Feature Stories

Rigor Mortis Salute Mike Scaccia with Slaves to the Grave

It was three days before Christmas when guitarist Mike Scaccia took the stage for his final performance. He'd reunited with the original members of local metal legends Rigor Mortis earlier that year to record their first album in more than two decades, and tonight they were performing in celebration of Bruce Corbitt's 50th birthday party at The Rail Club in Fort Worth.

Dressed in black, Scaccia wielded a black Gibson guitar as he time-traveled with the other band members. He was a force of a nature onstage, lightning-fast hands blazing across the fretboard. He'd perfected a technique called tremolo picking that revolutionized metal.

Scaccia was legendary in his hometown. He made Ministry cool again in the '90s, bringing his speed metal sound to empower Uncle Al Jourgensen's lyrics. He put the balls into Revolting Cock and resurrected Rigor Mortis from an early grave a few years ago.

But then tragedy struck. Halfway through the set, Scaccia collapsed onstage, suffering a massive heart attack. He was pronounced dead early the next morning at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital in Fort Worth.

"Everybody who knew Mike would tell you he was their best friend. He was a good guy," says Kerry Crafton, who'd been close friends with Scaccia for 26 years.

"It was one of the worst things I've had to endure," says drummer Harden Harrison.

It was never discussed, but everyone knew there could be no Rigor Mortis without Scaccia blazing a path to stardom with them. They'd recently recorded a new, unfinished album, Slaves to the Grave. Luckily, Scaccia had laid the groundwork for how he expected the new album to sound. The guys made it their mission to release the album in honor of their fallen member.

"He'd still want us to get up and play," Corbitt says.

IN THE '80S, Rigor Mortis were arguably the best metal band in North Texas. Scaccia pioneered speed metal, playing lightning-fast licks. Corbitt, Casey Orr and Harrison wrote horror-inspired lyrics for songs with titles like "Re-animator," "Welcome to Your Funeral" and "Wizards of Gore." They were the only metal band in North Texas to sign with a major label, Capitol Records.

"Being onstage with Rigor Mortis was really not unlike standing in the middle of an earthquake every night," Jeff Liles, their former manager, wrote in an article for the Observer.

But soon after their self-titled album's release, the band fired Corbitt, replacing him with Doyle Bright. "It was never really the same without Bruce," Crafton says.

After releasing two more albums, by the mid-'90s Rigor Mortis had self-destructed. Scaccia left to join Ministry. Orr donned an alien outfit for GWAR. Harrison hooked up with Speedealer, and Corbitt formed Texas Metal Alliance with drummer Joey Gonzalez. The original members of Rigor Mortis would eventually reunite to play on the Texas Stage at Ozzfest '08.

In 2011, they came together to record a two-song demo tape, which inspired Scaccia to write new Rigor Mortis songs. In February 2012, the guys loaded up their van and headed to Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen's house in El Paso to record their new album. It took 10 days, laying tracks day and night, to finish Slaves to the Grave.

The result is by far the band's best album to date. It's produced by Sammy D'Ambruoso of 13 Studios and mixed by Crafton and Scaccia. It's vintage Rigor Mortis, full of horror and mayhem.

"Flesh for Flies," "Blood Bath" and "Ancient Horror" tell the story of mayhem, murder and debauchery as Corbitt spins horror story after horror story, picking up where he left off on the first record.

"I knew that a lot of the old Rigor Mortis fans would expect us to do what we started on that first album," Corbitt says. "So I just got the idea to combine all the sickest people in history from Leatherface [to] serial killers and the Frankenstein [monster] and made my own character."

In "Fragrance of Corpse," similar to Victor Frankenstein, a mad doctor harvests body parts but instead of stealing buried corpses, he kills his victims to put his own monster together. Only it's not really a monster but a friend, one who will spend time with the mad doctor, rotting away on the couch.

"So yeah, that was a pretty sick kind of subject," Corbitt says.

Corbitt wasn't the sole lyricist on Slaves to the Grave. Harrison and Orr also contributed to the lyrics. "Those guys came through when I didn't have time to write it," he says. "It made the album a group effort and added different writing styles to the lyrics, which I always thought was a good thing."

But it's Scaccia's guitar playing that pushes this album over the edge. From the opening "Poltergeist" to closing song "Ludus Magnus," Scaccia proves why he was the pioneer of speed metal, playing blazing fast melodies and mind-blowing licks.

"He put every bit of his heart into this [album]," Crafton says. "I'm just stunned every time I hear it, and I've heard it 1,000 times already."

"We were freaking out," Corbitt says of the first time they listened to the recordings. "It felt like old times but even better."

DUE TO THE band members' touring commitments with their other bands, they planned to finish mixing the record that summer. But Scaccia didn't bring the recording to Crafton until right before Thanksgiving. The recording had 10 songs with 126 different tracks.

Then came the Rail Club show. Scaccia's death onstage is still being felt in the local metal community, but Slaves feels like a final gift for the band and for fans.

Sadly, the record labels wouldn't distribute it without a band to support it on tour. The guys were devastated but not deterred. They decided to start a fundraising campaign on the website IndieGoGo with a goal of raising $20,000 to complete the album. An outpouring of love from the metal community enabled the guys to raise more than they needed to finish the new album.

The remaining band members will be performing their new songs as Wizards of Gore, with Mike Taylor, a "disciple of Scaccia," standing in for the legendary guitarist. Their first stop is Philip Anselmo's Housecore Horror Festival at Emo's in Austin, followed by a Halloween bash at Double Wide in Dallas.

"When we made the album, we were savoring the moment as it was happening," Corbitt says. "We were going in there like this was a new beginning. Luckily, we got something out of it that will last forever, and this album is Mike's greatest guitar work of his life."

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Christian McPhate is an award-winning journalist who specializes in investigative reporting. He covers crime, the environment, business, government and social justice. His work has appeared in several publications, including the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the Miami Herald, San Antonio Express News and The Washington Times.