|Sound Barrier in the early 80's.|
In my last post I talked about some of the weird, random LA metal bands that filtered their way into my decidedly non-metal mind during the 80’s. But I completely forgot to write about another amazing metal band that even at the time blew me away. I’m talking, of course, about LA’s own Sound Barrier. Sound Barrier was notable for the fact that they were comprised exclusively (in their early incarnation) or predominantly (in their last incarnation) of African-American musicians.
Now, it goes without saying that music rarely recognizes ethnic boundaries and in particular African Americans have contributed meaningfully to every single era and genre of rock and roll; most would argue that rock wouldn’t exist at all without the blues and R&B of the 30’s, 40’s, and early 50’s (and they’d be right).
But starting in the late 50’s rock music became more and more the domain of middle class white males, and with obvious exceptions (Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Lee of Love) most of the African American contribution to popular music in the 60’s came through soul, funk, and Motown/R&B. By the end of the 60’s even Mississippi and Chicago blues, long the purview of African American artists, had been bowdlerized into the heavy blues/psychedelia of bands like Canned Heat, Paul Butterfield, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the earlier incarnation of Fleetwood Mac, Cream, the Yardbirds, the Allman Brothers, etc.
One of the things punk did was re-examine some of these long-standing traditions in rock . . . and then try to knock them down. For example, gender issues were questioned, and many pioneering punk bands in New York (Blondie, the Talking Heads, Tish and Snookie), London (X-Ray Spex, Penetration, Siouxsie and the Banshees), San Francisco (the Lewd, the Avengers, the Nuns) and Los Angeles (X, the Alleycats, the Controllers, the Go-Gos, The Eyes, the Bags) had female singers, bass players, guitarists, etc.
African Americans were prominent participants in the emerging punk genre as well. Such early and seminal bands as Philly’s Pure Hell, DC’s Bad Brains, Frisco’s Dead Kennedys, the Plasmatics, the Voidoids, the Controllers and Suicidal Tendencies all had African American members.
Unfortunately, with few exceptions, heavy metal, a musical genre heavily indebted to the Delta blues sound of African American bluesmen, has always been a somewhat more conservative genre, and has arguably had fewer contributions from non-male, non-white musicians. Aside from some obvious examples (Living Colour leaps to mind), there seems to be fewer African Americans in heavy metal bands.
Sound Barrier was one spectacular exception. Formed in Los Angeles in 1980, they played the club circuit in LA and developed a buzz for their sound, which was heavy metal in orientation but also contained elements of funk, heavy blues and psychedelia.
I first heard of Sound Barrier when I saw their video for their song “Rock Without the Roll” on a local music video station in the early 80’s. One thing that was great about shows like MV3 and other such pioneer music video shows was their willingness to play music videos by a wide variety of artists. This was in part a practical limitation of the times, since in the early 80’s so few bands had videos, but I think it also reflected their lack of understanding of or respect for the otherwise hard cultural boundaries between musical sub-genres. At that time I certainly wouldn’t have gone out of my way to watch a heavy metal video, but if one was played I would usually watch and listen.
In the case of Sound Barrier’s video I was blown away by how big, slow and heavy their song “Rock Without the Roll” was. While admittedly a tad repetitious, it nevertheless has a bulky majesty that makes it really stand out for reasons beyond the ethnicity of the players. Still, its hard to listen to this and NOT hear some elements of funkiness in this song. One thing I’m reminded of is the work of Faith No More on their breakthrough album Epic; it’s got that combination of metal and funk (and even the roughness of punk) that characterizes a lot of the songs on that landmark album.
Speaking of Faith No More, its hard to categorize their sound but it too pulled on funk and metal, though more in that order than Sound Barrier. They are a band with a very strange history. Courtney Love was an early member but she was soon replaced by African American singer Chuck Mosely, who was their singer during their early run at success. Their funk-metal-punk anthem “We Care A Lot” was a major local hit in LA during ’85-86, with its throbbing bass and syncopated rhythm. In summer ’85 they played a huge downtown LA street festival (which I missed because I didn’t move up to LA until September 1985) which cemented their reputation as massive local heroes. However, their local popularity never quite translated into national sales and by 1988 Mosely had been fired and replaced with the even stranger Mike Patton, who would remain their singer during their early 90’s heyday.
Getting back to Sound Barrier, after releasing their first two albums, Total Control in 1983 and Born to Rock in 1984, bassist Stanley E. left and was replaced by Romanian immigrant Emil Lech for 1986’s Speed of Light. This is the only Sound Barrier album available through iTunes (“Rock Without the Roll” and other cuts off their earlier albums are available on YouTube) and it showcases their shift from their slower, heavier, more Hendrix and Sabbath-influenced early sound to a more European style metal heavily flavored by Judas Priest and in particular Iron Maiden. The title track highlights this new sonic direction and has that melodic/orchestral feel of classic early Dickinson era Maiden (such as on “Run To the Hills”). “Gladiator” is a little faster and reminds me of “Powerslave” or “Electric Eye”. “What Price Glory” starts with a slow, building intro much like Maiden’s “Number of the Beast”. Alas, Sound Barrier didn’t achieve any greater success with this album and broke up soon after. Its too bad, because its hard to believe any diehard Iron Maiden fan wouldn’t have loved this music.
Another band that played heavy metal and featured an African American lead singer was Hirax. Formed in Cypress, CA in 1984, Hirax was among the very first wave of thrash metal bands, along with Metallica, Exodus, Slayer, and Anthrax. Hirax never received the same commercial or critical success as most of these other bands, which is puzzling considering what pioneers they were in fusing the rage and energy of (hardcore) punk with the technicality and showmanship of heavy metal. African American lead singer Katon W. De Pena’s heavily operatic vocals were one of the standout aspects of this band’s sound, particularly on songs such as “Bombs of Death” and “Raging Violence”.