modern-day Brady Bunch,” Allen says. “His oldest son used to lock himself in a room and blast Frank Zappa albums as well as Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality. When I first heard Black Sabbath it scared the crap outta me—it was the heaviest music I had ever heard. That was my first exposure to metal.”
Allen’s high school years overlapped with the golden age of the rock star, and he saw lots of great bands—among them Van Halen, Rush, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and Aerosmith (the first album he ever bought was Toys in the Attic). His best friend’s dad was a member of IATSE Local 2, the Chicago chapter of the stagehands’ union, so they could get into almost any show they wanted: “You name a 70s rock band, and I most likely saw them perform live in Chicago.”
Allen’s band came together, appropriately enough, out of a bunch of partying teenagers. “Witchslayer originally formed at a house party in Mount Prospect,” he says. “A family was selling their house, and one of their kids decided to throw a massive party in their vacated home.” The open mike in the basement seemed to attract all the young rockers in the area— many of whom were already friends, having gotten to know one another at Forest View High School in Arlington Heights and Prospect High School in Mount Prospect.
“After a few beers I decided to jump on and start singing,” Allen says. The ad hoc cover band he fronted consisted of Ken Wentling on drums, Paul Speckmann on bass, and Tom McNeely on guitar. Later that night, McNeely and guitarist Craig McMahon approached Allen about joining their band in Des Plaines. “I said, ‘Sure,’ but they told me I had to start learning songs from New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands,” he recalls. “At that time I was still into all the 70s bands I listened to in high school.”
Many of the musicians at that fateful party had already started gigging: Speckmann (later of Way Cry and Master) had played in a high school group called White Cross with Ron Cooke (later of Thrust). Future Witchslayer bassist Sean McAllister (later of Trouble) had played in Taurus and Love Hunter. Even Allen had been in what he describes as an “awful garage band” (which he’d rather forget) right out of high school.
That said, when Witchslayer formed (styled “Witch Slayer” at the time), it was the first band for most of the five musicians involved: Allen on vocals, Wentling on drums, McNeely and McMahon on guitars, and Pat Ryan on bass.
“We were heavily into a band called Angel Witch and also liked Tygers of Pan Tang, Saxon, early Iron Maiden with Paul Di’Anno, early Def Leppard, Motörhead, Raven, Judas Priest, Ozzy’s new band with Randy Rhoads, and of course Dio and Black Sabbath,” Allen says.
Witchslayer’s first shows were at a teen center in Elk Grove and a dive bar in Palatine called Haymakers that later hosted the likes of Twisted Sister, Queensrÿche, and Michael Schenker. They also played the Rusty Nail on Belmont and the Thirsty Whale in River Grove, which was the heavy metal headquarters of the northwest suburbs.
An audio-only recording of Witchslayer in Aurora in October 1983, opening for Zoetrope at Malo’s Rock & Roll Studio
“Once we rented out a VFW hall and went around to all the local high schools and plastered kids’ cars with flyers,” Allen says. “We ended up doing that show in front of probably 500 to 1,000 kids. We charged them three dollars to get in.” Witchslayer didn’t want to get a reputation as a mere “bar band,” so they tried to be selective about gigs and not play out so much that they got taken for granted.
McNeely and McMahon couldn’t get along, unfortunately, and soon McNeely left. No new second guitarist clicked, so the band became a four-piece, with McAllister replacing Ryan on bass and Dale Clark replacing Wentling on drums. That first lineup did manage to write set staples “Witchslayer” and “I Don’t Want to Die,” the latter of which would appear on the Metal Massacre 4 compilation released by Metal Blade Records in 1983.
“I Don’t Want to Die” appeared on a Metal Blade compilation in 1983, becoming Witchslayer’s highest-profile release.
That second lineup didn’t last long either, because a better-established group had designs on McAllister. “We shared a rehearsal space with Chicago doom band Trouble, so that led to us doing a few shows with them,” Allen remembers. “Trouble saw our bassist Sean McAllister perform and recruited him away from us. Sean played on Trouble’s first album, called Psalm 9, and we found Sean’s replacement, Rick Manson, in an Illinois Entertainer ‘available musicians’ listing.”
Witchslayer continued to share bills with Trouble, including a Halloween show at the Rusty Nail. “Our bassist, Rick Manson, wore these newly machined shackles on his wrists and accidentally cut his head open at the start of the show,” says Allen. “We started playing our opening number and I turned to look at Rick, and he was covered in blood (think of Carrie). We paused the show and called for an ambulance, but Rick refused to leave the stage. People in the audience thought it was a Halloween prank, so we finished what we could of the set while we waited for paramedics to arrive. Rick almost bled to death onstage that night.”
The last thing McAllister did before Manson took over was play on the sessions for Witchslayer’s lone demo in 1983. It’s since become a cult favorite, and Italian label Flynn Records reissued it on vinyl and cassette in 2020. “There was a pretty notable recording studio in Chicago at the time called Streeterville,” Allen says. “We met one of the sound engineers, and he agreed to record a five-track demo tape with us at his home studio in Lake Villa. Recording expenses were huge back then, so this was an economical way for us to record.”
Witchslayer’s lone demo, recorded in 1983, was reissued on vinyl and cassette by an Italian label in 2020.
Witchslayer are in full-on thunderous attack mode throughout the demo. Their riffs go for the throat, whether they’re blazing fast or slow and frosty riffs, and their screaming guitar solos and powerful, flamboyant vocals scrape at the sky.
The band felt like they were gaining traction—they drew a big crowd to an outdoor show at UIC—but they couldn’t get signed to a label. The closest they got was probably their appearance on the Metal Blade compilation. “Brian Slagel of Metal Blade Records was one of the only guys showing interest to underground metal bands in the U.S. at that time,” Allen recalls. “We went out to Los Angeles to see the US Festival in ’83 and decided to make a cold call to Metal Blade. We met Brian at his office, handed him our demo, and said we wanted on his next Metal Massacre release. He ended up including us as well as four other Chicago area bands (War Cry, Thrust, Trouble, and Zoetrope).”
Witchslayer had other near misses. “There was also Jon Zazula out of New York City that had a label called Megaforce Records,” Allen says. “He initially signed acts like Raven and Metallica, and he was looking at Witchslayer, but for some reason we didn’t successfully negotiate a deal with him.”
The band had reason to believe that they were having problems making headway in the industry because they were from Chicago, not from New York or Los Angeles—and because they were ahead of the curve. “Our guitarist Craig McMahon once ran into an Atlantic Records A&R guy at the Roxy nightclub on the Sunset Strip in LA,” Allen says. “The guy took Craig out to his car, opened up his trunk, pulled out his briefcase and then our ’83 demo tape. He told Craig he thought we were too heavy for prime time at that point.”
Witchslayer had been trying to sign to a label for four years when they threw in the towel in 1984. “The final straw was when we got picked up by Jam Productions to open for the German band Accept at the Chicago Metro,” Allen recalls. “The Accept roadies pulled us aside and stated that there was no way they were going to deal with an opening act. If they did let us play, they’d have given us one speaker and no monitors. ‘Here’s $150—now go fuck off.’ We were devastated, and in hindsight we shoulda forced our way onto that stage. We had no management, and we were just kids. I sat in the audience for over an hour waiting for Accept to come on, and the entire sold-out Metro crowd was chanting ‘Witchslayer! Witchslayer!’”
Allen has some regrets about the choices the band made back then. “Looking back, I think if we had just sucked it up, formally recorded an EP or independent album, and hit the road, that Witchslayer would have broken out and become a mainstream metal band,” he says. “Our songwriting was very good, and we would’ve just improved over time. Regardless, the band died that night at the Chicago Metro.”
After Witchslayer split, Clark went to California and recorded an album with the band Rampage. He later moved to Tampa, Allen says, and “at one point was working with Nicko McBrain of Iron Maiden to create a reality TV show called Golf Rocks where he’d play golf with guys like Nicko, Alice Cooper, et cetera.” At first McMahon moved to California too, and he now lives in Phoenix. He got into filmmaking in the 1990s, creating low-budget horror movies and Christian family films, and he has a YouTube channel called Life to Afterlife Spirituality Series—he’s even posted some “spirit box” episodes where he claims to contact the deceased! Manson stayed in Chicago, where he runs a painting business; since Witchslayer he’s played in a few groups, including a Slayer tribute band.
Allen abandoned music and went back to college. “I’m currently living a quiet life in Denver. I’ve worked in the tech industry for most of my career,” he says. Four years ago, though, he decided to get back into metal—specifically, he wanted to finish the album that Witchslayer should’ve made in the 80s.
“I tried for years to get the original band back together, but my efforts would always fail,” he says. “So I went to plan B and pulled in all active old-school Chicago musicians who were on the scene back in the 80s. I needed the album to be done in Chicago in order to recapture that exact feel and sound.”
Even the cover art on the new Witchslayer album is a deliberate callback to the 1980s Chicago scene.
Allen recruited guitarist Ken Mandat (Damien Thorne), bassist Mick Lucid (Damien Thorne, Vicious Circle), and drummer Gabriel Anthony (Tyrant’s Reign) to form the new Witchslayer (which changed the group’s name from “Witch Slayer”). They recorded 11 tracks written by the original early-80s lineups and released a self-titled album in June 2022.
“I had north siders and south siders working together on this album,” Allen says. “We recorded the album in St. Charles and Calumet City. It was mastered in Schaumburg by John Scrip at Massive Mastering. Lettering was done by Eric Rot of Chicago, and our logo was drawn by Don Clark in Rolling Meadows.” Former Witchslayer bassist Sean McAllister, now living in McHenry, returned to serve as executive producer.
Witchslayer are working on a vinyl release of their album for early 2023 via the Cult Metal Classics imprint of Greek label Sonic Age Records. They plan to play a couple Chicago shows in spring 2023, and in April they’ll appear at Keep It True XXIII, a three-day underground heavy metal festival in Würzburg, Germany, between Frankfurt and Nuremberg.
“This puts Chicago metal and Witchslayer onto a major international stage,” Allen says. “Chicago metal bands from the 80s carved out a very unique heavy doom-metal sound. It evolved from the large city and tough working-class atmosphere, as well as the long, cold, gray winters.”
It might be too early to hope that the new Witchslayer will write any material of their own, but the chance to hear these 40-year-old shoulda-been classics again—not only played live but also on a recording actually intended for release—is plenty exciting already.
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.